Combat Grappler

Zach Evan-Esh has some interesting ideas on training for grappling sports.

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Combat Grappler's Strength & Conditioning FAQ's

by Zach Even-Esh

6 September 2004

Bio: I began strength training and wrestling at the exact same time in my life, at age 13. It was the summer before high school to be specific. Training back then was very much ruled by the bodybuilding magazines. There was no such thing as the internet back in 1989, and as a young kid with a paper route, my money was invested in FLEX magazine. Little did I know that there was any difference in how to train. I thought it was one way. Get bigger, get stronger and you will have the edge.

Unfortunately, this style of training led to numerous injuries. Through high school I injured my knee twice, in addition to some other smaller injuries. After high school I stay involved in wrestling, through coaching and live wrestling at every practice. This point in time is where I switched my focus to bodybuilding. As before, my workouts were literally copied straight out of the pages of FLEX magazine.

These workouts, truly have little or NO carry over for athletes. After competing successfully in bodybuilding, my love for the mat never leveled off. If anything, with the emergence of the UFC & PRIDE made me hungrier. I knew that mentally I was at a completely different level that ever before, confidence being very high. Still training like a bodybuilder though, through my training in shoot fighting and submission fighting, I injured myself once again, ultimately sidelining me severely. This injury was the tearing of my ACL on my right knee, which I had previously injured and had surgery on 8 years prior.

After this injury I was completely disillusioned and angered with the my training methods. Completely confused as to why I was such a magnet for injuries, I took massive action and began researching training methods for mixed martial arts.

I read every book & article I could get my eyes on. I read through the mixed martial arts magazines and books, I called strength coaches that had worked with NHB fighters and I grilled them with every question possible until they were ready to get off the phone! Basically I approached this learning of strength training for our sport as serious as I would train myself. I saw no other way to do this, ultimately determined to fix my mistakes and help others avoid my training mistakes in an effort to help them reach their true potential.

Zach Even - Esh is the president of Combat Grappler & a strength coach for serious athletes - with particular focus on combat athletes. He is located in NJ, USA & can be reached via e mail at

His DVD can be purchased at while his Ebook, Gladiator Training manual is available at


Combat Grapplers' FAQ's

How do you build 'mat strength'?

This is often coined "functional" strength. The difference here is that you want to apply the methods of dinosaur training, rock iron steel and what I call farm boy or gladiator training. In essence, these all mimic the lifts of strong man training.

Lifting odd objects are similar to lifting a human. The object is never absolute and a fight is never absolute as well. Muscles are worked that are rarely if ever worked through even the most complex strength training you can do in a gym.

The athletes at Combat Grappler do various strong man work, regardless of age, even my 13 year old athletes do some strong man training. Here are our favorites:

truck pushing
sled pressing, sled rowing, sled dragging, sled rotations, sled running (i have various rope atachments here - one rope goes around a weight belt and they walk with it, another rope of shaped like the letter "Y", allowing them to row it to their chest, press it in front of their body, drag it with hands behind them, or hands through their legs, they do standing rotations with the rope as well)
Sand Bags - we pick these up explosively and catch them, walk with them on flat surfaces, up stairs, curl them, press them over head, pick them up and rotate them by placing them on a higher object such as a picnic table
wheel barrow walks - filling these with very heavy weights they will push them up slight inclines - often times the weights are a minimum of their own bodyweight, and sometimes close to double their bodyweight
Tire flipping - awesome work here! one of my favorites!! keg lifting or carries - i have a garbage barrel filled with sand bags - they bear hug it and lift it, carry it, rotate and lift
sledge hammer training - hitting an object repeatedly from an overhead swing as well as a side swing - making sure to equally work both sides
The key here is to be creative, choosing odd objects that can be made or found - either found in junk yards, or made by going to your local hard ware store. We do some strong man training every workout probably. I like doing these either for an entire workout, and sometimes at the end of a workout because doing them at the end can sometimes closely mimic the exhaustive nature of a fight.

Variety is key with all our workouts, and so, I emphasize, we change things constantly - beginning, middle, end, or entire workouts of strong man lifting. I don't want my athletes getting used to anything, and this is also better for their progress as well as less strenuous on the nervous system.

How do you develop 'mat endurance'?

I was tlaking about this with a former champion wrestler, coach & current D 1 head strength coach, Ethan Reeve - he had investigated the same question, but, he went straight to the source and got a hold of world champion wrestlers from Russia. A huge part of their training was drilling - but - this drilling was super intense & looked like an actual match, done at very high intensity.

First of all, live sparring makes it easier to get injured. Even though it is the most enjoyable part of training, the majority of your "on the mat" training should be centered on technique, done at high intensity.

To give you an example, when I was in high school I attended a wrestling camp hosted by a 2 time gold medalist in wrestling, John Smith - I went to his cmap 2 years in a row. I will never forget watching him drill! Both camps he brought with him two of the best D 1 wrestlers in the USA. The 2 of them together could not keep up w/his drilling it was so intense! They were literally dying on the mat just trying to stand up fast enough to keep up with him. They had to take turns drilling with him because of this intensity. He drilled technique like a man possessed, fire in his eyes and speed that was lightning fast!

There is no one secret for mat endurance, but, you must put in your time with high intensity drilling - I suggest doing this more than your live sparring.

Can you train to be explosive?

You can definitely train to be explosive (power). This relates to your strength in relation to time. Moving a weight quickly first & foremost requires time to progress to. It requires an athlete to learn the lifts properly and develop strength foundation. Doing exercises such as plyometrics build speed (power) as well as doing exercises with light to moderate weights for low reps and higher sets.

Why lower reps and higher sets? First, the lower reps allow us to exert power - training towards failure slows you down and does not allow you to train for power & speed.

here are a few examples of training for power:

plyo push ups, 5 sets x 5 reps
squat jumps / split squat jumps, 4 x 5 - 8 reps
box jumps, 8 x 3 reps
long jumps, 6 x 4 reps
1 arm kettlebell push press, 10 x 2 reps
pull ups superset with barbell hang clean, 7 sets x 3 reps for each notice how i gave bodyweight and free weight examples - apply both of them, be creative, keep reps low and vary the number of sets. Rest periods are often in the range of 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes.
Also, when training for speed / power, i like to switch the rest periods a lot - research shows that the central nervous system needs to recover fully from such power / speed exertion - so rest periods are reccomended to be on average 3 minutes. But, for the MMA field, that does not truly relate to what happens in a fight or match where we have quick bouts of fighting every 10 - 30 seconds - and thus, our rest periods are sometimes only 20 - 30 seconds. I may not be following the rules of research, but I believe you need to experiment with "in the trenches" work, not simply book research!

Last note on power training: we use medicine ball throwing often for power. Why medicine balls? because we can release them with out worrying about slowing down. When using free weights, no matter how fast we want to move the weight, we must eventually come to a stop with it - this is what we call "putting on the breaks" - doing a bench press for power, Icannot throw the weight into the air. A medicine ball can be released and thus I can exert all my effort, speed, power to throw it. In my DVD, The Ultimate Guide to Sport Specific Training, my partner & I show numerous med ball throws with a partner to build power and speed.

Do plyo's work and are they dangerous?

Plyos can be dangerous just as anything can be dangerous - doing them incorrectly, doing them too often, etc. can make anything dangerous. Keep in mind plyos are exhaustive in nature for the CNS and should not be done on a daily basis!

Does training slow make you slow (a la SuperSlow) and training fast make you fast?

Once my athletes have acquired solid technique in the lifts we move the weights fairly quickly. That being said, form can always be improved in all lifts. I do not have my athletes move a weight slowly except for the beginners, where we often change the tempo of the lift which is a simple way to increase difficulty of an exercise before loading it with extra weights.

My athletes move the weights quickly, but I emphasize not to mistake speed with moving sloppy and out of control.

Machines v Free Weights - what's better?

Free weights with out question. Machines are out for athletes. Sometimes cables are used, but NEVER do we use machines. The machines provide us with no stability effect and they are a large reason as to why I looked strong, had strong muscles yet had weak joints & ligaments.

Weights v Bodyweight - which has the most carryover in MMA training?

Unfortunately I can say which is better since I would never want to use one instead of the other. I will say this, for my beginning athletes, young teenagers, we start with bodyweight strength training and do lots of it! In addition, my advanced athletes still do bodyweight strength training every workout. All my athletes do an average of 50 pull ups per workout (varying grips each set)! We love the one legged squats, push ups and the variations, pull ups and dips, plyometrics for upper & lower body as well are amazing!

Should you train to failure or not?

Very rarely do my athletes train to failure. Often they leave 1 or 2 reps in the tank. I look for my athletes to maintain form (for safety reasons amongst others) as well as speed during the exercise. The closer they get to fatigue, the more they slow down and the less benefit the lift has on gaining strength & power.

How do you combine bodyweight training and weights into an MMA schedule?

I suggest to avoid long workouts first of all for Mixed Martial Arts fighters. Never strength train longer than 1 hour, and often times you can be finished with a workout in 30 minutes on average.

Try not to strength train followed by live grappling / sparring - your muscles, joints, and CNS will be fatigued putting you at higher risk for injury. You cna strength train on the same days you train in MMA though, be sure to have adequate rest and nutrition in between each session, preferably a minimum of 4 hours.

If you are a full time fighter, this is not difficult for you to get all this rest, hopefully napping mid day as well. For the fighter with full time job, family, and training, I would try and separate the days. One day MMA work, next day strength training. Or, have a quick strength workout, then technique work, or technique work followed by strength training. If strength training is done same day, be sure to make this a very short workout and listen to your body. Pushing through fatigue when you really feel exhausted is a great way for injury to occur.

Fatigue is your body sending you a message to rest - learning to listen to your body will give you greater longevity and greater success for your given MMA sport.

Combat Grappler's Strength & Conditioning FAQ's

by Zach Even-Esh

Part 2

What do you think of kettlebells? A worthwhile investment for MMA trainees or an expensive toy?

I love kettlebells and all my athletes use them every workout. We use them every workout for swings which attack the posterior chain which is all too often a very weak area for young athletes or any untrained athlete. In addition, they build smart muscle. By this I mean the athletes learns to use their energy & effort efficently. Many kettlebell exercises have sections of the exercise where the athlete must exert strength or power and then points of rest. This has a carry over effect to their actions in the cage, ring or on the mat. Also, most kettlebell lifts require the swing or some swing motion, which involves the core - by core I do not mean the abs on lower back - the core actually entails the upper thighs, glutes, upper hamstring, hip flexors, abs and lower back - I picked this up from Coach Ethan Reeve who states that the core is the area where movement originates from, which is not just the abs and lower back.

Another factor is the grip is always worked with kettlebells because of the thickness of the handles. Dumbbells and barbells are not thick handled the time as kettlebells are. Kettlebells can also be held in front of the body with elbows in, close to the fighting stance for stand up, in addition, the weight sitting in the front closely simulates where your opponent's weight will be when you shoot in for a takedown. Doing squats and lunges with kettlebells in the rack position keeps that weight in front - this also strengthens the athletes upper back which as I mentioned before is a weak area, especially for young athletes.

The kettlebells also allow the athlete to work greatly on stability to the akward position of the weight - with mixed martial art fighters injuring the shoulders, knees and elbows so often this makes russian kettlebells a great tool for the MMA athlete. Expensive? Yes. Worthwhile investment? I believe so. Can an athlete train successfully with out them? Yes! Russian Kettlebells are only a portion of the tools we use at Combat Grappler.

What are some periodization of weights and cardio cycles and good methods for recovery given the volume of training required for MMA?

My concern here always comes with the volume of training in MMA. Often times our athletes train 6 - 7 days a week, minimum of 2 or 3 hours a day. This makes periodization highly important due to the fact that you can progress in strength, power, muscualr endurnace, etc. unless your nervous system gets ample rest.

One method I have found to be very successful with my grapplers is to follow a method I learned from the crew at Westside barbell. This method is called the conjugate system, sometimes the Russian Conjugate System. I have modified this methos to suit the needs of athletes since we are not training as powerlifters per se.

This method of training allows for athletes to continually improve year round in all traits, as opposed to the popular method of focusing on strength for 4 weeks, power for 4 weeks, then muscular endurance for 4 weeks, etc.

Let me compare the two of them; The conjugate system allows the athlete to train for all these traits by switching exercises that are similar in nature every 2 weeks, sometimes every week if you prefer. The weights are either heavy in nature and done for low reps with large volume of sets or done with light weights for high reps and moderate sets.

It is rare to train with a moderate weight except for my younger athletes which we sometimes do. The traits acquired through the conjugate method are great for mixed martial artists because we use so many different traits through the course of a fight or match. You need strength, strength endurance, power, power endurance, strength speed and speed strength as well as muscular endurnace. So we train these traits on a weekly basis. Also switching the exercises frequently helps the athlete avoid over use injuries from always pushing / pulling through the same motion. Ultimately, the central nervous system feels fresh as long as we follow through with proper rest and nutrition.

When an athlete focuses on strength for 4 weeks, then switches to a power phase for 4 weeks, then a high rep phase for 4 weeks to work on muscular endurance - the problem occurs is that the athlete can lose strength and power when focusing for a full month on muscular endurance.

I often times have my athletes do 3 strength workouts a week with me, 2 of them are heavy in nature, and the third workout is a high rep workout. All of these workouts are full body workouts. The Monday workout will focus on upper body, the Wednesday workout will focus on lower body work, and friday will be a full body workout.

Regarding a cardio cycle, the first thing I would like to say is I am not a believer in long distance running. IF you want longevity in this sport, running 5 - 6 miles a few times a week as many MMA fighters do will hammer your knees. I prefer doing high intensity anaerobic type cardio most of the time. One form of this training is called High Octane Cardio (HOC). As far as cycling training, whether it is with the strength or cardio, I emphasize listening to your body! If you start feeling wiped out and burnt out, back off your training for a week or so, and pay closer attention to nutrition and rest which can completely change the energy levels you have on a daily basis.

Here are some examples of cardio we do:

running the 1/4 mile repeatedly at high intensity with a work / rest time ratio of 1:1 - sometimes the rest ratio is lower
HOC example: set up a kettlebell at one end of a basketball court, perform an explosive KB exercise for 3 - 10 reps, then jog, skip, gallop to the other side, perform a bodyweight exercise for 10 - 20 reps (push ups, squats, squat jumps, split squat jumps, etc.) - you repeat this moving back & forth, each time try doing a different exercise at the end of the court. If you have 2 kettlebells place one at each end of the court. Do this for time, anywhere from 6 minutes to 20 minutes. What we are doing here is training at high intensity, then moderate intensity, which simulates the way a fight or macth will go.
Sand bag carries while walking up stadium stairs
HOC variation - my athletes perform a heavy exercise for low to moderate reps, then will engage in high speed drilling or some live action. For example they will both perform a set of pull ups for max repetitions and then will drill takedowns for 1 minute at high intensity - these takedowns will ALWAYS involve the lifting of the partner to still involve a power - strength aspect.

What's the most time effective way to increase fitness for MMAers?

If you are low on time you need to create a good balance between strength training and actual mixed martial arts training.

For strength, choose exercises that work the entire body or multiple parts of the body - focus on movements as well (do not just train with push and pull). We push, pull, rotate and use level change when fighting, so incorporate them into training. A solid training program would include an olympic lift such as a high pull - perhaps superset this with pull ups. Then you can do some dinosaur training using a sled, or sand bag.

Each workout change what you did to keep working the body as effectively and efficiently as possible. One of my favorite techniques when strength training is to use density training, where we perform an exercises, or 2 exercises for time, perhaps 10 minutes. An example would be 1 arm kettlebell push presses for 2 reps per arm, supersetted with pull ups for 5 reps per set - keep track of how many you get in 10 minutes by tracking your reps - next time you do this workout, improve your load by keeping it to 10 minutes, but adding a few reps here and there, or perhaps doing a set or two with a heavier weight.

Most of us are short on time, myself included. This is why many of my workouts are short and brief, but very intense. Sometimes this includes doing a set of pull ups every time i walk by the pull up bar in my house. End of the day I may have done over 100 pull ups. Literally, doing this might take 1 minute out of your day every hour. I do this on Saturdays when I have to work on the house. I keep a kettlebell in the backyard and every hour I'll go out and do a few reps of the snatch, a few reps of the push press, and then a few reps of squatting with the kettlebell.

Be creative. If you have a love for mixed martial arts and a passion for staying healthy, you will find a way to train. This might mean waking up 20 minutes early to do 15 non stop minutes of dinosaur training, of 10 minutes of pull ups supersetted with dips with no rest!

In closing, I emphasize the need for rest and proper nutrition. Researching these topics and dedicating your time to them as you would your training can drastically improve your athletic performance!

Learning how to taper your training before a fight is critical as well so you can arrive fresh and healthy and give yourself the greatest chances of success. Training hard as never as effective as training smart and hard!