How StrongFirst Combat Melds Hard Style Kettlebells and Martial Arts

As a professional Muay Thai fighter and avid practitioner of kettlebells, I was excited and curious to see the announcement for StrongFirst’s new course: StrongFirst Combat. I’ve experienced firsthand the connection between the two systems, but have never received formal training on this connection.

StrongFirst Combat zooms in on the interface between kettlebells and combat sports and brings focus to the principles that cross the boundary between the two. The course is for fighters and athletes looking to improve their skill and ability in a combat sport, as well as trainers interested in helping their clients’ progress.

Even more exciting to me is that the course gives athletes the chance to develop skills typically acquired through intense martial arts training—quick response, elements of self defense, and timing. Bringing these skills to athletes via a different path gives those who don’t want to fight or train as a fighter access to competencies that are important for athletes in general, and everyone in life.

I think there’s a fighter in all of us—that person who knows how to defend themselves and stand up for what they believe in.

How I Found the Fighter in Me

StrongFirst Combat CourseThe fighter in me emerged six months after I moved to New York City. I was walking home on a cold winter night when I was violently attacked by two unarmed men. I saw them in the distance sitting under a dim porch light. Although I sensed something bad was about to happen, it was as if I’d already stepped into the lion’s den.

Feeling terrified, my heart rate sped up and my breathing quickened as I crossed the street hoping they wouldn’t notice me. Before I knew what was happening, I was on the ground being kicked and beaten. As they dragged my body into an empty parking lot, the gravity of the situation weighed on me. I thought, “This is it.”

I managed to wrap my arm around a street sign. I hung on, covered my face, and screamed as loud as I could. After what felt like eternity, they left. I ran home in fear, and felt the urge to run back to the suburbs.

But I didn’t. Instead, I decided to fight.

Fortunately for me, I was working at a gym that taught martial arts, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I’d seen guys moving around in the ring upstairs. I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing but knew it was some form of combat. I asked one of them, Simon Burgess, for “self-defense” lessons.

I gradually learned the basic moves of Muay Thai and began practicing with other guys training in the art, including professional fighter Steve Milles. The training taught me how to fight, but I never viewed the fighting as a way to hurt someone. It felt more like a dance or a chess game between two people.

Before long, I was training for my first competitive fight—taking the skills I had learned and applying them under a stressful situation. I ended up following that path for fifteen years.

The StrongFirst Combat Course

The debut StrongFirst Combat course was taught at my home base Five Points Academy—an established martial arts school that produces world-class and professional martial artists, led by retired professional fighter and SFG team leader Steve Milles. The course was taught by Senior SFG and Kyokushin Israel head Ronan Katz and StrongFirst team leader and Israeli security expert Benny Meyer.

Benny got us moving shortly after the class started and he kept us on our toes throughout. I’ve always been better at learning through movement than through lecture so this worked for me.

A key component of the course were the reaction drills. One example is a game I remember playing as a child. You place your hands on top of your partner’s, and they try to slap your hands while you try to move your hands away before being tagged. Benny advanced the game by adding a tap to the shoulder or foot, exposing you to multiple threats from different angles. These games develop an athlete’s reaction time and hand-eye coordination—which are critical to success in a defensive or offensive position.

We were then led through drills that directly made the connection between kettlebell and martial arts movements.

Steve Milles and I swinging
Steve Milles and I swinging

Making the Connection

My training philosophy has always been about the basics—you don’t need fancy moves to excel. It’s about mastering the techniques of the basic movements. Doing this, both in Muay Thai and in kettlebell training, changes the quality of execution. You might make contact with your punch or kick, but if you haven’t mastered the technique of the movement, the impact of that connection will be far less powerful. This concept also resonates with kettlebells, in particular, the StrongFirst method.

Consider a basic move in kettlebells—the swing—and one of combat sports—the punch. The link between the two systems is most obvious when considering these two movements. During the course, Benny demonstrated this by having us perform a swing followed by a punch. Through this exercise, I could feel the connection between the mechanics and physics of the two movements.

The kettlebell swing is properly executed by rooting your feet into the floor, hinging at the hips, hiking the bell back between your legs, and then extending your hips to a neutral position to force the bell forward. Here, the force exerted in this exercise is directed downward into the floor, while the energy created from this force is projected outward in the direction of your arms. The hips transfer the force into kinetic energy, which drives the bell forward.

These same principles are seen in Muay Thai. Let’s take the cross as an example. The movement involves rooting your feet into the floor, exerting a downward force, pivoting your rear foot, and driving the back hip forward. The downward force exerted by your feet rooted into the floor is transferred through the hip movement and converted into energy that flows through the striking arm.

Steve Milles, in the green shorts, demonstrating the cross and a perfect example of rooting, driving off the back foot, and not falling into the opponent.
Steve Milles, in the green shorts, demonstrating the cross and a perfect example of rooting, driving off the back foot, and not falling into the opponent.

Another connection: if your feet aren’t rooted firmly into the ground while performing a swing, the kettlebell will pull you forward. This same phenomenon can be seen when you throw a punch from a loose, lunged stance. In that stance, you are not exerting any force downward and therefore no power can be generated as you pivot forward and you will likely fall into your opponent.

The end of these movements is also similar. Pulling the swing back down for the next swing is like pulling the cross back into your ready stance.

To feel this connection, Benny had us do a set of swings followed by a set of defensive drills. Benny also connected the movements to real-life situations to help athletes who are not involved in a combat sport.

When you fall forward throwing a punch, you can't block the counter. In this case, my low kick landed on my opponent's thigh after I fell forward. (I'm on the right.)
When you fall forward throwing a punch, you can’t block the counter. In this case, my low kick landed on my opponent’s thigh after I fell forward. (I’m on the right.)

Yin and Yang

Tension and relaxation—opposites that balance one another—are the yin and yang energy of any professional sport. And this is very much the case for kettlebells and martial arts. You can’t have one without the other. Exerting too much tension will cause you to burn out quickly. If you’re too relaxed, you might as well just stay home.

To flow between the yin and yang during kettlebell training, you shake out between each set of swings, cleans, or squats. You use tension throughout the body to complete those moves safely and effectively, and you relieve that tension by shaking out your body.

Same with martial arts. Every time I throw a combination—like a jab, cross, roundhouse combo—I have to move around afterward to relieve the tension in my body before I can perform the next block or attack. I must be loose in between combinations so my body can quickly respond to my opponent.

And it’s not all on or all off. The tension dial is also shared by both systems. If you swing a light kettlebell, you dial down the tension. A heavy bell, you dial it up.

It’s the same with a fight. Your tension dial is not always at a ten. You dial it down for a block or a combination, and then turn it up for the final blow.

Mindfulness

Near the end of the course, Ronen led us through breathing and meditation exercises. How do you harness the fear and anxiety you feel inside when you’re in a fight? How do you stay calm while preparing for that big lift, the snatch test? In life, how do you remain in control and focused when you are overwhelmed with day-to-day stresses? You breathe and remain calm.

For the breathing segment, Ronen helped us access three types of breathing: diaphragmatic breathing, thoracic (chest) breathing, and clavicular (shoulder) breathing. He instructed us to place our fingers on our diaphragm, our chest, and our clavicle, and breathe into each body part, feeling each expand.

Your breathing type is an indicator of your physical state as well as a tool to change that state. Diaphragmatic breathing should be our natural mode of breathing. Breathing deep into your diaphragm produces a sense of calmness. While fighting, your body will try to get as much air into your lungs as possible. It does this through fast, shallow breaths into your chest. This type of shallow breathing is not sustainable, so once you’re in the corner in between rounds, you must come back to deep breathing.

In the corner with my trainers Steve Milles and Simon Burgess.
In the corner with my trainers Steve Milles and Simon Burgess.

When anxious, in the middle of chaos or a stressful situation, your body will activate your fight-or-flight mode. Your heart rate speeds up and your breathing gets faster in an effort to take in more oxygen. Just as if you were in a fight, you will likely be breathing into your chest.

Ronen also took us through a meditation exercise. Meditation strengthens the mind. It helps you stay present even when you’re uncomfortable—feeling scared, overwhelmed, or out of control. Sitting through the discomfort that arises during meditation builds that mindfulness muscle so you can use it in life when you are confronted with uncomfortable and scary situations.

Ronen had us stare at a white dot on a focus mitt and then close our eyes, while still envisioning the dot. The white dot gave us something to focus on to help us clear our minds of distractions.

This same focus is accessed during a fight. You focus in on your opponent and your trainer’s voice. Everything else, every sound from the crowd, every worry you had that morning, fades into the far distance. You are there to fight and everything else becomes unimportant.

When I think of the importance of staying focused as a fighter, I recall the time I broke my arm. It was the first round of a four-round fight. I didn’t know my arm was broken, only that I wasn’t able to use it without feeling incredible pain. All I could do was keep it up to guard my face and not show my opponent I had a weakness. Through mental focus, I was able to fight all four rounds and take a win home for my gym.

The Fighter Emerges

I didn’t have a sense of self, or the self-confidence to stand up for myself, until I became a fighter. I had a speech impediment growing up. So I shied away from talking to strangers and had to find other ways to express myself. I became a dancer as a way to express myself through movement and was an athlete all through school. But neither gave me the self-confidence and sense of self I gained from fighting and training to be a fighter.

Something shifted after I started Muay Thai. I could defend myself. I learned to let go of  little things and things I couldn’t change. I learned: if you’re going through hell, keep going. At the same time, I learned when to fight and when to walk away.

Fifteen years ago almost to the day that I was mugged in New York City, I was confronted with another terrifying situation. But this time I wasn’t that shy, southern girl. I had gained the attributes of a martial artist.

It was 5:00am one April morning and I was riding my bike to work. As I started through an intersection, I saw a car coming toward me—the driver had run the red light. The adrenaline immediately released into my body and everything around me slowed down. I felt a sense of calmness and acceptance that “this was it.”

But then a switch in me flipped and I decided to fight.

My brain quickly realized my only option was to ensure that I went over the car and not under it. I grabbed for the car hood. My bike launched in the air, and I rolled over the car—landing on my feet behind it.

My hand was sliced open, my finger hanging half off, and my body was cut and bruised. But my training allowed me to walk away from a situation that would have killed someone else.

Emily Bearden
SFG II, SFL
Emily Bearden has been a trainer in New York City for over seventeen years. She earned her BFA in Dance and Choreography at George Mason University. After moving to the city to pursue a career in dance, she started training muay Thai with Steve Milles and Simon Burgess. Emily achieved several regional and national titles, and represented the United States at the International Muay Thai Federation Amateur Championship in Bangkok, Thailand. With a fight record of 20-9, Emily retired (maybe) as a two-time WKA Professional World Champion while continuing to work with fellow fighters for their upcoming matches. She is also a SFG Level II and SFL Instructor, teaching several group classes and private sessions at Academy Five Points.

7 thoughts on “How StrongFirst Combat Melds Hard Style Kettlebells and Martial Arts

  • very inspiring article. much admiration for your tenacity and grounding. A great example of how traumatic events can either break us or remake us. Those incidents may be looked at as bad things but had they not happened you would not have been able to become a better version of yourself.

  • Thank you ! Emily this is what training is about. I’ve trained all kinds of people in the last 30 years and I have always taught my people that training is more than a means to an end with our bodies but a transformation of our inner self to levels we thought not even possible, physically and psychologically !

  • I knew there was a reason for me to click on the email. Been busy stuck behind the desk and on the computer for the last couple of months and for another 15 days. Feeling sorry for myself for not moving enough let alone not practicing. I know not an immediate danger situation but just felt helpless just the same. Needed to read your article to give myself a good swift kick in the rear. No more excuses of got to get my work done. There’s always time for a 10 – 15 minute practice but still stuck in the mindset of it needs to be longer.
    At any rate, very good article. Next time I get a blister, I won’t complain…as much.

  • I would like to see a Strong First book on this topic with exercises you can do solo to develop fighting skills, again with a minimalist philosophy like as in Naked Warrior, S&S, etc…

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