Sports Science of Combat Sport Training

Fighting fit! – the scientific approach to combat sport training

Ask a layperson what images the phrase ‘combat sport training’ conjures up and there’s a good chance that films such as Rocky or Kickboxer will figure in their response! But according to James Marshall, the reality is very different, and athletes in this field who want to excel need a much more scientific approach, particularly using circuit traning programmes.

How many Olympic combat sports can you name? One? Two? Three? In fact, there are five. You probably got judo and boxing, but there’s also tae kwon do and two types of wrestling – freestyle and Greco-Roman.  (Fencing, archery and shooting are also in the Olympics and could be called combat sports, but they are performed with weapons so won’t be included in this article).

We all know that boxers are fit; the intense nature of competing in rounds means that short bursts of explosive energy are required, as well as great endurance, allowing recovery between rounds and bouts. Upper and lower body strength and power are also required, yet the combatants have to make weight limits, which means power to weight ratio becomes important. These demands are required in the other combat sports too.

This article will examine exactly what the fitness requirements are for combat sports, the similarities between them, and also provide some ideas on how to train. While there are obvious differences between the five Olympic combat sports, we will highlight the similarities. For example, research on making the weight in judo can be applied to freestyle wrestlers, and research on generating endurance in tae kwon do participants can be applied to boxers. In fact, the individual sport differences are traditionally trained during the activity itself and these often depend on the cultural influence of the sport; boxing is British, judo is Japanese, tae kwon do is Korean, Greco-Roman wrestling is… well, you get the idea! As a rule of thumb, the ‘traditional’ training methods for each combat sport will have been influenced by prevailing ideas in the country of origin of that sport.

What are the fitness requirements for combat sports?

A recent in-depth study on senior and junior British international amateur boxers revealed the requirements of the sport(1). Current Olympic bouts are of four 2-minute rounds with a 1-minute rest in between. The workload in these rounds is high. Boxers were found to have maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) scores of 63.8ml/kg/min, indicating a high aerobic capacity. Heart rate monitors placed on the boxers over four rounds of sparring showed that peak levels were higher than those induced during maximal testing on treadmills. This indicated a large input from the anaerobic system in supplying energy demands, resulting in high post-bout levels of lactate – up to 14mmol/litre.

Upper body strength and power was apparent from the measured punch forces, with some punches generating more than 2,400 newtons. Boxers therefore need to simultaneously work on their aerobic system to aid recovery between rounds, their anaerobic system to help deal with the high workload in each round, and also their upper body power to deliver the right punch – not an easy task!

Tae kwon do athletes fight in two 2-minute rounds with very little upper body work, as 98% of scoring techniques involves kicking(2). A study on the Czech national tae kwon do team showed that they had less aerobic capacity than boxers with VO2max scores in the male members of the team of 54.6ml/kg/min(3). This is not surprising however, considering that tae kwon do rounds are half the duration of those of boxing. The study also showed that after the two rounds, competition bouts produced lower levels of lactate (11.4mmol/litre) compared to boxing.

By contrast, freestyle wrestlers and judoka fight in a continuous 5-minute bout. They can use legs and arms to provide holds or throws and they require extensive use of isometric contractions, placing large demands on the anaerobic energy systems. One study of Freestyle wrestling in US college athletes found post-competition lactate levels of 19mmol/litre(4). To gain an idea of how high this is, graded exercise tests to failure on a treadmill tend to produce on in the region of 10mmol/litre of lactate(5). Another study found that the US national team had VO2max scores of 54.6ml/kg/min, a significantly lower level than that of boxers, thus highlighting the difference in demands.

Greco-Roman wrestling is now competed over three 2-minute rounds and is a predominantly upper body-based sport, as no attacks below the waist are allowed. Previously, the bout was one of five continuous minutes with a possible 3-minute extension. Existing data on the physiological status of Greco-Roman wrestlers has been collected under the previous (5-minute) bout format; a move to the three 2-minute rounds has almost certainly altered the energy system demands.

In the 1998 World Championships, wrestlers were found to average 14.8mmol/litre of lactate and a work to rest ratio of approximately 3:1 in each bout(6). A previous study found that amateur wrestlers had VO2max scores of 52-63ml/kg/min – quite a wide range, but indicating that the fitter wrestlers required extensive use of the aerobic system during their bouts.

An efficient aerobic system has been shown to be essential in reproducing high quality work with limited rest times in activities such as cycling sprinting. While power produced in one sprint is not dependent on aerobic capacity, a recent study showed that the 20 sets of 5-second sprinting with between 10 and 30 seconds rest did require use of the aerobic system(7).

Training the energy systems

Developing fitness for combat sports is not easy. The physical effort required in each bout produces very high levels of lactate, with high heart rates. Lactate also affects the muscles’ ability to work by inhibiting the actin-myosin cross-bridge mechanisms. The body has two mechanisms that ‘buffer’ this inhibition; bicarbonate (in the cell) and phosphate (between cells), and training can improve both of them. The fitter the fighter, the better able he or she is at tolerating high levels of lactate and recovering more rapidly between rounds (or bouts if there are multiple bouts within the same day of competition).

To reproduce the effort level required to generate the desired training effect outside of competition demands great mental effort, as athletes have to push themselves way beyond what is comfortable. Indeed, very high levels of lactate in the body can cause vomiting, so care is needed to progress the volume and intensity of the training gradually.

Developing a sound aerobic base, or assisting weight control in season can be done by lower intensity steady state work. Working at under 80% of maximum heart rate (MHR) or at a comfortable pace for 20-30 minutes will help develop aerobic fitness, but not overtax the athlete who is fatigued from sparring and strength training(8,9). For heavier combat athletes, non-running activities such as cycling or the stepmill may be preferable for the longer duration aerobic work, as it places less stress on the lower limbs.

Now for the hard stuff – getting the athletes working at a level that produces lactate in a sufficient quantity to match fight situations. Interval training is very effective here, as is circuit weight training (see Combat interval training on page 2):
Work to rest ratios of 2:1 and 3:1 have been found to be most effective at developing the aerobic and anaerobic systems in grappling sports(10). Traditional running intervals using these ratios also work, but some exercises that use the upper body should be incorporated because the ability to remove lactate differs between muscle groups and also modes of exercise(11). When the fighter is either grappling or punching, lactate build up needs to be removed as quickly as possible; if only the legs are efficient at this, then the fighter will fatigue in the upper body sooner.

Making the weight

Another thing that all the combat sports have in common is that fighters have to make weight as competitions are all divided into weight categories. The trick is to produce the strongest, fittest fighter within a given weight class. The problem is that there is a direct correlation between strength and the cross-section of muscle size. An increase in muscle size (and therefore mass) results in an increase in strength, which may leave the fighter at a disadvantage if they are the smallest (and weakest) person in the weight category above the one they want to fight in, rather than the strongest in their own weight category.

Most fighters train and live at a higher weight than they fight at, and try to make weight immediately before the competition. A recent study on US college freestyle wrestlers found that they had an average weight of 75.11kg in-season and three weeks into post-season weighed 80.3kg(10). This in-season weight loss also resulted in a loss of strength, so the wrestlers were fighting all season under strength.

Usual methods to lose weight in the short term include saunas, skipping, crash dieting and the use of diuretics to provoke fluid loss (and therefore weight). British boxers were found to lose between 6-8.3% of their body weight in the three weeks prior to competing with 5.2% loss occurring in the final seven days and 1.7-2.7% in the final 24 hours(1). A middleweight boxer may lose as much as 2.5kg in the last day, which is some effort! Unfortunately, this sudden weight loss has an adverse effect on performance. Going into a fight dehydrated, with lower than normal glycogen levels will lead to a crash at some point, or a severely sub-par performance. Typically the fighter will reduce calorie and fluid intake in the three days prior to the weigh-in and then try and regain the losses before the fight starts. A 54kg wrestler has been reported as eating as little as 334kcal the day before the weigh in, only to bounce back with 4,214kcal the day after(12).

One way to get around this is to reduce excess body fat, which does nothing to enhance performance. Top judoka have higher levels of fat-free mass (FFM) than their less skilful counterparts, allowing them to have more lean tissue and therefore more potential strength than someone who is the same weight but has a higher proportion of fat(13). Careful monitoring of the diet is necessary, as is some aerobic work, which uses fat as its main fuel source. However, some well-known boxers are almost boastful in their attitude to drinking alcohol and eating meat pies in between bouts, resulting in a massive yo-yo of weight gain and loss every 3-6 months.

Specific fighting strength

How can fighters get stronger without getting bigger and what are the different types of strength work required? In order to promote muscle growth, the muscles have to be placed under load for a longer duration, with relatively little rest time. Conversely, placing the muscles under heavy loads, but for short durations, will promote strength and moving these loads quickly will produce power. The use of cluster sets within the workout allows the athlete to lift maximal weight while only being under load for a short duration.

The striking sports (boxing and tae kwon do) require exercises that develop speed and power in the upper and lower bodies respectively. The use of weighted ankle or wrist wraps can be useful in providing added resistance to punching and kicking practice. Too much weight, however, can lead to poor technique; too little will not provide any strength gain. Athletes should therefore follow up any loaded techniques with normal techniques performed at normal speed and power to prevent any skill deterioration.

The grappling sports require speed and power but also a great deal of isometric strength with specific attention being paid to neck strength and grip strength. Exercises such as the barbell clean or the barbell snatch and their dumbbell alternatives require the use of the whole body and help develop power and whole body coordination.

Squat jumps and medicine ball lifts also help develop power. Using dumbbells, kettlebells and medicine balls also allows multi-planar lifts, which are more relevant to the combat sports than just single-plane lifts. Grip strength is developed within strength training sessions just by holding the weights, but it can also be enhanced by introducing some variation. Instead of normal pull-ups, wrap a towel around the bar to increase its size, or hang the towel over the bar and grip each end and pull up. Holding two Olympic disks together instead of using a dumbbell or medicine ball also enhances grip strength.

Neck strength can be developed through exercises such as shrugs, but the use of neck harnesses to perform flexion, extension and rotation exercises will develop specific strength. The neck bridge, which requires the athlete to kneel down and place their head on the floor and then roll forwards, backwards and side to side places load on the neck, should be done with care. Manual resistance against your own hand or by placing a rolled up towel around the head and pushing with your head while pulling the towel with your hands will develop isometric strength in the neck. Care must be taken on all these exercises, however, to ensure that all directions of movement are trained to prevent muscle imbalances and the corresponding likelihood of injury problems developing.

Circuit training for combat sports

Circuit training is quite a popular method of training amongst combat athletes. The advantage is that a lot of exercises are performed in a short period of time, and that the energy system demands of the sport are matched because the work: rest ratios of the bouts can be applied in the gym. For example, a 2-minute circuit of upper and lower body work of eight exercises performed for 12 seconds each, allowing a 3-second changeover, followed by a 1-minute rest, then repeated three more times, matches the demands of boxing.

The disadvantage of circuit training is that a lot of conditioning is performed in the sport-specific training sessions, such as sparring, or in the case of tae kwon do, repetition of techniques performed in the lesson. Repeatedly working on the same energy system at a high intensity will lead to fatigue and possible over use injuries and could lead to burnout. Instead, if the training demands are high immediately before competition or in season, training for strength should be used. This will allow the fighters to maintain their strength while competing, and limiting the taxing demands on the anaerobic energy systems(10). Circuit training may be better used in the off-season, and in times of low sport-specific training to help maintain the high levels of anaerobic fitness.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI, runs Excelsior, a sports training company

1. Journal of Sport Science and Medicine 2006; 5:74-89
2. JSSM 2006; 5:114-121
3. Journal of Sports Sciences 1998; 16, 3:243-249
4. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise 2001; 33:1367-1378
5. Designing Resistance Training Programmes 2004; 1-375
6. JSS 2002; 20: 939-945.
7. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2006; 20, 4:792-798
8. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 2000; 495-506
9. JSCR 2006; 20, 3 689-692
10. The Sport Science of Elite Judo Athletes 2001; 19-31, 69
11. JSCR 2006; 20, 4:866-860
12. Physician and Sports Medicine 1986; 14:110-116
12. JSCR 2006; 20, 3:654-657

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