Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Importance of Indicator Lifts for Combat Athletes.

One of the most important things in any strength and conditioning program is the proper use of indicator lifts. Indicator lifts are the testers that allow you to monitor an athlete's strength progress. I choose indicator lifts for my athletes based on both the sport and the individual.

For my combative athletes I generally track a variety of explosive movements, maximal or near maximal strength exercises and relative strength exercises as each are of great importance for their discipline.

For explosive strength and power I look at various jumps, usually a box jump or a broad jump done for a max height on box jumps or max distance on broad jumps. For lower body strength I use a parallel box squat performed in our belt squat machine usually for a 1 or 3 rep max. I like to use a block deadlift done with a sumo stance and the plates on 2", 4" or 5" blocks done for a 1 rep max. This is a great display of hip strength, something very important to all athletes not just fighters and grapplers. For upper body strength I use floor presses done for a 3 or 5 rep max. I also use pull-ups performed with body-weight for max reps as an indicator for relative strength. By tracking my athlete's progress with these indicator lifts I can ensure that they are progressing in all of the types of strength important to their performance.

Jumps can be done with body-weight or with added resistance by holding dumbbells, kettlebells or wearing a weight vest. Regardless, you should try to break a personal record in box height or broad jump distance about once every 4-6 weeks. It is important to note that if you are improving in your jumps and max effort strength work simultaneously, your training is on track. If your strength lifts are going up but your jumps are stalling or worse, regressing, you need to prioritize dynamic effort work in training.

BJJ athlete Chris Jones performing box jumps with a 40lb weighted vest.
Squats and deadlifts should be the cornerstone of any athlete's strength and conditioning program. These two compound exercises deliver the most "bang for your buck". For my combat athletes, particularly those who have mileage on, or injuries to, the shoulders I prefer squats with either a safety squat bar or belt squat machine as this keeps the stress off the shoulder joints unlike squatting with a regular barbell.

Chris Jones performing box squats in the belt squat machine at the Team EPTS training center. He has done 585 for a 3 rep max.
For the deadlift we tend to favor the sumo deadlift done with the plates resting on blocks (2"-5" blocks usually) as this minimizes leg drive and places a great emphasis on the hips and back.

Chris performing the sumo deadlift off 2" blocks, and has made 2.5 times his bodyweight for a 1 rep max. Notice he is sporting what the late Mel Siff referred to as the "best shoe for weightlifting".
I am not a big fan of regular bench presses, particularly for 1 rep maxes, for my combat athletes. The majority of our pressing is done with dumbbells or kettlebells, but we've found the barbell floor press done for a 5 rep max is a great indicator lift for our fighters and grapplers. Be sure to stick the legs out straight to take leg drive out of the exercise. This is very similar to how the combat athlete uses their upper body pushing strength in training and competition when working from guard.

Chris performing the floor press. He regularly does his body-weight - 205-225 - for sets of 5+ reps.
For upper body pulling strength nothing beats the pull-up. There is no better exercise for developing upper body strength. Pull-ups should be performed strictly with NO kipping. We use a variety of grips - underhand, overhand, parallel grip, staggered grip, fat grips, and one of our favorites gi pull-ups.
The gi pull-up is hands-down one of  the best upper body strength exercises a grappler can add to their training plan. Team EPTS athlete Chris Jones easily bangs out sets of 10+ reps at a body-weight of 205-220 lbs.
A final note about indicator lifts, just because the typical strength coach here in the US has some sort of fatal attraction to ass to grass front squats, bench press and power cleans doesn't mean that you have to. When working with athletes you have to consider the demands of their sport and their physical constitution when selecting their lifts. Athletes are not weightlifters or powerlifters, they are not being judged on their technical performance of the snatch, clean and jerk, squat, bench press and deadlift. Use exercise variations that allow them to get strong through the joint angles and positions they need to use in there sport. All that matters is their sporting result, not the lifts or numbers they do in the gym. Choose the exercises that best suit your individual athlete and focus on making them strong, explosive, and resilient. While this article focused only on the strength and power exercises I use with my combat athletes, aerobic capacity and other conditioning modalities need to be addressed, as does mobility and range of motion.

When an athlete develops a high level of physical preparedness and approaches their specific sport preparation with laser-focus, their results will be nothing short of impressive.

Chris Jones, Creighton BJJ brown belt and owner of Nucleus Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, won gold at the 2017 IBJJF Pans, Masters Worlds, Nogi Pans and Nogi Worlds and is currently the #1 ranked brown belt in his division in the IBJJF!
Stay Strong AND Healthy!