• Photo for Fighting Fit: Site Specific Functional Training for Back and Shoulders
    Photo Credit: Courtesy of Avni Khatri

Fighting Fit: Site Specific Functional Training for Back and Shoulders

By James Parker

I'm continuing my series of site specific exercises for fighters by focusing on some of the muscles needed for striking, with a few exercises aimed directly at increasing the functional strength of the upper back, rear deltoids, and the supporting muscles therein and nearby, perfect for the beginning, intermediate, or even advanced MMA striker, muay Thai fighter, and/or any other striking-style martial artist. Most folks who weight train already do the necessary work needed for general strength in the shoulders and back. But I’m going to focus on some exercises not normally known, and that hit some of the muscle heads or bellies often missed in the traditional weight lifting routines. These are areas of muscle development important to fighters—but that can help with changing up and fleshing out a more standard lifting routine as well. This routine is an excellent addition to a lay off week or recovery month, or even to your regular schedule and regular routine.

Background—Why Muay Thai?
Most fighters that consider themselves strikers (fighters that focus predominately or come from a punching/kicking background) know that spinal rotation and grounding are the true proponents of knock-out power. However, you need to have just as much strength in the supporting muscles that push the limbs forward as well. I come from a striking background and consider myself a striker first, only learning ground fighting to support my ability to strike with numerous parts of my body (and to keep those scary ground fighters off of me!). There are many styles of striking that I respect and love, but for the sake of argument I’ll pick out muay Thai as my striking example. Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, the forefather of Japanese and American kickboxing, and is the sport combative form directly descended from the more “street” or battlefield combative styles such as muay Boran, muay Burand, muay Lao, and Mae Mai muay Thai (as well as some styles that are very similar, developed in nearby countries).  Muay Thai is called "the art of eight limbs" for fighters' ability to use their elbows and knees, as well as their hands and fit, to hit an opponent from different angles. Muay Thai stylists love to use their shins when kicking and are renowned for being some of the tougher fighters found in the sport. It’s no wonder then that muay Thai is considered a staple for mixed martial arts.

As I have stated in previous articles, always warm up thoroughly to prevent injury. Start with a minimum of 5 minutes on a cardio machine of your choice, some light bag work, or your particular martial arts repertoire of forms. After this warm up, you’ll want to activate the muscles you’ll be focusing on for the next hour or so. Begin this by gripping a light weight (no more than three pounds) in each hand and start a punching motion forward as you face a mirror, aiming for ten repetitions per side. If you’re right handed then your left leg should be forward and the right back, with a clear channel between the legs so as to not lose your balance when punching (lefties do the reverse). I tend to adopt a more forward facing stance the way I was taught, to give my cross (back hand) more range and to also give my jab (lead hand) more power. It also allows me better to affect a sprawl (defensive action against a ground fighter’s takedown). However, if you’re used to the less “squared off” posture of the boxer or Tae Kwon Do practitioner, stick with what you’re comfortable with. Keep your form semi-slow and strict, never locking out the elbows—no laziness here, please. Next, and in the same position, you’ll perform forward and backward circles with both arms. Circular motion works to help get the shoulder joint activated as long as you have the room and you won’t accidentally smack another gym member. When you are done with that, take another minute to rotate your torso, hips, and ankles through the same type of circular motions.    

Get Your Power Back
The pull-up is my favorite for back work, but you can make it more interesting with a rope attachment or a very sturdy towel. Place the rope over the bar that you use for pull-ups. Instead of pulling equally with both arms, focus on pulling with one side while allowing the other side to stretch away from you. Keep tension in both arms, but focus more on your shoulder blades doing the work needed to keep the rope moving back and forth in a sawing motion, while your torso slightly rotates. Do as many as you can, equally for both sides, for three sets. As a bonus, this exercise works your grip (hand muscles), forearm, and biceps. It is great for the mixed martial artist and BJJ practitioner as well. I like to super-set this one with forward body pulls. For those, lie flat on your stomach with your arms extended all the way in front of you. Using only your forearms and elbows, pull yourself across the floor. Don’t cheat and use your legs!Pull as far as you can before resting.

The next exercise is also actually two exercises in super-set format. First, stand at a high cable attachment with a single handle. Set the weight fairly low (between 10 to 30 pounds max). Face away from the station and, holding the handle in one hand, adopt a fighting stance (as described above) with your hands in their proper position near your chin. Keep the same right-handed or left-handed stance no matter what arm is doing the exercise. Now, punch forward and slightly downward (to compensate for the angle of the cable attachment station). Do two sets of 10 to 20 reps in a controlled but ballistic fashion. Super-set this with medicine ball punch throws. For those, take a medicine ball (whatever weight you feel comfortable with—the lower the better if you’re not sure) and get in a fighting stance in front of a wall that can withstand having medicine balls thrown against it (dry wall is not one of these types of walls, folks—I'm just saying) anywhere from 4 to 10 feet away, depending on the weight of the ball and your strength. Hold the medicine ball in the back or cross (as in cross the body) hand with the fingers open and palming the ball. You’ll have to support the ball with the other hand, right up to the point of execution. Shove the ball as hard as you can against the wall and immediately pick it up on the rebound to reset as fast as you can. Continue to repeat the motion as quickly as you can manage for 10 to 15 reps and then switch sides. If you can keep your stance, great, but feel free to experiment with this one by switching stances to keep each arm in the cross position.  

Power Shoulders
The final exercise for this segment focuses almost exclusively on the rear deltoid or back of the shoulder. This area is frequently overlooked not just by fighters, but by many bodybuilders and weightlifters. The deltoid (shoulder) has three heads. Most shoulder exercises hit the front and medial heads, but only slightly activate the rear head, which is directly above both the triceps and the three smaller, but extremely necessary, back muscles that coincidentally got worked by some of the earlier exercises. This exercise is called the bent over shoulder fly. It is similar to a standing shoulder fly, except that for this one you want to sit down on a bench while bending at the waist until your stomach touches your legs/knees. (Use a weight that is slightly less than the weight you would use for standing shoulder flies as this muscle area is typically weaker than the more developed front and middle.) Keep your neck/chin neutral while raising the dumbbells at your sides from the grounded position towards the ceiling and slightly forward. Aim your palms backwards so that your pinky is up and leading the movement. Do three sets of low reps, focusing more on strength for this exercise. It’s rough, I know, especially as I put it at the end of a more endurance-style routine. Don’t worry, though; you’ll be having a recovery shake soon enough.

Now that you know how to do the basic exercises, here’s how you can put them together into a workout:

Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Recovery Notes
Alternating Push/Pulls to Body-pulls Middle and Upper Back (Rhomboid, Infraspinatus,Teres major and minor), biceps and forearms 2 - 3 60 seconds Focus on balance, core tight, and movement steady, push and pull.
High Cable Punches to Medicine Ball Shot-puts Shoulder, triceps, upper and mid back 2 - 3 60 seconds Do not over-shoot the range of motion, going only as a far as to stretch position (don’t over-twist).
Bent-over Rear Deltoid Flys Posterior deltoid 2 60 seconds Keep your back straight, focus on resisting the weight through this range of motion, especially on the down stroke (lowering of the weight to set position).

Finishing Up
As I’ve said in my other site-specific articles, there are plenty of areas on our bodies frequently ignored, 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 or all of these exercises in to one of your regular routines, could raise the bar on how close to your fitness goals you get. Remember that when isolating smaller muscles, pay special attention to avoid over-training. Smaller muscles notoriously need less work to achieve the same results that more sets would get on larger muscle groups. Also keep in mind that placing these exercises in routines that focus on the surrounding muscles is advisable. If you’re a striking practitioner and you’ve not heard of these exercises, try them out and see if your jabs, crosses, hooks and overhand rights aren’t a little harder for your sparring partners to deal with. Like I said in my other articles, please be safe and leave your ego at the door. Know and be honest enough with yourself to recognize your limits, so that you can eventually exceed them. Anything less and you not only risk derailing your continued success, but your health as well. Train hard, be safe, whup ass. 

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