Lifting heavy is awesome, I'm not going to lie. It's one of the most incredibly rewarding things anyone can do with their life. But like a lot of things in life, if you don't spend some time on the foundations, the whole thing can come collapsing down.
For fight athletes there is a long list of benefits from strength training and lifting heavy, we all know that. But with all the stress of training multiple disciplines and modalities, lifting super-heavy is not the sort of thing most fighters can (or should) sustain all year round. An intelligent way to program a fighter’s training year would be to include a lower intensity, structural balance type of phase to help keep the synergists, stabilisers, joints, connective tissue and often-neglected smaller muscle groups as strong and healthy as possible.
This is one way of investing in the foundations of physicality so that the entire package doesn't come crashing down. These types of training blocks can also serve as regenerative active recovery periods from high intensity/high threshold training cycles.
Structural balance is best achieved by performing exercises unilaterally, one side at a time. Be sure to begin each unilateral exercise using your non-dominant side first, then mirror the same number of reps on your dominant side. If you fall short of your desired number of reps on your non-dominant side, repeat the same number on your dominant side. This will ensure your non-dominant side receives the same amount of stimulus as your dominant side to decrease any strength discrepancy between left and right, rather than increase the discrepancy by doing more reps on your dominant side.
Specifically for the lower body, the following are a couple of fantastic exercises and progressions I use for all of my fight athletes in structural balance training cycles:
* The Poliquin step up - Popularised by the great Charles R. Poliquin, to perform this exercise use a small (1-2”) weight plate to elevate your heel on a 6” platform, lower your non-working foot down until the heel touches the floor, then drive yourself back up to the start position keeping your working knee directly over the big toe through the entire movement. This exercise targets the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO), the teardrop shaped muscle which sits atop the inner knee. The VMO is responsible for stabilising the patella within the patella groove . An example of a weak VMO is an athlete's kneecap excessively collapsing inward or outward during an Olympic style squat, this can lead to serious complications and cumulative injury cycles for the knee joint. The stronger the VMO, the healthier the knee joint, and the more weight an athlete can safely squat.
* The high heel elevated Poliquin step up - the Poliquin step up can be progressed by both making the platform higher, and by elevating the heel higher (4-6”). This is a more challenging version of the exercise, and can hit a lot more of the fibres through the upper VMO and into the surrounding quadriceps musculature. It also presents a good proprioceptive challenge which forces the athlete's balance to improve.
* The hamstring curl and it's variations - this may seem like an odd choice for a “remedial” exercise, but the truth is that the hamstrings are crucial to the integrity of the knee joint and the lower body musculature. To quote the great Mark Buckley, “This is important because the hamstrings are effectively a dynamic anterior cruciate ligament. One of the functions of the hamstring is to support the anterior cruciate ligament, and the function of the anterior cruciate ligament is to help prevent anterior shear forces of the tibia under the femoral condyles”. The stronger the hamstrings, the healthier the knees.
Why not try periodising a structural balance phase for your fight athletes, including 2-4 weeks (or 6-8 workouts) of the following at the beginning of the lower body workouts:
A1) Poliquin Step Ups: 2 sets of 25-30 reps, 1010 tempo, 10-30sec rest
A2) Single Lying Leg Curl: 2 sets of 10-12 reps, 2010 tempo, 30-60sec rest
Then progress to 2-4 weeks (or 6-8 workouts) of:
A1) High Heel Poliquin Step Ups: 3 sets of 17-20 reps, 1010 tempo, 10-30sec rest
A2) Single Lying Leg Curl: 3 sets of 6-8 reps, 3010 tempo, 30-60sec rest
As you can see, these “remedial” exercises are designed to build and maintain the structural integrity of the lower body, and help the athlete by not only potentiating greater strength gains, but to remain healthy and injury free also.
BONUS TIP: Include some form of unilateral Glute dominant, hip extension exercise as your A3). Examples of these are the single leg Hip bridge, or single leg Hip thruster, or even a single leg Romanian Deadlift. Periodise using the same loading parameters as above. Especially for beginners to strength training, developing glute strength and proper engagement will pay off dividends over the long run. Lower body compound exercises like Squats and Deadlifts rely heavily on glute strength and neuromuscular efficiency, developing these attributes from the beginning will enhance strength development and technical efficiency as the athlete progresses into more demanding training phases.
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