When people think about strength and conditioning for combat sports they think of, well… they think of Rocky.
But if you get them to focus on real world boxing, people typically think of the lean, lithe bodies of lightweight champions like Manny Pacquiao and Vasyl Lomachenko or the stocky muscular physiques of heavyweights like Mike Tyson and Jack Dempsey. However, when talking about great boxing physiques few people think of Tyson Fury. At the time of writing Fury is the WBC heavyweight champion and undisputedly one of the greatest boxers of all time but the Gypsy King’s physical appearance is more what people associate with a divorced dad trying to pull himself together than an elite athlete at the top of his game. This is brought up not to take a crack at Fury’s appearance but, rather, to highlight the important point that strength and conditioning is about developing fitness and fitness is the efficient ability to perform a specific task. If we are talking about fitness it’s important not to get distracted by aesthetics. We are interested in how well we do the task not how good we look doing it.
So, if your current focus is on developing your sport specific fitness, it’s fortunate that combat sports have lots of options for improving your fitness while also developing your skills. Pad work, Partner work, Shadow work, Speed drills and Sparring can all easily be tweaked to focus on developing your conditioning.
Notice that things like running, push ups, squats and burpees are entirely absent from this list. Remember that you are a martial artist first and foremost so the majority of your time should be spent practicing your martial art. It isn’t that these exercises are without value, it’s just that they are not directly related to the activity to which are trying to specifically condition ourselves. Specific strength and conditioning is built on the mats and general strength and conditioning is built in the weights room.
While the best kind of strength and conditioning for a specific task is always the task itself, if you want to maximise your training and performance, some time in the weight room is invaluable for developing high end strength and power. Unfortunately, in the martial arts community, strength and conditioning has a strong tendency to morph into conditioning and conditioning. Don’t misunderstand me – conditioning is very important in any competitive combat sport but it is often emphasised to the point where other vital qualities are diminished. As a general rule 80 to 90% of your time training for a martial art should be spent actively doing the martial art. So, if we are only going to spend 10% to 20% of our training time developing our general physical qualities, we need to prioritise:
Strength & Power.
Aerobic baseline conditioning.
Additional Anaerobic conditioning if recovery allows.
When programming strength & conditioning the question should not be “how much can I do?” but rather “what can I recover from and still make progress?” If your S & C training interferes with your sport specific training you should re-examine your priorities. It is your capacity to recover, rather than your capacity to work, that determines the volume, intensity and density of your strength & conditioning training.
As for how to determine the actual nuts and bolts of a program designed to complement martial arts practice the very best way would be to hire a strength coach who understands the demands, listen carefully to what they recommend and then – this is the important part – actually go do it.
Failing that, here are some general guidelines.
First a combat athlete needs to be strong… for a combat athlete . A combat athlete doesn’t need to be strong when compared to a powerlifter or a gymnast; they need to be strong according to the needs of their art. This means strength training with a particular emphasis on developing your power to weight ratio, power endurance and mid section stability. Exercise selection should centre on large, multi joint movements that allow a focus on tension and speed over pump and burn.
Depending on your schedule and personal recovery capabilities you should be looking to program strength training somewhere between two and five sessions per week. Ideally your weekly volume should be around the same regardless of how many sessions you perform. More frequent training means shorter sessions with reduced volume and less frequent training should result in longer sessions with greater volume.
Next, we should address our aerobic baseline conditioning. Aerobic baseline conditioning is essentially your non specific cardio vascular fitness and it plays an important roll in your ability to recover both between rounds and after more intense bursts of energy. Aerobic training needs to follow the Goldilocks rule – not too easy and not too hard, it’s got to be “just right.” Go too hard and you end up working your anaerobic energy systems but go too easy and you won’t get a training effect at all.
To determine your ideal heart rate zone for aerobic training use the following formula:
Max Heart Rate
180 minus your age – if you’re hitting this you need to ease up.
Minimum Heart Rate
160 minus your age – if you’re hitting this you need to get back to work.
Because aerobic baseline conditioning is non-specific we are not limited in how we achieve our goal heart rate. So while you can simply go running I would encourage you to explore alternatives with fewer downsides and more secondary benefits; kettlebell swings, prowler work, rucking, belt squat marches and hot yoga are all excellent options. You’ll need to do 1 to 3 sessions per week and each session should be between 20 and 90 minutes long.
Incidentally, using these numbers keeps workouts repeatable and repeatable is probably the most important key to longevity in training and competition.
Finally we look at additional anaerobic conditioning. This is usually where most fighters’ strength and conditioning training starts and ends; hammering the Glycolytic energy pathway, bathing their muscles in lactic acid, puking on the floor and then wondering why their skill training isn’t going very well. Anaerobic conditioning training is an important part of any program which aims to maximise your combat sport performance – just not in the volume typically seen. Most people who train regularly only really need one anaerobic conditioning focused workout per fortnight; maybe one per week if they have excellent recovery or are in a period of lessened activity. Anaerobic conditioning is also far more specific in effect when compared to training for general strength, power and aerobic conditioning and so more care needs to be taken in exercise selection in order to get the most benefit. When in doubt go for simple, multi joint exercises that emphasise either hip drive or upper body push/pull along the X/Y axis. Also, remember that this additional anaerobic conditioning should be the first thing to go if you’re having trouble recovering or if it’s negatively impacting your sport performance.
So put together what does this all look like? An amateur athlete aiming to get the most out of their training would have a schedule along the lines of the following:
Martial Arts practice four to six days a week.
Strength practice two to five days a week.
Aerobic baseline conditioning one to three days a week.
Anaerobic conditioning once a fortnight.
It might not be as cool as the training montage you’ll see in a Rocky film but a montage only lasts 30 seconds. Training like this will last you a life time.