The 7 Conditioning Secrets of Highly Successful Combat Athletes

It never ceases to amaze me that there are still combat athletes out there using the same outdated conditioning methods that have been long been proven ineffective and useless.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 have ever come across is still running each and every day like they are 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 while never even touching a skateboard.

Well then if that’s not the approach to take then what is, you ask? 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 is one five minute period and a three minute overtime period, if needed. In ultimate fighting athletes compete for 3-5, five minute rounds.

During these two to five minute bouts you will find yourself squatting, pressing, pulling, lunging, twisting and bridging. You will make explosive movements, slow grinding strength based movements and you will 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 are doing all of these things in your conditioning program. The exact same holds true for any kind of martial arts 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.

With that being said, let’s get right into my top seven 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 basically 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:

1) Car Push or Tire Flip
2) Keg Clean & Press
3) Sledgehammer Swing
4) Hand Over Hand Row with Thick Diameter Rope
5) Farmers Walk

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

If you choose to do use strongman training as a finisher to your normal weight training workouts, you would be best served to pick one or two exercises and perform them for five to ten minutes straight with a brief rest period every 30-90 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 bear crawls, grasshoppers, sit outs, squat thrusts, crab walks 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 will face in competition.

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. An example of a highly effective sled combo is below:

1a) Forward Sled Drag- 30 seconds
1b) Face Pull- 30 seconds
1c) Backward Sled Drag- 30 seconds
1d) Chest Press- 30 seconds

Repeat for two to five minutes straight followed by a brief rest period similar to what you will 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 and 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 their conditioning. For this method you will 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. You need to 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 will start with a backwards 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.

6. Barbell Complexes- For those of you have 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 and 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:

1) Deadlift
2) Hang Clean
3) Front Squat
4) Hang Snatch
5) Overhead Squat
6) Front Press
7) Bent Over Barbell Row
8] Romanian Deadlift

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 have 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.

There you have it the best ways to get in ass kicking shape and outlast any opponent you will ever face. As far as the work to rest ratios go, you will notice that for most methods I have suggested that over time you try to work toward matching these up with what you will actually face in competition. This is an eventual goal but is not of the utmost importance. Do the best you can and keep that goal in mind but don’t be overly concerned if you can not achieve those numbers.

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 is not 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 and a decrease in your overall performance.

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 two to three, 20-40 minute sessions per week. On top of your classes, practices and other skill work sessions, most combat athletes won’t be able to handle more than two strength sessions per week and two conditioning sessions. My advice is to blend these into the same workout on at least one of your training days, so at most, you are doing no more than four strength and conditioning workouts. If you are doing a lot of specialized training then two to three sessions might be even better.

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

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About Jason Ferruggia 7 Articles

What’s up, fellow non-conformists and Renegades?

Are you’re looking to rise above the status quo? To stick a knife in the heart of mediocrity? Seeking a better way to train, eat and live life on your own terms? Then you’re in the right place.

I’m Jay Ferruggia. My work’s been featured in Muscle & Fitness, Maximum Fitness, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, ESPN, CBS, Fast Company, The Huffington Post, LiveStrong, and Details.

I don’t believe most of the typical training and nutrition advice being espoused all over the internet. I think it’s bullshit.

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As a kid, growing up in small town New Jersey I was infatuated with superheroes and desperately wanted to be one.

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Katherine Cowgill by Teren Oddo Oct. 2015

I’ve been coaching people for over 20 years and have worked with high school to pro athletes, firemen, armed forces members, CEO’s, weekend warriors and fitness enthusiast of all kinds. When they follow the Renegade Method of training, they get big, they get strong, they get jacked, they get lean and they get in shape. Period.

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