I had to be honest, even though I didn’t want to put up with the sneering that would follow.
“Actually, I’ve dropped conditioning” I said. “And replaced it with what?” he inevitably asked. “Just more rolling” was my answer. And as I knew he would, he started to sneer.
This was yesterday, and a discussion on why I was exhausted with a friend of mine who would probably describe himself as an ex-boxer and sometime coach. I was really knackered, and it must have come across on the phone because he picked up on it. “You sound tired, doing some strength and conditioning this morning?” Strength and Conditioning is in italics, because when he says it you can almost picture the italics. It’s like he’s talking about the tooth fairy. You see he’s old school, my friend, a morning run and some push ups is about the extent of it for him. Throw in a medicine ball and he would consider that the height of sports science. I hadn’t spoken to him in about 6 months and had just texted him my new phone number, and since I’d just buried my company recently and opened a new gym, he wanted to catch up. He also wanted to remind me how useless strength and conditioning was.
It’s a long debate between the two of us. I’ll fill you in on his side of the argument. I’ll preface it by saying I’m being very generous here, he is misinformed and actually a little ignorant about much of how the human body operates, but this is his central argument. 1) Gym work is useless unless the lad is good at the sport (in this case fighting). 2) you’re better off just doing more of the sport you’re supposed to be training at. If you’re not fit enough, do it harder and for longer.
Now a few years back, this argument between the two of us would have gone on for a good half an hour, and at some stage, he’d run out of credit and I’d have to ring him back. But I wasn’t in the mood to argue at all, and in fact, as he was speaking I was shocked to find myself agreeing with him. “You can say what you will about how much stronger and fitter boxers are now”, he said, “but I don’t think you’ll find a boxer at the top level who has suddenly become a champ after discovering weights”. (This is one of his 3 or 4 mantras)
I’ve learned a lot from working with my former partner Will when we owned Informed Performance together. I had 2 years exposure to high level practical strength and conditioning training to go along with my education in the area, but towards the end of my time there, as in my last 8 months or so, I found my attitude to strength and conditioning’s place in my programming changing. Perhaps it was because early on in the gym’s lifespan, I was seduced somewhat by the prospect that simply having guys work hard in the weight room could dramatically increase their chances of winning. Which, I should point out, it can… to some extent. And that extent is if you have a guy who has good skills, you can make him stronger and fitter and he will be better, but only by a little. If however, you have someone who is a novice with unrefined skills, I think they’re better off hitting pads, rolling, drilling and doing all of those things more often.
Like all seductions, my time with strength and conditioning was exciting for a while, but ultimately ended with an odd feeling of discontentment and it was time to get out of there before I felt some compunction to exchange phone numbers with it.
So back to my friend. “What do you do now for strength and fitness and that?” The answer is that I do some mobility every day, I stretch a lot, and all of my conditioning comes from BJJ. In other words I do some stuff to keep me healthy and on the mat and the rest of the time I play my sport. I have taken to treating some sessions more like conditioning than others. Along with the added fitness, I can feel certain aspects of my game improving. My scrambles have improved from the competition style sessions for example. Now if I can improve things like that after 7 years on the mat, how much could a beginner improve with more time spent on the mat and out of the weight room?
Does this mean that I won’t do any conditioning anymore? No, of course not. In the run up to competition I will always try to increase my fitness levels and a very efficient way of doing that is through pure conditioning. But how much time will I spend training off the mat? One hour per week, maximum, out of a total of 20 or so hours spent training is my goal. Give me a choice between 1 hour of swinging a kettlebell or pushing a sled versus one hour spent escaping mount position against resistant partners and I’ll pick the latter, horrible as it might be sometimes. High intensity sparring or rolling or even padwork is far more beneficial.
Psychologically, it’s probably easier as a novice to see your numbers come up in, say, your bench press, versus the slow and almost undetectable improvements you make in a sport. It’s far easier on yourself to say you have done x more sprints in a session than this time last month when you may have to wait a whole year before you get one sweep on the guy who has great base in your gym. That you’re threatening that sweep more and more each session doesn’t register with you.
Do you need to get fitter and stronger? Yes, probably. It’s a good idea in general even just to be able to give yourself a better chance of doing high quality work all the way through your BJJ session, and your added strength may help keep you injury-free. But let’s put it in it’s place- it’s supplemental training to your sport, so if you have a partner and an hour, it’s time to go to the mat, not to the weight room or the treadmill.
Speaking of which, I’ll see you on the mat!