Strength Training For Fighters

Power is the ability to overcome external load muscle contraction.

There are several types of power:

  • Explosive Power – the ability to achieve maximum muscle contraction in the shortest possible time;
  • Speed Power – is the ability of the athlete to perform one or more movements at a greater speed at lower or higher resistance; (for some authors explosive and speed power are the same one);
  • Repetitive Power (endurance in strength, muscular endurance) – The ability of athletes to exhibit relatively greater power over a longer period of time;
  • Maximum or static power – FORCE– the biggest force that can be generated in a maximal voluntary contraction.

There is also a division at:

  • Absolute strength (maximum weight load that athletes can handle)
  • Relative strength (mastering the relationship between load and mass athletes)

In addition to the division of power, we have to mention the division of muscle contraction. those are:

  • Concentric (Muscle force is greater than the external force, the muscle shortens, merge approaching)
  • Eccentric (Muscle force is less than exterior force under whose influence of muscle lengthens)
  • Isometric (Muscle force is equal to the external force and does not come to a shortening nor to an elongation of muscles, respectively, outwardly muscle length does not change, but the tone rises)

Focus on the Sport

Strength training is supplementary. While having big numbers in the gym is good for your ego, no one cares about your bench press, squat, deadlift, or whatever numbers you get in the gym if you suck at your art or sport. Strength is just one facet of your training and one athletic attribute. It should never be developed at the expense of other attributes and their sport-specific skill base.

If you get stronger in the gym but your movement, reaction time, flexibility, coordination, motor control, and technique go backwards then you are barking up the wrong tree. If you can’t convert that strength into great technique and movement such as a powerful punch, a quick kick, an explosive jumping knee, a crushing take down, smooth submission, or speedy counter attack, then it doesn’t matter.



Understand the Point of Strength Training

Train to address your weaknesses while keeping your strengths your strengths. If you are strong but lack endurance then that is the weak link you must address. If you have great endurance but lack adequate strength in comparison, then you need to work for strength.


“While having big numbers in the gym is good for your ego, no one cares about your bench press, squat, deadlift, or whatever numbers you get in the gym if you suck at your art or sport.” 

And don’t miss the point of correct strength training programming. Getting strong is also about being more resilient and injury-proofing the body. Call it prehab if you will. Who cares how strong you get if you are always broken and can never compete? Strength training is about balancing the body after the dysfunction and compensations that arrive from thousands of repetitions moving the same way all the time. Removing asymmetries to an acceptable level, improving weaknesses in particular areas, re-establishing neuromuscular balance and control, and becoming more resilient should also be the goal of a good strength program.

Quality Over Quantity and Fatigue Management

“To me the sign of an excellent routine is one which places great demands on the athlete, yet produces long term improvement without soreness, injuries or without the athlete feeling thoroughly depleted. Any fool can create a program so demanding it would kill the toughest Marines or the hardest of elite athletes, but not any fool can create a tough program that produces progress without unnecessary pain.” Mel Siff

Time is a precious commodity for most athletes, and fatigue is the enemy. Manage your fatigue. Rather than adding to programs, look at what you can strip away so you can focus on the sport.

Schedule in your strength work after your sport. Unpredictable activities (e.g., sparring) cannot be easily modified on the spot when necessary, whereas strength training can. For example, if you are more fatigued than expected following a strength training session, you won’t be able to modify the subsequent free sparring session in order to protect yourself. On the other hand, if you incur an injury during sparring, the subsequent strength training workout can be easily modified to accommodate the injury.

Don’t Mimic Your Sport with Strength Exercises

Mimicking the movement or technique you are doing and loading it up will not necessarily make you better. A lot of strength work in martial arts and mixed martial arts training appears to be done by mimicking the movements performed and then putting that pattern under heavy load. A great example is having a fighter using heavy dumbbells (like in Rocky) while practicing upper-cut punches. The theory of specific adaptation to imposed demands (SAID) is an important reminder of how specifically our bodies adapt to stimulus in training.


When discussing specificity in training Dr. Siff mentions:


“While simulation of a sporting movement with small added resistance over the full range of movement or with larger resistance over a restricted part of the movement range may be appropriate at certain stages of training, simulation of any movement with significant resistance is inadvisable since it can confuse the neuromuscular programs which determine the specificity of the above factors. (In relation to: type of muscle contraction, movement pattern, fatigue, flexibility, muscle fibre recruitment, velocity of movement, force of contraction, and region of movement and so on).”


There have been a number of studies on baseball pitching and batting done in the United States. While there are many proponents who suggest using a heavier ball isn’t productive at all, there are at least two studies in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning that show the velocity of a pitch can be improved by using both a lighter (4oz) and a heavier (6oz) baseball to train with. In fact, the studies showed a bigger improvement in those pitchers who used the light and heavier balls than those who just used the 5oz regulation ball.


But here is the clincher and the most important point. One additional ounce (6oz total) adds twenty percent more weight to the baseball. This is perfect for the development of arm strength because the biomechanics of the throwing motion remain unchanged. Any more weight than this and the proper throwing biomechanics of the arm will start to break down because the body is forced to implement its larger muscles (like the lattissimus dorsi) to throw the ball instead of the rotator cuff and shoulder.


“Too much weights not enough speed work. Useless prick.”- Jake “The Muss” Heke, Once Were Warriors 


Strength Doesn’t Equal Power

There is a big misconception that you must focus on strength first through high-tension, heavy, and slow lifting and by doing so you automatically develop power. This could not be farther from the truth, and the idea reflects a lack of understanding of the physics of physiology and specificity. While I agree it is important to improve overall maximal or absolute strength, after a certain level there is a tradeoff – especially with beginners.


We have all heard it before:


Force equals mass x acceleration or: F = Mass x Acceleration


This concept is still used to promote the idea of strength training and to explain generating force in striking in the martial arts. The concept is that you will develop more force if you lift heavier (increase the mass) or accelerate the mass more. This is correct, but equating this with power is not correct. But this is the concept that most proponents of developing strength advocate.


Just because you develop a high amount of force does not mean that you will develop a high amount of power. Power is actually an expression of the amount of force you can affect your surroundings or an object with, when moving at a certain velocity. The definition of power is:


Power = Force x Velocity


You can increase weight on the bar to increase the force production, but this comes hand-in-hand with a decrease in velocity and thereby a decrease in acceleration. So once you generate too much force, because the velocity and acceleration decreases, your power also diminishes significantly.


The mass you lift matters little compared to the velocity you are lifting at, if you want power. For example, you will see this in an athlete whose back squat numbers may improve while their vertical leap stays the same or goes backwards.


The actual velocity and real time acceleration of the implement you are lifting is what matters most. Doing high tension lifts all the time (the maximal effort method) can make practitioners sluggish and slow. Being relaxed and loose is the premise to generating speed and power. Follow in Jake “The Muss” Heke’s footsteps and make sure you don’t lift too many slow and heavy weights, or you may end up with same poor fate of his mate at the juke box.


The Final Word

There are number of potential pitfalls you can avoid by adhering to these principles when programing for the fight game. Strength training done the wrong way can affect other athletic attributes and change motor control and coordination. It’s probably why a lot of old-school coaches didn’t like their fighters doing much strength training.


Take a closer look at the world’s most dynamic and explosive athletes like Floyd Mayweather, Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Manny Pacquiao, the Red Bull Kick-It competitors, or even world champion sprinter Usain Bolt. Examine the way they train. You will not see incredulous feats of strength, gym busting numbers on big lifts, or lots of hypertrophy like a body builder. Instead, you will see is the development of strength as just one part of the puzzle in making a complete fighter, martial artist, or professional athlete.


Push-Ups for Real Strength

Why Do Push-Ups?

  1. They’re great for the shoulders. Push-ups not only improve timing between the scapulae, shoulders and elbows, but they also work to open up the upper back. One of the reasons we have so many shoulder problems today is because we don’t put a strong enough emphasis on proper push-up technique.
  2. They’re great for the core. If you want to get stupid-strong, you need to bench press. But one of the downsides to the bench press is that it’s performed on your back. In a push-up, you have to unify or tie together your upper and lower body. Your core is the tie that binds, and if it’s weak, unstable, or imbalanced, it’s going to affect your ability to do the push-up correctly.
  3. They can be done anywhere. There’s always enough space to get a quick and dirty push-up workout in.

How Do You Do Push-Ups?

I can’t tell you how many “experienced” lifters I’ve worked with who have absolutely no clue how to perform a proper push-up. Seriously. No clue. Here are some areas that need focus:

1 – The Upper Body

Too many people want to think in absolutes. Either they want the elbows flared out to 90 degrees, or they tuck them in hard by the sides. Neither option is great for your shoulders.

With the elbows flared excessively, a ton of stress is placed on the shoulder joint. It’s also an incredibly disadvantageous position biomechanically, so not only will it feel like crap, but you’ll perform like crap, too.

On the flip side, tucking the elbows in hard to your sides isn’t a great idea, either. While most do this with the intent of sparing the shoulders, what ends up happening is that this excessive tucking causes the humerus to glide forward in the glenoid fossa. In normal people talk, you start to get an “owie” in the front of your shoulder.

Instead, find a balance. Make a 45-degree angle with your elbows, or simply “make an arrow.” This cue works like a charm for shoulder health and performance.

2 – The Lower Body

This part is easy. Just keep the lower body tight. Sure, you can squeeze the glutes and flex the quads, but you don’t need to go full-blown high-threshold when you’re doing a standard push-up. Instead, find a normal amount of tension for the task at hand. Save all those high-tension strategies for when you’re doing those single-arm, blindfolded push-ups on a medicine ball.

3 – The Core

This is arguably the most important part of the body when performing a push-up. After all, tying together the upper and lower body is the reason we perform push-ups versus bench presses. Find and hold a neutral spine position throughout. If you laid a PVC pipe or broomstick on your back, you should have three points of contact:

PVC Test
  1. The back of the head
  2. The upper back
  3. The buttocks

If you want extra credit, make sure that you only have a slight (1 inch) space in between your lumbar spine and the stick. This will make sure your abs are optimally engaged.

Now getting into this position may be relatively easy, but the hard part is staying there when you actually do the movement. What you tend to see is a lowering of the body, followed by deepening lordosis, a caving of the upper back, and a head that droops towards the floor. Instead, lock the spine in throughout and you’ll not only get a great upper body workout, but a great core workout as well.

4 – Natural Movement

Most people make push-ups unnatural and unathletic. If you’re thinking about “pulling” your shoulder blades together when you lower yourself down, stop!

When most people think about pulling the shoulder blades together, they inevitably slam them together at the beginning of the movement and run out of motion at the scapulae. At this point, they continue to lower down, and all of that movement (and stress) moves to the shoulders.

To remedy this, think about making the movement athletic again. Don’t think about pulling the shoulder blades together. Simply think about moving the scaps, shoulders, and elbows at the same time.

But if you’re really patterned to first pull the shoulder blades together, you may need to think about the opposite: bending the elbows first. It sounds counterintuitive, but thinking about bending the elbows first will typically clean up the movement in a matter of reps.

5 – Reaching

The second critical element of a great push-up is to focus on reaching at the start and the finish. Many athletes are locked into a poor position through their upper back and thorax:

  • The thorax is pushed forward, which doesn’t give the scapulae a place to rest.
  • The scaps are looking for stability, so muscles such as the rhomboids become overactive and “pin” the shoulder blades back and down.

Push-ups are a great tool to help remedy this, but only when done correctly. You may have seen that bro on Instagram cranking out sets of 50, 75, or 100 push-ups, but you’ll note that he never actually finishes a rep. Sorry, but that’s making things worse.

Instead, think about finishing each rep. Keep the chest out while simultaneously reaching long through the arms, or thinking about pushing the body away from the floor.

When done correctly, it should feel like you’re stretching the area in between your shoulder blades at the start and finish of each rep.

How Do I Make Push-Ups Harder?

It’s funny when someone says, “Push-ups are easy! Can’t we find a way to make them harder?” Then when you actually watch them do some push-ups, their hips are dragging the floor, their shoulders are all over the place, and their neck is protruding like an 80-year-old with osteoporosis.

Push-ups aren’t the sexiest exercise, but first learn to do them correctly before seeking new challenges. Once you do that, there are three routes you can typically take to make them harder:

1 – Strength-Focused Progressions

Chain Push-Up

Use these if you want to go full-blown meathead and just get super strong. These include anything that increases the external resistance:

  • Bands
  • Chains
  • Weighted vests
  • Plates loaded on your back

2 – Stability-Focused Progressions

Ring Push-Ups

These are great options if you want to bulletproof your body and make sure things are in balance. It’s not uncommon to see super strong guys who have shoulder or lower-back problems, so doing stability-focused progressions can clean up those weak areas and fix them up for the long haul.

Stability-focused progressions would include any exercise where there are elements of instability involved: unstable surface push-ups (TRX, Blast Straps, Jungle Gym, gymnastic rings, etc.) and push-ups with the hands on medicine balls.

3 – Rotation-Focused Progressions

Strong and explosive athletes have a tendency to get locked in the sagittal plane (driven into extension). If this becomes excessive, they lose access to their frontal and transverse planes, which can cause injuries up and down the kinetic chain.

To remedy this, offset push-up variations can be crucial in getting trunk rotation back. Push-up variations in this category can include: offset variations off a box (see video), offset variations with one hand on a medicine ball, and push-ups to a single-arm support.

Based on your needs and goals there are tons of different options at your disposal. And if you want the best of all worlds, simply rotate your emphasis every 2-3 months to help build a strong, well-balanced, and bulletproof physique.



The ab wheel rollout is a great exercise, but there’s one main problem: people use their hip flexors too much.

Ab Wheel Rollout: Incorrect

Now, there are a couple of different ways to do this exercise based on what you’re trying to achieve. One variation is performed in a way so that the movement is created during flexion and extension of the shoulder joint. In the other variation, the movement comes from flexion and extension of the spine.

Your rectus abdominis is just a part of your core, not your entire core. The first variation is more of a core exercise than an ab exercise. So, one of these movements will challenge the stability of the spine (like holding a plank) while the movement is created elsewhere (flexion and extension in the shoulder joint).

With the second variation however, the challenge is to create the movement from the spine (flexion and extension). This version will resemble a crunch more than a plank, at least when we look at what movement is being created in the spine. Let’s take a look at each one.

Ab Wheel Rollout from the Spine

During this movement, think about three things:

  1. Setup: Position yourself in a full kneeling position with your knees about hip-width apart for lateral stability. Round out your upper back and tuck your tailbone in. Squeeze the glutes. Lock your arms and hips in place before you start.
  2. Maintain Stability in Your Pelvis: Just like in the crunch, make sure that the movement is coming from your spine and not from your hips.
  3. The Movement Itself: Start by shifting your body forward as one unit and allow your spine to straighten out until you reach your full range of motion, which can be different for everyone. Once you’ve reached your full range of motion, contract from your abs and allow the flexion from your back to pull you back towards the starting position. Avoid pulling your hips back.

Ab Wheel Rollout from the Shoulders

  1. Setup: Same as above, but straighten out your body like the setup of a push-up, but with your hands on the wheel (or ball). Lock your arms and hips in place before you start.
  2. Maintain Stability in Your Pelvis: Just like in the plank, make sure the movement isn’t coming from your spine or from your hips. Maintain neutral throughout the set.
  3. The Movement Itself: Start rolling the wheel out by flexing your shoulders. Roll forward and drop your chest toward the floor with straight arms until your reach your full range of motion.

Coaching Tips

  • You can use a stability ball for the easier version, or the wheel for the more advanced version. To stabilize your pelvis, squeeze your glutes (tuck your tailbone in). This will create reciprocal inhibition and keep the hip flexors out of it.
  • For people with a lack of lumbar extension, drop your hips a bit deeper so that you can build confidence and control into extension. For those with a deep lumbar curve, extend no further then neutral to avoid hyper extension of your lumber spine.

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