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Unconventional Methods, Techniques, and Equipment for Strength and Conditioning in Combat Sports

Santana, Juan Carlos MEd1; Fukuda, David H MS2

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 6 - p 64-70
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e318230ff5d
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Throughout the last 2 decades, a trend has developed to incorporate unconventional methods of strength training for optimum performance. Many of these new methods have been categorized as functional training by industry leaders (5,8,9). The underlying concept of functional training is based on a widely recognized principle in resistance training, the principle of specificity (10). The concept of specificity holds that training is most effective when the resistance exercises are similar to the activity in which improvement is sought (11). Harman (11) further states that:

“The simplest and most straightforward way to implement the principle of specificity is to select exercises similar to the target activity with regard to the joints about which movements occur and the direction of movement. In addition, joint ranges of motion in training exercises should be at least as great as those in the target activity.”

Functional training has been referred to as the training of coordinated movements involving many muscle systems, as opposed to the isolated muscle training seen in bodybuilding (5,8,9). This axiom encapsulates the concept of specificity of training as proposed by Harman (11). Functional training simultaneously trains multiple muscle systems in a coordinated and efficient fashion along multiple planes of motion (5,8,9,19).

The functional approach to training contrasts traditional bodybuilding models. The bodybuilding models focus on training isolated muscles along a single plane of motion (i.e., uniplanar isolation) but tend to lack the functional goals of similar isolated modalities, such as those associated with rehabilitation that focus on mobility and the restoration of strength. Additionally, functional training focuses on developing core stability and transferring forces from the ground to the extremities (5,20,21). Proponents of functional training believe that this approach to performance enhancement provides optimal transfer to the functional activity in which improvement is sought (5,8,9,17,18). To communicate this opinion, they have stated that functional training develops “strength you can use” (17,18) or “strength that can be applied to performance” (8).

The term “functional training” may have been coined recently, but the concept is not new. The concept of functional training and its related modalities of training can be traced back to ancient models of health and fitness. The recent popularity of kettlebells in the United States can be traced back over 300 years to training methods developed in Russia (6). From the medicine ball training used by Mercurialis to the progressively overloaded fighting movements of the Spartan soldiers, the training of multiplanar and progressively overloaded movements has been used to prepare the body for optimum performance for many years (10).

Because of the growing popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA), a new trend involving unconventional training methods is developing within the functional training genre (3). As with movement in general, functional combat movements consist of 4 basic categories of movement: locomotion, level changes, pushing and pulling, and rotation. These 4 basic categories of human movements have been used by many coaches and personal trainers as a basic approach to functional training program design.

Unconventional training methods have been incorporated into a more intense style of training when compared with many traditional training methods, such as the traditional fitness machine circuit. However, with proper progression, this intense style of training can be tailored to any population able and willing to train aggressively. The exercise selection can range from simple calisthenics to complex circuits requiring advanced conditioning (19). Unconventional training is also a return to training basics, where the acquisition of biomotor skills via the enhancement of body control and the improvement of functional capacity is the primary objective. Medicine balls, dumbbells, bands, pulleys, kettlebells, sandbags, large tires, and heavy bars are just some of the pieces of equipment used in unconventional training. Recently, Farrar et al. (6) showed that 12 minutes of kettlebell swings resulted in elevated heart rate values comparable to 87% of maximum and 65% of o2max when compared with graded exercise on a treadmill. This type of training can also be performed anywhere and thus lends itself to training on the road, in hotel rooms, and on the field.

Because body control is among the major objectives of unconventional training, bodyweight training is the most basic form of training within this field. All sports and daily activities require body control. Therefore, it makes sense to get back to the fundamentals of body weight training. Although basic body weight training is an excellent method of developing basic fitness, body weight training has been developed into a complete training system capable of developing elite levels of functional strength. Simple exercises, such as squats and push-ups, can be used before progressing to single-limb training, providing a wide spectrum of intensity and application. Body weight training can also be escalated to partner lifting (Figures 1 and 2). Everything from slow heavy training to high-speed explosives can be performed using the body of a training partner.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Partner reclined rows allow both athletes to develop strength in the posterior chain muscles and the upper-body pulling muscles.
Figure 2
Figure 2:
Partner push-ups allow each athlete to develop core strength and pushing strength.

Unconventional training can include running on hills, bridges, or stairs. However, pushing cars (Figure 3) and dragging tires (Figures 4 and 5) have now become popular among many of today's athletes, especially MMA fighters. Berning et al. (2) examined the physiological requirements of pushing and pulling a 1,960-kg truck over a distance of 400 m. Oxygen uptake values were found to be 65% of treadmill running o2max during pushing exercise and 96% of o2max during pulling exercise. Furthermore, blood lactate values (15.6 mmol/L) reached 131% of those elicited during maximal treadmill running.

Figure 3
Figure 3:
Just like sled pushing, car pushing can provide excellent total-body strength and excellent cardiorespiratory training.
Figure 4
Figure 4:
Pulling tires (80–200 lb) with the use of slings is great for developing lower-body strength, core stability, and excellent cardiorespiratory fitness in athletes.
Figure 5
Figure 5:
Sideways tire drags develop the lateral pushing strength needed by mixed martial art fighters to hold opponents against the cage or ring ropes.

Dragging tires can be an excellent form of training for the total body. Various custom-made accessories can be used to allow this training to be more accessible to athletes. Combining these accessories with a variety of lower-body movements can allow a personal trainer or coach to train different functional qualities and body segments in their athletes.

Through the use of various handles, grips, and slings, the athlete can attach any heavy object, such as a tire, to the body and train just about any functional movement from pushing to dragging. Using different lower-body movements, such as forward driving, lateral stepping, or backward pulling, the athlete can train different capabilities and different body segments (15). Lower-body movement combinations are used to stimulate different functional qualities and body segments. Tires may be dragged backward, forward, and sideways to focus on different areas of the core, hips, and legs. Various handles and straps may be used to challenge different body positions. For example, sometimes, oversized handles are used by a combat sports athlete to push and pull the tires, whereas at other times, the athlete can attach the tire to slings that allow the tire to be dragged without using any form of gripping. Regardless of the type of metabolic adaptation being sought, tire drag workouts of 150–1,000 yards can deliver excellent training for combat sport athletes seeking improved physical capacity.

Sandbags or bags full of shot pellets are other pieces of unconventional equipment that can be purchased or easily made. The easiest way to make a good sandbag is to get an old army-issued duffle bag and fill it with sand or shot pellets. A very heavy vinyl sheet (i.e., the kind used to cover construction sites) can be doubled up, filled with sand or shot pellets, and sealed with a zip tie or duct tape. Heavy sandbags can be used by combat sports athletes doing traditional exercises to address strength needs, to perform throws to target power development (Figure 6a and 6b), or dragged for distance to target strength endurance goals.

Figure 6
Figure 6:
(a and b) Reverse sandbag tosses are an excellent alternative to the strength training for developing functional triple extension.

Grip and holding capabilities are essential to many combat sports and daily activities. Holding and carrying require many different hand and wrist positions that must be specifically trained to have maximum transfer to the target activity. Customized grips and slings can be used to train specific gripping and holding positions with athletes (Figure 7). All grips and slings can be attached to a high bar or any piece of equipment (e.g., band, cable, weight stack, kettlebell). For example, Franchini et al. (7) used a judogi wrapped around a high bar during isometric and dynamic grip tests to discriminate between judo athletes of different performance levels. Additionally, carrying exercises can be modified to enhance grip strength while continuing to provide anaerobic endurance and a total body workout (23). This diversity in application can create an unlimited variety of gripping and holding exercises for the personal trainer and strength coach to use with their athletes (Figure 8).

Figure 7
Figure 7:
Doing pull-ups with oversized handles (4.5 inch in diameter) develops the hook grip needed in many lifting and holding tasks.
Figure 8
Figure 8:
Reclined pulls can be used by anyone to develop a strong core and pulling musculature.

Another method of unconventional training is tire flipping (12,15). For this application, tires weighing 200–900 lb can be used, depending on the athlete being trained. Although these amounts of weight may sound menacing, it takes only a fraction of the tire weight to actually flip the tire. For example, it takes approximately 275-lb dead lift to start tilting a 900-lb tire. Tires can be flipped for distance, repetitions, or time. Partner drills can also be used for reactive training (Figure 9). Flipping tires is a total-body exercise that can be performed by anyone, assuming the tire size matches the person's strength levels. Although there are times when very heavy tires can be used, a tire size that an athlete can easily flip 5–7 times may be appropriate for most exercises. Keogh et al. (12) examined the physiology of the tire flip and found heart response to 232-kg tire flips (2 sets of 6) to be high (179 beats per minute), and this interval activity resulted in blood lactate levels of approximately 10.4 mmol/L.

Figure 9
Figure 9:
Reactive drills with a 600-lb tire can challenge the most demanding athlete. Lighter tires (200–300 lb) can also be used.

Although the strongman aspect of this training uses very heavy equipment, such as tires, cars, and other heavy objects, small objects, such as sleds, medicine balls, sandbags, ropes, and many other pieces of unconventional equipment, have been slowly making their way into this training approach (1). Therefore, in a fitness setting, sled pulls may substitute for car pulls and heavy sandbags or medicine balls can substitute for tires. Sled pull exercises can be manipulated to recreate a variety of movements, including forward, backward, and sideways, and tethering the rope or cable to different parts of the body (16).

When using unconventional training methods, the personal trainer or coach can manipulate various biomechanical elements of movements to adjust the intensity of any exercise. The required skill level, range of motion (ROM), speed, base of support, and lever arm of the exercise are all elements that affect the difficulty of an exercise. Progressing skills from simple to complex, or from part to whole, are simple ways to advance any individual through proper progression. An example of this is to take a complex skill, such as a tire flip, and break it down into its components: picking up the tire, transitioning from dead lift to shoulder push and then finishing the shoulder push to flip the tire. When performing complexes with unfamiliar equipment, particular focus should be paid to technique and the correction of technical flaws (4).

Another way to start an individual at a lower progression is to attempt partial ROM exercises before full ROM exercises. For example, if an individual does not have enough functional flexibility to start the tire flip from the floor, the tire can be placed on a box to elevate it and reduce the ROM needed for the exercise. Gradually reducing the height of the box over time allows the individual to develop the specific hip flexibility needed to start the tire flip from the ground. Yet another example of manipulating an exercise is to adjust the speed parameter by using isometric positions before progressing to dynamic movements. Isometric holds with flexed elbows can be performed using kettlebells (e.g., kettlebell clinch holds and walks). This exercise develops basic strength in the entire postural aspect of the core and enhances the ability to hold carry positions for prolonged durations. Unconventional training methods can be specifically modified to modulate speed during various types of exercise. For instance, a wood chop progression can be used to teach a person the proper mechanics of a reverse scoop toss (i.e., backward overhead toss). Heavy medicine balls, sandbags, or weight plates can also be used to develop the base strength needed for overhead power tosses (23).

A larger base of support (e.g., standing on 2 legs or using a 4-point push-up position) offers more stability and is recommended as a prerequisite to attempting exercises with a smaller base of support (e.g., standing on 1 leg or using a 3-point push-up position). This type of training often uses the transfer of high forces, which requires maximum contact with the ground and a stiff core (22). Therefore, balance equipment is not recommended when trying to transfer high forces from one limb to another (e.g., from legs to arms). When body weight exercises are used, 2-leg exercises and 4-point push-ups should be mastered before single-leg exercises and 3-point push-ups are attempted.

The lever arm of an exercise also affects the difficulty of an exercise. Smaller lever arms offer a beginning level of difficulty that can be progressed to larger lever arms. The push-up is a perfect example of how the lever arm influences an exercise. Push-ups on the floor are harder to perform than are push-ups with the upper body elevated on a bench or bar. A person beginning an exercise program or rehabilitating an injury can perform elevated push-ups before gradually lowering the upper-body base as strength improves.

In addition to the biomechanical aspects of exercise design, the look and feel of unconventional training exercises can be adjusted to match the profile of the athlete that the personal trainer or coach is working with. Athletes who do not have a long history of heavy lifting and training may also experience some anxiety about lifting heavy barbells, rocks, and tires. In these cases, the unconventional training exercises can be performed with what some may consider less-intimidating equipment, such as kettlebells, sandbags, and heavy medicine balls. For example, the traditional dumbbell farmer's carry, which uses a suitcase carry position, can be performed with kettlebells in a shoulder carry position or a sandbag in the front carry position.

Programming unconventional training is much less complicated than using the periodization of traditional strength training. Most of the movements used in this type of training, such as standing press and push-ups, are complex movements that use multiple muscle systems in a coordinated fashion (13,14,21,22). Personal trainers and coaches may benefit from exploring this training approach and then integrating it into their own style with care and proper progression. However, care and consideration should be given to all factors of training and to the stress that training produces, so that proper measures can be taken to avoid possible overtraining (2).

Unconventional training can be incorporated into any cycle used in traditional periodization schemes, whether the periodization is linear or nonlinear. During the conditioning phase of periodized training, individual exercises can be loaded appropriately to allow athletes to complete 2–3 sets of 10–15 repetitions for 4–7 exercises. As movement skills and conditioning improve, each exercise can be performed as part of a circuit. Keeping the exercise sequence, loading parameters, and equipment proximity constant throughout the training allows the personal trainer or coach to use the total circuit time as a measurement of conditioning.

The same programming approach can be taken during the strength and power phases of periodized training; however, the repetition scheme, loading parameters, and speed of movements are manipulated to accommodate the appropriate loads and speeds of each training cycle. When focusing on strength development of unconventional training exercises, 2–3 sets of 3–6 repetitions for 3–5 exercises can be used. A similar approach is done when attempting to develop power in unconventional training exercises; however, loads are reduced and speed of movement is maximized.

The loading parameters in unconventional training exercises are subjective when using equipment such as tires, sandbags, cars, and so on. Going to failure is not necessary for developing the desired physical quality. When training for conditioning and strength, use a load that is heavy enough to get good work out of the exercise, but stop a few repetitions short of absolute failure. When training for power, use a load similar to that used in the target activity, or perhaps slightly heavier (10%–20% more than the target activity requires), and work on maximum velocity of movement. When working on power endurance and metabolic conditioning, try to approximate the loads of the target activity and create circuits of similar durations and biomechanical characteristics of the target activity. Table 1 illustrates a circuit designed for MMA used with an elite fighter undergoing unconventional training. This 4- to 5-minute circuit is designed to develop fatigue resistance in the pushing action often used in MMA, especially during the clinch fighting seen when a shorter fighter fights a taller fighter. Other skill-specific circuits were also included in the training program to support the specific skill set of MMA.

Table 1
Table 1:
Unconventional training circuit for an MMA fighter

Unconventional training can be an effective way to train combat sports athletes. This method of training, or parts of it, can be incorporated into traditional strength training programs to add variety and a different functionality to the training. In cases where the inexpensive equipment needed for unconventional training is the only equipment available, the personal trainer and strength coach can apply a little creativity and easily periodize the program over a longer span of time. In whatever way unconventional training is used, with its progressive and safe application, personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches may consider it a viable method of strength and conditioning for combat sports.


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combat sports; martial arts; unconventional training

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