Conditioning For The Combat Athlete

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Fighter or Runner?

Are you a wrestler? Ju-jit-su practitioner?

How about any kind of grappling or combative athlete?

 How will thirty to sixty minutes of low intensity jogging going to prepare you for six to seven minutes of absolute hellacious combat?

Folks, please understand this: neither wrestling nor any form of mixed martial arts are aerobic sports. Therefore, AEROBIC TRAINING ON ITS OWN is a not the most efficient approach to this.

It never ceases to amaze me that there are still combat athletes out there using outdated conditioning methods that have long been proven ineffective and useless.

Both by science and-

“Geez I don’t know, have you paid attention to anything going on in the past 10 years? Getting the information is pretty easy now a days as compared to before the internet.”

The methods I speak of include hours and hours of long distance running and other unproductive forms of aerobic activity. 

Now interesting side note, there certainly is a place and time for every athlete regardless of sport to establish a certain level of “aerobic capacity” or the ability to not be so de-conditioned that a casual activity will leave your drooling and cross eyed. That topic is for another time though.

Just about every single high school or college wrestling practice I’ve ever been to you’d still see wrestlers running each and every day like they’re training for a marathon instead of a six or seven minute bout of high intensity grappling.

Shoot I remember specifically our coach timing our mile times for ummmmm, the wrestling team? But on the positive side honestly in all fairness he was a very punctual, detailed person on just about everything so it was just his way of keeping track of our, so called “GPP”. (General Physical Preparedness)

On the other side of the spectrum it makes about as much sense as trying to become a world champion skateboarder by practicing your golf swing for eight hours a day.

 If that’s not the approach to take, then what is?

To answer that question let’s briefly take a look at what occurs in a wrestling match.

At the high school level, there are three periods consisting of two minutes each. At the collegiate level, there are three periods as well, the first consisting of three minutes and the final two consisting of two minutes each. At the Olympic level, there’s one five-minute period and a three-minute overtime period, if needed.

During these two to five minute bouts you’ll find yourself squatting, pressing, pulling, lunging, twisting, and bridging. You’ll make explosive movements, slow grinding strength-based movements, and you’ll hold isometric contractions a lot longer than you can comfortably stand. 

For your off-the-mat training to have any carryover whatsoever, you need to be sure you’re doing all of these things in your conditioning program. The exact same holds true for any kind of martial art or no-holds-barred fighting.

While some of the time periods and rounds may be different from one organization or sport to the next, the same general principle applies.

So, let’s get right into my best conditioning methods for these athletes.

  1. Strongman Training

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Strongman training incorporates the use of odd objects such as stones, logs, tractor tires, sandbags, kegs, sledgehammers, anvils and just about anything else you can think of. The basics of strongman training are to lift and carry or drag heavy shit; that’s the gist of it.

 

Strongman training can be used as a conditioning day all on its own or at the end of a regular resistance-training workout. There are endless amounts of exercises and events to choose from when putting together a strongman workout.

 

Those who are new to strongman training will have extreme difficulty with many of the exercises and will be winded quite quickly. Eventually, after getting used to this type of training, the goal will be to lower your rest periods and do more work in a given time period.

 

If you opt to have an entire training day dedicated to strongman training, I recommend that you pick four or six exercises that offer as much variety as possible. Below is an example of a good sequence of exercises for a strongman workout:

 

  1. A) Tire flip

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  1. B) Log clean & press

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  1. C) Farmers walk

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  1. E) Stone or Odd object loading

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You can do the exercises for straight sets or in a circuit fashion. When your conditioning improves and you continue to try to get more “sport specific” with your training, you should aim for two to three straight minutes of work (or whatever length of time the rounds or periods last in your chosen combat sport) followed by a brief rest period.

For example, you could do one exercise for that long or you could do each exercise for 20-30 seconds and then move immediately to the next. While most matches don’t last nearly this long, the strongman workouts should take anywhere from 30-90 minutes.

If you choose to use strongman training as a finisher to your normal weight training workouts, you’d be best served to pick one or two exercises and perform them for ten to fifteen minutes straight with a brief rest period every 30-120 seconds.

  1. Bodyweight Circuits

Using your own bodyweight in a way that will resemble what you do in a wrestling match or no-holds-barred fight is an outstanding way of improving your conditioning. I usually like to go outside in the fresh air to a park and perform these.

Grouping together four to six bodyweight exercises such as wheelbarrow walks, push-ups, single (or double) leg squats, squat thrusts, crab walks, inchworms, and mountain climbers and doing them in a circuit will get you in great shape in no time.

I personally like to mix 1 stationary exercise (push up, squat, row, lunge, any variation) with 1 locomotion exercise (animal movements, jumping, sprinting, throwing, etc)

Again, try to eventually work your way down to using work to rest ratios similar to that which you’ll face in competition.

1 round would look like:

A1.Broad Jumps x 30-45 sec

A2.Bodyweight Row x 30- 45 sec

A3.Bear Crawl x 30-45 sec

A4.Bodyweight Pushup/Dip x 30-45 sec

A5.Lateral Hops x 30-45 sec

That’s 2:30 -3:30 give or take few seconds of straight work.

Now dependent on your specific needs (sport needs) dictate times and amount of overall volume. So the specific duration of each exercise can change.

Each of these in a row, with minimal rest periods for multiple rounds will send you in a metabolic turmoil, huffing and puffing, building that motor that always has 80% in the tank no matter what.

Coaching at the high school level, I enjoy getting our wrestlers into “situational” positions, scrambling for time, finishing a takedown, the common scenarios of the sport followed by a full body exercise for both partners. Combining the skill specific work with a strength exercise, making them accustomed to working under fatigue.

Which is obviously critical for wrestlers, once they reach a certain level.

  1. Sled Combos

An average sled is one of the most valuable tools any hard training combat athlete could have in his arsenal. The possibilities are limitless with the sled.

 

To choose an effective sled combo, try to pick movements that will work the body from as many different angles and in as many different ways as possible. Here’s an example of a highly effective sled combo:

  1. Backward sled drag: 30 seconds

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  1. Face pull: 30 seconds

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  1. Forward sled drag: 30 seconds

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  1. Chest press: 30 seconds

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I’ve always found hellish for anyone to load up the sled, set a timer to 30-second intervals and just switch the movements upon the beep. Continuing straight for longer work sets, followed by a brief rest period similar to what you’ll face in competition.

  1. Sprints

While jogging is completely worthless, sprinting is tremendous for combat athletes looking to get in kick-ass shape. I like to use a variety of sprint workouts with combat athletes including hill sprints, stadium stair sprints, shuttle runs, sled sprints, and agility circuits.

Before commencing your sprint workouts, be sure to complete a full dynamic warm-up in order to reduce the possibility of injury.

I honestly just said this so I don’t get emails saying –

“Hey you never said I actually had to prepare myself for something like this” (Side Note: I actually did get an email from someone saying that once, who blamed me for them pulling a hammy ha)

But to further reduce the risk of injury and basically eliminate any concern of pulled hamstrings, stick with hill sprints or do most of your sprint works with an empty sled dragging behind you. Just the weight of the empty sled is enough to slow you down slightly, which will greatly decreases the risk of injury.

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  1. Medicine Ball Throw and Retrieve

This is a great way for the combat athlete to mix explosive movements in with his conditioning. You’ll need a medicine ball which is not so light that you can throw it fifty yards, but not so heavy that it only goes two feet when you release it. Find something in the middle. Most athletes will use a ball somewhere between twelve and twenty pounds for this drill.

I like to mix up the direction and kinds of throws when using this method. For example, we’ll start with a backward overhead scoop throw, sprint to the ball, do an overhead forward throw, sprint to the ball, side rotation throw, sprint, chest pass, sprint, forward scoop throw, side rotation throw in the opposite direction, sprint, etc.

This can be done for two to three minutes straight followed by a brief rest period and/or puking.

  1. Barbell Complexes

For those of you, who’ve never done complexes, get ready for a whole new in-the-gym experience. Barbell complexes consist of doing several exercises in a row without ever putting the bar down. This usually consists of six to ten exercises; each exercise is usually done for six reps.

The reps are performed as explosively as possible and you move from one exercise to the next without ever taking a break or letting go of the bar. Most athletes will begin with just a 45 pound Olympic bar.

Here are three of my favorite complexes:

The 5×5

Perform 5 reps of each movement before moving on to the next. Do not put the bar down. Rest 2 minutes between rounds. Complete 5 rounds.

Bent Over Row x5


Hang Clean x5


Front Squat x5


Push Press x5


Alternating Reverse Lunge (front squat racked position) x5/leg

Beast Mode

Perform 10 repetitions of each movement without putting the bar down. Rest 2-3 minutes between rounds. Perform 3 rounds.

Dead Lift x10


RDL x10


Hang Clean x10

Reverse Lunge x10

Back Squat x10

Good Mornings x10

Bent Over Row x10

Push Press x10

Cheat Curls x10

The Full Court Press

Perform 6 repetitions of each movement without putting the bar down. Rest 2 minutes between rounds. Perform 6 rounds.

RDL x6


High Pull x6

Front Squat x6

Military Press x6

Push Press x6

Thruster x6

Over time the goal is to be able to complete the entire complex faster than the previous workout. As I mentioned above, you should start with just the bar the first time you do complexes, but quickly work up to a more challenging weight in subsequent weeks. Ninety-five pounds will be absolute hell for even the strongest and most well conditioned of warriors!

  1. The Whole Kit ‘N Caboodle

This method basically involves combining any two or all of the above methods into one conditioning session. These types of workouts can be grueling and are only for those with the heart of champion.

For example, you may start your workout inside with a few rounds of barbell complexes. After that you may proceed outside and pick up the medicine ball for a few rounds of throw and retrieve. When you’ve completed the throws, you might grab the sled and perform a few combos followed immediately by a car push, a sprint, and farmers walk until you drop. 

There really are no rules as to how you structure this. You can intermix whatever method you like and do straight sets or circuits. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Additional Info:

There you have it: the best ways to get in ass-kicking shape and outlast any opponent you’ll ever face. As far as the work to rest ratios go, you’ll notice that for most methods I’ve suggested that over time you try to work toward matching these up with what you’ll actually face in competition. This is an eventual goal but isn’t of the utmost importance.

Believe me, flipping a 600 pound tire for two minutes straight is a lot different and more exhausting than wrestling for two minutes straight, in most cases. Do the best you can and keep that goal in mind, but don’t be overly concerned if you can’t achieve those numbers. Even if you can only flip the tire for 30 seconds straight, that’s completely fine. That’s more than most people can take, and it’ll do wonders for your conditioning levels.

One final note is that you must be careful not to overdo any of these methods. While most combat athletes have the attitude that more is better, that isn’t always the case.

Too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing. Too much conditioning will lead to losses in strength, size, and speed — all of which will lead to a decrease in your overall performance.

The key is to find the optimal level, the amount that gets you in the best condition possible, and do exactly that amount and no more.

How much is that? No one can know for sure but you.

My personal recommendation is four 30-60 minute sessions per week. On top of your classes, practices, and strength training workouts, this is usually more than enough to get most combat athlete in championship shape in no time.

Be sure to utilize all of the methods listed in this article. Bust your ass and make constant improvements. Victory will be yours.

  • Marcia

    Great article and I absolutely agree with your approach to conditioning for combat sports. However, your description of a wrestling bout is incorrect. A match is not 5 minutes in length and there is no 3 minute overtime. Although the rules of Olympic wrestling are in a state of flux, I don’t ever remember a time when that was the structure of a match – and I have been involved in the sport as an athlete, coach and official for 17 years.

  • Popeye

    Great article. I like the fact that you say there is no structured way when putting together workouts like these. I got lucky and stumbled across your website. Have absolutely enjoyed reading all the articles and workout foundations. I agree with the fact that running for 40-60 min alone will not condition anyone for explosives movements. These is the Army’s biggest problem in my opinion. I’ve been in for almost seven years and that’s all I still hear; run, run, run. I’m one of the slowest runners in my platoon, but when it comes to obstacles, I blow most of them out of the water. This is because I put myself threw hell with explosive workouts, after my lifts and long runs.