What are kettlebells?
In case you haven’t seen a kettlebell in the gym and are not aware of what they are here is a quick explanation.
A kettlebell is a cast iron metal ball with a handle attached to the top of it.
They come in a range of weights, usually starting at 8kg and going up in increments to 32kg (although larger sizes are available).
The biggest thing that distinguishes them from other weights that are regularly found in the gym is that the weight is off centre. Meaning the centre of gravity is not in the middle of the weight as it would be in a dumbbell or barbell.
This off-centre weight distribution and design with handles lends them to two major differences from most other weights. Firstly, kettlebells can be used in wider range of motion than the mainly push/pull motion of conventional weights. Also, the balance/stability of the weight requires different techniques.
As you will read further into this article, this makes them suitable for more functional compound exercises than traditional dumbbells/barbells, which tend to favour more isolation based exercises.
It is this functional training that can be utilised to create sport specific exercises that can benefit greatly in combat sports training.
A whole article could be written on the history of kettlebell training. We’ll spare you the full details but if you are interested this link gives some great background.
Russia is where kettlebells first gained significant popularity. Russian strong men swore by the positives of training with kettlebells – or as they were known girya.
So much so that kettlebell lifting became a popular sport. The simplicity of the equipment and the ease in which you could participate helping its popularity.
Kettlebells became ingrained in Russian culture. Especially in the military that focused on lots of this type of training to condition their soldiers.
Key benefits and advantages over other weight training
As mentioned earlier in this article, kettlebell training can be quite different to other forms of training with weights.
A well-designed workout will have lots of dynamic compound movements that build functional strength. The movements tend to engage multiple body parts and muscle groups. The benefits here are two-fold, muscle groups learn to work together (unlike in isolated exercises) and using more muscles at once gets you fitter, quicker.
We’ll go into a bit more detail on the benefits of kettlebells next, but for a full article and list check out this link.
Top 10 benefits of kettlebell training:
- Can combine a strength workout with a cardio workout easily, increasing intensity by leaving very little time between sets and exercises.
- Great for fat loss due to the combination of muscle building and working the heart and lungs. Can burn up to 600 calories in 20 minutes.
- Promotes flexibility, with exercises typically requiring an extended range of movement and involving multiple body parts.
- Creates lean muscular physique rather than bulk which can slow you down and reduce flexibility, balance, and coordination.
- Kinder on the joints than many other forms of cardio training such as running.
- Develops core strength, almost every movement requires engagement of core muscles to either generate power or act as stabilisers.
- Strengthens joints and the soft tissues around them such as tendons and ligaments.
- Helps lower risk of injury. The joints, and soft tissues around them will be less likely to get twisted or strained by other forms of exercise as they have been strengthened with kettlebell training.
- Brilliant at building power rather than just strength due to the explosive nature of many of the movements.
- Corrects imbalances in muscles between sides of the body as many of the exercises are carried out individually on each side of the body. Also, as so many stabilising muscles are recruited in the movements it makes sure they are as developed as the major muscle groups trained in isolated exercises.
What are the principles of functional kettlebell training
When a fitness professional talks about functional training what do they really mean? Nine times out of ten they are talking about one of two things. Training that focuses on natural movements of the body that are required for everyday life, or training for movements required for a specific activity. The activity could be anything from playing football, to throwing a javelin or climbing a wall.
Well designed kettlebell training has functional training principles as its core principles. Each exercise will focus on one or more of the basic movement patterns of the human body:
- Walking (gait)
Let’s cover each of these in a little detail and demonstrate a kettlebell exercise that covers it.
A squat is a movement starting in a standing position, where the hips move backwards as the knees bend and the torso is kept at a right angle to the floor. Good form has the heels remaining on the floor throughout the movement and back kept straight. The body is returned to the upright position to complete the squat. Squat can be performed to varying depths.
This trains the large muscles of the legs and buttocks such as the glutes, quads, hamstrings as well as stabilising muscles in the hips core, and lower back.
A classic kettlebell exercise for this is the kettlebell squat which can be carried out with either one kettlebell held in front of you or two, one in each hand balanced on the shoulders. You simply move through the squat motion burdened by the extra weight. Typically in sets of 10 squats, the number of sets dependent on current level of fitness.
A lunge is a movement where one leg is moved forwards with knee bent and foot flat on the floor while the other leg is positioned behind. The torso should remain at a right angle to the floor with the back held straight.
Similar to the squat this trains the muscles of the leg, with emphasis put on the quads, glutes and hamstrings. Again, just like the squat it develops the stabilising muscles of the hips, core and lower back, but as the movement is different it trains them in a different plane of motion.
Lunges can be carried out with just body weight as resistance. However, progression requires additional weight which can come as a result of a kettlebell held in either hand.
A push exerts force on an object in order to move it away from oneself. There many ranges of movement that you can use to develop your ability to push.
The major upper body muscles worked are your triceps, deltoids, and pectorals (chest) to supply the force. Lower body muscles include calves, glutes, and quads. As well as stabilising muscles across the whole body.
A great kettlebell exercise for this functional movement is the Turkish Get Up. It engages all of the muscles mentioned above, has upper and lower body pushing movements and needs a huge amount of core stabilisation work.
This is easier to understand from watching a video than trying to explain it! Please take a look at the clip below.
Pulling exerts force on an object in order to move it towards oneself. Similar to pushing there are numerous ranges of movement that can be used to improve your ability to pull.
Major upper body muscles involved in pulling movements include the biceps, forearms, trapezius and latissimus dorsi. Lower body muscles are mainly hamstrings and the abdominal including the obliques muscles act as stabilisers.
There are many kettlebell exercises that focus on pulling motions. A simple and effective one is the one arm kettlebell row. This is a better exercise than the two-arm row as the imbalance of weight from one side to the other requires more work from the supporting stabilising muscles.
Start by standing in a lunge position but without the front leg being bent to the full 90 degrees. Lean the torso forward and do not let the body rotate away from straight forward. Rest the elbow on the side of the body that has the forward leg on that knee. Then lift the kettlebell with the other arm maintaining this posture and not letting any part of the body rotate away.
If that wasn’t easy to understand take a look at this video.
The hips are the part of the body that bends in order to create the “hinge” movement. Typical exercises of this type are deadlifts and Olympic lifts, ones that tend to require a lot of explosiveness.
Correct form hip hinge movements will involve a posterior weight shift while holding a neutral spine position, not allowing it to bend. Many injuries arise from lifting without proper form, do not allow that to happen to you.
The major muscles used when generating explosive force in the hinge movement are the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Muscles in your core will act as stabilisers and if you are lifting a weight in front of you then the rhomboids and trapezius will be engaged to hold it in place.
The kettlebell swing is the best-known exercise to focus on the hinge movement. Stand with legs apart and knees slightly bent. Push your backside out behind you and bend your torso forward. Hold the kettle bell in both hands between your legs and fire your hips forward, keeping your arms locked straight. This will swing the kettlebell out in front of you, use your core, back and shoulder muscles to stop it mid swing when it gets to shoulder height and let it return to the starting position still keeping your arms locked straight.
This video gives a great demonstration.
Rotational movements or twists are another functional movement that features in everyday life and in sports such as tennis, baseball, or combat sports.
Most movements you will encounter in the gym are through one plane of motion, forward to back or side to side. Twists add a further and far more functional movement, the transverse plane. Most human notion has some form of rotation involved, for example something as common as walking.
Rotational movements engage the oblique muscles located on the side of your torso from the ribs down to just above the hips. They connect to the abdominal muscles in your core which act as stabilisers during rotational movement.
Russian twists with a kettlebell are a perfect functional exercise to work on the muscles concerned with rotational movements. Sit on the ground with legs in front of you and bent at the knees. Learn back 45 degrees, this doesn’t have to be exact, you should feel comfortable and counter-balanced by your legs. Take a kettlebell in both hands and make rotational movements from side to side as close to 90 degrees as you can. Keep the angle between your legs and back consistent, maintain that V shape.
This video shows you how
Walking (gait) is dependent on several factors:
- Joint mobility, joints being able to move through a sufficient range of motion, enabling muscles to move through sufficient range of motion to walk.
- Muscle activation timing, involving time intervals between each heel making contact with the floor.
- Sensory systems, the visual system, the vestibular system (balance) and the somatosensory system (nervous system, i.e. touch, position, pressure etc).
Gait exercises include balance and resistance movements that are important to walking.
They target the muscles that are responsible for walking, weaknesses in these muscles contribute to some walking abnormalities. These include:
- Glute and hamstring muscles, hip extensors, which straighten your hip joint while walking.
- Quad muscles, knee extensors, which straighten the leg at the knee.
- Calf muscles which move the front of the foot downwards as you step, known as plantar flexion.
- Muscles of the shin which move the front of the foot up as you step.
A number of the exercises above will work on muscles that improve your gait.
The variation on a single leg deadlift in the video below is a great way to engage all of the muscles that are mentioned above in one exercise.
It’s important to note this is suitable for people that are looking to strengthen their muscles for walking rather than recover from injury.
How can kettlebells benefit combat sports training?
You may now be saying to yourself, what I’ve heard so far is all well and good, but what does that all mean in regard to combat sports training? I can see that I am going to be fitter and stronger but there are other ways to do that, why use kettlebells?
The one thing that sets kettlebells apart from other exercises when training with combat sports in mind is that they use ballistic movements which increase power output for the key movements of throwing a punch. In short, they are the best way to increase punch power.
Punching is a ballistic movement. A movement that is characterised as exhibiting maximum velocities and accelerations with maximum force generation over a very short period of time.
Ballistic movements are powered with elastic energy, energy is stored in elastic elements like tendons and ligaments and then released more rapidly than it is stored. This acts to amplify the power of the muscles, the release increasing the mechanical energy of the body.
Ballistic systems are capable of power outputs that are significantly greater than that of the muscles associated with a movement.
Punching is a ballistic movement, you launch your fists, you do not push with your fists.
The big kettlebell lifts (swing, snatch, clean etc) teach power generation with ballistic movement.
Using kettlebells in combat sports training
Kettlebells can be used for training the specific type and speed of muscular contractions in combat sports. The accelerating and stretch shortening strength in the lower body and the starting strength for the upper extremities.
The kettlebell pulling (swing) exercises require dynamic hip extension being performed repeatedly. The hip extension is a major component in generating punch power.
Gripping the kettlebell handle strengthens the wrist joint, the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding the joint. Having the strength to hold the wrist joint rigid during a punch enables maximum transfer of power from a punch to the target.
This video gives some great examples of kettlebell exercises that benefit punching power generation.
The aim for this article was to share that the benefits of kettlebell training as part of a combat sports training regime are twofold.
That kettlebell training itself can build a strong, fit, and lean physique as required for combat sport.
More importantly through using ballistic kettlebell exercises will improve punching power. Providing a great competitive edge when you enter the ring.
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For a light-hearted look at kettlebells check this out!!