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Strength and Conditioning for Combat Sports

Strength and Conditioning for Combat Sports

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Strength and Conditioning for Combat Sports

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May 20, 2018


The role of the strength and conditioning coach for a combat athlete is to perform a needs analysis in which both the fighter as an individual and the sport itself are assessed in order to develop a high-performance programme. This might include plyometrics, speed and agility, endurance and core stability, strength training and nutrition as just some of the pieces of this complex jigsaw. The aim is to increase strength, speed, power, endurance, agility and flexibility. Strength and Conditioning for Combat Sports aims to help the coach and athlete bridge the gap between the theory of training and applied training, helping the athlete to become faster, stronger and more flexible and to build their muscular endurance so they perform better and remain injury-free. This will be essential reading for all martial arts coaches and practitioners and sports science students. Fully illustrated with 330 colour photographs and 90 diagrams.
May 20, 2018

Informazioni sull'autore

Darren Yas Parr trained with Muay Thai Masters in the late 80s and early 90s, and has worked in the health and fitness industry since 1996. He has been a strength and conditioning coach since 2005, and has a BSc in Sports Performance (Hons) and many certifications in strength and conditioning, fitness and nutrition. Originally from Manchester, UK, Darren Yas Parr is now based in the US, and has worked with athletes from children to adult Olympians and professionals.

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Strength and Conditioning for Combat Sports - Darren Yas Parr



What is Strength and Conditioning?

Strength and conditioning is the physical development of athletes for elite sport performance. The role of the S&C coach is to bridge the gap between the theory of training and applied training, helping athletes to become faster, stronger and more flexible and to build their muscular endurance so they perform better and remain injury free.

Strength and conditioning is about more than lifting weights – it encompasses the entire development of the athlete and what is needed to improve physical performance. This includes plyometrics, speed and agility, endurance and core stability, with strength training being just one piece of the jigsaw.

A Strength and conditioning coach works alongside a sports coach to assist him or her in designing specific programmes that will address the particular needs of the athlete, team and sport. There are many ways a well-constructed programme can add to the rehabilitation, speed, agility, endurance and strength of the athletes, although a periodized one that targets both strengths and weaknesses will produce the best possible performance. (English Institute of Sport)

What is a Strength and Conditioning Coach/Specialist?

An S&C coach is a practitioner with the specialist skills and competencies for the planning and implementation of physical preparation programmes for performance. It includes processes that result in physical adaptation through integrating fitness components into a programme, which complements other aspects of the performer’s development. This includes, though not exclusively, strength, speed, power, endurance, agility and flexibility (Jeffreys, I., 2011).

A strength and conditioning specialist is not a:

•Fitness instructor

•Personal trainer

•Physiotherapist/physical therapist

•Exercise physiologist


•Sports coach

(Jeffreys, I., 2011)

S&C is the fastest growing sector for elite sport. When deciding on a coach or specialist, you should look for:

•A degree




The strength and conditioning coach for a combat athlete will be able to perform a needs analysis in which both the fighter as an individual and the sport performed will be assessed and from the evaluation a high performance programme can then be written. This programme will be designed to increase strength, speed, power, endurance, agility and flexibility.

As previously stated, a strength and conditioning coach is a specialist in his own right and is not to be confused with the occupations from the above list, which often assume to take on the role for the fighter looking for a performance enhancement programme.


ASCA – Levels 0-3: Intern, Professional, Elite and Master S&C Coach

NSCA – Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)

UKSCA – Accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach (ASCC)




As fighter training is so traditionally ‘old school’ the standard of strength and conditioning in the majority of combat sports is at best many, many years behind other sports.

MMA, more than likely because it is a new sport, tends to be a long way in front of the others when it comes to how the fighters are trained, and even then it is only certain individuals who receive the level of training that could be expected by elite athletes in other sports. At the total opposite end of the scale are Western-style boxers, with most of their fitness training at best decades behind other top-level athletes.

However, it does seem that times are changing, although this is dependent on geography. British and Eastern European boxers are stepping up their game and are training to become much more powerful. They now seem to have got the message that training to improve power takes them to another level, while their American counterparts are still swimming and doing 10-mile runs to prepare for competition.

Australian boxers are rising fast and those that are achieving success also seem to be employing high-quality strength and conditioning coaches that know better than to have their fighters doing the ‘old school’ training.

Thai boxers, kick boxers and every other type of combat athletes/martial artists tend to fall somewhere in the middle. These combat sports tend to be so set in their ways that it’s difficult for a fighter to get elite level training for performance enhancement.

Boxing and Thai boxing trainers and the fitness ‘experts’ that are often employed at traditional fighting gyms tend to have the fighters do what they did when they trained to fight and this philosophy was passed down from their trainers. Most trainers involved tend to have this attitude and those who are a little more open to up to date strength and conditioning very often employ a person with an ‘interest’ in fitness or fighting or just a run of the mill personal trainer.

The general idea with a fighter’s conditioning is that if something is difficult or tiring, then it must be beneficial. After a general preparation phase there has to be a specific preparation phase, meaning the training done by the fighter has to have transference to the sport/art.

This book is written with the goal of training the combat athlete to be stronger, faster and have the ability to display these values for longer. It is a book that provides valuable information on not just how to become strong but how to produce this strength fast. It also advises on conditioning and, while most coaches that train fighters are either overly obsessed with aerobic conditioning or are ‘aerobicphobic’, this book takes a logical stance on the subject as extreme views are very rarely optimal.

The majority of a typical fighter’s strength and conditioning training has absolutely no transference to what they do and actually makes them slower and weaker. Whilst using a sauna suit may be justifiable when a fighter is attempting to make weight, the use of one in everyday training under the illusion that it will cause fat loss is very naïve. Body temperature is raised while training, leading to increased perspiration. However, that is all it is: a reduction in weight due to the dehydration effect; the weight is just as quickly put back on when the athlete rehydrates. As already mentioned, the sauna suit can be a very useful tool for an athlete when cutting weight but, as with any other tool used for this purpose, it carries potential dangers that the experienced fighter and coach will be well aware of such as: dehydration, hyperthermia, and excessive mineral and electrolyte loss. The same can also be said for products such as Sweet Sweat and the make-up remover Abolene, which are very useful tools for cutting weight but are quite useless when it comes to acting as an agent for fat loss.

Obviously in professional boxing there is a distinct advantage over lower-profile fighting sports because the weigh-in is the day before the fight. This rule was decided because of the massive health risks associated with cutting weight immediately before the fight. Although many combat organizations do now schedule the weigh-in a day in advance of the contest, many lower-profile combat sports quite often don’t have this luxury.

Also, many fighters are told to shadow box while holding weights with the idea that it will make them faster but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is understandable that after the weights have been used the hands, because they now have no resistance and so are lighter, may ‘feel’ faster to the fighter when in actual fact even the immediate effect is less speed.

Fig. 1.1 Pace weights.

There is a big difference between training a movement pattern that will carry over directly to a sport and simulation training, which involves imitation of a specific movement. The way to shadow box with weights without developing problems such as a faulty recruitment pattern is to use weights that do not apply too much resistance. The only ones recommended are named Pace Weights, which fit into the palm of a person’s hand and only weigh 8oz so they are the same weight as 8oz gloves and so would be good for transference to the sport.

Using more resistance than that used in the sport forces the body or limbs to perform at a different speed, recruiting different muscles and so also using different patterns of muscular functioning when compared with the movements of competition.

When performing simulation there will usually be changes in the centre of gravity, moments of inertia, centre of rotation, centre of percussion and mechanical stiffness of the system, which alter the neuromuscular skills required in the sport. (Siff, 2009)

Simulation should form no part of a fighter’s strike training. Strength and skill are different aspects of training and generally should be developed separately.

It is detrimental for a stand-up combat athlete who relies on explosive unloaded movements to perform simulation with heavier implements such as shadow boxing with dumbbells. However, the same cannot be said for a grappler, who would find it extremely beneficial to use specific exercises with implements such as heavier or lighter sacks, dummies and so on, or with training partners from a heavier or lighter weight class.

There are coaches who are trying to incorporate better, more modern strategies with their fighter’s training, and some tell their fighter to throw punches using rubber bands as resistance. However, this is also a poor approach.

Elastic force increases with the degree of extension, so that resistance begins from zero value and increases with movement range. Therefore, elastic materials should not be used for developing starting strength or explosive strength. When a fighter throws a punch, starting strength is used to initiate the explosive movement. At the end range the external rotators of the shoulder fire and act as breaks, decelerating the humerus to stop dislocation of the shoulder. The more hypertrophy a muscle has the better it functions as a set of brakes; the later the external rotators are able to wait before firing, the harder the fighter can hit. Weak external rotators will decelerate early. Using elastic resistance turns this on its head; not only are the punches slower but there is no need for the ‘brakes’ to switch on because the movement is against an ever-increasing resistance.

Another old school view is that supplements are an expensive luxury that lead to expensive urine, and that if the training is difficult enough then the fighter can pretty much eat what he/she likes. While it is possible for someone to be excellent at what they do while on a poor diet, this does not mean that they are anywhere near optimal health and their genetic potential.

At some point during traditional fighter training the athlete will become overtrained. The art and skill of modern S&C methods, if done correctly, will ensure that the athlete does not suffer from under-recovery. Obviously, suitable training protocols will help ensure this, along with good nutrition, lifestyle management and high-quality supplementation.

‘Journeymen’ fighters and female fighters may find it almost impossible to structure their S&C to allow them to ‘peak’ on a set date. Journeymen tend, in many cases, to take fights at short notice and so for these fighters the best advice would be to attempt to stay as close to fighting fitness as possible. Female fighters tend to run into different problems, such as fights all too easily being cancelled and then another date (usually quite soon) being lined up. In this scenario it would be a mistake to try and hold the ‘peak’ that had been achieved as this would lead to overtraining, burnout and so on. A far more sensible and successful approach would be to take a few days or a week off but perform active rest during this recovery period and then, depending on when the fight has been rescheduled, e.g. 3 or 4 weeks later, take the strength and conditioning back to this amount of time before the original date and aim to hit peak performance on the new date.

If fights are lined up quite close together then an advantageous approach to avoid over-training would be fewer reps with a lower percentage of 1RM (1 repetition maximum) e.g. 3 × 2 @ 4RM or 3 × 3 @ 6RM. This way heavy enough weights are lifted to maintain strength but fatigue and damage can be avoided.

The training must be specific, it must replicate the demands of the sport and there must be a high degree of transfer.

A combat sport such as boxing is estimated to be 70–80 per cent anaerobic, 20–30 per cent aerobic. It is high-intensity bursts of fast combinations with the slower component between these intense bursts being the aerobic part of the fight. Combat sports such as Muay Thai, MMA and BJJ do require great strength and the ability to be explosive to compete at a high level but the longer the contact is between combat athletes the greater the aerobic demand. Grappling obviously does involve contact for much longer time periods but even the clinch in Muay Thai means contact between the fighters is much greater than in Western boxing.


An idea that is ingrained in the old school psyche is that long runs are an absolute necessity, with the idea being that if the athlete can function for a long period of time then it will transfer to the duration of the contest. Often the idea is that the longer the endurance training, the more equipped the athlete will be to see out the fight. This takes absolutely nothing into account in regards to energy systems, muscle fibre type recruitment and so on.

Where the long steady-paced run could be invaluable is when building the aerobic base, for the simple fact that keeping the heart rate low can be much easier when running at a slow pace than attempting to keep the heart rate down performing a different type of activity.

Because of the old school theories on conditioning for fighters such as the insistence on ‘road work’, which is the typical long sub-maximal run, many combat athletes tend to show up to the weigh-in ‘skinny fat’, which is looking quite skinny but still having little definition because of a high body fat (B.F.) percentage. A male combat athlete should ideally be well under 10 per cent B.F. and a female should be well under 16 per cent B.F., with these figures actually quite high in comparison to a highly conditioned athlete.

Being in better condition due to an appropriate conditioning programme would mean the athlete could either come in lighter by retaining the same level of muscle but be leaner, or they could weigh at the same weight by replacing the excess fat (useless weight) with high-quality functional muscle.

There are still many trainers who have their combat athletes do absolutely no strength training, believing that the best conditioning for a boxer is standard boxing training in the gym combined with long, steady-paced runs early in the morning. The view of these trainers is that if a fighter is lifting weights, even if done correctly, then he is bodybuilding. There is a huge difference between bodybuilding and strength training for increased athletic performance. Traditional bodybuilding is nonfunctional hypertrophy.

An appropriate strength and conditioning programme can massively improve a fighter but an inappropriate one, such as those for bodybuilding, can have a negative effect, not just on speed and fitness but also on technique.

Non-functional hypertrophy (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) doesn’t lead to an improvement in the capacity to improve force but it does lead to added body weight (thus you have to carry more weight without having more strength). (Thibaudeau, 2006)

If a fighter can fight at the same weight but be faster and much stronger then surely he would be much better. Combat athletes, trainers, commentators and even members of the general public all talk about ‘power’ when watching a fight/tournament; the definition of power is force × velocity.

While standard training of the sport is vitally important in preparation of the athlete, surely the benefit of becoming more powerful is priceless?

Training the fighter aerobically would have a negative effect on every other quality; the greater the aerobic endurance demand, the less maximal strength the fighter will have. If a person trains aerobically they become neurologically inefficient and aerobic; rhythmic contractions change the body’s chemistry and fast twitch myosin start to behave like slow twitch. How to gain supreme aerobic conditioning without compromising gains in power will be covered later in the book.


Many combat sport trainers and/or those who are employed to condition the fighters like to get the athlete swimming. While this might be good on a recovery/rest day, or even for some kind of rehab, it has absolutely no carry-over to a combat sport.

While swimming is a person lying in water, besides taking into account buoyancy and so the change in gravity and centre of gravity, the water is an isokinetic medium, meaning it matches the force expended with a return of force almost the same. A little force will encounter a little resistance and a greater force will encounter a greater resistance.

Fighting has no similarities with any of these things. On land the combat athlete’s muscles resist gravity but in water movements are independent from gravity and so when the force against the water stops, the resistance stops. As speed of movement through water is much slower due to the resistance, when simulation such as any type of striking, e.g. punches, kicks, knees, elbows and so on, done in the water will have a very negative effect.

It is estimated that when the water is at chest level, body weight is 90 per cent less than on land and because water has a density around 800 times greater than air then all the negative aspects of simulation are again applicable here.

It is possible to perform isokinetic training on machines but these have been shown to be deficient in regards to conditioning the neuromuscular system for explosive rapid movements or the elastic properties of the connective tissue that is essential for any ballistic action.

An idea that is very traditional but has also been shown to be outdated is that sex before competing will have a negative effect. It has been shown that sex actually increases testosterone, not only in male fighters but also in females. FSN Sports Science in the US tested the theory on two separate occasions, the first time with World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Chris Byrd (2007), the second time with female amateur boxing great Liz Q. Parr (2008). Both fighters showed an increase in speed, power and testosterone levels.

How it Should be Done

Without the ability to move and function as well as possible then the best training programme in the world will not have the desired impact.

Any coach wishing his fighter to reach and perform to his or her physical potential should incorporate a strategic strength and conditioning programme. The faster, stronger fighter will be able to work at a level that surpasses that of his opponents.

One of the main problems with an ‘old school’ view on training is that just doing or practising the sport is the most optimal way of being in the best shape possible. While more and more knowledge is becoming available in regards to strength and conditioning, only those living in the Dark Ages refuse to acknowledge that becoming profoundly more powerful by supplementing traditional training with a well-written strength and conditioning programme is not the way forward.

A strength and conditioning coach working with a fighter should be able to identify the key factors that affect strength, power and performance and the principal adaptations that occur in these systems as a result of a strength and conditioning programme. It’s the coach’s job to identify the key fitness components of the combat sport and analyse the optimal methods to elicit positive adaptations in these systems. The competent S&C specialist will integrate fitness components resulting in adaptations in strength, speed, power, endurance, agility and flexibility.

Fig. 1.2 Performance pyramid. (NSCA, 2012)

When performing the needs analysis of the combat athlete as an individual the S&C coach needs to analyse:

•Physical capacities

•Training age

•Psychomotor skills

•Stress tolerance

The S&C coach should then carry out a needs analysis for the sport/art and evaluate how current performance in these elements would be assessed.

After performing an individual analysis of the fighter the coach needs to then programme, monitor, evaluate and finally adapt. A programme has to be written with the end in mind, starting with a needs analysis so that there is a base for evaluation. The needs analysis looks at the sport/art performed by the combat athlete and at the fighter as an individual, at his/her training age, physical capacities, stress tolerance and psychomotor skills.

Identify requirements relating to:

•The sport

•The dominant movements

•The athlete

•Identify key sports movements

•Identify force requirements

•Identify speed of motion

•Identify range of motion

(Modified from Jeffreys, I., 2011)

Coaching Objectives

•Construct a logical system behind designing a strength and conditioning programme

•Suitably programme training variables to fit together in a periodized strength programme

•Plan long term for sustained performance and goals achieved.

Fig. 1.3 The Role of Strength and Conditioning in Fight Performance. (Adapted from Jamieson 2009)

Benefits of Strength Training for the Combat Athlete

• Performance enhancement

• Reduced risk of injury

Essential component for Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD)

The majority of combat athletes go into a fight underprepared for performance. Where they are at physically and where they potentially could be is frightening. Strength forms the basis of many key sports performance parameters:





Fig. 1.4 Southpaw displaying explosive rotation with a hook to the head. (Photo: Mark Ruddick)

Testing Performance Qualities

(Adapted from Landow’s Table 2.1, p. 12, 2016)

Performance and Training

Character – Respect, integrity, caring

Tactics – Special, offensive, defensive

Skill – Complex, open, closed

Physiology – Fitness, health, nutrition

Psychology – Confidence, commitment, focus

Emotion – Self-control, passion, energized

Environment – Altitude, cold, heat

(EXOS, 2012)


Power – Explosive, speed

Strength – Absolute, relative, specific

Nutrition – Fuels, hydration, nutrients

Fatigue – Anaerobic alactic, anaerobic lactic, aerobic

Oxygen transport – Pulmonary, peripheral, Central

Health – Overtraining, disease, injury

Rest/Fatigue – Recovery, sleep, repair

(EXOS, 2012)

Testing the Aerobic System

Simple tests:

Estimated VO2 max:

• ‘Bleep/Beep’ Test

• Leger-Boucher Test

Bleep Test

The 20m multi-stage fitness test (MSFT) is also known as the bleep test, beep test or the 20m shuttle run test.


Flat surface larger than 20m in length20m tape measure


Audio system

Bleep test audio

Sheets for recording participant’s results

Performing the test

The test is set up by marking two points 20m apart, between which continuous running is performed to audio ‘beeps’. At the start of the test the participants wait at point (cone) A and face point (cone) B waiting for instructions from the audio test to start running.

Upon starting the test the athlete runs backward and forward between the cones with the goal of being synchronized with the audio ‘beep’, which is at set intervals. As the test continues the time between beeps becomes shorter and so forces the athlete to run faster to remain synchronized with the audio beep. The test is done until it is impossible for the athlete to keep up.

Leger-Boucher Test

This is performed in a similar way to the bleep test and is performed on a circular running track. Markers are placed every 50m and the athlete must reach each marker before the beep sounds. Just like the bleep test, the time between beeps becomes shorter as the test proceeds.

Testing the Anaerobic System

Simple tests:

AAP: Vertical jump

AAC: 40m sprint or 20 seconds of resistance training for a specific muscle group

ALP: 30-second run or 30 seconds of resistance work for a specific muscle group

ALC: 90-second run or 90 seconds of resistance work for a specific muscle group

(Benoit, 2015)

Anaerobic Capacity Test

Line Drills (Suicide Drills)


• Stopwatch

• Two timers

Performing the test

•Adequate warm-up

•Allowed one run through course at submaximal speed

•Required to touch each line with foot and be at starting line 2 minutes after completion of each trial

•Start at point A (baseline on basketball floor)

•Start stopwatch on ‘Go’ command

•From point A to point B (the near free-throw line) and back (38ft)

•From point A to point C (the midcourt line) and back (94ft for college, 84ft for high school)

•From point A to point D (the far free-throw line) and back (150ft for college, 130ft for high school)

•From point A to point E (the far baseline) and back (188ft for college, 168ft for high school).

The total distance is 470ft on a college court and 420ft on a high school court.

•Stop the watch when the athlete passes point A.

•On completion of the course, the second timer starts the watch and gives the athlete 2 minutes’ rest.

•The athlete repeats the course three more times, with 2 minutes’ rest between reps.

•Calculate the average time of the four trials.

The fighter needs to be conditioned to repeat the intense effort needed without a decrease in performance repeatedly throughout the course of an entire situation (accumulative fatigue). His alactic ‘capacity’ must be equal to his one-time alactic ‘power’ to work at his full genetic potential. He must possess everything from explosive strength to the capacity to maintain speed in fatigued conditions.

This way, as the rest periods become shorter the CV system gets used to working for longer periods at a high intensity and the body gets more proficient at working at anaerobic threshold, while the aerobic system is also becoming better conditioned during the rest periods.

A fighter can be working at 100 per cent effort but at only 80 per cent of his capabilities; it’s impossible to work at 100 per cent for a sustained period so the goal would be conditioning the fighter to work closer to his max for longer.

Anaerobic Alactic Capacity

• 4 to 8 seconds for the average person

• 10 to 20 seconds for elite athletes

200m sprint

Anaerobic Lactic Power

• 20 to 40 seconds

• 400m

If the combat athlete trains aerobically he becomes neurologically inefficient, aerobic rhythmic contractions change the body’s chemistry and fast twitch myosin start to behave like slow twitch. Aerobic specialization should be carried out prior to training for the pursuit of added power.

Testosterone levels peak after about 15 minutes and begin to level off after another 30–45 minutes of training. It is possible to perform briefer workouts with greater frequency to maintain the highest quality of training sessions.

Maximal efforts lasting less than 20 seconds would train the nervous system and would make the athlete unbelievably strong but not really change the way he looks. The nervous system needs a lot longer to recover than the muscular system so the rest periods would need to be 3 to 5 minutes. This training has to be a very high percentage of the fighter’s maximum, i.e. if he’s using a resistance that he is capable of using for a lot longer then stopping him after less than 20 seconds would not get the desired results; he has to be maxed out.

Resistance work lasting 40 to 70 seconds would be the best way to change the appearance/weight of the fighter, e.g. add muscle or lose fat. This would still be the best kind of training for somebody that wants to lean down but not put on more muscle. Again, the athlete needs to be working at a level where 70 seconds is the maximum time that he or she can do. Incomplete rest is also a massive factor when aiming to become leaner; it is possible to ‘bend the rules’, a rep range that would be typical for gains in strength can also be used for fat loss if incomplete rest is used.

Twenty to 40 seconds would be 50 per cent nervous system training, 50 per cent body composition training; this would be called functional strength/hypertrophy.

Longer than 70 seconds of resistance work would be strength endurance.

Interval training should have a work to rest ratio of between 1:1 and 1:6.

Wingate Test

Another test for the anaerobic system is the Wingate Test,which is usually carried out on a cycle ergometer and measures anaerobic power and anaerobic capacity. These are two values that are deemed vitally important for

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