Just about every day I check my email and see messages from aspiring fighters who want to know the secrets to turning their passion into a successful career. Sometimes the questions are simple— How do you prepare an Epsom salt bath for a last-minute weight cut?— and sometimes they could be the subject for an entire book—What kind of periodization do you recommend for an amateur fighter?
While I do my best to respond to each and every email that I can, there are a few universal principles behind each of my answers that every hopeful fighter can benefit from knowing and applying.
This article is written for those who are trying to push their combat sport skills to the next level. I’ll cover the general strategies and principles that every pro fighter that’s walked through my door adheres to. If you’re looking for specific conditioning methods, I’ll also provide a list of other resources that cover those in depth at the end of the article as well.
So you say you want to become a fighter. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Maintain a baseline level of conditioning year-round
Fighting is a unique sport in that it doesn’t have a real off-season. Sometimes you have to accept a match-up with relatively short notice and get in competition shape over the course of a couple weeks.
While this site’s name is derived from the standard “8 weeks to become fight-ready,” you should be maintaining a reasonably high level of conditioning constantly. The 8 weeks prior to the actual fight is the time to refine your conditioning and build off of your established baseline, not to start your training.
Even fighters who seem to naturally possess endless gas tanks can fatigue under the stress of fight night without proper training in the months prior to the event.
If you jump from infrequent training to rigorous conditioning right before a fight, your body will not have time to properly adapt. The net result is that you won’t have the same level of endurance as if you had trained more gradually, or worse, you’ll burn yourself out from the stress of drastically changing your physical work load.
Neither outcome is what you should be looking for.
However, the task of training conditioning year-round can be somewhat daunting. You must tread a fine line between over-working yourself into exhaustion and under-stimulating yourself and losing beneficial aerobic adaptations.
You need some form of objective guidance to govern your broader training plan, which brings us to the second principle…
2. Monitor and manage your training
There are many reasons why it’s absolutely essential to monitor your training. Obviously, it’s useful to see your progress and to catch performance declines before they become drastic.
However, an effective monitoring system is often most valuable because it can drastically reduce, and even eliminate, the guesswork that so often leads to bad training decisions.
A monitoring system can modulate the effects of your mental outlook on training. If you tend to push yourself even when your body is in desperate need of recovery, you need an objective measure of training readiness with a system like BioForce HRV.
If you find yourself justifying a watered-down training approach when you actually need higher intensity work, regular feedback from a heart rate monitor and a BioForce HRV system to tell you how hard to push yourself.
You can try to fool yourself into believing that you need more or less training, but the numbers don’t lie.
While I recommend the use of BioForce HRV and a heart rate monitor for pro fighters, they are almost more crucial for beginner and amateur fighters because they often lack the coaching resources and individual attention that the pros receive.
In order to safely guide your training and progress your performance, you need to monitor and manage your two unique “seasons” (no fight planned and 8 weeks prior to fighting).
Throughout both of these, a reasonably large part of training should be devoted to simply staying healthy. At the heart of accomplishing this goal is the development of your own injury-prevention strategy.
3. Proactively protect against injuries
The nature of combat sports represents a special challenge to injury prevention: the goal of the competition is to cause physical damage to the other fighter and the more dramatically, the better.
Considering that there’s a bonus award for knockouts (concussions) at the pro level, it’s pretty obvious that combat sports are inherently damaging to the body. That means it’s absolutely essential to do everything you can to mitigate against that damage as much as possible
Although injury prevention can take many forms, your own strategy should be just as individualized as your fighting style.
If you’re concerned about brain trauma (and every fighter should be), nootropics such as aniracetam can help protect against memory loss and cognitive decline.
You can read more about nootropics HERE.
Exercises that reinforce commonly injured areas, such as shoulders, knees, and ankles, are also enormously beneficial. You can see one example of such exercises in this brief video:
However, sometimes the biggest step you can take to preventing injury is to choose your training partners wisely.
An actual fight may last no more than 15-25 minutes. The bulk of your time as a fighter, i.e. hours upon hours, is spent training, sparring, grappling, etc.
It is critical that you are not pounding yourself into the ground by partnering with people who train at a dangerous intensity, who don’t have restraint, or who feel they have something to prove.
The last thing you want is to get injured in practice because of a bad training partner and be taken out of the fight that actually matters.
Another common mistake that is an injury waiting to happen is signing up for smokers or amateur bouts every weekend. A week is not nearly enough time to adequately recover from the physical and mental stress/trauma of fighting.
Do you ever see a pro fighter matched up two weeks in a row? There’s a good reason for that.
Winning, within the bigger picture of your fighting career, is just as much about the fights you don’t take as the ones you accept.
If you want to remain physically capable and mentally sharp enough to become a pro fighter, you need to protect your body. Without it, you have nothing.
One of the most sure-fire ways to protect your body is to ensure that you are recovering effectively.
For different people that can mean different things…
4. Develop an individualized recovery plan
While most fighters can list a number of recovery methods off the top of their heads—from massage to taking a cold bath — only a few of them know that they should not be using these methods all the time.
If your body is able to recover from its stress load without additional stimulation, additional recovery methods may actually inhibit the physiological processes that allow you too adapt and improve in response to training.
You can also do additional harm by desensitizing yourself to those particular recovery methods, making them less effective when they’re actually needed to prevent over-reaching/overtraining.
Not only should you be strategic about when you implement recovery methods, you should also be careful about the types of methods you use. That is to say, different methods will stimulate different kinds of recovery depending on the type of deficit your autonomic nervous system is experiencing.
For example, you use different recovery methods to restore balance if your body is stuck in a “fight or flight” kind of response, a sympathetic dominant one, than if you are in a “rest and digest” rut, the parasympathetic side of the equation.
So the kind of recovery methods and when you use them are both key to obtaining optimal results.
To learn more about when you should use each type of recovery method, watch this video:
To add another layer of complexity to the mix, your personal preference plays a big role in the effectiveness of any given recovery method.
If you are deathly afraid of drowning, deep water floating will probably do you more harm than good. You can’t use a recovery method that you absolutely hate and expect it to facilitate stress reduction/management.
On the flip side, if there is a recovery method that you find particularly relaxing or enjoyable, it may confer greater-than-normal benefits in aiding recovery.
Bottom line: your recovery strategy needs to be individualized to address when you need to recovery, what kind of recovery you need, and what kind of methods you prefer.
5. Plan out a safe weight cut
Every fighter needs to make the choice of which weight class to fight in. While some of you may decide to stretch your limits more than others, having a strategy in place can make the difference between being ending up with your hand raised and losing before you even step in the cage.
A critical component of how much weight you can realistically drop is your starting body composition.
The rationale behind this is simple: you will have a much more difficult time cutting weight if you are lean than if you have a higher body fat percentage. Put another way, there is rarely an advantage to losing muscle mass.
Ideally, you can figure out your body composition by having a DEXA scan – a lot of places offer these nowadays, or if you can’t get that, a caliper skinfold measurement done by a professional can work as well.
For most fighters, a healthy body fat percentage range to maintain in between fights is 10-12% with DEXA or 8-10% with caliper analysis. Comparing your current body fat percentage to this range will give you a ballpark idea of how much fat you can lose before you fight and still be safe.
Bear in mind, the weight division you choose has a huge impact on your success in the sport. Your ability to competitively perform may vary enormously from one division to the next. This is where it is critical to weigh in on the experience of a coach to evaluate the risks vs. benefits of fighting in one class over another.
Once you decide how much weight you are going to drop, it is critical that you monitor and manage your cut.
Remember, dieting is just as much of a stressor on your body as training. Again, this is where the use a system like BioForce HRV can help make sure you’re not pushing yourself too hard and increasing your risk of injury and overtraining while you’re working to drop weight – which is an additional stressor that will reduce your ability to recover quickly.
Even a well-formulated plan can produce lackluster results if you’re not carefully regulating how your body responds to the changes you’re making. Ensure that you are adequately adapting and recovering so that you aren’t left fatigued and gasping for air on fight night.
As a general rule of thumb, you should try to lose no more than 0.5kg/week. Use this as a guideline for how much time you will need for your weight cut.
From a caloric perspective, dropping 0.5kg/week requires about a 500 calorie deficit per day.
For more information on how to test your weight cut or the costs/benefits of choosing a lower weight class, check out this article:
6.Develop a fight week routine
The effects of all of your lifestyle choices and environment will be amplified as you get closer to your fight. For example, if you get food poisoning 6 weeks out from your fight, you might be able to recover adequately before competing. If you’re sick 3 days before the fight, you’re probably screwed.
Consequently, you want to create as much internal and environmental stability as possible to reduce the impact of additional stressors on your already stressed-out system.
For most fighters, this stability means doing things like eating the same foods almost every meal during fight week, training at the same time each day for the week before the fight, etc.
The more you fight, the more you will realize how to steady the various factors—emotional, psychological, physical, etc—that impact your performance.
Just like recovery methods or weight cut tactics, this pre-fight routine should be highly individualized. Figure out what it takes to get your mind and your body in the right state and don’t deviate from that routine.
This is about more than just getting your mind right. Your body is highly adaptable. The more accurately it can anticipate the demands of the fight, the better it will be able to allocate sufficient energy and resources to meet those demands.
This increased efficiency will also facilitate recovery, a process that becomes increasingly more important in the days before your fight.
Your brain is the grand architect behind learning and adapting to the fight environment. By familiarizing yourself with the sensory information that’s characteristic of fight night– the texture of the floor, the shape of the cage, the brightness of the lights, the noise from the audience—the less work your brain will have to do to process this environmental feedback.
This is critical because you want as much of your brainpower devoted to analyzing and outperforming your opponent as possible. By habituating your brain to the fight conditions, you free up your focus for the task at hand: fighting your opponent.
It’s absolutely essential that you consider the entirety of the environment you’ll be competing in throughout training camp. Your brain is essentially nothing more than a problem-solving computer, one that is constantly learning and adapting in very specific ways to its surrounding environment.
Getting your brain used to the specific fight environment will help it predict the best way to solve the challenge of fighting. This is just another reason why it doesn’t make sense to be sparring for 8-10 rounds at a time in training when you’re getting ready for a 3 round fight.
Being a fighter isn’t easy. It requires endless amounts of hard work over many years and sacrifices that most ordinary people simply aren’t willing to make. To be a fighter, you can’t be ordinary. You have to be willing to accept that you’ll have to make it to the very top of the sport if you ever want to be rewarded financially for all your hard work.
You also have to accept that there are literally thousands of other up and coming fighters out there that are also training their asses off, trying to get to the same place as you. There’s not enough room at the top for everyone.
To get there means you can’t get ahead simply by trying to train harder than everyone else. The truth is that everyone trains hard, but not everyone trains smart and being smarter than everyone else in your approach to training is your opportunity to get an advantage.
Stay healthy while your competition suffers from chronic injuries. Drop the last few pounds of a weight cut with ease while your opponent practically kills themselves in the sauna. Continue to learn and progress your skills while everyone else makes the same mistakes and shows the same weaknesses over and over again.
The six principles I’ve covered above and all the resources I’ve mentioned are the keys to training smarter and achieving the success that every fighter aspires to. They’ve worked for all the fighters I’ve seen come through AMC Pankration and my own gym over the last 10+ years and if you apply them intelligently, they will work for you.
As promised, here is a list of additional resources for those of you who are interested in the actual training methods and exercises to get you in fighting shape.
If you need a breakdown of some tried-and-true methods that improve aerobic fitness, these articles will cover of the basics:
If you want a more extensive discussion of training methods, exercises, what they’re doing and when to use them within the training year, month, week, etc., then you’ll want to read this book:
If you want to know how to write your own programs, which assessments to use to choose the right training methods, how to structure training blocks, and how to analyze and manage your program on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, then you’ll want to watch this DVD series. You’ll also get sample workout templates to start off your own training program design.