I’ve found training with kettlebells to be one of the most beneficial strength and conditioning workouts for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It enables me to train muscle movements that mimic those used in BJJ, is great for developing strength and mobility, and has excellent cardio benefits.
When I first began training with kettlebells, I sought out a StrongFirst instructor. StrongFirst is the organization founded by Pavel Tsatsouline, the kettlebell guru credited with introducing kettlebell training to the west. I’ve trained with various StrongFirst instructors, have taken the StrongFirst one-day kettlebell training seminar, and am an avid following of the StrongFirst website and blog. Therefore, it was with keen interest that I read the book Kettlebell Simple & Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline, which not only outlines a kettlebell training program designed to give a maximum return on investment, but also addresses many aspects of Pavel’s training philosophy.
The premise of the Kettlebell Simple & Sinister training program is that kettlebell training shouldn’t overtax your body, but rather should enhance your ability and readiness to perform the task for which you’re training. This is perfect for a 40 plus BJJ practitioner like myself. By performing the three exercises in the program (Goblet Squat, Turkish Getup, and Kettlebell Swing), one can achieve a full body workout that will develop strength and conditioning in a perfectly reasonable amount of time (about 20-30 minutes per training session), and won’t be so taxing as to detract from one’s chosen task. While as martial artists it’s important for us to continue developing strength, mobility, and conditioning, it’s certainly counterproductive to take on a training regimen that taxes our bodies to the point that it detracts from our BJJ training. It can be a fine line between what enhances vs inhibits growth and development in our sport.
Prying Goblet Squat
In Pavel’s words “Not everybody needs to squat heavy, but everybody needs to squat. And the goblet squat is the squat for the people”. Because the squat movement is so prevalent in BJJ, it’s important to drill this into our muscle memory. As BJJ players, we don’t necessarily need to be able to set records for a squat 1RM, but we need to know how to do the movement properly and efficiently, with full range of motion, and preferably with at least a reasonable amount of resistance. So much of our work on the mats is heavily reliant on how we utilize our hips that it’s safe to say that an overwhelming portion of the movements we use regularly in training will benefit from a strong squat.
This is the king of all exercises. It’s practically a full body exercise that also addresses mobility, shoulder health, and core strength. In reality, every exercise should address core strength when performed correctly, but the TGU is particularly beneficial. Holding the weight overhead is excellent for developing upper body strength, but the “getting up” part of the TGU is directly applicable to nearly every move we do in BJJ. The most obvious crossover is the technical standup, which is a nearly identical movement to the TGU. Other moves on the mat which incorporate aspects of the TGU are the standing guard pass and even the triangle choke.
Well, the swing is also the king of all exercises, but for different reasons than the TGU. The swing is an excellent way to develop cardio conditioning and that can be developed in many ways depending upon the speed, length of sets, etc. Just as importantly, it’s an excellent way to develop a powerful and explosive hip hinge and to strengthen the posterior chain. Again, all extremely useful tools for grapplers. The swing is also a fantastic way (when performed properly) to develop a strong and stable core as well as a healthy back. Pavel suggests adding in variations of the swing when doing Simple & Sinister, which allows one to work a greater variety of muscles and skills. I often will also include snatches in my Kettlebell Simple & Sinister routines in order to drill mobility and overhead strength.
The one shortcoming I can find to the Kettlebell Simple & Sinister plan is the lack of pulling exercises, though these can be added in easily. I often make a point of doing a few sets of pullups at my BJJ academy before class several days per week and I find that to suffice.
One aspect of training that Pavel talks about is what he calls “greasing the groove”. This concept is that it’s not necessary to do an incredibly strenuous strength and conditioning workout every time one trains, especially if the goal is being better prepared for another activity, such as grappling. Our focus should be on our grappling without having to be concerned about overtraining or being worn out from our strength training. When greasing the groove, one can do a few sets when it’s convenient throughout the day until all of the necessary sets are completed. As someone who works from home, I often keep a kettlebell in the middle of the room and will take regular breaks to do a few sets of TGU or swings. This clears my head, allows my body to reset, and helps me to get in all of my reps. This method has the added benefit of allowing us to perform our sets in a fresh state each time we perform them, which is better for maintaining proper form. The only disadvantage to greasing the groove is that it’s not as effective for conditioning, but there still are benefits.
I highly recommend Kettlebell Simple & Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline for anyone looking for a strength and conditioning plan to enhance their BJJ training. I’ve yet to find a book that so thoroughly and clearly explains the purpose of each exercise, how to properly perform it, how to breathe, and how to program the routine. In Kettlebell Simple & Sinister, Pavel teaches solid technique and meaningful philosophy. It’s been my personal experience that this is a training plan that is easy to follow and understand, is fun, and is enormously beneficial. I highly recommend it.