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.

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.