How to Train for Fighting

Build Strength, Increase Speed, Cause Damage

Do Harm and Win

A fighter, no matter what his style, needs power. Quite simply, it allows him to do harm and win.

Power is a result of genetics and hard work. Genetics is a factor that can't be controlled. Some people are just born with a much higher potential for power.

Luckily, hard work can create power. But before we even start, we need to differentiate between two power-related factors: strength and speed.

Strength can be compared to an engine's mass. Let's take a Ferrari F50 and a monster truck as examples. The monster truck weighs around 10,000 pounds whereas the Ferrari only registers about 2700 pounds on the scale.

The monster truck is definitely "stronger" than the Ferrari.

Their speed, of course, is how fast they can go. At its top speed, the monster truck hits about 96 miles per hour while the Ferrari pushes up to 200 miles per hour.

The Ferrari's speed is of course a lot higher than the truck's. But power is strength X speed.

If the Ferrari slams into you at 200 mph it'll cause a lot more damage than the monster truck hitting you at 90 mph, though both would be unpleasant. The Ferrari is a lot more powerful than the truck.

As a fighter, you want to be more like the Ferrari.

Bench Press

From a fighter's viewpoint, developing strength isn't easy, since focusing too much on strength will undermine speed.

On the other hand, a fighter who neglects strength development is putting himself at risk for injuries. Finding the right balance is key.

A fighter can be very fast without being powerful. A thousand harmless punches are easily offset by one or two very hard ones.

Paying too much attention to speed development will inevitably cause a decrease in strength, so it's crucial to find a middle ground. Still, there are several important aspects of speed to consider:

  • Briskness: The transition from a defensive status to an offensive one, or vice-versa.
  • Reaction speed: There's a vast array of triggering stimuli (sounds, sight, etc.) and each will involve shifting and moving in a defensive or offensive manner.

Herein lies the secret for anyone lacking in innate skills to surpass his opponent. By working in particular on reaction (with a visual or a sound signal) and uncertainty exercises, it'll help to develop the weapons necessary to whip your opponent.

  • Movement speed: The speed required by the fighter to move about the fighting zone.
  • Delivery speed: The speed required to mount an attack. It's not easy to develop this type of speed. An athlete can greatly improve it by working in sprints and accelerations, but he'll never catch up to somebody who was born with it.
  • Sequence speed: The athlete's ability to make a sequence of specific technical movements (blow sequencing) in the shortest amount of time possible. It's an aspect related to delivery speed.

To get ready for a fight, you'll of course need to develop speed and strength, which, as stated, equates to power. And there are a number of ways of to develop power.

Let's consider training a fighter that's two months away from competition. We'll break up his training into two cycles:

Cycle 1: Strength/Speed/Assistance Program

This will last 3 to 4 weeks and be comprised of a 5/3/1 training cycle, assistance movements, and speed exercises.

Cycle 2: Power Program

This will last 2 weeks and focus specifically on power.

Here's how that breaks down.

The Plan

Fighter Training

Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 method is regarded as one of the simplest and most efficient ways to build strength.

Wendler's program is based on a 3-week cycle with an added recovery week. The program focuses on percentages of 1RMs rather than asking you to max out, thus making it a safer program that's less exhausting for the nervous system.

At its base are 4 main power movements. For our purposes, we'll work the military press, the incline dumbbell press, the front squat, and the deadlift.

Here's the 5/3/1 program structure:

  • Week 1: 3 x 5
  • Week 2: 3 x 3
  • Week 3: 3 x 5, 3, 1
  • Week 4: recovery

Just like almost every type of strength program, 5/3/1 bases itself on a 1RM (one repetition maximum), but you don't actually use the 1RM. Instead, you use 90% of your 1RM.

Let's say your 1RM for the squat is 300 pounds. Ninety percent of that is 270 pounds, so that's the number you'd base your calculations on.

This chart will tell you everything you need to know:

  1st Week 2nd Week 3rd Week
Set 1 65% x 5 reps 70% x 3 reps 75% x 5 reps
Set 2 75% x 5 reps 80% x 3 reps 85% x 3 reps
Set 3 85% x 5+ reps 90% x 3+ reps 95% x 1+ reps

Note: The "+" means you need to do, at the minimum, this number of reps, and more if you're able to.

After the successful completion of each 3-week cycle, you increase the resistance:

  • 5 pounds on the dumbbell and military press
  • 10 pounds on the front squat and deadlift

But first, as mentioned, you need to determine your 1RM for each movement. I'll use myself as an example:

Exercise 1RM 90%
Incline Dumbbell Press 110 pounds 100 pounds
Front Squat 315 pounds 283.5 pounds
Deadlift 455 pounds 409.5 pounds
Military Press 90 pounds 81 pounds

So on the incline dumbbell press, the chart says I should be doing this during the first week,

  • 1 set of 5 reps at 65% (100 pounds x .65 = 65 lbs)
  • 1 set of 5 reps at 75% (75 pounds)
  • 1 set of 5 reps at 85% (85 pounds)

The next week I'd do:

  • 1 set of 3 reps at 70% (70 pounds)
  • 1 set of 3 reps at 80% (80 pounds)
  • 1 set of 3 reps at 90% (90 pounds)

On the third week I'd do:

  • 1 set of 5 reps at 75% (75 pounds)
  • 1 set of 3 reps at 85% (85 pounds)
  • 1 set of 1 reps (or more, if possible) at 95% (95 pounds)

It's simple and the gains in strength come steadily, week after week.

Once you understand the 5/3/1 workout, here's how to incorporate it in a preparatory speed/strength training program.

Note: It's possible to combine both sessions 1 and 2 below (front squat and military press) and session 3 and 4 (deadlift and incline dumbbell press), which would allow you to change from 4 weekly sessions to 2, therefore leaving more time to train specifically for fighting.

Session 1 & 3

General Warm-up

  1. Power Clean - 5 x 5 reps or plyometric jumps – 5 x 20
  2. Front Squat or Deadlift - 5/3/1
  3. Antagonistic Work. Work the body part antagonistic to the part you just worked in 5/3/1 fashion (do leg curls if you just did front squats; one-legged leg presses if you just did deadlifts) – 3 x 10
  4. Assistance Work. If you did front squats for 5/3/1, do hack squats; if you did deadlifts for 5/3/1, do stiff-leg deadlifts – 3 x 10
  5. Cardio. Intervals on the punching bag, speed sprinting, or kettlebells for a maximum of 15 minutes.
  6. Dynamic Work. Crunches and abdominal work in general.

Session 2 & 4

Rotator cuff, biceps and triceps warm-up

  1. Explosive Push-Ups – 5 x 5 reps
  2. Military Press or Incline Dumbbell Press – 5/3/1
  3. Antagonistic Work. Work the body part antagonistic to the part you just worked in 5/3/1 fashion (do pull-ups if you just did military press; rowing if you just did incline dumbbell press – 3 x 10.
  4. Assistance Work. If you did military press for 5/3/1, do lateral raises; if you did incline dumbbell presses for 5/3/1, do incline dumbbell flies – 3 x 10 reps.
  5. Cardio. Intervals on the punching bag, speed sprinting or kettlebells for a maximum of 15 minutes.
  6. Static Work. Variations of the plank.
Punching Bag

During a fight, the average time spent on actual attacks is 3 to 7 seconds, but repeatedly and at a fast rhythm.

Think of doing intervals on a punching bag, sprinting, or doing kettlebell swings. All these exercises should be done in "sprints" in the neighborhood of 3 to 7 seconds long in order to get as close as possible to a real in-fight situation.

Once the 3-week cycle (5/3/1 + Assistance + Speed) is over, a 2-week power work is next in line.

One month before the fight, the fighter should switch to an all-power cycle lasting 2 weeks. As it was for speed and strength, many strategies can be employed for power development.

1 The Bulgarian Method

This method consists of doing strength movements in an 80% 1RM range, followed by a bodyweight movement, and then specific techniques in speed.

For the upper body, this could mean 5 military presses (80% RM), then 5 fast-paced push-ups, followed by a sequence of punches on a heavy bag for 10 seconds. Three to 5 sets with a 2-minute break between each are typical.

2 The Stato-Dynamic Method

This method consists of using weight-training movements in a stop and go manner that are close to fighting movements: 2-3 seconds of recovery between the negative and positive phases.

If choosing this method, the fighter shouldn't use weights that are too heavy. For example, do 5 incline dumbbell presses at 65% of 1RM in a stop and go manner with 2-minute breaks (dumbbells resting on the chest during the 2-3 second pause), followed by 2 minutes of shadow boxing.

3 The Weightlifting Method

This method prescribes weightlifting movements such as the snatch (best for wrestlers, judokas, and freefighters) or the power clean and power jerk (best for boxers and stand-up fighters) to increase power.

Never attempt maximum weights, though, since it's both dangerous and pretty much useless to a fighter. Likewise, working until failure could cause issues for the nervous system just as you're getting close to the fight.

Example: Five sets of power cleans and push presses at 70% RM with 2 minutes of shadow boxing between each set.

Two weeks before the match, stop any muscle building work. Your diet at this point is usually pretty restrictive, so continuation of any heavy muscle work could slow down weight loss or worse, cause injuries.

Only the speed exercises can still be of use. At this time of preparation, the focus will be on specific work (mitts, heavy bag, shadow boxing), on technical-tactical strategy, and on recovering (massages).