Kettlebells + Traditional Martial Art Training = Pain

by Jim Beaumont

Traditional martial art forms training is not meant as a light cardiovascular workout, or as a warm-up or cool-down phase of training. It is meant to be executed with as much power as possible, hardening the body and lungs, and disciplining the mind and body for combat.

Forms are prearranged patterns, called kata in Japanese styles, or hyungs or poomse in Korean.  Forms are a simulated fight against multiple opponents, an organized form of shadowboxing, for lack of a better term. In most traditional systems, they are designed to develop certain skill sets at different levels of training.

Since they are prearranged, many modern martial artists neglect this part of training, in favor of more fighting or bag work. This is misguided. Forms have a serious purpose, and should be included in every practice.

A martial artist must exert maximum force in all techniques during forms practice, just as if they are really fighting. It is no coincidence that maximal force generation is synonymous with correct technical execution, which is beyond the scope of this article.

No, you will never be met with a perfectly spaced and timed group of opponents that attack according to a prearranged pattern, but no martial artist will ever argue that the extra repetitions that forms practice entails will not benefit a fighter, who might otherwise spend that time jogging or jumping rope.

Mindset is your best weapon, and has everything to do with the productivity of this training…and a combat mindset has nothing to do with synchronizing your forms practice to music or winning a trophy.

There is also value in the discipline involved in forcing your body to conform to a specified group of exercises, whether you like them (or are even good at them) or not.

It is very, very easy to rationalize your way out of techniques or combinations that are difficult, and focus on what you are good at. Traditional forms – those designed by legitimate Asian masters – have a wide variety of techniques and skill sets. I would argue that the ones you physically dislike the most, are perhaps the ones that will increase your conditioning and overall skill the fastest.

In traditional martial art systems, forms (kata in Japanese; hyung or poomse in Korean) are intended to be executed with as much power as possible. The level of exertion should be equal to running a 440-yard sprint or max set of deadlifts. Anything less, is just an aerobics class and has no relevance to self-defense.

Note: I said legitimate masters in the above paragraph. This differs greatly from the common black belt, who has constructed a “creative” form, and does not have the insight of a lifetime of dedication. There is no need for more forms than are already present in most systems, just more practice on the existing ones.

At the dojang (training hall)I train at in Boise, Idaho, Kim’s Taekwon-do, under Grandmaster David Knife, 8th Dan, forms practice is done at the outset of each and every training session. No exceptions, and for good reason. They are the most demanding part of the workout and should be done when the trainee is still fresh.

As a 3rd Dan, I have 15 hyungs, which range from 20-54 movements. This translates into roughly 15 minutes of extremely intense exercise, before any basic technique practice or sparring begins.

If I do hyungs at full-power, I find it every bit as demanding as CrossFit’s Fight Gone Bad or a maximum-rep10-minute set of 53lb kettlebell snatches.

The trouble here is, that we are still in a training hall and not in the street or ring, where the extra adrenaline dump will place a much greater demand on your body. After all, no matter how hard you push against an imaginary opponent, you will automatically begin to “pace” yourself and back off on power as fatigue sets in.

That is where the kettlebell comes in…

External loading is the key to training beyond the pain threshold.

There are any number of ways to increase the load placed on the body during training, but few will force the trainee to suck up pain like adding sets of kettlebell swings, or snatches into a hard set of forms.

Immediately after a form, grab a kettlebell and do a set of swings or snatches with zero rest. If you are training your forms correctly, you should already be at your anaerobic threshold. The kettlebell set afterwards is a gut-check and will be painful. Have a garbage can nearby. This is not for the faint-of-heart.

Sandbag or barbell power cleans, clean and jerks or thrusters would be great, but kettlebells take up so much less space and are are a much easier fit into most training halls.

Bodyweight exercises will not suffice. If you are training with full-power, you are already doing bodyweight exercises.

It is easy to subconsciously slow your set of burpees or jump squats when things get tough, but a 70lb kettlebell will always weigh 70lbs, and will always require the same amount of force to swing or snatch. When paired with already extreme effort, this will push you past the pain barrier, where you will  back off on power and begin to temper strikes and conserve energy.

Keep it simple: One full-power form. One set of heavy kettlebell swings or snatches.

One full-power form, then 1 set of swings or snatches. Under stress, complicated plans fail. Keep it as simple as possible.

If you are really putting maximum power into the form, you should be at or near your limit by the end. In most systems each form takes about 30 seconds to 1 minute to complete with maximum power.    Physiologically, this is the equivalent of a 440 yard sprint, or a 5-rep max set of deadlifts. The demand is enormous. The kettlebell set afterwards is a gut-check, and will be painful.

It is important that the form comes before the kettlebell set. It is the most complex and technical  portion of these two activities, and should be done when you are as close to 100% as possible, with as much power as possible. If you wait until after the kettlebell set, you will back off on power. That is not the point of this.

The weight of the kettlebell will require a certain amount of force to lift. Tired or not, you will still have to exert the same force, which will be well beyond what you would normally push yourself.

What weight of  kettlebell? In this case, one you are able to continuously swing or snatch for approximately 45 seconds with near perfect form, after a 440yard sprint. I recommend a set of about 30 swings, or 20 snatches (10L/10R).

Should I swing, snatch, or mix the two?

That is up to you. There are some differences. The snatch will force you to use slightly more fine-motor skills and is a little more technically demanding, but it seems that most people snatch slower than they swing, and can swing a heavier kettlebell, so doing a set of heavy swings may place a greater load on the system faster. Of course, this will vary depending on the person. Just remember to keep it very simple.

One form, one set of snatches or swings; rest as-needed. If you can manage to do this for more than one time through your entire set of forms, you are not working hard enough. If you are training for a sport match, wear your mouthguard during this whole affair.

Allow for recovery to gain power.

The obvious question here is: Why don’t we just go for entire 5-minute rounds? Or for 15 minutes? After all, a real fight doesn’t last 2 minutes. It could last 30 seconds or 30 minutes.

The reason for these “short sprints” is so that you don’t pace yourself, and  will learn to put maximum power into the form and the swings. In order to get stronger and faster, you must allow for a full enough recovery, so this exercise doesn’t become an aerobics class.

The real value is in reflexively training your body to put out max effort. After this type of training on a regular basis, you will condition your body to put more power into each individual technique.

Of course, when to comes time to do a full 15-20 minutes of forms or sparring, you will find yourself more winded during training, simply because you’ve trained yourself to put more power into the techniques. More power is better. Always.

And, it has been proven time and time again that short burst strength carries over into endurance training, but the opposite is not always true.

This will make your regular training more uncomfortable because you are doing more work.  But, all real traditional Asian martial art training is supposed to be uncomfortable, despite what you might believe from all the Americanized “McDojos” speckled across the country with multicolored uniforms and black belts purchased at the outset of training.

As stated before, the adrenaline dump of a real fight or big match will force you to put out maximal power, whether you want to or not. This is one way to force yourself a little closer to this in training.

Not for the faint-of heart.

It is very important to keep the format very simple. Under stress and discomfort – as legitimate martial art training should involve – complicated systems fall apart. Forms, followed immediately with swings/snatches, then enough rest to enable you to put 100% power into the next form/kettlebell set.

No, this is not for anyone with a heart condition, or who is brand new to kettlebells or martial art. We are working at max effort here. No less. This is more accurately measured by how soon you are plotting your path to the nearest garbage can…no joke.

I found myself gagging with my head out the back door of the dojang the last time I followed this protocol.

Also, this is certainly not something you would want to include in your regular workout. Maybe once a week, at the very most, is prudent. Fatigue would quickly set in, making this counterproductive. If you come from an established martial art system, you probably already have an established training regimen. Don’t deviate from it. The masters, and the masters’ masters  knew what they were doing when they designed it. This is something extra to include on your own time.

Your heart rate will likely be higher than recommended by any reasonable trainer or exertion chart, but we are training for combat, and the only way to do so is to place a demand on your body greater than can normally be done in training.

While this brutal, it is nothing compared to the demand placed on a person’s body during a lethal confrontation, where humans exert force several times what can ever be exerted in training.          Those who have fought in a lethal confrontation will recall the lung-burn that lasted for days after a few minutes of maximum adrenaline-powered strikes or grappling, and the deep muscle soreness that is present for days and days afterwards in the oddest places.  Ideally, you should be at least somewhat familiar with this feeling to avoid panicking when things get tough.

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