Like the other examples included within this chapter, the provided strength training templates are actual examples that were created and used by me during the fight preparation for a number of elite level Mixed Martial Art athletes (UFC) prior to a bout. The template itself includes all strength training sessions for the given phase, as well as ESD options and programming (details to follow in later paragraphs). To enhance clarity for the athlete, an abbreviation chart is provided at the top, in addition to a guide to prescribed relative intensity zones and also a subjective guide to session RPE itself which will of course vary based upon the athlete’s fitness level as well as their technical competency and recovery ability. Depending on the phase, the general layout of the template is divided into 2-4 primary “blocks” or sections, and is color coded so that the athlete knows which exercises sequences are to be performed together. Additionally, the columns for the weeks provided are vertically oriented and include a blank to the right of each so weights can be tracked and recorded.
From a loading and movement quality standpoint you will note on the templates that relative intensity ranges are only provided for main lifts within each program. You may choose to track and prescribe loads for the accessory exercises if you would like, but the main focus should be on the simple review and progression of the weight used in previous sessions. Ranges are recommended over strict 1 or 3RM protocols as the nature of fight training itself lends itself to tremendous variability and also because the initial stages of training should be focused upon enhancing familiarization with the weight-room and optimal exercise technique.
In “Phase 1”, you will notice the occasional placement of what I call “efficiency movements” which are listed after the primary compound lifts that are to be performed within the program. These are added in some cases in order to make strategic use of the rest periods before beginning the next set; and target either mobility, stability or postural limitations of the athlete in order to foster enhanced movement quality and to chip away at gross imbalances that may exist.
It can be argued, that by including these movements within what should be a period of “pure rest” that we are disregarding bioenergetics principles and thus potentially degrading the amount of effort that the athletes will be able to exert during the next sets. This concern is not unwarranted. However, it is important to keep in mind that when working with under the numerous time constraints that we as coaches face leading up to an official fight camp, the tremendous amount of biomechanical limitations these fighters often have due to current/previous injury and the fact that the vast majority have little to no true “strength foundation” as it pertains to their physical development in general, we are likely getting much too far ahead of ourselves if we truly believe that the performance of a simple dynamic stretch or trunk exercise is going to determine the entire outcome of either the training, or the very fight that we are preparing for. Strength and movement quality are not only complementary; they are and should always be inextricably linked within the mind of the strength and conditioning professional. That being sid, it is imperative for me to state, that should you choose to adhere to this strategy, you must choose these movements wisely, and remember that they are a complement to the program and should never serve as the primary means of the program itself. In all things related to performance, maintain a “strength first” approach.
Aside from the understanding the layout of the strength programming template, perhaps the largest factor to consider is that of the guiding principles behind appropriate exercise selection for fighters. The importance of maximal strength development, kinetic linking and rate of force production have been well established in the preceding pages and chapters of this text, thus compound or multi-joint exercises should be prioritized over more isolative movements due to their ability to be loaded at higher levels and because of the amount of muscle mass involved with each movement. Additionally, in order to obtain the necessary neuromuscular adaptations while mitigating the risk of producing significant hypertrophic changes (due to the weight-class nature of the sport) intensity should be prioritized over total volume, especially during the later stages of training as the competition period/bout nears. Excess training volume can quickly manifest itself as a “virus” as combat athletes are residents in a world of volume as it is due to both the nature of their competitive event, and their technical/tactical training.
Another element that can never be overlooked with any athlete is that of overall movement quality. Progressive overload comes in many forms, unfortunately at times, even for the educated professional, common sense does not. It is both easy and natural to judge the programs of another practitioner just as it is easy to fall into the pit-fall of training our fighters as we would train ourselves. A strength and conditioning coach who has not had much experience training elite level fighters may be tempted to litter their programs with classic weight-lifting movements, barbell pressing variants and the like. And in some cases, this isn’t necessarily “wrong” since those very movements have been proven within the literature to be effective in building strength and explosive power, but one must also bear in mind, that the vast majority of fighters will come to you with a variety of maladies, asymmetries and a laundry list of previous injuries that may make you learn to adjust the lens in which you view how these exercises should best be prescribed and performed within the program. For example, a back squat is a classic exercise and is replete with research which showcases how integral it is to setting the stage for enhanced physical performance. But if your fighter is unable to load him/herself in that manner due to restricted shoulder, thoracic spine, ankle or hip range of motion or injury, choosing to use a safety bar or alternative variation not only allows you to still apply the necessary stress to their body, but also protect them from exacerbating a previous injury or even potentially priming their body to incur a new one!
The bottom line regarding exercise selection and loading practices: Your level of competence in regards to how you choose to adequately stress the athlete’s neuromuscular system and individual physiology will be reflected upon your ability to be flexible and creative, not rigid or heavily rooted in any bias other than that of the laws of physics. As previously stated, these athletes are often far from ideal subjects given their novice state and physical limitations regarding mobility or stability related issues and are not looking to compete as weight-lifters on an international level. Coaching them successfully requires you to always ensure that you are fitting the exercise to their body, and crafting loading strategies that always adhere to the primary rule of “Do no harm!”. Remember, many fighters and their technical/tactical coaches still believe that heavy strength training itself can be injurious or will contribute to slower striking speeds. As their strength and conditioning coach and someone who is more well-versed in the matter, your time is better spent educating the athletes and team around you and adapting your methods, as opposed to resorting to risking in-fighting as to who is “right/wrong” or potentially hurting the athlete. Be evidence-driven, but more importantly, be willing to find a middle-ground and save the sparring (verbal or otherwise) for the octagon.