Combat Strength 101

The topic of strength in sports has become a hotly debated topic in recent years. Some coaches believe that you can never have enough, while others believe strength is largely overrated. For those that train in combat sports, they know that strength, power, speed and conditioning are all necessary traits if you want to be a well-rounded combat athlete.

*Reprinted with permission from Fight! magazine

Today’s fighters can’t afford to be lacking in any of these areas any more than they can afford to have big holes in their ground game, stand up, or wrestling if they want to get anywhere in the sport.

Fortunately, when trained properly, strength is an area that can improve rapidly and it’s a weapon that can be used to control the fight and take it where you want it to go. Top wrestlers have frequently been known for their high levels of strength and this strength advantage has no doubt been a big part of why so many wrestlers have had such success in MMA.

Whether you’re a wrestler or not, if you’re lacking in strength and explosive power, you’re missing out on a key ingredient necessary for performance and you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to those that have it.

What is Strength, Anyway?

In the simplest of terms, strength is the ability to produce force and at the end of the day, producing force is all your muscles are really designed for. They contract to produce force and this force is what moves your body around, everything from walking down the street to throwing the knockout punch comes from your ability to produce the force necessary to do so.

In this way, strength is the foundation of every movement and every quality we can think of from explosiveness, to speed, to endurance is simply a different kind of strength. Explosiveness depends on how quickly we can produce force, maximum strength is a matter of how much total force we can generate and conditioning is really nothing more than how long we can maintain our force production for before we fatigue.

Different sports require different levels of each of these kinds of strength and to be successful in combat sports, you’ll need to find the right balance between all three. Unfortunately, finding this balance can be tricky and with most combat athletes already spending hours in the gym training to improve their skills, there is often little time left to devote to getting stronger.

Because of this, it’s absolutely essential that your strength program is delivering the results it should be and this means it must take into account the specific needs of hardworking combat athletes. Trying to follow a strength program designed for athletes in other sports is often a recipe for disaster. To get the most out of your strength program, make sure to pay close attention to the following guidelines:

Strength Training Tip #1: Don’t confuse strength with conditioning

Without question, one of the biggest problems made by combat athletes that are trying to get stronger is trying to develop strength and conditioning at the same time – often they even try to do this in the same workout! A great deal of recent research has shown that this approach leads to less than optimal results in both strength and conditioning and a better approach is to separate training for these different areas into separate workouts.

Also, lifting heavy weights with minimal rest between sets or performing high reps in circuit fashion is not the best way to improve strength. There is a reason you see the strongest and most explosive athletes in the world, Powerlifters, Weightlifters, Sprinters, etc., resting a long time between sets.

You would never see a world-class 100m sprinter running sprints with as little as 10 or 20 seconds rest between them an expect to get faster, so don’t think you can build maximum strength or power with this approach either.

A good rule of thumb is if you are getting winded during your strength workout, you may be working on strength-endurance, but you’re not going to improve max strength or explosive strength with this type of training. Always make sure to rest at least 2-4 minutes between sets of strength work if you are trying to develop either one, or both, of these two qualities, and save the conditioning work for separate training sessions where you can really focus on it. Trying to train every form of strength all at once never leads to the best results and should be avoided for all but complete beginners.

Strength Training Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to lift heavy

In order to get stronger, you can’t be afraid to lift heavy weights, but you must also remember that if you’re spending 4-6 days in the gym training combat sports skills, you can’t handle the same lifting volume as a Powerlifter or strength athlete that only trains strength. This is one of the biggest mistakes that combat sports athletes make far too often, they try to follow the exact same program as an lifter or athlete that isn’t putting in in the same number of hours training their sport.

You wouldn’t expect an NFL athlete to follow the same lifting program in the middle of the season that they follow during the off-season, so you shouldn’t expect to be able to follow the same high volume training programs as other lifters without eventually paying the price. Many combat athletes that have tried to follow training programs with strength training volumes that are too high eventually end up with sore and aching joints and/or injuries at some point.

Fortunately, combat athletes don’t need to develop the same level of strength as a Powerlifter, Weightlifter or other strength and power sport athlete so there is no need to try and train with the same volumes to begin with. Most of those athletes have been lifting weights for many years and need higher volumes to continue to improve, but combat sport athletes rarely need anywhere near the amount of strength work to get stronger. For most combat sport athletes, 12-14 total sets of strength work with reps per set in the 3-6 range for the majority of sets per training session are generally enough to get the job done.

Strength Training Tip #3: Stick to the Basic Lifts

With the amount of extra time available for strength work often limited, you have to get the most out of your time and this means sticking to the basic compound lifts. To improve your general strength, you should use the big lifts like squats, pull-ups, rows, deadlifts, bench press, etc., because these lifts use a ton of muscle and help improve your nervous system’s ability to active a lot of muscle at once and this ability is the foundation for both maximum strength and explosive power.

Exercises that isolate small muscle groups should be left to bodybuilders and fitness models, if you want to get strong and be a combat athlete, these types of exercises should be used minimally. While movements that use kettlebells and dumbbells do have their place in a strength training program, these exercises involve much lower levels of force and should be considered accessory exercises. Only once you’ve developed a solid level of general strength and developed your nervous system to a high level using the core lifts should you worry about focusing more specific combat sports exercises.

6 Week Sample Strength Training Program


Weeks 1-2

Exercise Day One Day Two Day Three
Barbell Squats 4×5 2×5
Pull-ups 3×6 3×5
Bench Press 3×5 2×6
Bent-Over Row 3×5
Shoulder Press 3×8 2×5
Stiff-Leg Deadlift 2×5

Weeks 3-4

Exercise Day One Day Two Day Three
Barbell Squats 5×5 3×3
Pull-ups 4×6 3×6
Bench Press 3×8
Bent-Over Row 3×5 2×5
Shoulder Press 3×8
Stiff-Leg Deadlift 3×8 2×6

Weeks 5-6

Exercise Day One Day Two Day Three
Barbell Squats 5×5
Pull-ups 2×8 2×6
Bench Press 4×6 2×6
Bent-Over Row 3×5 2×5
Shoulder Press 3×8
Stiff-Leg Deadlift 4×5 3×8

Sample Program Guidelines:

  • Rest 2-4 minutes between all sets
  • Rest 3-5 minutes between exercises
  • Perform 1-2 light warm-up sets before work sets
  • Select a weight between 80-90% of your 1 rep max
  • Try to increase weight in each lift, each week
  • If possible, always try to perform strength workouts at least 4 hours before or after combat sports training session
  • Accessory injury prevention exercises can be included during 10-15 dynamic warm-up period
  • Do not train to failure, select a weight that will allow for 1-2 more reps per set than the prescribed number
  • Following the 6 week program, make sure to take one “recovery” week with reduced weight and 40% less training volume
  • Make sure to monitor your recovery throughout the program and adjust training load as necessary given your individual fitness level, schedule and goals. For the best results, use BioForce HRV to adjust training load on a daily and weekly basis according to your training readiness.
  • More strength training methods and details on how to create your own training program can be found in Ultimate MMA Conditioning


  1. Are they the only basic lifts that you use? And do you use their variations (e.g. back squat, front squat, conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, romanian deadlift, cable row, chest supported row on a bench…)?

  2. For people who train to achieve fighter’s physical development but doesn’t actually do MMA (skill sessions), how many sessions of strength, how many sessions of conditioning would you recommend in order to see improvements?

  3. Hi Joel,

    This looks like the perfect workout plan for me. But a couple of quick questions.

    1) Do you increase the weight in the same week for each exercises, where you’re performing fewer sets? For example on weeks 1-2, day 1 you’re squatting 4×5, but on day 3 it’s 2×5. Is there a weight increase on those days?

    2) Any reason you prefer stiff-leg deadlift to normal deadlift?


  4. So how much strength is enough for the MMA or BJJ athlete? Can you give us some guidelines for what you like to see in the basic lifts (squat, deadlift, pull-ups, bench, and/or others you think are appropriate) from high level fighters? Maybe in relation to bodyweight (e.g. 2x bodyweight squat, etc.). Thanks!

  5. How to incorporate this routine with the 8 week blocks of the “Ultimate MMA conditioning”.
    2*4 weeks and change the reps accordingly to Block A and B?

    Also, on the forum you mentioned Shoulder press/overhead press does not transfer well to combat sports?

    Why not box squats, doesn’t it help additionally with explosive speed?

    Any advantage with doing deadlift over squat the second day? I feel it can fuck-up your back if you already have anterior tilt.

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