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Frank Shamrock’s Kettlebell Training

April 11, 2006 08:27 AM

Yet another Mixed Martial Arts DVD had arrived from Netflix and my wife wanted to know what was going on. "Why are you watching so much of that?" she wanted to know. "I'm not sure," I replied. "It just fascinates me lately, these guys are such fantastic athletes". Little did I know I was just studying for my next coaching challenge.

So when Joe Sarti, RKC, and Girya instructor got a call from Frank Shamrock, five time UFC Middleweight champion, that he wanted to train with kettlebells for his comeback fight against Caesar Gracie I knew why I had been "studying tape".

Joe and I had met Frank when we helped out at Senior RKC Mike Mahler's kettlebell seminar at Frank's school last year. Frank had spoken extensively with Mike and wanted to train under him but Mike could not make the distance work. Luckily for us, we got the call.

Now he was ready and he knew what he wanted. "Strength," Frank told us. "I need to be stronger. Especially in the hips, back, core, and legs."

Watching video of Frank it was obvious he had all the qualities of an elite athlete and fighter: speed, power, extreme flexibility, coordination, and agility, as well as one of the more developed and ripped physiques in the world. As well as hellacious ring skills.

Frank had done traditional weight training in the past, using the bodybuilding model, splitting his workout into body parts. But he had broken his back two separate times and can no longer deadlift or squat heavy. He used and liked dumbell and barbell power cleans though, and saw the kettlebell as the perfect extension of that.

"Everything starts from the toes in MMA and extends all the way to the hands. Cleans build that power." Frank said. All I could think of was how much he was going to love the total body nature of kettlebell training.

Frank is also a cardio machine, using both sprint training and the elliptical machine. He likes the elliptical as it has no impact. Again, I knew he would love how kettlebell training takes cardio training to a new level at the same time it builds explosive strength and power into the body.

Yet we had precious little time. When we got the call from Frank we had only 8 weeks or so. He was virtually in his peaking phase. This would be a very interesting experiment for us and for Frank. Joe would be doing the hands on training with Frank and I would design the program.

These were the main consideration in the program design:
  1. Teach and cover the basic KB moves as quickly as possible ? swings, cleans, presses, Turkish get-ups, pistols. These covered the areas of concern to Frank with a minimal learning curve and minimal exposure to potential injury ? no snatches yet.
  2. Energy systems. Frank was already into his cardio program with sprinting, swimming, and cardio machines and I wasn't about to argue with that. Focus was on developing explosive strength (power), and strength endurance. We would use timed sets instead of counting reps, for the most part. We would use a circuit of 4-5 exercises per workout. He would let his HR and respiration recover enough between exercises so that he wasn't too far out of breath before the next set. Again, we were training strength and power, not cardio conditioning.
  3. Strength in extreme positions. MMA fighters need to be very flexible in extreme angles as well as be able to produce force from those positions. Their training also cannot tighten them up. Being able to go the distance, not tie up and still be able to produce high levels of force is critical. We wanted Frank to use the heaviest bells he could.
  4. Training frequency. We decided on three times per week, every other day as he was already training multiple times per day and overreaching was a concern. Especially with how demanding kettlebell training is on multiple physical systems.
Exercise Selection

One of the benefits of watching all those UFC and Pride fights was that I had a decent idea of the muscular and energy systems requirements of the fighters. What an incredible stress on the body! Three five-minute rounds with only a minute in between meant the athletes were constantly going into anaerobic states with a background of continued aerobic stress. Even when they weren't throwing punches or kicks they were working hard, even while on the ground.

This meant using as wide a variety of full body moves as possible, again staying as basic as possible so we could push hard with little risk of injury from as many angles as possible.

Take the body and the resistance through as big a range of motion as possible. Frank loved the dynamic nature of the KB movements ? feeling how the unstable, ever moving and HEAVY loads were so similar to throwing a body around. We used both grinds and ballistics. Grinds were done first, while Frank was fresh and done for low reps. Again, we were short on time and stayed very basic focusing on Turkish Getups and Pistols. Maurice Smith, Frank's coach, wanted leg strength in the mix as well.

Here is the list:
  1. Turkish Getups. MMA fighters have to constantly fight from the ground up and have to be able to get up off the mat with a determined opponent trying to keep them down. The TGU is perfect for that. With the flexibility of a mutant Frank loved the squat version of this exercise.
  2. Pistols. One of Frank's requests was more leg strength. Pistols to the rescue. He picked them up immediately and loved them.
  3. Swings. Joe showed Frank the two hand, one hand and transfer swings and Frank liked the transfers best as he really felt them in his legs and glutes. This would build total body power and explosiveness.
  4. Swing, flip, squat: This starts as a swing, the bell is flipped and caught in a crush grip, squatted deep, then tossed/push pressed as high as possible before catching the horns and going back into the next swing. An immediate Shamrock favorite.
  5. Guard Press. Stole this from Mike Mahler. Doing alternating floor presses while lying on one's back was the perfect move for developing strength for pushing people off you while in the guard.
  6. Renegade rows. The antagonistic brother to the guard press.
  7. Tactical lunges. More leg power while developing back and core strength.
  8. Thrusters. Deep squats for legs follower by a total body push press. Huge workloads can be done here.
  9. See saw press. Great upper body work done from a solid base position.
  10. Bear crawls. Just a ton of upper body and midsection work.
  11. Getup Situp. Frank was so strong in the squat up of the TGU it wasn't working his core as much as I wanted so we included the getup situp to really focus on core strength and shoulder stability.
  12. 2 KB squat clean press. Again, another total body movement going from as low a position to as high as possible in the same set.
  13. Around body pass/figure eights: These were great for his hips, back and core.
Frank's Basic Workouts

Workouts were modified by Joe each session according to feedback from Frank from the last workout , the days energy level, any physical issues and coming MMA workouts.

Circuit A

TGU Squat style 5 reps
Guard Press 30 sec timed interval
2 hand swing 20 reps
Deadlift squat thrust push-up 60 sec
Push Press 10-15 reps

Circuit B

2 KB Clean Squat Press 10 reps sets
Pull-ups (towel mixed with tactical after failure with towel 5-8 reps)
Swing Flip Squats 30-60 seconds
Tactical Lunges 4 laps across mats 40 foot per lap
Transfer swings 60 seconds

Circuit C

TGU 5 reps per side
Pistols 3-5 reps/side
2 KB thrusters 45 seconds
Transfer Swings 60 seconds
Around body /leg pass

Circuit D

TGU 5 reps/arm
Swing, flip squat 45 seconds
Guard press
Renegade row
Transfer swings

Circuit E

Pistols 3-5 reps/side
See saw press 8-10 reps/side
Tactical lunges 4 laps
Guard press 30 seconds
Getup Situps 5 reps/side

This was the basic template. Four to five basic movements done for 30-60 seconds, letting his heart rate come down from the 170 bpm he got to 130-140 before starting the next exercise. The workouts were changed by Joe on the mat as he conferred with Frank according to Frank's needs that day, staying with the basic premise of full body movements emphasizing hips, back, legs and core. Exercises from the above list were added and subtracted as necessary.

The weights used by Frank varied from the 16 kg for the figure eights and around the body passes to the two pood for the swings, darcs, flip squats and deck squats. TGU's used the 20 and 24 kg, guard press, see saw presses and thrusters used the 20-24 kg. As Frank wanted power and strength endurance we focused on the loads he could use and maintain a high power output (speed) and not just pushing the weight through the ROM.

To his credit Frank had no ego involvement and was the penultimate student, soaking up corrections and body mechanic details and making the changes requested on the next rep, perfectly.

Again, this was just Frank's intro into the power of the kettlebell. It's a feeling-out process to determine which exercises, set and rep ranges and styles works best with his needs. This is true for all athletes but especially elites like Mr. Shamrock.

Trying to push intensity while working on the fine points of exercise performance is never an ideal situation and the gains he made while doing this only bodes well for future training. Expect to see some huge performances as Frank masters the KB and brings KB training into the MMA world in a big way!

Mark Reifkind, RKC has been a competitive athlete, coach, and student of physical culture for the last 34 years. A former national level gymnast, he has trained Olympic gymnasts, was the Head Coach for Team USA in powerlifting, and has written for Milo, Ironman, and Muscle Mag International. A masters level rated powerlifter, he now focuses his training on the kettlebell and the depth of its applications.

Rif is the owner operator of Girya Kettlebell Training, the first studio in the country to use the kettlebell as its primary method of conditioning. Palo Alto, CA based Girya offers private and semi-private instruction and classes as well as specific workshops, seminars and instruction for the Mixed Martial Artist. Visit