Strength Training For Fighters
- 15 Random Thoughts -
By Ross Enamait - Published in 2006
First Things First
Several years ago, I provided a brief overview of strength training for boxers. It was a basic summary, which was unfortunately misquoted and often misinterpreted. Due to the continued confusion, I have created this article to address several important topics. There are those who continue to despise the thought of strength training for competitive fighters. This article will shed light on this often-debated topic. The material presented herein is not specific to any fighting style. The focus of this article is strength training for the combat athlete.
Let’s now proceed to 15 random thoughts…
1. Strength Training
Notice how this article is entitled strength training and not weight training. There is a difference between these two phrases. Strength training involves the use of resistance exercise in the pursuit of increased strength. Resistance can come from several sources such as bodyweight (ex. pull-ups), free weights, medicine balls, odd-objects (ex. sandbags), and resistance bands. Each tool is simply a means to an end. No tool will guarantee results. No tool is better or worse than another. Each tool offers value if used correctly.
Many old-school trainers frown upon free weights, yet encourage bodyweight exercise. This is an illogical mindset however, as each form of training can produce similar results. Free weights are not better or worse than bodyweight exercise. There are many fighters who swear by free weights, while others prefer traditional methods such as bodyweight exercise. There have been successful fighters from both sides of the fence. To deny this fact is a demonstration of nothing more than ignorance.
The tool is simply a means to an end
2. Strength Training Is NOT Bodybuilding
Many old school trainers cringe at the thought of weight lifting, as their interpretation of this phrase is akin to bodybuilding. The phrase weight lifting causes one to automatically envision large, muscle-bound bodybuilders.
Let’s get one thing clear…
A fighter has no business following a bodybuilding routine. Bodybuilding emphasizes aesthetics. The activity involves posing various muscle groups for a panel of judges. There is no concern for athletic qualities such as speed, power, and endurance. An athlete trains for function. A fighter will not gain points on the judge’s scorecard by crafting a symmetrical pair of pectoral muscles. To compare strength training for a fighter to bodybuilding is like comparing a fresh orange to an artificial apple.
Please note that this is not a knock against bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is simply not the ideal strength regimen for a competitive fighter.
3. What Is Strength?
Many critics of strength training for fighters do not understand the numerous strength qualities that exist. Strength is commonly described as the ability to exert a force against a resistance. This simple definition is not enough however. We must instead examine more specific strength qualities.
Maximal Strength – Maximal strength is defined as the amount of force that one can exert under voluntary effort. Max-strength is developed by lifting heavy loads, or through bodyweight methods such as isometrics and the use of strenuous rep-for-rep movements.
Explosive Strength – Explosive strength is defined as the ability to express significant tension in minimal time.
Vladimir Zatsiorsky, highly regarded sport biomechanist and former strength and conditioning consultant for the Soviet Union Olympic teams, has stated specifically that:
“The ability to produce maximal forces in minimal time is called explosive strength. Strong people do not necessarily possess explosive strength.” (1)
Clearly, the development of one strength quality (ex. max-strength) does not guarantee the development of another (ex. explosive strength). This information may come as a surprise to many athletes who focus all of their strength work to one specific strength quality (ex. the athlete who only lifts heavy loads to development maximal strength).
Explosive strength is a critical strength quality for all competitive athletes.
Speed Strength – Speed strength is defined as the ability to quickly execute an unloaded movement or a movement against a relatively small external resistance. For example, working with a punch-out drill against the heavy bag would equate to the execution of a relatively small external resistance, as the weight of the glove is insignificant.
For more information regarding punch-out drills, please refer to the link below:
Intensifying The Heavy Bag
Speed strength is also very important for fighters. Unfortunately, many athletes train improperly, hence sacrifice this strength quality. For example, world-renowned sport scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky and colleagues established that:
“Excessive maximum strength training can impair speed-strength and technical skill in boxers.” (2)
Strength Endurance – Strength endurance is defined as the ability to effectively maintain muscular functioning under work conditions of long duration. Strength endurance is a vital strength quality for any combat athlete. Power and speed are useless without the stamina necessary to apply these physical attributes throughout the contest.
And contrary to the opinion of many, free weights can be effectively used to enhance a fighter’s endurance. For example, this routine offers a high-speed conditioning challenge, ideal for any combat athlete.
4. Multifaceted Competition
Combat sporting events are multifaceted in nature. One must be well-rounded in terms of his strength preparation. It is not enough to develop one strength quality at the expense of all others. A fighter requires a unique blend of each strength quality.
5. Basic Anatomy and Physiology
After reading that excess max-strength can impair speed strength, you may initially assume that heavy weight lifting is harmful for fighters. This is not true however.
Many old school trainers believe heavy weights will lead to excess bulk and reduced speed. This is a myth. Although excessive development of max-strength can pose problems, this strength quality is still important (if trained in moderation).
To understand the relevance of maximal strength training, it is important to first understand how the body functions. Once you understand the body, there is no disputing the relevance of maximal strength training.
For starters, muscle fibers are grouped into motor units. A motor unit contains hundreds of muscle fibers and one nerve, which delivers a signal to the muscle fibers. All of the muscle fibers contained within the motor unit are of the same type (fast twitch or slow twitch). When a signal is passed for the motor unit to contract, all of the fibers within that motor unit will contract.
When training for power development, we must target the fast twitch muscle fibers. Unfortunately, not all motor units are activated at once. Low intensity exercise does not activate the fast twitch muscle fibers. If the exercise does not stimulate a fast twitch motor unit, the muscle fibers contained within the unit will not adapt to the training. Essentially, if the motor unit is not recruited, no response occurs.
Thus, if you only lift very light loads, you will not adequately target the fast twitch muscle fibers. When lifting heavy loads (training maximal strength), a high percentage of motor units are activated. During such intense loads, fast twitch motor units are recruited. For this reason, maximal strength training is considered the superior method for improving both intramuscular and intermuscular coordination.
So, while excessive max-strength training can lead to problems, this strength quality must not be ignored. Through proper program design, max-strength training can be used to enhance the power potential of any athlete (ie. improve your ability to recruit, hence utilize your fast twitch muscle fibers).
6. What About Speed?
Many will read of heavy weight training and falsely assume that such methods will negatively influence speed. One common myth suggests that heavy weight training will lead to unnecessary bulk, which consequently will reduce range of motion and speed development. This is completely untrue.
Consider a powerful football player who sprints 40 yards in less than 5 seconds. Clearly, weight training does not influence his speed. What about the 100 meter sprinter who covers this distance in less than 10 seconds? Weight training does not influence his speed potential either.
When you understand how the body functions, you will quickly realize that a strength program designed to enhance the efficiency of the fast twitch muscle fibers will not harm speed potential. On the contrary, the right program can assist with speed production.
As stated in perhaps the best translated Russian text from Yuri Verkhoshansky, Special Strength Training – A Practical Manual For Coaches:
“When effective methodology is used, exercises with resistance promote not only an increase in movement speed but also perfection of coordination, motor reaction, quickness and frequency of movements, the ability to relax muscles, development of local muscular endurance and an increase in maximal anaerobic capacity.” (3)
7. What About Flexibility?
Another common myth related to strength training deals with flexibility and range of motion. Many trainers believe that free weights will compromise flexibility. This is completely untrue.
A proper strength program will enhance range of motion. To those who disagree, I ask you to perform this simple experiment. Perform an overhead squat and you will see just how much flexibility can be developed with proper exercise selection.
See the link below for a demonstration of the overhead squat.
Olympic lifters also offer a perfect example of power and flexibility. The two competitive Olympic lifts (Snatch and Clean-and-Jerk) demand these two physical attributes. The individuals engaged in Olympic weight lifting are amongst the most powerful athletes in the world. These men and women do not possess the muscle-bound physiques seen in bodybuilding. These individuals are powerful, flexible, and extremely athletic.
For another example, look at the flexibility of a gymnast. These athletes possess tremendous strength, yet remain as flexible as any athlete in the world. Clearly, the strength work of these gymnasts has not compromised their range of motion.
There is no disputing the fact that strength can be developed without harming range of motion and flexibility.
8. What About Bulk?
Many coaches steer clear of strength training for fear that the work will lead to unnecessary mass gains. After all, combat athletes compete in specific weight classes. Why would an athlete wish to gain mass if they are already struggling to make weight (as many do)?
Once again, strength training will not lead to mass if the athlete utilizes the correct program, while also paying careful attention to his nutritional intake. The food that you consume is the real cause of weight gain (or loss).
The following quote from the definitive Supertraining text will shed light on this subject:
“Strength is not primarily a function of muscle size, but one of the appropriate muscles powerfully contracted by effective nervous stimulation.” (4)
If you wish to gain strength, you must target the nervous system. This can be effectively done without weight gain. We can revert back to the Olympic weight lifter for another perfect example. These athletes compete within specific weight classes. They are able to gain strength without gaining weight.
The nervous system is the true indicator of strength, not bulky muscles.
9. No Guarantees
As stated earlier (but worth repeating), the development of one strength quality does not ensure the development of another. Distinct strength properties are often unrelated. One can possess tremendous strength in one form (ex. max-strength), while lacking in other areas (ex. speed-strength).
The lesson to be learned is very simple. Don’t put all of your eggs into one basket. A complete athlete must follow a complete plan. Each strength quality must be considered in the creation of the program.
10. Stop Searching For The Magic Plan
If I had a nickel for every email that started with the following line, I’d be a rich man:
“Ross, I’m a fighter. How should I lift weights? How many sets and reps?”
The individuals who write such emails are searching for one magic plan. It is as if there is one strength workout, hidden to the masses, which should be followed by all combat athletes.
No such plan exists, and no such plan will ever exist. Different athletes have different needs. Different athletes have different strengths and weaknesses. Just because two athletes compete in the same sport does not mean that these two individuals should work with the exact plan.
Consider a naturally powerful, explosive puncher. He is very strong on the inside, possesses tremendous power, but often runs out of gas. This fighter is in need of improved strength endurance, along with more time spent conditioning the two anaerobic energy systems (Glycolytic and ATP-PC).
Now consider the pure boxer, who can box effectively on the outside, but is easily muscled around against the ropes. He is unable to handle the pressure of an aggressive inside fighter. He lacks the strength to get out of (and avoid) these situations. This fighter has much different needs from the previously referenced individual. Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to strength training.
In addition, many strength programs are designed for experienced (well developed) athletes, who are already familiar with strength training. A sample plan may suggest training with 90% of your one-rep max to effectively develop maximal strength. But what happens when a fighter, with no prior strength training experience attempts such a workout? He is asking for injury. He is not structurally prepared for the intensity of such a heavy load. He must first work with less intense loading to develop a strong foundation (ex. prepare the tendons, ligaments, etc.). For this reason, one cannot simply search for a generic strength plan. The plan must be tailored to the individual.
11. Train To Win, Not To Fail
A strength program is designed to improve the performance of the athlete. A strength program should not sap a fighter of his energy, hence sacrifice more important training objectives such as skill work and conditioning. Strength workouts should not leave the athlete sore for days, unable to properly function through sparring sessions and other skill based activities. Barbells and pull-up bars do not hit back. You will not learn how to fight in the weight room. A strength workout is only a small supplement to a much more complete training plan.
Strength workouts should be brief, focusing on quality over quantity. A fighter does not have time (or energy) for marathon strength training sessions. In addition, when training for strength qualities such as max-strength and explosive strength, the athlete should avoid training to failure. An athlete who constantly trains to failure will struggle to recover between workouts. Remember, the goal of the strength workout is to enhance strength and power without burning the athlete out. If your strength program is wearing you out, thus interfering with your sport-specific training, it is NOT contributing to your improvement.
One can better understand this concept by reviewing the importance of the central nervous system as related to strength output. The CNS is fatigued by any intense effort (from the standpoint of exerting a maximal force). It is often useful to envision the central nervous system as your control center. It sends a nerve impulse to your muscles. This impulse tells the muscle to contract. Your ability to generate force (how much force) depends on the electrical activation sent by the CNS (ex. number of motor units recruited). As fatigue mounts, your ability to recruit powerful motor units will decrease.
Tudor Bompa (5) describes fatigue as the body’s way of protecting itself against damage to the contractile mechanism of the muscle. The nerve cells engage in a state of inhibition as a protection mechanism.
As for where fatigue is coming from, there is a nerve attachment on the muscle fiber. This attachment relays the nerve impulse to the muscle (this impulse is telling the muscle to contract). As you continue to work, there is an increased release of chemical transmitters from the nerve endings, which is thought to be one reason for fatigue.
If you continually train to complete failure, the CNS is naturally fatigued. It is no longer able to recruit (activate) powerful motor units. For this reason, you should avoid training to failure on a regular basis. The goal of training is not to completely exhaust the CNS. A fighter has more pertinent matters to tend to such as skill work and conditioning.
Consider an automobile engine for a real world example. If you allow your car to overheat every time that you drive, you will eventually blow the engine. You cannot drive full speed all the time without wear and tear on the engine. This simple analogy also applies to the body. Train for strength improvements, not failure.
12. A Supplement, Not a Replacement
As mentioned before, but worth repeating, strength training is a small supplement to a much more diverse training program. Much of a fighter’s time must be spent training for his specific event. Examples include sparring, hitting the bag, working one-on-one with your coach, partner drills, conditioning workouts, etc.
The strength workouts are just a small piece of the puzzle. Most fighters do not need more than 2 to 3 brief strength workouts per week. Once again, the focus is always quality over quantity.
13. Forget The Tool
Many trainers despise free weight training, yet preach the importance of bodyweight exercise. Others consider bodyweight exercise limited and ineffective, thus limit their training arsenal to weighted resistance work.
Do not fall into this narrow minded trap. Remain open to new ideas and new training modalities. Many fighters have excelled with nothing more than bodyweight exercise. Others have successfully implemented free weight training.
What does this tell us?
The answer is simple. Both methods can prove beneficial if used properly. Consider the recent bout between Bernard Hopkins and Antonio Tarver. Bernard’s performance clearly illustrated the potential of a properly designed strength program. Bernard Hopkins moved up 15 pounds to face Tarver at light heavyweight. Despite the added mass, Bernard was a stronger and more active fighter than he had been in recent bouts. His newfound physique did not impede his performance.
Archaic statements such as, “Weights will hinder endurance” or “Weights will hinder speed” were put to rest by Bernhard Hopkins. His dominant performance on national television has debunked all of the myths that strength training cannot be successfully implemented into a fighter’s training program.
14. “Weights Are Bad”
I often heard trainers of the fight game suggest that weights are bad. But what constitutes a weight? Does swinging a weighted sledgehammer for a conditioning drill count as weight training? Do inclined sit-ups with added weight count as weight training? How about pull-ups while wearing a weighted vest?
Where do we draw the line?
The lesson to be learned is simple. Don’t become hung up on the tool (free weights) or lack of a tool (bodyweight). Target specific objectives and choose the most appropriate and readily available methods. For example, one may use plyometric pushups to develop explosive strength in the upper body. Another athlete may use free weights via the dynamic effort (ie. lifting a nonmaximal load with the highest attainable speed). Each movement will enhance the explosive strength of the athlete. Don’t waste time arguing over which method is right and which is wrong. Incorporate variety into your plan.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Louie Simmons (6), from the famed Westside Barbell Club. In his words:
“When lifters repeatedly use the same simple method of training to raise their strength level, they will eventually stall. Like the scholar who must utilize many sources of information to achieve a higher level of knowledge, the lifter must incorporate new and more difficult exercises to raise their standards.”
Learn from these words. Do not focus on one exercise or methodology. Incorporate variety into your strength program to elicit the greatest (long term) results.
15. Bodyweight Exercise Is Excellent
Let it be known that bodyweight exercise can be used to effectively develop EACH strength quality. Although much of this article has referenced free weights, many world champions became world champions without ever touching a free weight.
Do not allow anyone to convince you that bodyweight exercise is ineffective. Bodyweight exercise can be made as difficult and effective as any other method of training. A simple display of gymnastics is living proof of this statement. There are bodyweight movements ideal for conditioning, explosive strength, and max-strength. Once again, the modality that you choose is simply a means to an end.
Potential Problems With Strength Training
Thus far, we’ve established that strength training can be useful. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. There are several potential problems associated with strength training.
Many athletes become obsessed with weight room numbers. They focus too much attention towards the weight room. Rather than improving as a fighter, their focus shifts towards improving as a weight lifter. They become more interested in lifting 10 more pounds, as opposed to throwing 10 more punches per round.
You will not learn how to fight in the weight room. You will not earn any points with the judges by boasting of an impressive bench press. No matter what you do in training, it must contribute to your improvement as an athlete. If your strength program does not offer specific results, it is not worth your time and energy. Remember, the goal of any combat sport is to defeat your opponent, not to lift the greatest load in the weight room.
With proper program design, strength training can be a valuable addition to a combat athlete’s training plan. Below, I have listed a few useful tips (certainly not a definitive list):
Train the body as a unit, not a collection of small pieces
Focus most of your time around compound movements
Develop a strong core
Incorporate variety into your strength program
Do not limit yourself to one modality
Target multiple strength qualities
Steer clear of failure when training for pure strength
Never sacrifice skill and conditioning for strength work
Focus on quality over quantity
Keep strength workouts brief, 2 to 3 days per week
As a trainer, one must tailor strength workouts to the needs of the athlete. Each athlete steps up to the plate with a different skill set. For this reason, the job of the trainer is to identify areas in need of improvement, and then customize the workout specific to THESE needs, rather than conforming to a generic model. If such a model existed, there would be no need for strength and conditioning specialists. Athletes would all follow the exact plan. Such a generic plan does not exist, so do not force such a model on your athletes. They deserve better...
1.) Zatsiorsky, V.M., (1995). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
2.) Verkhoshansky, Y.V. (1986) Fundamentals of Special Strength-Training in Sport. Sportivny Press, Livonia, MI. (Original work published in 1977, Moscow, Russia: Fizkultura i Spovt).
3.) Verkhoshansky, Y.V. (2006) Special Strength Training – A Practical Manual For Coaches. Ultimate Athlete Concepts, Michigan, USA.
4.) Siff, M.C. (2003). Supertraining, 6th Edition. Supertraining Institute. Denver, CO.
5.) Bompa, T., Di Pasquale, M., & Cornacchia, L. (2003) Serious Strength Training, 2nd Edition, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
6.) Simmons, L. (2003) The Conjugate Method, Westside Barbell ® "Often Imitated but never duplicated"