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    Circuit Training for Martial Arts – A Complete Guide to Bodyweight Exercise

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    Circuit Training for Martial Arts – A Complete Guide to Bodyweight Exercise

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    Circuit Training for Martial Arts – A Complete Guide to Bodyweight Exercise in Combat Sports

    We often see combat athletes neglect strength training in preference for conditioning or skill work, stagnating their potential. However, strength training for fighters is essential to performance. Strength training is the use of resistance to get stronger and can come in many forms. For example free weights, kettlebells, sand bags, resistance bands, TRX, and bodyweight.  Circuit training for martial arts and the use of bodyweight exercise in combat sports are an ideal way to implement this fundamental aspect into a fighter or athlete’s regular regime.

     

    Bodyweight Exercise?

    Yes!  Bodyweight resistance is the most fundamental form of resistance training.  As well, athletes should master their body movements before hitting the weights.  If an athlete is incapable of completing a movement through a full range of motion with proper form, adding additional weight is asking for an injury.

     

    Benefits of Bodyweight

    Bodyweight training is especially useful for combat athletes.  A 195lb Muay Thai fighter who needs to compete at 175lb must effectively cut weight while maintaining peak strength.  And by using these bodyweight exercise techniques, combat athletes can create intense workouts to cut weight while maintaining lean muscle mass.   However, it is important to note that these exercises are not completely “equipment free.” There are many ways to train bodyweight movements.

    Depending on the skill and training age of the athlete, it may be necessary to regress the movements with resistance bands.  As well, for exercises focused on the back and posterior chain, tools such as a TRX or pull-up bar become necessary.

     

    Knowing Your Training Age

    While some athletes may have the fighting skill and body awareness to deem themselves “experienced athletes,” this does not always carry over into the strength training world. Experienced in the sport DOES NOT EQUAL experience in the weight room (regardless of all that is being moved is bodyweight).   There are skilled athletes who still can’t perform a proper push-up or pull-up correctly.  This often leads to muscular imbalances in which many sport-related injuries stem from.  Without proper strength training, athletes are constantly overloading the same (improper) movement patterns and muscles… without addressing the importance of structural balance.

    Knowing, understanding, and accepting your correct training age is the first step in creating an effective bodyweight training program.  Training should be tailored specifically for individual athletes but the goal will be the same: to increase strength.   Have major muscular imbalance or are unsure of the movement patterns needed to gain strength?  Start with a beginner program.  Competent in the exercises but not confident in performing perfect reps or trying challenging movements?  Progress to an intermediate program.   Competent, confident mover?

    Increase the difficulty through a more experienced program.  Don’t let your pride cause you to partake in a more advanced training session then you are ready for.  Getting an athlete strong is great!  However, a strong, injured athlete is one who is practicing their sport less, making sub-optimal progress.  So, the priority of a strength program is to bulletproof the athlete first… improve strength second.  The best way to achieve this is through the means of linear progression (often called progressive overload).  Linear progression aims at training the body to experience incremental stress to a point where it adapts.  Not enough stress and the body doesn’t change… too much stress and the body becomes exhausted too quickly.

    We want strong, mobile, injury-proof, and resilient fighters who not only show the ability to be fast and powerful but also can withstand and absorb blows.  And that’s where these bodyweight movements come into play:

     

     

    Press & Pull Movements: Pressing motions are powerful internal rotators of the Humerus (as well as the Lats!) and necessary for the development of punching power and assisting with defense movements.  Pulling motions are important when trying to control an opponent as Lats are used in pulling to pass guard.  There are several different types of pressing & pulling movements: vertical, angled, and horizontal pulls

    • Vertical: Increasing strength in all three heads helps to bulletproof the shoulders
    • Angled: While not terribly common, angled pulls and presses assist in the performance of both the vertical and horizontal planes.
    • Horizontal: The strength and ability to pull something (or someone) closer to you or create space between you and an opponent is key to combat sports.

    Squat & Hinge Movements: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 armbar, for example.  Preferentially working the muscles of the Posterior Chain, hinge movements develop an athlete’s power development.  A majority of a fighter’s power will come from his/her hips.  Having strong and balanced squat and hinge patterns will aid in the explosivity needed.  There are several ways to increase the difficulty of squats once proficient in the bilateral movement: single leg progressions, tempo progressions, and range of motion progressions.

    • Range of Motion: Necessary for injury prevention as well as optimal performance, moving through a full R.O.M. should be assured before progressing movements.
    • Tempo: Increasing the time a muscle, ligament, or tendon is put under tension increases their durability and resilience to being stretched, contracted, etc.
    • Single Leg: Identifying and correcting muscle imbalance is key to increasing the overall strength of an athlete as well as their capacity to compete without injury.

    Core Movements & Loaded Carries: The ability to resist rotation and flexion aid in absorbing blows and avoiding takedowns.  As well, athletes begin to understand the importance and skill of bracing/breathing.  Heavy Carries challenge the body to move under load while remaining upright.  This movement forces strength adaptations in the lower back and core musculature that translates to holding your position on the mat or in the cage.  However, those focusing on bodyweight movements should opt for crawling patterns in place of heavy carries.

    Similar adaptations can be seen without the need for loading muscles.  Crawling patterns are often overlooked, but this bodyweight exercise does a great job of challenging the body from head to toe…especially the hips, trunk, and shoulders.  Below are exercise options for beginner, intermediate, and experienced combat athletes using the Six Pillars of Strength above.  While every athlete will progress at their own rate, these options can be used as guidelines for those just starting out… or those who need a new challenge to increase their strength.

     

    An info graph from the blog post on circuit training for Martial Arts - Guide to Bodyweight exercise

     

    Beginner Movements The goal of these movements is to build competence in how your body moves.  The progression of each movement will increase your capacity to move, increase strength, and progress to the next level.

    Pulling Movements Pulling motions are important when trying to control an opponent on the ground or along the cage.  Pull-ups engage several muscle groups in the shoulders, back, and arms — including the delts, traps, and biceps.  Below are some regression options for those who cannot complete pull-ups:

    • Vertical: Using an elevated bar or gymnastics rings, start from a dead hang and work up to proper pull-ups
      • Chin-Up/Pull-Up Isometric Hold
      • Band-Assisted Chin-Up/Pull-Up
      • Negative (Eccentric) Chin-Up/Pull-Up
      • Bar Hangs (Chin-Up/Pull-Up Grip)
    • Angled: Use a bar or TRX tool at a 45-degree angle to engage the lats, rear delts, and external rotators.
      • Double-Arm TRX Row
        • Neutral or Pronated Grip
      • Single-Arm TRX Row
        • Neutral or Supinated Grip
    • Horizontal: Using a bar or TRX tool, lie beneath until parallel to the ground.
      • Inverted Row with Legs Bent at 90-degrees
        • Neutral, Pronated, or Supinated Grip

    Pressing Movements By perfecting the ability to create space between you and your opponent requires a strong resistance to gravity (or whatever is pulling you in a direction). When done properly, pushing movements force you to engage the entire body, from your feet to your fingertips.

    • Vertical: All you need is a stable floor and a sturdy wall.
      • Handstand Walks
      • Handstand Holds
    • Angled: Use a bar, box, or wall and progressively lower the angle to increase the weight pushed.
      • Elevated Push-ups
      • Parallel Push-ups
    • Horizontal: To protect your lower back and shoulders, keep your body stiff and engaged throughout the movement.
      • Band Assisted Push-Ups
      • Standard Push-Ups

    Squat Movements Generally speaking, power is the ability to generate force as quickly as possible, which is crucial for fighters.  If you can train your body to be quicker and more powerful, you’ll be much more dangerous on the mat or in the octagon.

    • Range of Motion: Slowly increase R.O.M. until a complete bilateral squat can be performed without aid.
      • Box Squats
    • Tempo: Count out loud… use “Mississippis…” whatever you do, move slow and controlled.
      • Slow Lowers
      • Pause Squats
    • Single Leg: This simple adjustment can expose deficiencies from right to left.
      • Concentric Skater Squat
      • Split Squat

    Hinge Movements This hip dominant movement challenges the posterior chain, specifically the hamstring and glutes.  Other than explosivity, increasing the strength of your posterior chain reduces the imbalance between the quad and hamstring strength and size, stabilizing the knee and reducing lower-body injuries.

    • Range of Motion: Slowly increase R.O.M. until a complete bilateral squat can be performed without aid.
      • Wall Touches
      • PVC Pipe Good Mornings
    • Tempo: The lowering portion of the exercise should be at least twice as slow as the explosive, rising portion.
      • Slow Lower RDLs
      • Pause RDLs
    • Single Leg: This complements other lunges or single legs squats, by emphasizing the posterior chain.
      • B-Stance RDLs
      • Split Stance RDLs
      • Staggard Good Mornings

     

    An info graph from the blog post on circuit training for Martial Arts - Guide to Bodyweight exercise

     

    Core Movements The importance of bracing and breathing cannot be overstated in sports.  The ability to brace your core help to protect your spine from injury.  As well as combat athletes need this skill to resist rotation and absorb blows from opponents.

    • Focus on expanding 360-degrees with every inhale while keeping your head and neck neutral.
      • Dead Bugs
        • Feet on Floor (Knees Bent at 90-degrees)
        • Feet on Wall/Bench (Hips & Knees at 90-degrees)
        • Feet in the Air (Hips & Knees at 90-degrees)
      • Jack Knives
        • Breathe In, Move, Exhale, Reset

    Crawling Movements For strength adaptations in the lower back and core musculature…  the ability to hold your position on the mat or in the cage…  stabilizing the hips, trunk, and shoulders…  Crawling movements are an often overlooked method of increasing athleticism.

    • Think of a water glass sitting atop your back.  Keep your core braced, movements small, and hips level to avoid spilling the water.
      • Ipsilateral Forward Crawls
        • Same Arm & Leg
      • Contralateral Forward Crawls
        • Opposite Arm & Leg

     

     

    Intermediate Movements The goal of these movements is to build confidence in how your body moves.  You already have the capacity to do each movement; now it’s time to progressively increase your strength by challenging the muscles in different ways.

    Pulling Movements

    • Vertical: Pull-Ups
    • Angled: TRX Row
      • Legs Straight
    • Horizontal: Inverted Row
      • Legs Straight

    Pressing Movements

    • Vertical: Handstands
      • Shoulder Touches
      • Handstand Presses
    • Angled: Elevated Push-Ups
      • Plyometric Variations
      • Single-Arm Variations
    • Horizontal: Push-Ups
      • Band Assisted Plyometric Variations
      • Narrow, Wide, Staggard Grips

    Squat Movements

    • Range of Motion:
      • Heel Elevated Squat
    • Tempo:
      • Combination of Slow Lowers + Pause Squats
    • Single Leg:
      • Front Foot Elevated Split Squats
      • Eccentric Skater Squats
      • Band/Pole Assisted Pistol Squats

    Hinge Movements

    • Range of Motion:
      • Inchworms
    • Tempo:
      • Combination of Slow Lowers + Pause RDLs
    • Single Leg:
      • PVC Pipe SL RDLs

    Core Movements

    • Focus on each breath in, movement, exhale, then reset
      • Planks
      • Shoulder Taps
      • Bird Dog Variations
        • Single-Arm Raise
        • Single-Leg Raise
        • Contralateral Arm & Leg Raise

    Crawling Movements

    • Focus on staying neutral with every movement.
      • Contralateral Forward Crawls
      • Ipsilateral Lateral Crawls

     

    Experienced Movements The goal of these movements is to build proficiency in how your body moves.  You already have the capacity to do each movement and you’ve progressed to more challenging variations; now it’s time to vary your training to continue your linear progression and see strength results.

    Pulling Movements

    • Vertical: Pull-Ups
      • Grip Variations
        • Commando Pull-Ups
        • Gymnastic Ring Pull-Ups
        • In & Out Grip Pull-Up
      • Tempo Variations
        • 2x Down v. Up
        • Pause at Top of Rep
        • 3-Level Pull-Up (Pause at Each Level)
      • Archer Pull-Ups
    • Angled: TRX Row
      • One Foot Elevated
      • Both Feet Elevated
    • Horizontal: Inverted Row
      • One Foot Elevated
      • Both Fee Elevated

    Pressing Movements

    • Vertical: Handstand
      • Kipping Press-Ups
      • Handstand Presses on Gymnastic Rings
    • Angled: Elevated Push-Ups
      • Push-Up to Box
      • Depth Push-Ups
    • Horizontal: Push-Ups
      • Plyometric Variations
      • Single-Arm Elevated Variations
      • Sphynx Push-Ups
      • Archer Push-Ups

    Squat Movements

    • Range of Motion: Stance Variations
      • Sumo Stance
      • B-Stance
      • Duck Stance
      • Deficit Squats
    • Tempo:
      • Combination of Slow Lowers + Pause Squats
      • Combination of R.O.M + Slow Lowers/Pause Squats
    • Single Leg:
      • Pistol Variations
      • Full Skater Squats
      • Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats

    Hinge Movements

    • Range of Motion: Stance Variations
      • Sumo
      • B-Stance
      • Narrow Stance
      • Deficit RDLs
    • Tempo:
      • Combination of Slow Lowers + Pause RDLs
      • Combination of R.O.M + Slow Lowers/Pause RDLs
    • Single Leg:
      • Single-Leg Reaches

    Core Movements

    • Focus on each breath in, movement, exhale, then reset
      • Seesaw Planks
      • L-Sit Holds
      • Russian Twists
      • Bird Dog Variations
        • Ipsilateral Reaches
        • Contralateral Extended Bird Dog Reaches

    Crawling Movements

    • Focus on staying neutral with every movement.
      • Ipsilateral Forward/Back Crawls
      • Contralateral Forward/Back Crawls
      • Contralateral Lateral Crawls

     

    Challenges of Bodyweight Training

    As versatile as bodyweight circuit training for fighters is, there are some limits.  It can be difficult to properly load the backside, especially the hamstrings.  There are only so many bodyweight variations of good mornings and RDLs to challenge the posterior chain.  This could be the reason most combat sports athletes experience hamstring/quadricep strains as well as Meniscal/Collateral Ligament injuries.  Special care must be taken to eccentrically load the backside as well as creating a balance between the quadriceps and hamstrings.

    Another technique to ensure the safety and longevity is to properly warm-up.  Ankle and shoulder mobility work, balance techniques, breathing/bracing drills are a great start.  And while most fighters don’t need this repeated in their ear, many coaches do: don’t forget the cool-down.  A proper cool-down ensures muscles don’t tighten and limit the range of motion as well as helping to increase flexibility.

    It’s also imperative to not neglect any single bullet in those Pillars of Strength.  Focusing solely on vertical pulling, horizontal pressing, tempo, or single-leg work will only help to increase imbalance.

     

    Perfecting the Progressions

    Spending the duration of the linear progression with a singular focus – getting stronger.  This focus will allow the athlete to build a strong foundation, progressing in one variable, and working towards a peaking point.  That peaking point could be reaching the end of your rehab (if nursing and injury) or the week of competition.  Athletes should be at their peak level of strength before entering a fight.

    By slowly increasing the stress (or difficulty of movement), athletes can reach their peak without the burnout, injuries, or soreness that is all too common with a “More-Is-Better” attitude.  Oftentimes, we don’t need more movement, more weight, or more stress…  we just need better movements, challenging weight, and optimal stress.  And while these exercises are a great start for those looking to increase their bodyweight training, it is not the entire package.  We can manipulate these exercises to create different circuits for BJJ, Muay Thai, MMA, and other fighters.

    By including crawling movements into warm-ups, we can help athletes learn to brace and breath while bulletproofing their joints.  By increasing their proficiency in movements like squats, fighters can increase their capacity for explosive movements…  movements that can be incorporated into a Cardio circuit for athletes.  Yes, strength and endurance for martial arts can go hand-in-hand when trained properly.  The key is to never neglect one over the other but to know what the priority is depending on the season of the sport.  For fighters who have just competed and have months before their next fight, this is the perfect time for you to build your endurance back up.  A training split of 3 endurance days to 1-2 strength days would be ideal.

    Try incorporating these movements into a strength day or as a warm-up to your endurance training.  For athletes who are progressing towards a fight, it’s time to get stronger. A training split of 3 strength days to 1-2 endurance days would be ideal.  This is not to say that the focus should be on slow movements with long breaks (like a weightlifter would use).

    Incorporate these movements into a circuit to keep your heart rate high while building your strength capacity.  Take a look at these strength training for fighters examples:

     

    Example Beginner Strength Day Using These Movements

    Day 1: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 6 Band Assisted Pull-Ups
      • 10 Box Squats

    1-minute rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 8 Band Assisted Push-Ups
      • 12 each B-Stance RDLs

    1-minute rest

    • 2 Round Circuit:
      • 15 Jack Knives
      • 12 each Dead Bugs (Feet on Ground)
      • 15 ft. Ipsilateral Forward Crawls

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

     

    Day 2: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 30-second Handstand Holds
      • 12 Wall Touches

    1-minute rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 6 each Single Arm TRX Row
      • 10 Pause Squats (2-second pause)

    1-minute rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 12 each Dead Bugs (Feet on Wall)
      • 15 ft. Contralatera Forward Crawls

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

     

    Day 3: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 6 Inverted Rows
      • 8 Split Squats

    1-minute rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 12 Elevated Push-Ups
      • 10 Slow Lower RDLs (3 seconds down)

    1-minute rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 15 Jack Knives
      • 15 ft. Ipsilateral Forward Crawls

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

     

    Example Intermediate Strength Day Using These Movements

    Day 1: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 12 each. Front Foot Elevated Split Squats
      • 8 Pull-Ups
      • 10 Inchworms
      • 8 Elev. Plyo Push-Ups

    2-minutes rest

    • 2 Round Circuit:
      • 30 sec. Plank
      • 30 ft. Contralateral Forward Crawls
      • 30 sec. Jump Rope

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

     

    Day 2: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 15 Heel Elevated Squats (as fast as possible)
      • 10 Inverted Rows

    1-minute rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 12 Tempo RDLs (3-seconds lower)
      • 8 Band Assisted Plyometric Push-Ups

    1-minute rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 30 sec. Shoulder Taps
      • 30 sec. Dead Bugs
      • 30 sec. Jack Knives

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

     

    Day 3: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 6 Pause Squat Jumps
      • 8 TRX Rows
      • 6 PVC Pipe SL RDLs
      • 8 each Handstand Shoulder Taps

    2-minutes rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 30 sec. Box Jumps
      • 30 ft. Ipsilateral Lateral Crawls
      • 30 sec. Planks

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

     

    Example Experienced Strength Day Using These Movements

    Day 1: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 4 Round Circuit:
      • 8 Kipping Press-Ups
      • 10 Single-Leg Reaches
      • 10 Gymnastics Ring Pull-Ups
      • 8 Pistol Squats

    2-minutes rest

    • 2 Round Circuit:
      • 12 each Bird Dogs (Ipsilateral Reaches)
      • 30 ft. Contralateral Forward Crawls & Back
      • 30 second Plank
      • 12 Seesaw Planks

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

     

    Day 2: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 8 Feet Elevated TRX Row
      • 30 ft. Contralateral Lateral Crawls & Back
      • 10 Sumo Squats

    2-minutes rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 8 Push-Ups to Box
      • 30 sec. L-Sit Hold
      • 10 Slow Lower RDLs (5 seconds down)

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

     

    Day 3: Warm-Up, Mobility Work, Injury Rehab

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 8 Feet Elevated Inverted Rows
      • 8 each Archer Push-Ups

    2-minutes rest

    • 3 Round Circuit:
      • 10 Slow Lower Squats (5 seconds down)
      • 10 each B-Stance RDLs

    2-minutes rest

    • 1 Round Circuit:
      • 60 sec. Jump Rope
      • 30 ft. Walking Lunge & Back
      • 30 ft. Ipsilateral Forward Crawls & Back
      • 60 sec. Jump Rope

    Cool Down, Stretch, Injury Prehab

    All athletes can benefit from a bodyweight strength program.  However, finding and creating the right program depends on the natural abilities of the athlete.  Some are better predisposed to power and strength training, while some have great endurance but take time to develop strength.  As well, circuit training for BJJ can look very different from circuit training for Muay Thai.  Each sport and athlete has their own specific needs, weaknesses, and training pursuits.  Knowing which athlete you are and where your body is at physically, is a great start to creating an effective Bodyweight Strength Training Program.

     

    Related Content

    If you enjoy this article then you may well love Making the Cut – A Fighter’s Diet or Strength Training for Martial Arts and Combat Sports – How Important is it? as already featured in the Articles section of this site.

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