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A Fighter's Top Five Training Principles

By James Parker

I'm often asked what it takes for someone to train in mixed martial arts, muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)—any combative sport. It makes sense that the question comes up: most who don’t compete or even train in these styles of martial arts wonder at the mentality of the person who does. “Why?” is something I often hear, and my (I'm sure) perfectly lucid explanations are often greeted with, “but…" Unfortunately, what motivates a person to train like the proverbial madman every day for something most rational folk would try their hardest to avoid can only be understood by the madman himself.

But the "what does it take?" question has another sense as well; that is, how does martial arts training relate to other kinds of fitness routines? And what principles govern a fighter's regimen? Now, I know that many of you will not want to become fighters. But as I've tried to show in my articles for RealJock, you don't have to be a fighter to reap the benefits of training like one. That's why I'm going to go over five principles that I believe are integral to athletic training, regardless of whether or not you choose ever to see the inside of the ring or cage. I hope these will not only help you understand the fighter's mentality, but, perhaps more importantly, bring a new perspective to your own, non-combative training. Of course, every trainer has different beliefs, as well as considerable overlap. My approach might or might not vibe with what you have heard about mixed martial arts—but the idea is to offer you some ideas that you can examine to see how they might fit with your own fitness philosophy and routine.

A Fighter's Top Five
There are many training principles and strategies that go into making a fighter—but my goal is to give you a few concrete ideas to try out in your own program, so I'm going to lay out my top five. 

1.) Training
To most people this one would be totally obvious—but I'm thinking of it as something a little deeper than just “you need to train.” Before you even start training you need to ask yourself what your goals are. What are you training for? Is it ultimately to compete? Or have you decided that this would be a great way to lose those unwanted pounds? Whatever the reason, you must understand that the goal dictates the way you should train. A person that wants to compete in Grappler’s Quest wouldn’t be well served in adding muay Thai training to a regimen that should include BJJ, wrestling and strength training. By the same token, a K-1 fighter might not need to work on his ground game.

That may sound like unfamiliar jargon—but the principle is very basic. To train optimally for your goal you need to be efficient. Time runs against you in the gym, especially when you consider the important aspects of family and work in your life. Training in unnecessary things in order to reach this particular goal can add stress where there doesn’t need to be. Eventually that stress will take its toll. And it can also impair your immediate progress by introducing contrary goals, slowing recovery, and overloading retention abilities. It’s natural for us to get over-excited and over-do it, but too much impedes and impairs. And that brings us to my next principle. 

2.) Recovery
Maybe you’ve heard the saying that no fighter is ever one hundred percent? Well, why is that? To me, it’s simple: over-training. When you have to make sure your ground game is up to snuff—that your striking is crisp and impenetrable, your cardiovascular efficiency is the best it’s ever been, and your strength is peaking—then over-training and recovery are not only important, they’re deadly serious. Inflammation is something that scientists are just starting to realize is more dangerous than they'd realized. Chronic inflammation could potentially be the reason many people end up with diseases not seen in our ancestors' time. Even if you aren’t a mixed martial arts competitor, recovery needs to be taken into account to achieve the goals you’ve marked for yourself. The lack of recovery leads to an inflamed state and can not only slow your progress, it can actually reverse it.

What we might forget is that everyday stress adds to the “workload” our body takes on each day. The deadlines needing to be reached, the quotas needing to be filled, the bills needing to be paid—all of these put a strain on our ability to recover. Add to that your hard work at the gym, and it’s no wonder your immune system can’t fend off a cold. Reassess your schedule, with not only your training, but a realistic look at your daily life added in. Give yourself an objective look to see whether you have enough rest-time or recovery activities (such as massage, sauna, hot tub, etc.) included. If you don’t give these times and activities as much importance as your training, you’ll never reap the full benefits your training could give. Fighters either know this, or they learn it the hard way.

3.) Nutrition
Nutrition is completely tied into the previous discussion of recovery. By nutrition I don’t just mean eating well. Most of you that train already know what a healthy diet is and isn’t (hint: fast food…isn’t), but do you know what those healthy foods and supplements actually do? In the plethora of food items and supplements available, do you know which might be better suited to your goals than others? These are important questions, I think, especially in an economy where we need to squeeze our paychecks to make them last.

Different athletes have different needs when it comes to nutrition, and what will work for some could be potentially disastrous for others. Sometimes, if your goals aren’t clear or you have two that are contrary to each other, you can cause harm to yourself by not doing the right thing with your nutrition. For example, it’s very difficult to train at 100 percent while restricting caloric intake to make weight. Many fighters lacking the proper experience or a trainer to watch over them have made this mistake, resulting in injury and/or loss of their competition. Sometimes meeting an ideal aesthetic and winning a vigorous combative competition aren’t on the same goal-list. However, once you’ve set or re-evaluated your goal and the recovery times needed, you can better identify the nutritional program that will suit. 

4.) Appropriate Output
This one might seem a little weird, and might not be as broad as the first three, but I feel it is something that many don’t take into account and that can derail you as easily as anything else on the list. For many fighters (and those that train like fighters), I would argue that this is one of the more important ideas. Let me operationally define what I mean: appropriate output simply means asking yourself the following question: are you putting out the right amount of energy expenditure for the given situation? Most of you reading this would automatically say “of course!”—but how many of you also read it the other way? Did you read it as "turbo-charge every workout?" Appropriate means what is needed. Many of us slam into our workouts like we were battling giants, but is that always necessary, or even warranted?

Look at it this way: if you always sparred at 100 percent, the stress of the situation would probably be akin to a full blast, tear-your-body-up workout, potentially adding new injuries or aggravating older ones, as well as possibly keeping you from trying out a new technique for fear of getting your head taken off. Let me be clear, I am in no way against sparring at that level… just not every day and all the time. Transfer this concept to workouts of all sorts. When learning a new technique, it’s appropriate to go slow, methodical, and controlled to make sure you completely understand the situation. And even familiar workouts should be given their appropriate degree of output. Endurance cardio is vastly different than a sprint-based or Tabata regimen, requiring different kinds of output to be effective. Likewise, hypertrophy training demands a different output than strength-training or power-lifting. Add in recovery, and you’ll need to constantly evaluate how you feel with what needs to be trained, to decide your appropriate output for any given activity.

Not doing this can lead to the easily-made mistake of adding more intensity to an activity than it warrants. Most often, in my experience, I’ll catch the injured trainee doing this—usually overcompensating for what he/she feels is a weakness. Not only does this just exacerbate the problem, it can lead to an injury becoming chronic. 

5.) Communication
Usually I would mean with your coach or trainer, but communication can also mean with yourself. I probably should have put "honest" in front of "communication", because the one problem I’ve found with this principle lies in how much we lie to ourselves. I’ve met many a 40 to 50 year-old that trains in mixed martial arts who feels that he can compete with the 20 year-olds. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few (hello, Mr. Couture!), but is this realistic for most people? Realistically, training like a 20 year-old when you’re 40 isn’t intelligent. Even the famous Randy Couture has had to change some of the ways he trains to account for the realities of an aging physique.

Now, many would automatically see this transition as a negative, when in reality it is merely a tool to achieve your goal. It is neither negative nor positive, just a reality that needs to be taken into account so that it can be worked either around or towards. Similarly, many people that need to lose body fat either dwell too much on the weight or try and ignore both it and the behaviors that got them there in the first place. If Randy Couture had done that I truly doubt he would have gotten to the pinnacles he reached in his career. It's by being honest about where we are that we can devise a plan to get where we want to go. And just as communication demands honesty, remember that it also includes listening. Listen to those nagging aches or twinges—they're your body trying to talk to you. Communicate with yourself and/or your trainer consistently to make sure you are doing what you need to do, how you need to do it.

So there you have it, five important principles I feel need to be taken into consideration in training, even if you aren’t a fighter. These are principles I explain to my students and clients and work hard to enact in my own life and training. Hopefully from here you can add more to the list that are beneficial to your training and lifestyle. If your training is important to you, than you can take the time to work ideas like these into it to better enhance your experience and your chances of reaching those goals. These principles can also apply to just about everyone, as do many aspects of fighter’s training and lives. Maybe the next time someone asks, “Why?” in an effort to understand your fitness program, you can steer them towards your own adaptation of these principles. Let's show that there are more similarities than differences in good training regimens.

About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mixed martial arts conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.