Strength Training for Martial Arts and Combat Sports – How important is it?
Modern combat sports — including MMA, BJJ, Boxing, and Wrestling — often neglect the weight room in preference of more endurance conditioning or skill work. But these athletes are leaving too much potential on the table for coaches to continue to ignore.
So then, just how important is strength training for martial arts and combat sports?
As kids, we curled up on the couch and awed at the inspiring Rocky jogging across the streets of Philidelphia…
We sat starry-eyed as Kurt Sloane stretched himself into the splits with complete concentration and serenity…
And while these may be Hollywood exaggerations, they helped to set a precedent of today’s modern Combat Sports Industry — the idea that combat athletes must focus on flexibility and endurance. This precedent only serves to hinder athletes’ performance. Why?
Because these athletes begin to neglect strength for the pursuit of flexibility or endurance. We see martial artists, boxers, and other fighters shy away from the weight room with these fears in mind:
If I Gain Too Much Muscle, I’ll Get Slow & Less Powerful
Cutting weight is a common practice of many if not all combat sports. And in athletes’ minds, adding bulky muscle mass makes them less fluid in the ring and more likely to get too large for their weight class. Strength training is simply the use of resistance to get stronger. It doesn’t necessarily mean adding massive muscle. Resistance can come in many forms including free weights, kettlebells, resistance bands, TRX, and body weight.
Lifting Heavy Will Tighten Me Up & Decrease My Flexibility
Flexibility is passive. It doesn’t make a difference if an athlete can stretch themselves into a certain position if they cannot perform through a full range of motion with resistance. With the proper range of motion and antagonistic muscle group training, an athlete can optimize mobility and performance.
Having a Strong Bench Press Won’t Translate to My Sport
Many people think traditional strength training exercises don’t translate well into improving performance because they don’t use the same movements as the skill. As a combat athlete, you want to be strong and powerful, and muscle is (in part) responsible for that. Being stronger than your opponent is a crucial advantage for fighters in every aspect of fighting. From grappling to wrestling to striking, increased strength and power increase your ability to put up a fight.
Training in The Weight Room Has Too Many Injury Risks
Many sport-related injuries stem from muscular imbalances. These discrepancies in strength between opposing muscle groups are due to the repetitive stress. Without proper strength training for martial arts, athletes are consistently overloading the same movement patterns and muscles… without addressing the importance of structural balance.
Now, if you have two athletes with the same technical abilities and knowledge of the sport, who will win? The one who is stronger and better conditioned not only stands a greater chance to win the fight… but also a greater chance to take less punishment.
BUT if you neglect proper strength & conditioning principles, those all too common fears among combat athletes will become reality.
Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.
A fighter’s discipline/mental toughness often leads to counter-productive training methods. More is not better. Excessive volumes and complicated modalities not only lead to noperformance improvements but may result in injury. This type of training mentality comes from the previous fear mentioned: “Having a Strong Bench Press Won’t Translate to My Sport.” OR, the need for sport-specific training.
This misguided training philosophy tries to replicate the specific motor patterns and skill from the sport, adding some components of resistance or instability to it. Boxing Strength Coach Moritz Klatten says this 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.“Coach Moritz Klatten
Instead, keep it simple. Choose movements, intensities, and volumes that improve strength and bulletproof athletes. Yes, while getting an athlete strong is great… a strong, injured athlete is one who is practicing their sport less… and thus making sub-optimal progress. So, the priority of a strength program for combat athletes — and, frankly, any athlete — is to prevent injuries (bulletproof) first… improve strength second.
Luckily, these priorities go hand in hand. The basics of learning tension, applying the correct body structure and absorbing the load not only help athletes gain strength but prevent future injuries. As well, the feeling of lifting big loads is what aids the confidence when in the cage, ring or matt, providing technical skills are in place. Use these Six Pillars of Strength when incorporating strength training into your next regimen:
Press Movement: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.
- Bench Presses, Military Presses, Resisted Push-Ups
Pull Movement:Pulling motions are important when trying to controlling an opponent as Lats are used in pulling to pass guard.
- Resisted Pull-Ups, Rows, Pulldowns
Squat Movement: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.
- Back Squats, Front Squats, Split Squats
Hinge / Lift Movement:Preferentially working the muscles of the Posterior Chain, hinge movements develop an athlete’s power development.
- Deadlifts, RDLs, Good Mornings
Core: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.
- Planks, Palloff Presses, Medball Twists
Loaded Carry: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.
- Farmer’s Walks, Suitcase Carries, Waiter Carries
All athletes can benefit from a proper strength and conditioning program — even combat athletes. However, finding the right strength training for martial arts 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. Training should be tailored specifically for individual athletes but the goal will be the same. 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’swhere strength training comes into play.
If you enjoy this article then you may well love Making the Cut – A Fighter’s Diet or Circuit Training for Martial Arts – A Complete Guide to Bodyweight Exercise as already featured in the Articles section of this site.
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