This article was written by 3rd-Degree Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt and fitness expert Nicolas Gregoriades.
When used properly, kettlebell training is one of the absolute best compliments to jiu jitsu training. Here are the 5 reasons kettlebell training forms a large part of my conditioning routine, and why they will continue to do so:
1. Kettlebells Improve Grip-Strength
One of my first coaches said to me “In jiu-jitsu, If you can’t grip you can’t fight.” A powerful grip is important for wrestlers and MMA fighters but absolutely crucial for BJJ players. In the vast majority of kettlebell exercises, you are engaged with the bell by gripping at the handle. The weight is then flung, pressed or pulled in certain vectors and arcs. The muscles used to power these exercises may get to rest at some points during the set, but the grip is taxed almost constantly.
I notice after a good kettlebell training cycle that my grip is way stronger. This means that when I grab a training partner’s lapel (or wrist), my connection is much better and more difficult for my opponent to break.
2. Kettlebells Correct Imbalances
Look at the classic fighting stances of boxers, wrestlers, and jiu jitsu players and you’ll find that they all have one thing in common: an exaggerated roundness of shoulders and forward flexion at the hips. They are forced to adopt this posture because of the protection it provides.
When you spend hours and hours training and competing in these positions, the body adapts to the consistently imposed demands and muscles like the pectorals, hip flexors and lats become chronically shortened. These postural changes can carry over into everyday life and often lead to injury if not addressed.
It has been my experience that many kettlebell movements (In particular the Swing to High-Pull and the Snatch) correct these imbalances. This happens specifically through recruitment and strengthening of the posterior-chain, plus the dynamic flexibility that the nature of the movements fosters. Coming back to the example of the Snatch, performing this exercise gives a dynamic stretch to the pecs, lats, rhomboids, psoas - the perfect antidote to hard grappling or striking training.
3. Kettlebells Assist Progressive Skill Development
In fighting, you start with basic movements and then add combinations and more complex techniques. Kettlebell training follows the same pattern. Unlike a lot of barbell and dumbbell movements, in which the only variable which can be changed is weight, with most kettlebell lifts you can ‘sophisticate the movement’ as you gain mastery.
An example would be the swing. Initially, it is a very basic movement, but there are many variations and progressions which can be added, thus transforming it into a constantly-evolving exercise. This means that as your fighting skills develop and evolve, so too can your conditioning program.
4. Kettlebells Allow For Versatile Conditioning
One of the things about that separates Mixed Martial arts (and to a slightly lesser extent BJJ and Grappling) from other sports is that it has such a wide variety of movement patterns. Fighters must push, pull, jump, squat, twist, lift etc.
Because the resistance kettlebells provide is not fixed in a specific plane (unlike machines), highly manoeuvrable (unlike barbells) and balanced (unlike dumbbells), you are able to replicate almost all of these movement patterns and work effectively through multiple planes of motion.
Combat sports also differentiate themselves because they tax all of the body’s energy systems. Fighters need elite levels of strength, muscular endurance and cardio.
Kettlebells can do an excellent job of replicating almost all of the strength-training movements that can be done with barbells and kettlebells - few things will get you as strong as low-rep Clean-and-Jerks with 24kg bells or higher.
And because of the rhythmic, flowing nature of the swinging-type movements, it is much easier to perform them in high-rep ranges or for timed intervals, so that the aerobic and anaerobic-lactic energy systems can also effectively developed.
5. Kettlebells Train Natural, ‘Whole Body’ Movements
One of the primary goals of kettlebell lifts is to perform them using only the precise amount of energy required by employing momentum to the lifter’s advantage during the positive phase.
This is pretty much the exact same goal of jiu-jitsu - we want to perform all of our techniques and movements using as little energy as possible while at the same time generating momentum. This allows us to create power without becoming exhausted. This can only be done when the body moves in a natural way and the correct muscles are employed.
There is a principle that I teach to my jiu-jitsu students that I call ‘The Law of Recruitment’ which states: The amount of power and efficacy of any action you take in jiu-jitsu is directly proportionate to the amount of body mass you recruit to perform that action.
An example of this would be a knee-bar. If you recruit only your arms and try to tug against your opponent’s ankle to apply the submission, you are recruiting very little body mass and thus the technique will poorly be executed. But If you connect your opponent’s leg to your torso and apply the power by driving with the hips, you turbo-charge the technique.
This is perhaps my favourite part of training the classic kettlebell lifts - in order to do them properly, you have to be using the Law of Recruitment. There is no way you will be able to snatch even a 20kg kettlebell overhead using just your anterior deltoid and lifting your arm. Instead, you’ll need to engage your glutes, erector spinae and many other muscles by using in a partial squat, posterior pelvic tilt, slight twist and then drive through the glutes to generate the momentum required to complete the lift.
Performing hundreds and ultimately thousands of repetitions of these lifts trains the body to work in a coordinated, efficient manner, which is a hallmark of all great combat athletes.