Strength Work is Not Skills Work

There are all kinds of fads and trends in the fitness/strength & conditioning world. Think back over the past 30-40 years or so. Even if you’re not old enough to have known training styles and trends that old, you probably still have heard of many of the things that have been popular over the years.

Since the 1970s, we’ve seen Nautilus, “jazzercise” (i.e. aerobics classes), various machine training, every ab gadget or gizmo imaginable, heavy-volume bodybuilding, low-set “high intensity training” (which, incidentally, is what the workouts the now popular home-gym Bowflex are based on), spinning, Crossfit, Curves, kettlebells, boot camps, “core” training, “functional” training, stability balls/boards/gizmos, and much, much more.

Though not as popular as some of the things listed above, there is a “style” of training (for lack of a better term) that is popular in some strength & conditioning circles that is gaining momentum. The style doesn’t necessarily have a name attached to it, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll call it “sport mimicking.” In essence, what this style of training does is to design exercises that mimic certain motions, movements/movement patterns, and the like of a particular sport.

Image of Hammer Strength Jammer Machine For example, you might see a baseball player doing twisting exercises to increase his rotational strength/power so that he can swing a bat faster. Or you might see a football player using a Hammer Strength Jammer machine (a giant machine that allows you to start in a fully squatted position, and drive forward and up, extending your body upright and hands overhead – much like a lineman might do) to increase his “pop” on the opposing lineman.

Now, at a cursory glance, this might sound like a good idea. Get stronger (or more powerful, or in better condition, or what have you) specifically at what you’re competing at. Makes sense, right?

Not necessarily.

While the basic idea is sound, there are actually quite a few problems with this idea.

Strength training and conditioning should be general. You should be looking to get your entire body in shape (i.e. stronger, faster, in better condition, etc.) as a whole – not just in certain motions. There are going to be certain movement patterns that will help you in your sport, and there is nothing wrong with picking exercises that will strengthen the musculature that moves your body through those range of motions. But to do solely things that mimic your sport can lead to bad news.

First, it can lead to long-term overuse injuries. If you’re constantly using musculature to accomplish certain movement patterns during your sport, but then go and train the hell out of it in your S&C training, you’re eventually going to wear something out.

Let’s look at a baseball pitcher (I know this is a MMA site, and I’ll get to MMA in a minute, but this is a great example). A pitcher repeats the same motion literally hundreds of times per week. A decent pitch count in a game might be around 100 pitches. This won’t count warm-ups and may not count the pitches that don’t get recorded. By the end of the night, it’s very conceivable for a pitcher to have repeated a pitching motion 150+ times. Now put that guy in a 4-day rotation, and he’s likely pitching twice/week. That puts him repeating (virtually) the exact same motion some 300 times/week, with virtually every one of them a near maximum effort. Think that won’t take a toll on the body – especially the musculature involved in that one movement pattern?

You’ve got to give your body a rest.

Secondly, doing exercies that solely mimic your sport can lead to severe muscular imbalances. The body will get used to moving in only one direction. If a right-handed pitcher is constantly twisting to his left, then he’s got to get strong at twisting to the right as well. Think of it this way: you did dumbbell curls, but only ever curled with your left hand. Eventually, your left arm is going to get bigger and stronger, but your right arm will be still be small and weak. Anything you try to do with both hands/arms will be dominated by your left arm, and your strength won’t be evenly matched.

Apply that same idea to any sort of movement that involves your entire body – as you see in sports quite often.

boxing Another problem with this idea is that many times, when trying to mimic something in sports, the exercise is so out of whack that it throws the entire athlete’s technique off. Think about this – a boxer has to throw his hands fast, right? And a lack of shoulder endurance can greatly hinder that late in a fight. Wouldn’t it seem that shadow boxing with weights would be a good idea to help increase shoulder endurance? Yeah, it might. But do you ever see it? Rarely, and if you do, it’s with very light weights (usually just something heavy enough to mimic having gloves on). So why not shadow box while holding 15-20 lb dumbbells?

Because if you do it will take your punching mechanics and shoot them all to hell. Instead of being fast, crisp, clean, and powerful, your punches will be slow, plodding, pushing, and haphazard. And therein lay the problem. Instead of strengthening the body to perform its task more efficiently, you’ll actually be training it to perform it more poorly.

This same phenomena is present with many (if not most) exercises that are designed to mimic sports movements. Going back to baseball again – just like the boxer that doesn’t want to shadow box with heavy dumbbells, ever see a hitter practice his swing with a barbell or weighted bat (aside from maybe a couple swings to try and help loosen up the shoulders)? Nope.

Strength training and conditioning is a part of what’s called GPP – General Physical Preparedness. In other words, it’s a component of your basic preparation. Being strong and in shape is what allows you to compete. If you’re out of shape then you can’t compete (or usually even train) because you’re spending all your time sucking wind. Once you get in good enough shape, you can train and compete because now you can utilize your technique. And if you get in good enough shape, you can utilize your conditioning as a weapon (not sucking wind at the end of a fight will put you in a much better position to utilize your technique than your opponent).

However, strength training and conditioning is not designed to enhance your technique. Like I just said, it can help you utilize your technique, and it can even help you pull some techniques off more easily (e.g. – having stronger hips can help you lock out an armbar if you have less than maximum leverage). However, it should never be used as a tool to enhance your technique (e.g. – stronger hips won’t help you find position for maximum leverage for that armbar, and having strong hips shouldn’t be a replacement for trying to get maximum leverage for that armbar).

Now, there is nothing wrong with strengthening the muscles that are used in your sport (in our case, MMA). As mentioned earlier, having strong hips can be a big help in armbars and they’re even better for suplexes or slams. Strong legs can help give you a quick shot and a strong trunk (in a rotational manner) can help you have a lot of power in your strikes. Is it stupid to strengthen your hips, legs, or trunk? Of course not.

What would be stupid, though, would be to try and design a program made up solely of exercises that mimicked doing armbars, suplexes, or throwing punches. Can doing some of this help? Yes. Can doing all of it help? Not usually. And can you end up fouling up your technique mechanics if you do too much said exercise? Yes. And can you create huge muscular imbalances if this is all you do? Yes.

Mark Homonick Start with a good strength and conditioning program to get you strong, powerful, and in shape, then take all of that strength, power, and conditioning and apply it to the mat or cage with all your skills work. This is what will make you a better fighter.

Don’t try to turn your skills work into strength work, or your strength work into skills work.

Train Hard, Rest Hard, Play Hard.

Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins

Check out workout programs and learn more about Matt at WorkingClassFitness.com.

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