Serious Fitness for Fighters in 3 Sessions a Week

Avoid injury by finding balance between your combat sport and your conditioning. This three training day plan will send you in the right direction.

It’s easy to get derailed when you train for a sport. With so much to balance – from skills training, to strength and conditioning, to whatever flexibility is needed for the sport, to recovery processes – it can seem like a minefield. And if the sport is a fighting art it gets even trickier, as you’re constantly trying to recover from minor injuries as well.

Functional Training Defined

As we’ve traveled along on the pendulum of fitness over the last few years, the trend has gone from bodybuilding style training to “functional” training. I have to put it in quotation marks because no one seems to know exactly what that means.

Some will tell you “functional” training means the exercises you do in the gym should replicate what your sport looks like. Others will say it means all your training time should be spent looking like a circus performer balancing on one leg while performing what always looks like single-arm cable sissy punches. The final choice always seems to be something to do with tires. I’m not sure how flipping tires is functional unless you’re a truck mechanic, but it’s all the rage for many of the functional brigade.

My idea of functional training is that it has nothing to do with the implement or the action. The only thing I am worried about is whether or not it improves the sport performance of the individual in front of me.

As an example, a few years ago I had five ADCC competitors all training under me. They were clearly training for the same event, yet every program was completely individual. The reason was that every single competitor needed something different. As further example, there were two trainees with bad shoulders. But they had different shoulder problems, so they got different training plans.

Many assert that strength is the mother quality and all other physical qualities come from maximal strength. Clearly none of those people have ever found themselves in the deep end of an untimed submission-only match. There is a real reason why fighters have prized fitness over other physical qualities since time began (except skills, which always come first). Of course we need strength, but we don’t need to focus all our time in the gym on strength when we need conditioning even more.

What About Conditioning and Recovery?

But once we start picking at the conditioning thread, it can unravel into an unholy mess very quickly. Do you work on aerobic or anaerobic conditioning? If you choose anaerobic, do you pick lactic or alactic? And if you choose either of the anaerobic means, do you pick a cyclic mono-structural method such as running or rowing, or do you use a tool-based circuit or complex?

“Keep strength sessions at an average intensity of 70%, but go hard at the fitness work when appropriate.”

Recovery is another issue. One of the mistakes I see many people who train fighters make is not considering how hard every session is on the body. Before Kokoro, I was training between three and four hours a day. Yet a single ninety-minute BJJ class feels much worse on the body if you have some hard rounds in it. So time in the gym can’t be just focused on performance, as you need some garage time, too. You also need to focus on recovery while you’re at home through food and sleep, of course, but also through foam rolling, massage, and suppleness work such as yoga.

Training for Fighters

Once you add in how many times per week a serious combat sports athlete trains, you start to run out of time to put all of this into the week. So let’s simplify.

There are three major qualities fighters need to work on:

  • Strength or power
  • Strength or power endurance
  • Conditioning

I’ve deliberately left these broad, as they can be manipulated depending on time of year and proximity to competitions. The further away from competition you are, the less likely you are to need either power or power endurance. You can also do less anaerobic training and focus on building your aerobic capacity so you can better deal with the stress of the harder training to come. (To better understand the importance of the aerobic system and some ideas on how to train it, please see this article.)

If you’re even somewhat serious about your combat sport, it’s likely you’ll be training three or more times per week. Often the difficulty with trying to get combat athletes to spend time in the gym is that there is no off-season. Because of this, they need to be close to fight shape year round so they don’t need a huge amount of time to get ready for a match or tournament opportunity that may crop up.

Aerobic conditioning for BJJ.

That leaves us with two distinct and broad categories of trainees. Either they already have decent levels of strength conditioning or they don’t. If they don’t, they need to go onto a specific plan to focus on whatever qualities they are lacking for their sport.

If you are at a decent level of strength and conditioning for your sport, you can use the following template. (And before anyone asks how you tell if you are at a decent level for strength and conditioning I will answer the question. If you don’t run out of fitness and get pushed around in training, you’re strong and fit enough.)

A Weekly Plan for Fight-Ready Fitness

Training Day #1 – Strength

Most people tend to take Sunday off, meaning Monday is the day you’re at your freshest. Logically that means Monday is the best day of the week for your strength work because your CNS is not fatigued. A rule of thumb for strength training is 3 to 5 exercises for 4 to 6 sets of 4 to 6 reps.

However, with the added stress of fight training I would drop this to two exercises that don’t compete with one another, such as squats and pull ups, or deadlift and bench press. Use a third exercise as an assistance lift for pulling, such as rows or rope climbs. And don’t forget to add in some rotator cuff work to keep your shoulders healthy. Keep average intensity at roughly 70%.

Training Day #2 – Strength Endurance

The next training session of the week is a strength endurance session. Typical sessions for strength endurance see rep ranges of 10 to 20 and use cardio bursts of up to 2 minutes. This is short-term cardio like when you need to scramble for a good position or pass the guard, as opposed to the steady kind of cardio you have when you head out to run 10km. In an hour long training session, aim for 12 to 15 minutes of super intense work. Rest about the same between bouts of effort as you do during the work phase.

A sample might be:

  • 10 x double kettlebell front squat + 2min Airdyne. Rest 2 minutes and repeat 3 times.
  • Rest 4 minutes (include the final 2 minutes of rest after the last Airdyne effort).
  • 10 x double kettlebell clean and jerk + 2min ski erg. Rest 2 minutes and repeat 3 times.

Training Day #3 – Conditioning

The final workout for the week takes into account cumulative fatigue, both metabolic and neural, as well as the need to add in some longer aerobic work. Following the heart rate guides in my easy endurance article, simply perform sixty minutes of steady-state aerobic work. Don’t worry about what form that is – row, run, ride, ski erg – it’s all the same. In fact, it may even be better to perform it in a variety of ways to prevent the excessive stiffness that can come from long endurance work. (And if you use running, try to avoid running on concrete, as this will exacerbate any stiffness you experience. Instead, find some grass or do a trail run).

Keep Your Sport in Mind

Following this simple plan will see your strength stable and easily maintained. It will also keep your fitness high enough that you can quickly jump to peak levels in four to six weeks.

Remember, your sport is on the mat and in the ring, not in the gym. Every PR you hit in the gym is possibly weakening you just enough to leave you vulnerable in training. Keep strength sessions at an average intensity of 70%, but go hard at the fitness work when appropriate. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to stay in great shape with little extra stress on the body.

More on sport specific conditioning:

Photos courtesy of Baltimore BJJ.

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