When we think of Bruce Lee throwing a kick, Muhammad Ali dodging a punch, or a great wrestler like Dan Gable swiftly shooting in for a double-leg takedown and dumping his opponent on the mat, we can easily imagine strength exerted on multiple planes. This multi-dimensional strength and stability is achieved through specific strength conditioning. It is the key for optimizing body movement and power for a combat athlete’s knock-out punch. It also provides incomparable groundwork for other athletes, too.
The majority of today’s programs favor traditional strength and conditioning approaches which are often heavily biased towards sagittal plane (forward and backward) movements. We definitely need strength in the sagittal plane, and many of the big-bang-for-the-buck exercises like squats and deadlifts occur in this plane.
But in designing our training, it is important to understand that the human body does not move in just one direction. We can also move side-to-side, forward, backward, and in rotation. Training in multiple planes, or multiple directions, helps us achieve higher levels of body awareness, balance, and coordination. This improved programming allows for quicker reaction times and more efficient neuro-motor function. Training in all the planes can help athletes and clients avoid injury and enhance their performance. It’s a required practice for any athlete determined to consistently perform on an elite level.
Movements in the sagittal plan move forward and back, or through the mid-line of the body. Common examples of sagittal plane movements are a biceps curl or a sit-up.
Movements along the frontal plane can be described as side-to-side, such as abduction and adduction. Exercises that work through the frontal plane are side lunges and jumping jacks.
Movements in the transverse plane include horizontal abduction, adduction or rotational actions. Exercise examples include the Russian twist or a cable woodchop.
One major reason most sports injuries occur in the frontal and transverse planes is that most athletes are only training in the sagittal plane.
Athleticism depends on a tremendous amount of movement in different planes of action."
Strength and conditioning programs for athletes should strive to include as many variations of movement as possible to train muscles in as many planes as possible (Kenn, 2003).
As trainers and coaches, we must prepare our athletes by strengthening their bodies in all three planes. If your athletes understand the difference between these three planes of movement and can develop their ability to efficiently weave their movements together, then they will be well-rounded and less prone to injury. For example, a fighter in the ring or cage spins, moves left and right, dodges kicks, pivots, punches, and is constantly tackled. If his or her body is weak in a particular plane, the likelihood of an injury is much greater.
Most popular training methods do not use multi-planar movements. Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, CrossFit training, and bodybuilding tend to primarily work in the sagittal plane. Very few movements are in the transverse or frontal planes. Additionally, most of these training methods do not include multi-planar movements—combinations of frontal, sagittal, and transverse planes of motion. These popular training methods are still valid for training athletes, but coaches should also consider ways to train sport-specific movements that athletes will perform on the field of play (Brown, 2013).
As strength coaches and trainers, we can create workouts that hit all of these planes, or we can select compound exercises—triplaner movements—that hit all three planes in one rep. One of the best triplanar movements of all is the get up.
The get up is a highly functional movement and total body exercise. Its benefits include improved shoulder stability and strength, correction of left-right asymmetries, overall mobility, core strength, improved movement skills, overall proprioception/coordination, and time under tension. The get-up also teaches athletes to stabilize themselves and create whole body tension in a variety of positions.
The above-mentioned list of benefits is more than enough justification to include the get-up in our workouts. But, I think that one of the most valuable benefits provided by the get-up is that it passes through all three movement planes from the ground up, and again on the way back down to the ground. For that reason alone, the kettlebell get-up is one of my favorite options—it forces you to work in EVERY plane of motion.
The get-up provides a variety of functional movement patterns and an unmatched stimulation to our vestibular and nervous systems. Once they have mastered all the steps of the get-up, you can even lead your clients and athletes through the movement with their eyes closed for a greater nervous system challenge. The body awareness developed from practicing get-ups provides tremendous value for athletes and the general population.
When designing a strength and conditioning program, we need to include multi-planar movements, multi-directional movements, and various stances which are appropriate for our athletes. Exercises like the get-up will help athletes move more efficiently and will decrease their chances of injury while increasing their overall functional strength.
Brown, T. (2013, September). NSCA’s Performance Training Journal, Issue 12. Retrieved November 18, 2016
Kenn, J. (2003). The Coach’s Strength Training Playbook. Monterey, CA: Coaches Choice.
Now that strength training has become a commonplace for grapplers, a question keeps popping up, “how do I build strength without putting on weight?” First, let me say that strength doesn’t directly pertain to muscle size or girth, it truly is a measurement of the ability to produce or resist force, which is something all grapplers like the sound of. Second, it’s pretty difficult for grapplers to gain muscle mass, due to the amount of volume and nature of their training. To fully explain, I like to attack this question from a few different perspectives. First, from a metabolic demand perspective. Second, from a neuromuscular perspective. And third, a method implementation perspective. Let’s get started!
When I say metabolic demand, I mean what energy systems are predominant in the sport? There are three main energy systems human beings use. The first two are considered anaerobic (not fueled by oxygen) and the last is considered aerobic (fueled by oxygen). Here are all three with their respective durations of time.
Energy system usage in sport is entirely contingent on the intensity and duration of the activity taking place. So for grapplers, more than likely you’ll be using all three systems at one time or another while you train for the sport to maximize your abilities when you compete. But when it comes to competitions, you’re going to be overwhelmingly tapping into those first two systems especially on the mats, and the third primarily for recovery between matches (you certainly need that high aerobic capacity in order to come out fight after fight).
So why bring this up? How does it relate to strength training for grapplers? While both Ashoka and Sam Dadd have touched on the importance of conditioning for the combat athlete (ie training the oxidative system), I’ll be talking mostly about training the phosphagen system.
How long does it take to throw your opponent? Less than 10 seconds for sure. So you need to be strong enough AND fast enough in order to accomplish this feat and walk off the mats victorious. How effectively you use your phosphagen system is a direct measure of how powerful you are, and it can really only effectively be used if it is effectively trained. While strength is a measurement of producing or resisting force, power is learning to apply force quickly (in fact the equation is literally [force x velocity]). Does that sound familiar and appealing to your combat athletes?
To train power and strength appropriately and translate it to the mats is to give yourself abundant opportunities to be successful."
When folks traditionally think of building strength, they think muscle mass and girth and size. Truthfully, strength comes in all shapes and sizes, which is great news for the grappler because you can be both strong and lean at once!
Let me explain from a neuromuscular perspective: Your body increases strength in two ways. The first is by recruiting MORE muscle fibers in any given muscle group, and the second is increasing the firing capacity of your motor units (motor neurons and the skeletal muscle fibers they innervate). Essentially, muscle does what it’s told by your brain through neural pathways, if you can train those neural pathways to be more efficient, to recruit more muscle fibers and do so quickly, you have untapped the capacity of your muscles to apply force and to do it fast. What that means for you is you can be faster and stronger on the mats than anyone else! This means, though, that you have to be actively and regularly strength training in order to achieve this neuromuscular adaptation (lifting weights = good!)
Now let’s talk implementation. All the above is super fun for someone like me who likes thinking about the nuts and bolts of why we do what we do. But I understand that might not be what you came here for, so let’s talk training!
To develop strength for the grappler that won’t add mass we’re looking to develop explosive power and strength without girth. Great! What’s that mean? Here are some tips:
Hit some plyos. Plyometric drills are superb for the grappler to incorporate into their workout regiment, I like to throw these in at the beginning of a workout, but if you’re advanced enough to incorporate some contrast training (often called Post-Activation Potentiation=PAP, basically meaning lift something heavy and then do something fast) plyos can play an awesome roll throughout the workout as well.
LIFT EXPLOSIVELY. Hit loads around 70-85% of your 1RM and lift that load FAST. This usually means Olympic lifts (cleans, snatches, jerks), even medicine ball work, or KB Swings (these are great for combined cardio work as well, take a look at Ashoka’s post for more information)
LIFT HEAVY! Training at 90% or above your 1RM means you’re recruiting a lot of those muscle fibers we talked about earlier and improving the efficiency of your nervous system to apply force when called upon to do so. Keeping reps low and focusing on moving the bar quickly will ensure you’re still recruiting the right fibers.
Lose the volume. Strength training for hypertrophy means high volume and literally means the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in the size of its cells. Don’t want to get big? Great! Keep the reps low and the sets lower. We’re talking 2-3 sets x 3-5 reps and that’s pretty much it.
The right work done in a weight room can drastically improve your game on the mats, but only when utilized and implemented properly. And strength training is only half the battle, make sure you’re getting proper nutrition in and recovering well in order to truly maximize your ability on the mats. The guys at FUJI Fit have an entire arsenal of information about strength training and conditioning for grapplers, use them as a resource and get better every day. And if you have any questions for me, feel free to leave them in the comments below!
There is an abundant amount of information floating around the internet with regards to proper training, proper nutrition, proper mental preparation, and proper technique for grapplers. In fact, there’s so much out there, it becomes a much bigger job to sift through the good and bad and extract what you need as an individual than it should be. Your job, as an athlete, is to do the damn thing.
Do the thing and you shall have the power” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson was a 19th century American poet (among other things), but he may as well have been a sports psychologist with a mindset like that. All of the information athletes are perpetually bombarded with is meant to help them, though it seems to just distract defer focus to ideas and concepts they don’t need to be scrutinizing. Ultimately, an athlete (and grapplers in particular) need to shut their minds down and be an absolute animal to get the job done on the mats. In order to be successful, athletes must simplify and execute.
There are more clinical terms for this concept found in sports psychology. “Attentional Focusing” for example, is “the ability to focus attention on cues in the environment that are relevant to the task in hand.” In short, the capability of an athlete to focus on task-relevant cues in order to achieve what they need to. The ability to simplify and execute. The ability to do the thing.
James Kerr in his bestseller “Legacy” puts it this way:
Under pressure, your attention is either diverted or on track. If you’re diverted, you have a negative emotional response and unhelpful behavior…if your attention is on track, you have situational awareness and you execute accurately. You are clear, you adapt, and you overcome.”
With so much information constantly at our fingertips, it becomes tough to sift through and determine what is right for you. That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with people you trust to advise you for your particular athletic goals, and reliable resources (like FUJI Fit) to direct you appropriately. And it’s important to do this in preparation for events, not the day of.
Ultimately, when you hit the mats, all the thinking should’ve already be done. The ability of you as an athlete to focus on the task at hand, to simplify and execute, will be the difference in success and failure the vast majority of the time. The training, the eating, the mental preparation, and the technical components of you as a grappler need to be the object of your attention leading into a competition, once you’re on the mats, your attention should be on one thing: execution.
For the grappler, nutrition is no great mystery. In some way or another, your relationship with food via building, weight cuts, and preparation for competition has been developing since the very first moment you touched the mats. For this article, I won’t go down the weight cutting rabbit-hole, but I want to briefly discuss carbohydrates. Carbs have gotten a bad reputation in the last ten years or so as fad, low-carb diets, paleo, ketogenic etc have gotten a lot more popular. While there’s merit to whatever way you feel most comfortable fueling yourself, I think carbs have been misrepresented as the “bad guy” when, for most competitive athletes, they’re pretty essential.
Simply put, carbs are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products. They’re stored in the body (in muscle, liver, and blood) and broken down to release energy. Because sugars and grains are carbs, oftentimes they’re (wrongfully) associated with weight gain. I don’t necessarily believe there are any “bad” foods (and you shouldn’t either) but there are certainly better choices and smarter training that can account for weight gain and/or loss. Carbs are the only fuel source you can break down and use anaerobically (without oxygen) which means they’re absolutely essential for sports that rely on the phosphagen system (ie any grappling sport) for fuel during competition.
Carbs can either be simple (short chain) or complex (long chain). Simple carbs are comprised of monosaccharides (glucose, galactose, fructose) or disaccharides (maltose, lactose, sucrose). Complex carbs are oligosaccharides (raffinose and stachynose) or polysaccharides (starches and glycogen). Simple carbs are easily broken down by the body and used for energy (or stored), due to their short chain and easily cleave-able bonds, while complex carbs are broken down over time and either used for energy or stored. Storage happens in the blood (8-10g), in the liver (75-100g) or in the muscle (300-400g). All said, when your body’s stores are topped off, you only have about 500-600g of carbohydrates, which a grappler can easily deplete if you’re not replenishing appropriately. And depletion means exhaustion.
Since carbs are the only fuel source that can be used anaerobically, when you’re in the middle of a fight, your body is relying on those glycogen (carbohydrate) stores within your body as the source of energy to finish the fight. If those stores are prematurely depleted due to a lack of adequate replenishment, you’re in trouble. And that trouble often presents itself as fatigue and that fatigue leads to losing fights.
In 1993, Ball et al. had cyclists perform a 50 min ride at 80% VO2 Max after an overnight fast and then had them perform a Wingate test with either a placebo or carbohydrate supplement. The findings? Significant improvement of the carbohydrate group in RPE (ratings of perceived exertion), mean power, peak power, and maximum power. The generalized conclusion? Carbohydrates aid in improving performance. In a 2017 research study by James et al. of cyclists again, the simple act of cyclists swishing a 7% carbohydrate solution around in their mouths for 5 seconds led to a significantly faster time trial performance, than cyclists who rinsed with a control solution. What’s that mean? Your brain interprets carbs as fuel and allows your body to improve performance by exerting more energy when it believes it is about to get more fuel in the form of carb. These are just two examples of studies done with a variety of athletes (not just cyclists) over the course of decades of carbohydrate research.
What I want you to take away from this is that carbs aren’t the enemy and, in fact, may end up giving you the final boost you need over your opponent. When you’re fueling for a competition, carbohydrates need to take up a significant amount of your diet to make sure your stores are maximally topped off for the best chance at delaying fatigue and improving performance. If you’re at a weekend tournament, they’re even more important to use in between fights to ensure you have appropriately recovered and are fueled and ready for the next match. Stick to simple carbs for supplementation during tournaments, and make sure in the days leading up you’re flush with simple and complex carbs.
Above all, make sure you’re comfortable with your eating routine before you try it in a competitive situation. Eat your big meals 3-5 hrs before a competition (if you can) and supplement between fights, if applicable. Eating is tough for a grappler looking to make weight but relying on and ingesting carbohydrates as a fuel source can delay fatigue and ultimately improve performance.
How many of you have been to a supplement store? My guess is the vast majority. Supplement shops and “cure all” remedies aren’t new concepts. Magic potions, elixirs, tonics and the like have been doled out for as long as apothecaries have been a thing (a quick google search tells me the term has been around since the 13th century, my guess is actual magic-potion-peddlers have been around since well before the common era).
Please know when I refer to supplements here, I will always be speaking about legal substances. Supplements are meant to enhance something, whether that’s performance, recovery, weight loss etc. is up to what you’re looking for. Lately it feels like there’s a new magic remedy for any and every ailment that could potentially come your way advertised on TV, radio and now by your favorite Instagram accounts! This is as true in the athletic performance world as it is for the rest of the population.
While I certainly won’t bash supplements (I believe a lot of them can be super helpful for various athletes). I think it’s important to address what really happens with recovery and subsequent adaptations that come from training, in order to better understand when and why to use legal supplements.
Most of you are aware that a workout is simply a catalyst for change. You, a human organism, are in a homeostatic state, exercise is nothing more than a planned deviation from that homeostatic state. That deviation is ultimately a catalyst for change within the body, and that change comes in the form of adaptation to a given stimulus.
Our bodies, through centuries upon centuries of evolution, have become extremely efficient at this adaptation process. Give it a stimulus, go recover, and attempt that same stimulus the following week and what happens? You’ve gotten better at that task. This is why progression is programmed into good training. Supplements came along to help expedite that process, help give a slight advantage in recovery. Because, after all, recovery is where the adaptation takes place, the stimulus is simply the training session. And those supplements can be helpful! But maybe not year-round…
Let me put it to you this way: in the same way your body adapts to a certain stimulus, it will also adapt to a given supplement. It will become less sensitive to the stimulus in the same way it will become less sensitive to the supplement. That’s problem #1, year-round supplement use won’t reap any great benefits because your body eventually will stop responding to it. The answer isn’t more, by the way.
The second problem, and perhaps the bigger one is this: your body needs to learn how the hell to recover properly on its own! It needs to feel like garbage sometimes so it can learn to heal itself, so that you can learn to take care of it. This is where true adaptation takes place. Your body’s ability to recover will ultimately be what dictates your success from training sessions to tournaments. The faster you can recover, the faster you can get back to training at 100%.
But your body has to learn how to do this without the help of any external substance first."
Henk Kraaijenhof is a Dutch sprint coach and author. He wrote “What We Need is Speed” and made a similar point in the book. Essentially, your body needs to adapt to change and stimuli as efficiently as it possibly can before you assist it with any supplements. Make sure you learn how to take care of yourself first through proper warm-ups, training sessions, mobility sessions, and nutrition long before you ever think about taking a supplement for assistance.
A healthy body is one that learns to adapt to stimuli efficiently and keep on training hard. Save the supplements for specific times of your training and make sure you consult someone who knows what they’re talking about and knows how to make sure the supplements aren’t contaminated with any illegal substances.
A quick side note here: the IOC (International Olympic Committee) funded a study (Geyer et al. 2004) that considered the prevalence of contamination in dietary supplements. Of the 634 non-hormonal supplements they tested from 13 different countries, they found a 15% contamination of WADA banned substances. A 15% contamination. Let that sink in. And make sure you are very careful when you select and then take a dietary supplement. Regardless of who led you to whatever you’re taking, ultimately YOU are responsible for what goes into your body, and should you ever be drug tested, you want to be absolutely sure that you’re going to pass with no doubt in your mind.
Ultimately, I want you to understand that your body is a machine built to adapt to change, so let it do its job, let it become extremely efficient at recovery and adapting. Only then should you head to the apothecary man with his magic elixirs. When you do eventually consider supplementation be very, very careful with what you’re putting in your body. Let your body do its thing, then you can look for boosts in recovery, sleep, performance etc.
Freestyle vs. Strict Kettlebell Training
Kettlebells are a super versatile training tool that a lot of combat athletes both enjoy training with and find a lot of success training with. I’m willing to bet that if you’ve done any strength training in the past, you’re familiar with kettlebells; their functions and uses, and have lifted, swung, pressed, and carried one (or many) before. Sound familiar? I bet!
Multiplanar Kettlebell Training
This cardiovascular kettlebell training is commonly referred to as “freestyle” kettlebell training and focuses a lot more on lighter weights and continuous movement. This predominately trains the oxidative energy system. As a reminder, a few posts ago, we tackled the energy systems while talking about strength training for combat athletes. Mostly I talked about the various energy systems that come into play for a combat athlete and how best to train those systems. Is this sounding familiar?
As a quick refresher here are the energy systems:
Phosphagen/ATP-PC (10 seconds or less)
Glycolytic (30 seconds – 2 Minutes)
Oxidative (Anything longer)
We talked a lot in that post about training strength and power so you can efficiently and effectively apply force to your both opponents and the mat and be extremely explosive in the process. While an athlete may have a genetic predisposition to explosive tendencies, it is well worth training those systems to truly develop them to the utmost of your own individual capability.
Back to kettlebells! This “freestyle” kettlebell training encourages lighter weights, continuous movement and ultimately, an oxidative stress. There’s certainly a time and a place for it, but just like any training and any movement, we need to find a right balance and train intelligently. Freestyle kettlebell training may encourage continuous movement, but not always good or intentional movement, we want to be able to control our bodies and ourselves in the gym so that we can do that on the mat, control over recklessness is key! Ultimately, for the combat athlete, training intelligently absolutely MUST include elements of strength and power. The good news is we don’t have to ditch the kettlebells for that to happen!
Strict Kettlebell Training
Another term you may or may not be familiar with is “strict” kettlebell training. Essentially this refers to using kettlebells to train strength and power systems (think phosphagen and even glycolytic). This means HEAVY weights so you can train your body to apply force really well. And it also means explosive movements (think KB swings, KB snatch etc) so you can continue to train that phosphagen system and your fast twitch capacity. Moreover, it means safe programming and quality movement. Strict kettlebell training follows more closely to a typical strength training program but utilizes kettlebells to do so. This means progressive overload and resistance, rest intervals, paired movements, multiple sets, and varying reps (contingent on time of year and type of training). Additionally, this strict kettlebell training still utilizes kettlebells, so it still allows for multi-planar movement with the same piece of equipment and thus fulfills the combat athlete’s desire to mimic sport specific movements in the gym. There is a rhyme and a reason to strict kettlebell training where freestyle kettlebell training lacks it.
Imagine if I were to say all you need to train as a combat athlete is cardio. Would you believe me? I certainly hope not! As a combat athlete you need to be strong and powerful first and foremost. Do you need to train aerobic capacity? Yes absolutely! But it shouldn’t account for all of your training. Combat athletes need to incorporate strength and power movements that are intelligently programmed into their training in order to have the best chance at finding success on the mats.
Think about what you’re doing in the gym and why, and if you have any questions feel free to post them below and definitely check out FUJI Fit for more on how to train effectively as a combat athlete!
In my high school home room, there was a slew of cheesy posters plastered to the walls. The only one I remember was this:
Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars
Fifteen-year-old me viewed that message with an eye roll. But I must’ve internalized it because ten years later, it is how I relay the message of visualization most effectively to younger athletes.
Visualization is a skill that has a massive payoff and potential, and yet is vastly underutilized in sports today."
When we set our sights on the highest possible level of achievement (not what level you think is attainable, but the highest possible level) to the moon (so to speak), we create expectations far beyond what anyone else would dictate to be the capacity of our skill. What’s interesting is that our brains will believe what we tell it, provided we believe it to be true as well. In his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman wrote the following: “A message, unless it is immediately rejected as a lie, will have the same effect on the associative system regardless of its reliability…Whether the story is true, or believable, matters little, if at all.”
That is one of the coolest phenomenon’s I’ve ever encountered. Because you think something, your associative system genuinely thinks it’s possible. We can be our biggest cheerleader in this, and we can also be our own worst enemy. In sport and life, we talk about this idea of the “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy” and whether or not you believe in the good or the bad does seem to have an effect. Whether or not you believe you will succeed or fail can have an impact on whether or not you do.
What does this have to do with visualization? Well if you can create a detailed narrative of how a fight will go, anticipating attacks and defending them, anticipating your ultimate victory, and anticipating that feeling of happiness, fulfillment, and relief…it turns out if you can imagine all of that, you’re more likely to experience it. And this is why visualization is the truest and most real secret weapon that athletes are just beginning to tap into.
I’ll leave you with this, one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books, Legacy by James Kerr from his chapter “Expectations.” If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend it for being aware of and then ultimately engaging the appropriate competitive mindset for any occasion.
“It pays to hoist our sights if we aspire to be world class: to create for ourselves a narrative of extreme, even unrealistic ambition. It doesn’t even matter if it’s true, or reasonable, or possible, it only matters that we do it.”
It seems the age-old adage remains true: “visualize to actualize.” Do me a favor, in the weeks leading up to it, before your next competition, spend an hour a week (split this up between two days, so two 30-minute sessions) setting the scene. Be in the arena, feel the mats beneath your toes. Look your opponent in the eye. Anticipate their every move. Counter their attacks. React to penalty calls. Keep your head on straight. Walk away victorious. Imagine that feeling. And do this over and over again in great detail. By the time you hit the mat for the competition, you will have already been there, and have already been successful there and you’ll feel comfortable, confident, and focused.