Guest Author: Eric Falstrault
Most sports have only a few elements to consider when building up a program with one main quality that can lead the pack. Regrettably, we can’t say the same about grappling sports. If you look at a 100 m dash, you know that depending on the level and athlete, it can last anywhere from 10 to 15 seconds, absolute and starting strength are the main strength qualities to work on with your athlete. In American football, the position dictates the needs. You can’t train a running back the same as a linebacker. Although the training methodologies might be similar, the strength qualities will be different.
In any given sports, we have to look at many elements before even thinking about writing down a program. We have to look at the sports requirements as much as what the athlete in front of us can and will have to do in order to perform at the best of his or her abilities at a given date.
Unfortunately, I compare the strength and conditioning world of MMA and jiujitsu similar to celebrity diets. If a given celebrity jumps on a trendy diet, it gives that diet credibility and a shit load of followers. Best example is the famous Game Changer documentary. I’m not here to discredit any way of diet or lifestyle, but it is mind boggling that so many people just jump on any bandwagon before looking at the little and deeper details. A lot of people tried to go vegan because of it. Would you trust your doctor if he would cite some Netflix documentaries as credentials? We are talking about health, your health. It’s not because some athletes went vegan for a few weeks (completely disregarding that fact that they ate meat for years) and felt great that everyone should do it?
Well the same goes with strength and conditioning in MMA and jiujitsu. If some big and jacked up fighter came out with a DVD (true story) of how HE trained to get big and ripped, people would buy it in a heartbeat, thinking that that’s the secret. They see them do endless sets of high rep curls, deadlifts, and all kinds of chest exercises, etc. They hear them say that they lift 5 days a week, roll 3 times a day, work a full time job, and people buy it. All for the sake of getting better, even when common sense is completely out the window.
It is not because someone does a style of training or a given exercise that it is something you can or should do. The same learning curve you have as a white to black belt is present in any sports, strength training included. So many people get injured trying to emulate their idols. They try to copy the schedule, the training volume but they often fail in one simple thing, they fail to look in the mirror and realize that they need to evaluate before they start to imitate.
We, as coaches, need to evaluate the sport and the person sitting in front of us. When we evaluate a sport and the strength qualities that it requires, we focus on three things, strength, speed and endurance. What are the main abilities to be achieve to excel in the sport. Although there is always one that dominates and requires a greater contribution, the relationship between the three is crucial for optimal performance. Take long distance running for example, the main ability to work on is obviously endurance. Speed and strength would be accessory work, for injury prevention and overall performance.
Since I started as strength coach, Charles introduced me to the work and principles of Dr. Tudor O. Bompa, Professor Emeritus, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, regarded worldwide as the leading specialist in the area of theory of training / coaching / fitness.
Dr. Bompa’s theories are primarily prevalent in the area of theory of planning-periodization, periodization of strength, power, speed, agility, and endurance, age-group training, periodization of fitness and weight loss, periodization of bodybuilding, psychological periodization, and periodization of nutrition, have revolutionized training in most counties of the world. In his book ‘’Periodization training for sports’’, he uses a triangle, where you can easily evaluate the needs required by placing a circle towards the dominant abilities.
In grappling sports, it can get complicated. In order of strength and power requirement, Judo will lead the pack. With a match that could take between a few seconds to several minutes. MMA would be on the opposite side of the spectrum due to its various elements and different fighting styles with a possibility of 5 rounds of 5 minutes. Speed and endurance would be the main abilities to work on. However, depending on the category which the fighter would be fighting at, strength/power would also be some of the specifics to work on. MMA is in my opinion the most interesting (read complicated) grappling sport to build a strength and conditioning program for. There are so many variables and a lot of different techniques/workload to work with and fit into the programming.
If we dig into wrestling, judo and Brazilian Jiujitsu, they are quite similar in strength qualities. All the energy systems need to be stressed in a long preparatory phase and the limiting factors would be starting/reactive power and muscle/strength endurance. So in Bompa’s biomotor abilities triangle, it would look like this. The blue represents the sports main abilities.
One thing that I’ve seen a lot of trainers do is force the athlete to adapt to a given workout, principle or system that they might be using. Let’s say that they have 10-15 athletes, they will let the natural selection principle kick in and choose the most talented athletes in the group, those who respond the best to the workout. The attention will be put on the 4-5 athletes that are left with the others requiring more work, who often quit because they can’t keep up and due to the lack of interest by the coach.
You obviously don’t build a house with the roof first! So why should you train a rookie the same as a seasoned pro? They don’t have the same abilities, coordination, they don’t master techniques, etc. The advanced athletes will spend less energy doing the exact same tasks and techniques as the beginners. They learned how to be energy efficient. But this could be a double edged sword. Depending on the level and where they are training at, they might not be used to crank it up a notch, so as they got better, some became lazier. If they decide to compete again, they will have to put conditioning into their planification. Planning would be in this case different. They could take a lot workload on the mats but might require more strength and conditioning, when the beginner might have to put in more work on the mats and less in strength and conditioning at first.
The bigger issue in this is often the athlete, who expects to train the same as some of the athletes they might look up to. One of the main things I learned from Charles from my early beginnings is that you must give the athlete what they need, not always what they want.
Once you know the limiting factors you’ll be facing, now is the time to evaluate the needs of the clients in order to bring up optimal performance. There are many ways to test and evaluate. Multiple Muscle testing and functional screening using long jumps, penta jumps, vertical jumps, depth jumps and step ups, klatt test, kneeling and standing throws, predictor lifts such as chin ups, deadlifts and power cleans for judo and incline close grip presses and front squats for strikers in MMA, etc. Those predictor lifts are used as markers. Positive results in those lift will bring some improvements in performance. Only focusing on those though would be like looking at the world through a straw.
What are we looking for? Strength discrepancies, old injuries, lack of flexibility, faulty range of motion, anything that can mess up our progress. Failing to see these could have career ending results and can bring a whole new set of problems that you might not be able to recover from. Most people think that they can go all out and deadlift a ton, but fail in a simple sit and reach hamstring length test. Look for issues before it becomes a big one.
Evaluations also serve as a good show and tell. Going back to Bompa’s ability triangle, you can also use it for the athlete. If the athlete is leaning more towards endurance (red) in his traditional or current training, they will understand what work needs to be done.
Then there is the live training evaluation/session. If I am not training them one on one, I make sure that once I give out the workout, I let them train at my facility a few times and watch them train to fix faulty techniques, tempo, rests, etc. Even though we went over each exercise. The dynamic is always different when they workout on their own. I need to see it, which should be an integrative part of the evaluation.
I have a few rules I lived by and learned from Charles early on. After many internships, training high level athletes and also, watching and learning from my esteemed colleagues, success leaves clues. Here’s what I expect from myself and my interns;
—Evaluate the needs—
Crush the weaknesses and exceed the requirements.
Injuries are part of the game, have some plan B’s as exercises and planification. Never get caught by surprise
An athlete that understands the plan and what to expect is your greatest ally on a faster road to success.
Stick to the plan, let it sink in. If shit hits the fan, you already have some plan B’s. Make the changes only if necessary and let success be the noise.
Most of my evaluation evolves around nutrition since the most common mistake I see is the lack of proper nutrition. Most will have a hard time trying to take in enough calories in a day to manage the high demands of multiple daily trainings.
For a while, and if body composition, health and insulin management is good enough, they can get away with eating junk, which is often higher in calories and in a way, can help bring in more calories. That’s if you follow the ‘’a calorie is a calorie’’ theory. However, all calories are not made equal. 300 calories of chips does not have the same impact on the body as 300 calories of a good steak. You also have to remind them that calorie dense foods (junk) can bring other problems than fat, such as inflammations, intolerances, digestive issues, etc.
When I begin an evaluation, I ask them what and when they eat during the day and let them talk. Not only listen but watch as the nonverbal can say a lot. You can easily see when they are not happy or uncomfortable about some things and how they feel about it. Then, depending on objectives, I change 1 or 2 things that I suspect will give me the most bang for their bucks. It could be anything from increasing protein intake to trying intermittent fasting, but keep it simple. For fighters, routine is a must usually. I have never met one that was sporadic in his approach.
Now the next question would be, should you count calories? I’m not a fan of counting or clocking in calories, but sometimes, noticeably in this case, it’s necessary. Not because of the excess, but to make them understand that they are far from getting enough calories for the amount of training they are doing. If there is one thing that is uncertain in nutrition is the amount of calories there is in your dish. According to the FDA, a large sweet potato would have between 340 to 700 calories. This simple fact says it all. So instead of counting calories and weighing food, which is a huge waste of time in my honest opinion, I want them to get used to the amount they have in their dish. Here is a quick guide on portion size.
A serving of protein, which should be anything that was alive before, would be the same size as the palm of your hand. A fist represents a serving of veggies and one cupped hand is a serving of carbs such as grains, starches and fruits. Finally, a serving size of fats would be the size of your thumb.
So, for a him, 2 portions of each with 3-4 meals a day would represent approximately 2000 to 2500 calories. For her, 1 serving size of each would represent 3-4 meals per day, for a total of 1500-to 1800 calories. If they need to gain weight, go equal or over daily requirement (with activity) by 250-500 calories and if they need to drop weight, create a deficit of 250-500 calories.
Calories were never and will never be an exact science. Get them used to this technique and eating/meal prepping will be much simpler than taking out your calculator every time you they have to cook. Keep a close eye on body composition and readjust as needed.
The main goal should always be to have more nutrient dense (meats, veggies, healthy fats) food be a major part of your plan more than calorie dense (junk and processed foods). With that in mind, eating clean and clocking in at least 2500 calories a day is always a challenge. Increase fat intake, get your daily minimum of required protein, and carbs are your friend. In this sport, cutting down carbs (high glycemic carbs) can be a problem. Low glycemic carbs in the morning while eating higher glycemic carbs at night when you are more insulin sensitive and when most people train and/or roll. It will help you have constant energy throughout the day, especially when the training comes around. The 80/20 rule could be easily applied here.
Weight categories and weight cutting.
Weight cutting is essentially water manipulation prior a fight. To tell you the truth, I rather make them feel comfortable at the weight they should be fighting in for a few weeks before the fight than to try and manipulate water (read hormones). I’ve seen so many people mess up their health with crazy methods that I will not risk using dangerous ways leading up to fight night. Simply not worth the risk.
Take home points
- Look at the sports requirements as much as what the athlete in front of us can and will have to do in order to perform.
- You can’t train a running back the same as a linebacker. Although the training methodologies might be similar, the strength qualities will be different.
- It’s not because some athletes went vegan for a few weeks and felt great that everyone should do it.
- The same learning curve you have as a white to black belt is present in any sports, strength training included.
- You need to evaluate before you start to imitate.
- When looking at a sport, focus on three things, strength, speed and endurance. Where does each qualities fit in and which one dominates.
- In grappling sports, all the energy systems need to be stressed in a long preparatory phase and the limiting factors would be starting/reactive power and muscle/strength endurance.
- Don’t train a rookie the same as a pro. They don’t have the same abilities, coordination, they don’t master techniques, etc. The advanced athletes will spend less energy doing the exact same tasks and techniques as the beginners. Go back and read point #3.
- Predictor lifts are used as markers. Improvement in those lift will bring some improvements in performance. Only focusing on those though would be like looking at the world through a straw.
- When evaluating the athlete, look for issues before it becomes a big one.
- change 1 or 2 eating habits that you suspect will give them the most bang for their buck