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Waxing Philosophic About Kettlebells

April 29, 2005 12:55 PM

Recently I was asked to put pen to paper regarding a philosophy of kettlebell training as it might relate to the philosophy of martial arts training. Let me preface this by acknowledging that there are as many martial philosophies as there are their respective arts, and that I don't pretend to know a great deal about many of them. However, I have practiced three different styles and am theoretically familiar with several other arts. So enough of the apologetics.

Let us simplify the 'martial arts philosophy' into two distinct but not mutually excusive approaches: competitive and non-competitive. A competitive martial arts approach might be primarily focused on short term goals like tournaments and matches, whereas a non-competitive martial art would be focused on long-term goals such as longevity or spiritual development. Again, this dichotomy of philosophy can be found even in the same martial tradition. Likewise, as with martial arts, so with kettlebell training; one may practice it competitively in girevoy sport or non-competitively as a health tool. For the purposes of this paper, we will only discuss the latter and its relationship with kettlebell training.

In the martial art system that I practice, the primary goals are mental/physical health and spiritual growth. Leaving aside the latter, the concept of mental/physical health might best be expressed as, "When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep." This may seem obvious, but is it perpetually attainable? When you are eighty years old, will you still be able to do these things clearly? How about when you are ninety? To be able to maintain your health and be active when you are an octogenarian is certainly doable, but alas how many of us will meet that goal. The health benefits of strength training have already been touted by the medical community, and now the benefits of using kettlebells. We have all heard, seen, and/or experienced for ourselves such success stories.

Kettlebell and martial arts training develop many physical skills in parallel. Some examples might include flexibility, balance, timing, breathing, relaxation and tension. In the martial arts, all these skills are needed to perform any technique successfully. A block, for example, requires that the practitioner be able to meet his or her opponent's attack in such a way that it would negate the attack or produce an opening for a counter attack. If said defender is inflexible or has poor balance, his or her ability to defend is hampered. Likewise, the harmonious development of timing, breathing, relaxation and tension; they all relate to each other especially in the development of fluidity. One can move more quickly if one is relaxed than if one is tense. Breathing and tension go hand in hand. If they are out of sync then they are not as efficient and therefore less fluid. Because of this in efficiency, the defender might tire sooner, or not successfully block the oncoming attack. As with martial arts, so too with kettlebells are the development of these skills. For example, let us take one of my favorite exercises; the snatch. I won't go into detail regarding the performance of this exercise, as Pavel has already done a superlative job. However it should be obvious to anyone having done a serious set of snatches, that flexibility, balance, timing, breathing, relaxation and tension are all of paramount importance. You need flexibility (in the hams and shoulders) and balance to snatch a kettlebell over your head and lock it out there. Likewise the development of one's timing and breath is an important skill in order to successfully complete the exercise without injury. Relaxation and tension during different parts of the exercise become readily apparent during high repetitions.

All of these afore mentioned skills directly relate to one skill that I have not mentioned yet: power. Both in martial arts and in kettlebell training the athlete learns to generate power, be this as a block, punch or kick, or as a jerk, press, or snatch. The harnessing of said skills promotes the development of power generation. For example, my teacher is a sixty-one year old man who weighs about 120 lbs. at 5'3" tall. I weigh 165 lbs. at 6' tall. Years ago he was teaching me a two person form and I was being a little over zealous with some of my strikes. He asked me to go gently but I didn't listen and continued to strike as I pleased. He then decided to block my attack with some power and it felt as though I had hit steel bars. (Lest you think I exaggerate, I am also a blacksmith and work with steel and iron; it felt the same as if I had clipped my arm on my anvil.) For him to be able to do this required not that he was physically 'stronger' or bigger than me, but the harnessing of the aforementioned skills, to proceed from total relaxation to total tension in one moment. The same holds true for jerking two 32 kg kettlebells, especially if you are built like me, I'm not a particularly 'strong' guy, and am not built like a powerlifter. So since I can't very well bully the two kettlebells into place, I have to rely on said skill development to produce the power to jerk them overhead for multiple reps. I must generate enough force to drive the weight off my chest, relax and quickly drop under them to lock out the arms, and then drive up to complete the form. Again, the emphasis on balance, flexibility, breath, timing, relaxation and tension are evident and paramount.

As mentioned previously, not only do martial arts and kettlebell practice develop the athlete on parallel physical dimension, but in a mental direction as well. Primarily it is in the ability to focus. Of course in martial practice as one is developing one's peripheral awareness on must also develop a single pointed focus. This skill allows one to harness the discussed physical skills and correctly apply them. Try to break concrete patio blocks without this. The same is true of any lift one might perform. To be able to press out two heavy kettlebells requires great mental concentration to be able to harness the latent power of the whole body. The good news is that as with any increase in skill the ability to perform the related task becomes easier. The amount of effort it takes for a beginning martial artist to produce a good front kick is immense compared to that of someone who has been doing the same kick for many years. Likewise the effort for someone to perform a correct bent press for the first time is much harder than for one who has been at it for a while. So, once one can perform the task with relative ease, one can then make the task harder by various means, whether sparring more challenging opponents or lifting heavier weight for example.

The development of these mental and physical attributes as they relate to martial arts and kettlebell training are not unique to themselves exclusively. In point of fact, all athletic endeavors require similar skill maturity. One would be hard pressed to find a decent gymnast or hockey player who did not possess these skills in varying degrees. What makes the relationship between martial arts and kettlebell training distinctive is that they share the same balance of progress of these skills to a greater degree than as with other sports. The skill development to execute a punch with one's fist is the same as that of 'punching up' the kettlebell, though in different planes of motion.

Lastly and in some ways most importantly, both of these physical forms of exercise can be maintained throughout ones life to provide a continuous and improved level of health. As we age, we tend to become more sedentary, lose flexibility and strength, and for some, mental acuity. Many elderly people pass from complications due to falls (bone breakage due to loss of bone density) caused by poor strength and flexibility. This causes a spiraling rate of decline, as it takes longer to heal and therefore the rate of atrophy is increased. Continued martial arts or kettlebell training helps to prevent such situations from occurring. The old adage, "Move it or lose it!" was never truer. As we all eventually succumb to entropy and time, the goal then is longevity, to maintain our quality of life for as long as possible, so that when you are in your dotage you can still take care of yourself. After all, what good is it to be able to squat 800 lbs. at twenty-five and then be using a walker at seventy-five?

Sample Martial Arts & Kettlebell Training

The general approach for me is that I train my martial art every day. I will throw kettlebells around either three days a week (an easier cycle) or every other day, when trying to improve my overall conditioning (a heavier cycle). During the lighter phase, generally about three weeks at a time, I use the three day a week Soviet armed forces workout starting on page 139 of the RKC book. Between each exercise group (let's say between three sets of alternate presses and three sets of hops) I will perform five forms (kata) as active rest. Generally I'll perform at least thirty forms on lifting days. During the more intense phase, from two to four weeks, when I train every other day, I will intersperse endurance building days, with heavy lifting days. A week when I train four times might look like this:

Joint opening warm-ups.
10-15 forms.
Three sets of 'the omelette' with a 1.5 pood kettlebell. For active rest between each set of 10 snatches/cleans/swings on both sides, I'll perform 5 forms.

Joint opening warm ups.
10-15 forms.
5x3-5 double or single (as I get tired) military presses with 2 pood kettlebells.
5x5 pullups. These are performed in the antagonistic fashion, i.e. 1 set of presses followed by 1 set of pullups with 2-3 forms as active rest.
3-5 minutes rest.
5x5 double clean-and-jerks with 2 pood kettlebells with enough rest between to catch my breath.

Joint opening warm-ups.
10-15 forms.
Snatches performed for max reps per side.
20 forms.
Jerks performed for max reps.

Joint opening warm-ups.
20 forms.
Steve Maxwell's exercise program from the RKC book.

What this week does not show is that on various off days I will GTG ('grease the groove') with a set of heavy bent presses (32kg or 40kg), military presses (32kg), pistols, 'iron cross' with 15lb. clubbells, and 'fly extensions' on rings (like using a wheel on the ground, but the arms, once extended, circle back around to my sides and then back up to beginning). Also, I do most of my ab work during the martial arts classes that I teach.