After working with countless Olympic and Pro athletes, Robert decided to get back to his roots and help wrestlers and fighters scientifically prepare for competition.
No guessing here, Robert helps athletes like, Joe Warren, Jessica Penne, Jake Ellenberger, Scott Jorgensen and many others revamp their training programs, so they get better, not just tired.
In this episode we discuss:
- Peaking for competition
- Laying the foundation for HUGE cardio
- Stability, strength, power and endurance.
- Why MORE athletes need LESS Training
- When to use high intensity training without burning out
- and much more
Robert Forster owns Phase IV Scientific Testing and Performance in Santa Monica, CA, which tests athletes and then develops training programs specific for their needs. For more information about Robert’s system, testing or programs, you can email him at email@example.com.
Full Transcription of Our Podcast with Robert Forster
COREY: Hey guys, this is Corey Beasley with Fight Camp Conditioning and I’m on the phone here with Robert Forster. Robert, how’re you doing?
ROBERT: Good. How’re you doing Corey?
COREY: Very good. Thanks so much for joining us today.
COREY: Robert, just to give everybody a two cents on who you are and what you’re doing. Can you give us a little bit of your background?
ROBERT: Sure. I’m a Physical Therapist. I’ve been practicing Sports Medicine in Santa Monica for over 35 years. In that time, we had the great privilege to work with some outstanding coaches and have been dealing with Olympic athletes for just about 30 years. And learning from those coaches and how they prepare their athletes to peak fitness, we expanded our physical therapy practice into a center called Phase IV Scientific Health and Performance, where we design training programs for athletes in all sports. We design strength and flexibility, conditioning, we write heart rate specific training programs for athletes and using the knowledge that we’ve gained over a periodization training and picking athletes when it counts, we’ve had great success in different sports working with people like Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova as well as the track athletes we have trained over the years, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Flo Jo, Allyson Felix and Dawn Harper, a recent gold medalist.
So being a wrestler in high school and college, I wrestled Division One in Pennsylvania, came full circle back to our sport and realized that what we were training was really inadequate, and I got into training some wrestlers and MMA fighters and we’ve a little stable of fighters that are following our scientific training programs and trying to change the paradigm in mixed martial arts and combat sports, conditioning more in line with how the rest of the world trains and how we train athletes to peak and set world records. Bringing that paradigm to MMA has been very rewarding, bringing it back to our sport. So it’s been an evolution of our programs and our services and it’s been great fun and I love to share with whoever’s interested.
COREY: Yeah absolutely. So Robert, when you’re dealing and you’re looking at wrestlers and MMA guys, it’s a pretty — I don’t know if it’s the right word, but it’s a pretty ego based training system where a lot of guys just harder is better and more is better than less. Talking about that, when you’re dealing with those wrestlers and MMA fighters and coaches and stuff like that, what are some of the biggest mistakes that you see guys making?
ROBERT: Well to start with, what I see in fitness in general in public and also in the combat sports is kind of missing the basic question. The question is not how fit I can make someone, how much I can kick their butt in training. It’s how much do I have to? What are our criteria? What are we looking for? What does that athlete bring to the table and what does the training program do to answer his or her deficits and strengthen their attributes?
So I think from the starting point, it’s just work hard as we can and push, push, push but not a lot of direction. So we like to do a lot more analysis, both structurally and metabolically and figure out what exactly the athlete needs and then train towards that goal instead of training — and most athletes train until something breaks so they’re over-trained or they’re sick. And so I see instead, we should have a game plan where we’re heading, where do we get there, we check the box and move on instead of more and more and more. I think that’s the basic fundamental problem I see with training.
And then to go from there, my observations are that something is broken in MMA, in wrestling training, almost every participant will tell you that, including the highest level one for training center coaches, etc. But they just can’t figure out how to change things. One of the basic premise is and I’ve learned this from Bob Kersee, track and field coach who now has about maybe 45 or 50 Olympic medals under his belt. He always gets his athletes to the starting line healthy and peak for competition. And what I see working with coaches like that is that there should be an endpoint and that there’s first basic requirement of all conditioning and for his sprinters there were, Jackie Joyner Kersee and Flo Jo and Allyson Felix are all sprinters and jumpers and hurdlers but yet we first develop a large aerobic base of fitness.
Aerobic efficiency, of which the important thing is that we’re training athletes to use more and more fat as opposed to carbohydrate at any intensity; where that comes from is the long slow distance that we’ll do early in the training cycle to set up that metabolic efficiency. And the new paradigm is to keep the metabolic efficiency all year. And so athletes really never lose that. And then we can pick them in six or eight weeks for competition which is often timetable for MMA fighter.
So what I see is, missing that basic first step. Everything is hard and furious. And that in general, just everyone feels like they’re following some kind of training methodology in periodization but I see it gets personally overly complicated. And I’m not sure that it’s even satisfying the basic requirements of periodization.
COREY: So there is not building that good foundational base to stack everything else up on top of.
ROBERT: Yeah, we talk about foundation; we talk about how important it is to build higher levels of fitness and to lay that foundation. But when we test fighters and wrestlers, very few have metabolic efficiency, the first basic requisite.
On the structural side, I find that athletes are doing lots of strength and conditioning but yet they have glaring deficiencies. They don’t have full range of motion of the joints. There’s weakness in certain muscle groups that are just perpetuated by some of the training. And instead, again, we start to evaluate the athlete. What does this athlete need? Almost every fighter I’ve evaluated is extremely weak in the hips. And that’s just mind boggling to me with all the work they do fighting and wrestling from a crouched position. Obviously the hips have to be rock solid. That’s an instance where we go through some very established fighters and find glaring structural deficits.
So the first phase of training which should really be done before we enter fight camp is metabolic efficiency and joint stability. Then, there’s different ways to go about things from there. But I think some of the basic periodization principles I see missing is that high intensity training can only be done in eight weeks at a time before you see the athlete become over trained and you see performance decrease.
So I see athletes going into the gym and going hard all the time, going hard in between fights, just all anaerobic conditioning. And that leads to what I’ve observed in the ring and in the octagon, is that almost every fighter in the fourth and fifth minute of round, they’re operating at about 60% of what they’re doing the first couple minutes, meaning they come out hard and strong and they [inaudible] quickly. And then a lot of our athletes are training for championship rounds. And I just see the championship rounds in most fights are absolute shit show. Meaning, I see million dollar fighters stumbling around the octagon or the cage in minutes three of the fourth and fifth round and just dangerously are vulnerable to potential serious injury and ending their career.
So it is just one reason for that, we try to make comparisons to other sports so people understand. The first thing I would say is look, marathoners — we’re the official physical therapy Office of the LA Marathon. So this week — and we see athletes holding 85% of their VO2 Max for two hours, and there’s no reason why a fighter can’t. And of course fighters, we talk about our sports different; somebody is hit in the face and etc, etc. But Work is work; the muscles don’t know the difference. Yeah, we are dealing with some cognitive things where athletes get hit and certainly damage, but the muscles should be able to keep going at a much higher level. And the reason they’re not is because they’re trained to burn only carbohydrates, they are used to high intensity training only. At higher heart rates as you know we’re burning mostly carbohydrate as a fuel.
The byproduct of carbohydrate metabolism is lactic acid. So we see athletes are dependent on their carbohydrate metabolism instead of being more dependent on fat burning. So if we can get athletes to burn more fat into higher intensities and less carbohydrates, they’re producing less lactic acid. They’re sparing their carbohydrates so it lasts till the end of the fight.
And lastly, the real kicker is when someone has a large aerobic efficiency base; the aerobic muscle fibers actually use lactic acid as an energy source. So now an athlete who has metabolic efficiency is going to clear the lactic acid quicker and be ready to go again after a pause in the action, and after a little break, might [Inaudible] a little blow it off and keep going at a higher intensity and that’s what we’ve seen in their performance in the cage.
COREY: Well the majority of the fitness world over the last 5 to 10 years has gone — like in the 80s it was the aerobic craze when everybody wanted to do aerobics and long duration exercise and stuff like that and it seems like the pendulum has kind of swung towards doing that high intensity interval type work or circuits and all these different things that are out there. And a lot of these — even some coaches online are kind of negating long, low intensity duration bits of cardiovascular exercises and stuff like that. But I think on avoiding that stuff, where does the benefit fit in and how do people kind of balance out their training to accommodate that?
ROBERT: Well, this I think is because they’re doing long slow distance but they’re not shooting aerobic efficiency because they’re not applying that properly. When we do the base training and that’s why it has to be done between fights, there can be no other intensity. So I see this all the time, I see it all the literature, all the fitness, using aerobic fitness, they’re trying to mix everything up in the same week. Like they think periodization means I do power on Tuesdays, strength on Thursday, and I go long and slow on Saturday. That is not the way it works.
When we’re doing the base training, we can’t do any intensity. And this is what freaks fight coaches out. It’s still amazing. We have the 34 year old athlete now who’s in between fights, and I’m insisting that he develop the aerobic efficiency first before we move on. And his fight coaches are losing, he’s going to miss wrestling, he’s going to miss live wrestling. He’s 34 years old. He’s been wrestling since he’s seven. Does he really need to wrestle every week? Between every fight? I mean, I just don’t understand the mentality. Again, what does the athlete need?
So we like to sit around a table with all the fight coaches there, we got the jiu-jitsu coach, your striking coach, your wrestling coach, strength and conditioning coach; and as I understand that we’re going to use the framework, really timing the athlete’s training time down to the minute. And so I see them mixing up these different types of workouts, and you can later but in the base training, it has to be all base training. Everything has to be done in a certain heart rate which we determine by VO2 Test. First of all determining an athlete’s metabolic efficiency, and someday we’ll be testing MMA fighters and find oh you already have it. But to-date, I haven’t found one athlete that we’ve met that had any aerobic efficiency, even high level world champions.
So first we stop the show, get that aerobic efficiency, get the joint stability and then move on. So I think the long slow distance gets a bad name because it’s not applied properly. Which leads me to second — probably it’s type first, besides going to high intensity too soon and doing it for too long over eight weeks, we can only do a high intensity eight weeks and we see sports where the competition times are marked by hundreds of a second or quarter of a kilo. You see the effects of what different training programs do. You either get to the line and can run that time or they can’t or they get to the bar and they can lift but they can’t.
In our sport there’s lots of excuses, we know why someone doesn’t perform so many different things if — we try to objectify. Look, we’re going to do VO2 Test, we’re going to find out where you’re deficient. We’re going to train in those zones to make you more efficient, come before the fight we’re going to test you, we’re going to show you and all your coaches your fitness is there, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t perform. That’s mental confidence builder and mental anxiety reliever and it also takes away excuses. And so everybody can see where the athlete was when they’re ready to go.
So the thing that I see along with too much intensity too soon and too long, is no one’s really following the basic premise of periodization. When we increase the intensity we have to decrease the volume. I have athletes coming in, they’re training 21 hours a week. I mean Iron Man athletes don’t train 21 hours a week and they are there for 12 hours.
So it’s just people remember oh this was what I did in college, [incomprehensible] workouts. I was just at a very famous gym with Sharon name two weeks ago, the full 90 minute NCAA Division 1 type practice in the morning and another one in the afternoon and I’m running or lifting session as well.
So I think as athletes get older, they recall how hard they work. They’re also able to handle more volume so they do; doesn’t mean it’s right for their fitness. So first, after we set that aerobic base, and then we’re moving through so if we have joint stability and aerobic base, we go into fight camp. We’re really just trying to turn whatever strength they had already into power and make it functional. So a lot of it is, conditioning is done in drilling at certain heart rates and people, previous to this said it couldn’t be done, and certainly can be done, I can teach an athlete, a fighter, three basic zones.
Heart Rate Zone is a recovery and warm up zone. There’s a Work Zone in the middle where we do all our drilling and then there is Fight Zone, which we save for the last eight weeks before the fight.
And so now we’re following and what I understand and what I’ve observed is the basic science, low intensity for more than eight weeks, as we build up the intensity from say, the beginning of a training cycle for training 14 hours a week, bringing it down to 12 and 11, and maybe 9 hours a week, the last several weeks before the end of camp, and then last couple weeks, it’s just about a true taper. And taper is also misunderstood. I think a taper is not complete recovery. A taper is a week, or we do a week of recovery before we start to taper. The idea for the taper which should be about two weeks I think for three rounds fight or five rounds fight should be short, high intensity workouts that are using — like in the last build phase of our fight camp, we’ve developed another gear for athletes to use. Now they get to learn how to use it, learn how to adapt to it. So they’re really gaining a few cylinders, and [inaudible] the racecar driver go out and use them and learn how to use those cylinders. And so we’re doing short, hard workouts really low volume, really high intensity, and that’s classic periodization model that gets a true peak.
ROBERT: So it all works together nicely because this aerobic efficiency that we develop in the beginning carries through fight camp, our athletes are all leaned out. My typical athlete including Joe Warren, the World Champion, next week will be maybe he’ll eat three meals a day and he’ll stay fully hydrated right through the weigh-in. He may be drop three to five pounds dehydration the day they weigh-in and that’s from a fully hydrated and nourished state so it’s not a big deal. More preferably it’s three pounds breeding breakfast the morning of the weigh-in and so we can talk more about weight cut and how that is characteristically corrupting MMA wrestling, but it all works together when we train athletes. This way, they’re naturally aerobically fit, they are burning more fat 24/7, they have better energy levels, they’re naturally leaned out and we get great results through true peak.
I think again, my work with track and field athletes; we arrive at Olympic Games, maybe three weeks before the competition begins. And the athletes’ times are horrendous. They’re nowhere near world record time. And then I watch coach Kersee over the course of three weeks; taper, sharpen them, and boom, set multiple world records at each Olympic Games. So I think that volume reduction and a true taper for a true peak is something that eludes most fighters.
COREY: Now Robert, when you’re sitting down with all the coaches, a lot of guys are training in multiple different gyms, they might have Muay Thai at one place, boxing with another guy. Wrestling is a different camp. And a lot of these places are doing drills, skills, sparring, conditioning, so it’s incredibly important to kind of get everybody on the same page.
ROBERT: Yeah, that’s exactly the fight that we’ve been fighting. I respect every coach in a camp. For instance, today Jake Ellenberger has called together all of his coaches. We are having a meeting this afternoon and he wants me to lay out the training plan. What I have to make the coaches understand is that we’re going assign a duration and intensity to each workout. We assign heart rates and duration to each workout and we ask the coaches to make sure everyone understands their role. The boxing coach, we want him to teach how to strike and box. I don’t think the boxing coach would say oh, I think you need more conditioning now let’s go run hills or let’s go do a conditioning session.
We have a fighter’s workouts calculated to the minute and I want them to understand that if you throw another 45 minute conditioning and tell him that there was another one, you’d just overcook this athlete. And yes, if you see deficits, I think the proper thing is to communicate to the strength and conditioning coach, where do you see the deficits. What kind of drills a boxing coach or a wrestling coach might want to add? But also for them to understand we don’t expect this fighter to be peak now, what you’re saying is exactly what we expect. They’re supposed to be going moderate intensity working on technique, working on the strength endurance to get through five rounds.
And so everybody’s on the same page, they understand. But it’s a matter of everybody understanding their role. I think your earlier statement about ego is applied a lot to the coaching staff, and we all need to know our role and stick with it and I see the best camps going that way and I’ve seen absolute disasters the other way where no one’s communicating. So the boxing coach thinks the athlete needs to run hills today. It’s just mind boggling to me. And so if they understand that professionals like yourself are taking care of it; we’re taking care of the conditioning, we have a plan, we have certain volume and intensity, I don’t really care what you do in that, it’s between the coach and the athlete and maybe a head coach to determine what should be a content of a certain workout. We’re just calling for the duration intensity. What heart rate? How long? And I’m certainly here to consult with but it’s up to you guys to figure out what you’re going to work on, as long as you can stay in those parameters.
The analogy that most fighters get — because we’ve all been on ergometer; It’s a total body exercise. It will kick your butt real quick. Olympic race is about 2000 meters about seven minutes. So it’s close to a wrestling match or [inaudible] what have you. And I asked him, do you think the rowers go in November? They hit the water in November for this season, which they want to peak in August. They want to make the US team say May? Do you think they go on November and just start paddling as hard as they can? And they all shake their head and of course not. Well, that’s what he’s doing wrestling all the time. We show up and we start going live. Live is high intensity. I don’t care if anybody says — I don’t care if you’re wrestling an eighth grader. It’s live and it’s high intensity.
So rowers spend months and months on sub threshold training, sub [inaudible] threshold and sub anaerobic threshold. And then finally, like everyone else in the sports world, they would work high intensity for about eight weeks and peak their athletes, maybe two week taper. So 10 weeks before competition is the only time they start to hit the high intensity. We do it year round. There’s nobody that will hold up to that. No one would set a world record in these other sports if they do that kind of training. So I like to take lessons from other sports and try to change some ideas in our sport.
COREY: Right on. Now Robert, when you’re talking about lactic threshold and the different testing and stuff like that, an athlete comes to see you day one, what are you doing to test those guys initially, and then what are you doing to monitor their progress moving forward?
ROBERT: So on the metabolic side, we’re doing a VO2 Test. We could do blood lactate test, both of these tests determine — basically the most important thing for me is they determine how high intensity an athlete can go and still be burning fat and not switching right over the carbohydrates. For instance, I get done in my MMA wrestling career I started training for endurance sports. So for 15 years, I was riding my bike and having fun, it was all good. I never got faster, never got thinner, never got lighter. And I started to realize, because of the wrestler, I’m just burning carbohydrates at really the most basic slow intensity, slow pace riding. My bicycle, for instance, running. And I realized I’m already in carbohydrate burn because that’s what I trained my body to do for 12 years.
So I think my experience is somewhere characteristic. Instead, I had to do a VO2 Test and find out no at a heart rate 113 that’s how low my lactate threshold was; meaning, below 113 I’m all fat, burning fat. burning fat. It’s over 113 I start to burn a mixture of carbohydrates and fat, and then over 145 or 148. I’m almost all carbohydrates.
So basically if you’re talking about running, it might have been a 10 minute mile or 12 minute mile, I was becoming anaerobic. It’s a very slow pace. So I had to change my metabolism. I had to find out that optimal fat burning heart rate zone is between 113 and 127, and I had to stay there for eight weeks, and then voila, I retest and I’m burning much more fat, putting on 25 watts of power increase and burning more fat.
So with the fighter, same thing. I’m going to measure their VO2 test and see where that line is. I don’t care about VO2 Max, it’s going to come naturally, we’re going to train that at the end of the training cycle. I don’t even call it a VO2 Max test. Some athletes don’t even go to max, most of them want to, but we just have to find out take them high enough to find out where that heart rate transition is from all fat to a mixture of fat and carbs and then where’s the anaerobic threshold when it would become all carbs. And then we’re going to train them in that fat burning zone for eight weeks. They can drill in that zone, they run in that zone, they can ride their bike in that zone. Their weight training should be in my opinion, joint stability, lightweight so they’re not at the higher heart rate and they’re isolating small muscles and gaining — again, correcting the deficits we found in the structural exam.
So on the metabolic side it’s a VO2 Test and on the structural side, a physical therapist is going through their whole body from head to toe, not only looking at injuries, but more importantly looking at strength deficits and then eradicating them in that first base training phase and then from here on out, I expect an athlete that’s working with us to always have metabolic efficiency between all fights, which is easy, running three times a week and doing some light drilling, and they should keep up their joint stability.
And then depending again, what is the need of the athlete? If I have an athlete that needs to put a lot more muscle, there’s a pro athlete you and I are working with together and she needed to put a lot more muscle so in between fights, we make sure we stop, put on that muscle. You put on 3.6 pounds of lean muscle mass on a 115 pound fighter recently, which is really impressive. And then we can move forward towards what we’re going to do with that strength that we just put on that muscle in the fight camp. I think the thing to do is to turn it into power and then strength endurance and they’re ready to go.
So when we first work with athlete, I’m hoping it’s three months from their next fight so they can do the most magic, get their aerobic base, get their drilling stability, get their strength up and then fight camp we can turn it into something functional with higher heart rate training and more explosive movements and things like that, the things that you work on the strength endurance. So it comes together and I think that’s the best model.
COREY: Right on. So Robert, if guys are wanting to learn more about what you’re doing; coaching athletes, I think this is a absolutely incredible thing that you’re putting together just to educate the whole world. I mean, wrestlers, jiu-jitsu guys, fighters and everybody’s kind of running into this issue. What’s the best way for people to connect with you?
ROBERT: We have a new website in development, but our website for Phase IV Scientific Health and Performance Center is www.phase-iv.net. So IV meaning Roman numeral four. So it’s phase dash iv.net. But my personal email if someone is willing to talk with anybody interested is forsterpt@aol, and it goes directly to me. Also I’d be glad to keep communicating on the Fight Camp Conditioning project you’re doing.
COREY: Awesome. Well Robert, thank you so much for your time, man. You have some absolutely incredible insight for people. I really think it’s going to — it’s already changing a lot of athletes’ careers, helping them avoid common injuries as well as just perform at a much higher level. So thank you so much for what you’re doing, man. I appreciate it.
ROBERT: You are very welcome Corey, great talking to you.