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Corrective Exercise: Does it have a place in MMA strength training?

By Doug Balzarini, C.S.C.S., Strength and Conditioning Coach, Fitness Quest 10 (San Diego, CA)

Trying to convince a combat athlete that thoracic spine mobility drills will help him in the octagon is like trying to convince my girlfriend that size doesn’t matter (talking arm size of course). These athletes want to be faster, stronger, and more powerful; so suggesting they foam roll their IT band and adductors before each session usually follows with some confused looks. It’s a daunting task. In my eyes, it’s also a valuable and worthwhile task. If you are not incorporating mobility drills and “corrective exercise” protocols into your current MMA strength routine, then you are increasing your athlete’s risk for injury down the road. I’ve said it many times before, strength & conditioning for combat athletes isn’t all about the high intensity 5 minute metabolic circuit; a proper program needs to incorporate many aspects or “phases” to be complete, well-rounded, and effective.

Why Corrective Exercise?
Combat athletes will encounter many injuries during their career. They literally take a beating 5-6 days a week in preparation for their next match or tournament. Their bodies are able to adapt to find a path of least resistance in order to accomplish the task at hand. These adaptations, or compensation patterns, can create imbalances throughout the body. If corrective movements are not incorporated in the program, these improper movement patterns will continue until the body is no longer able to handle the improper loads placed upon it. The result is a more debilitating injury down the road.

Let’s take a step back and define “corrective exercise”. To help with this I contacted a friend and colleague of mine, Anthony Carey MA, CSCS, CES. Anthony is the CEO and founder of ‘Function First’ in San Diego, CA. He is an author, presenter, consultant, and the inventor of the Core-Tex™. To learn more about Anthony and the Core-Tex™ make sure you visit Anthony defines corrective exercise as, “Movements or postures that are used to produce desirable changes in joint positioning, stability and movement strategies, thereby minimizing or eliminating compensations and producing efficient movement patterns. Corrective exercises should precede more integrated exercises because they can cue the client’s motor system to respond in a more desirable way and assist in removing or improving biomechanical constraints.” Since combat athletes are extremely susceptible to repetitive motion injuries, it only makes sense to prevent or, at least, reduce these injuries by being proactive.

I prefer to assess my athletes early on in their training so corrective movements and postures can be implemented right away. The sooner we can begin to reverse the “imbalance process”, the better. Carey agrees; “I always start with global or full body integrated assessments. This would include static posture, overhead squat and gait. These are at minimum.” Depending on what we discover in the assessment, we can then determine what movements need to be incorporated into the training sessions. As I mentioned earlier, it is a challenge to incorporate these movements into a session because they are not flashy or exciting. They should only take a couple minutes of the session and it is time well spent. You have to educate your athletes (or any client for that matter) on the importance of corrective exercise. When their injuries are decreased and their victories more frequent, they will become believers real quick.

A couple common traits that create imbalances in the combat athletes that I’ve worked with include:
• Frequent Plantar Flexion: – Tight calves from being up on the balls of the feet
• Upper Cross Issues: Hands up to protect, forward rounding of shoulders
• Hip Tightness: From kicking and being externally rotated at hips

Carey has seen similar patterns, “the most common musculoskeletal imbalances I’ve experienced are thoracic flexion with associated scapular abduction and upward rotation for the upper body and lack of internal hip rotation for the lower body.”

Here’s a quick look at a couple movements to help with the T-spine:

Here’s a quick look at a couple Core-Tex™ movements to help with the hips:

If we are not currently “in camp” (8-12 weeks out from a fight), then we will incorporate more of these movements to precede our GPP (General Physical Preparedness) or foundational strength training that we are performing. This is where we work on building and repairing the “machine”. Once camp begins we then include the corrective movements in during the ‘movement prep’ phase of the program. We are trying to improve the quality of movement, re-educate proper motor patterns, and enhance musculoskeletal efficiency.

I asked Carey if there was one valuable piece of wisdom that he could impress upon the strength coaches out there who currently work with combat athletes? He responded with, “Non-impact injuries rarely occur in the training “zones” that athletes regularly condition within. These are the zones that appear to be very sport specific. Strength, power and stability are regularly reinforced in these specific zones. Yet when an opponent takes an athlete outside of these zones, they are much more vulnerable to injury. Coaches should work on reaction, balance and stability outside of the typical training zones.”

Remember, while these athletes are coming to us to get faster, stronger, and more powerful; they are also coming to us for balance, flexibility, coordination, and injury prevention. These are invaluable aspects of training that we must include in their sessions with prep movements, postures, and corrective exercises. I think of muscle as armor. We not only make the armor stronger and more durable, we also want to take the kinks and dents out and make it as efficient as possible. A body with strong, efficient, dent-free armor, gives us the best chance to compete at our highest level possible in the ring, the octagon, and anywhere else in life.

About Doug
Doug currently works at Fitness Quest 10 as a personal trainer, strength coach, and Operations Director for Todd Durkin Enterprises (TDE). A Massachusetts native, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science with a minor in Business Management from Westfield State College. Since moving to San Diego he has completed some graduate work in Biomechanics at SDSU, obtained an ACE Personal Trainer certification, the NSCA-CSCS certification, a Spinning certification, TRX instructor training, EFI Gravity instructor training, FMS training, and received his CPR/AED instructor status. He has also appeared in 8 fitness videos, written numerous fitness articles, completed a MMA Conditioning Coach certification program and has competed in multiple grappling tournaments.

Prior to working at Fitness Quest 10, Doug worked for the American Council on Exercise as the Continuing Education Coordinator where he was responsible for managing over 400 continuing education providers.

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