How to make a conditioning comeback

Sakurai has a conditioning comeback
Everyone loves a good comeback story.

Back in 2004, I got to be part of an epic comeback by one of the greatest Japanese fighters of all time, Hayato Sakurai.

If you’re not a long-time fight fan, you’ve probably never heard of Sakurai. In the late 90’s, he was widely considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

At his peak, he went undefeated for 3 straight years. His unbeaten streak only ended in a fight against the legendary Anderson Silva, who was five inches taller and would eventually fight at two weight classes above him.

Unfortunately, after that loss, things went downhill quickly for Sakurai. He was in a bad car accident and lost 5 out of his next 10 fights. By the end, he didn’t look like the same fighter.

That’s when the organization he fought for, PRIDE, decided it was time for a comeback. They sent him to the US to work with Matt Hume and me to get his career back on track.

I’ll give you all the details on what happened after we worked with him, but before I do, I want to share the three key strategies we used to rebuild him from the ground up.

With gyms starting to fully open in the West and summer right around the corner, it’s the perfect time to make your own fitness comeback. Or if you’re a coach, now’s the time to help the people you train get back to where they want to be.

#1 First thing first: start with an assessment

There’s a lot to be said for the old saying, “If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing.” Establishing a baseline is an important first step in building your comeback conditioning program.

When it comes to strength, it’s relatively easy to see how much weight you can lift in various movements to measure your strength.

Assessing conditioning, on the other hand, takes a different approach. You can look at various internal measures that provide insight into your physiology and/or you can use direct performance measurements.

Internal (indirect) measures:

  • Resting heart rate (HR)
  • Heart rate variability (HRV)
  • 60-s Heart rate recovery (HRR)

You’ll need a heart rate monitor and an app that measures HRV like Morpheus for these metrics. They’re highly valuable to keep track of over time as your conditioning improves and well worth the investment.

To see exactly how to use each of these as a gauge of conditioning, you can click here to read my article on The Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of Conditioning.

Performance (direct) tests:

  • 12-minute distance run (or bike)
  • Maximum push-ups
  • Maximum pull-ups
  • Plank endurance time

While internal measures are a way to gauge the potential for conditioning, performance tests are a more direct measure of what your output actually is.

Each of the performance tests listed above are ways to test your general conditioning. This is where you want to start most of the time.

If you’re an athlete and you’re making a comeback for a sport, however, you’ll want to incorporate a more specific conditioning test. A swimmer, for example, would be better off doing a performance test of some distance in the pool instead of a 12-minute run.

I’d suggest including both types of tests to get the most complete picture of where your conditioning is. This will give you a good baseline to start with so you can build your comeback program and track your conditioning as it improves.

With Sakurai, I started with resting HR, HRV, and a direct test that I built specifically for combat athletes.

The results were not good. Not only was he 20-25lbs overweight, but he was in terrible condition. He couldn’t even finish the conditioning test.

#2: KISS

People who’ve read my book or my articles are often surprised when they see the programs I write. They expect something very complicated with every set, rep, rest interval, heart rate, and weight written and planned in detail for an entire program.

What they see, however, is often a very simple template with only a handful of methods and exercises.

That’s because when it comes to programming, I’m a big believer in the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Rarely does making a program more complex make it more effective.

Adding too many exercises and too many methods often makes the program less effective. The key to programming is choosing the right exercises and methods, not just throwing in as many as you can.

When I built the first 8 weeks of Sakurai’s conditioning program, I kept everything extremely simple.

using methods to kickstart your conditioning comeback

Two days per week, Mondays and Thursdays, I included primarily low-intensity aerobic work in the form of cardiac output and/or tempo intervals. I started with just 20-30 minutes and gradually increased each week.

After his conditioning on those days, he also did a moderate amount of accessory work to strengthen his posterior chain, neck, and shoulders.

Tuesdays and Saturdays were his hardest MMA training days, so I included a low volume of total body strength exercises. It’d been over a year since he’d done any real strength training, so we had to start with a very low volume and light weight.

Wednesdays and Fridays were all about recovery. These workouts typically involved mobility work, swimming, and soft tissue treatments. These were a huge part of making sure Sakurai stayed injury free and able to recover for his fight training.

#3 Progression: Volume before intensity

The biggest difference between a workout that makes you tired and a program that improves your conditioning is progression. That’s because it takes a lot more than training to exhaustion to see continual progress.

The key to avoiding conditioning plateaus and overtraining starts with the age-old concept of progressive overload.

The idea of gradually increasing stress over time is generally well understood when it comes to strength. People know that to get stronger, they have to gradually add sets and reps (volume) and lift heavier weights (intensity).

But when it comes to conditioning, people often lose sight of this bigger picture of how the body works.

The right way to think about conditioning progression is to focus on volume before intensity. If you skip the volume and go straight to the intensity, you set yourself up for a plateau and increase your chance of future injury.

Even in the infamous Tabata study that’s cited by people advocating intensity above all else, the group that did the Tabata intervals hit a plateau in VO2 max after just 3 weeks. The group that did only lower intensity work saw consistent improvement across the entire 6 weeks.

There’s a lot we can learn from that.

When I build an 8-week conditioning program, I break it up into the 3 phases you can see below: introduction, loading, and stabilization.

how to use progression for your conditioning comeback

The loading phase is where the progression takes place, and I always start by adding sets, reps, and training frequency.

This increases the body’s specific work capacity for the exercises and methods I use and creates the right foundation. I only start increasing intensity by training at higher heart rates, reducing rest intervals, etc. after this initial period.

If your goal is to develop conditioning that lasts and makes you healthier rather than more broken, always start by adding more work (volume) before you make it harder (intensity).

#4 Track your progress

Because conditioning has many pieces that each play a role in your results, it’s important to track your progress. This will help you stay on track and optimize as you go.

The easiest way to do this is to track things like resting HR, HRV, and HRR daily, while incorporating more direct tests in your training on a weekly basis.

In addition to looking at Sakurai’s resting HR and HRV, I also tracked his HR during each training session.

I did this because as conditioning improves, heart rates stay lower and recover faster when doing the same amount of work. The better conditioned Sakurai was, the faster his heart rate came down between rounds of sparring.

Over the years, I found that one of the best markers of conditioning for a combat athlete was if they could consistently get their heart rate to recover into the low 130’s between each round. This generally meant they were ready to last from bell to bell.

Your comeback might not involve getting ready for a fight, but tracking how quickly your heart rate comes down between periods of high-intensity work is an extremely effective way to measure progress.

It’s also easy to measure and helps you learn how to tap into the parasympathetic side of your autonomic nervous system. This is hugely important for optimizing your recovery and making sure you improve your conditioning without overtraining.

Putting the pieces together

The key to making a comeback, regardless of where you’re starting from or where you want to go, is consistency above all else. If you consistently follow the three strategies we used for Sakura’s comeback, it’s only a matter of time before you’re back on top.

In the first six months of training Sakurai, he had four big fights in Japan and won them all, including part of a tournament where he had to fight twice in one night! That’s not something that’s even allowed in the US, but it was par for the course in the old days.

He ended up losing a tough fight to another legend, Takanori Gomi, in the tournament finals, before going on another 4-fight winning streak.

Before we started working with him, he was 5-5. Over the 4 years we trained him for his big fights, he had 12 wins and only 2 losses.

Whether you want to get back in shape, or just in better shape than you’re in now, the same conditioning principles apply.

Starting with an assessment, keeping your program simple, adding volume before intensity, and tracking your results, always work. It’s never too late to make a comeback.


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