Randy Couture: Fit for a Lifetime

He was 16 years old when he made up his mind. One day it just happened, like something inside him ignited all on its own and couldn’t be extinguished.

You can almost picture him now— a skinny high school kid, bright-eyed and eager, with that same familiar smile only sitting beneath a full head of hair. He’s a teenager who loves wrestling. He’s good at it too, but he’s not the best. Something about this bothers him. He can’t quite say what, but it won’t go away. So, he makes a decision. Next year, his senior year, he’ll win a state championship.

Looking back now, he can’t tell you why that became his goal. It just did. He decided that he needed to start doing more. If he only did what every other high school wrestler in the state did, he reasoned that he’d never be any better than they were.

He embarked on his own off-season training program. For the first time in his life, he started running without a coach telling him to. He asked his mom for a weight set. She went down to Sears and came back with plastic weights filled with sand. He quit his job as a box boy at the local grocery store. He was going to become a state champion, he explained to his boss, and he needed more time to train.

By the time his senior season rolled around, he’d built himself a new body—and he started seeing results. He was stronger than the other kids. They got tired, and he didn’t. He won matches and kept on winning. He went all the way to the state championship and won it.

This is how it started. From that point on, a simple formula was burned into his brain. Work plus time equals success. It was something upon which he could rely, and even build a life.

“That’s when I actually developed a real enjoyment in working out, and I saw results,” Couture says. “When you see results, it’s motivating. You want to do it even more and take it to the next level.”

There are two types of fighters: the ones who love to train, and the ones who do only what they have to, because they have to. For Couture, training isn’t just a passion—it’s practically a religion. It has to be. After more than 13 years in the sport, UFC championships in two different weight classes, and his name on the door of one of the most respected gyms in the world of mixed martial arts, the 48-year-old knows better than anyone the value of a well-conditioned body and an unshakable work ethic. You may not see that well-conditioned body in the Octagon again, but it will be evident on the big screen in August when Couture reprises his roll of Toll Road in The Expendables 2.

It helped that Couture learned at an early age how to take direction and stick to a schedule. Going from the military to a top wrestling program at Oklahoma State helped instill in him the benefit of a regimented lifestyle, but some of it came naturally to him. As a child, he remembers being more inclined towards neatness and order than his peers.

“I wasn’t one of those sloppy kids,” Couture says. “Everything seemed to have its place in my room. When friends would come over and dump their crap on the floor when they were spending the night, I was quick to say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t go there.’ I think I’ve always kind of been like that.”

Those tendencies got kicked up to a whole new level when he joined the Army. There, a disciplined lifestyle wasn’t optional. Couture enlisted after learning that he was about to become a father for the first time, hoping that a regular salary would help him support his new family. Once he made the Army’s wrestling squad, his life became consumed with training and competing.

“There was a schedule,” he says. “There was a conditioning and a training schedule, and it was twice a day. That was my life. Once I made that team, I didn’t wear a uniform anymore. I wore sweats and showed up to the gym when I was supposed to. If I wanted to stay on the team and stay out of trouble, that was my duty.”

Not only was the service a step up in intensity, it also took Couture from a local to an international stage, preparing him for his post-Army wrestling career at OSU.

“OSU was the first time I was ever exposed to a professional strength coach, a guy whose whole job was making sure that we were training the right way and doing the right things to make a difference on the mat. I learned a lot. Mickey Weber was the strength coach at OSU, and he was putting us through different circuits and different training routines to get the most out of us.”

It was at OSU that Couture learned the necessity of tailoring his workouts to his specific needs. While stationed in Germany with the Army, he’d gotten into working out with a bodybuilder friend. Bench presses and squats may have helped make him stronger and improved his physique aesthetically, he says, but they didn’t necessarily make him into a better wrestler. Weber’s workouts were completely different.

“At OSU, I got more involved with doing stuff like Olympic lifts,” says Couture. “That helped me more than coming in and doing a squat or a bench, because everything in fighting is more dynamic, and those static lifts just don’t help you as much. To perform athletically, you need to be doing the lifts that force you to work on stabilizing and doing much more dynamic movement.”

It’s a slow afternoon at Xtreme Couture. Everyone seems to be finishing a training session or waiting for one to start. A group of fighters and trainers lounge around on the edge of the boxing ring, talking, killing time. The conversation turns to Sky Zone, the Las Vegas gym that resembles an airplane hangar covered in trampolines. Couture helped make it famous on the UFC’s Countdown show a couple of years ago, demonstrating the workout that fellow Xtreme Couture fighter Jay Hieron introduced him to.

The consensus this afternoon is that Sky Zone is no joke. It may look like fun to bounce around on trampolines, but within a couple of minutes you realize that everything— even regular pushups or sit-ups—is tougher with the trampoline absorbing the energy. You get tired in a hurry. What starts out as fun can feel like torture in a matter of minutes.

“How long does Randy do it for?” a young fighter asks Ron Frazier, the team’s boxing coach.

Frazier crosses his arms in front of his chest and shrugs. “It’s Randy,” he says. “He does it until you tell him to stop. He’s just mentally tough.”

It’s one of the things you hear over and over when it comes to Couture. It’s his mind—maybe more than his body—that allows him to do what he does. The workouts that reduce younger fighters into quivering piles of flesh, he strolls right through them.

Some of this might be due to his natural disposition, but most of it is learned, says Couture. He learned early that mental toughness comes before physical toughness, in large part because one enables you to do the work that leads to the other.

“When I was on the national team, we used to do this thing called the Grind Match,” says Couture. “You’d come in, get warmed up, then the coach would set the clock for 60 minutes, or sometimes even 90 minutes. You’d just wrestle non-stop with no breaks, no water. You weren’t allowed to stop wrestling for the entire Grind Match. It was the first time I’d seen somebody mentally and physically just break. I think you learned to get through it. There were times when you were kicking butt and times when you got your butt kicked, but you had to get through it. It taught you to dig deep, and it showed you that you had more in you than you thought.”

But sometimes, even for Couture, gritting your teeth and getting through it isn’t the best strategy in the long run. That’s why he stresses the importance of mixing up workouts to keep things fresh, as well as getting out of the gym for a relaxing, yet active, outing once a week.

“I think everybody talks about being burned out, but that’s more of a mental thing than a physical thing. Changing up your routine and doing different things, it not only shocks your body and keeps you from getting stagnant, but it helps you mentally as well. That’s why the active rest days are so important. You get out and hike up a mountain or get on your bike or walk up the hill and get out of the gym, and that helps, because it can’t be the same routine every day.”

While professional athletes may be in the rare position of getting to work out for a living, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still times when life gets in the way. In addition to running a gym and a clothing line, Couture also travels frequently, making promotional appearances, fulfilling UFC public relations responsibilities, as well as cornering Xtreme Couture fighters in a number of different organizations.

As anyone who’s logged a fair amount of frequent flier miles knows, hitting the gym and hitting the road can often feel like diametrically opposed endeavors. Even if working around an altered schedule isn’t an issue, you never know exactly what you’re going to find from one hotel gym to the next. To stay in shape during his travels, Couture has learned to improvise and adapt.

“Hotel gyms can vary pretty widely, but you can usually find a treadmill in all of those gyms, and I’ve taken to doing a lot more walking than running on a treadmill. I put the treadmill at a really high incline and do some serious walking,” he says. “You also can usually find a bar to do pull-ups and dips with, and I do a lot of those along with some core exercises like a Russian twist or crunches— and create my own circuit right there.”

The most important thing, says Couture, is to do something, even if the situation isn’t ideal.

“It really comes down to a willingness to do what you can, when you can, even when you’re busy, and making it a priority.”

Coming from someone else, this might fall into the category of sound but hollow advice. The kind of thing that is easy to say and virtually unassailable, and gets spoken aloud more than it actually gets done. But when Couture says it, you get a sense that he knows exactly how difficult, and yet how vital it is. He owes the success of his career as well as its longevity to his decision to live out this advice. When other fighters took to the beach or the nightclub between fights, he headed back to the gym. That’s why time caught up with them, but still hasn’t shown any signs of taking its toll on Couture.

It started when he made the decision to do more, to become better. Every day he makes the decision again. Every day it proves to be the right one.

A COUTURE CLASSIC:THE GRAPPLING CIRCUIT

This is a workout that Couture came up with while coaching wrestling at Oregon State University, and it’s designed to improve conditioning, while increasing strength and simulating the aerobic and anaerobic rigors of grappling. It’s ideal for competitive fighters, as well as average people who don’t have a ton of time or equipment to work with. Use the same, manageable weight for each exercise, doing 10 to 12 reps on each one, moving directly from one exercise to the next without setting the bar down. Rest for no more than one minute between sets, and choose a weight that you can do for a full 4 to 6 sets.

GET FIGHTING FIT, WITHOUT A FIGHTER’S SCHEDULE

It’s one thing to get in excellent shape when you’re a pro athlete with all day to work out alongside first-class trainers in state-of-the-art gyms, but what about us regular guys who are lucky to get in 45 minutes a day at the strip mall gym between work and home? According to Couture, there are a few simple things you can do to maximize the time and equipment that you do have:

1. Make It a Routine

“The guy who only has an hour after he gets off work is already doing the right thing, because he’s making it a part of his daily schedule,” says Couture. The important thing is to figure out when you can reliably get yourself in the gym, and stick to it.

2. Keep Moving

“I do a lot of full-body circuits, going from one thing to the next without stopping.” Even if you don’t have a lot of time to spend in the gym, limiting rest periods can really ramp up the intensity as well as your heart rate.

3. Mix It Up

The best way to make yourself hate the gym is to do the same things every time. Not only does it become boring, but your body will adjust and your results will hit a wall. For the sake of variety, try to find a gym with a pool, or even just a basketball court. If you see someone else doing a workout that intrigues you, make an effort to find out what it’s all about.

“You have to seek out other sources and see what other people are doing, try lots of different things, and learn new stuff that you can add to your routine,” Couture says.

EATING TO WIN

“Nutrition took a more significant role for me about six or seven years ago when I first decided to go down to light heavyweight,” says Couture. “I had cut a lot of weight when I was in the Army, dieted very hard, and ran a ton to get my weight down. I was cutting all the way down to 180 pounds, which was way too low for me, and I think it affected my performance. I learned from that experience and years later when I wanted cut to 205 in MMA, I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.”

COUTURE’S TIPS ON EATING

1. Avoid processed foods.

Simply put, the more ingredients something has, the worse it probably is for you. High fructose corn syrup and elevated sodium levels should serve as red flags in any ingredients list.

2. Don’t diet.

“I hate using the word diet. It seems so temporary. Instead, I think it’s better to think about your habits when it comes to eating and try to adjust those habits. Now, it’s not just when I’m trying to make weight. I pay attention to my eating habits all the time and that makes it easier.”

3. Beware of dairy.

“I don’t do cheese. I don’t do milk,” says Couture. “I find alternatives from the things that require milk. Occasionally, I will eat a piece of pizza that has cheese on it, but it’s not the end of the world.” The hardest part about his self-imposed dairy prohibition? Ice cream. “As a kid, I would eat a half-gallon of ice cream by myself. When I made the decision to cut out dairy, I had to give up ice cream. It wasn’t easy.”

4. It’s not just what you eat, but when.

Carbohydrates are a necessary source of energy for the body, but as the day winds down, you need less of them. “Try to eat more carbs early in the day and more protein later in the day,” says Couture. “For protein, you want lean meats whenever possible.”

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