The 7 Conditioning Secrets…of Successful Combat Athletes

The 7 Conditioning Secrets
…of Successful Combat Athletes

From T-Nation:

Fighter or Runner?

It never ceases to amaze me that there are still combat athletes out there using outdated conditioning methods that have long been proven ineffective and useless. The methods I speak of include hours and hours of long distance running and other unproductive forms of aerobic activity.

Folks, please understand this: neither wrestling nor any form of mixed martial arts are aerobic sports. Therefore, aerobic training of any kind is a complete waste of your time.

Yet every single high school or college wrestler I’ve ever come across is still running each and every day like they’re training for a marathon instead of a six or seven minute bout of high intensity grappling. How is thirty to sixty minutes of low intensity jogging going to prepare you for six to seven minutes of absolute hellacious combat?

It isn’t. It makes about as much sense as trying to become a world champion skateboarder by practicing your golf swing for eight hours a day.

Well then, if that’s not the approach to take, then what is? To answer that question let’s briefly take a look at what occurs in a wrestling match. At the high school level, there are three periods consisting of two minutes each. At the collegiate level, there are three periods as well, the first consisting of three minutes and the final two consisting of two minutes each. At the Olympic level, there’s one five-minute period and a three minute overtime period, if needed.

During these two to five minute bouts you’ll find yourself squatting, pressing, pulling, lunging, twisting, and bridging. You’ll make explosive movements, slow grinding strength-based movements, and you’ll hold isometric contractions a lot longer than you can comfortably stand.

For your off-the-mat training to have any carryover whatsoever, you need to be sure you’re doing all of these things in your conditioning program. The exact same holds true for any kind of martial art or no-holds-barred fighting. While some of the time periods and rounds may be different from one organization or sport to the next, the same general principle applies.

So, let’s get right into my best conditioning methods for these athletes.

The Top 7 Conditioning Methods for Combat Athletes

1. Strongman Training

Strongman training incorporates the use of odd objects such as stones, logs, tractor tires, sandbags, kegs, sledgehammers, anvils and just about anything else you can think of. The basics of strongman training are to lift and carry or drag heavy shit; that’s the gist of it.

Strongman training can be used as a conditioning day all on its own or at the end of a regular resistance training workout. There are endless amounts of exercises and events to choose from when putting together a strongman workout.

Those who are new to strongman training will have extreme difficulty with many of the exercises and will be winded quite quickly. Eventually, after getting used to this type of training, the goal will be to lower your rest periods and do more work in a given time period.

If you opt to have an entire training day dedicated to strongman training, I recommend that you pick five or six exercises that offer as much variety as possible. Below is an example of a good sequence of exercises for a strongman workout:

A) Car push

B) Tire flip

C) Keg clean & press

D) Sledgehammer swing

E) Farmers walk

F) Hand-over-hand row with thick diameter rope

You can do the exercises for straight sets or in a circuit fashion. When your conditioning improves and you continue to try to get more “sport specific” with your training, you should aim for two to three straight minutes of work (or whatever length of time the rounds or periods last in your chosen combat sport) followed by a brief rest period.

For example, you could do one exercise for that long or you could do each exercise for 20-30 seconds and then move immediately to the next. While most matches don’t last nearly this long, the strongman workouts should take anywhere from 30-90 minutes.

If you choose to use strongman training as a finisher to your normal weight training workouts, you’d be best served to pick one or two exercises and perform them for ten to fifteen minutes straight with a brief rest period every 30-120 seconds.

2. Bodyweight Circuits

Using your own bodyweight in a way that will resemble what you do in a wrestling match or no-holds-barred fight is an outstanding way of improving your conditioning. I usually like to go outside in the fresh air to a park and perform these.

Grouping together four to six bodyweight exercises such as wheelbarrow walks, push-ups, single (or double) leg squats, squat thrusts, crab walks, inchworms, and mountain climbers and doing them in a circuit will get you in great shape in no time. Again, try to eventually work your way down to using work to rest ratios similar to that which you’ll face in competition.

The squat thrust, shown here with dumbbells, but very effective with just bodyweight!

3. Sled Combos

A dragging sled is one of the most valuable tools any hard training combat athlete could have in his arsenal. The possibilities are limitless with the sled.

To choose an effective sled combo, try to pick movements that will work the body from as many different angles and in as many different ways as possible. Here’s an example of a highly effective sled combo:

A) Forward sled drag: 30 seconds

B) Face pull: 30 seconds

C) Backward sled drag: 30 seconds

D) Chest press: 30 seconds

Repeat for two to three minutes straight followed by a brief rest period similar to what you’ll face in competition.

4. Sprints

While jogging is completely worthless, sprinting is tremendous for combat athletes looking to get in kick-ass shape. I like to use a variety of sprint workouts with combat athletes including hill sprints, stadium stair sprints, shuttle runs, sled sprints, and agility circuits.

Before commencing your sprint workouts, be sure to complete a full dynamic warm-up in order to reduce the possibility of injury. To further reduce the risk of injury and basically eliminate any concern of pulled hamstrings, stick with hill sprints or do most of your sprint work with an empty sled dragging behind you. Just the weight of the empty sled is enough to slow you down slightly which greatly decreases the risk of injury.

5. Medicine Ball Throw and Retrieve

This is a great way for the combat athlete to mix explosive movements in with his conditioning. You’ll need a medicine ball which is not so light that you can throw it fifty yards, but not so heavy that it only goes two feet when you release it. Find something in the middle. Most athletes will use a ball somewhere between twelve and twenty pounds for this drill.

I like to mix up the direction and kinds of throws when using this method. For example, we’ll start with a backward overhead scoop throw, sprint to the ball, do an overhead forward throw, sprint to the ball, side rotation throw, sprint, chest pass, sprint, forward scoop throw, side rotation throw in the opposite direction, sprint, etc.

This can be done for two to three minutes straight followed by a brief rest period and/or puking.

6. Barbell Complexes

For those of you who’ve never done complexes, get ready for a whole new in-the-gym experience. Barbell complexes consist of doing several exercises in a row without ever putting the bar down. This usually consists of six to ten exercises; each exercise is usually done for six reps.

The reps are performed as explosively as possible and you move from one exercise to the next without ever taking a break or letting go of the bar. Most athletes will begin with just a 45 pound Olympic bar.

Below is an example of a barbell complex:

Over time the goal is to be able to complete the entire complex faster than the previous workout. As I mentioned above, you should start with just the bar the first time you do complexes, but quickly work up to a more challenging weight in subsequent weeks. Ninety-five pounds will be absolute hell for even the strongest and most well conditioned of warriors!

7. The Whole Kit ‘N Caboodle

This method basically involves combining any two or all of the above methods into one conditioning session. These types of workouts can be grueling and are only for those with the heart of champion.

For example, you may start your workout inside with a few rounds of barbell complexes. After that you may proceed outside and pick up the medicine ball for a few rounds of throw and retrieve. When you’ve completed the throws, you might grab the sled and perform a few combos followed immediately by a car push, a sprint, and a farmers walk until you drop.

There really are no rules as to how you structure this. You can intermix whatever method you like and do straight sets or circuits. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Addition Info

There you have it: the best ways to get in ass-kicking shape and outlast any opponent you’ll ever face. As far as the work to rest ratios go, you’ll notice that for most methods I’ve suggested that over time you try to work toward matching these up with what you’ll actually face in competition. This is an eventual goal but isn’t of the utmost importance.

Believe me, flipping a 600 pound tire for two minutes straight is a lot different and more exhausting than wrestling for two minutes straight, in most cases. Do the best you can and keep that goal in mind, but don’t be overly concerned if you can’t achieve those numbers. Even if you can only flip the tire for 30 seconds straight, that’s completely fine. That’s more than most people can take, and it’ll do wonders for your conditioning levels.

One final note is that you must be careful not to overdo any of these methods. While most combat athletes have the attitude that more is better, that isn’t always the case. Too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing. Too much conditioning will lead to losses in strength, size, and speed — all of which will lead to a decrease in your overall performance.

A Bad Analogy (Sorry)

Remember in high school when you knew your parents were out of town and you had a really hot girl coming over? What did you do that afternoon? You cleared the pipes, of course… several times. If you didn’t, you knew that the mere brush of the young vixen’s thigh against yours would make for an early and unhappy ending. But what about the time you did your preparatory ritual a few too many times?
At 16, three times was fine; it was what you needed to feel “prepared for battle.” If it was an extremely smoking hot chick, you might have even opted for four just to be extra safe. But by senior year of college when your Testosterone levels started coming down just the tiniest bit and you had significantly more experience, four times was beyond overkill. But you went for it anyway because you still lived by the mantra that more is better and because the young female en route to your apartment bore a striking resemblance to Carmen Electra, from head to toe.

Finally, she showed up at your place and for some reason there wasn’t even a twitch when she hugged you hello. And when it came time for bumping uglies, you, my friend, were left with a limp noodle (come on, I’m not the only one). And as we all know, nobody likes a limp noodle.

The culprit? Too much “conditioning.” It happens to the best of us, but hopefully we can learn from our mistakes and find the cutoff point. The last thing you want to do is end up a limp noodle in the hands of your opponent. I mean, uh… wow, what a disturbingly bad analogy. But hopefully you get the point.

The key is to find the optimal level, the amount that gets you in the best condition possible, and do exactly that amount and no more. How much is that? No one can know for sure but you. My recommendation is four 30-60 minute sessions per week. On top of your classes, practices, and strength training workouts, this is usually more than enough to get most combat athletes in championship shape in no time.

Be sure to utilize all of the methods listed in this article. Bust your ass and make constant improvements. Victory will be yours.

About the Author

Jason Ferruggia is one of the most highly sought after professional fitness coaches in the industry. For over a decade he has provided hundreds of clients with cutting edge training programs that never fail to produce outstanding results in record time. Jason has trained over 500 athletes from nearly 20 different sports and is renowned for his ability to rapidly increase speed, strength, and overall performance. He has also mastered the art of physique enhancement and has helped countless clients ranging from business men to fashion models lose fat and build muscle at astounding rates. For more information on training for combat athletes, please visit

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19 thoughts on “The 7 Conditioning Secrets…of Successful Combat Athletes”

  1. Jason, I am a 37 yr old former football player. I wish that I would have discovered you and your work-outs when I was still playing. Having been interested and involved with sports and exercise for most of my life, I can safely say that your trainees most likely get positive results.
    I am 6’2″ 245 lbs., about 18% bf, and above average in strength. Due to my hectic and mostly unpredicable work schedule, I can only guarantee myself two, and occasionally three trips to the gym per week. Due to job related stress, I tend to eat like a pig and drink like a fish. I realize that my competetive athletic days are behind me, but a part of me still feels like one.
    I wish that there was a way for you to help customise a work-out tailored to me and my eccentric life variables. If you have written any books, I would really like to know the title so that I may purchase one.
    Sincerely, Chris Kauffman


  2. Chris,

    Thank you but this isn’t Jason’s blog. I posted this article here because I found it useful and inspiring, I thought others would too. Please follow the link at the end of Jason’s link to find out more about him and any books he may have published.

    Old school and functional training are great for people who can’t get to the gym or don’t like going to the gym. I think with your past experience, you can put a good workout together for yourself with info from the internet. Check out the related categories on this blog for a start. Follow the links in the articles that you like for more info on them. Be sure to work all your muscle groups of course. There are some very short and effective workouts out there for those with limited time.



  3. i participate in mma and grappling and, imo, the “secret” to the sport-specific conditioning is play the sport. I do some of these routines above, but it’s imperative that one does NOT neglect their combat training. I’d rather roll hard for 5 minutes, take a 30-60 second break, then repeat continuously for as long as I can, instead of doing cavemen training (not to mention cavemen and crossfit gyms are not on every corner). If I could break down supplemental muscular endurance training for combat athletics, it’d be two concepts in length: always very high-intensity and work the whole body, using compound movements.


  4. interesting article. I think combat training is a novel idea. Yet when doing a test during a martial arts training course, one benefits from endurance, the type that one gains from during prolonged exercise like running or heavy aerobic activity. Most fights are over in 10 secs if you are lucky, but if you are only training for 10 secs, you will be very surprised to find you have nothing left in the tank. And on the way to becoming mush, you may reflect back and think, hmm, maybe I should have trained for something longer….


  5. As a former Karateka, Judoka, Fencer, and now a current Aikidoka as well as a physician who helps develop exercise programs; I felt this was an absurd article to have in the Journal. Extreme strength training as discussed in this article has no place in Aikido since it decreases flexibility and teaches you to rely on muscular strength rather than proper technique and use of Ki. Proper Aikido training should be about flexiblity, aerobic stamina, and redirecting other’s misused energy. Strength training should limited to what is necessary to stay in optimum health and fitness without “bulking up”. I look forward to more appropriate exercise regimens for Aikidoka in the Journal in the future.


  6. Brad Thomas,

    I am trying to figure out how a work out like this one has to decrease ones flexibility or teach one to rely on muscular strength. If one knows or is learning proper use of Ki (Qi or Chi) these exercises, which use movements more appropriate and similar to every day movement, can be used to learn how to us Ki properly in such situations. It is very practical to have physical strength along with flexibility and internal energy moving skill.

    The exercises above won’t necessarily “bulk you up” unless thats what you are after. A good internal martial artist will hopefully have a more rounded workout that is appropriate to his or her art.

    For some of us in the construction and similar fields, these exercises are nothing really all that new. Gaining skill in proper use of Ki for everyday activities is a great bonus.


    You are right, cardio-respiratory health is very important in combat sports. The thing is that most Mixed Martial Artists train for at least five minute fights, if not longer. The exercises above certainly do train cardio-respiratory while training strength and sport specific movements. Your comment is absolutely correct, you just seem unaware of why someone would engage in combat training.


  7. Admit that in aikido, the martial art in which I train, you need to train like you test, in a strong, intense, focused way. Training lightly does not achieve the end, nor does training with absolute wild abandon. I guess the term combat training was/is new to me. The strength training ideas do have merit though. Focusing on the moves builds technique and speed; proper use of lead and extension benefit from a good muscle base


  8. I’m glad I came across this website especially the first portion of this (in regards to the strongman) type training is particularly interesting. Basically when doing combat sports the idea would be to imitate and ideally exceed the weight of your opponent with the weight you are doing for the reason that if you can do something at a weight much higher than what your opponent weighs than doing it to them should be easier (E.g if you can easily push a 4000 plus pound truck in neutral then moving a 265 lb man should be a piece of cake). In training for example I can leg press over 600 lbs (with little effort) so for me to kick someone off of me with two legs who weighs between 265 (sometimes closer to 285 between the weigh ins and the actual fight occur) would not be as hard for me as someone who does not have that level of strength in their legs. That being said my weakness is more my upper body I would like to have more strength in my core and arms so some of these exercises will definitely help. Also when I train I do in explosive increments of five minutes at a time to mimick a mixed martial arts bout but that being said I’ll do more than what a typical fight is a typical mma fight is 3 5 minute rounds, a championship bout is 5 5 minute rounds so I’ll do 10 5 minute intense exercises (why not train like a champion even before you are one). I had seen Jeff “The Snowman” Monson (pro mma fighter) doing the truck push, the tire flips, the resistance bands combined with training his striking and when I typed it into Google to find a workout like that I came across this. The thing with mixed martial arts is you actually need 4 major things 1-The Fighter Mentality, 2-The Diet For Conditioning, 3-The Exercise For Conditioning and 4-Training for striking, ju-jitsu and wrestling and a bonus is having a good chin. Happy Training

    -Pierre Sabourin


  9. ya this is bullshit i am a fighter and i know what makes me feel better in sparring running compliments met-con stuff as well as met-con and running compliment sparring and wrestling 6-7 minutes of wrestling? who only trains for 6 to 7 minutes lol


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