Note: “Fighters” is used throughout this column as a general term to refer to anyone who participates in a fighting sport like boxing, kickboxing, MMA, karate, taekwondo, etc.
Until the last couple decades most fight trainers prohibited their fighters from doing any serious weight training. If they did allow lifting, it was only light weights for high repetitions. A quick scan of old boxing training manuals show everything is done with light barbells or dumbbells. This long held belief stemmed from two concerns – large muscles would slow down a fighter and they would cause reduced range of motion. To some extent these concerns are valid.
I completely disregarded this thought process when I began fighting and competing in the early 70’s. My main reason was that I started bodybuilding several years before I began the fighting arts so I saw no reason to stop. This was in spite of the fact that my sensei (teacher) and competitive sparring friends told me that I shouldn’t weight train. Two more things reinforced this. First was that Bruce Lee, who heavily influenced my early years, was a proponent of lifting. Very few people were faster than him. The second was that while still lifting three to four times a week I developed jabs, backfist strikes, and front leg kicks that people often did see coming before I hit them.
Time slowly changed the opinion about proper strength training for fighters. While most fighters still don’t train like a bodybuilder, weights are an integral part of their regimen. A search on YouTube using most popular fighter’s name and adding the term weight training will produce videos of them all lifting. The difference from a bodybuilder is that the fighter’s main goals are carrying as much muscle as they can in their weight class and having power or explosive strength. For this reason most ancillary or isolation exercises are not done. Symmetry and aesthetics are not as important as strength and power relevant to their sport. Compound and power lifting movements are the preference – bench press, squat, explosive leg presses, shoulder presses, pull-ups and deadlifts. Low sets with explosive concentric motions are common. Bench presses or squats with a fast lift and slow descent can be seen in all their programs.
Alternatively high repetition partial reps with resistance are a great tool too. I have been in MMA gyms that used partial squats on equipment like a belt squat while standing in a fighter stance or half range of motion leg presses with a fast push off at the top to build both explosive leg strength and fantastic muscular endurance. These are both vital if you are trying to stop an opponent with kicks over a two to five minute round.
The reason why lifting heavy weights doesn’t slow down fighters is that weight training is supplemented with lots of other types of training. For every hour spent under a weight, a fighter spends multiples of that time on functional training, static and dynamic stretching, mobility exercises, SAQ (Speed, Agility, Quickness) work, sports specific training and sparring. This means that the fighter gets the advantage of the power that strength training produces but integrates that power in a fully functional, sports specific way.