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!

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