Strength Training Planning for Combat Athletes & Exercise Selection
Guest Article by William Wayland
Planning for combat athletes is historically a tricky business, primarily because combat sports need interventions that match athletic endeavour where a confluence of raw physicality and high levels of skill. Skills that vary from the outwardly simplistic to the multifaceted and complicated depending on the chosen combat discipline. Whereas a track & field athlete often gains from top down complexity with year-round cycles and well-established competition calendar, combat athletes often gain from a reduction in complexity as the sport often provides more than enough. Amateur combat athletes have it somewhat better than their professional counter parts who often fight on short notice and often don’t know when they’ll be fighting next. Combat athletes depending on the technical constraint of their sport will deal with varying degrees of movement variability. For instance, far more movement literacy is asked of an MMA fighter than a boxer. The constraints (rules) on the boxer mean that within their skill set the developed a deeper level of technical & tactical understanding within that singular domain. Strength and conditioning as it approaches peaking for a boxer for instance will emphasise a lot less movement variability than say the peaking routine for MMA fighters. As the eventualities encountered by both athletes are potentially wildly different. In the broadest sense initial general strength training exercise selection will bear and lot of commonality and diverge as we approach competition. One example would be starting both the striking athlete and the MMA fighter on something simplistic like a squat and then diverging into quarter staggered squats for the striking athlete and deep split squats for the MMA fighter.
Combat Sport Complexity
Combat sports obviously split into varying disciplines that ask different demands of the athlete, we can sit these on a spectra of constraints within their rules set, for instance the boxer has fewer legal techniques than the thai boxer, so the technical constraints for the boxer are higher but his movement variability also low, as the total number of orthodox techniques available to that athlete diminishes. Intangibles like rate coding, timing and coordination also play a role in such situations. Let’s contrast that to the demands of the MMA athlete who obviously has to competence in multiple domains and express a lot of competence across an array of technical demands but also physical ones.
From a systems-based approach it means what we need to prepare the boxer for is more constrained and so is the movement variability is low so we can limit our exercise selection, bring in special exercises and still make a positive influence. The MMA fighter however has a lot of technical competencies to master plus engage in a great degree of movement variability throughout the course of technical and tactical training. This means that poorly thought out strength and conditioning for the MMA athlete can be a straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is also why boxers can engage in what is considered ‘old school’ physical preparation, which usually encourages graft over performance gain. This ad hoc approach to physical preparation borrowed from more traditional combat sports is why MMA fighters have a rather high training event spoiling injury rate. The complex nature of interplay between trying to train multiple high-level skills at once, plus prepare optimally physically makes for a system that leads to high allostatic stressors that can collapse a system when poorly planned. I happen to know several coaches at high level gyms are much, much better at getting the balance right these days.
Ive argued before training fighters is a reversal of common strength and conditioning orthodox, combat athletes are often peaking for combat sports using conventional high velocity means such a plyometrics and other SSC dominant methods. The problem is most combat athletes don’t interact with the ground in a fashion that encourages energy preservation say asked of a field athlete. I once discussed with a sprint coach who commented that all athletes need (probably meant just running athletes), ‘lower limb relaxation and smoothness and upper limb/torso stiffness’ I argued that fighters are effectively the inverse, with all the high velocity action taking place in the upper body (think hand speed and pummelling) while the need for lower velocity contacts are the lower limb (think planting to throw strikes or using the floor to drive or throw an opponent). Another often rarely discussed factor is the fact that most fighters spend almost all their time unshod, training on soft surfaces, which influence ground force and foot and subsequent knee and hip mechanics.
UFC Fighter Arnold Allen performs Supramaximal Trapbar Deadlifts
Further systemic stress is often added to athletes in the realm of conditioning. It is still not uncommon despite tremendous resources to see fighters performing moderately loaded poor quality circuits, where the aim is maximum intensiveness but often ends up being anything but. While sparring and ‘rolling’ often act as a great conditioning tool, once a general conditioning standard achieves a level of adequacy. Conditioning should often be an act of widening the base (aerobic conditioning) and sharpening the tip (alactic power, anaerobic power). Exercises used in conditioning contexts need to chosen based on their applicability to these modalities.
Classifying Exercises For the Combat athlete
Bilateral/Unilateral Classifications represent the most general of applications, staples like squats, deadlifts, heavy pressing pulling sit here. The temptation is often the idea that we can add transferable elements such as grip, set-up or loading modifications to better reflect the sport. Heres one such example the idea of performing heavy ‘zercher squats’ are more fighter specific. Outwardly you can understand, anteriorly loaded using an elbow cradled grip often with hands clasped together, this looks like a grappling position. The problem here is that the movement as a general squat is intended to improve lower body strength, its appeal is thus its rate limiter. The low anterior load slung across the elbows, means that the T-spine and arms are the limiting factor, receiving much of the intensity, leaving the lower body unstimulated. Save the zerchers for lighter loads and consider using something like a heavy conventional squat or a suprmaximal method to really challenge the lower body fully. Rather than engage in a masturbatory sports specificity notion that such a variation is better for the athlete in this instance.
MMA fighter contrast peaking
Staggered Asymmetric movements and quasi unilateral movements exist since the unilateral lower limb hype didn’t really play out very well in reality. Underloaded and unstable, most pragmatic strength coaches found staggered lifting aka close stance unilateral work more useful especially when it comes to the specific question. Most if not all combat sports have a standing phase that takes place in a asymmetric staggered stance where the athlete has to generate lower body work from. From striking to grappling to cage work, this where we can apply heavy or more explosive staggered work. Favourite for instance include, staggered Zercher GM’s and RDL’s, Hand supported Heel Elevated Split squats, all movements that benefit from the support staggered movements that allow stimulatory load with none of the need for single leg balancing.
Boxer Zercher GM’s
Supine movements are another area that ostensibly outwardly look like they would cross over well to ground based grapple sports. These have in part varied from the straight forwards, like floor press and hip thrusts, to Turkish get ups and side lying armbars. While nothing is wrong with the latter their velocity, positioning and specificity or transfer make them unsuitable choices apart from in the most general of strength phases. Let’s contrast this with prone bench row or bench pull, which has made its way into many boxing and wrestling programs. The movement at first examination doesn’t reflect combat sports in any real sense. An isolation exercise that does however have strong relationships to injury prevention and performance prediction. This is an example of second order effects coming for a movement that isn’t in a meaningful sense specific. Someone optimistically might try to have grapplers performing some sort of standing staggered stance band row in a wrestling stance. Instead of employing the simpler methodology of using prone rows to build requisite strength and using arm drags and ties etc to build specificity. This is a case of ruining intent by combining multiple aims into singular exercise choice. Not uncommon in combat sports but also across a lot of well intention strength and conditioning interventions.
Plyometrics are also a case for careful application. While I think possessing good ground contact characteristics is a good marker of athleticism and necessary in early stage athletic development. I think it transfer to combat sports peaking is questionable. While many fighters possess good elastic properties, I think it’s a case of being a general athletic quality rather than a trained one. We often see general plyometric drills such as depth jumps, and hurdles applied in peaking rather than in general preparatory cycles. The intent is understandable as conventional practice suggest this is an optimum approach for field, jumping and track and field athletes. However, the way fighters interact with the ground is a slower contact affair, with breaking and force transmission coming from ground contact with strong SSC coming from trunk musculature rather than the lower limb, this way proven further in Stuart MCGills ‘double pulse’ work with MMA fighters. Proper selection of exercises for trunk SSC such as upper body plyometrics, ballistics and appropriate lower body strengthening. This where Ive been applying novel methods such as Cal Dietz ranged trimetric method (RTM), which takes out the ankle SSC complex as a limiting factor and allow us to encourage rapid contract/relax relationship in lower limb musculature.
MMA fighter ranged trimetric
I have toyed with both squat and staggered stance RTM variations paired with ballistic work to make the most of the potentiation effect this seems to bring. Ive seen excellent work from Tony Ricci and Geoffrey Chui in toying with achieving lower limb contact, deceleration and stiffness in ballistic and specific striking scenarios in order to try and achieve maximum transfer. This type training work very well in athletes that have a terrific base of general strength, excellent power characteristics and are looking for specific transfer.
Traditional Peaking vs Revised Peaking
MMA peaking and combat sports peaking largely operates around a notion of weeks out, often built around the ideas of weeks out with the week before the fight being a non-training week, due to the requirement of a weight cut. The linear intensification we see in most traditional peaking approaches mean that often the fighter is past functional overreaching and into overtraining territory by the time of a fight. With the stress of the weight cut on top of these we have in the past seen fighters often underperforming getting sick and or injured during camps. Ostensibly this linearly intensified approach makes sense seeing as the idea is to reach or exceed ‘match’ intensities with replication being the main driver of adaptation at least that’s the theory and we often hear it echoed in the common phrase ‘train hard fight easy’. In the revised method I apply we look to allow for intensification and then reduce the load preceding the fight to allow for super compensation to occur. The idea being the athlete feels as fresh as possible while being as adapted as possible to the demands of ‘match’ intensities. MMA coach John Kavanaugh echoed the sentiment with ‘upgrade the software without damaging the hardware’. I’m of the opinion was can upgrade both software needs hardware to run on. So let’s make the hardware perform optimally for software to run optimally. If we are going to use heavy handed computing jargon, conventional peaking approaches are like trying to overclock a cpu without knowing what the system can tolerate and rolling the dice.
Below I outline the typical difference between the linear peaking approach vs a flexible revised periodized approach to peaking for singular events.
You could accuse me of strawmaning the traditional approach, but this linear approach is still very much employed in less progressive combat sports approaches, where a bottoms up approach based on fuzzy principles is the norm for a lot of athletes. Often the more successful the athlete the more nuanced training often becomes.
Combat sports physical preparation has historically been absurd and overloaded partly due to the slavishness commitment to appeal to tradition, toughness building and coaching convention. Thinking more deeply about our exercise selection and intent in our application is crucial, general methods are great for general outcomes. We must account for training age and specificity of our exercise selection and most importantly the particular combat discipline the athletes has undertaken. More important than this is that the sports coaches and most importantly the athlete grasp the intent in application. Thankfully coaches are becoming more literate and less compartmentalised when it comes considering their approaches. Variability, complexity and specificity are crucial parts to applying good practice in planning for combat athletes training.
- Turner A, Baker E, Miller S. Increasing the impact force of the rear hand punch. Strength Cond J 33: 2–9, 2011.
- Lenetsky, Seth; Harris, Nigel PhD; Brughelli, Matt PhD. Assessment and Contributors of Punching Forces in Combat Sports Athletes: Implications for Strength and Conditioning. Strength & Conditioning Journal: April 2011
- Naka T, Kanno M, Shidochi S, Sakae K,Shima N. Characteristics of upper-limb pull power and power endurance in Japanese female wrestlers. Strength & Conditioning Journal: Nov 2017
- Wayland W. Applying the Compressed Triphasic Model with MMA Fighters https://simplifaster.com/articles/compressed-triphasic-model-mma/
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