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Fighting Fit

Pratiquante de CrossFit, faisant l'exercice de frappe sur pneu

"Lifting weights & being strong doesn't win fights. Having great timing & being very intelligent wins fights." - Floyd Mayweather Jr

Mayweather is simply the latest of the greats to apparently dismiss weight / strength training. Bruce Lee, Mohamed Ali, Rocky Marciano & many others have said similar things & even refused to do weight training. Many claim that it will slow you down or reduce your endurance. Yet it's obvious that to be a fighter you do need strength along with the speed, endurance & timing (& intelligence) & of course they all did strength training even if it was 'just callisthenics & heavy bag work'. So why the apparent contradiction? There are 2 answers to that. The first & the reason I chose the Mayweather quote is, fighting is a very technical sport where posture, leverage & timing through good technique generates maximum power. Particularly in MMA where the athlete needs to be well rounded & possess the skills of multiple disciplines, by far the majority of a fighter's training time should be dedicated to skills acquisition. Conditioning, vital as it is, must always play a supporting role. The second, which we will look at in more detail later, is there is a big difference between 'body building' (which is / was for most synonymous with weight training) & functional sport specific strength / power training.

While the role of conditioning is secondary to the sport specific training, fighters need to be very 'fit'.

  1. Mobility, flexibility & stability (including core stability & anti-rotation)
  2. integration, co-ordination & balance
  3. strength & strength endurance (strengthen movements not muscles) combined with
  4. reactions, speed / quickness & agility to produce
  5. power & power endurance
  6. cardiovascular, pulmonary & oxygen transportation capacity
  7. metabolic & cellular endurance
  8. cognitive, psychological & emotional

are all 'fitnesses', required by a fighter or just about any other athlete for that matter. None of these aspects stand alone, rather they are inter-related in a complex web (more on each & the relationships in future posts). Much comes from the actual fight training. Many rounds a day of drills, pads, bags, shadow-boxing & of course sparring / rolling at various intensities are still the best way of generating sport specific fitness. In addition emphasising the actual sport specific movement leads to efficiency which in turn reduces the energy cost. A 60min long Jiu-Jitsu rolling session performed at around 60% effort for example is analogous to an endurance athlete's long slow distance (LSD), also known as over distance (OD) training with the specific physical & physiological adaptation to grappling. However sport specific training alone isn't enough to prepare one for the intensity & rigours of a fight.

When preparing a conditioning program for a fighter (or as a fighter) it's important to bearĀ  several things in mind:

Fighters are classified in weight classes

If an athlete gains muscle mass in order to gain a certain amount of strength or even worse for aesthetic reasons & can no longer make weight they may be faced with the prospect of fighting much larger & stronger opponents who are cutting down significantly to make the fighters new weight. A balance must be reached between strength / power requirements & hypertrophy.

There is a non-linear relationship between size & strength. There appears to be a maximum limit to the strength that any given size of muscle can produce, however it is seldom that this potential strength is achieved. Therefore one can tap into this potential without increasing mass through strength training. Correct training can also increase motor unit recruitment i.e. you use more muscle. Additionally, it is possible to greatly increase strength & power through more efficient movement & better timing by training movements, gross athletic & sport specific.

There are times when hypertrophy is desirable e.g. if a fighter struggles to make weight & thus needs to move up a class, but to benefit from the move must be at the upper end of the class in terms of mass. Remember too that extra muscle means extra work for the heart & lungs as well as requiring more energy per minute. If the additional mass is beyond the capacity of the body to maintain it, the fighter might have to slow down to last the distance or risk 'gassing'. So even though the fighter has undoubtedly gained in explosive speed & power they have to fight slower hence the old fears.

Here it is worth taking a look at the difference between 'body-building' & strength / power training. The sport of body-building is all about form: size, symmetry & proportions. There is zero emphasis on function. Therefore the style of training used emphasises hypertrophy over strength & quite importantly for the most part induces sacroplasmic hypertrophy. The sacroplasm (intracellular fluid) & the non-contractile proteins increase. Contrast this to the myofibrillar hypertrophy (often called functional hypertrophy) associated with functional training. Here there is an actual increase in the number of myosin/actin filaments (sacromeres) & therefore the force / strength potential of the muscle leads to more muscle density. Interestingly fewer mitochondria (responsible for energy production & cellular respiration) are produced during myofibrillar hypertrophy & it is possible for sacromere growth to exceed the capacity of the mitochondria. It is therefore import to find a balance in the training.

Fights are unpredictable

Even the set duration is a maximum & the fight could end any time before that. Workouts should be as varied as possible in terms of intensity, duration & style / mode. Ideally the athlete should not be able to prepare themselves mentally or pace themselves other than in a general sense. This will help with the psychology of the unpredictability of the actual fight.

Periodisation?

There are no seasons & fighters could be called on to fight at short notice. Fighters therefore maintain a very high level of fitness year round so that they can peak at short notice. Classical periodisation can only be used with new fighters to build a solid base for the rigours of maintaining a very high level of fitness.

A 4 week cycle with highly varying workouts is used to maintain the fitness at a high level while providing sufficient rest. The overall workload over the first 3 weeks of the cycle is relatively high & constant (with the highly varying component workouts balancing in the summation), the 4th week is a 'rest' week with a workload of 66% of the previous 3. New (adult) fighters are put through a longer term (8 - 12 months depending on their initial level) base building program to prepare them for the rigours of maintaining a very high level of fitness.

'Gassing' as a pacing issue

'Gassing' usually has more to do with pacing than the level of conditioning (a minimum level is required of course). Either the fighter went out too hard or the opponent controlled the pace both of which are strategic issues. Naturally it follows that better conditioning implies the ability to sustain a higher intensity over the same period. More on this topic in a separate post.

Testing & tracking

In a previous post I spoke about the importance of an initial assessment & regular follow up assessments in order to gauge progress & make adjustments. Bio-metric, movement & fitness tests should be performed.

Testing fighter fitness has been simplified with the introduction of a MMA Combine with standardised testing & normative data. The conditioning tests are of particular importance here:

  • Level 2 bleep test;
  • kneeling medicine ball chest launch;
  • 1, 2 & 3 broad jumps;
  • 5-10-15m shuttle run &
  • 20m sprint

are now the standards for measuring endurance; upper body power, lower body power, agility & speed respectively. The tests should be performed before training begins & again every 4 weeks at the end of each cycle.

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