The Importance Of Strength Training In Combat Sports
As a Health & Performance Coach, I look at strength training as a way to optimize performance in the ring, while those who exclusively participate in Combat Sports seek to improve performance through perfecting technique. Classically, there has been little effort in combining the two disciplines to maximize performance — with the exception of people like Bruce Lee, who found technique more useful in concert with strength. However, as Combat Sports like Boxing, 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 a misguided approach. There will be 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.
Strength is an attribute that cannot be significantly improved through the practice of participating in any given sport — no matter whether it’s a Combat Sport or not — therefore, it makes strength training a wise investment, especially if you want to win. The purpose of increasing strength is to develop physical capacities necessary to handle the unpredictable nature and stressors of stepping into the ring. 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 athletes needs to be faster, more explosive and last longer than their opponent. All of which can be positively impacted by increasing strength. However, let me make it clear before I go any further, strength does not replace technique — boxers should prioritize hand and footwork, just as martial artists should ultimately work to perfect their given discipline — but improving strength will transfer to better technical performance (e.g. technique) as well as the ability to withstand physical damage.
Traditionally, Combat Sport athletes have opted out of strength training due to 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 weight room for fear of it making you big, bulky and slow, completely fly’s in the face of basic physiology. This misguided idea has led to a heavy reliance on bodyweight exercises or kettlebell circuit training as the 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 in reserve. More specifically, when developing the cardiovascular system it is necessary to understand that energy systems are optimized to the given demands of the sport. Prioritizing only one energy system, through long-slow distance running works against high threshold muscle fibers, making explosive movement 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. In other words, prioritizing significant amounts of cardio at the expense of weight training can be detrimental to performance.
“I don’t want to lift weights because it will decrease my flexibility”
Flexibility is passive, what difference does it make if you can stretch yourself into a pretzel, but have no strength to hold that position? What really matters is that a combat 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 regimen. With proper range of motion and antagonistic muscle group training, an athlete can optimize range of motion throughout the joint as there is equal balance between muscle groups.
“I don’t want to lift weights because I can get hurt”
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.
“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, or in the ring performance. While goodhearted, this is another 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 is work against the progress of your athletic endeavors and increase risk of injury.
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 Lifting (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 Combat Sport performance with strength training is not a matter of finding the best “functional” exercise to replicate a “sport’s specific movement,” but instead to develop a proper understanding of biomechanics and applying that knowledge towards a strength training program that selects exercises that train muscles in the best way possible. And for this, fundamentals always work best.
PUSH. PULL. HINGE. EXTEND. ROTATE. CARRY. SPRINT.
Whether it’s developing powerful concentric contractions for striking in Boxing/MMA, greater isometric strength for holds in Wrestling, or improving eccentric strength to complete throws in Judo, the fundamentals are undeniably the best place to start. The following is a fundamental list of exercises that will better prepare any 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
The Pull-Up is one of the best upper body exercises to develop strength. Pulling motions are important when trying to control 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 entirety 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
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 can be utilized in 400m, 200m, 60m, 20m respectively.
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.”