“How much can you bench?”
If I had a quarter for every time I heard that damn question, I could quit my job. Virtually any trainee (male trainees, at least) that has ever stepped foot in a gym or even remotely looks like he trains has been asked this question – and probably more than once.
Generally, when discussing fight training goals, strength is one of those things that’s lumped with conditioning or technique – you can never have enough of it. And most times, this is true – especially if you’re an fighter. I don’t care what anybody says (because, believe it or not, I have seen it argued the other way), if you’re comparing two fighters of similar size, skill, and experience, then the stronger one has a distinct advantage. Even if you’re not an fighter (maybe just a huge fight fan?), training for MMA Strength has its many advantages, be it making you more healthy, making daily “chores” (such as mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, washing your car, etc.) easier, leading to a better looking body for the opposite sex, or anything in between.
More often than not, when a trainee begins a strength training routine, he’ll usually follow the tried and true idea of lifting heavy weights for low reps with a good deal of rest time (both between workouts and during the workout itself). Programs such as these are generally geared toward the trainee who wants to increase brute (limit) strength. The result of programs such as these is generally increased 1RMs (one rep maximums) in any given exercise(s).
This is all well and good – but there is a slight problem. Most fighters that train for strength aren’t necessarily in need of strength. What they are in need of, is strength-endurance. Think about most fights (be it submission grappling, amateur wrestling, boxing, muay thai, etc.) – when is strength the biggest factor? It’s at the end of your match. It’s at the end of your match when your opponent is severely “gassed” that your strength advantage will be of the most use to you. But, if your strength is gone by the end of the fight/match as well, then your strength “advantage” has all of a sudden become completely useless. The problem with programs that focus on increasing your 1RM is that should you need to be able to exert that strength for any time frame beyond what one rep might take, or have to make due with less rest than you’re accustomed, then your strength won’t hold up. In other words, you’ll be “gassed.”
Apply this same idea to anything you might do in daily life, be it fighting, or activities as simple as bringing in the groceries, re-arranging your living room, or carrying a heavy backpack. Unless you can complete your activity in around 10-20 seconds, you will be dependant on strength-endurance more than you will brute (limit) strength.
Now, you might be saying, “But Wiggy, it sounds to me like you’re talking about cardio or conditioning training to me.” To a large extent, you’re right. But, the reason why is because good conditioning and good strength-endurance go hand in hand. Hell, I’ve seen plenty of trainees in my day who had good 1RMs, and could ride the stationary bike forever. But get them on the mat or in the ring, and you find that their strength quickly goes out the window.
Don’t believe me? What I’m saying doesn’t just apply to fighters. Check out what Dave Tate of Westside Barbell fame recently stated in T-Mag #264 (http://www.t-mag.com/nation_articles/264eight.jsp) about powerlifters (who you’d think would have little to no need for strength-endurance or conditioning): “If you think you can excel in any sport without a base level of conditioning you're out of your mind. The days of over-fat, bloated, can’t breathe, can’t sleep powerlifters are over!”
The reason for this lies in the trainee’s style of training. The ever-popular S.A.I.D. (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) principle tells us that our bodies will adapt to and prepare for the stresses placed specifically upon it. Or in other words, if you consistently train with low reps, heavy weights, with a lot of rest time, your body will adapt by being strong for one short burst, but will then require a decent rest period. As was discussed above, this isn’t what is the most useful in fighting!!! Strength-endurance, or the ability to be strong over an extended period of time, would be.
Tradition tell us that to train for endurance, we need to use sets of higher reps with lower weight.
If we are looking for increased strength endurance, then that means essentially that we want to be as strong as possible for as long as possible. So, instead of giving it your all for one quick burst and then crapping out, you want to be able to keep exerting yourself for extended periods of time. Now, do you think you can attain this strength-endurance by pumping out countless reps with a lighter weight? No way – that would be like telling a 400 lb. bench presser that he’ll increase his strength endurance by doing countless pushups. An increase in endurance, maybe. An increase in strength-endurance, nope.
So How Do We Increase Strength-Endurance?
To increase strength-endurance, you need a program that accomplishes three things: uses heavy (near limit) weight, requires shortening rest periods, and utilizes volume.
This is pretty much a “no brainer.” If you want to get strong, you’re going to have to lift heavy. Cycling is good, and will be needed for proper muscular recovery, but you have to get to the point that you’re lifting as heavy as possible.
Shortened Rest Periods
The idea behind training to increase strength-endurance is that you want your body to be able to exert maximum strength when not fully recovered aerobically. You also want to train your body to recover faster. Or, in other words, when you are under maximum strain, you want to recover quicker from that strain. Also, you want to either sustain said strain longer or sustain it multiple times in quick succession.
If you’re not doing a fair amount of reps overall, you won’t be increase any kind of endurance – strength or otherwise. It is doing a large volume of work (coupled with shortened rest periods) that will give you endurance. When that is coupled with heavy weights, then you have strength-endurance. Think of it like an equation:
Strength-Endurance = Heavy Weights + Short Rest + Volume
Putting It All Together
Ok, now that we know what we want to do, how do we do it? We already have figured out that light sets of many reps (say 3-4 sets x 12-15 reps) aren’t the answer, as we need to lift heavy. However, if we lift heavy, then we can’t use higher reps. So, what we do is use heavy weights for a lot of sets of low reps (say 10-20 sets x 1-4 reps). Rest periods are then shortened to ideally 20-40 seconds, and are never more than 60 seconds.
A routine such as this allows us to:
-use heavy weights (as we’re doing low reps)
-still use large volume (because we’re doing more sets)
-shorten rest periods (it doesn’t take nearly as long to recover from a couple reps as it does 12-15, so you can do your next set quicker)
When you start a routine such as this, either pick a shorter rest time (say 30 seconds) and start with a lighter weight (say 65-70% of 1RM) or a longer rest time (say 60 seconds) and start with a heavier weight (say 80-85% of 1RM). If you start with the lighter weight, strive to add weight each workout. If you start with the longer rest time, strive to decrease it each workout. Make your progressions small (only add 5-10 lbs. or decrease rest by 5-10 seconds per workout). Perform any given exercise twice to three times per week.
A Real Life Example
When I first started experimenting with this style of training, my 1RM for the Clean and Press was 210-220 lbs. However, the most I could do 185 lbs. for was probably 3-4 reps before crapping out, and then I’d have to wait at least a few minutes to do my next set.
Training the Clean and Press twice per week, I did 15 sets x 2 reps with rest periods starting at 60 seconds. My first workout, I used 135 lbs. (roughly 65% of 1RM). By Set 13, I felt very shaky, and my form for Set 15 all but got me hurt. My body quickly adapted, however. I decreased the rest period every workout, and once I was at around 20 seconds rest, I increased the weight and started over again at 60 seconds. By Week 6, I was using 185 lbs. for 15 sets x 2 reps with only 15-20 seconds rest time. Or, in other words, I was performing 30 reps with roughly 85% of 1RM in just under five minutes. Do a workout like this with 3-4 exercises, and look how much heavy lifting you’re doing over an extended period of time.
I’ve prescribed this protocol to plenty of other people who have had similar (if not better) results.
Try a workout like this – I think you’ll be quite pleased with the results. You’ll find that not only are you gaining strength, but it’s strength you can use. You’ll be stronger in the ring and on the mat for much longer, and you’ll find that you rarely “gas.” If you’d like to read more about this style of training, check out my “Singles & Doubles” books or email via my website – www.workingclassfitness.com.
Workout #1 – two days, alternated
Day 1: -Clean and Press: 15 sets x 2 reps
-Curl Grip Chin: 15 x 2
-Medium Grip Bench Press: 10 x 1
-Deadlift: 20 x1
Day 2: -Dips: 12 sets x 3 reps
-Clean and Front Squat: 20 x 2
-Bent Rows: 12 x 2
-Barbell Curl and Press: 6 x 4
Workout #2 – performed every workout
-Clean and Press: 20 sets x 1 rep
-Bench Press: 8 x 2
-Barbell Curls: 6 x 3
-Chin: 15 x 2
-Squat: 20 x 1
(originally published at mmaweekly.com)
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