Strength and Conditioning in Competitive Martial Arts: Part 2

Monolith Grappling Arts

I apologize that it has been a while since my last installment on Soviet training methods. It’s been a shitstorm of events for me over the last month or so, and the sambo team has been pretty active, as well. We competed in the first ever NOLA Sambo Invitational and took first and second in the 74kg weight class, along with a great performance at the collegiate judo national qualifiers, and then the San Antonio Open. One of our young guys is days away from making a trip to Iowa to compete in the collegiate judo nationals. I am definitely bragging here, no doubt about it.

We left off last time talking about hours spent training, and the importance of general physical preparedness, which began our segue into sport specificity. As American athletes, we have heard quite a bit about sport specificity in the last 6 to 7 years, as this has become a vital part of all NCAA and professional strength training programs. There are scores of articles on unilateral resistance training for boxers, in order to develop a stronger right cross, or parachute training for sprinters, as a method to improve off-the-block explosion. Are these new methods? Absolutely not. They have, however, become more and more mainstream in the strength and conditioning world.

Rather than think about what physical activities we should do for our sport, though (we’ll talk about that soon), let’s look at specificity in another way: in the entire spectrum of human physical attributes, which are most likely to create success in your chosen sport? Then, similarly, what characteristics do you have that could play a role in your personal success? Arguably, basketball players have an advantage if they are tall. Anderson Silva has long limbs and a short torso. These things matter.

In the Soviet Union, athletes were selected at a young age for special training, based on physical characteristics that were conducive to success in particular sports. This is an early and very basic form of sport specificity, as certain characteristics are clearly better for certain sports. An example might be a large amount of hip and glute development at an early age, which could easily be tailored to achieve success in strength sports like weightlifting. A combat athlete might show more prowess in local muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, or speed during fine motor skills.

American sambo coach Gregg Humphreys (Dynamo Combat Club in Bettendorf, IA; sambo instructor for Miletich Fighting Systems) described this process to me last fall, as he received a physical evaluation from Soviet coaches during his first trips overseas for training. Coach Aaron Fields from Seatown Sambo in Seattle underwent a similar process, as well, during his time training with the national sambo and wrestling teams in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Aaron is fairly tall, fairly lean, and has a background in judo and wrestling. Therefore, his evaluators determined that his focus should be on foot sweeps. These ideas were based on scientific, repeatable data, mined from hours and hours of research on athletes. From there, they were able to develop real, tangible numbers that applied to specific movements performed during specific sports. Judo athletes under a certain height are mathematically handicapped, because of their body type, in a certain group of techniques. They are advised to focus on dropping arm throws, for example, as opposed to techniques like the hiza guruma, or the “knee wheel”.

Think about your body type, and the things that you do well in your chosen combat sport. If you have long, lean legs, maybe the triangle choke should be your go-to. Or perhaps, if you are short and stocky like myself, sambo groundwork may suit you better: staying off your back, working for pinning techniques, and focusing more on top control than submissions. The same can be applied to striking, in principle. While taller guys tend to have a well-developed jab, designed to keep the opponent at a comfortable distance, there are shorter guys that have great jabs, also, like Miguel Cotto. The shorter guys have to apply it differently, though, and certainly cannot use it to keep a taller opponent on the outside. Rather, it is used for disrupting the opponent’s rhythm, or setting up a lunging hook.

This is all about efficiency, which is a huge component of the Soviet model. How can I make my skills as advanced as possible in the shortest amount of time? Take your natural attributes and exploit them. This is not to say that you should ignore certain aspects of the game; on the contrary, learn everything, but focus on developing those things that will take you to the top quickly, and use your training time wisely.

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.