By Lisa Stone  |  26 September 2018   

An interview by Lisa Altobelli with UFC Hall of Famer Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell talks about his powerful experience when first confronted with alternative training techniques at The Pit. Liddell credits those crazy techniques with helping make him into a Force, along with The Pit’s owner, John Hackleman, who sparred against him for 19 minutes straight. 

"It's one of those raw places that you heard about growing up but thought was folklore…I took a beating," Liddell admits. "I had a catcher's mitt for a face. But he has been my trainer ever since."

Alternative Advanced Training Techniques

Old approaches to combat sports training have been kicked to the curb recently as new techniques that jam strength and conditioning into overdrive are being incorporated into the scene.

Over the last few years many professional coaches, personal trainers, and martial arts instructors, particularly in MMA and UFC, are bringing back old ‘strong man’ methods of training, intensive ancient kung fu strength and movement drills, functional training, and specificity training techniques, along with other tried and true, or brand-new methods of extreme strength and conditioning. 

Ancient Combat Arts Conditioning Techniques | Fighting Arts Health Lab

All these techniques are aggressive and intensive, with professional proponents and martial artists who swear by them and claim incredible gains in speed, strength, agility, explosive power, toughness, ability to throw, takedown, and dominate during events because of training them.

All basic movements fall within the categories of pushing, pulling, level changes, rotation, and locomotion. Functional training approaches utilize these same movements to achieve ultimate shredded conditioning. 

For many of them all you need is one or several relatively inexpensive items and a little room to mess around. Giant truck tires, for instance, often come really cheap, and sometimes free since it costs auto mechanic shops to dispose of them so they’re willing to give them away.

Other alternative training techniques require nothing but the weight of your own body along with gravity to deliver an unbelievably difficult workout while doing (seemingly…) ‘nothing’ at all, as is the case doing horse stance, which supercharges large muscle groups in the body, amps up leg strength, and takes joint strength to an insanely high level.

Ancient Training Methods

Alternative training techniques can be tough and gritty, returning to popularity with intense combat training styles utilized since before the Greeks and Romans made it a lifestyle. The ancient athlete was no stranger to challenging intensity.

One undoubtedly exciting sport practiced in ancient China consisted of athletes lifting a huge, boiling hot cauldron filled with burning coals high over their heads.

This sport required amazing willpower, must have left scars on hands and arms, and is not recommended for modern martial artists.

You may have heard the true account of 6th century wrestling champion, Milo of Croton, who won the Olympics 6 times, and has been credited with inventing weight lifting. Milo reportedly started his career as a child or 8 or so who would be seen lifting and carrying a calf every day.

He continued to do so every day until the calf grew into a bull. That practice made him into a massive bull of a man. Another account of athletic training by 6th century BCE Mediterranean philosopher Anachaarsis described how Greek sprinters were trained.



“The [practice] running is not done on hard, resistant ground,” he noted, “but in deep sand where it is not easy to plant a foot solidly or get a grip with it since it slips away from underneath the foot.”

Training sprinters were also directed to carry huge lead weights while jumping ditches. Check out the book on ancient sports training methods by David Potter here. It may inspire a revival of ancient training techniques!

A modern account of another true method that was used by one fighter to create a powerful neck, shoulders, back, and legs, but is also not necessarily recommended here (you’ll see why!) was that of a boy growing up on a farm.

He used to go out every day and head-butt large calves until they fell over. As he got older, and better at his game so he could knock’em over with one head-butt, he started practicing on bigger animals until he could head-butt and knock over a bull. He went on to become an amazing early cage fighter, by the way, and his killer move was—you guessed it—the head butt.

Modern Athletics with a Twist

Martial artists and other modern athletes may have used free weights or machines, run up hills or stairs, ran for miles, and attended a multitude of classes utilizing various training equipment. But going to class and confronting a car with a harness attached, a gigantic 300-pound truck tire, or being told to run a wheelbarrow full of rocks up and down a hill for 30 minutes is something else altogether.

Word is, some fighters hate that shit—but do it anyway—because it works! John Hackleman is a 10th degree black belt and former Army boxing champion who runs The Pit, an alternative training compound that has turned out UFC winners like former Light Heavyweight Champion Chuck Liddel. Hackleman trains with Liddell two times a day along with training many other fighters.

John Hackleman says there are times he gets resistance to these unusual training techniques from fighters not used to his training methods. 

John Hackleman

"A lot of guys don't last because they hate these medieval workouts. But there is no New Age exercise or machine that's better for you than pushing a wheelbarrow up a hill"

Going to Failure is Not Necessary or Desirable

Always stop training a few reps short of failure for top strength and conditioning. This has been proven to give excellent results in the shortest time. Alternative strength training methods give good return when training for power since it’s always desirable to use a load close to or heavier than what you’re training to move, such as another fighter.

Dragging or pushing a car, flipping 300-pound tires, pushing wheelbarrows full of rocks up and down hills, or jogging while wearing a backpack full of rocks or weights, for instance, fulfills that weight load requirement.

Pushing the above with speed helps build explosive power, endurance, metabolic conditioning, and increase maximum velocity of movement. Pushing cars, wheelbarrows, sledgehammer blows, etc., help develop fatigue resistance needed during grappling and clinch fighting.

The following list includes most of the old and new aggressively effective alternative advanced training techniques that fighters are using to take their bodies to monster fitness levels.

Supercharge Your Testosterone

Men check this out to switch your testosterone production into overdrive! Testosterone is an important steroid hormone for men and women. Indigenous Tsimane people of central Bolivia cut trees to support their families.

Research was done recently testing their testosterone levels before they cut down trees and then afterwards. Tsimane lumberjacks sported a 46.8 percent increase in testosterone levels after cutting wood.

Soccer is a competitive sport known to increase testosterone levels. Wood cutting swamped soccer with a 17 percent higher increase than playing soccer boosted. 

Where’s that axe?!

For those of us without an axe there are other ways to produce spectacular testosterone jumps, which give the advantage for both males and females of creating more lean muscle, increasing bone density, improving sex drive, decreasing chance of depression and dementia, improving heart health and more.

A few simple ways to increase testosterone without a forest include: intense sprints, heavy lifting at 85-95 percent 1RM, lower body training with large leg movements, and longer resting periods between sessions. Check out the full dirty with that Get Fit Guy, Ben Greenfield, and his quick and dirty tips for increasing testosterone.

Start Where You Are

It may take some prep work to open hip joints and develop greater ROM before beginning to do serious tire flipping, for instance, or car pulling. These are complex, full body techniques that require a high level of strength, major flexibility, and power.

If any aspect is missing or falls short, work on that ability before undertaking the full exercise. For instance, flipping extremely heavy truck tires requires the ability to perform deep squats correctly, and rise from that position with power. If hips or hamstrings are tight the martial artist is advised to work on opening that area up first.

Make a Tough Task Easier

One way to accomplish this is to simplify or make the technique easier to perform when beginning. For example, lean the tire against up against a rock or tree stump, or place the tire on a box at first so it is not initially lifted all the way from the ground position. This gives the athlete a chance to develop more functional flexibility and strength while still practicing the basic technique.

Unconventional Training Rocks!

Use rocks, heavy medicine balls, large weights, kettlebells, sandbags, slices of tree trunk, or other extremely heavy objects that can be easily carried with flexed elbows to walk or run, strengthening and developing arms, back, shoulders, posture and core.

Advanced Conditioning Techniques Unconventional Approaches | Fighting Arts Health Lab

These unusual approaches to combat conditioning excel because they utilize functional training that basically powers up and strengthens the body in the exact areas needed for fighting. For example, overhead power tosses and clinches require powerful base strength that is improved by techniques such as chopping wood, climbing ropes, pushing wheelbarrows full of weights or rocks, carrying and throwing heavy kettlebells, tree trunks, medicine balls, sandbags, or weights.


Always use caution with alternative techniques since many of them use extremely heavy, awkward, or easily unbalanced training tools. If a huge tire, car, wheelbarrow full of rocks, or heavy kettlebell falls on your foot or you wrench your back or elbow trying to catch it or prevent it from falling—your training effectively stops right there.

Alternative Advanced Training Techniques and Methods

Kettlebell Swings, Cleans, and Snatches

Mark Walberg uses kettlebell workouts to as part of his ultimate strength routine to keep that powerhouse physique incredibly strong. Kettlebells are super versatile, travel well, work on core, arms, legs, quads, shoulders, back, flexibility, strength, power, speed, and if using a super heavy kettlebell for cleans and snatches, also work explosive power and gripping strength.

WebMD says with the kettlebell workout you’ll burn up to 400 calories in 20 minutes, get aerobic and strength benefits. Doing squats, lunges, and swings will utilize large muscle groups. Use two extremely heavy kettlebells to lift and walk or run with for a ‘farmer’ lift to strengthen shoulders and increase gripping strength.

Medicine Ball Throw and Bounce

This technique comes straight from The Pit and John Hackleman’s training techniques. He says: "This is for punching power. Just picking up the 125 pounds is killer, but I need him to throw it with power as well. This primarily builds up his shoulder muscles." Hackleman says start by standing six feet (more or less, depending on your needs) away from a wall or other solid target.

He recommends using a 125-pound medicine ball, but basically, the point is to use the heaviest possible medicine ball that you can throw repeatedly. Bend down and pick up the medicine ball. Raise it chest high. Then throw the ball at target by pushing arms straight out in front of you.

To do this right, the medicine ball must bounce back at least three feet, otherwise repeat. Five reps is one set. One-minute rest. Five sets. This is optimum for the trained fighter. Start with a lighter ball, or less sets, if needed.

Heavy Rope Climbing

This is just like back in grade school gym—and it still works as your muscles strive to overcome your body weight plus gravity. This one exercise works your entire body. It will build powerful, sharply-defined muscles, endurance, and depending upon how you practice, give explosive power and speed. 

It strengthens arms, back, legs, grip strength, and if you do it like this guy does here in this video—your feet! Check out his Chameleon Rope Climb video here.

Climbing a rope has been used for thousands of years for fitness and combat training because it gives an amazing upper body strength building workout. It also gives an intensive abs workout, and if you want incredible biceps—this is a proven method! Get a climbing rope that fits your home, gym or dojo here.

Tire Flips and Drags for Explosive Power, Grip, Endurance and Strength

There is so much that can be said about this full body, powerhouse training technique. There are many ways to approach it, including the traditional tire flip, farmer lift for grip strength, dead lift, etc. It is important to choose the right size tire for you, although typically correct tire weight will fall between 200 and 900-pounds.

One important key here is using proper form and body mechanics to accomplish first lifting, then raising up, and finally flipping over the tire.

It’s also important to warm up the body first by doing a minimum number of squats, pushups, burpees, kicks, lunges, etc. See tips on warm up and proper technique here.

This is an ultimate advanced strength and conditioning workout, utilizing every muscle group in the body, pushing the fighter past previous weight and power limitations, training for endurance, power, and the explosive power needed to takedown an opponent. 

That said, tire flipping by its very nature is potentially dangerous and chance of injury goes up quickly if the martial artist isn’t warmed up, doesn’t use proper form and technique, uses a tire that is too heavy for their strength, etc.

Dragging and pushing a gigantic tire utilizes another whole set of movement skills. Drag them a minimum of 100 yards up to 1,000 yards or more with easy or hard to grab handles or straps to improve gripping strength, or attach them to legs, hips, arms and waist for powerful core and body training. Pull tires backwards, sideways, and to every diagonal angle.

Check out the expert advice and cautionary details available here, including a video of proper form when flipping a 900-pound truck tire.

Tips for getting started:

  • A tire that is light will be easy to flip 10 or more times in a row
  • A tire is too heavy if you can only flip it once or twice before stopping
  • Always take at least 3 days off, or better yet, 5 to 10 days off between tire flipping sessions
  • Flipping a 900-pound tire may sound impossible, but since it takes only about 275-pounds to start moving one that big, it really requires only a small amount of the full weight to flip the tire
  • Tire flipping may be alternated with other aerobic activities such as burpees, martial arts kicks, jumping jacks, crunches, jump rope, etc., performed for 30 seconds to a minute

Car Pulls/Pushes

These types of methods can be incredibly effective because they typically use major muscle groups and full body fitness approaches that may include running up hills, up and down stairs, racing through waist-high water or plowing through heavy sand.

Many MMA and other warrior athletes have started including pushing cars or attaching the car to themselves with a belt or body harness so they can pull them. These unusual methods of training have come under scientific scrutiny lately to establish relevancy and effectiveness.

One study by Berning et al. examined athletes pulling and pushing a 1,960 kg truck for 400 meters. They found the physiological output to be exceptional. For instance, blood lactate values (15.5 mmol/L) raised to 131 percent of those created while treadmill running at maximum, and oxygen uptake increased the most when pulling the truck, up to 96 percent of 02max of treadmill usage.

Studies like this one make it clear why this and other alternative advanced training techniques can be so amazingly effective and give the fighter that over-the-top physique and explosive power necessary to dominate on the mats and in the ring.   

Always do car pushes and pulls with the car placed in neutral gear first. Yeah, you knew that…just sayin’! Really, this is the ultimate in epic workouts. Always warm up first with full body exercises, hamstring, back, arm, ankle and wrist stretches, and have a driver sitting in there, just in case. 

After all that—you know what to do! How many of us have pushed cars out of sand pits, mud washes, ice slicks, etc. Check out this video to see how one fitness coach Kyle Hunt does it.

Sled Pulls and Lighter Equipment Approaches

Insanely heavy equipment like cars and 900-pound tires are not required for reaping great bennies with these techniques. That strongman approach has been proven essential for the UFC and MMA fighter seeking peak ability to dominate the opponent in the ring and Octagon. However, all martial artists can improve their total strength and conditioning aspects through manipulating these variables to include sandbags, sleds that can be moved alone or piled with weights, smaller tires, rope climbing, and tree trunk dragging.

The object is to choose equipment that challenges the fighter in ways mimicking martial arts practice and competitions, but they need not be gargantuan. 

Sleds pulled by ropes or with a harness can be substituted for car pulls, using only their own weight, or piled with weights or rocks to achieve optimum challenge, 100-pound, 200, or 300-pound tires, sandbags, giant bags filled with shot, etc., that are pulled, pushed, kicked or rolled can be used instead of tires, and set up with handles for ease or challenge of handling.

These lighter equipment tools can be tethered to various parts of the body to allow focus on core, one leg or arm, both legs or arms, hips, going backwards, forwards, sideways, walking, crawling, jumping or running, depending on desired result.

The martial artist will want to complete 2 to 3 sets comprised of 3 to 10 reps to develop more power, and to amp up power lower weight load but increase movement speed. Always set weight close to target level, such as opponent’s body weight, then add 10 to 20 percent more to increase fatigue resistance which is ultimately important in combat sports.

Sledgehammer Swings at a Huge Tire

This is a full body movement exercise—besides being a really satisfying thing to do! Sledgehammer drills increase punching power, shoulder strength, grip strength, and supercharge core. A 16-pound sledgehammer is recommended, although going lighter or heavier gives technique options.

Always switch primary gripping hand and side stance back and forth to give an equal workout to both sides of the body. Always keep knees slightly bent. Hold sledgehammer with one hand near base of handle, and other hand halfway up handle.

Swing sledgehammer above same shoulder as uppermost hand gripping handle (for example, right hand is halfway up handle—swing above right shoulder) and down onto large truck tire, using entire body in swing and getting the back into the strike.

Aim for 20 reps, using both sides of body, so 10 on either side, or 20 on either side, and building up to 100 or more while keeping a steady beat.

John Hackleman talks about using this sledgehammer technique: "I call this the Earnie Shavers [after the boxer] -- he told me about this drill. It's for punching power, and [Shavers] was one of the hardest punchers. The motion simulates an overhand right, the most common punch for knockouts. It's mainly for shoulder strength, but the core also gets worked.”

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

This technique takes very little time for major returns including improvements to insulin and blood sugar sensitivity, increase in fat burning enzymes, creates spikes in HGH, the ‘fitness hormone,’ positively impacts DNA, and burns fat faster and easier than aerobic exercise while requiring as little as 10 to 20 minutes using 4 minutes of intense exercise interspersed with longer rest periods. HIIT even improved blood sugar regulation for up to 24 hours after only one session when it was tested on type 2 diabetics.

See Dr. Mercola’s great info and beginner video here.

The fact that it helps diabetes is amazing, especially considering Americans are experiencing blood sugar issues and developing diabetic symptoms in droves, even children. Plus HIIT is so simple to do. It requires a short burst of as little as 30 seconds to 1 minute of intensive exercise, followed by an equal or slightly longer resting recovery period.

HIIT is ideal for martial artists who struggle with finding time for effective workouts, along with those wanting to add in a little ‘cream on the top’ of their regular training. This is it. There have been many research studies confirming the incredible efficiency and amazing benefits reaped from HIIT workouts.

HIIT affects the body in so many ways and is so powerful that is even appears to prevent cancer. An example of a HIIT workout can be 30 seconds to a minute of all-out sprinting then a minute or two of walking or slow jogging. Rinse and repeat for only 10 minutes, and you’re done! Repeat this cycle for just 10 minutes, and you’ll have completed a HIIT workout, lowering fat content in your body, balancing blood sugar levels, upping your HGH, and increasing immune system resistance.

Wood Chopping and Tree Climbing

Professional lumberjacks and tree climbers can flaunt reputations for being über-masculine ‘manly’ men and tough guys for a reason—chopping wood significantly increases testosterone levels, and their bodies develop powerful corded muscles from top to bottom!

This job was a full body workout, with a little HIIT thrown in. Tough as a job, but great as an unconventional training technique. Researchers have proven that the lumberjack profession and chopping wood in general significantly increases testosterone levels, and in vastly higher amounts than competitive sports.

Wood chopping and tree climbing increase hand strength, give extreme joint flexibility—particularly tree climbing--and utilize full ROM.

Martial artists can use wood chopping to learn the proper technique for the overhead backward toss, or reverse scoop toss, and increase muscle strength and torsion of the move. Chopping wood burns 400 to 500 calories an hour, thickens and powers up muscles in the back, arms, shoulders, and core. 

No wood or axe? No prob! Try using a dumbbell with the same functional mechanics that builds core muscles and obliques. See this quick and easy video by personal trainer Kai Wheeler to get the basic idea, then add strap-on weights, heavy exercise bands, and other types of resistance to get a primo workout.

Martial Arts Grip Strength

Martial arts grip strength is absolutely required for grabbing, holding, and drawing in during grappling, joint locks, holds and throws. A brutal grip is an essential ingredient in combat sports for winners on and off the mat.

There are many variations on techniques and approaches. 8 Step Shyun-style Mantis Kung Fu Master Lee Yakota has created a series of short, useful instructional videos called Mantis Mechanics which address many training, movement, and recovery issues.

Yakota delves into specific types of exercises for a killer kung fu grip, kung fu pushup variations that’ll kick your strength up a few notches, and iron palm conditioning methods to give your hands one-finger pushup power. See them all here or try a few of teh Mantis Mechanics below.

Stella Lucia Volpe is a dedicated rower, professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and an exercise physiologist. She says: "With each stroke, pretty much every part of the body is used. A big part of rowing is core strength. People think it's all arms, but

Stella Lucia Volpe

Is a dedicated rower, professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and an exercise physiologist. She says: "With each stroke, pretty much every part of the body is used. A big part of rowing is core strength. People think it's all arms, but rowing is much more legs and core.

Rowing Machines and Boats

Rowing is one the most under-utilized and underestimated exercises out there. Small wonder it’s finally beginning a comeback as coaches, trainers, martial artists and athletes rediscover the powerful effectiveness of this one training technique.

It is a full body exercise that burns up to 800 calories per hour, builds incredible core, arm, shoulder, leg, back, and hand grip muscles, plus builds killer posture. A Sports Illustrated interview with John Hackleman said he trained Chuck Liddell on a rowing machine, and Conor McGregor posted an image on Instagram of him using the Concept2 rowing machine for training.

Check out rowing machines at Amazon here.

Gregg Cook is a ShockWave instructor at Equinox in New York. He says: "Most people are hunched forward over their desk all day," he notes. "This wakes up all the muscles in your back." Get started by checking out Dr. Anna Cummins’ workout. See it here.

Post Hole and Regular Digging

Get really popular in your neighborhood digging up and turning over gardens for your neighbors with this seriously intense alternative workout. Utilize a very heavy, oversized post hole digger. It should be heavy enough that it is difficult to pick up, challenging back, shoulder, arm, core and grip strength. It typically will be made of heavy iron and hard woods.

Alternate that technique with digging deep pits or large gardens using a very large, heavy shovel. This advanced strength technique was recommended by sources as divergent as Hackleman’s The Pit, and Greek philosopher Galenus of Pergamum who worked in 157 C.E. as a physician in a gladiator school, who said digging and rope climbing are two methods that will build chiseled, well-defined muscles.

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About the author

Lisa Stone is a writer, artist, and dancer from the US who specializes in martial arts, health, and fitness. She began as a freelance ghostwriter helping authors with fiction writing and poetry then moved to online web writing. She’s addicted to sushi with ginger and wasabi, and martial arts films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Always an athlete, Lisa started martial arts training the week after an attack on the street left her feeling vulnerable, victimized, angry and helpless. Intensive martial arts training shifted that dynamic almost overnight. It was the excitement, fun, and camaraderie that kept her going back week after week to classes designed to test physical, mental, and emotional limits. And she’s still hooked—lol, pun intended! Find her at writesalternative.com.

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