Conditioning or Sparring?

“I find my sparring sessions far more tiring than my circuit training and cardio sessions, should I drop them altogether and concentrate on my sparring?”

A good question, and one that has been asked many times before, and will be asked many time again.

The reason it will always be asked is because the answer will always change dependant on several variables. In other words there is no one correct answer.
There is however a sliding scale that answer will sit on. On one end of the scale is “Do a stack of conditioning work” and the other is “Do a stack of Sparring work”. Your answer will lie in between the two and over the course of your career it will move towards one end or the other as a response to varying factors.Factors such as experience, time before or time since a fight, injury, specifics highlighted from last competition.

For a competitive fighter the specifics highlighted from either sparring or competition should form the foundation of their training.
In other words in the last fight, did the fighter gas after the first round? Did he notice a significant strength difference between himself and the opponent? Was his footwork up to speed, were his strikes still sharp an accurate at the end of the match, were there certain techniques that need improvement, such as escapes or submissions?

Each of these questions are important in planning the next stage in the fighters training program.

If the fighter found himself gassed halfway through the fight, then he needs to spend more time on conditioning drills.
If the fighter found a strength deficit between the opponent and himself, he needs to spend time on building strength.
If the fighter found his technical ability was lacking, he needs to significantly increase his technical work, preferably while fresh ie prior to any other work.

The training program should always focus on the weakest aspects of the fighters game.

The next thing to look at is the stage in the fighters competitive program. Is he just coming out of a fight, is he fast approaching a fight, how long have you got to prepare for the next fight. And how do you compare to the guy your matched up against, if you have the luxury of finding out this knowledge.

The Irish Amateur MMA league is run quarterly. That means the training year can easily be broken down into 3 month blocks. Each block culminates in an MMA meet.In the first month the fighter can look at his technical ability and strength. Heavy low rep strength training is an overlooked factor in most fighters arsenal. Strength can make the difference, especially as fatigue sets in later in the fight, if you’ve greater reserve of brute force, you may still be able over power your opponent even if you’re tired.Low rep strength work should leave you buzzing, ready to take on the world, not an exhausted heap. This is why I feel it is a good time to concentrate on technical ability. At this time cardio is not the focus of training, and while yes it should be trained, it is supplemental only.
A Training week may look as follows:
Mon/Wed/Fri – StrengthTues/Thurs/Sat – Technical Training.
Of course they can be trained on the same day, do the technical work first in a session and finish with the weights. You want to be as fresh as possible when training good technique. I also like to perform light shadow boxing in between sets, it serves as a kind of active recovery and in my mind, lets the muscles know what they’re being trained for. A session may finish with some cardio, for example a quick 100 reps of whatever (see this post at simple strength).

During the second month you may move towards a more cardio style of conditioning. Begin to perform the technical work in a fatigued state, reduce rest periods and add heavy circuits to your strength program. Build athleticism and explosive power as well as the ability to repeat this explosive power over and over. For this I personally find Kettlebell training fits the bill although there a re many ways of developing explosive power and power endurance.
High intensity circuits during this period will seriously increase a fighters ability to produce force while fatigued. Heavy but sub maximal loads and challenging full body drills should be used no isolation moves at all. Rest periods between exercises should be kept deliberately short and each round of the circuit, or work period should match up with the duration of a competition round. Rest in between rounds should also match a competition round. So if a fighter is competing in 3 five minute rounds with 1 minute breaks, his conditioning should be in 3 five minute rounds with a minute break.I believe this type of cardio is far more beneficial that hours of roadwork and skipping, although the do have their place. Skipping serves as a good warm up and can even be super-setted with weight training for a greater conditioning effect, simply insert 2 mins of skipping in place of a 2 minute rest period on heavy lifting days. Roadwork and running is better for recovery than it is for a fighters fitness.
Skills training during this period should also increase in intensity. Some training days do it before the conditioning work, others do it afterwards. Learn to be efficient and accurate while tired.

As the fight comes closer the conditioning work will start to take a back seat being replaced with more intense skills sessions and sparring. Strength should be maintained, two full body workouts sticking to the basic compound lifts should take care of this while not excessively tiring the athlete for the sparring sessions. All training should taper down during the final week before a fight. In the last few days all the fighter needs to do is keep the body loose and mobile. The hard work is done and any hard physical training will only produce nothing more than fatigue.
Skills training should be kept light and to the point. There is no point now in risking injury, instead work on the specific combinations that will be used in the arena, drill them until they become second nature.

So the original question was should my sparring be used as my conditioning and quit the circuits?
It’s a tough one to answer, it does depend on where you fall on the sliding scale. If your sparring leaves you so fatigued, are you learning anything? If you included separate conditioning work would it allow you to train your skills during sparring rather than just tire yourself out?
If your conditioning training leaves you too tired to spar or work your technique, then maybe you’re just not at the stage here your ready to start adding it in yet.

The best athletes start from a skills basis, then focus on speed, power and strength.
But all athletes need to work on speed, power and strength, these are skills too, much the same as you must learn and practice a roundhouse kick, you must learn and practice strength.

Why in this text have I barely mentioned cardio when it was in the main question?
Simply because it carries all the wrong connotations. “Cardio” to most is running for 30 minutes or an hour. While this does give you a basis it is not ideal for an explosive athlete, such as a fighter.Instead I prefer to train my fighters using conditioning circuits. These mix weighted strength exercises with bodyweight drills and more cardio oriented drills. The whole point of the cardio-vascular system is to carry fuel and oxygen to the muscles and remove waste products from the body.
Therefore, the harder I work the muscles and reduce the rest, the more my Cardio-Vascular System has to work.

If you take a circuit, for example:2 hand Kettlebell Swings (heavy)
Sledge hammer slams
Thrusters
Bodyweight Row
30 seconds on each station with around 10 seconds rest gives you 2min work in a 2min 30sec period. This approximates to a round. Take a one minute break and repeat. Each drill should be challenging enough that the athlete can only get a handful of reps done, yet he will not repeat the same drill for nearly 3 minutes. This means he should be “rested” by the time he comes around to doing it again and he can go balls out on every drill, this is no time to be pacing oneself.

Of course that circuit is merely an example. You can adjust the work times and rest times as well as the exercise selection to best suit your individual style. It is important though to balance the circuit and train the entire body.

I hope this short article helps any fighter wondering at how to put their training together.

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