Should Athletes Cross Train? Or Specialize?

Sometimes, for young athletes especially, competitors are pressured to specialize in a certain sport or event. When an athlete is very gifted, this is often thought to be the best advice; but are we robbing our stars of key opportunities to get better?

“Focus on basketball,” a Varsity coach tells a star Freshman recruit; “you’ve got the height and talent to earn a scholarship.”

Athletic development models, though, show that might not be the best plan for success. The more sports scenarios a player experiences, the more movement patterns he/she can master. This is especially true for developmental, youth athletes. Track sprinters might learn the best methods for building straight line acceleration, but the basketball player will master lateral agility, and the baseball player will develop elite hand-eye coordination.

Even as adults, cross training has a ton of value. Still, even in a fully developed body, mastering new movement patterns or sports techniques increases neural drive. Basically, that means that learning new skills makes you stronger and more athletic. Also, changing up your routine can be key to long term and sustainable fitness; you’ll work out more if you’re not bored!

It’s true that it’s important to train for your sport. However, there are limits to that. Trying to be too specific in your training can cause you to miss out on a lot. That’s true of general S&C as well as cross training. If my sport requires me to be strong, like football, then squats are pretty sports specific (even if you’ll never squat in a game); because they make you stronger! In the same way, if increased sprinting speed will help me in my sport, then cross training in things like track events will make me better!

I knew one athlete that wouldn’t even go outside for a walk, because she was always “saving her calories and effort for training”. Wow! While I admire that kind of dedication, how long can a person function like that before getting burned out?

If you want to be successful in anything, it will take lots of dedicated focus on that one thing. You’ll have to be a little obsessive. In the case of sports and training, though, be sure not to neglect variety! The next time that you need to do some conditioning, try a game of basketball, instead of the treadmill. If there’s a cross training activity that you really love, share it with the rest of us in the Members Forum!

Do MMA Fighters Lift Weights?

Believe it or not, this was one of the most asked, and least answered S&C questions on Google. As a strength coach for many pro and amateur fighters, I’ve watched dozens of combat athletes improve as a result of strength training. I’ve also competed in MMA, and have trained martial arts both with and without supplementary weight lifting.

Not all fighters lift weights, and not all those who do lift weights, do so correctly. All fighters, though, could benefit from getting stronger 100% of the time.

After a ton of real world testing, here is why I believe all fighters should participate in an organized strength training program.

MMA athletes use their bodies as weapons, and it is their job to sharpen those weapons daily.  Most fighters, especially at the highest levels of the sport, are working hard to gain strength in the weight room.  While weight room records aren’t everything, it’s like I tell my clients; “When everything else is equal, the stronger athlete wins.”

Why It Matters—-

  • Strength will help you win grappling exchanges by moving your opponent with force, or allow you to inflict more damage with powerful attacks.
  • Strength training will lead to improved structural integrity around your joints, and reduce the likelihood of injuries. 
  • Increased core strength will allow you to absorb more damage from your opponent’s attacks.
  • Strength training will help you to develop speed and explosiveness, to beat your opponent to the punch. 
  • Strength training properly for your sport will lead to increased anaerobic endurance.  You won’t get tired as fast in a fight. 
  • Strength training with full range of motion, in many cases, will create functional mobility. You’ll be strong from more positions, and less likely to be injured.

Believe it or not, there is a “wrong” way to work out for every sport, even if it is the “right” way for another sport.  Fighters can’t train like bodybuilders or football players, and expect great results.  They also have to balance their strength workouts with the rest of their training. 

How to Do It—-

  • Train in cycles, focusing on different parts of performance on different days/weeks/months.  Include training for corrective exercise, endurance, strength, and speed. 
  • You can’t train at red-line all year ‘round, or you’ll burn out.  In general, the intensity of your training will increase the closer you get to fight time.  You’ll rest to recover and “peak” just before a fight, rest again after, and then start building intensity again towards your next competition.
  • Get strong from the middle out.  A strong core will allow greater mobility and strength in your whole body.
  • Focus on explosive compound movements like Cleans or Snatches.  Include major staples like squat, pull-ups, and some pressing. 
  • Focus corrective exercise work on shoulders (external rotators and rear delts), knees (strong VMO, strong hamstrings, avoid tight quads). 
  • Since fighters put so much energy into their skills training, sparring, and conditioning, you won’t have enough bandwidth left over to lift 6 days per week, like a bodybuilder.  I suggest lifting weights for strength training twice per week, and doing two conditioning sessions per week.  Much more than that, and you’ll risk over training quickly. 
  • To gain speed, lift heavy to get strong… then decrease your weights, and lift FAST. Try this over a period of several weeks, in cycles.  

Follow these rules, and you’ll definitely gain an edge on your competition.  Strength training will make you stronger, faster, and more athletic.  Keep everything in perspective, though.  The purpose of Strength & Conditioning is to improve your ability to execute in your sport; and your training to execute those skills in practice will always be the most important thing.  If S&C is leaving you too sore to practice, getting you hurt, or taking away from practice time… it’s time to back off.  Until then… grab a bar and go!

This one is me.

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Is Olympic Lifting TOO DANGEROUS?

Now that the CrossFit Games are on Cable every year, the average gym-goer is becoming more familiar with the “Olympic Lifts”.  These two lifts, the Clean & Jerk and the Snatch, actually combine to form a much older sport of their own.  This sport, Weightlifting, was one of the original events in the Olympics.  It is still an Olympic event today, and because Weightlifters develop so much explosive power, sports performance coaches around the world use these techniques to develop speed and power in the training room.

It has become a common belief, though, that the Olympic lifts are too risky.  I hear people decline to do the lifts all the time, because they have been told they might injure a shoulder.  The average person, or especially an athlete, can’t afford to get hurt in the weight room.  No one wants to miss work.  We are in the training room to get better, not to get injured.  So, is it really true that these lifts are risky?  It’s a question worth asking.

One article on compared research from 13 scientific studies.  Each study measured the injury rate of participants in various forms of strength training, reported per 1,000 hours of training.  The subjects were all training for competition in their respective strength sports.  The research showed that Olympic Weightlifters sustained injuries at a rate between 2.6 and 3.3 per 1,000 hours.

That’s a pretty darn low rate of injury.  For comparison’s sake, studies found CrossFit, Powerlifting, and Strongman all to have higher injury rates.  Strongman’s was the highest at 5.5 injuries per 1,000 hours.  In another study, injury rates were tracked with the same method for various collegiate sports.  Collegiate Wresting had the highest injury rate at 13.1 injuries per 1,000 hours of training.

When you consider all the benefits that come with Olympic lifting, the case for Weightlifting gets even stronger.  The lifts create far greater force production through your legs than squats or deadlifts.  They generate more core engagement than squats, crunches, or sit-ups.  They require coordination and kinesthetic awareness.  The lifts force you to develop speed, strength, power, and even mobility.  You’ll also be forced to absorb the sudden impact of heavy weight; a perk I love for contact sport athletes who will need to absorb impacts in competition.

As a coach, I love the Olympic lifts.  I used to compete in Weightlifting, and have coached Olympic lifting for many years.  I don’t baby my athletes by telling them that these lifts are dangerous.  Many of the athletes that I train are preparing for competition and skills training that is far more dangerous than Cleans or Snatches.  They are tough enough to learn the lifts, and challenging them to do so often produces huge gains in overall athleticism.  The progress in Weightlifting becomes confidence inspiring, a little addicting, and fun.

The pictures in this article are from the first two Weightlifting meets I ever coached.  One of the lifters, Michael Garcia, is a professional MMA Fighter.  He competed in one weightlifting meet when he was learning the basics, and now we use Olympic Lifting to produce his trademark explosiveness in the cage.  The other lifter pictured is EJ Miranda.  He won the meet that day.  Over the past few years he’s also won a Strongman meet and several Jiu-Jitsu tournaments.  Olympic lifting helped to develop power that transferred into other competitions for him as well.

Here are a few tips for learning about the Olympic Lifts:

  • Perfect technique basics with a broom stick or empty bar before adding any weight.
  • Don’t attempt more than about 3 reps per set. These lifts are taxing for your nervous system.  Technique will break down and injury may occur if you do more reps.  Plus, completing more reps in will negate the speed and power building benefits of the exercise!
  • Seek out a USAW certified coach to get you started. A coach will be able to watch you in ways that you can’t watch yourself.  This will greatly increase your level of safety, and it will shorten your learning curve.
  • Try a competition. Weightlifting is a sport that provides lots of local opportunities to compete at all ages and ability levels.  There’s no better way to learn about the sport!





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