Man holding kettlebell in the air
Posted: August 8, 2020 at 7:00 am

This is a follow up to Part 1 of the article – if you missed the initial installment, give that a quick read before diving into this one.

The Intermediate

For someone who has spent some time in the gym and has a good baseline already, we can transition our indicator exercises to more complex and demanding movements.  As with the above, we want to select our exercises to create a well-rounded training plan that uses all the major muscle groups and multiple energy systems.  All exercises in this section should be taught by someone qualified, or from a trusted and thorough online source.  Trying to learn from a random YouTube video or simply by teaching yourself is not recommended.

  1. Kettlebell swings
    • Once someone has a foundation with the deadlift, the KB swing will be quick to learn. The swing requires the hips to generate force rapidly, helping you become more powerful.  In addition, they can be done in such a way to boost your heart rate and train your aerobic system, so not only are you getting stronger and more powerful, but also will develop better endurance, probably drop some weight, and become more athletic overall.  Kettlebell swings can be programmed in many ways, and one simple way that we use a lot as an indicator is the ability to perform 10 sets of 10 repetitions in a 5-minute time period (so 10 reps every 30 seconds).  We set a goal of using a 32kg (70lbs) for men and 24kg (53lbs) for women.  Keep in mind these bench marks are with a one-handed grip, but it is better to start learning with 2-handed and then progress towards 1-handed as you gain confidence.
  2. Turkish get up
    • A fantastic blend of strength, stability, mobility, and overall motor control, the TGU has pretty much all your bases covered. Practicing and improving your TGU will deliver gains in upper body and core strength, stable and resilient shoulders, and good mobility throughout.  We use a similar indicator format where we ask the lifter to do one repetition per minute for 10 minutes (alternating arms each minute).  A good goal would be the same weights as noted above for the swings.
  3. Zercher squat
    • These are an incredible squat variation that do not get the love they deserve. By holding the weight in the crook of your elbows you are going to get fantastic gains in core strength (and to a degree upper body strength) in addition to the obvious benefits for your legs and hips.  Also, with the weight being in front of you rather than behind, most people can achieve better depth while maintaining proper form when compared to a back squat.  In particular, people who have proportionally long legs compared to their torso will usually have trouble back squatting with good form, but can usually still Zercher squat well.  As far as goals, a good starting point would be to work up to doing a set of 5 reps with a barbell that is about equal to your bodyweight.

My Personal Indicator Exercises (Currently)

These change from time to time, but on the whole I try to pick a few exercises that work for my body with respect to my personal injury history (in particular shoulders), while keeping me feeling strong & powerful, moving well, and with ample endurance to keep up during Jiu Jitsu and Judo.  Also, a big factor is that these are movements that I simply enjoy doing, and we all know that everyone is more consistent with things they enjoy than things they dread.  For the past 18 months or so I have been consistently focusing on these three:

  1. Kettlebell snatches
    • These have been a favorite of mine for many years, and I definitely have a love/hate relationship with them. As far as carry over to my fitness on the BJJ mats, these have arguably the most direct correlation of everything I do.  They are the epitome of a total body athletic exercise, involving power from the hips and legs, a strong core in multiple planes of motion, shoulders that are both mobile and stable, ample grip strength (hugely important in grappling), and most of all snatches can test your spirit like few other things out there.  There is really “no stone left unturned” when it comes to training kettlebell snatches – that said, it would be smart to pay your dues with lots of swings and Turkish get ups before venturing too deep down the kettlebell snatch rabbit hole.
  2. Chin ups
    • A timeless test of upper body strength, chins ups have been around forever. While the overhand pull up is probably considered more of a staple in tactical type training (helps with scaling a fence or wall), that grip doesn’t agree with some “mileage” that my shoulders and elbows have, so I choose to do them sparingly.  Instead I focus on chin ups with a neutral grip or underhand grip, which seem to help me maintain (and build) strength while keeping my joints happy.  A classic style of gauging progress on chin ups is to see how many repetitions you can do, my preferred style is to focus on hanging weight off myself (usually with a belt and kettlebell) and turning it into more of a classic strength exercise, rarely to exceed five repetitions per set.  Consistent chin up training helps me keep my upper body strong, helps retain overhead shoulder mobility, and the “pulling” aspect of them tends to have better carryover to grappling than more classic “pushing” exercises do.
  3. Squats
    • Considered by many to be the king of the barbell lifts, back squats have been a staple in my own training ever since I started lifting weights at age 15. I’ve used different styles over the years, but for the better part of the last decade have gravitated towards high-bar, deep back squats as my preference.  I used to be able to lift more weight with a low-bar squat and cutting them closer to parallel, but to me the benefits of the extra range of motion and the load distribution of the deep high-bar is more in line with my goals these days.  They help my joints feel good, keep me strong through a full range of motion, and are probably the best muscle-builder out there.  That said, these are not for everyone.  Lots of people have joints that simply will not do well with these, and some people simply have lever length ratios that will not do well with back squatting period.  If you are training for general health and fitness it is important to select exercises that fit your body and your needs, and this may not be one that is great for everyone.

To recap, your indicator exercises should meet a few criteria:

  • They should “fit your body” well and not exacerbate any injuries or limitations
  • Should be comprehensive towards  your goals.  If just general health and fitness is your goal, I recommend a combination of:
    • An upper body strength movement
    • A lower body strength movement
    • Something for endurance / aerobic fitness
  • They should be things you can measure objectively

-Tony Gracia

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