Functional Strength Training for Combat Sports

This post is an updated, revised and expanded post that was written by Adam @ Low Tech Combat and was originally published at the fantastic strength site, Straight to the Bar titled “The Right Attributes for the Right Fighters” in 2008. Enjoy.

Functional strength training is getting more and more popular. And that is a good thing. In large part, the rapidly spreading Crossfit protocols have popularized functional, compound movements and high intensity workouts into more of the mainstream. In the realm of Low Tech Combat, combat sport athletes are especially interested in functional strength in the search for that competitive edge in their sport. But has the popularity of CrossFit over-emphasized 'generalness'?

Is a Good General Movement Enough?

Lifts like deadlifts, cleans and over head presses are great, but are these movements specific enough for the specific movements and attributes needed of a combat sport athlete? A strength training program which includes lifts such as clean and jerks, some basic gymnastics exercises and similar movements is good. It is very good. But is an all round functional ‘general’ routine enough for that competitive edge? It gets more complicated when we ask what type of combat sport a particular fighter participates in.

Different combat sport athletes require different physical attributes.For example, a boxer will need a different type of strength and conditioning than a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) competitor. Each of these sports places different physical demands on the athlete’s bodies. Each combat sport athlete will require different strength and conditioning traits. Lets explore that comment in more detail below...

The Boxer

The boxer in his sport uses predominantly 'pushing' movements with his upper body along with some torso rotation and some pushing with his legs to generate power from the floor up and through his gloves into his opponent. This is very specific. Should a boxer do a lot of cleans? Sure, cleans are a fantastic movement. We all know this. The clean connects everything from the feet to the hands via a strong core and connects all those muscles and joints in a very functional way which develops power.

However cleans are an upper body 'pull' movement. The boxer rarely if ever uses such a movement. Yes cleans are a very functional movement however they do not really develop the specific physical attributes required of the boxer which is primarily aimed to develop knockout punching power.

Are there better movements that have a lot of the similar benefits of cleans but are more specific to a boxers needs? How about thrusters? Or even push presses? Or one armed push ups, handstand push ups and explosive push ups with claps. These are just a couple of options that more closely replicate movements found in boxing.

Any movement that involves a ‘pushing’ movement will likely be of benefit to a boxer. There are a variety of ways this can be done. A combination of pushing movements would be of benefit to the combat sport athlete involved in boxing. This would include a variety of movements that use heavy weight and also body weight exercises.

Some of these movements will by necessity be very sport specific. Generalness will only get the boxer so far. They can certainly develop a good and solid level of broad strength, however after a certain point more specific movements which involve pushing need to be developed.

The BJJ Competitor

The BJJ combat sport athlete has different demands placed on him from his sport. Let’s look at some other functional, general movements. The jerk is a great movement as is the back squat. However, these are movements that are not really seen in this sport. Perhaps back squats would be better utilized by wrestlers due to the type of take downs they perform.

BJJ generally places a big emphasis on grip strength and endurance as well as upper body 'pulling' movements and upper body isometric holds. Even though movements such as the Jerk and back squat are very functional movements and are excellent movements for developing general aspects of a well rounded physical ability, there are more advantageous movements that BJJ combat sport athletes can engage in. The BJJ competitor would be better off being more specific with his selected movements to better develop attributes with more carry over benefits for his sport.

Such movements could be weighted heaves, towel heaves or rope climbs, deadlifts, Kettlebell swings and sandbag bear hug and carries. These movements more closely replicate those found in BJJ. Any movement that involves upper body ‘pulling’ movements (from the guard position breaking posture and setting up submissions) and static holds under tension (side control, knee ride) are what would best develop the physical attributes required of a BJJ competitor. General is good, however specific is needed to develop physical attributes past what general movements can.

Compound AND Sport Specific

Athletes and fighters from the combat sports should continue to use functional, compound movements. However these movements should still be specific to their sport. There is a massive number of functional movements along with a wide range of training tools and implements to use out there.

The combat sport athlete can still utilize compound general movements in their training regime, especially when they are part of a movement based ‘cardio‘ session. Such sessions are fantastic for developing the type of ‘cardio fitness‘ required of a combat sport athlete when engaging in their chosen sport. But for that extra edge, specific time and focus should be spared for developing the physical attributes required for the specific demands of that sport.

In conclusion, it is encouraged that serious combat sport athletes not get carried away with being TOO general. It is worthwhile for the fighter and coach to analyse their sport, paying particular attention to the movements involved and look for movements that replicate those seen in their chosen sport, when engaging in strength and conditioning training.

Image by Aristocrats-hat