Although I’m far from dogmatic when it comes to training tools and methodologies, there are a few patterns that appear to work – One of them is kettlebells for BJJ.
Predominantly the fitness industry is dominated by bodybuilding training protocols and mind-sets. There has been a shift recently to more movement based fitness, which is great, but still they’re not the best way to train grapplers.
I’m not completely discounting the industry. There are clearly modalities and methods that have proven to work and have been crafted through years of work, but on the whole, fighters, specifically BJJ players, need a little more.
Fighters need a big gas tank. They need strength, albeit not maximal strength, but rather a sustainable strength that can be called upon time and time again, over an extended time frame. Fighters need power, muscular endurance, grip strength, hip strength, core strength, stability, speed and total body awareness.
To train all these elements can be a difficult task, but in my experience, the kettlebells offer up a great piece of gear that’s compact, transportable and fits the needs of the BJJ player well.
Below, I have five movements perfect for the BJJ player utilizing the power of the kettlebell.
#1 – Carries
Picking up anything heavy and carrying it is beneficial to anyone reading these words, fighter or not.
They’re particularly great for BJJ players though because of the grip, core, hip and postural demands.
The premise of any carry is the same:
- Stand tall – “Imagine your head being pulled up to the sky”
- Shoulders down and back – “Get your shoulders in the back pockets”
- Take normal strides – “No drunk swaying, own the weights!”
- Stomach braced – “Get ready to be punched in the gut”
The style of carry can differ dramatically. The easiest and most common of all is the farmers walk where the kettlebells are held at the sides, one in each hand.
Other variations include:
Suitcase carries, which, in essence, are the same as a farmers walk, but use only one kettlebell on one side of the body.
Waiters carries, are a unilateral (one kettlebell, one side of the body) carry where the kettlebell is pressed to lockout overhead and held there for the duration of the walk.
Racked carries. These are done with the kettlebells, either one, or two, held in the racked position.
The video below shows all three.
You can't fake foundations. . It's extremely rare that a special program, some advanced periodisation, a fancy supplement or expensive piece of gear is the cause of an athletes success. . It's more that they have a mastery level grasp on the foundations and basics. . Carries are the epitome of basic and the host of benefits goes way beyond the scope of this little snippet of text in an Instagram post. . Point is, stay basic and carry things often. . Here is some 6 point carry testing for Louka using a 28kg bell. The carry lasted 10 minutes and cycled between overhead, racked and suitcase carries for that time frame. . For anything Kettlebell or movement based, be sure to check him out. . @kettlebeast
Bottoms up carries are, as the name suggests, carried with the bottom of the bell upwards. This is a killer on the grip and makes for a healthier shoulder too.
Some more dynamic carry variations include a combination of the ones above. For example, waiters one hand, farmers the other – Carry options are really only limited by your imagination.
For my athletes and myself, carries appear in some form, during every single workout. Do yourself a favour and start including some carries and in as little as a few weeks, you’ll begin to see some dramatic improvements in strength, mental toughness, grips and postural issues.
#2 – Double Kettlebell Front Squat
When it comes to the double kettlebell front squat, there is an almost unanimous response of “that was way harder than it looks!”
The double kettlebell front squat isn’t for those who’re new to, or haven’t quite dialled in their squat mechanics yet though.
The first squat I teach and drill in frequently is the Goblet squat, the brain child of the great Dan John.
Now, before I’m met with resistance, traditional barbell squats are great. They are however not a necessity. I’ve seen far too many barbell back squats turn into dangerous, abysmal looking good morning variations. I’ve also seen countless athletes throw too much weight on the bar in an ego stroking exercise rather than strengthening the squatting mechanic itself.
Generally, I’ll have my athlete’s transition through Goblet squats, onto double kettlebell front squats and then if needed, barbell front squats. I feel the learning curve is shallower, the squats look crisper and great strength is developed through the body without the need for the back squat.
Here’s a brief overview of the double kettlebell front squat.
- Clean the bells into the rack position.
- Adjust your feet to just outside shoulder width, with toes slightly outwards.
- Sit back and down between your legs, keeping your chest up and back neutral throughout.
- Keep feet flat on the floor, with the weight slightly towards the heels.
- Keep braced and stand up tall to finish.
Some tips on the double kettlebell front squat.
- Control the movement throughout:
- Slow eccentric – “Pull yourself down into the squat”
- Brief pause at the bottom and the grind to the top – “Push the floor away”
- As you stand, shoulders and hips do so simultaneously.
- Breathe deeply into your belly and brace throughout.
The key with double kettlebell front squats is to progress slowly. Really own the movements and build up not out of ego, but rather through true gains. Two 24kg bells may not seem heavy, but the double front squat with them is a very humbling experience.
#3 – Crawls
Crawls aren’t necessarily a kettlebell movement. Bodyweight variations develop strength, coordination, stability and awareness throughout the body. Fighters though often need a little more progression and that’s where the kettlebells come into play.
The handle on the kettlebell and the compact nature of its design lend perfectly to crawling movements. Grab a weight belt or harness, attach a kettlebell with a rope or chain and you’re good to go.
The simplest crawl is the bear crawl, which can be done forwards, backwards and laterally. The varying movements, will hit the body in a number of angles and planes. The movement is simplistic, yet it effectively translates incredibly well into ground based grappling strength and the unpredictability of scrambles.
Some tips for the bear crawl:
- Set up on all fours.
- Hands below the shoulders, knees below the hips.
- Your back is kept neutral – Flat like a table top.
- To begin the movement, simply lift the knees an inch or so up off the ground.
- Maintaining a table top back, stability in the core and strength in the movement, take alternating strides – left hand, right foot – right hand, left foot.
- The key is keeping the movement truly graceful and controlled. The back is to stay like a table top and the hips are to stay low, and in line with the shoulders. Envision yourself balancing a ball on your back throughout.
- Hell, warm-up the movement before the weighted versions with this drill from Jeff Sokol…
As an interesting workout, without the kettlebell (I know, away from the point of the article, but it’s worth it) using crawls and sprints give this a go from my TigerFitness article.
Bear Crawl x 50 yards/Sprint x 50 yards
Keep low, back flat and the movement smooth and controlled through the full 50 yard bear crawl. When you reach the 50 yard marker, immediately stand and sprint a further 50 yards.
A football field works great for this gruelling simple combo. Repeat this anywhere from 3-6 times. This truly is a heart pounding, dig deep and keep moving combo.
My go to combo of sprints and bear crawls. As Pavel states in Simple and Sinister, "The Get-up is the ultimate slow lift; the swing is the ultimate quick lift. The Yin and Yang, both based are covered." In the same vein, the combo of bear crawls and sprints is also a slow and quick pairing – covering both Yin and Yang. The bear crawl is slow and purposeful, akin to a properly performed get-up. Calm, purposeful, focussed movement -the Yin. The sprint is maximum force output. Performed as fast and powerful as possible, pushing the body, mind and spirit to its limits. The Yang to the bear crawl. No equipment needed. Just put in the hard work and reap the benefits. No need to complicate things. #mmafitness #mmatraining #unconventionaltraining #unconventionalathlete #outdoortraining #outdoorworkout #noexcuses #sprint #bearcrawl #conditioning #strength #ginger #tattoos #beard
#4 – Swings
There’s no denying just how much the hips play a role in BJJ.
Stand-up, bridging, shrimping, throws, hip escapes, and submissions all require explosive, strong hips. When it comes to the kettlebell, there’s simply nothing better for developing this explosive hip power than the kettlebell swing.
Gene Kelly sang about singing in the rain. Me, I've been swinging in the rain, and what a glorious feeing it was! Training doesn't need complexity. It certainly doesn't need to be elaborate in order to be effective. Keep showing up. Keep pushing the pace. Keep putting in the work. The methods maybe simple, but simplicity, commitment and intensity trump the elusive search for the "perfect" plan each and every time.
When it comes to learning the swing, I can’t stress enough just how important a coach is to guide you through this movement. It’s one of those movements that’s an inch wide, but a mile deep. Simple to observe, but the devil is in the numerous and vitally important details.
Like I said, the swing is a movement that requires a coach to learn correctly, but here are the biggest issues I see frequently pop up with people’s swings.
Back Rounds during the swing
Fix – Keep your chest big and proud, think “showing off your T-shirt’s logo” and imagine a length of pole or dowel taped down your back connecting the back of your head, your upper back and your tail bone. One of these points loses connection with the dowel and the back has rounded.
Squatting the bell, not swinging it.
Fix – The swing in essence is a deadlift, or at least a lot like one. You want to make sure that you hinge at the hips rather than squatting down. Think “ass back” not “ass down.” In a squat, the knees and hips both bend maximally, in the hinge here, the hips bend maximally, but the knees only have a very slight bend to them.
“Arming” the bell.
Fix – The power, momentum and force in the swing come solely from the hips shooting back and then forcefully forward. Your arms are there simply to guide and control the bell through the movement – they don’t lift a thing.
Coming up onto the toes
Fix – You want to keep the entire foot rooted to the ground throughout the movement. The toes actively “grip” the ground. You then drive your heels hard into the ground with each swing.
Swinging the bell too high
Fix – It’s called an American swing. It’s an unnecessary and potentially dangerous addition to the hardstyle “Russian” swing. The swing is somewhat of a “back and forth” movement. There is no “up” part to it. You want the bell at its highest around chest height.
When it comes to programming the swing, I like to mix things up in terms of weight, reps and rest periods. Heavy work with low reps is a must and the lighter work with higher reps has its place in the mix too. I will say though, only go as heavy as you can while maintaining perfect form. Sacrificing weight for form is an ego stroke that will end up with you hurt and off the mats. Earn the jumps in weight with time and proficiency. Think of it as a belt promotion, moving up a weight in bells.
Get a coach, learn the movement and have powerful, explosive hips because of it.
#5 – Turkish Get-up
The Turkish get-up is another movement that I’d suggest getting a coach for.
It’s one of those movements that looks technical (because it is) and offers up a host of amazing benefits for the BJJ player – full body strength, shoulder health and stability, core strength, isometric tension, hip movement, shoulder stability, muscular endurance and it somewhat mimics movements found in BJJ.
Much like BJJ, the TGU is a series of small movements which require the body working cooperatively to facilitate the movement as a whole. Training the TGU has the feeling of slowly drilling techniques in BJJ.
Put simply, the TGU is something that should never be missing from a grappler’s program.
My recommendation is to learn the movement correctly from a coach first and foremost to understand all the subtleties. Then, I’d say take it deliberately slowly, breaking each stage of the movement down and really drilling in the sum of each of its parts. Take the movement as it is and don’t rush, skip over or combine any of the parts.
My day started by taking the kettlebell for a walk. A mix of farmer's and racked, switching arms intermittently, for roughly a mile to a secluded area. The following 20 minutes I spent doing Turkish Get-ups in a Zen like focus. I treat these mornings like a mindful practice – A meditation with Iron. It's just me and the kettlebell. The rest of the world shuts off and the sole focus is seamlessly transitioning from movement to movement with strength, grace and fluidity – absolutely nothing else matters during those 20 minutes. I'm free.
Closing thoughts on Kettlebells for BJJ
In my own and my athlete’s training, kettlebells for BJJ have been a perfect pair.
The above five exercises will help you strengthen the areas needed in grappling. They’ll sort out weak links, toughen the flesh and the mind and strengthen you to be a beast on the mats. Yes, skill and technique will always be king over that of strength and brute force, but combine the two together and you’ll have yourself an unstoppable combo.
Kettlebells for BJJ is something I’ll likely be continuing with over the coming months, but if you have any questions on coaching or anything strength and toughness related, just let me know at:
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