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Much has been written about the benefits and/or the contra-indications for concurrent training and, one way or another, we’ve all heard the argument from both ends of the spectrum against such practices. In Strength Sports it’s not uncommon to hear athletes shy away from CV training in fear that an ‘interference effect’ will have an immediate and negative effect on muscle building capability and maintenance while, in endurance sports, athletes are afraid to take part in a progressive resistance training program for fear that the interference here is that they will become overly muscled and stiff as a result.
Both fears are undoubtedly real for the athletes and, with inappropriate programming, those fears are borne out, but why then are we seeing more and more ‘hybrid’ athletes attend to events and disciplines at both disparate ends of the spectrum without ill effect and with the ability to progress in both. Programming is key and the (mis)management of those concurrent stressors is the lock we hope to pick.
Indeed, athletes obligated to perform within a range of different energy systems and express physical attributes across that spectrum within the context of sport seem to be conveniently overlooked when concurrent training is in the crosshairs. Rugby Players, Military Operators, Combat Sports athletes and many others can, for the purposes of ease and propriety, be considered ‘obligate hybrid athletes’ and it’s with the latter that we’ll set our focus.
This month, to elucidate the above, I’d like to kick off a short series delving into the world of the combat sports athlete. Introducing some of the pitfalls and issues that present themselves to us as Strength and Conditioning Coaches (and athletes) and some of the differences and similarities that exist between training for strength sports and using strength training principles to guide the overall training of an athlete in a combat-based sport.
The concept of strength training in fight sports is not new. Fighters the world over have been using strength training to augment their overall capability for as long as these sports have existed. In fact, the ability to express raw strength and power and the ability to fight have long been considered to be mainstays of many/most cultures interpretation of a ‘strong’ individual since the dawn of time.
Consider that leaders could be chosen based on the ability to heft a rock the furthest and that those leaders were potentially deposed by men and women who realised that hurling a smaller rock directly at their heads may be a quicker way to higher status and we have the makings of an argument for both ‘skills’ as being desirable.
We can stretch this (already tired) analogy further if we think that, to chuck a rock at someone’s head there may be a requirement for some cardio to catch our target in the first place and add to that the potential that someone may intervene by trying to prize our rock from our grasp and we have the makings of an argument for concurrently training all of the above.
To return to the reason for this article (and to abandon flights of fancy), the resistance training elements of programming for a combat athlete must, of course, emphasise maximum strength but this must be consolidated with explosive strength and power development and a concurrent emphasis on strength endurance. We must also consider that these athletes work within open and closed kinetic chains and some attention must be paid to the isometric strength requirements in executing various techniques. A wide variety of specific exercises must, therefore, be incorporated into the programming.
A combat athlete must express (and therefore train), maximum strength, power, strength endurance and power endurance and, whilst arguably combat sports may be considered predominantly metabolically anaerobic, incorporating phosphogen and lactate systems (dependent of course on the style and tactics of any given athlete), there is an absolute requirement during an extended bout for the application of power to be fuelled by aerobic metabolism over the course of any given fight or sparring session. Indeed, without appropriate attention to the aerobic systems, a fighter would be not just incomplete but ineffective after a given set of time domains.
Consider exceptionally powerful yet aerobically undertrained fighters observed in the cage or ring who ‘gas out’ after attempting to shut down and overcome their opponent within a short period of time only to be beaten by the less powerful fighter with the better ‘engine’.
Also important to recognise is that the specifics of any combat sports training programme, leading up to a scheduled bout, should be developed with the opposition fighter in mind and many elements of programming will change to varying degrees to incorporate game plans and strategic advantages. Our discussions will address the fundamental tenets of training for these events but will be presented somewhat generically with this caveat in mind.
Of huge importance here, and a matter for discussion within the progressing series of articles, is that of the relationship between a strength and conditioning coach and the technical/lead coaches for any given fight(er). A truly multi-disciplinary approach will yield the most positive results, allowing for appropriate manipulation of sparring type and intensity in order to fit the needs of a fully inclusive program.
All Coaches coming together to discuss, prioritise and integrate all the different aspects of training as well as communicating regarding recovery and time management etc. is absolutely vital for success. This cannot be emphasised enough.
Our aim is to create a program that is balanced and comprehensive and will produce improvements in structural integrity. As an example of the need for ‘prehabilitative’ programming, we can consider the fact that combat athletes (especially striking focused athletes) may use the anterior aspect of the glenohumeral joint disproportionately more than the posterior which (if not appropriately managed) can lead to overuse issues and a state of muscular imbalance. It is therefore the strength coaches job to consider what may be the primary sites of injury from a sports specific perspective as well as taking into account the history of any given athlete. Final considerations often bypassed are those of the often-forgotten elements of specificity that are typical to these kinds of athletes, such as neck, grip and wrist strength, which should all be incorporated into the programming.
As well as all of the above, we must also consider the incorporation of technical training (Sparring and Drills). Although arguments exist to the contrary, no intelligently designed program would consider technical, sport specific, training as anything other than being of the highest priority. It is here that we can delve into that specificity, presenting holistic (yes, I said ‘holistic’. I’m not sorry) programming and working backwards from there over our series to arrive at the pure strength training requirements for the athlete. So, yes. I’m going to keep you waiting…
As previously addressed, given the nature of the demands of the combat athlete, practice of one’s sport must take priority. Strength and conditioning serve as a tool for the greater development of the energy systems and output required for optimising the attributes of any given athlete. Considering our needs and treating the program as a prime example of concurrent training, it is important to plan sparring to fit within the same methodological arrangements of programming. (It bears repeating that adoption of these recommendations be in partnership with all other coaches involved with the athletic preparation.)
Breaking the sparring type down to distinct output requirements allows us to mirror the intensity demands of the overall programme and can be (generically) classified as follows:
- Hard, Intense Sparring/Drilling.
We may demand of the fighter that they spar with an opponent for shorter rounds and with a heavy emphasis on repetition of high power output.
For Example, we may ask a boxer to concentrate all effort on loading up for explosive ‘knockout’ punch delivery with an expectation that the boxer applies pressure and looks to land heavy shots for the duration of the rounds.
Rounds of 60s to 120s for 4-8 rounds may be appropriate here.
- High Work-rate Sparring/Drilling.
In this example (sticking with our boxer) we may ask our fighter to maintain a high output for the duration of the round ensuring strong repetitive combinations are thrown and pressure is applied throughout on the opponent.
Rounds of 120-180s may be appropriate for 6-10 rounds total.
- Defensive, Evasive Sparring/Drilling
Still in the squared ring (I did mention this is in a ring, right?), we now ask our boxer to spend the majority of the sparring session working on defensive skills. Inviting the opponent on and applying evasive techniques forcing one’s opponent to do the chasing may have a high technical skill but systemically can be considered to be less demanding over a given session.
150-210s per round perhaps with shorter rest periods for 8-12 rounds.
So, to whet your appetite, we’ve presented the overall needs of the athlete and the various, and at first glance conflicting, concurrent needs of output across a spectrum of energy systems. Using sparring, and the intensity therein, as our priority drivers across the week, it now makes sense to consolidate our other stressors (strength, power and endurance training) so as not to overload any one energy system at any one point in order to further build an all-encompassing program that the athlete can use to work towards optimal output.
How do we go about building these into a weekly progressive program?
Hopefully you’ll join me next month as we start to piece together our jigsaw.
Jonathan Pain BSc CSCS
Complete Human Performance – Combat Sports Specialist.