mma strength and conditioning

Sleep is Sometimes a Logistical Difficulty

Every place you live has realities to it that make living optimally a little less… optimal.

Being far removed from an urban center makes certain training methods impossible because no one in the area has a gym. Try training jiu jitsu in the far reaches of a town 3 hours from the nearest semi-urban center. Maybe there’s no real gym within a few hours drive either.

Cold, far northern climates may have issues with diversity in food crop and livestock.

NYC’s issue is sleep. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise for a city whose catchphrase is “the city that never sleeps.” The same goes for any large, first-tier city’s population: they’re under-slept.

I’ve been having this conversation with people for the past 8 years: I would deem the chronic lack of sleep that happens here (or doesn’t happen here) as the number one barrier to living a healthy, high-performing life in NYC 

I am no stranger to this. I dole out sleep advice regularly, and practice much of it, but if I had to pinpoint the number one thing I would change about my health and performance, it would be sleep.

One slightly disturbing image I often heard as a young 20-something who had just moved to NYC was the reports of people who had once lived here, but left. “It chews you up and spits you out” they would say. They were usually talking about rent, work and life though.

But I think that if they just slept a little better, they may still be here.

Let’s explore:

This whole conversation starts and ends with circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythm refers to your body’s ability to pick up on the time of day wherever you find yourself. This is important because it helps your body produce the right hormones at the right time, and ultimately regulate when you’re awake and when you get tired for the evening.

Little things like light pollution, low-hum (or loud) noise disturbance, and a lack of time in nature, can all contribute to you being kicked out a little farther from your natural circadian rhythm.

The one thing that cities, and even larger suburbs, have in common is excess light. It comes from light poles, buildings, shopping centers, traffic, and anything that emits light. That’s why it’s such stark contrast when you go to certain states or countries that have light ordinances or are just simply more secluded, and you can actually see the light that comes from the stars in the sky.

Regardless, the artificial light, especially if it’s of the blue variety, has a powerful effect on you. It can make you more sensitive to detecting the time of day, and thus, your body has a difficult time going through it’s normal hormonal rounds during the day.

I also believe that low level noise that isn’t therapeutic has an effect on us. If you understand the science and theory behind binaural beats, you could quickly surmise that there’s probably negative frequencies of sound that can have an effect on us. I often call the low level noise of traffic or street noise in the background of life in NYC/big cities the "negative binaural beat-" that even when you’re not paying attention to it or actively bothered by it, it is still causing a slight disturbance in your body’s ability to chill and find itself a little more parasympathetic dominant (which ultimately aids recovery).

If you care about your body and its performance, like I do, then you need to be serious about having healthy sleep hygiene. Otherwise you are literally digging a recovery hole that will be harder and harder to emerge from. Specifically, you're very likely to undermine the very mechanism in the body that helps you develop a healthy circadian rhythm. 

I don’t like to take things lying down. It became enough of an issue for me that losing an hour of sleep here and there (and also already having the deck stacked against me for every reason I outlined above), was enough to start actively working on it and make a list of solutions for the urban city-dweller who needs more sleep.

Here's what I am doing to change it:

Set a timer to go to bed.

I’m not starting with the ideal of 9:20PM or earlier. I’m simply starting to wind it back by 1 hour and will add 15-20 minutes to wind back more each week. Habits take time to build and you must make your environment conducive to accepting these new habits (more on that in future blogs).

It’s easy to lose track of time in the evening, so I have an alert set for 9:45PM each night to tell me to go to bed.

 

Ritual

I make sure my next day’s equipment/gear is packed earlier in the day, and not before I go to bed.  When I am sleepy, I don’t want to do anything. The act of preparing for the next day will wake me up.

 

Sleep Mask

I have always found sleep/eye masks remarkably useful on road trips and plane rides for sleeping. Before using them, I never was able to sleep anywhere besides my bed. However, when I use those things, I turn the lights out-- literally and figuratively

 

Black out shades

I grew up with these as a kid- they work, and you won't want to return to sleeping without them. Sleep masks are unnecessary if you have true blackout shades.

 

Airplane Mode on the phone.

Buy into it or don’t: but you should put your phone on airplane mode at night (and preferably out of the bedroom) to help kill some of the vibrations and sounds you’ll inevitably forget to silence. You’ll also be less likely to be on your phone and exposing your eyes to blue-light. There's also the whole electro-magnetic wave thing that may or may not be true, but I certainly notice a difference.

Perhaps most importantly, talk to your spouse or partner about your plans

I didn’t expect my girlfriend to buy into everything I was doing wholeheartedly (as we are on different schedules), but it’s important that the people closest to you support you. She did, and is now even more on board than me in some ways! 

I started drafting this blog about 2 weeks ago, and can say that after 2 weeks of these changes, I am doing much better already. Try them out and feel free to share any of your own in the comments. 

 

Be well, be strong,

Mark

Three Cues to Excel in the Deadlift

Most people who deadlift do so for the great strength and size-gaining benefits that accompany it. Packed in it though, is a great lesson on how to identify your center of gravity from a hinged or bent position. This has amazing benefits for the jiu jitsu fighter or anyone trying to improve their physical quality of life. Much has been written by masters of this lift, and it is one that has a lifetime's worth of detail and exploration. I consider it to be a real art and it is truly my favorite exercise. What follows are the most common cues and reminders I find myself giving when administering the deadlift.

 

Push the ground away

The most fundamentally misunderstood cue of the deadlift is that you somehow have to actively use your back to rip the bar from the ground and quite literally “pull.” I would absolutely call the deadlift a pulling lift, by virtue of it’s high demand on the posterior chain, but it’s an isometric “pull” from the upper body, with a lower body maximal effort from your posterior chain— effectively making it a “pulling motion.”

 

But a funny thing happens when we re-shift the emphasis a little: whenever I have someone who has difficulty deadlifting at a certain load, I cue them to think of their feet and imagine that on the upward portion (concentric phase) of the lift that they are pushing the ground away with their feet, while keeping the upper body rigid. Suddenly, muscles are properly cued that were underperforming earlier, their shoulders drop, traps pop, and they look like hinging perfection.  

 

It may be a pull, but you aren’t pulling with your upper body...

 

Expanding on the point above, the other massive deadlift miscue I see is that athletes will often look like they are trying to pull the bar off the ground with their back, and not using their legs to help at all until they stall with their back. Now, there is an unfolding and a bit of a pull with the back that does take place, but it must happen in conjunction with the legs “pushing you upwards” (as stated above). Moreover, those two things happening simultaneously must happen in a certain synchronicity to really effectively and expertly execute the deadlift.

RDL’s (Romanian Deadlifts) excluded, this is a huge mistake that could possibly end in injury, but more immediately, won’t do you any favors in truly reaping the benefits of the deadlift. 

Instead, take time to feel your lats, elevate your chest, brace your core, drop your shoulders, and take a few practice hinges holding this posture. This is how your upper body will remain as you deadlift. It is not a passive effort in the upper body, it’s quite active.

 

Sit on your heels

 

There’s so much of life that exists on our toes. Most sports, walking around town, and just about everything requires us to “lean in” a bit. This happens so much, that "leaning in" becomes how we are most comfortable balancing our bodies. Add to that the fact that shoes typically come with a heel (even minimalist sneakers sometimes), and you begin to see why people have trouble really getting in touch with being flat to the ground and sitting into their heels.

The problem with being too far on your toes during the deadlift is that the average deadlifter will be unable to properly cue their gluteus maximus and sit back in a nice deep hinge during the lift.   This “toe stance” has the effect of making you more likely to tilt your pelvis forward/under (posteriorly), and thus, killing a true hinge. The reason this happens is because your body is trying to get "under center" to its strong point at your center of gravity. Long term, I have seen this improper deadlift form sideline lifters for a very long time, as it has the effect of adding up to a lot of unnecessary tightness and damage to the anterior hip muscles. Even though in the moment you may feel stronger or more stable in your “toe stance,” long term it will bottom out and you’ll stall. Besides, it’s not correct anyway! 

So, avoid this at all costs by not getting your ego up or progressing too fast. Take time to practice your perfect hinge position, do support exercises, and be sure that the balance is in your heels. You also should keep the bar extremely close to your shins (almost touching, and it's okay if it does sometimes). That's the true way you keep the bar "under center." You’ll know you’re doing it properly when you can feel your glutes and the rest of your posterior chain.

 

Closing Thoughts

I find these three cues to be the most economical in recommendations, and find myself repeating them the most in the gym. These tips are very much aimed at the new deadlifter, but are very good evaluation and reflection questions an experienced powerlifter can ask themselves as well.  I included a video I often share with clients for quick reminders while deadlifting in the gym (see above). 

 

Be well.

Bulletproof Your Shoulders for Combat Sports (and Life)

Your neck hurts, your shoulders are tight. Maybe you had one of those "rotator cuff tears" years ago. You try to massage the sore spots, maybe throw around some dumbbells and do some shoulder exercises here and there. You find a popular rotator cuff exercise and do it.

No relief?

That's because you may be treating the wrong area. If your issue is scapular stabilization: it's all in the back. Specifically, the area and muscles around the scapula. 

As a "scapular sufferer" of many years myself, the following workout and video came from years of picking up little tricks from trainers, athletes, fighters, instructors and physical therapists.  What you see is a weekly little routine of mine to stay flexible, strong and healthy.
 

What's In A Scapula

The scapula refers to your shoulder blades, essentially. It's connect to the humerus (upper arm) with the clavicle.  In Latin medical terminology, it's referred to as "omo." (Probably where the word "omoplata" comes from, too.)

If you bust out an anatomy book or are familiar with anatomy yourself, it probably just clicked as why your scapula is involved with your shoulder pain: it's directly connected to it all.

Most importantly though (read carefully long-term shoulder injury sufferers): the rotator cuff muscles are indeed involved in scapular issues, but most of the time, they're only relevant in issues of internal and external rotation of the humerus/arm. Pictured above are the muscles responsible for scapular stabilization: the trapezius, serratus anterior, levator scapula, and rhomboid muscles. These are the muscles, if weak, cause you day-to-day issues because they physically cannot complete the job of maintaining your posture.

When the scapula can't be in a nice relaxed position, or better yet, in a nice state of retraction during movement, you begin to take on the T-Rex or Velociraptor pose. If your shoulder blades were wings, and you wanted to open them, you wouldn't stay hunched-over in those dinosaur poses, you'd be puffed up, chest out, shoulders back and proudly opening those suckers. 

This is how you want to think of your posture. If you're a forward head sufferer, internally rotated shoulder sufferer, are a boxer or kick boxer, or play a lot of butterfly and open guard in jiu jitsu/combat sports, you need this program.

Perhaps even more importantly, if you're a runner, you need a strong, stable upper back. You are physically unable to run with proper form without it. Ever have lower neck pain after or during running? My money is on this as the culprit. 

Let's talk solutions (I could talk science and anatomy all day, but most of you don't care/need that).


The Program

I've written out what you'll find in the video below for your quick reference, though I recommend watching for proper form demonstration.

Warm Up:

  • Indian Club Shoulder Rotation (straight arm) -
    • 3 x 12
      • If you do not have Indian Clubs, you can easily get them these days and they are well worth the investment for the constant shoulder-pain sufferer. HOWEVER, 2.5 dumbbells can be used for similar effect, but it's not the same asymmetrical weight distribution which really causes the deep stretch and work.

Workout:

  • Kettlebell Arm Bars
    • 3x/side, 30 second holds minimum
  • "Scapular" Push-Ups 
    • 3 x 10 
  • "Scapular" Pull-Up 
    • 4 x 10
  • Deadlift
    • 3 x 10 to start*, light weight (~70% 1RM)
      • When using a main/major lift in a corrective manner, you're going for stability, not 1RM record setting days.  Let's be honest, your "record setting form" is shitty. Here, we're trying reinforce the positive attributes of proper deadlift form: retracted scapula, strong and stable trapezius muscles all stabilizing the load.  Aim for that. Secondly, we're after good, strong postural endurance. We have a higher rep scheme to test the integrity of your postural endurance. Start slow.

All of these exercises are demonstrated in the video above. You can also easily add this sequence to existing strength programs up to 3-4 times per week.


Say good bye to omoplata-like pain while you're laying on the couch and let me know how these exercises are helping you.

Finally, I'll close by saying I recommend following my Instagram and Facebook page, as I give daily updates on performance enhancing tips through simple, achievable measures. I'll always blog (I have the heart of a writer), but if you want more "constant attention," you'll find it there.

Take care.

The Number One Conditioning Mistake Every Jiu Jitsu Athlete Makes

Photo credit:  Leon Maia

Photo credit: Leon Maia

Sensational headlines deserve instant gratification. So I'll give it to you:

The number one mistake every jiu jitsu athlete makes is:

RECOVERY

 

That is to say, they (we) don't value recovery as part of the training method. That's really the core issue here; recovery isn't something you do instead of training, it's a part of training.

You've heard it endlessly, and probably groan at the thought of hearing the following: "take a day off," "give your body a break," "don't run yourself ragged."

The sentiment is nice and intuitive, and comes from a place of concern, but the truth is: if you just stop dead in the water and do nothing as your only means of recovery, it's probably not doing you much good either. In some cases it may do more harm than good. 

Now you're probably starting to see why everyone does "recovery" wrong. Let's try to make it right.

The Basic Science of Recovery

I. Lymphatic and Immune System

The body has two organ systems that work synergistically: the immune system and the lymphatic system. The immune system is the one many are familiar with: it helps us fight infection from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and all other pathogens that may cause illness or disease to the body. The lymphatic system can be thought of like street cleaner and the enforcement wing of the immune system: it's what does the actual cleansing of the body. Through the flow of lymphatic fluid, the lymphatic system cleans the body of waste product, abnormal cells and other unwanted byproducts of our biology. I'll be the first to tell you, an hour of jiu jitsu per day (or an hour of weight lifting, running, etc), produces a LOT of waste.

A healthy lymphatic system is obviously beneficial to you. One thing that keeps the lymphatic system healthy and functional is movement. If the body is stagnant, the lymphatic system is compromised (1). The waste that your body is meant to be expunging is just stewing in purgatory without some movement.

So, as you may have surmised: it's not the most effective means of recovery if your "off day" consists of sitting on the sofa for 12 hours. It's also why sitting at your desk at work isn't a proper recovery either.

 

Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system acts largely in the background, controlling function of various organs and regulates heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and most of all is home to the "fight or flight" mechanism in the human body.

It has two "divisions":

  1. Parasympathetic 
  2. Sympathetic

Wrestling, jiu-jitsu, sports of any kind, strength training, and any tough movement are sympathetic dominant activities. They get you in a state of "fight of flight," and ready to roar.  Sympathetic dominant activities are largely catabolic, meaning they break down the body in order to honor and fulfill what you ask of it. This means it breaks down energy stores, and sometimes even muscle, to do what you ask of it.

Parasympathetic activity is more synonymous with the "anabolic" activities of life: consuming, resting, regeneration, healing. The parasympathetic nervous system calms the nerves and brings them back to normal function. It's often called the "rest and digest" mechanism (2). Quite simply, recovery happens here.

We as athletes are really good at flexing our sympathetic nervous system muscles. Five 10 minute rounds on the mats last night? Sympathetic. Great deadlift and leg day? Sympathetic. Awesome mile time? Sympathetic. Boss pissed you off at work, or subway was late? Sympathetic.

You need to induce and help the body get back into a parasympathetic state. It's not that hard, but you'd be shocked at how many people are unable to get there.

What You Should Do

There's two simple ways to look at recovery and how you can apply it to your training regimen:

  1. Daily Practices
  2. 'Recovery Day' Practices

Daily Practices

It's hard to say one is more important than the other, but if I had to put weight on one, it would be to "Have daily recovery practices." These are little practices and lifestyle modifications you can incorporate into your daily training life.

The little tiny things you do daily add up to be big contributors to your success and sustained high performance.

Most athletes have busy lives. Between work, family, and other obligations, having a day devoted entirely to recovery is probably not always a guarantee. I'd much rather have you take 10-15 minutes a day to do a few things that will benefit you hugely in the long run. We live in a world of realism, not idealism, so start making a few minutes for some of the following.

They include:

  • A proper cool-down after rolling (to reset the autonomic nervous system to be a little more parasympathetic dominant to start the recovery process).
  • Eat real, good food
  • Limit the sugar intake in your life
  • Prioritize sleep
  • Meditation (in its many forms)
  • Foam Rolling, lacrosse ballin', myofascial release of any kind
  • Deep stretching in conjunction with breathing
  • Epsom salt baths*
  • Look into recovery oriented vitamin/mineral supplementation like ZMA.*
  • Look into incorporating probiotic foods into your diet or supplementing with a probiotic. 
  • Take a walk
  • If you sit a lot, stand up every 10-15 minutes and pace around.
  • Find what may be causing you emotional or life stress and address it (don't underrate this, it will always kill you).

A Proper Recovery Day

If you have a day devoted to recovery, which I highly recommend, you'll further reap the benefits of injury prevention and sustained high performance. Good practices include everything listed above, but with the extra time not taken up by training you can:

  • Go for a long walk (3 miles or more) or a hike
  • Get a deep tissue massage
  • See an ART or other muscle activation specialist for any ailing/nagging issues.
  • Put together a proper mobility routine and do it from start to finish
  • Do any sport or activity leisurely that is relatively non-contact.
  • Acupuncture 
  • Floatation/isolation tanks
  • Experiment with new recovery technologies like cryotherapy (though I do warn you to always do your research and know the efficacy of these methods may not be proven given how new they are).

 

If you take nothing else away from this:

Listen, I know that jiu jitsu, like many sports, is a contact sport where freak injuries happen. I know this as well as anyone. However, I'd wager that 4 out of 5 injuries that happen are not freak injuries and could have been prevented. How? Preparing your body the right way.

This advice is more relevant than ever. For the first time, there are a large number of professionals and people who make their living from jiu-jitsu competition. To act like the demands of jiu jitsu aren't that of MMA or football is simply silly. Jiu Jitsu athletes who make their living from it are professional athletes. You need as much care as LeBron James or the New York Giants.

I know that jiu jitsu, not unlike wrestling, is notorious for "grinding it out," and having a mentality that nothing else matters except jiu jitsu.  There may be nothing I can say to change your mind. You may think I'm just a shill because I'm a trainer, acting out of self interest. It's just not true; I believe this with every cell in my body. I urge you not to wait until you're hurt and in a compromised position to seek out the help of a professional. 

Start a proper strength and conditioning routine, work some of the tips stated above into your life, and start to take care of your meat wagon, and you'll stay on the mat. You may even get some hardware.

 

 

 

 

 

Newton's Second Law in MMA (and why Dan Henderson can hit so hard at any weight)

I like physics. Admittedly, like most, my understanding of it gets very convoluted very quickly, but I do enjoy it. To be a successful strength coach and performance trainer, you really need to at least understand the basics, specifically Newton's Laws; they're EVERYWHERE in sports.

This was especially true at UFC Fightnight 68: Dan Henderson vs. Tim Boetsch. So much so, that I decided to make a little video breaking it down.

If you're not a video person, or for the sake of notes: let's use our (written) words and talk a little about what I mean.

Applying the SCIENCE

What should you take away from Newton's Second Law and what it has to do with strength and conditioning?

If you recall, Newton's Second Law is:

Force = Mass (x) Acceleration

 

or more concisely:

F = MA

 

For a very long time, strength coaches and trainers in nearly all conventional sports tried to build the biggest, largest, most hypertrophied muscle-bound athletes they could, operating under the idea that manipulating the mass (M) in this equation would deliver more force. They were right in many cases too. If either number in the equation is larger,  you get more force (F). Simple math.

Well, this can present problems for a fighter. One of the biggest problems is that fighters have to weigh-in. A linebacker doesn't have to hit the scale to get access to the field, but a fighter of any combat sport does.  They have specific weight classes and they have to be as strong as possible at that particular weight. How do you make someone strong without putting on (too much) weight? The answer is in the "A."

Acceleration (A) is a tricky one to train. Strength trainers and coaches, in increasing numbers, are beginning to consider it more and more as a vital variable in producing more striking and takedown power in conditioning programs.

It's also the answer as to why a 135lbs man can brutally dish out a knockout punch, and why a guy like Dan Henderson can crank out incredible blows at any weight he fights at (even down 20+ lbs from his "prime years"). 

When Dan Henderson winds up to deliver a straight right, like he famously did to Michael Bisping, he's effectively putting the optimal amount of force into the punch by how effectively he accelerates via his technique. If he committed too much (or too little) of his weight into the punch, he no longer has the optimal striking power; his "M" is reducing his "A"/acceleration. 

Combat sports are a great example of acceleration in athletic performance because both fighters are roughly the same size. Their weight class ensures and defines this, so any talk of a "size advantage" (or Mass advantage) goes away quickly. 

The Takeaway

So there you have the theory as to why we want to manipulate and put a premium on acceleration in strength training. Now, of course, we have to answer the "how do you train for increased acceleration in generating force?"

 That's a topic for a future blog or article (something I think we'll do very soon- how's that for a tease?), but for now I want you to consider something:

4 of the 5 fights on the main card ended in knockouts. The only heavyweight bout ended in a submission victory for Ben Rothwell (go figure!). All other fights were under 155lbs, and two fights were at 135lbs. Two knockouts in a row from men weighing 135lbs certainly isn't just because of size.

Let me know if you guys like breakdowns like this, and I'll do more of them. If not, I'll stick to my long-form posts on programs and techniques, like the How to Build a Better Gas Tank (if you're a Jiu Jitsu or Combat Athlete)

- Mark

 

PS:  I know some of you will say this is all relative: if each fighter weighs the same, the force (and their tolerance to absorb it) is relative. You're right. However, you are generating much more than your body weight in force if you're properly striking. If I weigh 135 lbs and deliver a punch that only has 135 lbs or less of force, the chances of that punch being a knockout blow are probably pretty low.