As pointed out by Kyprianou (2018), “coaches should always be prepared to adapt to the current conditions that they are facing”. Before outlining how we do things, I am going to provide some context by explaining the conditions I am currently facing. Should these conditions change, my methods will most likely change as well and would have to adapt to a new reality. Although I train fighters for Grappling, MMA and all forms of Kickboxing (including point-fighting, light contact, full contact, and K1 rules), the scope of this article will be limited to the preparation of Kickboxers in my own gym.
My gym is dedicated to martial arts. I train my athletes in a small Dojo that is deliberately styled very traditionally. We do not have power racks, platforms or a prowler. There are no treadmills or any other cardio equipment – apart from ropes, obviously. However, we have sandbags, kettlebells, bands, weight vests, high parallettes, and portable pull-up mates. Figure 3 gives you an idea of what my place looks like.
Figure 4: Sparring at my gym. No fluff, no fitness area.
Most of my athletes are on the mat four times a week. We practice Stand-Up fighting on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Monday and Saturday, we have additional grappling classes. Each class is ninety minutes, so my most ambitious athletes spend nine hours a week on their specific practice.
Twice weekly, on days where no skill practice is scheduled, some do additional S&C training, while others do not. Again, those who invest time in additional S&C are divided into two groups. One group participates in a group S&C training that I supervise at another gym. These sessions follow a twice-weekly, six-exercise total body template, consisting of an upper-body push and pull, a lower-body push and pull as well as two core-specific stability exercises. Each session would include some weightlifting derivatives, some medicine ball throws, some jumps, some strength work and in many cases, some power endurance at the end. Usually, we implement a daily undulating periodization (DUP) scheme where each day is devoted to a certain quality. More often than not, that means doing a power day earlier in the week and a strength day later. Sometimes, we choose a split of strength and hypertrophy, in rare cases hypertrophy and local muscular endurance (LME). There will still be some jumping and medicine ball work even in the latter case. I simply do not believe that an athlete should be kept away from moving fast, at least in low volumes, at any time.
The other group either trains at home or goes to other fitness gyms in the area. I program all sessions for my athletes, regardless of where they train. These optional S&C sessions are highly individualized and specifically tailored towards the needs of an individual. For example, one of my most successful athletes suffers from rather severe scoliosis, so axial loading is to be avoided. Together with her physical therapist, I am writing plans that allow her to still train as hard as possible while devoting a big part of the session to prehab exercises. I have her do a ton of transverse plane stability drills such as Paloff presses, renegade rows, horizontal cable rows in a side plank position and the like. To specifically address scoliosis, we do some kettlebell windmills and there’s always a time block reserved for her Schroth exercises. I’m unsure if that makes a difference in the big picture, but there’s very little downside to incorporating these types of drills, as they can usually be paired with bigger lifts and cause very little additional fatigue. For absolute strength development, she does some belt squats and single-leg press (which I usually avoid with my other athletes), simply because it spares her spine from too much compression. For the upper body, it’s quite a bit of bench pressing, as overhead pressing is just not an option. While reading Antifragile by Nassim Nicolas Taleb, I learned about the concept of via Negativa. This means adding by subtraction or put differently, actively avoiding the things that will result in a downside. For my athlete, that means avoiding all the things that will hurt her (or have a high likelihood of doing so). This via Negativa is really my prevalent thought when planning her S&C training – keep her free from pain, do some work to build resilience, only add as much high-intensity work as absolutely needed to make the smallest (yet consistent) improvements.
In contrast, I have a young middleweight who is just the perfect physical specimen. No injuries, no limitations, perfect mobility, great motor learning – in short, he is every athletic trainer’s dream. With him, I implement a very much linear program, Bompa style – anatomical adaptation, hypertrophy, max strength, power, taper, competition, transition, rinse and repeat. In his plans, you will find pretty much every training modality. Depending on the goal of the training block, that could mean high volume bodyweight training, power-lifting oriented barbell work, Olympic weightlifting or high-intensity plyometrics. Although preventing injury and overtraining are always at the top of my list when designing programs, I don’t need to be as careful in that regard with him as I’d have to be with the athlete in the previous example. Experience shows me that this guy can take both volume and intensity without any problem. Hence, I can take a much more aggressive approach when designing programs for him.
It all depends on the individual athlete and the context we are working in, really. Some athletes may need more strength, while others need to work on their aerobic capacity. Everyone comes in with a different set of goals, needs, abilities, and limitations. All of these things need to be taken into consideration when designing a training program.
My fighters compete much less often than, say, soccer players, so I usually have some time to develop them in between the fights. On the other hand, there is always a possibility that a short-term opportunity arises, so I need them to stay close to their competitive shape at all times. Also, there’s no clear-cut off-season. Overall, my periodization model is probably closest to Charlie Francis’ vertical integration in that at any point in time my athletes are doing everything, but with shifting emphasis in terms of volume. There are blocks during which a certain quality or aspect is emphasized more than others, but never to their exclusion.
On the mat, each session is a mixed session. Depending on the training block, the emphasis will be on one or two qualities, but everything else will still be done at least at maintenance volumes.
We employ a RAMP model, as proposed by Jeffreys (2007). The session starts with a short general warm-up, either light running, rope skipping, shadow sparring or some coordination drills. After that, my athletes go through a standardized dynamic warm-up-routine (activate and mobilize) that is heavily influenced by the FMS, namely, the Joint-by-Joint approach. The FMS has earned a bad rap in the last time, mostly for being outdated and/or not evidence-based (as in the injury prediction aspect). While I get the critique, I still believe that many of the observations still hold true. The joint by joint approach makes sense to me. The goal of the warm-up is not only to prepare the body optimally for the following stress but also to anchor the mind. In competition, I am going through the same routine with the team to get them to an optimal level of nervous arousal. After the warm-up routine, we go directly into the plyometrics outlined in the following Section.
Speed and Power
After the warm-up, we include plyometrics or at least, jumps. For example, we might do non-CM jumps which, while explosive in nature, are not plyometric by definition as they do not involve a Stretch-Shortening-Cycle (SSC). Gambetta (207) stated that “It is more scientifically accurate and more descriptive to call this method elastic, or reactive training, but that is a cumbersome, term; hence the term plyometrics is more commonly used”. Basically, I follow the EXOS guidelines here. Since speed is trained 4x weekly, we are limiting the volume to 1 – 2 sets of 4 – 6 reps per exercise, for just 1 – 3 exercises. This is roughly in line with the recommendations made by de Villarreal, Requena and Newton (2010).
Video 1: Plyometrics are a good way of making advanced athletes stronger and more explosive. However, due to the high forces that are involved, they are also somewhat dangerous. A sensible teaching progression is therefore crucial. When we drill hip dominant plyos to complement our resistance training, we start from low-impact exercises such as in-place drop squats and progress all the way to true plyometrics.
Speed has the shortest training residual, so I prefer to micro-dose that quality and always do something, even if it is not enough to induce adaptation but rather mere maintenance. Anecdotally speaking, when I trained in Thailand, I saw some solid fighters who simply were not athletic. They were unable to perform basic yet non-specific movement drills such as A-Skips and B-Skips. I certainly do not believe that these general drills make a big difference in a full-contact bout. However, I do strongly believe that general athleticism is a mirror of coordination which in turn forms the foundation of adaptability. Adaptability, the ability to adapt to a changing environment and changing demands, is at the base of resilience. Fitness, as defined by Darwin, pretty much revolves around that ability to adapt to the environment and evolve to suit the demands. Withstanding a situation or a stressor is not as efficient and elegant as adapting to it. At the Polish S&C association conference in 2018, Rett Larson, S&C coach of the Chinese Olympic diving and women’s volleyball teams, was talking about how highly specialized his athletes are and how the introduction of any novel training stimulus holds an unproportionally increased risk of injury. I firmly believe that resilience is one of the key qualities a fighter needs to possess. Valle (2019) comments that “Resilience and robustness are buzzwords, but we should probably think about capacity as the ability to rebound from high stress instead of managing training load like a scared gatekeeper”. Evidence (Myer et al. 2008, Turner and Jeffreys 2010, Wilson and Flanagan 2008) supports the usefulness of (properly performed) plyometric training as a means of decreasing the likelihood of injury. It is my belief that low-level plyometrics are worth being included in daily practice. They might have the potential to prevent some injuries and they don’t add much training stress, so the cost-to-benefit ratio looks good to me, even if the benefit may no include a carryover to performance.
As pointed out above, my more serious athletes spend time in the weight room, usually on Wednesdays or Fridays, when they don’t have skill practice. However, not all of my athletes do that. I am convinced that strength training is one of the best things an athlete can do for injury prevention (on the via Positiva side – the via Negative is not doing anything that results in preventable injuries). Hence, to at least administer a minimal effective dose of strength training to everyone who trains with me, I’ve come to make it a part of skill practice.
Since this strength work is on top of anything my athletes would do outside of skill practice, I have to be very careful not to overload them. Morrill (2019) stated that “Sustainability of a strength and conditioning program is essential for fighters…” and that “…what makes this system sustainable long term are the low training volumes and limited eccentric work, which also help reduce muscle hypertrophy and delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS)…”. I could not agree more.
According to Gambetta (2007), “strength training for athletic performance involves the application of basic concepts:”
- Train movements, not muscle
- Train core strength before extremity strength
- Build Strength from the bottom up
- Incorporate pulling, pushing, and squatting movements that enhance linkage
- Overload to force adaptation
- Sensibly vary the mode and the load.
Implementing all those concepts outside of a weight room setting is not easy, but after some trial and error, we reached an acceptable solution. After the jumps we follow up with a five to seven minutes strength block, where we do a modified naked warrior routine, consisting of push-ups, squats, and pull-ups. With respect to push-ups, Staley (1999) states that they are “far from efficient exercise. … Once an individual can do more than ten repetitions, the exercise can only develop strength-endurance, … it must be modified so that very high intensities (one to five repetitions) can be reached. Only in this way can proper strength qualities be trained”.
Video 2: Resistance training is an integral component of each training session at my gym. Due to equipment constraints, we sometimes need to be creative and find unconventional ways of overloading the movement to force adaptation.
Tsatsouline (2003) states that “Strength can mean a lot of different things. It cannot be taken out of context. … It is a fact: respectable strength can only be built with high-resistance, low-rep exercises that impose high levels of tension on the muscles. Note that I said ‘resistance’, not ‘weight’. A case in point: There are a lot more double-bodyweight benchers out there than men who can chin themselves with one arm”. Luckily, it is very simple to modify basic upper-body exercises such as the Push-Up and Pull-Up in such a fashion that very high resistance is achieved. In the case of the former, changing the inclination angle all the way from a hands-elevated push up to a handstand push-up offers a straight-forward way of manipulating the intensity (even though the force vector is greatly changed and hence, the two would technically not be the same exercise). Another way is to progress from the bilateral version to the single arm push up. For Pull-Ups, levers can be manipulated (e.g., in the case of archer pull-ups) or Kettlebells can be used as additional weight. Although the latter would technically not be considered bodyweight training, it can be done with very little equipment demands. Properly loading the squat pattern without barbells is much more challenging (and arguably, can’t be done to a sufficient degree with advanced athletes). Still, single-leg squats, pistol squats, skater squats, etc. can be used to achieve a certain overload. When that is not enough, we sometimes go to partner-based resistance exercises.