The Four Pillars
What is Strength and Conditioning and how does it fit into your grappling training?
Strength and Conditioning is a term often thrown around in grappling circles but rarely understood. There seems to be two camps on the matter; one is a strong advocate of this training whilst the other says ‘technique conquers all’ and S&C (Strength and Conditioning) is a waste of time. To put it quite simply, this latter group is wrong.
Well they have one thing right, in that I agree with technique being the most important facet, however, it is undeniable that a stronger, fitter and more powerful athlete with similar technique will likely win most encounters. All serious athletes, in all competitive sports will have a Strength and Conditioning routine – fact.
The idea of it being a waste of time, and time you could spend elsewhere (technique) is often spoken about in grappling schools and perhaps most famously by arguably one of the greatest grappler of all time Marcelo Garcia. So this has become an easily quotable and repeatable ideology – well brace yourself, are you ready? You’re not Marcelo! Phew –‘you ok hun’? Marcelo is the 1% and perhaps it doesn’t apply to him – but for us mere mortals it will make a BIG difference.
First things first, I really dislike the lumping together of the term Strength & Conditioning – too many people consider them one in the same and this confuses their training. Strength is not Conditioning and Conditioning is not Strength – if you can remember that you’ll already be ahead of the curve. Martial Artists’ have a tendency to over complicate gym routines – if you’re putting a Gi on an Olympic bar to Deadlift it and then Berimbolo it across the gym – you need a long hard look in the mirror.
The way I approach physical training with my athletes is simple and based around 4 central pillars. Strength, Conditioning, Skills, Recovery – I make sure there is a clear distinction between these categories and I try to avoid overlap – unless specifically planned. A huge leap forward in my training was when I approached these separately. After being unhappy with my progress (during my MMA days) I had a good look at my schedule – on paper it looked good. I had several MMA sessions, a few weight sessions and two extra conditioning sessions. When I went to class I focused on pushing the pace hard every session: hitting pads, sparring and rolling was my main focus, if I wasn’t sweating buckets and dying it was a bad session.
Guess what? I did the same in the gym also – ‘@£$% all these guys lying down lifting’ I would think, then I would smash around the gym in 60 mins of chaos – ripping weights around and sprawling and tucking myself into oblivion. As you can imagine, it goes without saying my conditioning was brutal – hours of bodyweight exercise, sprints, medicine ball work and more.
Oh and recovery – yeh not so much, in fact not at all. Not even a warm up or cool down – just get in and work work work,
Anyway, as I became more educated on physical activity I realised I was just conditioning in every session – just sweating, working hard but treading water. Not dedicating any real, thoughtful time to what I was there to allegedly do. Now this for sure helped my mental resilience and ‘gas tank’ but it left other areas wholly under developed.
So lets take a macro view of how I set up a combat athletes programming and how you can start looking at your training. This will be a brief outline of the approach I take, in future I will elaborate on these topics.
Skill training is the foundation of all that we do and will get you further faster than anything else on the list. This is made up of your grappling training, classes, 1:1s and research on your own time. Some of this training will be intense (sparring) however a good deal of it should be dedicated to development of technique and ability. Don’t rush through the drilling to get to the sparring, don’t ignore your coach and practice YouTube rather than drilling what they’re teaching – set yourself mini goals and aims during sessions and attempt to hit targets and measures of progress just as you would in the gym.
My sincere advice is don’t just turn up and ‘go through the motions’ but ask yourself how exactly are you measuring your progress and specifically how you’re going to achieve your goals in this area.
Has anyone heard a fighter come off of a mat or to the edge of a cage after a tough round and say ‘@£!% this guy is so cardio fit’ – hmm no I haven’t heard that either – at least not very often. How often have you heard ‘He’s so strong’? – I pretty much hear this every competition or event I have ever been to. It’s not to say it’s more important than your cardio – however it does seem to often be at the forefront of what people notice. Being strong helps to protect your body, and to impose your skills on an opponent more easily, it can also sometimes be our last line of defense against a submission.
You should be approaching your strength work as just that – strength work. Taking a periodised approach, with clear goals and targets that you can track and assess is essential. For those that say lifting weights is dangerous for your body…try being weak.
Conditioning is the term that can bring fear to almost anyone, the thought of sprinting up hills or performing burpees until you die (or feel like you want to.) Well the good news is conditioning doesn’t need to be horrific – tough yes, but vomit-inducing – no. A lot of your conditioning will be best developed during your specific sparring, now this doesn’t mean blur lines, its just a happy bi-product of our skills training. Extra conditioning work can then be undertaken to enhance strong areas and improve weak areas in your game. For example, if a student constantly burns out their grips and forearms, then after technique has been adequately addressed it may be useful for them to do additional grip endurance work. If a student finds themselves ‘gassing’ every round – once again look at the skill issues – then, it may be time to consider improving cardiovascular fitness.
Five minutes of absent minded foam rolling at the end of class won’t cut it I’m afraid. This is perhaps the most over looked area in a grapplers schedule – it doesn’t involve choking anyone or getting ‘ripped’ so it often falls down the priority list. I strongly encourage athletes to build a weekly prehab and recovery routine including mobility work, hot and cold therapy, massage and other treatments. On top of this I also schedule deloads and encourage athletes use these as an important part of their training schedules. I subscribe to the idea that it can be hard (not impossible) to overtrain but very easy to under recover. I incorporate a scoring system with my athletes that means they have to undertake a certain amount of recovery-based activity before they can resume their normal training. More on this in the future.
So there you have it, my personal 4 pillars to approaching your training like a pro. All four areas are interdependent and essential, but also linked and intertwined – it’s just like a table, remove one leg and its shaky at best – remove two then you don’t have a table anymore.
I strongly suggest approaching your training in a scientific and measured manner, look at research – or find a coach that will do that for you. Train like a combat athlete not a body builder, marathon runner or anything else. Take time to devise a personalised weekly schedule allowing you to cover all the bases you need to and you are setting yourself up for success.