I was asked a question the other day: “What is the go-to kettlebell exercise for martial conditioning?” Well, pick your poison; you really couldn’t give a bad answer.
- Are kettlebell swings good for the martial artist? Uh, yeah!
- Or could you argue against the get-up? No, not really, there are a ton of benefits hidden inside a get-up.
- What about the snatch? Certainly the Tsar of the kettlebell world would be a great addition to any martial arts training regimen.
Like I said, pick any of these and you would be correct, but what if you found yourself on the proverbial desert island of exercise and could only choose one kettlebell movement to keep in your training quiver. The answer is easy. The one-arm clean and jerk.
The One-Arm Clean and Jerk
Yes, you need a solid strength foundation and the best way to get that is a steady diet of deadlifts and presses a la Pavel’s Power to the People!, but the one-arm clean and jerk is the one-stop shop for martial conditioning.
Inside the clean and jerk lives a swing, a press, and a bit of a squat. Give me ten minutes and one kettlebell, and I will give you power, stamina, resilience, and mental toughness all in one tidy package. It’s all about legs and lungs, guys, and if you follow this to the letter that is exactly where you will feel it. After hard work on the clean and jerk, everything else will feel like a party.
Before we go any further I need to clarify something. I am talking about long cycle clean and jerks, and you need to re-clean the kettlebell between every rep.
What I am not suggesting is a girevoy sport type ten-minute set. Girevoy sport is the term for sport kettlebell competition where the object is to get as many reps in ten minutes as possible without setting the bell down. A manly effort for sure, and a sport full of great athletes, beyond a doubt. If this is what suits your fancy, more power to you. But my goal and the goal of the martial artist goes beyond the kettlebell. We are just using the kettlebell as a means to an end (shh, don’t tell my kettlebells).
How to Program the Clean and Jerk for Martial Conditioning
First, get your clean and jerk technique down pat, and to do this it is critical that you work with an SFG Level II instructor. They have specialized training in the clean and jerk, and they can shortcut your learning by taking much of the trial and error out of your way. There is a time to be cheap and a time to be smart. Be smart and hire a coach.
Once you have your form dialed in, you must go heavy. In this case “heavy” means a kettlebell you can clean and jerk for about 7 to 8 reps. A 32kg kettlebell would be a good place to start for men. If you can’t do this with at least a 24kg, then stop and get strong first.
Now, take a ten-minute test. See how many clean and jerk you can do. You can switch hands whenever you like and you can set the kettlebell down whenever you like, but you are fighting the clock.
If you get more than 120 reps, then you used a kettlebell that was too light, shame on you! On the other hand, if you could only do 50 or 60 reps, you chose too heavy. I would be happy with a score of about 80 to 90 reps. We are after the Goldilocks kettlebell—not too heavy, not too light, but just right.
Now, here is how we train:
- At your next practice, set a timer to count down ten minutes. You want it to beep at you every minute.
- Using your Goldilocks kettlebell, do 5 clean and jerks with your right arm, then switch and do 5 with the left.
- Rest for whatever time is left of the minute.
- Repeat at the top of every minute for 10 minutes.
If you can keep up the pace, at the end of ten minutes you will have done 100 total reps. What most people find is that at about the seven to eight minute mark things start to get ugly. If you need to drop your rep count to four and four or even three and three, go ahead. You must keep excellent form and you may not fail.
Note: By the way, it is important to keep an accurate track of your reps, so figure out some way to do this on the fly. Many of my students just make a mark on a white board during the rest. 5 right and 5 left gets one tick mark. Ten tick marks equals 100 reps.
We can program our training very easily now:
- The hard day pace is 5-5 (100) reps. We will call it 100%.
- On medium day, the pace is 4-4 (80) reps, or 80%.
- One easy day, the pace is 3-3 (60) reps, or 60%.
- Test Day is 6-6 (120) reps, or 120%.
Set the training week to go like this:
- Monday = Hard
- Wednesday = Easy
- Friday = Medium
About once a month swap out your hard day for a test day. If you can successfully make 6-6 every minute on the minute for ten minutes, then you have earned the right to move on to a heavier kettlebell.
What About the Two-Arm Clean and Jerk?
Okay, I see a hand going up in the back of the room. You are wondering if the one-arm clean and jerk is so great, then wouldn’t the two-arm version be twice as good? The answer is, yes and no.
Yes, you can move twice the weight in half the time and that is good, but you need to have better than average shoulder mobility to safely do the two-arm version. Most fighters do not. Should we aim to improve shoulder mobility? Sure, but that is the icing on the cake, not the main event, and if you try to make correctives the main event, you will starve as a trainer.
The one-arm version will let us work around shoulder mobility for now and, to be quite frank, there is no compelling reason for a fighter to do double clean and jerks. Remember, kettlebell training is not their sport, just a means to an end.
The second reason I like the one-arm version better is that you can rest one arm while the other works. If you can call that rest—even though one arm is just along for the ride, the legs and lungs are still smoking away. The one-arm clean and jerk allows us to prolong the agony.
There it is. You will find that you really do not need or want much more. Plug this in after your technical martial arts training and stop wasting time in the gym. You can have your conditioning and a life at the same time. Just give me ten minutes and I will make you a man.
Jon Engum, StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, is a certified Martial Arts Grandmaster. He currently holds a 7th Dan black belt in Taekwondo, a 4th Dan black belt in Hapkido, and a 4th Dan black belt in Kumdo. Engum is a StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, SBS, CK-FMS, and author of “Flexible Steel, an Insider’s Guide to Ultimate Flexibility.” His website is Extreme Training.