Hypertrophy Recovery Strength

What can lifters learn from fighters?

Jack Lovett is a S&C specialist, owner of Spartan Performance and two-time British natural strongman champion. He is based in Consett, County Durham.

Mixed martial arts, as you probably already know, is an unforgiving sport. Professional fighters will often be training two or three disciplines a day alongside their strength work, and to perform at their best they need to balance full-body strength, power and conditioning with injury-proofing their bodies and avoiding overtraining. It’s not easy, but it also provides a useful template for training other athletes or even recreational lifters: after all, if they can juggle all of these qualities alongside a huge volume of skill work, why can’t you? Here’s what I focus on with the fighters who train at Spartan Performance.

Injury prevention
My fighters compete in an unforgiving sport, often after a water cut. Due to the volume of striking, grappling and submissions (both offensively and defensively) they work on during training I am particularly mindful of hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder issues. Thus I adopt the below protocols, which are equally beneficial to non fighting individuals. Who wouldn’t benefit from a more balanced physique with less stress and wear and tear on their joints?

1. Firstly, I’ll address their mobility in these areas during a thorough warm up – especially during fight camp, when training ramps up.

2. Keep the joints as warm as possible – I recommend all my athletes wear neoprene elbow and knee sleeves.

3. Focus upon the upper back musculature heavily via hundreds of face pulls, external rotations and band pull-aparts. Fighters – like most regular lifters – tend to be anterior dominant, and it’s important we develop balance in their physique.

4. Use joint friendly movements when training the upper body. In particular I like neutral-grip DB pressing as well as a football Bar, which again allows for neutral grip pressing and is kinder on the wrists and shoulders. For the lower body we will often squat using a Safety Squat Bar: this reduces the workload on the shoulders and external rotators as well as wrists and elbows. It also stresses the core more which is always a bonus.

Power training
Power training, especially at the start of a workout, will fire up the CNS and get you amped up for the workout to follow. It’s better than any pre-workout on the market in my opinion. It will encourage you to increase your rate of force development and recruit more of your fast twitch muscle fibres, more efficiently: crucial when it comes to lifting heavy on the big three. It’ll also allow you to perform reps with maximum aggression and ‘bad intentions’. There is no middle ground here. No fucking about. Keep it simple with throws, jumps and sprints, and you’ll stay more athletic for longer – especially as an older lifter.

Jumps I prefer box jumps as a starting point, preferably onto soft plyo boxes. Aim for 20 total jumps per workout in sets of 3-5. We can progress to more advanced versions such as hurdle jumps and depth jumps, but only when applicable.

Throws Use a light med ball or slam ball. 5-8 sets of 3-5 reps. This require space to perform but also allow uninhibited triple extension. There is no deceleration required at any point of the movement – unlike the overused and misunderstood olympic lifts.

Sprints These are awesome but also extremely stressful on the body: hey must be used with select clients only and implemented correctly at all times. With general clients I find sprinting with empty prowlers to be a smart compromise. Just as effective but far less stressful to the body and joints.

Increased pulling power
My favourite upper body pulling exercise ever is the arm over arm rope pull. Even before I was lifting in the gym! 1987, Predator, Arnie, Carl Weathers, Sonny Landham – how awesome did they look pulling those trees down? Seriously fucking awesome. Tell me an exercise that works the grip, forearms, biceps, back, core, legs and willpower simultaneously better than arm over arm rope pulls? Trick question: there isn’t one.

In combat sports I want my athletes to posses tremendous grip strength and endurance for all aspects of grappling. Rope pulls do just that and in a very primitive and appealing way. Likewise I want them to be like Beowulf and have awesome pulling strength. No dumbbell or barbell lift can compete.

These qualities will only enhance the results of regular lifters too. I’ve yet to come across a downside to having an iron grip and willpower when it comes to lifting heavy.

Targeted core training
Core training for my fighters is crucial. I want muscular strength and support in the core ‘area’ (neck to knees, front, back and sides) to maintain the integrity of the spine and support any additional loads/stresses placed upon the body during training and competition, and these benefits are equally applicable to non-fighting individuals. A stronger core is only a good thing when it comes to overall health and lifting performance.

A strong core is the foundation and link between the upper and lower body. For athletes and fighters this allows them to absorb and transfer forces through their body. For an athlete, strong arms and legs are nothing without a strong core connecting them. The same goes for regular gym trainers too. I focus on these exercises:

1. Planks (RKC, Push-Up Position Plank, Long Lever, Side Plank and Dead Bug)
These develop foundational core stability and focus on an intense isometric contraction. I like to load these up via chains, weights vests and even bumper plates.

2. Dynamic Core Strength – Bracing correctly during barbell lifts such as squats, presses and deadlifts.

3. Loaded Carries – My personal favourites. I’ll include:
-Farmers walk
-One-arm farmers walk
-Overhead barbell carries
-Overhead log carries
-Overhead carries using an earthquake bar and hanging kettlebells.
– Log Zercher Carries – these are probably the best bang-for-your-buck exercise if you’re short on time.
-Log Zercher Carries with kettlebells hanging from bands.

Again: fighters are some of the most motivated, committed individuals you’ll meet. They’re forced to work on a whole array of athletic qualities, which means that the good ones learn to be smart with their training and efficient with their time. If this all works for them – it’ll work for you.