Conditioning For Grapplers
If you have ever wondered how you should be getting in shape for your next grappling event or if you are feeling like you just can’t make it to the end of practice this article is for you. Here are some good ideas from Sam Dadd on how you can better your conditioning. He even provides some resources for you!
“If brute force isn’t working, then you’re not using enough”. Steve Bacarri has said this for years and it still is as true as ever. In all combat sports there is a place for brute force. Put Jon Jones in a cage with a gorilla and he’ll be killed..literally. Matter of fact, put the 5 greatest fighters ever in a cage with a gorilla and they will all end up dead. The gorilla doesn’t know martial arts, he just knows how to be a gorilla. This means he has brute force no human can contend with.
As a strength and conditioning coach I’ve seen a lot of change in how I, and the strength coach world, view conditioning. I started out working primarily with athletes involved in fast twitch/explosive/burst sports. Sports like football, hockey, lacrosse, etc. In a sport like football it doesn’t matter if I can run for 10 miles if I can’t catch a guy and tackle him in 10 yards. In that scenario, the ability to run 10 miles serves no purpose and is utterly useless on the field. The key training aspect for training athletes like this is teach them how apply force into the ground, accelerate as fast as possible, and be able to do that over and over.
For athletes like this conditioning consisted mostly of high-intensity interval training, sprints as opposed to jogs. Depending on the athlete and the sport he/she competed in we’d vary the interval time and rest. For football players we’d have them do shorter intervals because football plays are pretty quick. For hockey players the intervals would be longer because their shifts are longer. If you have athletes involved in these sports and do nothing but high-intensity interval training in their off-season you’ll probably do just fine.
I trained all of my clients this way too. My general population clients all wanted to lose weight. I can’t remember any client I’ve ever had over the age of 40 who’s asked me to help them gain weight. HIIT (high-intensity interval training) works great for these people and any person who’s goal is to lose weight. If you train fast you’re body will want to lose fat, if you train slow your body will want to lose muscle. Sprinters are lean, marathon runners are skinny, there’s a difference.
I trained myself this way too. I was pretty good at various conditioning tests used by strength and conditioning professionals. Tests like the 300 yard shuttle test and various air dyne bike tests were all no problem for me. I use to work with members of the USA Judo team and we’d have day where we’d do nothing but sleds. It was a good finisher for the week because the sled involved concentric muscle movements (think muscle pump) as opposed to eccentric muscle movements (the negative or opposite movement). Eccentric’s really make you sore while the concentric movements make you feel more rejuvenated. This was a great way to finish out a hard week. You can crush yourself with sleds and still be able to walk the next day and by Monday you’ll feel ready to go.
Everything changed for me when I trained jiu jitsu with Travis Stevens. I did my first class, drilled technique, did my second class, drilled technique, then the next class we went live. This is when I felt like a cross country runner trying to catch Usain Bolt.
I thought I was in shape but training jiu-jitsu with people who know the art showed me otherwise. Better put, my training to did help me for this endeavor. Obviously, my skill was (and still is) terrible and that’s a huge factor when training with grapplers (especially high level ones). I could run sprints, do bike sprints, push sleds, and lift weights all day. Was all this a waste? Not completely. Everyone I trained with noticed I was explosive and strong but I knew there was something missing. Then I heard of Joel Jamieson and his book “Ultimate MMA Conditioning”. This is really a book about conditioning for all athletes, not just MMA fighters and the best one I’ve seen.
The big takeaway for me was long steady state aerobic work is not bad. For a combat athlete is very necessary. The gas tank analogy is best way to understand. The heart is like a gas tank. When you train long steady state aerobic work (45-90 minutes keeping your heart rate between 130-150) you’re making your heart bigger. This is giving you a bigger gas tank. In combat sports you need to be explosive when you’re tired. If you’re gas tank is empty you won’t be able to be explosive, you’ll just gas out. So if you go out for 6 mile run at a nice relaxed pace you can think of it as filling up your gas tank.
This was a type of training I was not doing. I was taught this was bad and useless. I heard stories of legendary coaches like Charlie Francis yelling at his sprinters if he ever saw them jogging. Just as a long distance runner is useless in a football game trying to catch a faster human being, a powerlifter is useless in a grappling scenario if he gasses out in two minutes. You have to learn to compete while your tired. You do need this in sports like football but it’s very different. When you need rest in football you can get it. When you need rest in a fight you’ve lost. Your martial arts techniques are only useful if you can use them when you’re tired.
There is obviously (as I mentioned in the first paragraph) a lot of grey area here. Strength is a factor. It can quite often be the deciding factor. Every athlete has different needs. The athlete needs to know what he/she needs. The best way to do this is find a coach you trust and ask them what athletic qualities you’re lacking. To take it a step further ask your training partners that you trust the same question. If you’re gassing out and not doing long steady state work I’d start there. If you’re weak and not explosive then I focus on proper strength movements and interval training.