One of the core concepts of the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certified) school of strength is the manipulation of space within your body to create tension. When you remove gaps in the chain of movement, and tighten the space within your body, you form a more stable platform from which to produce force.
Many people seek to reproduce movements from their sport in the gym, thinking that this will have greater carryover to their sport. In short, it doesn’t. For resistance training to have any real carryover to the activity, it needs to be performed at similar joint angles and at similar speeds to those used within the sport. Instead, it’s much better, for most, to use methods of training that teach the body correct movement. Movement is a skill that crosses from the gym to the mat and is not specific to any particular angle or speed.
The ability to maximally shorten the body at the right time — that is, to produce tension within — is like the ability to compress a spring quickly to store huge amounts of potential energy in it. Starling’s Law states that a pre-stretched muscle has more potential to produce force, so by pre-contracting the body we are priming it to be stronger, and hopefully to overpower our opponent.
One of the best drills to teach this is the pull-up. Firstly, I want to differentiate between pull-ups and chin-ups so we are all speaking the same language. A pull-up is done with a thumbless grip, your palms facing away from you, and for best results your upper leg should not break parallel to the ground — in fact, it should remain straight throughout. This is what we call a ‘tactical pull-up’ and it has excellent carryover to everything from grappling to climbing fences or defending strikes. The main difference between the two is that in a chin-up, your palms face towards you.
The pull-up is actually one of the best all-round strength builders, but not for the reasons many will attribute to it. As mentioned before, there is little point in chasing massive carryover from your gym work to your chosen sport. So I’m not going to talk about how your back muscles are involved in pulling, although they are, or how grip strength is important to control your opponent, although it is. Rather, I am going to use it to show you how to tighten the body and then transfer that skill to your clinch or takedown attempt.
To build the pull-up, as many can’t actually do them, I’m first going to give you a drill that will either help you perform a pull-up, or will teach you the same skill that the pull-up will. We’re going to start with a variation of the ‘plank’. Before beginning, perform a Thai clinch or head-snap takedown to get a baseline for your speed and power.
The plank is a great drill to teach linear stability and body tightening. Most people just assume the position — that is, they prop themselves on their elbows and toes and try to relax as much as possible. Remember though, that the key element we are after is the tightening of the body, to pre-load it, to increase force production. To do this in a plank position, it is important to ‘harden’ the body. Imagine, while in the position, that someone is going to hit you and try to push you around, but you must maintain that position. To accomplish this you will need to brace your abdomen, tighten your glutes, draw your hips slightly forward and draw your kneecaps towards your groin. Also imagine dragging your elbows towards your hips to activate your lats, and consciously minimise the space from your armpits to your hips. Don’t expect to hold this position for long — a 30-second hold done correctly is brutal.
Test again with your Thai clinch or head-control to see the gain in power from this simple drill.
To supercharge this drill, try the following option: From the basic plank position, rotate to one side so that one leg and arm come off the ground. Now shorten and ‘close the gap’ within the body on the down side. Hold that for five-to-10 seconds and then repeat on the other side. Once both sides are done, immediately drop down into the plank again and, keeping your new shortened position and tightness, notice the extra tension and compression in your body in the plank. Stand up and repeat your Thai clinch/head-snap to feel the improvement.
The next step in building this skill is to move to the pull-up bar. If you haven’t been able to do a pull-up before, I urge you to try now, setting yourself on the bar the same as you did for the last plank drill: grab hold of one side and actively pull yourself together, drawing the shoulder in and down to set it in the socket, remove the space from the armpit to the midsection; then with one hand set in place, do the same with the other hand. Don’t let go of that tension! Now try a pull-up. Many will find that all of a sudden they are now able to perform a pull-up for the first time.
Next is to maximise our pull-up using the same tension techniques from the plank. Once you’ve grabbed hold of the bar as just described, tightening yourself and removing the space, I want you to cross your legs and hold a towel or similar between them, with them angled just in front of your body. As you initiate your pull, squeeze the towel as hard as possible between your legs while simultaneously continuing to rotate the feet and thighs, scissoring them as you ascend. At the top, work to pull your clavicles up to the bar — it’s not called a forehead-up! By pulling as high as possible and bringing the elbows down and back, you further close up the space in the body, creating more tension.
After a few test pull-ups, go back to your Thai clinch, head-snap, etc. and test to see the improvements. You won’t need many reps to make the most of this powerful drill. The plank and the pull-up and its variations, such as the hanging leg-raise, are excellent drills to teach tightness and address ‘power leakage’ within the body. Adding them into your training will make your grappling much more effective.
Andrew Read is the head of Dragon Door Australia and is certified by Pavel Tsatsouline in his kettlebell system and CK FMS. As a strength and conditioning coach, Read has worked with champion BJJ players, Olympic judoka and stand-up fighters. He can be contacted at