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Kettlebells & weight training in Martial Arts by Jerónimo Milo
Jerónimo Milo

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Kettlebells & weight training in Martial Arts



From the practical point of view, we know that strength training for a martial artist should provide global movement skills that affect the body as a whole. The seclusion of a group of muscles should not be the aim of anybody’s planning but to use as many muscle segments in one action. Focusing on muscle isolation is like betting on the segregation of our movements, something pretty useless when practicing Martial Arts. In the combat systems, be that traditional or modern, we shouldn’t look fore more volume or separate actions in the muscle, but for the ability to be light, quick and resistant. Our movements should be efficient, generated and supported by our whole body structure.
In Martial Arts a lot has been said about different lifting methods to build power and resistance, but I personally believe that one of the most useful tools for this concept is the Kettlebell (KB). Many martial artists from the past sensed the benefit of lifting unanchored weights, similar to the KB. In Chinese martial arts we find stories within the Tai Chi Chuan style. Particularly in the Yang family they use to practice with unanchored rectangular weights. Also in other internal styles, like Bagua, they use to practice with stone balls as we see in pictures from Fu Cheng Sung. This type of work is also seen in many Karate styles, where they practiced with square pieces made from rock or wood to improve their grabs. These are some of the many lifting methods used in martial arts, but the most similar one to the KB training is the one used by Shuey Jiao (throwing Chinese method). Here we can find exercises comparable to the swing, the push press and the bent press. Within this system it is common to find a big compendium of juggling actions with the weight, everything done with the handled rectangular stones known as stone lock or iron lock.
Among the impressing amount of different methods born these years, Mike Mahler has created KB exercises specifically developed for Mixed Martial Arts. These imitate fighting movements like the duck walk, the snatch and the knee to the floor jerk, very useful to throw the opponent and for waist-down attacks. Also, Steve Cotter mixed many traditional kung fu postures to the KB training, achieving exercises that not only develop strength, but also dexterity and joints spaciousness. Many postures develop strength while stimulating our dexterity. He has also introduced methods and concepts from Chi Kung so as to make the lifting technique a much more efficient one.



Function in Martial Arts

From the utility perspective regarding the muscle actions we can say that the KB training gives a balanced and demanding workout to the martial artist extensional and bending musculature. The stimulation of the bending muscles will be useful for closure and compression techniques (mostly valued on grappling styles and on closing actions in punching styles). On the other hand, the job done on the extension part of the muscle will be useful for opening movements (necessary to strike in punching styles, but also used on grappling styles).
The constant movements with the weight will adjust and activate different stabilizing muscles, responsible of maintaining our balance under the pressure of the KB weight.

The somehow known “active rests”, when we rest under the pressure and weight of the KB, will give us the ability to regroup while maintaining a job. An important skill in fighting sports, where we are subject to many exhaustive rounds and where every breath could mark the difference between victory or defeat.




The real objective of each exercise from the martial point of view

After this small introduction, let us see and test the real benefits of this tool for Martial Arts. We will relate the most important KB movements with some martial ones.

The Swing In its extension phase, it stimulates the extensional musculature (gluteus, low back). This movement is the same one as the one used to escape when we are in below other person in the grapling ystems. The pelvis extension is the same motion that we will use when defending our position against a throw, doing a sprawl. The extensional musculature is also part of the muscles involved in jumping and in some cases kicking.

In the push press we find one of the most coordinative movements in classic martial arts. We are referring to the power wave generated by the extension of the legs and transmitted through the pelvis ending in the extension of the arm (when punching for example). To show this it could be illustrated with a punch, previously supported by the hips, coordinated with the extension of the legs and pushed from the waist. Also, in the KB technique, the elbow rests on the pelvis so as to, with the help from the legs, projected the weight through the pelvis facilitating the arm extension of the KB upwards.



The Jerk is a refined movement that will help us coor-dinate opposite forces. In its first phase it’s similar to the push press, but on the previous moment of the extension we duck under the weight. By doing this and by flexing the legs we generate a movement opposed to the path action. On a standing posture (striking) it provides a sophisticated movement that few use: stepping backwards while punching. This will let us keep the distance at the same time that we back out even as we hit effective and powerfully.

In the ground (grappling) the most basic escape movement against an opponent on top of us is using the hips while we push with our arms on the opposite direction of the pelvis, just like in the jerk.



The squat with weight is an alternative way of improving the crouch. In traditional and modern Wu Shu styles, the crouches or similar half crouch are a constant. Crouching exercises with weight will break time barriers when improving this technique.

The windmill is a special exercise for the back and lateral musculature development (gluteus, low back, lateral) Ideal not only to strengthen the back, but also the flexibility required for hips based throwings.

The Turkish get up has been many times considered as the grappler’s favorite. This exercise favors the initial force to stand from a lay down position, the power wave going from the knees and then balance to the standing posture and all the way back down. It has many ground uses, from twists to attacks, invertions or position changes.

The bottom up is excellent to stimulate the correct line up of the fist and the rest of the forearm maintaining a straight line between those two. Along with the bag and push ups using the fists, it will improve the stability between the fist and the forearm while performing a punch. This is sometimes underestimated by martial artists.

The classics leg exercises like the leg dead-lift or the pistol are real TNT for the kicking strength development in styles like Taekwondo, Kick Boxing or Capoeira. It’s also very important to train the lower extremities for the execution of very low postures, as shown in some Chinese styles.


The juggling and the never ending types of KB throwings, combinations and games that can be done by throwing and catching the weight will improve our grip and grab abilities.