As one of, if not the, most challenging and dynamic sports in the world, preparing for the rigors of the cage or dojo isn't easy.
In training, combat athletes must master a variety of difficult skillsets. In competition, they will encounter and must overcome many unexpected and flat-out unpredictable scenarios.
Furthermore, a lack of physical preparation in the martial arts comes with much greater consequence than other sporting events.
Preparing these athletes therefore requires training which protects them from and prepares them for the common contexts inherent to all sport; but also the unique ones inherent to theirs.
Let's start with some special performance considerations for combat sport athletes.
Strengthen the Deep Neck Flexors
The development of the deep neck flexors (longus coli, longus capitis, and SCM) is helpful for controlling the inertia of the skull and brain when struck with a hook or a jab.
This has obvious implications for improving the potential outcome of a fight via a more robust defense, but may also help to minimize minor impacts to the brain itself.
To perform these exercises, lay on your back and facing forward and to each side, tuck the chin and lift the head so that it hovers just above the ground, and hold for a count of one to three breaths.
Shallow Nose Breathing
The practice of shallow breathing through the nose can impact an athlete's aerobic and lactic systems.
Nose breathing helps to dilate the blood vessels via the production of nitric oxide, enhancing the ability of the capillaries to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles.
Furthermore, it also prevents the over-expulsion of carbon dioxide from the bloodstream (as opposed to mouth breathing), which further helps to deliver oxygen.
Having athletes engage daily in shallow breathing activities for 2-10 minutes during warm-up and recovery creates a hunger for air that results in the accumulation of, and acclimation to, uncomfortable levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.
This prepares competitors to remain calm and focused in the face of the extreme breathlessness encountered in challenging bouts when oxygen intake is insufficient to support the necessary rate of work. It also signals the kidneys to increase their production of red blood cells to enhance oxygen delivery.
To have athletes practice this, lay them down on their back and instruct them to breathe through the nose only shallow enough to stay aware and conscious, but not enough to satiate their desire for oxygen.
It should be uncomfortable, causing a significant desire to take a big breath in.
Again, the goal should be 2-10 minutes.
Once time has expired, have them resume normal respiration, but do not allow them to "catch-up" by gulping down air. They must maintain regular, nasal breathing as if the shallow-breathing event had never taken place.
This is a great protocol to include prior to training during the warm-up; post-training; and in some cases can even be incorporated in between work sets.
Hand Strength, Horizontal Adduction and Resistance to Small Joint Manipulation
Hand strength refers to the ability of the palms and fingers to hold and manipulate a heavy or dynamic object.
To develop these muscles, a combat athlete's grip strength (as measured on a Dynamometer) should fall quite easily between the 65kg-80kg range. Hand strength can be trained through a handful of methods, including use of the mini-dynamometer, and by including plenty of dumbbell and barbell holds in your training programs.
Small-joint manipulation refers to the manipulation of the digits (the fingers and the toes). Suffice it to say, legal or not, whether by accident or intention, small joint manipulation happens in combat sports. Fingers can become entangled in the clinch or on the cage or when battling in and out of the guard.
Just in case, it is better to be prepared for small-joint manipulation by developing dexterity and strength in the fingers. The finger exercises shown below are easy to implement and can be done often and pretty much anywhere.
Horizontal adduction is the ability to squeeze an object with both arms to manipulate the object and/or prevent it from movement. If you think about the wrestling or grappling aspect of MMA, that is where strength in this pattern comes into play. The Dogbone is a great wrestling/mma tool that can be attached in place of a bar or pulley to challenge the fingers, hands, grip and the ability to squeeze and manipulate an opponent.
Strength Training for Combat Athletes
Finally, we come to the meat and potatoes of athlete development.
What type of exercises should we include? How should we structure our programs and conditioning in the weight room? What type of muscle contractions should we develop? Although there is no one right answer to these questions, looking at the different situations combat athletes face over the course of a fight gives us an idea of where to spend our training time.
The vast majority of training for sport, in my opinion, should be done unilaterally. Or if not completely unilaterally, at least with the limbs moving independently of one another. It's how we strike, it's how we run, it's how we bound, hop, walk, and crawl.
Most training should be done in the closed-chain systems that we use for movement. Unilateral training is what makes the most sense, most of the time, allowing us to take advantage of these closed-chain systems. Save the bilateral lifts for the really heavy stuff to prime the nervous system and improve overall neural drive; and get unilateral to engage the core, the postural muscle fibers, and the body's subsystems as much as possible.
Some individuals find unilateral training difficult because a higher amount of balance (stability) is required, and as such, there is a higher neuromuscular demand on the body.
In my experience, because combat athletes tend to spend much of their time in bare feet, they are generally pretty good when performing on one leg.
But if it is an area of weakness for you, here are a couple of what I dub as "skills" exercises that I like to use to develop more single-leg proficiency:
1. Single-Leg Plate Swap
Preferably done in bare feet on rough terrain (I'm using a Rock Mat here) to stimulate the slow-adapting mechanoreceptors of the glabrous skin.
These receptors are responsive to skin-stretch and are responsible for regulating posture, balance and sway; essentially reading the environment like the fingers read brail.
Get into the athletic position (knees slightly bent and hips back) while on one leg. Loop a band through a 10-pound plate, and with the elbows straight, bring the plate to the outside of the ipsilateral hip. Once the foot has achieved a stable position (isn't wobbling around), pass the plate to the outside of the other hip, and repeat.
Back and forth is one repetition. Do for a set of six to 10.
If you do not have a rock mat, you can simply head over to your closest hardware store and grab a 2x4 and some pea gravel. Lay the board with a bunch of Gorilla Glue and cover it with the gravel, and let it set. Now you have a surface of rough terrain which is probably better than anything you can buy in a store.
2. Single-Leg Drop Down
Single-Leg Hops off a low surface in three directions: laterally, straight ahead and medially. Best performed in bare feet to stimulate the fast-adapting class of mechanoreceptors in the glabrous skin. These receptors are responsive to high-vibration impact forces. Stick the landing in athletic position.
Isometrics, Pure Isometrics and Concentric-Only Training
When strength training for any athlete, it is important to include all three of the primary contraction types: Eccentrics, Isometrics and Concentrics. Cal Dietz' Triphasic training model is a great resource for this, as is Jensen's FPM model.
Training should be at least loosely organized around periods that focus on each contraction type. Once you have developed proficiency in each, you can design programs including all three. Although this is important for all athletes, I think there are a couple areas that are of special importance for the combat athlete.
Isometrics and Pure Isometrics
Of particular importance are what I term as pure isometrics.
An isometric muscle contraction is one where a position is held against an external load where neither the load, nor the object being loaded (i.e., the individual), exhibits or succumbs to movement.
A pure isometric muscle contraction is an isometric contraction that is preceded neither by an eccentric or concentric muscle contraction, but is rather an abrupt deceleration of an individual's or an object's momentum. Any attempt to avoid an aggressive take-down is a good example of a pure isometric, because in these instances, an athlete is forced in a direction he or she does not want to go and must be able to abruptly stop that movement.
Here are some upper- and lower-body examples of isometric and pure isometric contractions.
The Isometric Split Squat hold is preceded by an eccentric/descent into the hold position:
The Pure Isometric Split Squat (there is no preceding eccentric/descent into the hold position):
The Isometric Push-Up:
The Pure Isometric Push-up:
A concentric muscle action is one where the athlete overcomes the load of an object and the object is displaced (the upward phase of a Back Squat or Bench Press, for example).
This is our more traditional contraction type, but like the isometrics above, we also want to include some of these contractions without a preceding eccentric or isometric. This type of concentric contraction is most relevant to martial artists because they must be able to generate power (a lot of force very quickly) without the use of a pre-stretch or countermovement.
For example, the jab is a powerful tool because it is produced by both the lower and upper body, and because it flies forward without giving itself away (there is no recoil or "wind-up" prior to the punch). So the ability to generate concentric power in the upper and lower body is of great importance.
Here are some examples of concentric-only contractions in training:
With exercises in which the eccentric repetition cannot be circumvented, the stretch-reflex provided by that eccentric needs to be strategically negated. This can be done by resting the bar at the bottom position of the repetition for a count of four or five seconds before exploding upward, as shown in the Concentric Bench Press example above.
Another important consideration is to apply lateral, rotational, and horizontal movement to the above concepts, and not simply movement that is vertical (up and down).
These types of exercises challenge an athlete's ability to resist being pushed and pulled; to stay in control when entangled in a clinch; to throw an opponent off of you; to explode forward to strike an opponent; or to push another athlete into the cage.
All of these are examples of the need to include multi-directional strength work, as well as multi-directional speed work, into your training program.
Here are some examples of exercises that I like to use:
The use of loads 30%-40% of an athlete's maximum in a given strength-training exercise which can be moved relatively quickly; along with jumps, throws, bands and combinations of all of the above, are methods for the development of power that have a high transfer to sport.
The use of strength training exercises using loads within the above mentioned percentages allow for concentric contractions where a relatively heavy object can be briefly accelerated; bands increase the demand of muscle contractions, requiring more force to be applied through the range of motion; while Jumps, throws and combinations of them can teach athletes to quickly accelerate and/or re-accelerate objects (including themselves).
Closed-Chain Core Training
Lastly, since the core is the area of energy transfer between the upper and lower body, training in the weight room should include core exercises which require aggressive dynamic execution in all planes of motion.
These exercises should require that loads be moved from mechanically disadvantageous positions that integrate the use of many muscle groups pushing against the floor and moving an object around the body, or the body around an object.
Open-Chain Core Training
To simplify the concept of open-chain training, you can say that open-chain movements take place when the feet are not planted on the floor.
For example, swimming would be classed as a largely open-chain sport. Although MMA and other combat sports are mostly closed-chain, there are instances when athletes find themselves in open-chain positions.
An example of this would be when an athlete has been taken down and must fight his or way back to his feet; avoid as many ground-and-pound strikes as possible; or when attempting to reverse a mount or a guard position with the intention of catching the opponent in a submission.
In these situations the ability to engage the core when the feet are not in contact with the floor can be critical. Here are some examples of multi-planar open-chain core exercises:
Putting It All Together
A good plan is to include something from each section, and to create your own exercises based on the examples. With each session, do some form of special performance to protect the athlete's health; do some form of skills training; include some form of unilateral work; include one or two strength and/or power exercises which occur outside of the sagittal plane; and include a core exercise that involves being on the feet and manipulating an object.
Preparing the Energy Systems
Determining VO2 Max
The main question when it comes to conditioning is, where does one start? A classic Beep Test will reveal the answer. Here are some monitoring tips for the well-known test that you may not have used before.
The Beep Test should be standard for an objective look at the aerobic capacity of any athlete. There are a few reasons I believe this to be the case.
The first is that the test is affordable and accessible to everybody. A large number of people can be tested at one time (with a few assistant testers).
Second, because you are on the ground and on your feet unlike some of the more high-tech variations of VO2 testing, the athlete must carry their own body weight on a surface akin to that on which they perform. This makes the test results comparable among a group of athletes.
Third, when carried out correctly, research shows that the test is within 95% accurate of the machine analysis. Considering all of the above points, I think this arguably makes the Beep Test the best choice for the assessment of aerobic conditioning.
For MMA, the standard VO2 should be 50 or above, which equates to achieving a level of 10 for athletes over 18 years old. We look for these specific things with the Beep Test:
- Level Achieved
- Reason for Retiring
- Maximum Heart Rate
- Heart Rate Recovery after 60s; 120s; and 180s
With these variables, conditioning protocols can be written to get the score to where it needs to be if an athlete scores below the desired level.
Level Achieved: To increase the level achieved, generally, long-term work at relatively uncomfortable (but not impossible) intensities are required. Methods like Long-Slow Distance, Tempo Runs, High-Intensity Continuous Training and Threshold Training are best for this. Joel Jamieson has a fantastic book called Ultimate MMA Conditioning where he outlines and explains these details. There is not enough room for the how and why here, but suffice it to say, they work!
Reasons for Retiring: Athletes will quit the beep test for several reasons, all of which can be very revealing for improving general sport performance outcomes. For example, a sprinter, accustomed to horizontal power production, may quit because his quadriceps give out; while a basketball player, accustomed to more vertical power production, may quit because his glutes and hams give out. Yet another may stop because his feet or ankles hurt or his lungs simply gave out. Each gives insight into particular program parameters that need to be addressed to improve the durability of the joints and/or muscle fibers in question.
3. Maximum Heart Rate: 220 - age in years +/- 8. If the athlete's heart rate wasn't in this range when he or she quit, then they didn't try that hard. Unless some sort of medical issue is at play, make them repeat the test.
4. Heart Rate Recovery: Elite heart rate recovery is between 40 and 50 beats in 60 seconds. If the athlete's heart rate does not drop 40 to 50 beats in this timespan, then you want to focus on various forms of interval training. This is the stuff that will develop their ability to recover quickly during the short rest between rounds.
1. Patrick Mckeown. The Oxygen Advantage. William Morrow/Harper Collins. 2015. PP 95-112.
2. Yves Nadeau. Delaying the Fatigue Threshold (presentation). 2019
Photo Credit: GeorgeRudy/iStock
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