Using Kettlebells To Up Your Game

Using Kettlebells To Up Your Game.

Many of the most novel and innovative ideas in the strength and conditioning industry have been around much longer than people realize. Medicine balls, Indian clubs and even exercise bands have been used for more than a century, even though they have increased in popularity in recent years. Another piece of equipment that falls into the category is a kettlebell (KB).



In both MMA and jiu-jitsu, the kettlebell has been a very popular tool since its re-emergence in the last few years. Many current programs use it solely as a conditioning tool and ignore the strength and power benefits of the kettlebell. While studies have shown that certain kettlebell exercises can increase maximal oxygen uptake (VO2); if used properly, kettlebells can improve strength, power and even joint stability, which are all necessary for jiu-jitsu. Greater difficulty occurs due to a mechanical disadvantage since you are using less weight while still creating stress on the body. Due to the lowered weight from kettlebells, you require less recovery time before your next training session in the weight room or on the mat. Kettlebells are not the panacea for all fitness needs, but they can be a great addition to your current training program.



Below are some of the most effective exercises for jiu-jitsu practitioners. Before you begin, several cues should be mentioned and practiced before performing each exercise in order to prevent possible injury.



Neutral spine: This is one of the most important cues and will ensure safety and effectiveness of the exercise. The spine has a natural curvature, which should be implemented while training without overarching or flexing it. Some have a more rounded thoracic vertebra, which is typical in fighters, while others have a less pronounced curvature.
To begin: stand upright with an abdominal brace, pushing the abdominal wall outward without lifting the chest and ribs excessively upward causing a hyper-extended spine. Your head should be straight-forward, tuck your chin without looking down.



Rack Position: This refers to holding the kettlebell in front of the body by creating a shelf with the arms. The elbows should be bent; the wrists straight and your grip should be firm when holding the kettlebells in these positions.



Screw your feet into the ground: This is an optional cue, which is advocated by the top kettlebell practitioners and coaches. During standing exercises, externally rotate (“screw” your feet) to create greater gluteal activation, prevent the knees from caving in and to increase the foot arch. The feet shouldn’t move from this position, but you should develop the tension in your feet. This is more of an individualized cue, as beginners tend to find more benefit from this.



KB Swing: One of, if not the most fundamental of kettlebell movements is the KB swing, which utilizes the posterior chain for a safe and effective exercise. Hip extension is vital for jiu-jitsu and this is one of the best exercises to increase power. Stand in a hip width position with the kettlebell a foot in front of you. Begin by hinging at the hips, pushing them back until tension is felt on the hamstrings, while grasping the kettlebell handle. You should do your best to keep the shins vertical, as this will prevent it from turning into a “squat swing.” “Hike” the kettlebell back between your thighs, then quickly extend the hips forward. Once the hips are fully extended at the top position, pull the kettlebell back by aggressively reversing the movement, hinging at the hips.
Ideal repetition and set scheme: 4-6 sets of 10-12 repetitions



KB Pull Up: Here’s a fantastic upper body exercise with an added twist that challenges the grip necessary for grappling arts. Most jiu-jitsu practitioners would agree that a healthy grip is vital for the sport and this exercise is perfect to strengthen the muscles of the wrist and finger flexors. Begin by gripping the sides of the kettlebell, which is attached to the pull up bar. Make sure the fingers are not overlapping at the top of the bell, which takes the challenge of the grip away from the exercise. Begin the movement at the bottom position with elbows extended and hanging off of the kettlebell. Pull yourself towards the kettlebell and imagine you are “tucking” your elbows into your sides. Once you have retracted your shoulder blades at the top, slowly lower yourself to bottom position.
Ideal repetition and set scheme: 3-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions



KB Front Squat: While an athlete may easily be able to perform a 200 lbs barbell front squat, many experienced trainees would find a kettlebell front squat with half that weight very humbling, as this exercise is deceivingly difficult. What makes this variation so great is the necessary stabilization required to perform the movement without being as taxing as a barbell squat. Hold the kettlebells in a “racked” position, firmly grasping them and pressing the upper arm into the sides. Begin the movement by breaking at the knees and hips and squat down as deep as possible without pain or posterior pelvic tilt (butt winking). Once you’ve reached appropriate depth, stand back up quickly by pushing the hips forward, and extending the knees.
Ideal repetition and set scheme: 4-5 sets of 8-12 repetitions



KB Renegade Row: The renegade row is an effective exercise requiring a high amount of trunk stabilization and control. In most “core” exercises the movements isolate the obliques, rectus abdominus, or transverse abdominus via rotational exercises or spinal flexion exercises like crunches. The renegade row utilizes these movements as stabilizers, while engaging the musculature of the middle and upper back as well. Jiu-jitsu competitors are often in positions where trunk stabilization is necessary. Begin in a push up position, while firmly grasping the handles of the kettlebells. The Kettlebells should be directly under your shoulders with a moderate-to-wide foot stance (depending on stability and comfort). Begin the movement by lifting one kettlebell off the ground in a rowing movement, while contracting the upper back and retracting the shoulder blade. Extend the arm back down until the kettlebell is stable on the floor and alternate the movement to the other side.
Ideal repetition and set scheme: 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions



KB Bottoms Up Press: This is another phenomenal “shoulder friendly” exercise that requires grip strength and shoulder stability, both of which are vital for grappling sports. Begin in a half kneeling position holding the kettlebell on the same side that the knee is down. Firmly grasp the kettlebell upside down or “bottoms up.” Maintain a neutral spine, squeezing the glute of the leg that is down and begin pressing the kettlebell until completely overhead. You should not hyperextend the spine and compensate with the upper pectoral fibers in order to maintain the position.
Ideal repetition and set scheme: 3-4 sets of 5-7 repetitions



KB Rack Walk: Loaded carrying exercises are great additions to any strength and conditioning program and the KB rack walk is no exception. This movement utilizes the musculature of the upper back similar to a traditional front squat and taxes the trunk and hips as well. Jiu-jitsu fighters with back issues, who cannot perform crunches or sit ups, can use this exercise to strengthen their cores in an isometric fashion. Begin the movement by standing with the kettlebells “racked” with your spine in a neutral position. Ensure that the ribs are down and that you are not hyper-extended, which is typical when the weight is in front of you. Walk for a set distance and un-rack the kettlebells once the set is complete.
Ideal repetition and set scheme: 3-4 sets of 25-40 feet repetitions




Similar to a dumbbell or a barbell, the kettlebell is an incredibly versatile and effective tool in your toolbox. Whether you’re training for strength, power, or overall athletic performance, the kettlebell is a phenomenal piece of equipment that can give you the extra edge you may be looking for on the mat.




Naveed Shan is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Siege MMA/Lotus Club BJJ in Glendale, AZ and Revolution Training Systems in Tempe, AZ. He trains under Giva Santana and is currently finishing his post-graduate studies in Exercise Science and Psychology at ASU. You can contact him at

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