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Kettlebells for Marines

September 11, 2009 06:28 AM

I am a former Reconnaissance Marine with scuttlebutt for those of you thinking of joining the ranks. The command recommendations for a 12-week fitness program calls for a standard numb stew of calisthenics surely composed by the same person that fetches coffee for the Gunny and hands out pillowcases in the supply shack every other day. I have nothing against bodyweight exercises for conditioning, and the cadre at the schools have nothing against them either; they use them to great effect as a way of weeding students out of schools with too many applicants and not enough slots. A little more on that later. In other words, someone who never attended the school pipeline most likely dreamed up the exercise routine. A typical school curriculum for a Recon Marine will include as core training the School of Infantry as your (A) school, Basic Reconnaissance Course, Basic Parachute Course, Combat Diver's Course, Ranger School and Pathfinder School for starters. My purpose here is to share my observations on the virtues of the kettlebell as an excellent tool to hone a winning edge when it counts. As it counts when the tank is empty and you have miles to go to accomplish the mission. The obvious benefits stand out when I see the similarities between exercises performed with the kettlebell, and the actual physical tasks we perform as Marines.

The most basic element would be a Marine and his rifle. An entire week of boot camp is spent cursing recruiters while "locked" in painful shooting positions. The Double Kettlebell Clean is basically the offhand shooting position, and the Bottom-Up Clean with some Side Presses will improve your front-sight-post acquisition and stability, guaranteed! Marines by definition have to be capable of getting to shore and bring the fight to the enemy. Whether you parachute, paddle, or fin as your chosen infiltration technique, it's up to you to "display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective". Kettlebell Swings and Snatches have a way of pushing pain and misery thresholds beyond any amount of jumping jacks or triceps dips recommended in the manual. I saw several Ranger candidates just get up and get in the truck, having had enough and just wanting to go back to Camp Darby to mow the lawn until the next class picked up. High rep Snatches are good medicine for that.

Everything you need you will have to carry, and it all has handles and behaves with a life of its own. From basic things like aid litters, to the fifty pound 5 gallon water jugs you have to mule to the Observation Post on top of the hill, to the roughly 110 pound green cyst on your back that carries all your gear plus the mission essential gear and batteries for the radios, plus enough MRE's to last you half the time you'll be there. Double Kettlebell Front Squats, Tactical Lunges and Dragon Walks ideally complement the hundreds of times you'll have to go down to one knee on a patrol while balancing the load on your back like a trick dog. Snatches and Swings will condition your grip and finger strength sufficiently to perform any task with a lesser degree of misery.

Let us not forget playing in the sand. Zodiacs are a lot of fun to play with, but they can quickly become a four hundred pound black cloud of misery and ill will. When boat drills start, the basic position has you standing next to the boat and lifting it exactly in the same fashion as the Suitcase Deadlift. The very first sentence on page 79 of Bullet-Proof Abs says it all; "This is really a full body exercise with an effect you must experience to believe." Now let's add Five 100 pound packs, two fuel bladders and a small outboard that never works plus paddles with head-seeking handles, and the beast is now awake. Lift it overhead and move forward in the same exact fashion that you execute a Walking Clean and Press and move forward. The weight is off-balance and it forces you to control the beast in the same fashion as the kettlebell. If you can't hold your weight and you shift the load in any way, you will quickly know exactly where you stand with your boat team. The most pleasant greetings, well wishes and remarks about your family tree flow your way from the sand-eaters in back. Another exercise that I see having a big impact here is the Weighted Pull- up and the Renegade Row because those paddles will get some good use for sure. Swings have great synergy with finning and Turkish Get-ups mixed with High Pulls complement Zodiac wrestling in the surf perfectly. Failure to break the surf on the way out will result in a crashing wave dumping itself on your mug and pinning you against the ocean floor while creating a yard sale of equipment on shore.

About those bodyweight exercises. At my Combat Diver's Course we had too many students and not enough slots. The Chief walked in the classroom and ordered everyone outside where he proceeded to trash us all with bodyweight torture consisting of flutter kicks, push-ups, mountain climbers and burpees. It didn't take long to lean out the numbers. Pool skills and underwater navigation took care of the rest.

I was in Vilnius, Lithuania and watched the Iron Wolf Brigade work out with kettlebells. I had no idea what they were, and to me it looked like circus equipment left behind by the Russians. It also seemed ridiculous to me that this could in any way be worthwhile. My ego would not allow me to believe it. At about the same time I hurt my shoulder while sparring with an arrogant instructor who was looking at himself in the mirror while he threw a kick at my face. I blocked it and hurt my shoulder in the process. It wasn't until Turkish Get-ups and Side Presses built a solid foundation in my shoulder that I could start to feel confident about strong uppercuts and the necessary shoulder stability and strength to tackle any job.

If form follows function; then the kettlebell exercises described above will have a hugely beneficial effect in your performance as a hard charger. Fail to prepare and you will end up in the back of the truck or policing trash on the side of the road while your plane ticket back to your unit is arranged. My personal favorite routines include Range of Motion as done by Mrs. Du Cane in her Goddess DVD, Buddy Lee's jump rope training, Pull-ups, kettlebells and a little Circular Strength and Prasara yoga along with Hindu Squats, Hindu Push-ups and a solid Back Bridge. The Back Bridge is essential for anyone having to take aim from the prone position because of the improved range of motion and resiliency it delivers the neck. Whether it's the twin eighty manifold or your rucksack jabbing the back of your head; you'll be glad you did them.

I hope this short insight into the "why" of what we do is helpful. I will leave you with the most often heard phrase around base camp; "God bless you buddy, stay safe".