Combat athletes are known for their lightning-quick reflexes and upper-body strength, but the real power in combat sports comes from having a balanced lower body.
When watching your favorite combat athlete, whether it be a boxer like Floyd Mayweather Jr., or an MMA fighter like Stipe Miocic, you can’t help but notice the power they generate on their punches and takedowns. Although it might be their upper half actually making contact on these moves, don’t be fooled—that tremendous power does not come from upper-body strength alone. When it comes to combat sports, the legs are what drives success.
An intelligent combat athlete knows that without proper footwork and lower-body strength, they’ll have major difficulties taking down an opponent and winning points with the judges. However, many combat athletes don’t quite know the best way to approach lower-body training. Failure to properly condition the lower body can greatly increase your odds of injury, with the most common lower-body injuries for combat athletes including hamstring strains, groin strains, ACL injuries, etc.
Stretching and strengthening of the hamstrings is not enough. Athletes need to focus on eccentric control with explosive kicks and rapidly shifting body weight. Failure to properly train the hamstrings can result in painful strains, or muscle tears, which can sideline an athlete and result in big decreases in conditioning.
Combat athletes frequently focus on the quads, glutes and hamstrings during training, overlooking other muscle groups within the hips and lower body. That can spell trouble for both performance and injury prevention. A groin injury sustained from snapping kicks or quick lateral movements is often a result of weak hip adductor strength, for example. Lack of stability and control in the knee can result in an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, which could result in months, or almost a year, of being sidelined. Weakness in the knee, paired with a deceleration movement and knee valgus (knee shifted inward), is a recipe for an ACL tear.
Another aspect of lower-body training often overlooked by combat athletes is ankle stability. Anke stability is critical for balance, and athletes who have sustained a previous ankle injury are 80 percent more likely to experience the same injury again. If you’re a combat athlete, your body needs to be able to balance and react to quick shifts in weight. Ankle stability plays a crucial role in this.
So combat athletes often focus on the glutes, hamstrings and quads yet neglect their hips, knees and ankles. This sets them up for subpar performances inside the octagon and puts them at a higher risk of injury. The good news is that addressing these issues can be as simple as adding some new movements to your routine.
Let’s run down some exercises that can help combat athletes better prepare their lower halves for MMA action.
Nordic Hamstring Curls will help you build eccentric control in the hamstrings. Kneeling with a partner holding your ankles in place, slowly lower yourself down to the floor. Once at the floor, explosively push yourself back up into the starting position. These are a tough exercise, so start off easy. Try to complete 1-2 sets of 10 reps and work your way up gradually from there.
Side-Lying Hip Adductor Lifts will help you avoid groin injuries. Lying on your side, tighten the muscles on the front of the leg on the ground, then lift the leg from the floor, keeping the knee locked. Complete 3 sets of 10-15 reps for each leg.
Single-Leg Deadlifts will improve your hamstring strength and fight any existing imbalances. Stand on one leg and hold a dumbbell in the opposite hand. Push your hips back with your core engaged to lower the dumbbell towards the ground. Perform 3 sets of 10 on each leg.
Step-Ups will increase your knee stability. Find a 6- to 8-inch step or box. Slowly step up onto the box, leading with the right foot. Once on top of the step, slowly step back off with the left foot (right foot is the first on one and last one off). During the motion, ensure your knee cap remains aligned with the middle of the foot. Perform 3 sets of 10 on each leg.
Multi-Directional Lunges will enhance your lower-body stabilization. Include a variety of Lunges (forward, diagonal and lateral) to work on knee stability and adductor strength. Be aware of knee/ankle alignment as you work through the movement (don’t allow your knee to collapse inward during the Lunge). Include 3 sets of 10 reps on each leg on your strength training days.
Practicing your single-leg balance abilities will help you improve your ankle stability. Attempt to perform a single-leg balance hold for 30 seconds on each foot without assistance. Progress by balancing on unstable surfaces such as foam blocks, wrestling mats or Dyna Discs.
By incorporating these exercises into their routine, whether it be during warm-ups or on strength training days, a combat athlete will decrease their odds of lower-body injury and increase their performance inside the octagon.
Photo Credit: D-Keine/iStock