Combat Strength

Follow these guidelines to blast through your plateaus and find your best performance yet.

The topic of strength in sports has become a hotly debated topic in recent years. Some coaches believe that you can never be strong enough, while others believe strength is largely overrated. For those that train in combat sports, they know that strength, power, speed, and conditioning are all necessary traits if you want to be a well-rounded combat athlete. Today’s fighters can’t afford to be lacking in any of these areas any more than they can afford to have big holes in their ground game, stand up, or wrestling if they want to get anywhere in the sport.

Fortunately, when trained properly, strength is an area that can improve rapidly, and it’s a weapon that can be used to control the fight and take it where you want it to go. Top wrestlers have frequently been known for their high levels of strength, an advantage that has undeniably been a big part of why so many wrestlers have had great success in MMA. Whether you’re a wrestler or not, if you’re lacking in strength and explosive power, you’re missing out on a necessary ingredient for top performance, and you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to those that have it.


In the simplest of terms, strength is the ability to produce force, and at the end of the day, producing force is all your muscles are really designed for. They contract to produce force, and this force is what moves your body around, everything from walking down the street to throwing the knockout punch comes from your ability to produce the force necessary to do so.

In this way, strength is the foundation of every movement and every athletic quality we can think of. Explosiveness, speed, and endurance are simply different kinds of strength. Explosiveness depends on how quickly we can produce force, maximum strength is a matter of how much total force we can generate, and conditioning boils down to how long we can maintain our force production before we fatigue.

Different sports require different levels of each of these kinds of strength, and to be successful in combat sports, you’ll need to find the right balance between all three. Unfortunately, finding this balance can be tricky, and with most combat athletes already spending hours in the gym training to improve their skills, there is often little time left to devote to getting stronger.

Because of this, it’s absolutely essential that your strength program is delivering the results it should be, and this means it should take into account the specific needs of hardworking combat athletes. Trying to follow a strength program that is designed for athletes in other sports is often a recipe for disaster. To get the most out of your strength program, make sure to pay close attention to the following guidelines:

Don’t confuse strength with conditioning

Without question, one of the biggest problems made by combat athletes who are trying to get stronger is trying to develop strength and conditioning at the same time–often they even try to do this in the same workout! Recent research has shown that this approach leads to less than optimal results in both strength and conditioning. A better approach is to separate strength and conditioning into separate workouts.

Furthermore, lifting heavy weights with minimal rest between sets or performing high reps in circuit fashion is not the best way to improve strength. There is a reason you see the strongest and most explosive athletes in the world—power lifters, weight lifters, sprinters—resting a long time between sets. You would never see a world-class 100m sprinter running sprints with as little as 10 or 20 seconds rest between them and expect to get faster, so don’t think you can build maximum strength or power with this approach either.

A good rule of thumb is, if you are getting winded during your strength workout, you may be working on strength-endurance, but you’re not going to improve max strength or explosive strength with this type of training. Always make sure to rest at least 2-4 minutes between sets of strength work if you are trying to develop one or both of these two qualities. Save the conditioning work for separate training sessions when you can really focus on it. Trying to train every aspect of strength all at once will never lead to the best results and should be avoided.

Don’t be afraid to lift heavy

In order to get stronger, you can’t be afraid to lift heavy weights, but you must also remember that if you’re spending 4-6 days in the gym training combat sports skills, you can’t handle the same lifting volume as a powerlifter or strength athlete that only trains strength. This is one of the biggest mistakes that combat sports athletes make far too often. They try to follow the exact same program as a lifter or an athlete that isn’t putting in the same number of hours training their sport.

You wouldn’t expect an NFL athlete to follow the same lifting program in the middle of the season as they follow during the off-season, so you shouldn’t expect to be able to follow the same high volume training programs as other lifters without eventually paying the price. Many combat athletes that have tried to follow training programs with strength training volumes that are too high eventually end up with sore and aching joints and injuries at some point.

Fortunately, combat athletes don’t need to develop the same level of strength as a power lifter, weight lifter, or other strength and power sport athlete, so there is no need to train with the same volumes to begin with. Most of those athletes have been lifting weights for many years and need higher volumes to continue to improve, but combat sport athletes rarely need anywhere near that amount of strength work to get stronger. For most combat sport athletes, 12-14 total sets of strength work with reps per set in the 3-6 range for the majority of sets per training session are usually enough to get the job done.

Stick to the Basic Lifts

With the amount of available time for strength work often limited, you have to get the most out of your time. This means sticking to the basic compound lifts. To improve your general strength, you should use the big lifts like squats, pull-ups, rows, deadlifts, and bench presses, because these lifts use a ton of muscle and help improve your nervous system’s ability to activate a lot of muscle at once. It’s this ability that makes up the foundation for maximum strength and
explosive power.

Exercises that isolate small muscle groups should be left to bodybuilders and fitness models. If you want to get strong and be a combat athlete, these types of exercises should be used minimally. While movements that use kettlebells and dumbbells do have their place in a strength training program, these exercises involve much lower levels of force and should be considered accessory exercises. Only once you’ve developed a solid level of general strength and developed your nervous system to a high level by using the core lifts should you worry about focusing more specifically on combat sports exercises.


• Rest 2-4 minutes between all sets

• Rest 3-5 minutes between exercises

• Perform 1-2 light warm-up sets before work sets

• Select a weight between 80-90% of your 1 rep max

• Try to increase weight in each lift each week

• If possible, always try to perform strength workouts at least 4 hours before or after combat sports training session

• Accessory injury prevention exercises can be included during warm-up period

• Do not train to failure, select a weight that will allow for 1-2 more reps per set than the prescribed number

• Following the 6 week program, make sure to take one “recovery” week with reduced weight and 40% less training volume

• Make sure to monitor your recovery throughout the program and adjust training volume as necessary, given your individual fitness level, training schedule,and goals

For more in-depth training articles and advice, be sure to visit Joel Jamieson on the web at:

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