Get Functional! An (Unconventional) Strength & Conditioning Guide for Combat Sports

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You’re a martial arts athlete. You know you need strength and conditioning. But, where do you start?

There’s machines and free weights and treadmills and pull-up bars…

And then, of course, you hear about all these different trends, like yoga, crossfit, HIIT, group fitness, Tabata…

Functional training.

Now, most fitness trends are more like shortlived fads. But, that last one is one actually worth exploring.

But before we go drinking the Kool-Aid, let’s first take a closer look at what functional training is all about and how it applies to combat sports. Then, we’ll dive into how this can translate into a strength and conditioning program for a martial arts athlete.

What is Functional Training?

While the term “functional training” may be relatively new, the concept itself can be traced back to ancient models of health and fitness. Basically, functional training revolves around the idea of simultaneous, and thus more efficient development of multiple muscle systems through coordinated movements– it is more “functional” because training focuses on fundamental movement patterns essential to human locomotion instead of isolated joint motion (Liebenson, 2014; Santana & Fukuda, 2011).

  • Pushing and pulling
  • Rotation
  • Level changes
  • Balance

Functional training also pulls from the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID) principle (or more simply referred to the principle of specificity), which asserts that gains from training are specific to the movement trained (Liebenson, 2014).

Functional Model vs. Bodybuilding Model

Traditional approaches to strength and conditioning often cling to the idea of isolated muscle training, popular in bodybuilding. However, if you recall the SAID principle from above, isolated movements trained repetiviely do not necessarily transfer any benefits to functional tasks (Liebenson, 2014).

That’s because bodybuilding, in the words of Kopniske (2018), is about aesthetics and visual musculature; it’s about how you look, but not how you move.

Athletes, especially those in combat sports, need to train for function and athletic performance. And, even though Olympic lifts and other forms of conventional strength training can have their proper place in a program, without developing fundamental movement skills first, the body will not be able to build strength, power, etc. (At least not without some form of compensation, which of course inevitably leads to increased risk of injury, inefficient and slow movements, and, ultimately, poor performance) (Jack, 2019).

Functional Training and Martial Arts

Though each martial arts discipline has its own set of demands, combat athletes in general need to focus on various physical attributes to improve performance and reach their potential.

Figure depicting the 7 motor abilities required for martial arts

Table displaying 7 different martial arts disciplines and the demand levels of the different biomotor abilities

Furthermore, Coach Kevin Kearns (n.d.), who has over 40 years of experience training and teaching martial arts as well as strength and conditioning programming, notes that combat athletes need to be prepared for the organized chaos of fighting- the unpredictable and awkward positions that are certain to be encountered within the context of both training and competition.

Benefits of Implementing Functional Training for Combat Athletes

According to Liebenson (2014) and Kearns (n.d.), functional training helps martial arts athletes better feel and prepare for the movements experienced during matches:

  • Training form fits the function of the sport and carries over to specific skill practice
  • Increased demand on the central nervous system helps develop cortical plasticity
  • Reduction and prevention of sports-related injuries
  • Maximum training benefits accomplished more efficiently with minimal time investment
  • Challenging movement through all three planes of motion
  • Endless possibilities exist with exercise progressions

8 Principles to Prepare the Muscles for Fighting

It is important to note that beginner combat athletes will most likely notice improved performance more easily from any type of strength and conditioning program than a more experienced martial artist. This is due to neurological improvements and hyperresponsiveness to a new stimulus. But to push past plateaus and achieve optimal strength and conditioning transfers, Delavier and Gundil (2013) laid out these recommendations:

1. Fight Conditions

Many traditional forms of strength, or resistance, training involve exercises that isolate muscle groups. However, in combat sports that are heavy in striking, the whole body works together to produce a coordinated movement. Thus, instead of doing a wide-grip bench press, it would be better to find an exercise performed standing up where the shoulder blades are not supported.

2. Direction of Movement

In keeping with the wide-grip bench press, it is necessary to ask: does this movement correlate with strikes?

The short answer? No, not all of them. Because not every strike is going to land on the outside of an opponent’s body.

As such, it is important to mix up grip position (say, to a narrow grip) to better match where strikes will be thrown and strengthen the muscles in those directions.

3. Direction of Strength

Throwing strikes requires the body to overcome horizontal resistance. While shadowboxing with dumbbells may seem like a good start, this actually introduces a vertical resistance, which is rarely experienced during combat sports. A more functional approach would to use elastic resistance bands or cables that are parallel to the floor.

4. The Sides of the Body Used in a Fight

It is crucial to consider the types of movements of an athlete’s chosen martial arts; each discipline demands different types of motion. For striking-based combat sports, punches are never thrown with both arms simultaneously. Strength exercises, then, should be performed unilaterally.

Grappling-based disciplines, however, involve series of attacks that do use both arms and legs together. Therefore, bilateral exercises are more appropriate.

5. Range of Motion in Movements

Strength and conditioning training should always match the range of motion used in one’s combat sport of choice. This protects the soft tissue around the joints while building mobility and stability for improved performance.

6. Types of Muscle Contractions Necessary in a Fight

As noted earlier, martial arts is a display of organized chaos and uncertainty. Consequently, an athlete’s strength and conditioning program must try to incorporate unpredictability, which can be achieved by using unstable surfaces, using a more random tempo for repetitions, and varying the work:rest ratio.

7. Speed of Execution

How quickly exercises are performed should match the speed of movements executed in a fight, regardless of martial arts discipline. For a combat sport like MMA, which integrates striking and grappling components, it becomes vital that strength and conditioning workouts use a variety of speeds.

8. Type(s) of Strength Required

Let’s be real- the term “strength” is pretty generic and can refer to many different types of muscle qualities. Knowing which type of strength a combat sport demands is important in choosing subsequent training exercises.

  1. Maximum Strength: this refers to the maximum amount of force a muscle can exert, and is critical when it comes to controlling an opponent, especially if many martial arts techniques have yet to be mastered.
  2. Isometric Strength: also called strength endurance; it’s about how long a muscle can hold a static contraction, such as choke or other form of submission
  3. Explosive Plyometric Strength: also known as power because combat athletes sometimes need to mobilize 100% of their strength as quickly as possible
  4. Dynamic Muscular Endurance: it’s not enough to be strong for a single instance; rather, combat athletes must be able to conserve strength throughout the duration of a match

Men and women performing tire jumps

What is “Unconventional” About Functional Training?

For the sake of this article’s argument, “conventional” training can be thought of as traditional resistance training, or weight training.

And, just to be even more clear, unconventional training is not the same thing as functional training, but they are related concepts.

Unconventional training involves the use of non-traditional equipment and techniques to advance athletic development or achieve other strength goals. It is also seen as a return to basics because it emphasizes improved functional capacity as well as the acquisition of biomotor abilities via enhanced body control (Santana & Fukuda, 2011).

Take a look at some examples of unconventional training methods:

Body Weight Training

Body weight training is one of the most basic forms of training within the unconventional strength and conditioning field, expressly because a primary objective is to develop better body control and movement patterns. Not only do body weight exercises help build basic fitness but they can be combined and advanced to form a complete training system that develops elite levels of functional strength (Santana & Fukuda, 2011).

Body weight exercises can range from simple to complex, progressed from bilateral motion to single-limb training, and include slow heavy training or high-speed explosive movements (Santana & Fukuda, 2011). Body weight training can also include partner lifts for added intensity.

Elastic Resistance Bands

Elastic bands provide a different type of resistance than your standard dumbbell or plate; the more you pull on a band, the more resistance it delivers, whereas a weight always offers the same resistance whether at the beginning, middle, or end of a movement (Delavier & Gundill, 2016). Moreover, bands’ resistance varies depending its angle and position. By increasing the resistance as its pulled through an exercise, elastic bands:

  • Develop acceleration strength,
  • Inhibit the intervention of other muscles that can slow down movements, and
  • Improve strength upon impact (especially a strike) (Delavier & Gundill, 2016).

Unstable Surface Training

The concept of introducing instability has always been a controversial topic for debate in the sport and fitness industry. But, by training in an unstable environment, the muscles learn to read and react more appropriately during these types of unpredictable movements, which not only helps simulate the chaos of martial arts scenarios but also does a lot for injury prevention (Kearns, n.d.). Unstable functional training increases the demand placed on the central nervous system, which recuits and activates more muscle fibers for quicker reaction times, while also targeting the smaller, deeper muscle groups used for balance, stability, and body control (Kearns, n.d.).

Using a BOSU® Balance Trainer is one way to incorporate instability into training.

Other types of equipment include Swiss stability balls, balance pads, wobble discs, slide boards, foam rollers, suspension training devices, and more…

Battle Ropes, Tires, & Sandbags, Oh My!

There are a plethora of other forms of equipment martial arts athletes can use for unconventional functional strength and conditioning training. Here are a few more examples to ponder about:

  • Using different types of handles, grips, and slings attached to a heavy object
  • Running on hills, bridges, or stairs
  • Pushing and/or pulling cars
  • Dragging tires
  • Tire flips
  • Sandbags or bags full of shot pellets
  • Sleds
  • Medicine balls/slamballs
  • Battle ropes
  • Sledgehammers

Also interesting to note is that many of these equipment examples can be integrated into a strength workout to transform traditional exercises into ones that are more functional and sport-specific.

Think of it as the best of both worlds.

Image of kettlebells, battle ropes, slamball, and a plyo box

Why Combat Athletes Should Care

Here are a few key notes from Santana and Fukudo (2011) about why unconventional methods helps with combat sports performance (without getting into too many more gory, scientific details):

  • Unconventional methods embody the principles of functional training, focusing on basic movement patterns like pushing, pulling, and rotation that are central to martial arts techniques and performance
  • Incorporating different equipment can help break down the complex movements of combat sports into simpler, more universal patterns that benefit striking and grappling disciplines
  • Lower-body movement combinations, like forward driving, lateral stepping, and backward pulling of sleds/cars/tires, can simulate different functional qualities like bobbing and weaving around an opponent, while focusing on different areas of the core, hips, and legs
  • Combining the three planes of motion within exercises helps athletes become better prepared for the unpredictability of combat sports
  • Heavy sandbag-type equipment can be thrown to target power development or dragged different distances to achieve strength endurance goals
  • Holding and carrying various pieces of equipment of different shapes, sizes, and weights enhances grip strength, improves holding positions, and targets anaerobic endurance
  • Completing movements like tire flips help prepare fighters to drop levels and take control of an opponent’s lower body
  • Performing pushing exercises helps develop fatigue resistance in the pushing motion, which is beneficial against the cage or in a clinch

And, lastly, when more joints are activated during a functional movement, the more muscles are used, and the more they benefit; this approach also means increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the workout while decreasing the duration of a training session (Kearns, n.d.).

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of factors to consider when designing a strength and conditioning program, including the unique needs of the athlete, their combat sport of choice, skill level, overall goals, etc. But I also think it’s important to take a step away from traditional “old-school” approaches to ensure proper athletic development and fight preparation that has a high degree of transfer from training to actual sports performance.

And of course, care and consideration still needs to be given to the standard training variables. Safety first.

But, the incorporation of unconventional training techniques not only serves a functional role, it also breaks up the monotony of a strength and conditioning routine. By introducing new equipment and a creative strategy (that still builds strength, power, and mobility) coaches can simultaneously infuse an element of excitement that can be just what an athlete needs to remain motivated when training gets tough.

Are the examples included in this article for everyone? Absolutely not. Nor am I saying that unconventional training methods are the only way to train or should replace every other form of strength and conditioning.

Nothing is ever so black-or-white.

The purpose of this article was to shed light on a form of training that has multiple benefits for combat athletes and inspire new ideas to enhance fighters’ performances- regardless of martial arts discipline or fitness level.

What do you think?

Comment below with your thoughts about functional training and unconventional methods, and their place in combat sports strength and conditioning programming!

Black and red graphic with brick art image of Bruce Lee kicking and a quote from his book "Tao of Jeet Kune Do."



Delavier, F., & Gundil, M. (2013). Delavier’s mixed martial arts anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Jack, N. (2019, December 6). Four workouts for combat sports to increase strength & power. No Regrets Personal Training.

Kearns, K. (n.d.). Functional training meets mixed martial arts. Bosu.

Kopniske, J. (2018, December 19). What combat athletes get wrong about strength training. Stack.

Landow, L. (2016). Ultimate conditioning for martial arts. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Liebenson, C. (2014). Functional training handbook. China: Wolters Kluwer Health.

Santana, J. C., & Fukuda, D. H. (2011). Unconventional methods, techniques, and equipment for strength and conditioning in combat sports. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33(6), 64-70.

4 thoughts on “Get Functional! An (Unconventional) Strength & Conditioning Guide for Combat Sports

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