Strength and Conditioning for freefighting and MMA has highly specific requirements

Strength and conditioning work should develop the right physical qualities for martial arts performance

The concept of freefighting has been around as long as there have been people. It basically refers to unarmed combat in all ranges and all environments. All techniques are permissible. Modern sporting representations of freefighting include MMA, Combat Sambo and Sanda/San Shou. In a well designed freefighting/martial arts strength and conditioning  program we will build the qualities and attributes that you need to be able to most effectively execute your movements and skills. This includes building your stamina, both physical and mental, as well as the structural and nervous components of your body. Movement awareness, posture development and other aspects of athleticism should be built in too. A lot of people make the mistake of looking at fashionable trends, which are often quite seductive, rather than basing their training on the true principles that govern true training adaptation and that will craft and mold them into more effective and healthier martial artists.There is arguably a point at which training for high performance can lead you away from healthful practices. I believe it is wise to think about the long term goals of training and train at appropriate intensities and to factor in healthful recovery periods.

Strength and conditioning work should develop the right physical qualities and also play a role in the development of a tough mindset. The indomitable spirit. The refuse to lose attitude.  A lot of the work can be tough and not particularly exciting when viewed superficially. Given time however we can learn to enjoy challenging ourselves even if the tools used to do so aren’t always overtly interesting or fun.

Below are some of the tools we use to effectively build the right type of strength and power for a free fighter/competition fighter.

Strength and conditioning system 1: Inner potential training

These exercises are a remarkable strength and conditioning system designed to increase the strength, stamina and movement skill of the entire body. They develop your ability to use the body as one unit of power, precisely coordinating the efforts of all major muscle groups into highly refined movement expressions. In addition the strengthen your body at specific and useful joint angles, via the use of isometric stance holds. Your breathing becomes long, smooth and efficient with practice and will become deep and diaphragmatic. You will also refine the quality of your movements, with movements becoming more fluid and sure, as well as smoother and much more consistent, due to many of them being practiced dozens or even hundreds of times in a training session.  The relatively new field of study into fascia and connective tissues has shed some light into some of the nei kung practice, in particular the use of certain movements which appear to be designed to maximise our ability to use the body’s powerful and natural elastic properties to generate more force and power, without the need for large and energy hungry muscles. 

Strength and conditioning for mma
Strength and conditioning for mma training structure

In addition to all those aspects there are various meditational components in the exercises, including standing meditation, breath awareness meditation and mantra based meditation, all of which can have significant effects on our ability to achieve spontaneity in combat, or generally help to enhance our ability to concentrate and focus. These exercises are very old, coming from secretive Chinese martial arts practices but tap into a lot of misunderstood training wisdom, which makes more and more sense when considered in light of cutting edge training research and practice.

Strength and conditioning system 2: Impact training

Impact training plays an important role in martial arts conditioning. It gives you direct feedback as to the impact levels of your techniques. It educates you into how to most effectively align your striking body part and also time spinal stiffness, in order to reduce power ‘leakages’.  Over time body tissues are naturally strengthened and calloused. To build up the strength of the wrist, and to develop a smooth chain of motion in your straight punching strikes its good to practice static punching on a single pad. This should be done barefisted to condition your hands and build up the toughness of the bones and skin over time. What is also important is to learn efficient and correct punching alignment. If your punches don’t arrive straight onto the pad you will start to scuff your knuckles and they will bleed. If you correct this and the force goes straight into your target, there will be no such problems, so its a great feedback method to learn and to respect efficient lines of force.

Strength and conditioning system 3: Velocity weight training

Speed strength practice is done with 3, 4 or even 5 pound weights. There are two main patterns used, one is a circular continuous pattern where the hands stay on the centre line the whole time, coming from a slightly lower position and arriving at a perfect punching position at head height, on the centre line with with large knuckles of the wrist well aligned. The shape and alignment of the whole movement has to be carefully considered during practice to build up the most powerful striking mechanic for straight punching. The idea is to build up your strength and stamina to the point you can do 20 minutes continually at a rate of 3 punches per second. Technique and speed should be the priority however. The second patten moves the spiral of the movement to become and almost horizontal movement with a chopping backhand movement and a semi/half hooking punch with the other hand. In my experience not only is stamina, speed and strength improved, you will also start to develop a certain heaviness in your strikes, so that when you punch its as if you have a punching weight in your hand still. Other punching patterns can also be done in the same manner, though the straight pattern develops very useful beautiful straight line striking technique and employs the natural elasticity of the entire body for pushing the fist out to strike and for the recoil.

Strength and conditioning system 4: Inversion training 

Static handstands held from 1-4 minutes improve the strength and stability of the shoulder joint as well as some strengthening of the arms. Adding push ups builds more dynamic strength. We were taught to do these on the knuckles to help strengthen the wrist but also the alignment of the arm and wrist, which translates to less recoil and therefore more power in punching.

Strength and conditioning system 5: Interval training

Striking based interval training

In the first version one partner runs backwards holding the pad at a stable angle and keeping a large open circle of movement. The other partner follows and punches the pad using the running thunderhand pattern, with one punch thrown per step, so that when the left leg is forward the right straight punch is thrown. A decent pace should be kept. This is done for rounds of 2-4 minutes, with various rest intervals used, though one minute is most common to reproduce competition requirements.

The second version involves using two different pads as the holder, showing either the left or the right, changing directions sporadically sometimes running back quickly, sometimes slowly, somtimes moving towards the puncher. In essence you are trying to reproduce the variability and chaos of a fight so that your partner has to adapt his footwork and body positioning to match. Agains this is done in rounds.

Similar repletion striking should be done using other punching patterns as well as the other kicking patterns (including knees). For basic self defence training rather than competition fighting I recommend concentrating on the punching versions of the drill.

Stamina Rolls

Stamina rolls build up your ability to exert a lot of energy in a short space of time. Your body is also comprised and in a stressed position which adds to the intensity of the exercise. It’s a whole body interval training exercise that will stress all parts of your body. It is done by performing a forward roll on a mat, turning around as efficiently as possible and then exposing from an athletic position into another roll. This is repeated 80 times, which should be completed within 2 minutes. We do this for 3 rounds or more with one minutes rest in between rounds.

Strength and conditioning system 6: Ballistic Kettlebell Training

Using the versatile Russian kettlebell for both speed strength/power and endurance training. We focus on movements, loads and velocities that are generally extremely useful for any athlete but a martial artist in particular. Ballistic exercises such as snatches, jerks and throws are our focus once a good base of strength is achieved.

Strength and conditioning system 7. Restoration and recovery

Anybody who is involved in high intensity martial arts training has to factor in recovery.

Training = exercise + recovery

Continual high intensity work will lead to burnout and reduced adaptations and gains, or even detraining. It is absolutely essential to add in days, weeks or even months of softer and lighter periods of training. This will keep your nervous, hormonal and structural systems healthy and optimised. Useful things in restorative periods include;

  • Massage
  • Qigong/Tai Chi/yoga
  • Meditation
  • Sauna
  • Light exercise in other sports/activities
  • Ice baths/cold showers

What to do now?

If you’re interested in learning martial arts, strength and conditioning or to improve your physical conditioning find out about out training sessions and personal training here.