Basic Yet Effective Kettlebell Swing Workouts for Martial Arts and MMA

In the last article, we discussed the general mechanics and breathing involved in the kettlebell swing. Now, we will look at example workouts that target “work capacity” – the ability to be strong, explosive yet fluid over longer durations (1 to 5 min). Although the focus is on the swing for Mixed Martial Arts, the following protocols are applicable to anyone who wants to improve their strength, cardio, and overall athleticism. In other words, you don’t have to be a fighter to train like one.

The swing is an ideal movement for any combat athlete due to the quick transition from a compressed posture (squat) to full body/hip extension. This mimics “from the ground up” power generation used in striking and specific movement mechanics involved in numerous submissions (example – armbars). In addition, it’s also congruent with the heart rate demands of an athlete competing at the anaerobic threshold (80% to 90% of max heart rate) for an extended amount of time.

As you will see below, it’s not just weights, reps and sets. We also focus on what we call “training for time”. For the below, we use the example of an MMA fighter whose rounds are 5 minutes in length. Of course, the time can be changed/adjusted depending on the activity (Boxers competing for 3 min rounds)

To start, we will utilize a basic hand to hand swing (switch hands at the top of every repetition) to illustrate this concept. Below is an example of progression to 5 min.

Hand to Hand Swings:
Week 1: 1 min set x 1 min rest x 5 sets
Week 2: 1:40 min set x 1 min rest x 3 sets
Week 3: 2:30 min set x 1 min rest x 2 sets
Week 4: 5 min set x 1 set

To build hip drive, explosiveness and overall power, we can use a double swing (done with two k-bells). Due to the heavy loading, these drills are best configured as “sprints”. Below is an example of progression.

Double Swings:
Week 1: 10s on x 10s off x 10 sets
Week 2: 15s on x 15s off x 10 sets
Week 3: 30s on x 30s off x 10 sets
Week 4: 1 min on x 1 min off x 5 sets
Week 5: 1 min on x 30s off x 5 sets

To build coordination, footwork and the ability to respond to external stimuli, the two-handed walking swing is excellent! The athlete will hold the k-bell with two hands, a coach/training partner will give a command on the backswing to “walk forward”, “walk back”, “step to the right, “step at a 45-degree angle” etc and they respond accordingly. If they struggle with the response/reflex element, a pre-arranged “k-bell kata” can be constructed instead of the coach calling out commands. Example - three steps each direction plus three 45’s for the designated time. Below is an example of progression:

Two-Handed Walking Swings:
Week 1: 1 min on x 1 min off x 5 sets
Week 2: 1:40 min on x 1 min off x 3 sets
Week 3: 2:30 min on x 1 min off x 2 sets
Week 4:5 min x 1 set

Key Points:
The above is a general/linear template. Depending on the athlete, variables such as the weight of the k-bell, work time and recovery time can be modified. As an example, if an athlete is attempting to transition to a higher weight and is struggling, the sets can be alternated between that weight and a lighter weight.

Pacing inside a set should be tracked as well. So, overall, the athlete is monitoring/measuring variables such as the length of the set, rest time, the weight of the k-bell and reps per min to assess progress. Done this way, it removes the ambiguity surrounding whether performance is improving or not.

Heart rate is another excellent variable to track. So, if the same workout is done in month 1 and month 2 and all other variables are the same (weight, set length etc), a lower heart rate in month 2 is indicative of a conditioning improvement. Conversely, if the heart rate is significantly higher, it can be valuable in terms of identifying a problem with recovery, over-training etc.

Milestones to shoot for – Regardless of the activity, it’s important to have goals. As an example, for the hand to hand swing drill, a 165lb athlete I trained was aiming for a 5 min set with a 40kg k-bell (88lbs). After first completing with a 20kg, 24kg, and 32kg bell, he eventually progressed to completing with the 40kg bell at a pace of 30 reps per min (13,200lbs of work). This type of conditioning has tremendous carry over to a combat situation. Moreover, due to the nature of this training, it tends to build strength and endurance but not bulk (important to those fighters not wanting to bump up a weight class)

As mentioned in the previous article, everything starts with good technique and breathing. This ensures optimal performance and most importantly, avoiding injury and staying safe.

Of course, there are infinite variations with these drills. They can be combined with bodyweight movements, running, skipping rope, hitting focus mitts etc. Example – hit the mitts for 1min and alternate with 1 min of hand to hand swings with the eventual goal being a continuous 5 min set. Be creative and have fun!

In a future article, we will talk about combining the kettlebell with the Bulgarian Bag! The later being a phenomenal tool for developing rotational power and conditioning!


Ken Blackburn is the International Team Leader and Head Master Trainer for the IKFF (International Kettlebell & Fitness Federation) and has been an active martial artist for over 30 years. He currently coaches several fighters on their strength & conditioning including UFC Fighter Joby Sanchez. For information on his online training, IKFF certifications and/or seminars, you can contact him at kenblackburn@ikff.net