Strength and Conditioning in Competitive Martial Arts

Richard Crenwelge
Photo taken from Mikhail Kozitskiy FB page

It is sometimes difficult to advise fighters, and “hobbyist” combat athletes, about the importance of strength and conditioning training, usually because of preconceived notions that they have on the subject. Therefore, in this first article, I just want to skim the surface, and provide a cursory introduction to the relationship between modern competitive martial arts and how we must prepare for them. This, of course, will be done through the lens of my own experiences. I feel that this could (hopefully) clear the air between me and my audience.

My primary martial art is SAMBO, which many of you have become familiar with through Fedor Emelianenko and his brother Aleksander, or Sergei Kharitonov, or perhaps even the Diaz brothers, as they have been singing the praises of SAMBO all throughout 2012. Although I am certainly not anywhere close to the best SAMBO athlete out there, I have an incredible passion for the sport, and have competed here in the States, as well as in Russia. I mention this not to pat myself on the back, but to segue into the subject of strength and conditioning in competitive martial arts. What is it that I have learned, through my experience in SAMBO, and how does the US compare to Russia in the areas of skill and physical preparation? What can I share with you guys that could have a positive effect on your training?

First and foremost, I have never in my life received as humbling of an ass-kicking as I did in Moscow, in March of 2012. Not only was my opponent supremely skilled, he was also incredibly strong, fast, and proprioceptively aware. Out of all the amazing fighters and grapplers I have trained with over the years, there hasn’t been a single BJJ or judo black belt, D1 wrestler, or Golden Gloves champ that felt as inhuman as this guy did. The difference is in emphasis and mentality.

In the Soviet Union, many of these athletes were sent to sporting clubs when they were very young, and they trained in their respective disciplines for hours a day, month after month, over a course of many years. This is a testament to their cumulative experience and skill, which reached a phenomenal level very early in their career, as opposed to many BJJ athletes here, who did not begin training until they were “out of the house”, or were never afforded the luxury to train the requisite 5+ hours a day. A very large part of the Soviet training model, however, revolved around physical preparation, as opposed to the very common 10min warm-up, 20min skills work, and 30min sparring sessions that you see in your local grappling gyms. In fact, one former Soviet strength coach has been quoted, and this is paraphrased, that 75% of athletic training, regardless of discipline, was purely general physical preparation. Only 25% was reserved for skills. It was under this model, also, that Soviet athletes dominated the sporting world so consistently for so long. That is not to say that they always won, or that they were always the best, but their overall performance in the sporting world was inarguably unprecedented.

The previous paragraph, here, is crucial. Visualize one typical day of your own grappling or MMA training and what it involves. Then, if you also lift weights or train for cardiovascular endurance, sandwich the two together. This is, roughly, what the Soviet model entailed. They did not lift weights, go for a jog, and then wrestle, in neatly separated packages, with a modicum of crossover among the three. All of these training methods were an inseparable part of the whole. A wrestler wrestled, a gymnast tumbled, the hockey player played hockey. Thus, the lines of distinction were blurred, and training was simply training.

Absorb that for the next week, and I will elaborate on this more in my next article. Thank you for reading.