An Integrated Approach to Training Kickboxers – Part 1: Introduction
Training fighters pose unique challenges to the coach. An uncertain schedule (fighters can take short term fights at any time), the lack of a dedicated off-season, the high amount of skill training and the mixed bioenergetic demands of the sport, challenge periodization models that have been devised primarily for a track and field. The more technical aspects need to be considered, the more complex the training process becomes. Consider the transition from boxing to kickboxing for example. The obvious difference is that the amount of striking techniques is greatly increased by effectively doubling the number of limbs that can be used for attacking. Less obvious is the shift of bioenergetic demands. It can be argued that since the legs have a much higher mass than the arms, a kick is further to the right on the force-velocity curve than a punch and subsequently, different types of training need to be implemented for the optimal transfer. Also, mobility becomes an issue here, whereas it wasn‘t before. The more qualities need to be developed, the less time can be devoted to each individual quality, given a constant available total time. Hence, the importance of each quality needs to be carefully considered. Different qualities have different weights, ie., priorities. Those priorities are not necessarily set in stone, though. Going from amateur MMA rules (usually, three rounds of three minutes each) to pro-MMA rules (usually three rounds of five minutes each), for example, significantly shifts the focus from the anaerobic to the aerobic system. The same can be said when transitioning from amateur Kickboxing to pro-Kickboxing. While in the former scenario, a fight will usually be capped at three rounds, a Pro Full Contact bout (not K1, though) can very well go on for twelve rounds.
The strength demands of MMA or grappling tend to be much higher than those of kickboxing, Even when dealing with the same style, individual preferences and predisposition matter a lot. Consider the classical „rock, paper, scissors“ of boxing. The stereotypes most often presented in this context are the boxer, brawler and swarmer, A brawler like Mike Tyson will strive to end the fight early with heavy strikes. Conversely, a boxer like Muhammed Ali will wear the opponent down, staying out of reach, working the jab. Finally, a swarmer (think Manny Pacquiao) will attack relentlessly, throwing a multitude of moderately-powered strikes and always applying pressure. As a rule of thumb, boxer beats brawler, brawler beats swarmer, swarmer beats boxer. That’s obviously not always true, but no heuristic is. Each of these stereotypes will have different weights attached to different physical qualities. While the brawler will be well served by higher maximum strength and power levels, the brawler might benefit more from aerobic capacity. In the end, everything needs to be developed to a certain degree. If multiple qualities need to be addressed in a training process, the debate quickly turns to periodization. The following section will deal with this issue.
Periodization is the division of the training process into smaller, more manageable periods of time. The term goes back to Matveev (1977) and the underlying concept of periodization forms the basis of any „smart“ training program. Bompa and Carrera Bompa (2005) described the basics of periodization. Plisk (2003) presents different periodization models.
In essence, a periodized training program breaks the whole training process down into more manageable periods of training (hence, the name periodization) and allows the coach to prioritize certain physical qualities and technical/tactical skills depending on the current period. Figure 1 illustrates a very simple schematic of a periodization that distinguishes between a preparation phase, a competition phase, and two transition phases. During the first phase, training volumes are highest, and intensity is lowest. This relationship is continuously reversed towards the competition phase, where intensities reach their peak and volume is greatly decreased in order to keep the athletes fresh. Likewise, the training contents are gradually shifted from the development of physical attributes (speed, strength, stamina) to technical skills.
Figure 1: Wave-like basic periodization Scheme. Modified from Verkhoshansky (1998).
Kiely (2018) recently criticized the stern proponents of any particular model, pointing out that there is little evidence to suggest that one model is inherently better than others. Obviously, many different implementations of many different models can yield viable results under the right circumstances. Parr (2018) concludes that “There are many forms of ‘periodization’ and while some coaches might prefer one form while other coaches might prefer another, they all work.” With respect to combat sports, it needs to be noted that “because team sports, the martial arts, and racket sports use either longer or more numerous competitive phases than individual sports, they follow a bi-, tri-, or multicycle periodization. Therefore, the preparatory phase in these sports is comparatively shorter than in other sports” (Bompa & Buzzichelli 2015). While the competition period can be very short (mostly one-day events, with multiple day events reserved for international events), fighters can compete multiple times per year. This holds true especially for amateur fighters who need to qualify for international events. With four annual competitions, this leaves only three months for each cycle. My light-contact fighters tend to compete more often, while the full-contact fighters have between three and four events. This consideration is crucial when deciding between a concentrated loading model or a concurrent model. These will be explained in the following paragraphs.
Choosing a periodization model will dictate the structure of training. While many models have been proposed, the most basic distinction can be made between linear and non-linear periodization. In linear periodization models, physical qualities are developed while continuously increasing intensities and decreasing volumes as competition period approaches. Conversely, non-linear models do not entail this strategy (Baker 2007). Another distinction can be made between concurrent and conjugate training. Concurrent training aims at producing multi-faceted development of physical fitness by training several motor abilities at the same time, while conjugate training involves „successively introducing into the training program separate, specific means, each of which has a progressively stronger training effect, and coupling them sequentially to create favorable conditions for eliciting the cumulative effect of all the training loads” (Verkhoshansky and Siff 2009). In other words, while concurrent systems are constantly attempting to develop many qualities, conjugate systems are focusing on only one or a few qualities at any given time.
Issurin (2008) proposes block periodization (BP) as a means of implementing conjugate training. The main argument for BP is the biological incompatibility of different training adaptations. According to proponents of this model, multiple qualities cannot be optimally developed together. Issurin points out that advanced athletes require concentrated loading, as high training volumes and intensities are required in order to induce adaptation at high training levels. Nader (2006) investigated the effect of concurrent training on strength and endurance adaptations. He stated that at the upper limits of strength, endurance training inhibits or interferes with further increases in strength. A possible explanation is that „the activation of aMPK through endurance training may inhibit the activation of mTOR and hence, prevent muscle hypertrophy”. Nader examined three groups of trainees over a period of ten weeks. The endurance only group, as the name implies, performed endurance training but no strength training. The training volume was progressively increased. Conversely, the strength only group performed only strength training (with progressive overload) but no endurance training. Finally, the mixed group performed both training modalities. At the end of the intervention period, the strength only group has achieved significantly greater improvements in strength, which at first glance, seems to confirm the superiority of concentrated loading protocols. However, looking at the data also reveals that during the first seven weeks of the study, both groups that had strength training in the program showed comparable progress. This observation makes it apparent that for lower training levels, similar development can be expected in the concurrent and non-concurrent training groups.
Even in advanced athletes, the interference effect can be attenuated by, among other measures, properly sequencing the training order, training strength, and endurance at the same end of the fitness continuum (Stewart 2014). On the one hand, this means that strength and power sessions should be conducted before conditioning sessions. On the other hand, high-intensity strength training should be conducted with low-volume, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) rather than longer, more continuous methods such as the cardiac output method.
Looking at the limited data we have regarding the physical profile of combat sports athletes, drastic training measures such as concentrated loading might not be in the books anyways, especially when considering the broad range of qualities that need development. Suchomel et al. (2018) stated that “although single- and multi-targeted block periodization models may produce the greatest strength-power beneﬁts, concepts within each model must be considered within the limitations of the sport, athletes, and schedules”.
John and Tsatsouline (2011) presented a taxonomy of sports (and athletes) with regard to the physical demands. According to that classification, everyone should start in quadrant I, which demands a high number of qualities at a low level of relative max. Basically, this can be thought of as a physical education class in school. From there, athletes go to one of the other quadrants. Q2 is the realm of collision sports such as American Football that require many qualities at a High Level of relative max. Q4 is where one or very few qualities need to be developed to the highest possible level. Examples for this quadrant are sprinting, weightlifting or the sport of powerlifting. Physical deficiencies cannot be hidden in this domain. Combat sports, on the other hand, range in quadrant III of the classification. This means that they require “Few Qualities at a Low or Moderate Level of Relative Max”. I tend to agree with this assessment. The scientific literature offers clues regarding the bio motor requirements of fighters. The next few sections offer an overview of what the literature has to say about the physiological profile of combat sports athletes.
As mentioned in the introduction, different qualities influence the athletic success of fighters. Speed, power, strength and endurance training all have their places in a well-designed training program that aims at optimal physical preparation. The literature offers a very diversified perspective with regards to the importance of each of these attributes.
Strength and power, as developed in the gym with classical exercises such as bench press and bench throw strongly correlate with punching impact (Jancso 2017, Loturco 2015). This hints at the importance of developing strong fighters for full-contact disciplines such as K1 Kickboxing. Punching impact is only one of many factors in a fight, though. Under real-world conditions, boxers express considerably less punch force than what is found in laboratory demonstrations (Pierce et al. 2007). Hence, it is questionable whether the maximum punch is a decisive factor in a match. I have not found any scientific evidence showing a clear link between punch impact and success in boxers or kickboxers. On the other hand, while the absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence, there are studies that suggest that maximal strength may not be highly relevant in the big picture.
Chaabene et al. (2012) presented max strength data for elite Karate competitors and conclude that “maximal dynamic strength is not decisive in kumite karate”. Likewise, Carazo-Vargas et al. (2015) concluded that “Scientific evidence does not conclusively demonstrate a direct association between power and athletic performance in Taekwondo”. These studies suggest that neither strength nor power seems to really be the key performance indicators in combat sports, at least in striking styles. Things might look a bit different concerning metabolic factors.
Regarding endurance, Chaabene et al. (2012) stated that “One of the most important factors governing an athlete’s performance is their level of cardio-respiratory endurance”. Most authors investigating physiological profiles of combat sports athletes seem to agree with this assessment. James et al. (2013) pointed out that “A well-prepared mixed martial artist will need to possess high levels of maximal strength and strength endurance in addition to the ability to express power repeatedly under loaded and unloaded conditions.“ Silva et al. (2011) presented an average VO2Max of 57.99 mL/kg/min (±10.3) for elite kickboxers and stated that kickboxers had the best test result of the considered sports (judo, wrestling, MMA, kung fu, kickboxing). Slimani et al. (2017) found average VO2Max scores in amateur, national level, and elite kickboxers, ranging from 48.5 mL/kg/min for Turkish (national and elite) kickboxers to 61.5 mL/kg/min for Canadian (elite) kickboxers.
It is important to remember that technical efficiency is not considered in ergometer-based testing protocols. Also, in my experience, fighters tend to hit the limits of local muscular endurance (LME) before they reach the point where cardiovascular fitness becomes the limiting factor.
Considering the fact that a VO2Max of 35–40 mL/(kg·min) are average values for untrained males (Heyward 1998) and elite runners have a VO2Max of up to 85 mL/(kg·min) (Noakes 2001), fighters are, at best, in the middle ground. This does not necessarily call for the same training methods that would be appropriate for highly developed athletes.
Combat sports challenge different bio motor abilities. Each of those can make or break a fighter (i.e. an under-developed ability can impair overall performance). Subsequently, this can lead to defeat or injury. Although it is vital to consider the interplay between all qualities and skills, mechanistic dissemination of each individual component can offer clues about their place in the big picture.
Strength might just be the most difficult – and likely, polarizing – quality to discuss. Strength is a very important factor in any sport. In their review, Suchomel, Nimphius and Stone stated (2016) that “Greater muscular strength is associated with enhanced force-time characteristics (e.g. rate of force development and external mechanical power), general sport skill performance (e.g. jumping, sprinting, and change of direction), and specific sport skill performance, but is also associated with enhanced potentiation effects and decreased injury rates.” In combat sports, strength advantages become even more apparent. As Alwyn Cosgrove repeatedly pointed out, weight divisions exist to protect the lighter and hence, arguably weaker fighter.