by Bret Contreras October 26, 2010
1. Hey Joel! Thank you very much for agreeing to conduct this interview. Please inform my readers of your background and list some of the fighters you’ve trained.
No problem Bret, thanks for having me on your site! My background in strength and conditioning first began back in the late 90’s when I started interning under a strength coach named Bill Gillespie at the University of Washington. My focus back in those days was really on the strength and power side of things as those were mostly the kind of athletes with whom I worked. I later spent some time working with the Seattle Seahawks and then opened my own training facility in 2003.
Not long after I opened my gym, I was approached by an MMA coach, Matt Hume of AMC Pankration, and he asked me to start putting together programs for his fighters. Little did I know it at the time, but Matt was one of the very best MMA coaches in the world and was the official trainer for PrideFC, so he had a steady stream of world class fighters coming through his gym.
This was back in early 2004 and Matt and I have been working together to train fighters ever since. I’ve worked with a wide range of fighters from the U.S. and all over the world really. I’ve trained guys like Rich Franklin, Chris Leben, Spencer Fisher, Jens Pulver, Hayato Sakurai, Matt Brown, Ben Rothwell, KJ Noons, Akira Shoji, Tatsuya Mizuno, Robbie Lawler, Josh Barnett, Maurice Smith, Jorge Gurgle, Niko Vitale, and quite a few more.
Working with all these guys, sometimes traveling all over the world with them and being in their corner for big fights, has been a great experience. When I first started working with MMA athletes, I never would have guessed just how big the sport would one day become.
2. Wow, that’s impressive. Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Should every fighter follow the same strength & conditioning program or should each program be individualized based on the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses?
I truly believe one of the biggest problems in strength and conditioning for MMA right now is that a lot of fighters tend to read about or watch a video of their favorite fighter training and believe they need to be doing the same things. Whether it’s doing endless circuit training, Tabata intervals, CrossFit, or some other such thing, fighters tend to follow one another or what “Fighter X” is supposedly doing, rather than learning how to put together an individualized program.
The reality is that this generic one size fits all approach will only get anyone so far. In order to keep progressing physically, i.e. becoming more explosive and better conditioned, a fighter needs to learn how to evaluate his or her individual strengths, weaknesses, and limitations and then create a program that will address these things.
It’s really the same thing as their MMA training. If they want to be a well rounded fighter, they need a good coach to evaluate their skill set and determine where they are good, whether it’s stand up, wrestling, submissions, etc. and where they are not so good. Then they can focus their training on improving their weak areas while continuing to improve their strengths. Guys who don’t do this end up being one dimensional and once someone figures out how to beat them, they are in big trouble, because everyone can see the holes in their game.
3. What are the functional qualities that you assess and seek to improve through your training?
Because MMA is such a dynamic sport that requires such a diverse set of skills, it’s important to have a very well rounded level of overall athletic ability. Any glaring weaknesses and you’re going to have holes that can be exploited by an opponent whose strengths happen to match up against your weaknesses.
Because of this, I evaluate a very wide range of abilities from explosive power to muscular endurance to joint mobility and everything in between. The single most important quality, really, is power-endurance. This means that a fighter not only must have good explosive power, he must have the endurance necessary to maintain this power throughout an entire fight, which might be as long as 25 minutes.
Anyone who has ever tried wrestling or boxing for even just a few minutes can appreciate how physically grueling trying to fight for this long can be. The real key is developing the right balance. There are plenty of fighters that are explosive and very strong, but they can’t maintain their strength and power into the later rounds and they tend to gas if they don’t finish the fight early. There are also those that can fight all day, but they lack the power to finish fights when they have the opportunity.
In my training, my primary goal is to make sure that not only do my fighters have the explosive power they need to capitalize on their opponents’ mistakes and finish the fight when they have the chance, but also the endurance necessary to be able to do this throughout the entire fight. This is the real challenge of strength and conditioning for the sport of MMA and any combat sport really.
4. Most people don’t realize how much strength plays a role in the other various qualities. I’ve heard plenty of MMA trainers and fighters say that strength isn’t important in MMA. Please tell us why strength IS important.
In the early days of the sport, you saw a lot of guys who were physically weak able to win against much bigger and stronger fighters simply because there was such a disparity in skill levels. Back then, ground guys had no clue how to fight standing up, strikers had no wrestling or takedown defense, wrestlers had no submissions, etc.
As the sport has evolved and skill sets have become more diverse and well rounded, no longer can guys afford to be lacking in any physical area, and this definitely includes strength. In the wrestling and grappling areas of the game, having a good level of maximum strength is necessary because you’re working against an opponent as the resistance, which can be a considerable amount of weight.
If your strength is poor, you will have a very hard time getting and/or defending takedowns and positions and your opponent can control you and dictate where the fight goes. This is obviously a big disadvantage because your opponent can take the fight to wherever he is best and exploit any weaknesses you have.
For the striking aspects of the sport, being very explosive and fast is absolutely essential and this requires a high level of explosive strength, or rate of force development. Without this type of strength, you will lack the ability to finish fights and you may be slower and easily beaten to the punch by a faster fighter with greater explosive strength. Fights can be decided by fractions of a second and inches and lacking explosive strength can not only cost you the fight, it can get you knocked out.
Finally, strength-endurance is obviously an integral physical ability to performance in the sport as well because as the fight wears on, the fighter who can maintain their strength the best is going to have the advantage. Plenty of fighters are strong in the first round, but many fights are decided in the later rounds and this is where the ability to maintain your strength can be the key to getting the win.
This all means that as a whole, strength – defined as the ability to produce force – is absolutely essential to a performance in MMA. To be successful, a fighter must possess a high level in all the different types of strength, from how much strength they can produce at once (max strength) to how fast they can produce their strength (explosive strength) to how long they can maintain it for (strength endurance).
A fighter that is seriously lacking in any of these areas is leaving themselves wide open against an opponent who may not be. Gone are the days where you could use your skills to get away with having poor max strength or being slow. To be successful in the sport now in and in the future requires a great deal of strength in all aspects of performance.
5. What are your ten favorite strength/power exercises for MMA?
Well, for maximum transfer into the skills of the sport, it’s very important to develop explosive power using exercises where the force produced by the same working muscles and in the same direction as they are in the skills of MMA. This generally means force needs to be developed horizontally rather than vertically and this occurs through hip extension and/or rotation.
I see a lot of guys using exercises like power cleans or Olympic lifts, which are good movements by themselves, but all the force in these types of exercises is produced vertically and doesn’t transfer as well. I prefer to use ballistic type exercises where the force is produced horizontally such as explosive throws, bounding, jumping forward squats, sled hip extensions, resisted band shots, etc. These do a much better job of improving explosiveness in a way that will transfer into the skills of the sport.
A lot of these exercises are difficult to describe, but they will all be covered in my upcoming DVD on explosive power for combat sports (www.combatsportspower.com). The most important thing is to select exercises that use the same muscles, through the same ranges of motion and produce force in the same direction as MMA.
For just general strength development, I will use the basic core lifts such as squats, rows, pull-ups, bench, deadlifts, etc. I tend to use more general strength exercises like these when trying to improve max strength and then shift into much more specific exercises when the goal is improving explosive power.
6. How do you look at the “conditioning” side of training and what specific types of conditioning do you do? (note: Joel will be expounding on cardiac adaptations to training in a guest blog in a few weeks)
It took writing an entire book for me to adequately answer this question, but let me try to give you the short answer. First, I don’t consider strength and conditioning to be separate qualities, but rather as two interconnected pieces of the puzzle that makes up energy production. My definition of conditioning, therefore, is the ability of an athlete to meet the energy production demands of their sport such that they are able to use their skills effectively throughout the competition.
Really, it all comes back to understanding that the human body was designed to be able to produce power at incredibly high levels for very brief periods of time, fairly moderate levels of power for very long periods of time, or alternating levels of high and lower levels of power for a moderate amount of time. If we look any given sport, the energy demands fall somewhere within this spectrum.
For example, we see massive power production for brief instants in sports such as in Weightlifting, sprinting, field events like shot put, discus, javelin, high jump, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, we see sports that require tremendous endurance at much lower levels of power such as the endurance sports of marathon running, triathlons cross country skiing, cycling, ironman events, etc.
Most team sports, as well as pretty much all combat sports, fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes and require alternating periods of high and lower power for varying durations. Because there is ultimately a trade off that occurs between maximum power and the ability to maintain it, the duration and work to rest periods of the event dictates where this balance between power and endurance falls.
For combat sports, the fights typically are spread over 3-5 minute rounds with 60 second breaks and there are generally 3-5 rounds in a given fight. This can vary of course, but this is generally the range most of the combat sports will fall under.
In my many years of testing and evaluating high level fighters, I can tell you that to successfully meet the energy demands of this type of event, an athlete must have the right balance between aerobic and anaerobic systems. This is the real key to conditioning, as well as performance in general, in my opinion.
When a fighter has too much development on one side or the other of this equation, they are asking for problems. A fighter with a great deal of anaerobic development and poor aerobic fitness, for example, will not be able to use his anaerobic power for very long because the aerobic side won’t be there to handle the fatigue inducing byproducts of anaerobic metabolism and the fighter will gas.
A fighter with great aerobic development but low levels of anaerobic development, on the other hand, may not fatigue to nearly the same level throughout a fight, but they will likely have poor explosiveness and strength and may get overpowered by a stronger opponent.
Because of all this, the way I approach a fighters conditioning, and their training in general, is to carefully assess how their body currently produces energy, both aerobically and anaerobically, in order to determine where their levels of aerobic and anaerobic fitness are compared to where they should be. I then choose the most appropriate methods to develop whichever systems need development in order to make sure they have the correct balance of energy production. The real key is accurately understanding the needs of a fighter and how all of the system’s of the body work together to create energy.
The result is that the type of specific conditioning I do is very individual to a given fighter. Each program is designed around the exact physiological needs of that fighter and these needs may vary dramatically from one fighter to the next. I get into detail on 20 methods that I use, exactly how I use them, and which systems they affect in my book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning, so anyone who would like more detail on how I put all this together would be best served by taking a look there.
7. One aspect of training that I’m most interested in is the final week of training preceding the fight. What gets ramped up, what stays the same, and what gets tapered to ensure the optimal summation of fitness and fatigue come competition-time?
MMA is a particularly challenging sport in the regard of peaking for a fight because the final week before a fight typically involves a lot of travel, making weight, media appearances, etc. In the big shows, there are a lot of demands placed on a fighter’s time and they are already under a great deal of stress.
When you add in the fact that often times they may have to travel to the other side of the country, or even other side of the world, and deal with jet lag and lack of sleep, everyone asking them for tickets and autographs, etc., it can make for a very hectic and stressful schedule to say the least!
In this final week, the goal is to keep the fighter as relaxed as possible while maintaining their fitness and minimizing their fatigue, all under the context of having to drop weight before Friday weigh-ins. There is a lot of thought that goes into this, but really the most important aspect is that their training program was managed properly leading up to this point.
If they come into this week overworked or overtrained, the added stress and weight cut is only going to make things worse. If they aren’t in shape by this point, well, there’s also not much you’re going to be able to do in this last week to change that.
Really, the only way to make sure the last week goes as smoothly as possible and the fighter peaks at the right time is to have everything in order and a well managed training camp going into it. As a team, Matt and I try to minimize the fighter’s distractions, ensure their weight cut goes the way that it should and they are eating the right foods, and maintain the right level of activity necessary to keep their fitness high while reducing fatigue.
To be honest, it’s a very large juggling act and it takes a lot of time and experience to learn how to do it properly. I am very fortunate in that I’ve been able to learn how Matt handles all this as he’s been training and preparing fighters at the highest levels for more than 20 years.
My main job as the strength and conditioning coach is to prepare the fighter correctly in the weeks leading up to that point so that in this final week everything comes together. If I did my job correctly, the fighter will not have to drop much to make weight, they will be very well conditioned and not overtrained, and they will have the mental confidence of knowing they are physically ready. This is the key to making sure the final week leading up to the fight goes smoothly and the fighter steps into the ring or cage knowing they are ready to go.
8. Wow! Great interview Joel. I appreciate you taking the time to do this. Where can my readers find out more information about you?
No problem, hopefully I provided some insight for your readers into what goes into training combat athletes and my approach to getting them ready for competition. It’s been 7 years of trial, error, and experience on my part to get it right, and I’m still learning.
I think there are very few sports out there that require such a diverse skill set along with tremendous physical abilities necessary to use them. You can have the greatest technical striking in the world, but if you don’t have the explosive power and endurance to use these skills, they won’t do you much good. Likewise, all the power and endurance you could ever want won’t do much for you if you have poor technique and/or strategy to begin with.
These challenging requirements, combined with the razor thin margin for error in the sport, where inches and fractions of a second can be the difference between having your hand raised in victory and getting knocked out, are why the sport is so exciting to watch and why it has exploded so fast in recent years.
The best way for your readers to find out more is to visit my own website www.8weeksout.com and register for free access to my articles, videos, and training tips. They can also check out my new site, www.combatsportspower.com where I’m getting ready to launch my new DVD on Explosive Power for Combat Sports very soon.
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