Grappling Preparation Part 2 - Training

  The challenge of being prepared for a martial arts competition can be quite daunting.  Those of you that have competed know what I am talking about.  You may feel like a cardio king in practice, but come time to actually apply your skills against an opponent who wants that "W" just as badly as you is a totally different experience.  A match held in a competition setting just moves at an entirely different intensity, no matter how hard you train in a practice setting.  I have gone through two hour practices feeling great leading up to a tourney, yet after my first match I can barely stand or my forearms are so pumped I cant even open my hand.  What I know with an absolute certainty is that "gassing out" in the middle of a match is one of the worst feelings on the planet.  Skill no longer matters and you begin making match ending mistakes while you struggle to survive.  All hope is lost at that point.
   So how do you cross-train to develop the conditioning you need to execute your game plan in a competition?

   First things first.  Develop baseline strength.  If you consider yourself weak (you know who you are), you need to start with basic strength training protocols.  In the strength world, we call this "General Physical Preparedness"  Why not just dive right into the sport specific exercises listed below?
The answer is best summed up here:
"Until one becomes 'entry level strong', e.g., a strict bodyweight military press for men or strict pullups for women, no priority other than strength can be justified for a healthy athlete. Science and experience have taught us that any athlete, even in ultra-endurance sports, who has not built a foundation of strength will fail to reach his or her potential.

Strength has been compared to a glass that can be filled with other qualities. The larger the glass, the more endurance, sport skill, fat loss, etc. can hold."
- StrongFirst Philosophy
GPP training (fundamental movements with bodyweight, barbells, dumbells, kettlebells) also is a great way to improve your ability to resist injuries from grappling.
  Once you can move your own body and manipulate external resistance safely and with confidence, you can move on to more sport specific training (called SPP). 
  I utilize the 10 drills described below to develop specific qualities that help me become a more effective grappler.  Each of them improve my abilities in a unique way and I consider them my "secret" exercises.  Here they are:
The Grinding Strength Builders
#10 - Towel Grip Pullups 
How to do it:  Drape two towels over a pullup bar about shoulder width apart.  Grab each towel tightly and perform as many full range, slow pullups as possible.  After you've completed your set of pullups, hang until your grip fails.
Why it works:  Grip strength and endurance is key in a grappling match because of the importance of grip fighting.  Towel grip pullups not only work the large muscles of the forearm, but also hit the smaller muscles that build that "finger strength" rock climbers and high level judokas are known for.
Variations:  Gi pullups, Bodyweight bar holds/hangs, Towel grip pulldowns, Two finger pullups
#9 - Box Raises

How to do it:  Start standing with two dumbells resting on thighs.  Raise the dumbells straight out in front of you until they are at shoulder height in front of you (pic #1).  Hold them at shoulder height while you bring them out to your sides (pic #2).  Slowly lower until they are rest at your sides.  Do the entire motion in reverse (out, forward, down).  That's 1 rep.  Compete 15-20 reps.  When that feels easy, go heavier.
Why it works:   When I compete, one of the first muscle groups to tire is my shoulders (feeling: I can't lift my arms!).  This drill gives me the same feeling, so I the more I work on it, the more my shoulders build resistance to fatigue.
#8 - Lawn Mower Pulls
How to do it:  Start with a hip width stance with two moderate sized dumbells.  Sit back into a deep hinge (like you are going to perform bent over rows).  While holding a neutral spine, aggressively pull one dumbell toward your shoulder while twisting your spine very slightly for some extra torque (like you are starting a lawn mower).  As soon as the dumbell is at hip height, ride it's momentum backward until it starts to fall in a circular motion.  At the same time, aggressively pull the other dumbell.  See video.

Why it works:   This aggressive motion mimics grip fighting and the aggressive pulling on your opponents gi or head.  Practicing lawn mower pulls helps to build resistance to fatigue in your grip and pulling muscles.  This exercise makes a perfect superset with box raises.
#7 - The Bottom's Up Kettlebell Press
How to do it:  This movement requires competency with the kettlebell military press.  Basically, you are cleaning the kettlebell to the rack position with the bottom of the bell facing up instead of resting on your body.  Crush grip the handle while you slowing press the bell to a lockout.  This is an advanced drill and requires practice, so start light.
Why it works:  The movement will challenge your grip in a unique way, while deeply engaging your entire upper body and mid-section. 
#6 - Pistol Squat
How to do it:  This exercise requires prior competency with the goblet squat.  I wrote an entire separate article on how to pistol squat correctly and will post in on this blog if interested.

Why it works:  Two months out from any competitions, I stop squatting heavy and start doing more full range of motion movements such as the pistol squat.  I do this because as a grappler I need tons of leg strength, but also need ample flexibility.  Pistols allow me to maintain the punishing strength, while improving my range of motion with yoga.
The Squeezing Strength Builders
The next three exercises are practiced to develop a critical, yet overlooked type of strength necessarily to properly execute a successful submission hold.  I like to practice these three exercises at the end of a tough training session or workout, when I am already tired to best simulate a match situation.  There is no worse feeling than working hard to set up a sub, but being too tired to finish it or lack the squeezing strength to finish it fast enough.
#5 - Guillotine/Ankle lock Squeeze

#4 - Rear Naked Choke Squeeze

#3 - Triangle Squeeze

The Endurance Builders
#2 - The Hand Bike

If you have access to one of these bad boys, consider yourself very lucky!  Upper body endurance is an often overlooked asset for a grappler.  I literally try to break the machine when I use it.
#1 - Uphill Sprint Intervals
(substitute: Airdyne Bike)
Self-Explanatory.  A classic endurance workout that matches the same intensity you will encounter in a match situation.
  So, there you have it....10 of my "secret" grappling specific drills.  Are these the only drills I use?  Of course not, but they are definitely the most effective in my opinion.  While no amount of cross-training can replace training time on  the mat, it will certainly help boost your strength and conditioning several levels above your competition.  In the end, this extra training done properly can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Note:  A special thanks to all of my teachers who shared some of these incredible drills with my as a young aspiring student.  Those people include Pavel Tstatsouline, Pat DeGain, Jim Stanec, Eddie Bravo, Shad Phospohala.
Part 1 here, Part 3 here 

1 comment:

  1. Great read Danny! I really like the line up of drills and skills. Especially the emphasis on grip strength. Thanks for reminding me how great towels are for pulls.


    - Will Parker