The Hard and Fast rule

By Paul Read

To dominate your opponent in combat sports, you should maximise your punch power and speed of movement – and put every moment to the best possible use

Traditional approaches in martial arts conditioning appear to entail a combination of running, pad work, bodyweight conditioning and sparring. Most athletes are reluctant to undergo strength training because they fear losing flexibility and gaining body mass. Such concerns are generally unfounded and based largely on overuse of those bodybuilding approaches that focus on the anterior muscles of the upper body with the aim of enhancing aesthetics and punching power. This article will review the development of optimal physical qualities for combat athletes and attempt to dispel myths often associated with training. To provide the clearest focus for readers, the context chosen here is mixed martial arts (MMA).

Heavy demands

MMA athletes are afforded the freedom to fight in almost any combat style they see fit, incorporating a range of disciplines including boxing, wrestling, judo, Brazilian ju-jitsu, taekwondo and Muay Thai boxing. This makes considerable demands on their technique and skills (Figure 1), while strategy and planning are also particularly significant, to ensure athletes do not succumb to overtraining after exceeding their physical capabilities.

Successful performance requires powerful hips, trunk and shoulders to aid takedowns, reversals and escapes, as well as throwing strikes [1]. Additional lower body strength and power are key to lift and resist opponents [2], as well as enhancing ability to transfer power from the proximal parts of the body (ground/foot) to the distal (fist) segments [3]. Isometric (static) strength, required for grip and submission holds, is also important [1]. Suitable flexibility is also key for effective performance of repeated punches, kicks and changes in body position, through full ranges of movement.

Figure 1. Physiological demands of mixed martial arts

Table 1. Muscular force contributions with different performance levels [4]


Arm extension

Trunk rotation

Push-off extension
with the back leg


Masters of the sport;
Candidates for Masters of the sport





Class I





Class II and III





Power transfer

A 1985 study [4] analysed the straight punch of 120 boxers, ranging from elite to junior ranks (see Table 1). Note that elite-level boxers predominately generate force from the leg musculature, whereas lower-ranked boxers generate most force from the trunk and arms. This suggests that higher-level fighters utilise improved synchronisation, with force being produced from the ground up, transferring through the core and finally into the chest and arms. In summary, punching force comes from the legs.

The strategy: emphasise exercises such as squats, deadlifts, ballistics (jump and medicine ball training) and weightlifting movements (clean and snatch derivatives), as opposed to the use of isolated trunk and chest exercises (such as sit-ups, press-ups and bench press).

Rapid force

Research has shown that the production of maximum force may require up to 600–800 milliseconds (ms) [5]. This timeframe is not a luxury afforded to MMA and combat athletes, hence the need to develop power. The force/time curve shown in Figure 2 illustrates that athlete ‘A’ produces more force, and at first glance this appears optimal. However, a closer look reveals that although athlete 'B' produces less net force, it is developed more quickly than athlete 'A' and is thus more applicable to combat disciplines.

Reported execution time for a variety of strikes has included:

  • jab and hooks with no gloves: 0.137ms and 0.146ms [6];
  • near, mid and far distance kicks: 0.23, 0.24 and 0.30 seconds (s), respectively) [7].

Additionally, boxing movements involve contraction times of 50–250ms [8]. Interestingly, these timeframes are similar to that of a second pull in weightlifting movements, namely the clean (0.2s) and snatch (0.2s).

The strategy: Include weightlifting movements, and their derivatives, as part of strength and conditioning programmes for fighters – as validated by these timeframes.

Figure 2. Force/time curve

Energy supply

With round durations of 5 minutes, there is a suggestion that the aerobic energy system is paramount. However, the repetitive intermittent engagement of clinching, grappling and striking makes anaerobic capacity particularly significant [1]. Also, despite the sport being contested over a period of three x 5 minute rounds, between 2001 and 2004 the Nevada State Commission reported only 18.1% of bouts won by decision, with 30.4% and 39.8 % concluded via KO and TKO, respectively [9]. However, because MMA is unpredictable, strong aerobic and anaerobic systems are essential precautions.

The strategy: avoid regular, extended periods of steady-state running: research [10] has reported long, slow, continuous training in anaerobic sports as leading to reduced performance – namely strength, power and rate of force development – which would reduce the time to peak force production (Figure 2). An alternative option would be sprint and repeated sprint-based approaches, and also various forms of bag/pad drills, such as 5 seconds of work followed by 5 seconds of rest, for up to 5 minutes at a time.

Weight loss

Rapid weight loss (RWL) is associated with reductions in performance due to factors such as dehydration, depleted glycogen stores, reduced lean muscle mass and negative mood. The latter is particularly important: mood has been shown to be an effective predictor of performance in combat sports, with 92% of winning and losing performances in karate correctly determined from pre-competition mood [11].

Many athletes seek to aid RWL through long-distance running although this can also be detrimental to performance for any of the reasons given above.

The strategy: put greater focus on nutritional approaches and effective planning of training to ensure fighting weight is met safely and well in advance of competition.

Muscle balance

Boxers tend to use the anterior musculature more than the posterior, due to repeated punching motions, and this has implications for injury incidence and performance. An imbalance between the anterior muscles of the shoulder (the agonists, or prime movers – pecs, anterior deltoids, etc) and the muscles that draw the shoulder back (the antagonists – rhomboids, mid traps and shoulder external rotators) can lead to alterations in muscle firing patterns. These alterations can cause increased breaking forces (to protect the shoulder) and reduced accuracy of limb positioning [12]. Therefore, strength balance (between agonists and antagonist muscles) must be worked at.

The strategy: include pulling exercises, such as dumbbell rows and bent-over rows (Figures 3a/3b), plus supplementary work for the external rotators of the shoulder (Figure 3c). Motivation in combat athletes for this type of training may increase through knowing that antagonistic balance will allow for optimal stability and efficient transfer of power [13].

Time allocation

With so many fighting disciplines available in MMA and the range of fitness components required, it is often difficult to incorporate an effective strength and conditioning programme for combat athletes. Therefore, wise use of available time is paramount to develop muscle balance (between pushing and pulling motions), rapid force development from the ground up, and optimal weight management strategies.

Figure 3. Exercises for agonist–antagonist strength balance


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3. Oliver GD, Keeley DW. Gluteal muscle group activation and its relationship with pelvis and torso kinematics in high school baseball pitchers. J Strength Cond Res, 2010, 24, 3015–3022.

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6. Whiting WC, Gregor RJ, Finerman GA. Kinematic analysis of human upper extremity movements in boxing. Am J Sports Med, 1988, 16, 130–136.

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8. Aagaard P, Simonsen EB, Andersen JL et al. Increased rate of force development and neural drive of human skeletal muscle following resistance training. J Appl Physiol, 2002, 93, 1318–1326.

9. Bledsoe GH, Hsu EB, Grabowski JG et al. Incidence of injury in professional mixed martial arts competitions. J Sports Science Med, 2006, CSSI, 136-142. Available at: bibliography/readInfo.cfm?pubID=694 (accessed October 2012).

10. Elliott M, Wagner P, Chiu L. Power athletes and distance training: physiological and biomechanical rationale for change. J Sports Med, 2007, 37, 47–57.

11. Terry P, Slade A. Discriminant capability of psychological state measures in predicting performance outcome in karate competition. Percept Mot Skills, 1995, 81, 275–286.

12. Jaric S, Ropert R, Kukolj M, Ilic DB. Role of agonist and antagonist muscle strength in rapid movement performance. Eur J Appl Physiol, 1995, 71, 464–468.

13. Baker D, Newton RU. Methods to increase the effectiveness of maximal power training for the upper body. Strength Cond J, 2005, 27, 24–32.


Paul Read is a lecturer in Strength and Conditioning at Gloucester University, UK.

Please contact Paul with your comments and queries:

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