Training for Elite Athletes

Conditioning for MMA and Combative Sports – How to Not Gas Out!

by Matt Jordan on May 20, 2012 3 comments

I am a big fan of combative sports, and I have always taken a special interest in training fighters.

Recently, I was asked some specific questions on how I train one of my athletes.  I think they were hoping to hear about some flashy out-of-this-world exercise or a unique training device that had never been seen in the fitness world.

Unfortunately I have nothing to share in this department because generally speaking I stick to the basics.  I am a firm believer in trying to affect the physiology of the athlete, and I do not attempt to mimic what I see happening in the sport.

I let the sport take care of the specificity and I try to improve the physiology whether that be maximal strength, maximal muscular power, elastic (reactive) strength, structural tolerance and motor ability, the power of the anaerobic glycolytic system, maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 Max), or the maximal power of the aerobic system.

– If an athlete needs maximal strength development we squat heavy weights for less than 5 reps

– If an athlete needs maximal muscular power we lift moderately heavy weights very explosively

– If an athlete needs elastic strength we bound and jump

– If an athlete needs structural tolerance we link with a good therapist and focus on mobilizing areas of restriction and activating sluggish muscle groups

– If an athlete needs to develop the anaerobic glycolytic system (20-90s) we do high intensity intervals

But what if an athlete needs to develop the power of the aerobic system? Then what?

Well the personal trainer in your local gym is going to tell you that if you blast off a high intensity circuit focused on full body strength exercises you will develop your “cardio”.

If you read an issue of the most popular fitness magazine they will tell you to NOT do long aerobic capacity training because it will decrease your muscle mass and increase muscle catabolism. (By the way, this is a total fallacy – I can promise you this. I have tons of athletes who do lots and lots of aerobic training combined with the right type of strength training and put on lots of muscle).

If they saw the world of human performance through my eyes they would start by asking “how do I best affect an athlete’s physiology?”.

If they scoured the scientific literature and interviewed the world’s best coaches the answer to this question would be: “Focus on the basics and focus on training strategies that work – don’t worry about bells and whistles like breathing through a straw or buying a $10,000 tent – focus on basic training methods that are hard, effective, and proven in sports that demand this form of energy production”.

As I mentioned above, I’m all about the basics.  My belief in the basics is rock solid but this weekend, after spending time with the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team,  the rock solid foundation just got reinforced.

My day on Friday started out with a skate ski in Mount Bachelor.  As I was stumbling around the 5 km loop I realized that the metrics a strength coach uses to judge his athletes is so myopic.  These skiers are in incredible shape and their sport demands muscular power, maximal strength, and extreme cardiovascular power and capacity.

They are phenomenal athletes who do more in a single training day than many of us will do in 10-days.  They have power.  They have strength. But most impressively they can absolutely haul ass anywhere for anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes.  It’s actually incredible.

At the start of this blog I mentioned that I was asked how I approached the training program design for a combative athlete.

If we take boxing, athletes fight 10-12 x 3 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.  An MMA fighter fights anywhere from 3×5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest up to 5×5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.

Let me tell you that the 1 minute rest is doing nothing for your physiological recovery.  If you are gassed after 5 minutes, I can promise you that at 6 minutes you will still be gassed – it’s merely enough time to get the blood wiped off your face and to have a sip of water.

If you are doing the math you are probably saying: “How can a combative athlete produce as much power as possible over 15 to 36 minutes so that the first round’s power output is the same as the 5th round?”

When I say power output I’m referring to the power of the aerobic energy system.  I’m not talking about maximal muscular power (e.g. a maximum power clean or vertical jump).

I’m also not talking about the anaerobic energy system because no matter how hard you train, this energy system is limited.  If you’re blood lactate goes above 10 mmol it doesn’t matter how fit you are you will fatigue.  The key is producing big power outputs but also being able to keep your blood lactate levels to a minimum.

When I approach this problem I look to sports where the cardiovascular demands are similar.  What parallels 15 to 36 minutes of continuous high intensity full body cardiovascular energy production?  I’m sure there are a few answers to this question but a standout in my mind is cross country skiing.

As luck should have it, I happened to run into one of the world’s top cross country ski coaches this weekend in Bend, Oregon.  His name is Tor Bjorn.  He’s coached Olympic Medalists in cross country skiing, and he has an impressive pedigree in high performance sport.

And there’s one more thing… he’s a huge MMA and combative sport fan.

After we finished our ski session I started picking his brain on how he improves an athlete’s power output for a 5 to 25 minute event.  The reason I asked him this question is that he is an expert in this department, and he had surprising insights into what he thought a fighter should do.

I just need to remind you that the Norwegians are powerhouses in the sport of cross country skiing, and the approach of top coaches like Tor Bjorn are all about affecting the athlete’s physiology.  Improving VO2 Max is critical, and interval sessions focused on the power of the aerobic system are the cornerstone of the training program.

Contrary to interval sessions that are typically seen in the fitness world, which are very very intense and involve substantial strength endurance, these sessions are carefully prescribed, and are carefully progressed within and between training sessions.

In fact, as I sat and watched Tor coach an interval session I suddenly realized how much detail was going into every aspect of the session.  I always thought I was particular and specific about how an athlete was to perform an interval session.  I am very strict on ensuring the intervals are done according to plan.  However, Tor took this to a completely different level.

This interval session had so many layers.  There was a psychological layer, a competition specific layer but at the heart of the session was the physiological layer.

According to Tor each properly performed interval session offers the potential of a modest 0.25 ml/kg/min improvement in VO2 Max. Using this scientific estimation it could be said that 12-15 interval sessions are required to result in a noticeable improvement in VO2 Max.  Done at a frequency of 2x/week, this means a training block has to last somewhere between 8-20 weeks.

As we discussed the training methods that are often shown in TV documentaries he quietly scoffed at what he has seen.  He has heard the claims about altitude training, high intensity intervals and all sorts of other methods, and what he observes are athletes who still gas out too quickly.

Why does this happen? Well in Tor Bjorn’s world, the athletes lack one critical ingredient: power in the aerobic energy system.

His formula for training an MMA fighter would be quite simple:

1. Improve efficiency and technical ability.  This means it doesn’t cost you a ridiculous amount of energy to do your sport – so, plan specific sessions that really tax your ability to be efficient.

2. Improve maximal muscular power and maximal muscular strength. By improving these qualities you give yourself another gear, and this in and of itself improves efficiency.  It’s obvious as well that most combative athletes would benefit greatly from being strong and powerful.

3. Improve VO2 Max.

Improving VO2 Max is a key in his mind to making sure you have the gas tank to last 15-25 minutes.  Without a huge VO2 Max you are starting a fight 20 meters behind your competition, assuming your competition has trained properly.

As our day wrapped up in Bend, Oregon I felt as though my approach to sticking to the basics had been validated.

However, the key message is that the basics need to be done properly.  You can’t get the program 80% or even 95% right.  It has to be done 100% correctly each time for the benefits to be gained.  Skipping out will result in sub par results.

As far as I see it, the basics rule the training world…. you just need to make sure the basics are done perfectly.

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Matt JordanConditioning for MMA and Combative Sports – How to Not Gas Out!

Reactive Strength Development – The Biomechanics and Neurophysiology of the Jump

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 No comments

Reactive strength development (RSD) is a critical speed strength quality for the elite athlete.  It can also be tied into fitness goals and can even benefit the aging human.  In this article, I am going to review the different phases of a jump, and some of the biomechanical and neurophysiological considerations for the jump.

As I wrote in my first article in this series entitled Plyometric Training – The Most Incorrectly Used Phrase in Training, reactive strength development (RSD) is often incorrectly referred to as plyometrics.

As I explained in this original article, plyometric (pliometric) refers to muscle lengthening actions, miometric refers to muscle shortening actions, and isometric refers to muscle actions with no change in muscle length.  To be scientifically accurate, I won’t use the word Plyometric as it is conventionally used but feel free to bastardize our profession and continue using this word as you wish.  I won’t hold it against you.

In its pure form jumping, which is a staple movement for RSD, involves movements with a rapid pliometric action (eccentric muscle action) followed by a rapid miometric muscle action (concentric muscle action).  This cyclical movement is often referred to as a stretch-shorten-cycle (SSC), and SSC’s are a big part of sport and life.

For example, take the sports of running, hockey, and slalom skiing.  All sports are very distinct in terms of the direction of the ground reaction forces, the corresponding joint torques, and the speed of the movement but one common thread is that they also include movements that require a rapid switching between muscle shortening and lengthening actions.  It is for this reason that jumping movements are often used as a training method in the physical preparation process for a whole range of sports.

Further analysis of a SSC reveals the following distinct phases.  The first phase is often referred to as the Initial Momentum Phase.  This is the phase in which the athlete’s centre of mass is moving with the force of gravity as their centre of mass descends towards the ground.

The second phase is the Ground Contact Phase.  The ground contact phase represents the initial touch down on the ground, which is immediately followed by the Amortization Phase in which the athlete produces a pliometric (eccentric) muscle action to effectively break the continuation of the initial momentum phase.

Following the amortization phase, the athlete performs a rapid miometric (concentric) muscle action.  This explosive and rapid muscle shortening leads to the Final Momentum Phase where the athlete overcomes gravitational forces and leaves the ground.

I’ve provided a visual of these phases.  Figures 1-3 are pictures of an athlete going through each phase.  Figure 1 is the initial momentum phase, Figure 2 is ground contact and the amortization phase, and Figure 3 is midway through the final momentum phase.

For those of you who are a bit more scientific, I’ve also included the ground reaction force of a subject performing a countermovement jump on a force plate (Figure 4).  The ground reaction force (the curve that you see) can be looked at as the resulting forces measured where the foot contacts the ground.  This is the sum of all the muscle forces from the different joints involved in the jump (hip, knee and ankle).

Some of the important observations include the phase in which muscle forces are produced to absorb energy (amortization phase), the phase in which muscle force is produced to overcome gravitational forces (miometric phase and final momentum phase), and the flight phase where the athlete is airborne. You will also notice a large spike in force when the athlete returns to the ground, which represents another initiation of the amortization phase.

Further analysis and consideration of this graph reveals the following important technical considerations for a jump:

The Amortization Phase

The amortization phase is critical to the proper execution of a jump.  This phase is often referred to as the reactive ability or the ability to rapidly switch from a muscle lengthening action to a muscle shortening action.

The important physiological contributors are: the storage and return of elastic energy in connective tissue, spinal reflex mediation (e.g. stretch reflex), and muscular strength.

In most circumstances the total time of the amortization phase is to be kept as short as possible.  This allows for the the greatest contribution from the release of elastic energy and spinal reflexes, which essentially add to the muscle forces to further increase the jump height.

The amortization phase needs to be addressed with proper cueing and technical development.

Total Impulse or Area Under the Curve

Another important observation is the area under the curve.  This represents the impulse.  Through the impulse momentum relationship, the net impulse gives the take off velocity of the subject.  The net impulse is a very important performance variable.

The impulse at various segments of the jump also provide an excellent metric for monitoring neuromuscular fatigue.  I may address this in another blog but the truth of the matter is this is very complicated and advanced.  If you are interested in this for your athletes, contact me to take an advanced course in monitoring and assessing neuromuscular fatigue through my internship program!

Total Ground Contact Time

The ground contact time (GCT), which is the sum of the amortization phase and the miometric phase, is a very important component of a jump.  In fact elastic strength development and jumps are often classified according to the ground contact times.  Long contact jumps are ones with a contact time of 300-500 msec, medium contact jumps are ones with a contact time of 150-300 msec, and short contact jumps are ones with a ground contact time of 150 msec or less.

Often the periodization of elastic strength development is done such that the volume of jumps (often referred to as “The Number of Contacts”) is organized with respect to the ground contact time.

The largest volume of long contact jumps occurs early in the preparatory period, and the largest volume of short contact jumps occurs in later in phases of the preparatory period (i.e. specific preparatory phase).  However, within a microcycle (5-10 day period) short contact jumps are generally performed first as this type of jumping requires that the athlete be in a more rested.

The final consideration is the large ground reaction force that occurs upon impact after the jump.  This peak ground reaction force upon landing provides evidence in support of proper jumping technique and physical preparation to prevent jumping related injuries.

To put this in layman’s terms: muscle lengthening actions (pliometric/eccentric) are associated with large muscular forces. Without proper mechanics and physical preparation injuries often ensue.  These injuries include stress fractures, tendonitis, lower back pain, patellofemoral pain syndrome, and lower leg compartment syndromes.

In summary, reactive strength development and its most commonly used exercise (jumping) is more complicated that it may seem.  There are many considerations that go into the jump from a technical and cueing perspective, to a program planning and periodization perspective, and lastly to a biomechancial and neurophysiological perspective.

What I attempted to show in this blog are the distinct phases of the jump: the initial momentum phase, the amortization phase, the mimometric and final momentum phase, and the flight phase.  All aspects of the jump have their nuances, their important technical considerations, and can be trained individually with various exercises.

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Matt JordanReactive Strength Development – The Biomechanics and Neurophysiology of the Jump

Plyometric Training – The Most Incorrectly Used Term in Strength & Conditioning

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 No comments

Jumping is a normal part of human movement, and it was and still is an essential skill for survival.  Jumping is also an excellent training method to develop lower body power and explosiveness, and it’s a fundamental skill for many different sports.

With the shear simplicity and beauty of the “jump” in human performance and function, the training methods and terminology that surrounds jumping are confusing and in some cases very inaccurate.  This classification of exercise is often referred to by several different names including: elastic strength development (ESD), reactive strength development, plyometric training, and stretch shorten cycle (SSC) training.

The common thread with all these terms (except for one) is that they reflect the involvement of lengthening and shortening muscle actions.  With that said, the most popular term and the one that does not reflect its true definition is the term plyometric training yet plyometric training is the one most commonly used.

Here’s why the term plyometric training is inaccurate and inappropriate:

The word plyometric or pliometric was first coined back in 1938 by two muscle phyisologists by the name of Hubbard and Stetson (Hubbard et al., 1938).  They observed that a muscle contraction, which is essentially an all or none phenomenon, occurred with respect to three conditions: miometric or shortening, isometric or no change in length, and pliometric or lengthening (Faulkner, 2003).

A muscle contraction at the ultra-cellular level is more or less the same regardless of whether a muscle lengthens, stays the same or shortens.  This is why they didn’t use the phrase muscle contraction and instead opted for the phrase muscle action when referring to the direction of the muscle contraction.

In all cases the direction of the muscle contraction (i.e. it’s action) is determined by the external load.  It is the load that determines whether or not the muscle shortens (miometric muscle action), stays the same (isometric muscle action), or lengthens (pliometric muscle action).

Fast forward to the year 2011 and we know how the story unfolded.  The word isometric stuck with sport and fitness professionals, the word miometric was replaced with the term concentric muscle action and the word plyometric morphed into this category of exercise that involved lengthening and shortening muscle actions such as jumping.

Now, you can say that I’m splitting hairs but I think as fitness and sport performance professionals we should use the words that best describe and reflect what we are trying to accomplish.  The textbook definition of concentric is “of or denoting circles, arcs or other shapes that share the same centre”, and the textbook definition of eccentric is “a strange and unconventional person or an object not placed centrally.”  Nowhere in those definitions does the concept of shortening or lengthening arise.

So the question is this: why did isometric muscle action stick, miometric muscle action vanish into obscurity, and the term plyometric become synonymous with a form of training designed to improve the ability to switch from a lengthening muscle action to a shortening muscle action?  I’m not sure I have the answer for you but many prominent muscle physiologists, biomechanists, and strength and power researchers have advocated that the terminology be changed and that we strive for accuracy in our definitions (Faulkner, 2003).

With all that said, I’m going to suggest that the preferred terminology for the category of exercise under which jumping type movements fall is either Elastic Strength Development or Reactive Strength Development.  Both terms have popularity in fitness and sport performance circles, and both do a better job of describing what is actually being targeted and accomplished with this form of training.  You may think that this is meaningless in the grand scheme of things but as an academic and a strength coach, I strive to be as accurate and precise as possible with the words that I use.

I realize I’m not going to change the entire culture of strength coaches and personal trainers but for those of you who take pride in what you do, and want to be as accurate as possible with the words you throw around, I strongly suggest you think about stopping the use of the word plyometric to denote training involving shortening and lengthening muscle actions.

In my next blog I will expand on jump mechanics and the considerations for Elastic Strength Development or Plyometric Training for those of you who just plan to stick with convention regardless of the obvious inaccuracy in the term.  For a more detailed review on the history of these terms and suggestions from an expert, see the article authored by John Faulkner that was referenced in this blog.

Hubbard & Stetson. J Physiol. 124: 300-313. 1938

Faulker. J Appl Physiol. 95: 455-459. 2003

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Matt JordanPlyometric Training – The Most Incorrectly Used Term in Strength & Conditioning

Vertical Jump – Performance Measure or Fatigue Measure

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 No comments

I’ve been using the vertical jump for many years to monitor my athletes.  I started with a simple Vertec system, and eventually purchased a contact mat.  A contact mat is a relatively simple device that allows vertical jump to be calculated based on flight time.  Today I use the gold standard measurement device called force plates, which are able to measure a subject’s ground reaction force during a vertical jump.  Using some simple math, I can calculate many different variables including peak power, average power, peak velocity, impulse and peak force.  The exact relevance of these variables is beyond the scope of this blog, so if you want to learn more, email me or attend one of my seminars!  

 

In my early days, I would often notice random and unexplainable changes in vertical jump height.  After a plyometric training block, vertical jump would go down, and at the start of a training block vertical jump would occasionally reach a peak value!  One of my close friends and fellow strength coaches Stu McMillan also recorded vertical jump heights over an entire summer in some of his elite bobsleigh and track athletes, and found many discrepancies with what he expected from a performance standpoint.  

 

Needless to say, I had a tough time explaining these results until I realized the sensitivity of the vertical jump for monitoring the fatigue of the neuromuscular system.  Vertical jumping requires high rates of force development and power production during vertical jumping is depending on motor unit firing rates and intermuscular coordination.  A certain type of neuromuscular fatigue called low frequency fatigue can persist for many days following a training block, and can affect explosive force production and force production at submaximal loads (Figure 1).

 

pastedGraphic.pdfFigure 1: Changes in the Force Time Curve After Exhaustive Knee Extension.  Notice the change in the slope and the total area under the curve.

 

Now here’s the interesting application: by studying various aspects of a force curve from vertical jumping tasks I can better design training programs, tapering and peaking cycles, and monitor my athletes to ensure they don’t get too buried during a training cycle.  One variable I use to evaluate preparedness is rate of power development (Figure 2).

 

pastedGraphic_1.pdfFigure 2: Theoretical changes in Rate of Power Development.

 

By monitoring rate of power development over a training cycle, I can better design my training program and prepare my athletes for competition.  Consider graph below of a competitive fighter in the lead-in period before a fight.  You can clearly see how rate of power development follows the expected physiological state of the fighter as he cuts weight, rehydrates and recovers for the day of the fight.

 

pastedGraphic_2.pdfFigure 3: Rate of Power Development During a Taper

 

To summarize, vertical jumping isn’t always a performance measure.  It can also be used as a marker of preparedness and can greatly improve our understanding of how an athlete adapts to a training stress.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matt JordanVertical Jump – Performance Measure or Fatigue Measure