Training for Combat Sports

Training for combat (or fighting) sports requires addressing various aspects of physical preparation.  With participation in combat sports becoming a more popular activity for individuals to partake in, there exists various platforms for discussion on what to address in order to optimize one’s physical development in one’s chosen fighting discipline.  Many individuals do not properly address the specific physical demands of their chosen discipline, instead choose to utilize methods based on hearsay and poorly designed protocols.

The purpose of this post will be to discuss some general ideas and concepts as to how to train for these types of activities.  Common misconceptions, most specifically the overuse of high-intensity energy system training and circuits and other inappropriate resistance training applications (i.e. punching with dumbbells), will be examined along with some general suggestions as to what can replace these types of activities.  Injury prevention, which is esstential to training any form of fighting discpline, conepts will be outlines as well, along with activity suggestions for optimal recovery from training.

1.  Energy System Training

One of the most misunderstood aspects of training for these types of activities is how to address the energy system training or “conditioning” related to combat sports.   Whether you train to compete or do so strictly for recreation (or self-defense depending on the discipline), conditioning it an important, and often misunderstood aspect of training.  The first item that needs to be considered is the type of fighting discipline that one is involved in.  Verkhoshansky and Verkhoshansky (2011) breaks them down into “short contact” and “long contact” events:

Examples of short contact events- boxing, karate, taekwondo

Examples of long contact events- judo, wrestling, brazilian jiu-jitsu

The primary emphasis for those in short-contact sports need to focus on training the ATP-PC (immediate, short-term energy system), or alactic system; long-contact sports will place a slightly greater emphasis on the glycolytic system (lactic acid system, intermediate energy system).   The mistake many make, is to “condition” themselves with a lot of lactic training through mismanaged circuit training (circuit training is appropriate for fighters, just not the way most individuals perform it), causing individuals to reach an intensity barrier with their training, and actually train themselves to fatigue faster.

The aerobic (long-term) energy systems cannot be neglected with any type of fighting athlete.  This requires training at slightly lower intensities to allow individuals to have a more efficient system for allowing for recovery during their respective events.  For instance, in boxing an individual is throwing punches at various intensities over the course of a boxing match; the only way an individual will be able to maintain themselves over many rounds in a fight is if their aerobic system allows them to recover during their intermittent bouts of activity.

2.  Maximal/Explosive Strength/Reactive Ability

While certain displines need to place more of a focus on one of these abilites, all three are important in the overall development.  As with energy system development, the qualities that demand slightly more attenditon will vary by disciplines.  The short contact disciplines place greater emphasis on reactive ability and speed strength, while long contact disciplines place a greater emphasis on maximal strength.  Regardless of the focus, all areas of strength still need to be addressed in order to have optimal development of strength.  This means that fighters in all disciplines can benefit from working on maximal strength in order to achieve optimal force develoment.  While appropriate use of circuits and bodyweight training are a critial component of strength training for fighters, they should not be the only modes of training for these athletes.

3.  Other Topics & Misconceptions

Aerobic Conditioning

Although they don’t need the aerobic capacity of a marathon runner (if someone trained this way it would significantly wound inhibit their explosive strength qualities), fighters do need to effectively train their aerobic system and cardiac efficiency.   This means that despite a great deal of discussion about athletes training in the intermediate/glycolytic system, too high of volume of training in this area will result someone having limited ability to recover during a fight, limiting their endurance.

Punching with Dumbbells

This is a common mistake made by many individuals in fighting sports.  While there is limited application for this type of exercise according to some (Verkhoshansky & Verkhoshansky, 2011) for most individual this type of drill will actually inhibit their movement patterns with punching.  The main reason for this is the way in which resistance is applied with this type of exercise.  When using dumbbells the resistance pattern goes down to the ground, which is not in line with the force vector of the actual movement pattern.  Even if one does choose to use this method as a way to train muscular endurance, the resistance needs to be lighter than what most people would typcially use.  It has been recommended that very strong fighters in the heavyweight category only utilize dumbbells weighing 2-5 lbs (Verkhoshansky & Verkhoshansky, 2011).  Due to the impact on movment patterns, along with the potential for causing chronic shoulder issues, this drill should probably only be recommended for ADVANCED fighters without shoulder or elbow problems.

Injury Prevention & Recovery

A few activities that could be added to any training program in regards to injury prevention and recovery include:

1.  Foam Rolling/Self Myofascial Release

2.  Low intensity cardiac conditioning

3.  Static stretching

These activities can be incoroporated as separate sessions or included in a warm-up.  When looking at other aspects on injury prevention, fighters should look at things such as any past injuries that may have not been rehabilitated properly, or postural distortions that could lead to chronic overuse injuries.

The following gives an overview of some of the concepts that need to be addressed in order to effectively design a physical preparation program for a combat athlete.  Individuals looking to optmize their performance in these areas for either competivie or recreation pruposes should definietly consider having a basic understanding of how to properly condition themselves for these activities.  Even if competition is not the main goal for an individual, having a good understanding of these ideas can help with overall fitness and injury prevention while participating in a fighting disipline.  Future posts will be directed at looking at some more specific examples of how some of these concepts may be practically applied to program development for this type of athlete.

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Please post any questions to the blog on this topic.


1.   Verkhoshansky, Y. and Verkhoshansky, N.  2011.  Special strength training manual for coaches.  Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky SSTM.

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