The Importance of Strength Training in Combat Sports

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As a Strength Coach I look at strength training as a way to improve performance by increasing strength, whereas those who participate in Combat Sports look to improve performance through perfecting technique. Classically, there has been little crossover combining the two disciplines — with the exception of people like Bruce Lee, who found technique more useful in concert with strength — however, as Combat Sports like Wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) continue to grow in popularity, attracting ever more skilled fighters, the sole focus on advancing technique without increasing strength is misguided. There will plenty of people who disagree, yet for those, I challenge you to find one detriment that comes with being stronger. I couldn’t find any, which is why I believe that strength is the mother of all qualities.

Helen Maroulis defeated Saori Yoshia to win a gold medal in Women’s Wrestling at the 2016 Olympics in Rio after incorporating strength training into her regimen. Yoshia hadn’t lost in 10 years prior to her match with Maroulis; upon walking off the mat after her loss, she was overheard as saying “[Helen] is too strong for me.” Only six months prior, Maroulis was unable to do something as fundamental as a pull-up. Despite advancing to the highest level in her sport — US Olympic Wrestling Team — her technical skill lacked the expression of strength, which was her literal weakness and the one thing holding her back from success on the world’s highest stage.

Strength is an attribute that cannot be significantly improved through the practice of participating in Combat Sports, therefore it makes strength training a wise investment, particularly if you want to win. The purpose of increasing strength is to develop physical capacities necessary to handle the unpredictable nature and stressors of the sport. Athletes need to be prepared for all aspects of physical combat including punching, kicking, takedowns, takedown defense, arm bars, guillotine, grappling, and clinching, not to mention proper conditioning and muscle endurance. A simpler way to say it would be, to achieve victory an athlete needs to be faster, more explosive and last longer than their opponent. Also, let me make it clear before I go any further, strength does not replace technique — wrestlers should prioritize wrestling, just as martial artists should ultimately work to perfect their discipline — but improving strength will transfer to better technical performance (e.g., technique) on the mat or in the cage.

Traditionally, combat sport athletes have defined their approach to strength training through one of the following misplaced excuses:

“I don’t want to lift weights because I will get too big and bulky, it will make me slow”

Avoiding the weightroom for fear of it making you big, bulky and slow, fly’s in the face of basic physiology. This misguided idea has lead to a heavy reliance on bodyweight exercises or kettlebell circuit training as their primary methods of physical preparation. This style of training works primarily against strength and power development by prioritizing slow-twitch/endurance based muscle fibers at the expense of fast-twitch/explosive muscle fiber development which would provide the power to deliver a knockout or the explosiveness to execute a takedown.

“I don’t want to lift weights because I only need to prioritize my cardio”

Improving strength makes all imposed demands easier, this includes those placed upon the cardiovascular system. Simply put, having stronger muscles allows the athlete to complete any task with less effort (i.e., less energy) and therefore have more reserve. More specifically, when developing the cardiovascular system it is necessary to understand that energy systems are optimized given the demands of the sport. Prioritizing only one energy system with long-slow distance running works against high threshold muscle fibers making explosive movements more taxing and decreases the ability to withstand a blow to the head due to losses in strength. Furthermore, the over-reliance on easy work generally comes with a sacrificing of quality for quantity, further increasing injury risk. A study on American Boxers published in 1990 concluded that an association could be made between lower body overuse injuries and the jogging and rope jumping the boxer did for preparation.

“I don’t want to lift weights because it will decrease my flexibility”

Flexibility is passive, what difference does it make if you’re athlete can stretch themselves in to a position. What really matters is that an athlete is able to demonstrate strength throughout the entire range of motion. You can spend hours doing static stretching or you can perform full range of motion exercises during your strength training. With proper range of motion and antagonistic muscle group training an athlete can optimize range of motion throughout a joint as there is equal balance between muscle groups.

“I don’t want to lift weights because I can get hurt”

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Guess what, you’re in a full contact sport! Seriously though, many sport-related injuries stem from muscular imbalances — discrepancies in strength between opposing muscle groups — due to the repetitive stress of consistently overloading the same patterns without addressing the importance of structural balance. There is an optimal balance of strength between muscle groups that control a joint, but if the muscles on one side of the joint are disproportionately stronger than muscle on the opposing side, injury risk can increase. For more on structural balance, check out: Importance of Structural Balance for Injury Prevention.

“I don’t want to lift weights because it is not sport’s specific”

Many people get into trouble by thinking traditional strength training exercises and methods don’t translate well into improving performance because they don’t use the same movements that are part of an athletes technique and skill. Somewhere along the line “functional training” became interchangeable with “specificity” or “sport’s specific training” which tries to replicate the specific motor patterns and skill from the sport and add some component of resistance or instability to it. They argue that such efforts are necessary to make an exercise more transferable to on the mat performance. While goodhearted, this is a misguided attempt. For example Boxing Strength Coach Moritz Klatten had the following to say about using bands to simulate punching movements…

it is a terrible idea because the bands provide the most tension at the end of the movement, and as such they will negatively impact coordination patterns by decelerating the arms toward the end of the movement rather than the biceps. When the fighter goes back to punching without bands, they often decelerate too early or late — deceleration too late causes harmful hyperextension of the elbow, and too early reduces punching power.

The last thing you want to do as a Strength Coach is to work against the progress of your athlete or increase risk of injury. The same logic can be applied to the flawed theories behind unstable surface training or the belief that ladder drills will make an athlete more agile (see Ladder Drills Do Not Increase Sport Performance).

We need to get away from the idea that “sport specific” exercises are necessary for Combat Sport training — or most sports, for that matter — because the only sports where specific exercises directly translate to performance are Olympic Weightlifting (Snatch and Clean & Jerk), Gymnastics (Pull-Ups and Dips) and Powerlifting (Squat, Bench and Deadlift). It is important to understand that while slight variabilities in origin or insertions may exist from person to person, muscles function fundamentally the same across all populations, whether you are an elite UFC fighter or an office worker. Therefore, improving a combat athlete’s performance with strength training is not a matter of finding the best “functional” exercise to replicate a “sport’s specific movement,” but instead it is developing a proper understanding of biomechanics and applying that knowledge towards a strength training program that selects exercises to train muscles in the best way possible… for this fundamentals work best.

Push. Pull. Hinge. Extend. Rotate. Carry. Sprint.

While wrestling requires greater isometric strength because of the holds, Judo requires greater eccentric strength to complete throws and Boxing/MMA requires powerful concentric contractions for striking, the fundamentals are undeniably the best place to start. The following are a fundamental list of exercises that will better prepare the Combat Sport athlete for their next competition:

Push: Incline Press
The Incline Press is key to building strength in the chest and elbow extensors. Pressing motions are necessary for the development of punching power as they are powerful internal rotators of the Humerus (as well as the Lats!). and assisting with defense movements.

Primary muscle groups worked: Chest Musculature, Elbow Extensors, Deltoids

Pull: Pull-Up
The Pull-Up is one of the best upper body exercises to develop strength. Pulling motions are important when trying to controlling an opponent as Lats are used in pulling to pass guard.

Primary Muscles groups worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps Brachii (long head, short head), Brachioradialis, Forearm Flexors

Hinge: Conventional Deadlift
The Conventional Deadlift is the best bang for your buck exercise as it trains the most muscles in the body out of all exercises. It preferentially works the muscles of the Posterior Chain — Hamstrings, Spinal Erectors, Lats, Traps — which is where power is derived from. Traps are used in the shrugging of your shoulders to defend against a rear naked choke.

Primary muscle groups worked: Hamstrings, Gluteal musculature, Spinal Erectors, Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapezius (upper and mid fibers), Core Musculature (Transversus abdominis, Multifidus, Internal and External obliques, Rectus abdominis), Forearm Flexors

Extend: Back Squat

The Back Squat trains the entirely of the legs, hips as well as the low back and core. Anytime you extend your hips or knees, you are using some percentage of what you can squat – Hips extend to apply force on the elbow in an arm bar.

Primary muscle groups worked: Quadriceps, Adductors, Gluteal Musculature, Spinal Erectors, Core Musculature (Transversus abdominis, Multifidus, Internal and External obliques, Rectus abdominis), Gastrocnemius, Soleus

Rotate: External Rotation
The External Rotation exercise is often overlooked but necessary for optimal Structural Balance of the shoulder. Optimal ratios of strength across musculature can improve punching power and the isometric contraction of a clinch.

Primary muscles works: Infraspinatus and Teres Minor

Carry: Heavy Carry
The Heavy Carry challenges the body to move under load. Remaining upright under a heavy load forces strength adaptations in the lower back and core musculature that translate to holding your position on the mat or in the cage. Additionally, grip strength is developed from carrying the weight enabling an athlete to easily establish wrist control.

Primary muscle groups worked: Trapezius (upper and mid fibers), Core Musculature (Transversus abdominis, Multifidus, Internal and External obliques, Rectus abdominis), Spinal Erectors, Forearm Flexors, Gluteal Musculature

Sprint
The Sprint helps to build explosive power through repeated effort. Combat sports revolve around the ability to execute a powerful movement, followed by a brief “rest” usually under an isometric contraction, they deliver another quick movement. While endurance is necessary for this exchange, long-slow distance is not the way to optimally train for such an event. Sprints of long, medium and short distance should be utilized in 400m, 200m, 60m respective.

Primary Energy Systems used: ATP-PC and Lactic

Whether it be pushing, pulling, or extending from a standing position to the same biomechanical patterns from a laying position, combat sport athletes cannot have any weak muscle groups. The stronger athlete with better technique and stamina will win. Therefore, the future of combat sports is not going to be dictated by past practices of bodyweight exercises or distance running, but by those who seek to optimize power and performance as well as injury prevention through structural balancing by adopting a strength training program that allows them to elevate the expression of their technical expertise in a way the competition isn’t ready for… Besides no one ever lost because they said they were “too strong.”


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