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Combat Grappler's Strength & Conditioning FAQ's

by Zach Even-Esh

6 September 2004

Bio: I began strength training and wrestling at the exact same time in my life, at age 13. It was the summer before high school to be specific. Training back then was very much ruled by the bodybuilding magazines. There was no such thing as the internet back in 1989, and as a young kid with a paper route, my money was invested in FLEX magazine. Little did I know that there was any difference in how to train. I thought it was one way. Get bigger, get stronger and you will have the edge.

Unfortunately, this style of training led to numerous injuries. Through high school I injured my knee twice, in addition to some other smaller injuries. After high school I stay involved in wrestling, through coaching & live wrestling at every practice. This point in time is where I switched my focus to bodybuilding. As before, my workouts were literally copied straight out of the pages of FLEX magazine.

These workouts, truly have little or NO carry over for athletes. After competing successfully in bodybuilding, my love for the mat never leveled off. If anything, with the emergence of the UFC & PRIDE made me hungrier. I knew that mentally I was at a completely different level that ever before, confidence being very high. Still training like a bodybuilder though, through my training in shoot fighting and submission fighting, I injured myself once again, ultimately sidelining me severely. This injury was the tearing of my ACL on my right knee, which I had previously injured and had surgery on 8 years prior.

After this injury I was completely disillusioned and angered with the my training methods. Completely confused as to why I was such a magnet for injuries, I took massive action & began researching training methods for mixed martial arts.

I read every book & article I could get my eyes on. I read through the mixed martial arts magazines and books, I called strength coaches that had worked with NHB fighters and I grilled them with every question possible until they were ready to get off the phone! Basically I approached this learning of strength training for our sport as serious as I would train myself. I saw no other way to do this, ultimately determined to fix my mistakes & help others avoid my training mistakes in an effort to help them reach their true potential.

Zach Even - Esh is the president of Combat Grappler & a strength coach for serious athletes - with particular focus on combat athletes. He is located in NJ, USA & can be reached via e mail at

His DVD can be purchased at while his Ebook, Gladiator Training manual is available at

Combat Grapplers' FAQ's

How do you build 'mat strength'?

This is often coined "functional" strength. The difference here is that you want to apply the methods of dinosaur training, rock iron steel and what I call farm boy or gladiator training. In essence, these all mimic the lifts of strong man training.

Lifting odd objects are similar to lifting a human. The object is never absolute and a fight is never absolute as well. Muscles are worked that are rarely if ever worked through even the most complex strength training you can do in a gym.

The athletes at Combat Grappler do various strong man work, regardless of age, even my 13 year old athletes do some strong man training. Here are our favorites:

  • truck pushing
  • sled pressing, sled rowing, sled dragging, sled rotations, sled running (i have various rope atachments here - one rope goes around a weight belt and they walk with it, another rope of shaped like the letter "Y", allowing them to row it to their chest, press it in front of their body, drag it with hands behind them, or hands through their legs, they do standing rotations with the rope as well)
  • Sand Bags - we pick these up explosively and catch them, walk with them on flat surfaces, up stairs, curl them, press them over head, pick them up and rotate them by placing them on a higher object such as a picnic table
  • wheel barrow walks - filling these with very heavy weights they will push them up slight inclines - often times the weights are a minimum of their own bodyweight, and sometimes close to double their bodyweight
  • Tire flipping - awesome work here! one of my favorites!! keg lifting or carries - i have a garbage barrel filled with sand bags - they bear hug it and lift it, carry it, rotate and lift
  • sledge hammer training - hitting an object repeatedly from an overhead swing as well as a side swing - making sure to equally work both sides

The key here is to be creative, choosing odd objects that can be made or found - either found in junk yards, or made by going to your local hard ware store. We do some strong man training every workout probably. I like doing these either for an entire workout, and sometimes at the end of a workout because doing them at the end can sometimes closely mimic the exhaustive nature of a fight.

Variety is key with all our workouts, and so, I emphasize, we change things constantly - beginning, middle, end, or entire workouts of strong man lifting. I don't want my athletes getting used to anything, and this is also better for their progress as well as less strenuous on the nervous system.

How do you develop 'mat endurance'?

I was tlaking about this with a former champion wrestler, coach & current D 1 head strength coach, Ethan Reeve - he had investigated the same question, but, he went straight to the source and got a hold of world champion wrestlers from Russia. A huge part of their training was drilling - but - this drilling was super intense & looked like an actual match, done at very high intensity.

First of all, live sparring makes it easier to get injured. Even though it is the most enjoyable part of training, the majority of your "on the mat" training should be centered on technique, done at high intensity.

To give you an example, when I was in high school I attended a wrestling camp hosted by a 2 time gold medalist in wrestling, John Smith - I went to his cmap 2 years in a row. I will never forget watching him drill! Both camps he brought with him two of the best D 1 wrestlers in the USA. The 2 of them together could not keep up w/his drilling it was so intense! They were literally dying on the mat just trying to stand up fast enough to keep up with him. They had to take turns drilling with him because of this intensity. He drilled technique like a man possessed, fire in his eyes and speed that was lightning fast!

There is no one secret for mat endurance, but, you must put in your time with high intensity drilling - I suggest doing this more than your live sparring.

Can you train to be explosive?

You can definitely train to be explosive (power). This relates to your strength in relation to time. Moving a weight quickly first & foremost requires time to progress to. It requires an athlete to learn the lifts properly and develop strength foundation. Doing exercises such as plyometrics build speed (power) as well as doing exercises with light to moderate weights for low reps and higher sets.

Why lower reps and higher sets? First, the lower reps allow us to exert power - training towards failure slows you down and does not allow you to train for power & speed.

here are a few examples of training for power:

  • plyo push ups, 5 sets x 5 reps
  • squat jumps / split squat jumps, 4 x 5 - 8 reps
  • box jumps, 8 x 3 reps
  • long jumps, 6 x 4 reps
  • 1 arm kettlebell push press, 10 x 2 reps
  • pull ups superset with barbell hang clean, 7 sets x 3 reps for each notice how i gave bodyweight and free weight examples - apply both of them, be creative, keep reps low and vary the number of sets. Rest periods are often in the range of 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes.

Also, when training for speed / power, i like to switch the rest periods a lot - research shows that the central nervous system needs to recover fully from such power / speed exertion - so rest periods are reccomended to be on average 3 minutes. But, for the MMA field, that does not truly relate to what happens in a fight or match where we have quick bouts of fighting every 10 - 30 seconds - and thus, our rest periods are sometimes only 20 - 30 seconds. I may not be following the rules of research, but I believe you need to experiment with "in the trenches" work, not simply book research!

Last note on power training: we use medicine ball throwing often for power. Why medicine balls? because we can release them with out worrying about slowing down. When using free weights, no matter how fast we want to move the weight, we must eventually come to a stop with it - this is what we call "putting on the breaks" - doing a bench press for power, Icannot throw the weight into the air. A medicine ball can be released and thus I can exert all my effort, speed, power to throw it. In my DVD, The Ultimate Guide to Sport Specific Training, my partner & I show numerous med ball throws with a partner to build power & speed.

Do plyo's work and are they dangerous?

Plyos can be dangerous just as anything can be dangerous - doing them incorrectly, doing them too often, etc. can make anything dangerous. Keep in mind plyos are exhaustive in nature for the CNS and should not be done on a daily basis!

Does training slow make you slow (a la SuperSlow) and training fast make you fast?

Once my athletes have acquired solid technique in the lifts we move the weights fairly quickly. That being said, form can always be improved in all lifts. I do not have my athletes move a weight slowly except for the beginners, where we often change the tempo of the lift which is a simple way to increase difficulty of an exercise before loading it with extra weights.

My athletes move the weights quickly, but I emphasize not to mistake speed with moving sloppy and out of control.

Machines v Free Weights - what's better?

Free weights with out question. Machines are out for athletes. Sometimes cables are used, but NEVER do we use machines. The machines provide us with no stability effect and they are a large reason as to why I looked strong, had strong muscles yet had weak joints & ligaments.

Weights v Bodyweight - which has the most carryover in MMA training?

Unfortunately I can say which is better since I would never want to use one instead of the other. I will say this, for my beginning athletes, young teenagers, we start with bodyweight strength training and do lots of it! In addition, my advanced athletes still do bodyweight strength training every workout. All my athletes do an average of 50 pull ups per workout (varying grips each set)! We love the one legged squats, push ups and the variations, pull ups & dips, plyometrics for upper & lower body as well are amazing!

Should you train to failure or not?

Very rarely do my athletes train to failure. Often they leave 1 or 2 reps in the tank. I look for my athletes to maintain form (for safety reasons amongst others) as well as speed during the exercise. The closer they get to fatigue, the more they slow down and the less benefit the lift has on gaining strength & power.

How do you combine bodyweight training and weights into an MMA schedule?

I suggest to avoid long workouts first of all for Mixed Martial Arts fighters. Never strength train longer than 1 hour, and often times you can be finished with a workout in 30 minutes on average.

Try not to strength train followed by live grappling / sparring - your muscles, joints, and CNS will be fatigued putting you at higher risk for injury. You cna strength train on the same days you train in MMA though, be sure to have adequate rest & nutrition in between each session, preferably a minimum of 4 hours.

If you are a full time fighter, this is not difficult for you to get all this rest, hopefully napping mid day as well. For the fighter with full time job, family, and training, I would try and separate the days. One day MMA work, next day strength training. Or, have a quick strength workout, then technique work, or technique work followed by strength training. If strength training is done same day, be sure to make this a very short workout and listen to your body. Pushing through fatigue when you really feel exhausted is a great way for injury to occur.

Fatigue is your body sending you a message to rest - learning to listen to your body will give you greater longevity & greater success for your given MMA sport.

Part 2 - Kettlebells, weights & cardio, recovery, time efficient training.......

Onto Part 2

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