(excerpted from The Secrets of Martial Arts Conditioning)

Applying the principles of scientific training, I have come up with ten (and a half) training guidelines for the combat athlete who must be present to ensure competitive success.

1. Body weight before external resistance: Many athletes make the mistake of beginning a strength routine and going straight for the heavy weights. This usually ends up causing an injury. Athletes have no business using a load if they can’t stabilize, control, and efficiently move using only their body weight. So your strength program in the beginning stages may actually include no weights whatsoever. And it will work better and faster than a typical program that relies primarily on weights and machines in the beginning stages. In fact, in my experience, some athletes can’t even work with their body weight so we may need to modify certain exercises.

Do not rush to lift heavy loads. Muscle recruitment and control are far more important than maximal strength for any athlete. Without control, the strength is useless.

2. Train to the fifth power: This is a concept that I learned from Juan Carlos Santana. Basically, it refers to the following.

a) Train in a standing position. GROUND BASED. The majority of athletic training should take place in an upright position, standing. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. But generally, we always lose something when we go from a standing position to a seated or lying position.

b) Train with free weights (destabilized). Any machine limits the range of motion and controls the movement. This is fine for beginners, but athletes need to be able to stabilize and control their bodies in all three planes of motion simultaneously.

c) Use multiple joints (the kinetic CHAIN is natural). Single joint strength (e.g. leg extension machine, bicep curls) develops useless strength.  A study was undertaken at Ohio State involving a knee extension test. The participants included three world-ranked squatters and one world record holder in the squat. The test results of the above subjects’ averaged 180 lbs of force on the Cybex leg extension machine. However, a local powerlifter (ranked 15th in the state) broke the machine. He wasn’t even number one in his state, but he was stronger on this machine than the world-ranked lifters. If there is a better example of the inability of single joint machine training to translate to real world strength, I’d like to see it. A guy who was only ranked 15th in the state can apply more single leg strength than a world record holder. Nice. Pretty. But pretty useless. If that strength doesn’t transfer, what’s the point of having it?

Basically, despite the strength that individual exhibited on the machine, he was unable to apply it in a real world situation like squatting. And the elite squatters weren’t that strong on the leg extension, showing that it’s not even a factor. So leg extension machines are a waste of time. Unless of course you compete in seated ass kicking leg extension contests.

How can anyone expect to possess coordination in active work when his muscles have never worked together in groups?” —Earle Liederman, 1924

Nearly 80 years ago and we are still having this argument today. Isolation machines have no place in the preparation of a competitive athlete.

“Single-joint exercises such as leg extensions and leg curls develop movement patterns that will interfere with patterns you use in sport. Such exercises lead to inappropriate muscle recruitment patterns that can impair movement and lead to injury” Thomas Fahey

d) Train with explosiveness. Explosiveness as I see it can be defined as “as fast as possible with control.” Some people seem to feel that explosiveness is somewhat dangerous. Sloppy training, uncontrolled movements? That’s dangerous. Training explosively more closely mirrors what happens in sport and/or life.

e) Train functionally. Train movements, not muscle groups. Again, isolated muscle group training, outside of rehabilitation, has no place in athletic training. An athlete should focus on strengthening specific movements. True muscle isolation is impossible anyway so let’s focus on using that body to work in an integrated fashion.

3. Train unilaterally and multi-planar: The majority of training programs take place in the sagittal plane with bilateral movements. Sport takes place in all three planes simultaneously with primarily unilateral movements.

4. Use all primary methods to develop strength: Use the max strength methodheavy loads; the repeated efforts methodmultiple sets; and the dynamic effort methodusing relatively lighter weights and moving them at max speed (this is the least used method).

5. Use variation: Everyone seems to understand that the training load should be progressively increased. Few understand that the training stimulus must also be progressively and periodically varied. All programs have positive and negative aspects no matter how well designed or specific. If you spend too much time on one program, you’ll habituate to the positive aspects and accumulate the negative aspects.

6. Avoid mimicking skills: The role of conditioning training is NOT skill training. Loading a technique tends to affect the mechanics of the technique negatively.

7. Train with balance: Train to achieve balance between motor qualities and balance between movement patterns (e.g. horizontal push-pull).

8. Focus on the rate of force development: Either lift lighter weights fast or lift heavy weights as fast as possible (the intent is more important than the actual speed).

9. Train the antagonists: The speed of a kick or punch is determined largely by the ability of the antagonist to eccentrically decelerate the joint action efficiently and prevent joint injury. If your body can’t safely and effectively “brake” the motion, it will not allow you to achieve full acceleration. If you are not training the antagonists eccentrically, you are not training deceleration. And if you are not training deceleration, you can’t be training acceleration. Think about ithow fast would you drive your car if you knew your brakes were not working at their best?

10. No aerobic training: Aerobic training is pretty much a total waste of time. There is nothing in any martial art that is done aerobically. It is done at high intensity, explosively, and at full speed, usually without oxygen. Martial arts take place at the limits of the anaerobic threshold. There is no benefit to doing long, slow training of any kind.

10.5. Use undulating periodization: When using linear models, we tend to lose the qualities we initially sought to improve (e.g. six weeks of hypertrophy, six weeks of strength, and six weeks of speed strength). At this point, it has been 12 weeks since we were exposed to hypertrophy methods. So we would have lost portions of that quality. A better method is to alternate accumulation and intensification phases.

Typical mistakes

  1. Sacrificing quality for quantity: Don’t do more of something until you can do it well. More is not better. BETTER is BETTER.
  2. Seeking fatigue/soreness: The effectiveness of training is not determined by the amount of fatigue it produces but by the degree to which it improves the qualities and/or abilities you’re trying to develop.
  3. Excessive focus on loading: Don’t place too much focus on the load. Instead focus on how it is being moved and whether or not there is optimal transfer (standing split stance cable press versus barbell bench press). Also, the time taken to go from a 300-pound squat to a 400-pound squat may not be worth the return in the real world.
  4. Lack of diversity: Unchanging routines lead to staleness and overuse injuries.
  5. Lack of continuity: Write programs, not workouts. Try to write out 12–16 weeks at a time. Understand that certain factors may mean that you need to change your routines. That’s ok. However, what I typically see is a situation where trainers and coaches do not write long-term plans. They write single workouts. This leads to a lack of continuity and progress.

Remember the ironic rule of strength training for sport. The objective is not to get stronger per se but to improve athletic performance. Do not get caught up in the numbers game, and do not confuse gym improvements with real world or sports world improvements. The greatest athletes in the world do not necessarily have the greatest bench presses in the world. The greatest athletes in the world have an ability to produce useable force on their field of play. Usable force is force that propels athletes towards the ball, knocks another athlete back or down, helps you move at full speed, or throws the winning touchdown pass. Usable force is force properly directed in an unstable real world and an unpredictable environment. The weight room, in general, is a stable environment whereas a field of play or the competition ring is a constantly changing place. A good strength and conditioning coach looks to improve athletic performances, not just gym lift numbers.

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