Training for the Combat Sports has drastically changed in recent years and athletes continue to evolve - are you keeping up? Although Combat Sport Science has lacked behind the research compared to other mainstream sports, it is now beginning to catch up, and athletes are performing better than ever before. This is evident in the recent opening of the new UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada - which now houses some of the top technological and research advancements in the sport of MMA. Because the science has advanced so much in recent years, there has been more evidence to support a proper approach to physical fitness and conditioning training.
In the world of Combat Sports, and especially in the striking-laden arts (such as boxing, karate, taekwondo, Muay Thai, and MMA), there are distinct sets of rules that determine how a match is performed. In MMA, Muay Thai, and boxing, it can be argued that the athletes are more in a "fight", where both individuals are trying to inflict more damage than their opponent within a certain set of rules. For sports such as karate and taekwondo, these athletes aren't necessarily trying to damage their opponent (despite damage often being done), but are trying instead to execute a technique in a controlled manner, and "pull" them back in order to successfully score a point. This is often termed "point sparring". The other combat sports (jiu-jitsu, judo, wrestling etc,) generally don't allow striking, and therefore require athletes to throw, pin, and submit their opponents to win. These are known as the grappling arts
Because each of these types of combat sports is different in how they are performed, that also means that they have different physiological requirements and thus should be trained differently.
For example, boxing athletes who use direct impact with their hands will require a different muscular recruitment pattern than, say, a karate athlete whose punches stop short of their target, and pulls the hand back. For boxing athletes, there is more muscular stiffness required in the abdominals and oblique's, as well as anterior deltoids (shoulders), which isn't present in karate athletes. As such, boxing athletes should train and perform exercises that target these muscles.
These CORE exercises for boxing athletes include:
anti-rotational movements like the pallof press
pressing exercises with band resistance and/or impact force
During strength training, squat variations should also be used to help develop ground reaction force - something that is vital for punching power. Due to the length of a bout, boxing athletes also require a high level of muscular endurance in the upper and lower body.
In comparison, karate athletes use rotational force from their "core" in order to generate more speed when executing the punch, and to quickly return their fist or leg. For this, muscular stiffness of the core is not necessarily required, but instead karate athletes should train rotational exercises in the transverse plane.
These exercises for karate and taekwondo athletes include:
medicine ball rotational throws
wood-choppers (with cables or bands),
unilateral (one-armed) push & pull variations (i.e. a resisted punch or kick).
Additionally, exercises that target explosive hip flexor actions such as squat jumps should be used to improve kicking performance and anaerobic power of the lower body. Karate athletes also require efficient stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) movements (for the sparring art) and therefore should use plyometric training (box jumps, shuttles, depth jumps etc.). Other karate athletes (forms or "kata" athletes) should focus on muscular endurance and developing power from an isometric hold. Because the movement requirements of karate and taekwondo are similar by nature, these two types of athletes generally have similar training programs.
For grapplers, there is very little SSC or impact force required. Instead, these types of athletes should focus on using full body conditioning programs that emphasize the use of the entire kinetic chain working together to execute the movement. Additionally, these athletes should train anaerobic power of both the upper and lower body, and well as grip strength.
Grappling athletes should use:
kettlebell complex movements
compound lifts (deadlifts)
isometric box jumps
sled push/pull variations.
For ALL combat sport athletes, the aerobic energy system should be trained. Nothing irks me more than when I hear "but my sport is an anaerobic sport - I don't NEED the aerobic system *insert eye roll emoji. Yes...you do. Regardless whether you predominantly use short burst high intensity output or not, the aerobic system is the foundation to your fitness and is important to train for its recovery effects. The higher your aerobic fitness, the better sustained anaerobic performance you will have. Additionally, for optimized performance in competition, your training program should incorporate muscular endurance training of both the upper (battle ropes) and lower body (repeated sprint or stair climb training).
As always, sport-specific technique and drill training is the MOST important thing for combat sport athletes.
It's pretty simple, if you want to get better at your craft - you have to practice it over, and over, and over again. However, to optimize performance in these respective martial arts, an effective strength and conditioning program can (and SHOULD) be utilized. Using the general techniques highlighted in this article, combat sport athletes have a guideline on how to approach their fitness training to enhance performance.
If you have specific questions, let me know. I've made it my duty to help change the world of combat sport conditioning training through an evidence-based approach and I want to help YOU get there.
Kalan is a Human Performance Expert & PhD. Candidate who aims to optimize YOUR performance for both sport and every day life. He is recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), and has obtained his MSc. Kinesiology degree at the University of Victoria. Through his masters thesis research, Kalan has established and implemented the KFit Test Battery for Combat Sport Athletes which is used by both Karate BC & Karate Canada as their standard fitness test for athletes across the country. Additionally, Kalan is an exercise physiology lab instructor at the University of Victoria, and trains individuals (including athletes) every day to help meet their fitness needs and goals. He has many years of experience both as an elite athlete and high performance coach and is knowledgeable in the many fields surrounding fitness and training for sports performance.