Training Philosophy: Physical vs Technical

Russian Sambo courtesy of SystemaSpetsnaz.com
[Russian Sambo image courtesy of SystemaSpetsnaz.com]
If you read my first article, “Strength and Conditioning in Competitive Martial Arts” then this next installment should help to elucidate those concepts even further. If you did not read that article, I hope that this one can stand on its own. Rather than outline specific exercises or routines, I want to continue to lay the conceptual groundwork for a solid training philosophy.

One of the ideas that I encounter in martial arts frequently, specifically among practitioners in the US, is the idea that strength training is somehow anathema to fighting, or even counterproductive. Hardly a BJJ class goes by without someone complaining that their partner “just used his strength”, and has “no technique”. To a certain extent, I am sure that this is an extension of Helio Gracie’s idea that strength is not the only component of combat, and that strength can be overcome by superior technique. Everyone can agree on that. It is incorrect, however, to take this to its extreme and make the claim that strength does not matter. This is something that you are much, much less likely to hear in a top collegiate wrestling program, or at a sports club in Russia, and that is because it is an empirically proven fact that stronger athletes perform better. If your opponent is stronger than you, your appropriate response to the problem should be developing your own strength. If they are larger than you, then you should consider bulking up or cutting down. It really is that cut-and-dry.

Every time I begin to work with a new athlete, especially fighters, I find myself burdened with the task of convincing them that strength and conditioning work is of equal importance to skills. Udo Quellmalz, one of the best competitive judoka of all time, was a product of the Soviet model, as he competed for East Germany before the Wall fell. He continued to train, of course, after the USSR dissolved, and was quoted as saying that “the East German approach was much more professional than that of the West. The volume and intensity of training was so much higher” . He also described his preparation for the 1995 World Championships as a single “ten-day conditioning camp in the Austrian alps. We hardly did any judo, it was just endurance and strength training”.

The government-subsidized coaches and scientists that oversaw his training recorded the empirical data of these sessions in great detail, including lactate levels, VO2 max, recovery time, etc. The modalities that worked were kept and developed, while the others were scrapped. One of the bits of data that piqued my interest the most, however, was the simple recording of hours spent training. Quellmalz spent 20+ hours a week training, as opposed to the average 10 hours spent by elite Western athletes. The volume of training is impressive, sure, but the detail that I am focusing on here is that there is not a distinction made between the hours spent on physical preparation, and those spent on skills work. It was one and the same.

I challenge you, the readers, to record how much time you spend on physical preparation vs skills work over the next week. Then, add the two numbers together. This should give you a real, tangible representation of how much time you are spending on becoming better at your respective disciplines. We will pick up again next week with training specificity under the Soviet model, as an extension of the ideas expressed in this article.

References:
1. Mark Law, Falling Hard: A Journey into the World of Judo (Boston: Trumpeter Books, 2007), 173.
2. Mark Law, Falling Hard: A Journey into the World of Judo (Boston: Trumpeter Books, 2007), 174.