This post is part two of a series on the physical preperation of the combat athlete.

In part one, I covered the considerations for improving strength and power. Whilst it’s great to have bone crushing strength and power to take into the fight, it’s only good to the degree that you can continually apply it. A fight will ideally be over as quickly as possible, but a big part of doing that is having the confidence that you can outwork and out pace your opponent for 3 x 5 minutes (or 5 x 5 for title fights) if need be.

Developing this requires covering a number of bases. Fatigue resistance is more than just ‘cardio’ as many people put it. It is a combination of Strength Endurance (SE), Power Endurance (PE), optimization of VO2 Max, Lactic tolerance, technical efficiency and the psychological conditioning that comes with training them all. Training these qualities and improving work capacity is dependent on enzymatic, peripheral factors and also the changes to what is known as the central governance of fatigue (CGF). CGF is a thermostat like setting that is governed by the hypothalamus. It regulates the amount of force you can generate in the presence of fatigue. Improving aerobic fitness and aerobic power will adjust the thermostat to allow you to do more whilst under duress. Failure to develop aerobic factors will often lead to a ‘mind is willing, body unable scenario’. Less than ideal if being punched in the face.

Whilst there is no single workout that will solve all your conditioning objectives, there are a number of strategies that when planned at the right time and are supplementary to good sparring/specific training, will certainly improve conditioning for the sport. From my gym in the Hobart CBD, I run the athletes I train through an extensive 12 week program to get them fight ready. Whilst this is not a step-by-step guide on how to prep for a fight, I offer it as an insight into some of the techniques used.

Hobart Featherweight David Simmons after defeating Sam Hibberd by TKO at Hex Fight Series 3 in Melbourne.

Long Slow

This form of training is as old as fighting it self. Boxers and Wrestlers (among others) have used the ‘road run’ as a form of conditioning for years. In some circles it has attracted ridicule as being non-specific or not relevant due to the supposed lack of carry over and diminishing effects on power output. I for one was not a fan of this training method for quite some time, preferring instead to focus on interval-based conditioning. Upon re-examination, my thoughts have shifted though. I now believe that this type of training has a very legitimate place in the yearly plan.

The main actions of MMA are Anaerobic (punching, kicking, grappling etc.), the ability to recover in between these efforts is a product of aerobic metabolism. To the degree that the aerobic system has been developed (and also to the degree that you have anaerobic endurance), the fighter will recover better between combinations, efforts and exchanges. Long slow training will create a training response known as ‘eccentric cardiac hypertrophy’. What this means is that the left atrium of the heart is increased in size , allowing more total blood to be oxygenated with each pump of the heart, and a lower heart rate to be maintained. Strength/resistance training has the opposite effect, causing ‘concentric cardiac hypertrophy’.

As grappling is a form of strength training that encompasses all three forms of contraction (concentric, eccentric and isometric), we will from the concentric cardiac hypertrophy, get a thickening of the muscle fibers of the heart. This will help the heart to pump out more blood at higher heart rates, that in conjunction with the adaptations of lower intensity work will also increase mitochondria density(crucial in energy production and recovery between exchanges) not to mention a number of very important aerobic enzymes.

I recently had an athlete (David Simmons) compete after adjusting his training to include LS training in the preparatory phase and the results were noticeable. He still did all his anaerobic endurance training and the two were very complimentary to his performance. He could literally of fought for 30 minutes straight. The first round ended and he stood in the middle of the cage waiting for his opponent to appear for round two. He then preceded to TKO his opponent at about the two-minute mark of that second round. So much for loss of power output from aerobic training.

The calm before the storm of MAS training for the sponsored athletes of Go-Team Training.

Methods

Run, ride, swim, skip, row or do anything else cyclical in nature. Do it for 30-45 minutes, keeping the heart rate in a sub-maximal range (I like the formula that uses 180 minus age). Do anywhere between 2-4 sessions per week with completion of this training phase approximately 10 weeks out from fighting as part of General Physical Preparedness training (GPP).

 

Max Aerobic Speed (MAS) Training

As we transition out of the GPP phase and towards the competitive phase, there is a requirement to increase the intensity of all training. For our aerobic training we do this with a MAS focus to develop aerobic power. This will expose the athlete to higher intensity aerobic work, in preparation for the specific training that is to come in the form of sparring etc. Many fighters enter the specific phase well underdone. This is in part due to most training being at intensity level well below the MAS of a fight. Both the LS and MAS methods will allow the body’s central governance of fatigue (a thermostat like effect regulated by the hypothalamus) to facilitate higher levels of work capacity.

The first thing we need to do is to test what the Maximal Aerobic Speed of the athlete is. I do this by testing the maximal distance they can row or ride, either on the rowing Erg or Air Dyne bike for 5 minutes. I like these pieces of equipment as they allow for objectivity in both testing and training. We then determine the meters per second speed for the five minutes and that is our MAS. From here we structure training sessions into an interval format, where they are required to work at anywhere from 105% – 130% of the MAS. A large component of energy production when training like this is from anaerobic metabolism, allowing for far more specific transfer to the energy demands for sporting performance.

This is a concept that Professor Dan Baker, President of the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA) has written about in depth (For more on his work, visit http://www.danbakerstrength.com/ )  Some examples of session structure below;

Activity Sets Work Activity Recovery Rest Between Sets
Row 4 – 6 20s @ 120% 40s @ 70% 120s
Air Dyne Bike 4 – 8 30s @ 105 – 110% 30s @ 80 % 120s

Kicking my own ass on the 50 rep test.

Aerobic Plyometrics

As specific training will be entering into more sparring and hard time on the mat, training volume in the gym will decrease and intensity increase (understand the true definition of the terms volume and intensity). What this essentially means is the lung busting, muscle burning training is over (in the weights room that is), and it’s now about developing the ability of the specific muscle fibers to fire repeatedly. My favorite method for this is aerobic plyometrics. The objective of this method is to give the fast twitch fibers the ability to repeatedly apply force.

Training structure is dependent on selecting the most specific actions and then structuring rep/set schemes that require a high number of sets (without repping out), with sub maximal recovery. This will develop the aerobic capacity of the fast twitch fibers. Key is in resisting the temptation to do too much work in each set, as we want to keep the heart rate below the anaerobic threshold. The training should also be alactic, meaning there is no build up of lactic acid. This is a phase of training that many get wrong.

They think it has to involve lots of hard, lactic acid inducing conditioning sessions. This will only detract from sparring, accumulate metabolites (the by-product of energy production) and result in undue fatigue with minimal positive effects on performance (if any). Another common temptation during this training phase is to use Crossfit style workouts, and a ‘smash em’ if all else fails approach. Doing so will have a devastating effect on Power, slowing down contraction speed and incurring MASSIVE levels of neural fatigue. You can tell the guys who have done this on fight night as they’ll usually be the big muscled guys with slow punches that gas out at about the two minute mark of the fight.

Example Workout

 

Serial Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest
A1 Plyometric Push Up 20 2 X On The Minute
A2 Pull Up (Cannonball Grip) 20 1 3.1 x .3 On The Minute

This technique is highly counterintuitive and highly effective. The trainee will be giving you a look of ‘Are you serious, this is too easy’…… but, don’t be mistaken. Over the space of 5-10 workouts, continually adding weight in 1-2kg increments to the workout above, total work capacity for the sport will improve. I measure this by having them test at the beginning of the training block and at the completion. The test I use involves doing a sprawl/burpee, and then up to a chin up, then repeat. 75 reps for time is the target and over the period of the 5-10 workouts, they will reduce they’re time by 10-30%.

You can also use this type of structure with other, relevant movements/activates. For fighters that use wrestling as a big part of their game plan, I do a similar thing but with the Med Ball Shoulder Clean as the exercise (Rope accents are also good). Whilst it doesn’t strictly qualify as a plyometric movement, I like the movement for other reasons. There is no eccentric phase (lowering phase), which will spare the joints at a time when the athlete will be feeling the effects of the training camp. This lack of eccentric loading is also consistent with a lot of moves in wrestling and will also reduce the accumulation of neural fatigue. The testing/KPI is to Clean the Med Ball off the ground, and then powerfully throw it over the shoulder. Turn, repeat and go again until 50 are complete. This is done with a 45kg ball, and will really test you.

The nature of the ‘drop ball’ is such that you have good variation to the training stimulus of traditional bend/pull patterns, as the grip is very difficult and the implement lower to the ground. We then develop the endurance capacity for the test in a similar fashion using 2-3 workouts per week. By only doing two reps, we can execute with high contraction speed, ensuring that the anaerobic endurance qualities are developed and we have the required power to ‘rag-doll’ our opponent. As the great Al Vermeil (The only Strength Coach in history to win both an NBA and NFL championship) used to say, ‘Train slow and you’ll be slow’

Exercise Sets Reps Intensity Rest
MB Shoulder Clean 20 2 Session 1 – 45kg
Session 2 – 45kg
Session 3 – 50kg
Session 4 – 50kg
Session 5 – 55kg
Session 6 – 55kg
Session 7 – 60kg
Session 8 – 60kg
Complete two reps then rest for the remainder of the minute.

Summary

MMA is a sport that requires a unique blend of aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. To get the best out of an athlete, you need to plan accordingly for both. By far the most challenging part of this is the organization and bringing together of all the required training variables. Never forget, skills come first. If the athlete only has a limited amount of time (due to work or a limited capacity for training volume), you need to be smart and incorporate as much of the fitness work into specific skills training and sparring.

Conditioning also needs to be complementary, supplementary and objective. Test and retest. Always be sure that what you are doing is taking them towards better sporting performance, not just training for the sake of training.Aim to elicit the most training adaptations with the least amount of gym time. These workouts are also great for those that just want to improve their fitness. If you doubt me, give one of the MAS workouts a go and let me know what you think.

About the Author

Daniel Lowry

Daniel is a Strength & Conditioning expert and the Co-Founder of the gym concept GTT. He has been in the industry for 13 years, training a broad range of people from Army Special Forces to general populations. He has also worked with professional athletes, specifically in mixed Martial Arts. Daniel has worked with and learnt from the best of the best in the industry, names like Mark Buckley, Charles Poliquin, Dan Baker Phd, Gavin Heward and many more. Daniel considers himself a product of the great mentors he has learnt from.

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