The 6 benefits of kettlebell training for fighters
As much as I’d love to say conditioning for athletes is simple, it’s not. These athletes need to strike a balance between quick, explosive, and repetitive strength production, along with having the endurance capacity to maintain these qualities over a match that has the potential to last anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes.
It may sound like mission impossible to train for both explosive strength and endurance—and to do it without burning your athlete out. Let me tell you, it can be accomplished. And one of the best tools I’ve found to do it is the kettlebell. Training kettlebell circuits with different weights, dynamic exercises, and time intervals allows combat athletes to build strength, explosiveness and power, and attain a high level of endurance that can be maintained regardless of the duration of the match.
So, let’s cover some of the major benefits of kettlebell conditioning for fighters.
1. Burns fat faster
There’s nothing fun about cutting weight. Sweatsuits, sauna, skipping, and whatever else fighters have to do make weight. But what if you could burn fat and reduce the severity of your cut? Kettlebells do that by something called excess post-oxygen consumption, or EPOC for short. EPOC is the amount of energy required for your body to return to its normal resting state after high-intensity workouts. Because this requires major energy input, you’re burning calories even after you’ve stopped training. But when fighters are cutting, they need to lose fat while maintaining muscle mass. Kettlebells do exactly that. They’re burning fat while building muscle and strength.
A 2011 study found looked at the effects of a 45-minute high-intensity workout on metabolic rate. Subjects completed a bout of cycling at approx 73% of VO2max (roughly 84% of maxHR) for 45 minutes. On average, subjects burned 520 calories in the training session but increased their resting energy expenditure by 190 compared to normal. That’s a whopping 37% more calories than the workout itself in the 14 hours post-workout.
2. Builds muscle and power
Building strength and power among muscles on the back of the body—the posterior kinetic chain—is incredibly important for all fighters and combat athletes. Well-executed kicks or takedowns require power in the hips and legs. Regardless of how strong your upper body is, without a strong and mobile lower body, your execution is always going to be suboptimal. On top of that, grapplers require strong glutes for bridging or strong and mobile hip flexors for shrimping. The erector spinae support your upper torso and without a strong, stable back, your technique is useless.
Kettlebells are one of the most effective tools for strengthening your entire posterior chain. Because the unique design of a kettlebell means its mass extends beyond the hand and where your grip is, they facilitate full-body ballistic movements. And while there’s a wide array of exercises you can perform to build posterior chain strength, there’s nothing quite like the kettlebell swing. It’s one of the best kettlebell movements for fighters to develop thick back muscles, strong and powerful glutes and hamstrings and intense trap strength.
But that’s not it. Because kettlebell movements can be done either slow and deliberate or fast and explosive, you’re also maximizing muscle activation to build maximal strength and power.
3. Reduces muscle imbalances
Muscle imbalances can be a major hindrance to all athletes but especially to fighters. It’s normal to be more dominant on one side of the body, but if you want to be an effective fighter, muscle imbalances are a no-go. When left unchecked, imbalances can derail your progress long-term and create the potential for major injuries. Overactive muscles can pull your body into poor posture or poor movement patterns, which impairs mobility in joints and creates muscle stiffness. While most muscle imbalances happen at highly mobile areas of the body (hips, shoulders, thoracic spine), they’re not relegated just to those—they can happen anywhere.
But there’s an easy fix—kettlebells. Most conventional strength exercises are bilateral, but the beauty of kettlebells is that many movements are unilateral, which gives your body a chance to build strength and curb imbalances.
4. Improves balance and coordination
Whether you’re throwing a punch, dodging a jab, executing a kick, or going in for a takedown, balance and coordination are non-negotiable. And there’s nothing quite like an offset weight to improve your balance and coordination. Unlike dumbbells or barbells, the weight distribution of a kettlebell means that your form needs to be on point in order to perform the exercise correctly and avoid injury, but the unilateral nature of many kettlebell movements also improves balance and proprioception. Without kinesthetic awareness, mobility, and stability, there’s no chance you’ll be able to execute many of these movements. And that balance and coordination translate directly to the ring, mats, or wherever you fight.
5. Builds core strength
Core strength is a major asset for all athletes. But having core strength isn’t just about having abs—it’s about building strength and stability to support your entire body.
The core works as a single unit, engaging to protect the body and transfer force from muscles of the lower body to that of the upper body during movements. But it’s also one of the most important factors involved in the transfer of explosive power. Weak core muscles mean that your nervous system puts a screeching stop to any explosive movement to protect the spine from injury.
As a result, when you’re striking or kicking, you're losing a huge amount of energy. So, not only are your movements ineffective, but you’re also increasing the risk of injury because that force isn’t landing and transferring through your opponent. Essentially, a strong and stable core allows your body to function as one unit and complete movements with proper force. If the core is weak, the bridge will collapse and the extremities will, in turn, be weak.
All powerful movements originate from the centre of the body, never from just the legs or just the arms. You need to develop a stable spine before you can develop powerful, explosiveness muscle contractions from the limbs. Compound, unstable movements are some of the best things you can do to build strength and stability in all of the core muscles. And because the nature of kettlebells shifts the centre of gravity and forces you to engage and brace your core, you’re building functional strength and stability in the spine with every movement.
6. Reduces risk of injury
No fighter wants to be injured, but unfortunately, injury is inherent to the sport. But if you can strengthen your body and protect against injury with your strength and conditioning workouts, why wouldn’t you. Whether it’s a broken wrist, dislocated shoulder, or strained hip flexor, fighters aren’t unfamiliar with breaks, sprains, and strains due to heavy impact day in and day out. Kettlebells, however, are super effective for maximizing muscle recruitment and strengthening the tiny stabilizer muscles that protect your body from injury. That way, you don’t have to worry about movement compensation and poor movement patterns with every kick, punch, or slip.