The 3 Principles of Strength & Conditioning for Combat Sports

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Let’s face it, combat sports are nuts.

In choosing to partake in combat sports, we are willingly putting ourselves into positions in which our bodies are at great risk. We essentially prepare ourselves day in and day out to come out on top when we finally test our damage-inducing and avoidance capabilities against those of our opponents.

This element of health risk is not a bad thing. Rather, in my eyes, it is what makes combat sports such a powerful “vehicle for the development of your human potential”, to quote Joe Rogan.

The sheer intensity of what getting into a ring/cage entails, as well as the risks involved, are in my eyes what makes combat sports so special as they can really dial in your mindset and teach you a lot about yourself. The intensity and risk it what allows the development of very favourable psychological and physical traits.

A couple of these favourable psychological traits are extremely high levels of discipline and mental toughness. For some fighters though, their discipline and mental toughness can lead them to train in a way that may, in fact, be counter-productive to achieving peak performance on the only day it really fucking matters: competition day.

Fighters may choose training modalities and volumes that may not just lead to no actual performance improvement, but may actually result in injury either during their S&C work itself or in their martial arts training as a result of what they did in the gym or on the track.

This is why I want to lay out a really simple guideline of 3 principles of S&C program design that may help in viewing the role of a strength and conditioning program in the big picture.

The Hierarchy of Importance

My philosophy for strength and conditioning program design (and not just for fighters) is based on 3 principles that come in a clear hierarchy of importance. Namely, these principles are:

  1. Avoid doing dumb shit in the gym
  2. Bulletproofing
  3. Improve performance

1) Avoid Doing Dumb Shit in the Gym

Strength and conditioning is supposed to be a means of general physical preparation (GPP) with the aim of developing and managing traits that will feed back into the performance of your sport in a positive manner. As such, perhaps the most important foundational principle to start from is weighing up of the risk of potential injury with the potential reward of doing a given intervention. This concept would apply to factors such as exercise selection, exercise range of motion, the technique employed, etc.

Let’s use an example…

Consider a BJJ athlete who comes into the gym with a history of AC joint problems in his shoulder. He is cleared by his physiotherapist to train as normal in martial arts, as there are no plans for surgery and the joint structure itself will not get any better. He is small for his weight class and wants to get stronger so that he can better deal with his bigger opponents.

When it comes to program design, the first port of call is to take a mile-high-view; taking factors in account such his training history, how often he can train in the gym, his mobility restrictions, his overall training schedule etc. Once the basic structure of the plan is in place, it is time to select the exercises that will be used to stimulate the training adaptations we desire. As part of the program it is decided to include some horizontal pressing variation. However, we find out that full range of motion bench pressing (with either barbell or dumbbells) aggravates his AC joint. With some tinkering of exercise selection though, we find that floor pressing does not aggravate his shoulder and can be loaded totally pain-free. This is because the inherent nature of the movement means that the floor decreases the range of movement and keeps his shoulder in pain-free ranges.

Of course, simply avoiding full range of motion pressing is not a desired long-term goal. In an ideal scenario we want athletes working through full ranges of motion (at least some of the time) and they have potent effects that partial ranges cannot offer. So as we were to work together with this athlete over the longer-term, the ability to bench press over a full range may eventually be reached as the strength and stability of the shoulder improves. But as this is not the case right now, we need to work to get the most out of what we have in front of us. We need to meet the athlete where they are at. We need to make smarter exercise selection choices that take into account personal context, rather than the black-and-white thinking of “full ROM is better than partial ROM”.

Taking this context-specific decision making process, we select the floor press at this time point, so that we do not aggravate his shoulder in the gym thereby taking him off the mats. Don’t get me wrong, the bench press is a great movement to improve force production capabilities in the horizontal direction for the upper body. It’s a good exercise choice for many. And it’s the perfect choice for a powerlifter, as they perform the lift in competition (as part of the “big 3” movements: squat, bench press, deadlift).

But here is an exceptionally important point that often gets lost when combat sport athletes do a strength training program: his sport is grappling, it’s not powerlifting. And so getting better at the barbell bench press specifically is not the priority; being better able to bend opponents limbs and strangle people is. So select exercises that not only allow strength progression, but come with the most minor injury risk to the athlete as possible. All training comes with some level of injury potential, but we can still aim to minimize risk. Martial arts is a crazy enough endeavour to partake in as it is, without adding fuel to the fire by doing dumb shit in the gym. Train smart.

2) Bulletproofing

By far the most important thing you can do to get better at your sport, is do your actual sport.

So if we can program S&C work with the goal of improving your body’s resilience to injury (“bulletproofing”), then you can do more of your sport/skills training and hence get better. Getting an athlete strong is great. But a strong, injured athlete is one who is practising their sport less and therefore making sub-optimal progress.

This process of bulletproofing applies especially to choosing training modalities that may limit the likelihood of the re-occurrence of previous injuries. A previous injury is the main predictor of future injury. If you have a history of shoulder problems for example, we may coordinate with your physio/physical therapist to come up with a rehab/prehab program that may be performed at the beginning of each training session while you are fresh, rather than being performed in a hasty and rushed manner at the end of a session. We’re prioritzing your rehab/prehab work.

On top of taking previous injuries into account, another key aspect of any smart program that is looking to minimize injury risk will be fatigue management. This is managing your strength and conditioning workload (managing volume and intensity), so that excess fatigue from the weight room will not result in higher injury risk in your martial arts sessions.

For example, let’s take an athlete who is aiming to improve their conditioning. They hit the track to do a lung-busting high-intensity workout. Sure, they’re working hard, but is it really a good idea if we consider that they have a hard 2 hour wrestling session scheduled later that day? Hopefully we agree that it’s likely not, for a number of reasons, including:

  • Wrestling sparring already carries quite a high level of risk due to its inherently chaotic nature (hence why we even hear of so many high-level guys in elite MMA gyms getting hurt in wrestling practice). To add fuel to the fire then, the central and peripheral fatigue from the conditioning work may result in you being potentially at even a higher risk of an injury in the session. This may then result in an injury, such as a twisted knee or jarred AC joint that you may have avoided had you not been so tired and were thinking that bit faster and clearer.
  • Wrestling is so intense it already puts a massive stress on the upper end of energy systems capacities. And so what would we really accomplish in the big picture from stressing those same energy systems earlier`on that same day? Depending on the circumstances, the track work earlier that day could be used for a different purpose such as for some easy cardiac output work, or, alternatively, some low volume speed and power work in the form of short sprints and/or jumps that may develop some favorable nervous system adaptations while not be that fatiguing in the big picture.
  • Your sport is fighting, not running. Quality of work in training matters. If the strength and conditioning work is so fatiguing that it takes away from your ability to perform well in your main training and get as many high-quality repetitions of a wrestling drill in the bank as possible, then your motor learning and skill acquisition will suffer. This is obviously not cool as a key principle of improving as a martial artist is skill acquisition and refinement. Skills pay the bills.

3) Improve Performance

Finally, once principles #1 and #2 are taken care of, we can look at the third most important factor: performance improvement. Physical traits that are trainable by a strength and conditioning coach that may lead to better performance in the ring/cage/mats might include:

  • improved rate of force development (RFD),
  • improved reactive strength qualities,
  • improved range of motion in certain areas,
  • improved motor control of certain positions,
  • increased force production capabilities over certain ranges or in certain positions,
  • the development of certain energy systems,
  • etc.

Everyone is totally different however and there is no one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter plan for everyone to follow that will lead to the best possible outcomes for each person. As such, which qualities are trained, what modalities are selected to train these qualities, and what kind of priority these qualities will take in your training will be specific to you and based on factors like:

  • your genetics,
  • your injury history,
  • your training experience,
  • your training schedule,
  • your fighting style,
  • your chosen combat sport,
  • where you are in fight camp

Simple But Not Easy

When they are laid out like this, the 3 overarching principles involved in S & C program design are simple as fuck, just not very easy to implement (unfortunately). As well as using these 3 principles as a starting guideline we need to be consciously in a constant process of:

  • Reviewing all of the relevant information available and coming up with a plan,
  • Readjusting our approach as the situation changes and we get new information,
  • Redoing the original plan in response to this new information,
  • Re-evaluating this new plan as we go,
  • Refining our approach over and over by repeating this whole process over and over and over…

Not only could the external factors change such as a training/work schedule or injury state, but so will internal factors such as our own biases. We need to be consciously questioning why we want to do a certain training methodology with an athlete or ourselves. This internal questioning is to limit the likelihood that we are not falling victim to the whole “when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail”  mindset.

Examples of this ‘hammer and nail’ mentality would include being good at coaching Olympic lifting style training and then thinking everyone you coach needs to be doing snatch or clean & jerk variants. And justifying it by saying it’s “the best way to increase power”.  Or being good at coaching the 3 powerlifting movements and their accessories and then thinking that everyone needs to get strong at the squat, bench and deadlift – because that’s your limited understanding of what “strength” is.

Keep The Goal, The Goal

In its most basic sense, the job of a well-structured strength and conditioning program for a fighter (or any athlete) is simply to first and foremost attempt to help improve performance in their sport. This is done firstly by trying to keep the fighter healthy and able to keep training their sport by training to limit injury likelihood both in the gym and in their sport. And secondly by training physical traits such as strength that may feed back into their sport in a positive manner.

At the end of the day though nothing we do can overshadow their actual martial arts training, as the goal is NOT to get better at gym stuff for its own sake, but to get better at fighting people. An opponent will not give a single fuck how much you can deadlift or how fast you can run, all he will give a fuck about is how hard or easy you are to deal with when that bell rings.

“The goal is to keep the goal, the goal.” – Dan John

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– Article written by Ciaran “The Quarrelsome” O’Regan

About The Author

Ciaran O’ Regan has an extensive background in combat sport; many years of boxing has been followed in more recent times by ventures in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA. Ciaran has a BSc. degree in Sport & Exercise Science from the University of Limerick. He was based in the United States, training out of Mark Dellagrotte’s Sityodtong gym in Boston when on the east coast or more recently in El Nino Training Centre (home of Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields) when on the west coast. He currenly resides in Cork, Ireland.

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