Strength and conditioning for combat sports

2016 S&C for MMA.Final

As a few of you know, I’ve had some exciting projects in the pipeline recently. This is one of them. I’ve been working with the guys at KBTEducation to put together a strength and conditioning course specifically with the needs of fighters in mind. It’s aimed both at PTs and conditioning coaches who work with combat sports athletes, and combat sports coaches who want to update their S&C knowledge, or gain a recognised qualification. It’ll cover general conditioning principles, together with the sport specific knowledge to help you apply them.

This course might be for you, if you’ve ever wanted to know:

  • the fastest ways to make your fighters stronger and more powerful;
  • how to fit strength and conditioning work into your fighters’ training plans;
  • how to train for endurance that’s specific to the demands of MMA;
  • how to structure a fight camp so that your athlete peaks at just the right time, without overtraining;
  • how to train smart, to reduce the risk of injuries;
  • how to make sure your fighter doesn’t blow all the hard work by screwing up their weight cut;
  • plus lots more.

The first course is set for the 7/8th of May in the West Midlands, with more dates and venues to follow.

Places are going quickly – so have a look here for more information, or to book.

Another way life mirrors jiu-jitsu

There are some people you roll with who are focused on getting it right; they’re the technical guys and girls who’ll push you, but you always feel like you’re getting something out of it. If you’re training, they’ll be good training partners and if you’re competing they’ll fight hard but cleanly.

And then there are those who are more interested in winning every roll at all costs. When you train with them, there’ll be thumbs in eyes, flailing elbows, fingers bent backwards. Any time they feel vaguely threatened, they’ll go mental and do their best to drop you on your head. They’re not usually terribly effective – at least, not against anyone good (although they’ll be the first to tell you about who they’ve tapped in training) because they never put their ego to one side long enough to actually learn anything. But even when you win, you come away with bruises and niggly injuries, feeling like you’ve just wasted 5 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.

Dealing with people in general seems much the same; attitudes towards personal and professional relationships seem to fall into the same two categories. Life is much better when you pick your sparring partners carefully.

Time for a clear out

2015-07-27 15.11.30The last year has seen a lot of changes for me. Since I retired from MMA in 2014, I’ve been busy figuring out what I want the rest of my life to look like, getting my osteopathy business running smoothly, and making a start on some new projects.

One of those projects is to do a lot more writing. With that in mind, I’ve been doing a bit of clearing out and renovating on this old blog – a lick of paint here, some tiles there, maybe a rug or two. I’ll go through and re-blog a few of my old articles (suggestions welcome); but mostly the plan is to focus on some new ideas and directions.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to do things better – playing sports, recovering from injury, getting stronger, learning new skills, critical thinking, relationships, parenting, politics, life in general. That’s reflected in much of what I write. If I bumped into a version of my eighteen year old self in an alternate universe, it’s the sort of thing I might chat to her about over a coffee or four.

Bear with me while I get things up and running – more to come soon! In the meantime, my professional website for my osteopathy work is here.



Become a better bullshit detector

With the recent growth in Mixed Martial Arts and combat sports, there’s been an explosion of products marketed towards the up and coming combat athlete. Nutritional supplements, training gear, equipment, books, DVDs and seminars all promise to take your game to the next level and give you that crucial edge over your opponent.

But how can you tell the difference between a training program, supplement or piece of equipment that will help you get the results you’re after, and something that’s a total waste of money – or even harmful? It can be a minefield. Continue reading “Become a better bullshit detector”

My take on the Fallon Fox controversy

Here’s a post that I wrote back in 2013 when there was a lot of discussion going on about it within the women’s MMA world. I recently had a message from someone asking me to put the article back up, so here it is (very slightly edited). I haven’t looked closely to see whether there has been any more relevant research since the article was written – if any readers know of any, I’d be keen to hear about it.

There’s been lots of talk recently about female transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox, and whether she should be able to compete in the women’s division. I’ve had a few discussions about it, and there seem to be a lot of misconceptions going around, so here are my thoughts on the subject.

1) Many of the comments about this subject have been offensive and unnecessary. I think this is a necessary debate, but it needs to be handled respectfully.

2) None of us have a right to compete in professional MMA. People are routinely denied a licence to compete if their medical status means that there could be an increased risk either to themselves or their opponent.

3) MMA is a relatively safe sport, providing that participants are evenly matched by size, strength and ability. We have gender and weight classes not only to ensure fairness, but also to reduce the risks.

4) Contrary to some of the assertions by Fox’s supporters in the media, there appears to be no good scientific evidence that proves Fox does not have a performance advantage over a cis female. Expert opinion is still just opinion – and it seems divided on the subject. Experts may also have their own biases and areas of expertise. Specialists in gender reassignment may not be equally knowledgeable about exercise physiology.

5) The experts supporting Fox have been quite cautious in their assessment. “She probably does not have a significant advantage” and “her musculature is comparable to that of a woman” are a long way from saying “we know for a fact that she does not have a performance advantage over a cis female”.

6) The differences between men and women in sport depend on a great deal more than current hormone levels and muscle mass. For example, men have a higher ratio of type II to type I muscle fibres, which is associated with improved speed and explosive power, and a heart that is larger relative to body size. It’s not clear to what extent either of these would change after sex-reassignment surgery, or what implications that would have for performance in this case. Because of the bone structure that is developed while still growing, men also have a greater lung capacity and a narrower pelvis, giving a biomechanical advantage – factors which are highly unlikely to be reversed by hormone treatment. There are likely to be other factors that differ between men and women in terms of athletic performance that we aren’t even aware of.

7) Fox’s supporters point to the fact that male to female transgender athletes are allowed to compete as female in the olympics to support their argument that she should be able to compete in the women’s division in MMA. The IOC appears to base it’s policy on the principle that without firm evidence that an unfair advantage exists, transgender fighters should be allowed to compete in the interests of inclusivity. I agree that equality of participation is a nice ideal, and it’s a reasonable argument if we’re talking about sports like tennis or kayaking. But in a sport where one participant is trying to do physical damage to another, the burden of proof should be reversed. We need good scientific evidence to support the assertion that Fox has no advantage as a result of having been born male. Lack of evidence of an advantage isn’t sufficient – especially when so little evidence exists.

8) We should also consider the possibility that the IOC decision may not be based entirely on scientific evidence (of which there appears to be very little), but also take into account factors such as social pressure and (rightly, in my opinion) the desire to be inclusive.

9) Good research on this subject that takes into account all the relevant factors is hard to do, for a variety of reasons. Several people have suggested that performance testing could establish whether Fox’s attributes (strength, power, VO2 max, etc) lie within “normal range” for a female athlete. Leaving aside the statistical issues, a significant problem with this idea is the question of how to measure performance variables in an athlete who – by the nature of the situation – would not have an incentive to produce her best possible performance.

10) I sympathise with Fox’s position, and I don’t agree with those who say that she should not be allowed to fight. On the other hand, I believe it was wrong that Fox’s opponents were not informed of the situation so they could make their own assessment of the risks and give consent. This will obviously not be an issue in future in Fox’s case; but I’m concerned about the athletic commissions’ position that the opponent has no right to know. My opinion is that if someone is going to be legally punching me in the face, then it’s absolutely my business if she went through adolescence as a male. While I understand the concerns about privacy, I don’t think that in this case the right to privacy trumps the opponent’s right to make an informed decision about the risks she is taking.

Finally – if anyone has access to any scientific research that I seem to have missed, please send it to me! I am happy to revise my opinion as and when new information becomes available. I’m hopeful that in the future there will be more good evidence available.

Comments on this post are now disabled.

Some thoughts about medical issues and weight cutting

This post was originally published in 2012. Sadly, weight cutting has been back in the MMA news lately for all the wrong reasons. While fighters would undoubtedly be better off if nobody cut weight, there are no easy solutions to stop it from happening. Unless and until things change, education and understanding the risks is crucial. 

Weight cutting is a frequent topic of obsession for fighters and debate amongst fans. Some have argued that it amounts to cheating. Others point out that when done badly, it can be one of the most dangerous aspects of MMA. Dehydration can result in heat stroke, kidney failure or heart arrhythmias. Although there’s very little research on this subject, it’s possible that fighters quite commonly dehydrate themselves to a level that affects kidney function. And when it goes badly wrong, it can kill you.

I’ve noticed a trend amongst fighters. Those who seem least concerned about their health when planning a weight cut are often the quickest to plead “medical reasons”  when it goes wrong. I don’t want to pick on anyone in particular, so let’s think about a fictional fighter. We’ll call him John Anthonyson.

We can imagine a conversation between John and his coach.

A few weeks out from his fight, John is looking a bit on the chunky side. His coach sits him down. “Look John, we’re a bit worried about your weight. You know you’ve had problems making weight in the past. We really think you should think about your diet, you know, so you don’t have so much to cut in the last week.”

John: “Get off my back, will ya? It’ll be fine. I know what I’m doing. Next you’ll be telling me that ‘weight cutting is dangerous’ or some nonsense like that. Real fighters can cut 30 lbs, no problem. Those doctors haven’t a clue. Besides, I’ve got some, ah, ‘supplements’ that are gonna help me out this time.”

Several weeks later, after failing to make weight:

“Look, I tried, honestly I did. It wasn’t my fault. I don’t know what happened. Everything was going fine, and then I just started feeling really dizzy and light headed, I couldn’t stand up… my kidneys were hurting, everything started going black. The doctors told me I needed fluids, so I just did what they said. I’m sorry and all, but shit happens. It’s just unfortunate. I did the right thing though. My health has to come first.”

Don’t want to end up in this situation? Avoiding it is pretty straightforward.

  • Make sure you understand the process of weight cutting, and what can go wrong. Do your own research and take responsibility for your own weight cut. Having someone experienced who can advise you is great, but at the end of the day it’s your body and your health on the line.
  • Never sign a contract unless you know you can make the weight, and have a clear plan to do so.
  • Make sure you’ve practised your weight cut. Yes, doing a cut when you haven’t got a fight sucks. But it also allows you to experiment, and to find out how your body works and which methods are best for you without the pressure of knowing that you have to make the weight. That way, you’ll also know how much you can cut, rather than relying on the method of wishful thinking.
  • Leave a margin for error. Once you know the maximum you can safely cut, make sure that you have at least a few pounds in the bank. Just in case your flights are delayed, the sauna isn’t working, you’re on your period or the dog ate your sweat suit.
  • Don’t use dehydration as a substitute for a proper diet and conditioning program.
  • Don’t assume that just because your favourite fighter can cut 30 lbs in two hours in the sauna (apparently) that you can too. Everyone’s body reacts differently.
  • Speak to your doctor first if you have any underlying health issues, and especially any history of heart or kidney problems.


Dealing with pre-fight nerves

As part of my big clear out, I’ve been going back through my blog archives and revisiting some of the things I’ve written over the years. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be re-posting a few of my favourites. This one from 2010 seems like a good place to start.

Someone asked me a question this week about how I deal with pre-fight nerves. It’s something that’s individual to each fighter, and that comes with experience. Here’s some thoughts about the way I approach it and the tools that I’ve found useful in dealing with it.

Before some of my fights I worked with a good sports psychologist. Once, when we were talking about what I wanted to improve on, I mentioned that I wanted to be able to “deal with my pre-fight nerves”. He asked me some more questions, trying to get me to think about exactly what I meant by this. I’m paraphrasing here, but I think I’ve caught the gist of it.

“How do your nerves affect you in a fight?” and “when you think about your best past performances, how nervous were you?” he asked. When I thought about it, I realised that in general, being nervous before a fight hadn’t stopped me performing well. In fact, I tended to do better in high pressure situations.

“So, what’s the problem then?” he asked. I thought for a bit. “Uh, well, it’s kinda uncomfortable. I don’t like the feeling”. It sounded lame as I said it. “Well, how comfortable are you when you’re doing five rounds of hard sparring, or when you’re doing a conditioning circuit? It’s not about being comfortable, it’s about performing at your best. If you want to be comfortable, don’t be a fighter.” It was a valid point.

That’s the single most useful piece of advice I’ve had about dealing with nerves. A lot of my problem came not from the way I felt before a fight, but from the struggle against that. Realizing that it was ok to feel uncomfortable made it easier to deal with.

That’s not the end of the story though. For many people, and for all of us some of the time, nerves can interfere with performance. In fact, there’s a pretty complicated relationship between anxiety and performance, that’s worth looking into. (For example: see here)

Too much anxiety can stop us from doing our best work. The question is, how do we know how much is too much? If comfort isn’t a good guide, is there a better one? The optimum level of anxiety seems to vary depending on the task. In general, higher levels of anxiety seem to work better for things involving endurance and persistance, but less well when high levels of skill or mental ability are required (see here). How this balances out in MMA – a sport which requires strength and stamina but also a huge amount of technique, tactics and strategy – will be different for every individual fighter.

And even when we’ve worked out the perfect level of adrenaline, how do we get our body to cooperate?

A sports psychologist often uses a “performance profiling questionnaire” to identify an athlete’s level of anxiety (and various other factors) in different situations and at different points before and during competition. This allows them to identify the difference between when they are performing at their best and switched on, and when they’re either too anxious, or flat – not nervous enough. This can give a good idea of the ideal level for that particular athlete.

After that, there are various skills and strategies for the athlete to use to control his or her levels of anxiety and confidence. There are “psyching up” and “psyching down” strategies. (In general, psyching down is much easier than psyching up. Going into a fight flat or under-psyched can be a real problem.)

The specific strategies that I use aren’t any big secret – they’re standard sports psychology stuff: centering, positive self-talk, visualization, use of music and cue-words and so on (for example). But as with any other kind of technique, unless you practise them regularly, in  realistic situations, then they won’t be there for you when you need them. I wasn’t that taken with them at first, but once I’d developed the habit of using them I was surprised how much difference they actually made.

Experience definitely helps. I don’t get any less nervous for my fights now than I did when I  started out – as my skill level’s improved, so has the difficulty of the competition, and the importance of each fight. But at the same time, I know that regardless of how bad I feel beforehand, once I get in there my body and my training will take over. My confidence comes from trusting all the work I’ve done in the gym with my coaches and team mates.

In the words of Ali…

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”