STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING FOR FIGHTERS

INTRODUCTION

Developing the correct techniques and appropriate skills for any sport should always come first, but today it is no longer good enough just to be highly skilled – strength plays a major role. All the elite men and women who compete at the top of their chosen sports are not only skilled technicians, but disciplined athletes. They put in the time and effort that helps them to compete at peak performance for longer and with greater consistency.

Similarly, when it comes to combat sports, you need to be in the best possible shape to compete, even at amateur level. Without developing the strength and conditioning to perform at your best, you will find your opponent’s quickly get the better of you – not because they are more skilled, but simply because they are stronger and have more stamina.

The goal of any good strength and conditioning coach, therefore, is to provide a training programme which complements the unique requirements of a particular sport – not just a person’s ability to lift weights. If you take an educated approach to the development of your strength and power, working only 2-3 times per week, I guarantee you will reap the benefits.


CONTENTS

  • Anatomy of Increasing Strength & Power.
  • Accommodating Resistance.
  • Breathing for Fighters.
  • Top 10 Strength and Power Exercises.
  • Top 10 Conditioning Tools.


ANATOMY OF INCREASING STRENGTH & POWER

Strength and power are the essential components in combat that govern your ability to strike an opponent. Understanding how to develop them is key to your progression as a fighter.

WHAT IS STRENGTH AND POWER?

Strength is the ability to produce force. The more force you can produce to overcome a resistance, the stronger you are.

Explosive strength is the ability to produce maximal force in minimal time. An example of this is a fighter rapidly creating total body tension to hold their opponent down.

Power (which results from explosive strength), refers to force (strength) multiplied by velocity (speed), and is measured over a set distance. For example, power is needed to make an effective strike.

STRENGTH (FORCE) X SPEED (VELOCITY) = POWER!

The terms muscular endurance and strength endurance are used to describe the ability of a competitor to express force many times over (i.e. making repeated hits and combos).

However, just because someone can produce a huge amount of force, it does not necessarily mean they can effectively use this force explosively.

This brings me to the paradox that exists between muscle force and velocity. Both force and velocity are required to produce power. Force can create faster movements, yet the corresponding muscle tension restricts speed. During a strike, therefore, it’s not only essential for fighters to contract their muscles hard – they also need the ability to relax their muscles to create maximal speed.

In other words, during an outward strike, the initial movement contraction has to be followed by a relaxation phase, which is then quickly followed by a secondary contraction, just before the strike lands. The secondary contraction creates total body tension and puts the fighter’s whole bodyweight behind the strike. This is referred to as the double pulse.

Striking performance is not just about how fast a muscle can produce force – it’s also about how fast a muscle can relax to allow greater joint velocity.

Both the contraction and relaxation phases need to happen during every strike, and this is one of the reasons why big, strong people who haven’t been trained to fight, can often throw a single hard punch, but look sluggish when attempting to perform numerous strikes against a moving opponent. They lack the motor skills to repeatedly execute the production of maximal force and joint velocity.

One aspect of strength that is often overlooked is that it ultimately dictates the robustness of your skeletal system and soft tissue. Without the ability to accommodate the loads or stresses placed on them, an athlete’s development will be slowed or prevented by aches and injuries.

HOW DO WE DEVELOP STRENGTH AND POWER?

Any form of movement/exercise will strengthen your structure to some extent, but our aim here is to optimise the benefits of training. If you have just 2 hours a week to dedicate to strength training for combat, what are the best exercises to perform, and how should we perform them?

When choosing exercises and deciding how to perform them, consider these three points.

The exercise should:

  1. Maximise the weight that can be lifted i.e. maximise performance.
  2. Maximise the work required by the muscles (positive/adaptive stress).
  3. Minimise the negative/maladaptive stress placed on the supporting structures.

Building strength is a balance between these three points and the importance of each depends on your goals.

If you perform a full-depth squat (ass to grass), it will maximise muscular effort, but will also place more stress on the knees and reduce the amount of weight you can lift compared to a parallel squat.

On the other hand, a parallel squat allows you to lift heavier loads with less stress on the supporting structures. But your overall strength and muscular development may not be as good because the muscles aren’t stressed through their full range of motion.

You need to find the optimal balance to achieve the best results for your body and your chosen sport, and this varies from person to person.Strengths and weaknesses differ, and so do the needs of different sports.

The most common method of strength development is to work at maximal or near maximal load for low rep ranges.

Less well known is the dynamic effort method. Dynamic effort lifting is simply lifting submaximal weights as fast as possible through the entire range of motion. This style of lifting helps you to get faster and stronger, as it teaches your nervous system/muscles to fire quickly. This generates more power than moving a weight slowly. However, caution must be taken as lifting weight at speed is stressful on your body.

It is important to lift heavy loads, as this will elicit the most strength gains, but you must also lift submaximal loads with maximum speed to develop your rate of force development. We can also add accommodating resistance to increase the benefits.


ACCOMMODATING RESISTANCE

Accommodating resistance involves using bands and chains to accommodate resistance through the full range of motion of the lift. For example, placing heavy chains, or an anchored band over the ends of a barbell on a bench press means that the weight of the lift will increase as you raise the bar.

I suggest purchasing a set of four bands, which can be easily found on Amazon – red, black, purple and green.

During a lift such as a squat, deadlift or bench press, leverage is limited at the bottom of the movement and greatly increases as you progress through the lift. When a lift is performed without accommodating resistance, you must work hard initially to raise the bar. As your leverage improves, you don’t need to produce as much force and must decelerate to control the bar at the top.

When accommodating resistance is added, the weight increases as you progress through the lift. So, as leverage improves, so does the load. Therefore, you must continually accelerate to complete the lift.

Accommodating resistance will train you to maximise your rate of force development.

When working with bands, more downward force is created by the bands in the eccentric (downward) phase, as they pull you down to the bottom of the movement. This is great for the development of power, but increased intensity will lead to increased fatigue and muscle soreness and therefore it shouldn’t be overused.

If a lifter is always required to create maximal force through the range of motion, it doesn’t allow them to naturally increase speed as leverage improves. This is an essential motor pattern to develop, because when you throw a punch you need to contract hard initially (create tension) before allowing speed and acceleration to increase through the movement to create power and a harder strike.

Don’t train with accommodating resistance all the time, because it teaches you to keep a high level of tension through the lift and can cause excessive fatigue. For this reason, I recommend that you start by incorporating it into your dynamic effort sets. Once you have gained more experience, you can incorporate accommodating resistance into submaximal and maximal effort sets. Program it intelligently!

To perform any barbell exercise using a dynamic effort set, load 50-60% of your 1RM onto the barbell before attaching bands. We normally want the accommodating resistance to add 25% of your 1RM to the top of the lift. For example, if your 1RM is 100kg, then the accommodating resistance should add an extra 25kg at the top. This is easy to quantify with chains, but not so easy with bands.

The resistance (weight) added to the barbell by attaching bands can be hard to quantify because band tensions can vary due to the brand of band you are using, weathering, how they’re attached, and many other factors. When using bands to create accommodating resistance during dynamic effort sets, I recommend attaching red bands and working from there. If you feel you can still lift fast with more band tension, then add more bands or use one with a higher tension. If start to lose speed throughout the lift, then reduce the tension. Experiment to find the optimal band tension for you.

To train speed and develop power without using accommodating resistance in dynamic sets, you can add 10-15% to the 50-60% of your 1RM to squats and deadlifts, and 5-10% of the 50-60% of your 1RM onto your presses. See what works for you – you just want to make sure the weight moves fast!

When adding accommodating resistance to heavy (90%+) sets, vary the band tension to optimise your results. This process is shown in the accompanying videos. Experiment by using both more weight from the plates with less band tension and vice versa.

Find what works for you and keep your training varied.

COMPENSATORY ACCELERATION

A key concept that helps to increase strength and power development is compensatory acceleration. This is a great method to use when accommodating resistance is not present and therefore, not pushing you to keep producing maximal force.

Compensatory acceleration involves making a conscious effort to maximise force and speed throughout the entire range of motion, specifically as leverage improves. Often when you lift a heavy load, you grind out of the bottom (producing maximal force). However, as leverage improves, you make no effort to keep accelerating and often coast through the rest of the lift.

I often say that compensatory acceleration is to sports athletes, what mind muscle connection is to bodybuilders.

Mind muscle connection involves making a conscious effort to think about the muscle being worked. This helps to increase its engagement and ultimately stimulates greater muscular development. Both these methods will help you to maximise the effects of your training.


BREATHING FOR FIGHTERS

The ability to regulate your breathing as a fighter is a very important tool. Firstly, it’s important to breathe deeply through your belly using your diaphragm. This pulls your diaphragm down, expands your lungs, and consequently allows you to take in more oxygen.

To practise diaphragmatic breathing, place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Imagine a balloon low in your stomach. As you inhale through your nose or mouth the balloon expands, and as you exhale through your mouth it deflates. If your chest raises instead of your belly, your breathing is too shallow and you won’t take in as much oxygen.

Many people breathe through the top of their chest, especially when mouth-breathing. This causes muscles that are not designed for respiration to overwork, and creates excess tension in unforeseen places, such as the neck muscles. Breathing at the top of the chest can also weaken the diaphragm through underuse and can result in fatigue during exercise and a performance reduction.

Nasal breathing increases rib cage and diaphragm engagement during inhalation. This is beneficial because it drives more oxygen into the lower lobes of your lungs compared to mouth breathing. However, nasal breathing may not allow you to draw in enough oxygen when working at a high intensity. Whether you use nasal or mouth breathing, the important thing is to maintain a constant rhythm, rather than randomly mixing the two.

While many experts agree that mouth breathing is the best way to take in oxygen at high intensities (some fighters may struggle breathing through their nose), if you can use nasal breathing while working at low to moderate intensities, I recommend you do so. Nasal breathing has also been shown to bring the heart and breath rate down more quickly during recovery.

Mouth breathing is often necessary for fighters to take in the oxygen they need. However, be careful not to overemphasise your breathing with a large open mouth as this will signal to you opponent that you are extremely fatigued. It can also increase the risk of jaw injuries.

BREATHING WHILE FIGHTING

Regulating your breathing while fighting is incredibly important and can make the difference between a fighter feeling completely out of breath or completely in control.

Fighters should use an anatomical style of breathing where they synchronise their breath to match their movement. This style will involve slow and fast breathing.

Slow breathing is used when out of the opponent’s range or between rounds. It involves breathing deeply and slowly to conserve energy, recover from previous attacks, strategize and calm the mind.

Fast breathing is used while attacking or being attacked by the opponent. It involves a slow or fast inhalation (depending on the situation) followed by short and quick exhalations (through the mouth) as the fighter performs strikes or quick defensive moves.

The exhalations are often quite loud and seem exaggerated but can really help to give the fighter a jolt of energy. The “psst” sound you often hear is not made by the fighter forcing all the air out quickly, but by them suddenly stopping the airflow to allow for numerous short, explosive exhalations as they strike.

BREATHING WHILE RESISTANCE TRAINING

During resistance training, we use a biomechanical style of breathing which maximises performance and minimises the risk of injury.

During biomechanical breathing, the athlete matches their inhalation with the downward (eccentric) phase of the exercise and their exhalation with the upward (concentric) phase. They normally exhale during the latter stage of the upward phase.

THE VALSAVA MANEUVER

Biomechanical breathing is normally coupled with the use of the Valsalva maneuver. This is “a moderately forceful attempted exhalation against a closed airway” (like equalizing your ears on an airplane by blowing against a pinched nose).

This manoeuvre, combined with a braced core, creates intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and stabilises the spine. To visualise this, imagine the rigidity of a sealed plastic bottle full of air, compared to that of an open bottle.

Biomechanical breathing is an effective strategy. We can take this further by inhaling before starting the exercise and exhaling on completion. This, combined with the Valsalva maneuver, can cause a rise in blood pressure and dizziness. However, the performance benefits and reduced risk of injury generally outweigh the risks, barring other health considerations.


TOP 10 STRENGTH AND POWER EXERCISES

  1. Back / Front Squat.
  2. Push Press.
  3. Hex Bar Deadlift / Jump.
  4. Floor Press.
  5. Landmine Press / Strike.
  6. Rack Pull.
  7. Dumbbell Snatch.
  8. Landmine Rotations.
  9. KB Swings.
  10. Shrugs.


TOP 10 CONDITIONING TOOLS

  1. Ski ERG.
  2. Rower.
  3. Air Bike.
  4. Battle Ropes.
  5. Prowler.
  6. Power Bags / Bulgarian Bag.
  7. Slams Balls.
  8. Resistance Bands.
  9. Landmine.
  10. Skipping Rope.


A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR

A fighter’s regime can be busy and extremely stressful, so it is important that you maximize the efficiency of your training. Fortunately, just two hours a week in the gym is enough to effectively develop both strength and power, maximizing performance and greatly minimizing your risk of injuries.

What would you change or add to my top 10 lists above… Would you add the Olympic lifts to the strength and power exercises (the power clean), or would you place more emphasis on functional equipment like ropes and prowlers for the conditioning, rather than the rowers and bikes?

Coach Curtis

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