Fighter Fitness: Get Site-Specific with Your Strength Training

By James Parker

The typical bodybuilder routines available through magazines and the Internet focus almost exclusively on the major muscle groups, almost taking for granted that the smaller muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue will come along for the ride. But fighters know that those who train heavily, or who wish to consider themselves "fighting fit," will need a little more. You need to develop the small muscles along with the big if you want to have an integrated musculature, and reduce the risk of injury. Site specificity doesn't work for fat loss (doing tons of crunches won't reduce belly fat, for example), but it is a proven way to increase strength to lagging body parts. For this article, we'll take a few body parts that the average guy tends to miss in his daily routine: the grip/forearm/wrists, the hip flexors, and the neck. Even if you're not into martial arts, this routine is perfect to add to a lay-off week or recovery month, or even to your regular schedule once per week.

Warm up

Always warm up thoroughly to prevent injury. Start with a minimum of five minutes on a cardio machine of your choice (10 minutes is my preferred time, but it's understood that many of you are busy folk). After two minutes, start to move your upper body joints through small ranges of motion. Circular motion works well as long as you have the room and won't accidentally smack another gym member. Move your shoulders, elbows, wrist, and neck in small clockwise and counter-clockwise circles. When you are done with that, take another minute to rotate your torso, hips, and ankles through the same type of circular motions. If you feel like it you can also do a light, non-ballistic stretch of all your muscles, spending a small amount of time on each to loosen and prepare them. When you're done with this you're ready to move on to the work.


Let's start with grip training. I've had many clients complain about the weakness of their grip strength. Most find it frustrating that they need straps or other assistance tools in order to lift enough weight to give their backs a correct workout. One way to increase your grip strength is to "pack the hand." In other words, increase the strength and size of the muscles surrounding the carpal and metacarpal bones in the meat or the palm of the hand. One of my favorite (and fairly difficult) exercises is a variation of a pull-up, but with tennis balls between your hands and the bar. The strain of balancing your weight on the balls, coupled with the fight against gravity, will cause the muscles in your hands to get stronger and slightly denser. Fighters have used this "secret" for years to make their hands thicker and stronger, so that when they make a fist, the hand packs tighter and the bones are protected from the impact stress of hitting a hard surface. It also has the extra benefit of making the supporting muscles in the wrist and forearms stronger as well.
Start in standard pull-up position. (Note that you don't need to actually be able to do a pull-up for this exercise to work.) Place a step, box, or bench under your feet to give you the elevation to place your hands on the bar. Grab the tennis balls in an overhand, thumb-less grip (thumb placed alongside the outside of your index fingers). Without allowing your wrists to roll to either side or your fingers to touch the bar, hold your weight off the floor. Eventually, after you become accustomed to just trying to hold position, start to pull your weight upwards with the eventual goal of full pull-ups.

Hip Flexor

Another often under-trained and forgotten area is the hip flexor. As all Muay Thai stylists know (as well as any martial artist that uses kicking), hip flexor strength can be just as important as how hard you can punch. In a proper kick, the hip flexors can do a majority of the work. Besides repeated kicking, how can you train these muscles to become stronger? One method is the use of bands and cables for controlled knee strikes (front-raises) and side-raises. Most gyms have attachments for the cable stations that consist of a strap of some sort which can be wrapped around your ankle. If you don't have a cable attachment that straps to your ankle, try bands. With bands you can do these exercises anywhere you can attach the band—in the gym, in your home, or outside. Make sure you start with the lightest weight possible to get a feel for the exercise and the muscles you are trying to target. Attach the ankle strap to your ankle. Perform a range of sets based on strength (lower repetitions with heavier weight) and endurance (higher reps with lighter weight) week-to-week to give these muscles the complete coverage.
Front Raise
Keep your knee bent; do not extend your leg or lock the leg out straight as it can place undo stress on the knee joint. Start with front knee raises, which simulate a kickboxing knee strike. Balance on the leg opposite to the ankle strap, curl your leg up so that the foot is as close to your glutes as your flexibility allows while keeping your upper leg (from hip to knee) perpendicular to the ground. From this position simply raise your knee up to a point just past parallel to the floor.
Side Raise
Start in the exact same position as you did with the front raises, but bring the knee up towards the side of your body. Your range of motion may be much shorter when you do this exercise due to a lack of flexibility in the hips, so be sure and stretch in a controlled fashion after your routine to help develop more range.


Another oft-neglected muscle group is the neck. Many people forget to give the muscles in the neck any form of resistance training at all. Any fighter that has experienced the clinch (a form of standing grappling that involves your opponent attempting to manipulate your body movement by holding you by the base of your skull and upper neck) knows the importance of neck and trapezius strength. People who never do martial arts will see benefits from some neck-work as well. Just be careful not to add undue stress to a muscle that, depending on what you do for a living, probably already has a workout every day. Giving your neck a controlled minor workout can add strength and even relieve tension from mental and workplace-related stress.
The trick with this exercise is to keep your upper body entirely still while you isolate and train the muscles of the neck. Start by selecting a small weight plate (2.5 to 5 pounds maximum), a towel, and a bench to sit on. Make sure the plate has a hole in the center or somewhere along the edge through which you can slide the towel. Roll the towel and thread it through the hole until the plate is hanging directly in the middle. Carefully make sure both ends of the towel are folded together and place these ends in your mouth. Bite down strongly, but not fast, to hold the weight with your jaws. Rest your forearms on your knees, keeping your back straight. Begin the exercise with your head down, chin resting on your upper chest, and raise your head to the point where your neck is slightly past its normal forward-facing position. After each set, remove the towel carefully from your mouth to give your neck a rest. In Thailand this exercise is performed with a small rubber hose or cord and a bucket of sand that can be anywhere from empty to full to add resistance.

The Workout

To put these exercises together into a workout, put together sets and recoveries as follows:
Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Recovery Notes
Grip Hand, Wrist, Forearm 2 - 4 1 minute Focus on balance, keeping your wrists steady and hand clamped on the ball.
Knee Raises Hip Flexors 2 - 3 1 minute Bring knee only parallel to floor.
Side Raises Hip Flexors 2 - 3 1 minute Do not over-shoot the range of motion.
Neck Trapezius (upper fibers) 2 1 minute Keep your back straight, resting the weight of your torso on your forearms. Be careful not to over-train the neck, as it may already be under strain.

Finishing Up

There are plenty of areas on our bodies that are frequently ignored and that need minor to major tune-ups. These areas can be worked in a secondary fashion by training with compound (full-body or major muscle group) exercises, but can typically be missed in routines dominated by machines. Adding in a day of site-specific exercises, or even adding one of these exercises to one of your regular routines, can significantly improve your results.

Remember that when isolating smaller muscles, you need to pay special attention to avoiding over-training. Smaller muscles notoriously need less work to achieve the same results that more sets would get on larger muscle groups. As always, be safe and leave your ego at the door to the gym. Know and be honest enough with yourself to recognize your limits. Anything less risks derailing your continued success, as well as your overall health. Train hard, be safe, kick ass.

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.