Movement Training in the MMA and Combat Sports
Since the early days of MMA, also known back then as NHB competitions, there has been an ongoing debate on whether certain things will work in the competition area of choice, be it the ring or the cage of some sort. For the most part, those arguments revolved around the applicability of certain technical elements and/or fighting styles and systems, so depending on the “visibility level” of some of their exponents and proponents, those techniques and systems would be in vogue at one point, then forgotten soon after. Over the time, the crucible of combat has forged the more or less coherent technical and tactical toolbox shared by the absolute grand majority of athletes involved, and which we today recognize as modern MMA.
However, only since very recently has the focus of popular discussion among the different “schools of thought” shifted to a particular set of training tools and methods not directly related to the sport-specific technical demands of competitive performance. It took, as usual, a top-level athlete with colorful personality, who commands enough attention from the spectators to be followed around the clock, just as much outside the octagon as he attracts inside. We are talking of Conor McGregor, and the hot topic of contention among various camps is his affinity for what is known as ‘movement training’. This subject became especially topical during McGregor’s preparation for the title match with Jose Aldo, since the former shared freely the footage of his training sessions with a popular movement “guru” Ido Portal. Most of the things they were doing in those video clips had been previously completely absent in most MMA circles, and hence their usefulness being deeply doubted or even laughed at. For better or for worse, that particular bout was too short to say with any degree of confidence if McGregor’s novel approach had anything to do with it. Maybe a better conclusion could be gained from another title fight, between Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit, where the latter had previously did quite a lot of movement training as part of his preparation. Despite losing the fight (split decision, and disagreed by many fans and “people in the know”), Condit demonstrated incredible ability to withstand some serious punishment, maintain his composure and get back with some serious action of his own. Does that mean, then, that movement training could be the next big thing?
First, this sort of training is not quite new to the wider world of martial arts, albeit it has been around in varying forms and shapes. In the more exotic styles, such as capoeira and kalaripayyatu it is more or less inherent, but in the recent times and among more modern systems, probably best examples are Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Russian martial art schools known collectively as RMA. In the case of BJJ, the exercises tend to put emphasis on the ground movement, and it makes sense having in mind the fundamental marks of that style of fighting. In RMA, however, i.e. in the schools and systems that do include movement training, the work strives to encompass the full range of options – from standing, through squatting, to sitting, kneeling, lying and other floor options. Still, this is not an attempt at claiming that any of those approaches is better than the others…instead, the aim here is to take a look at the benefits of the movement training and why one should include it in their overall work, especially from the standpoint of combat athletes.
To begin with, we have already mentioned that the technical inventory of most sports, including the fighting ones, is by now largely defined. It makes the specific portion of the training process more efficient and likely to achieve its goals. The other side of that coin is that each sport has its own set of typical injuries, many of those being caused, unfortunately, by the very training process in the form of repetitive injuries, due to the overuse of certain body parts in line with the activity specific dynamic stereotype. This occurrence could be largely diminished, or even completely avoided, with the addition of new and different (if possible – complementary) patterns of motion. Namely, such work will have positive effect on both the locomotor and neural systems; the trainees will feel fresher, thus reducing the possibility of fatigue caused injuries, too. It is clear from this stance that playful nature of movement training makes for an almost ideal form of active recovery. The benefits do not end there, though. The key word in the previous sentence is PLAYFUL. When engaged with such attitude, training becomes something that offers immediate pleasure, which is not dependent of the final outcome (such as winning or losing a match). Parallel with that, it also stimulates experimentation and readiness for trying new things, looking for and tackling intrinsic instead of imposed challenges, which in turn develops another very important attribute in fighting activities – adaptability. It is this last part that may have played an important role in Condit’s enviable performance against Lawler. Adaptability works on multiple layers, physical and mental, so the benefits are even stronger than it may seem at the first sight.
Next, another intrinsic value of movement training is that if done mindfully, the athletes will develop their personal sense for the quality of movement. Why is this kinesthetic quality important? Unlike the case of some other sports, the combative ones have to deal with too many dynamic variables in the competitive situation in order to be able and say confidently that that one particular technical detail or another has higher or lower degree of impact on the result. The opponent’s actions make the entire situation much less predictable than, for example, track and field sports, archery etc. Therefore, without the inner feeling of the quality of performance, the fighters could lack confidence in their techniques, as sometimes strong punch may have lesser impact if the opponent was moving away, compared to the weaker punch that intercepts the opponent on his way in, not to mention different opponents altogether.
Let us take a look at another valuable aspect of movement training, before we wrap up. The fact is that the activity specific techniques of martial arts and combat sports can really be fully appreciated when trained with a partner (again, in contrast to numerous other sports). Consequently, the practitioners have been seeking ways to improve their mastery for ages. Frequently it lead to the development of all kinds of training equipment and apparatuses, but most of those ended up offering almost entirely the specific conditioning, along with being tedious and boring in the long run, not to mention being less than readily portable. On the other hand, a creative and non-dogmatic embrace of movement training as exploration and source of joy will produce a number of beneficial effects almost as side-effect, quite a few of them closely related to the more successful performance in the competitive arena.
In the end, the movement training is not by any means the be-all-end-all answer to any training questions and dilemmas out there. It is but part of the puzzle, but probably more important one than believed, if considered at all. Conor McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh probably summarized it best in comment on why was that segment of training added to the fighter’s regime, in saying that “hardware was already in place, but we needed to maintain and improve the software”. Now, in the domain of modern technology we see the hardware improving almost on a monthly basis, but with age, the human body will inevitable start do be on decline at some. From that point on, the software is the only thing that can maintain or improve the functionality of the “older machines”. In the world of computers we take it for granted that both segments are important for the optimal performance…maybe it’s time for the updated and improved operating system in your athletic training as well.