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Top 5 Strength Tools For Combat Athletes

“Top 5 Strength Tools For Combat Athletes”
By Doug Balzarini, C.S.C.S., Fitness Quest 10

As Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) continues to grow in popularity, so do the methods and techniques used to help the MMA athletes reach their full potential. Coaches are realizing that their athletes must have a complete well-rounded program that covers not only their specialty; but many other aspects as well.  Wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu practitioners are working on their stand-up game and Muay Thai fighters and kick-boxers are working on their ground and pound. The latest “piece of the puzzle”, strength training, is another aspect that more and more coaches are implementing into their programs. Strength training is a great way to “lay that foundation” and help an athlete develop superior strength and power endurance. While I enjoy developing traditional strength training programs, I have to say my favorite piece is the metabolic circuits we do with our fighters. I experiment with all sorts of movements and equipment when putting these circuits together to see what works best. Some equipment is dropped, some is used sparingly, and then there are some foundational pieces that you will always find. Of those staple items, here are the five “must haves” to include in your metabolic circuit.

1. The Tire

There really isn’t an athlete out there that can’t benefit from incorporating the tire into their training program. Obviously, every client and every athlete is unique and has their own specific set of goals and ambitions; however, the tire is such a versatile tool that it can be incorporated into most programs.

The tire can be used for a number of different movements; jumps, step ups, and drags for the lower body, pushups, partner pushes, and sledgehammer hits for the upper body. For the purpose of this article, I’ll discuss the most popular exercise with the tire – the tire flip. I love this exercise for combat athletes because it combines total body strength, endurance, power, and flexibility as well. These are all extremely important aspects in a MMA match. If you are deficient in one of these areas then your weakness could be exposed which could be the difference between a post-fight interview with Joe Rogan or a visit from the medic with the smelling salts.

I also love that it incorporates grip strength, triple extension through the hip, knee, and ankle, and tremendous glute/hip drive, which is one of the most important joints to train for a combat athlete; especially if the fight goes to the mat where strong mobile hips are paramount.

Technique –
A tire flip is not a deadlift. There are some similarities, however, it needs to be executed a certain way so the benefits are maximized and the risk of injury is reduced. First, squat down next to the tire and get into a four-point stance. Lean your chest and shoulders into the tire, keep your arms wide, your back should not be arched at all, and your butt should be down. Begin the lift by using your hips to drive into the tire and push up at a 45° angle. This is very important as most athletes attempt to lift with your arms and lift straight up. The 45° angle is important for safety and allows the athlete to get into triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hip. As the tire approaches shoulder height, you need to transition your body into a “clean position” to catch the tire and then drive it forward like a standing chest press. Allow the tire to fall to its side and then repeat.


Proper fit (tire height and weight) can be very important when searching for the tire that’s right for your population. Ideally, try to pick one that is roughly twice the athlete’s weight. The ideal height is one that comes to around the knee area when the tire is resting on its side. Too low and it will be a challenge for the athlete to get the hips low enough to get into a solid starting position and keep the exercise safe.

2. The Rope

Like the tire, the rope is a tool that provides you with total body strength, endurance, and power. The ropes have many names (climbing ropes, fitness ropes, battling ropes®, to name a few) and come in various lengths and widths. We typically use ropes that are 40 or 50 feet long with a width of 1.5 to 2 inches. This is a tool that has gained popularity very quickly and we are constantly coming up with new ways to utilize this versatile piece of equipment.

Technique –

For a great deal of the popular movements, we begin with a handle in each handle and the midpoint of the rope is securely anchored. Facing the anchor point, stand in an athletic position with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and your knees and hips slightly bent. This is a great set-up position for many of the traditional anterior chain movements which include; waves, slams, grappler throws, walk-ins, jumping jacks, and single arm waves and slams. These can also be done seated, kneeling, or while performing lower body movements such as squats and lunges.

You can attach the rope to a sled, prowler, punching bag, or just about anything that will slide and perform a number of posterior chain pulling movements. This creates a whole new set of movements that require a great deal of grip strength which is crucial for the MMA athlete.


3. Superbands

You could easily perform a challenging, effective, whole-body workout with just superbands. This tool is very versatile and very simple. They range in thickness from 0.5 inches to 2.5 inches. The thicker the band, the harder the exercise will be. All your common exercises can be done with superbands from bicep curls and triceps pressdowns to resisted squats and deadlifts. For the purposes of the MMA athlete, I enjoy using them for explosive hip movements (squat & high pull), powerful pulling movements (1-arm row & rotations), torso rotation work, and resistance runs/jumps. The setup and execution for these is different so I’ll show them in the video clip below:


4. The Prowler

The prowler is possibly the best tool for developing leg drive, power, and endurance. These are critical for pinning and controlling your opponent up against the cage or if you are in the clinch and battling for superior position at any point during the match. The beauty of the prowler is that it’s not just a “leg machine”; it will develop strength and power up into your hips, torso, and upper body as well.

Technique –

For the traditional pushing movement using the high handles, simply grab the posts, get in a nice forward lean, get your hips down, and drive hard. Some variations include using the low handles…if you are up to the test. Also, extended arms vs. bent arms will change up the arm and shoulder stabilization challenge.

Our distance traveled will be determined by what we are using the prowler for on a particular day; longer, slightly slower pushes if used in a metabolic circuit or all-out-I-can-hardly-walk prowler sprints if we are using them as a “finisher” (think Tabata protocol). For pulling movements, we attach a TRX (link here) or sled straps and use the prowler as a sled. See our popular prowler movements here…


5. Medicine Balls

Like the superbands, medicine balls are another tool that could be used to perform a complete, full-body workout. They incorporate speed, power, and hand-eye coordination and come in all different sizes, weights, and materials. Which weight and type of medicine ball we use will depend on the particular exercise being performed. Most people are familiar with medicine ball push-up and wood-chop variations…we like to use the balls for explosive release movements. Slams, throws, sprawls, etc. are all included in our medicine ball work. Check out the clip to learn more about our favorite medicine ball exercises…


Closing thoughts

Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with good old-fashioned bodyweight exercises. This is a sport of weight classes, so if you aren’t capable and sufficient in moving your body quickly, safely, and efficiently, then you shouldn’t be adding weight to it. If you have poor body awareness and incorrect mechanics, then adding external load (dumbbells, bars, balls) will only further exacerbate the issue and lead to muscular imbalances and eventual injury. Click here to read my recent article on bodyweight exercises. While the movements are not specific to the MMA athlete; everyone can benefit from bodyweight training. That being said, as long as you are healthy incorporate these five amazing tools into your training arsenal and you will be on your way to increased strength, power, performance, and most importantly, victories.

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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