By Ryan Jansen  |  13 December 2020   

The aspiring grappler seeking to fulfill his or her true potential should recognize that the benefits associated with the practice of the grappling arts can and will be enhanced through the application of the right strength and conditioning protocol.

Experience in live grappling situations will affirm that conditioning is as crucial as strength and power for developing oneself into a well-rounded athlete. 

Why not combine all three elements into one workout then?

When applied using functional movements and exercises specific to the needs of a grappling competition, circuit training can provide the novice and the advanced a with means to improving both their strength and endurance in a sport specific way.

It’s Time to Give Circuit Training A Second Look

Circuit training is a style of workout where the trainee cycles through a number of movements consecutively (usually 3 to 10) without rest between each exercise. The various movements in the circuit will target different muscle groups and the results of the workout will help the athlete to develop muscular strength and endurance while also taxing the cardiorespiratory system.

Exercise choice for each circuit should focus on compound movements that will engage stabilizer muscles in addition to the primary muscles used. The novice or beginner to resistance or conditioning training, should focus on the safest exercises that do not require a ton of technique and can be learned relatively quickly. As one advances their form along with their strength endurance base, they can begin to incorporate more advanced movements that require more coordination.

Functional Fitness Running Up Stairs | Fighting Arts Health Lab

Attention should be given to the necessity of alternating exercises within each circuit as opposing or different muscle groups should be trained in back to back order for best outcome of exercise efficiency.  Think upper body exercise, followed by a lower body exercise and a core exercise.  

Another consideration would be a push exercise, followed by a pull exercise and a core exercise.  This strategy will allow the trainee to complete a full body workout with more energy applied to proper technique and less rest needed after each round.

Depending on the circuit, brief sets of cardiovascular exercise (running, stationary cycling, rowing, etc.) may be added to each round in effort to increase heartrate and incorporate an extra element.

The number of repetitions of most movements should range between 5 and 15 with higher repetitions applied to develop strength endurance and hypertrophy. Lower reps are incorporated to build strength. Sets and reps should vary with the phase of training the athlete is in.

If the trainee is incorporating free weights or machines into their circuit, they should use a weight for each exercise that brings him or her just short of failure by the end of the prescribed number of repetitions. As with any safe program, start out light and log down your progress to best estimate resistance and repetition expectations.

Circuit training should be implemented several times a week with at least one rest day between each planned workout.  Individual considerations should include the incorporation of higher and lower intensities throughout each circuit workout.  Attached is a circuit training guideline recommended by Exercise Physiologist and former collegiate strength and conditioning coach Tom Kelso.

To Rest or Not to Rest? That is The Question

Rest should only be taken at the end of each round or at the completion of all exercises in the circuit. Rest periods should be dictated based on training and competition goals as the grappler who will be competing in an event where rest periods are at the end of every round, should seek to emulate the time that is rested in their competition to their rest periods in their training.

Functional Fitness Rest | Fighting Arts Health Lab

Both the advanced practitioner and the recreational athlete may also find it more useful to eliminate rest periods after each round as this strategy may assist the grappler in building the endurance necessary to stay strong for the duration of their grappling training class or bout.

Why the Grappler Should Utilize Circuit Training

With access to countless different workout routines, various forms of equipment, and an overload of exercise information, the grappler and the layperson alike can find difficulty in finding a practical and effective strength and conditioning routine for their particular goals.

Nevertheless, my question to the reader is this… If the wrestler, the Jiu jitsu practitioner and the Judoka along with the ordinary foe on the street would not expect the flow of action to stop during the course of a match or a quarrel, why would he or she want to train in a way that does not coincide with what they are training for?

Maxing out and then resting for several minutes after each set has its benefits to some athletes but in order to advance in the grappling disciplines, one must be able to transition from one hold to another, consistently and without rest over a specified period of time. Would it not be necessary than to incorporate a strength and conditioning program that will replicate the tempo and energy demand of a fight? 

The consistent activation of adjoining muscle groups through the use of dynamic exercises will best mimic competition expectations.

The most efficient way for the grappler to supplement their strength, endurance and power in the same workout is to implement a circuit training routine that provides short to medium bursts of energy over a desired amount of time. When applied exercises are executed consecutively over the course of 3 -10 minutes, they will best replicate movements that will likely be applied when rolling.

The first-ever Australian female wrestler to compete at the Olympic Games in 2008, Kyla Bremner, vocalized the rigors that come with the grappling game in her interview with ABC Local on August 8th, 2008.

Functional Fitness Kyla Bremner | Fighting Arts Health Lab

In this interview she referenced her experiences as a lifetime grappler when she claimed, “It's the challenge of trying to control your opponent’s body and they're trying to control you and it's like you're trying to outmaneuver each other and out-trick each other and it's skill and strength and speed and a lot of technique and it's just very, very challenging. “There are thousands of techniques and there are so many different strategies. You never know what your opponent's going to do and you have to sort of work around their defenses to attack.”

To prepare for her style of competition, Bremner said she would train with two a day workout program where she would, have a morning training session which was comprised of either running or weights.  In the evening, she would wrestle on the mat with a focus on technique, sparring, or a combination of both.

Want to Grind Opponents Into the Mat Like Kyla Bremner?

Want to grind opponents into the mat like Kyla Bremner? The implementation of a circuit training program in your routine can assist you in doing so.

Circuit training mimics the unpredictability of the grappling sports because it keeps the body guessing and adapting from the quick and sudden changes that occur as the athlete moves from one exercise to the next, never allowing the mind or body to fall into a comfortable rhythm.

It is for this reason that Circuit training can inspire mental discipline in the practitioner while at the same time providing him or her with the means to make best use of every single minute of their workout.

The dynamic, unpredictable nature of grappling provides the necessary and consistent 

application of a large variety of muscle groups that should be trained to optimize strength and conditioning for your individual sport.

The recreational and the advanced grappler alike may need to adjust their strength and conditioning routine consistently based on their ability to get to the gym, to find access to equipment, and find time to perform their workout. Circuit training is a great way to tax the cardiovascular system and enhance strength endurance in a relatively short period of time with little to no resources necessary.

Stumbling into the gym and wasting time figuring out where to start can deter training motivation altogether. This is where circuit training shines again as a properly constructed plan must be designed beforehand in order for it to be executed efficiently.

When the mind and body are denied the time to figure out how to burn as little energy as they can get away with burning, the individual is forced to give max effort to each exercise, and heart rate levels will spike. This practice will encourage maximum burn in the shortest possible amount of time.

Functional Fitness Group Training | Fighting Arts Health Lab

World renown martial arts author, practitioner, and former trainer Geoff Thompson explains the significance in this type of training when he described his philosophy on improving in the combat arts.  During an episode on The London Real podcast Thompson quoted that his goal during training was to “get in the burn quickly and to stay there” with suggestion on reaching a high level of intensity quickly and staying in that zone for a prolonged period of time.

Athlete Preservation

The grappling sports are very demanding on the body and the individual involved in heavy live training throughout the week is in fact involving themselves already in resistance and cardiovascular training each and every practice.  It may serve as a detriment than for this individual to beat up their body with heavy, max effort lifting or heavy volume training regularly.

The key for the combat athlete is not to train like a body builder or strongman but rather to train as a fighter and to incorporate a style of strength and conditioning that will act as a supplement, not a detriment to his martial arts training.  Circuit training several times a week can provide the grappler with the right amount of volume, muscular, and central nervous system stimulation without overtaxing the body.

Want to Be the Best? Then Train Like the Best

In the book “Best of CFW grappling 2001” written by Jose M. Fraguas, the highly regarded Brazilian Jiu jitsu champion and black belt under Carlson Gracie, Wallid Ishmael posted his weight training program. In this book, Ishmael testified that the secret to his success is based on his strength training routine which consists of a one-hour weight training circuit. Ishmael claims that this particular circuit is perhaps “his most effective prefight workout tool”.

Some high-level grappling athletes including Olympic judoka and Brazilian jiujitsu black belt Travis Stevens benefit by choosing three exercises per circuit but complete various circuits per workout. In the sample section below, we have listed one of Travis’s circuit training routines that he uses to prepare for competition.

NCAA Division One All American wrestler Chris Weidman and world Shuai-chiao kung fu champion Matt Furey also apply circuit training to their strength and conditioning routine.

Weidman explained his training routine in an article in Men’s Journal where he testified that he supplements his standup and grappling workouts with circuit training.  The former UFC Middleweight champion claimed that “Hill sprints and explosive movements” are his favorite exercises, and he admitted that his strength training includes “mostly bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, pistol squats (one-legged squats), and sit-ups.” His approach to conditioning focuses on strength and endurance over enhancing maximum strength or building muscle.

Matt Furey who along with his credentials as a grappler and coach, authored several notable publications including “Combat Conditioning: Functional Exercises for Fitness and Combat Sports”, has been openly outspoken about the effective nature of bodyweight circuit training.

Within his Combat Conditioning book, Furey describes one of the bodyweight circuit routines that he issues to his clients and which he calls “the royal court”. This circuit includes the application of only three exercises: The Hindu Squat, The Hindu Pushup and The Back Bridge (Wrestlers Bridge).

Former Olympic alternate Greco roman wrestler and UFC champion Randy Couture describes some of the vigorous circuit training workouts he uses in his book “Randy Couture: The Fighters Ultimate Fitness Manual.”  Randy explains that he prefers this type of training to enhance his strength and conditioning prior to competition.

Sample Circuit Training Workouts for Grappling

Start from top to bottom and complete one exercise immediately after the next with as little rest as possible to finish one round.  Depending on goals, fitness level, or phase of training, weight, reps, and advanced lifts can be added to each circuit. Incorporate a brief rest period (preferably 30 seconds – one minute) at the end of each round.  Complete three - four total rounds to finish the entire workout. 

Circuit Training Workout 1:

  • Circuit 1

Kettlebell or Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Dumbbell Bench Press

Barbell Bent Over Row

Russian Twist (with or without medicine ball)

Standing Overhead Dumbbell Press

Barbell Romanian Deadlift 

V – up or Coffin Sit Up 

Pull Up for Max Reps or Static Hold

2 sets of 8 -15  reps

2 sets of 8 - 15 reps

2 sets of 8 - 15 reps

30 seconds

2 sets of 8 - 15 reps

2 sets of 8 - 12 reps

2 sets of 10 - 20 reps

Pull-up to failure

Circuit Training Workout 2 (Split circuit approach):

Perform every exercise in mini circuit 1 from top to bottom with as little rest as possible between each exercise for the completion of one round.  Minimal to no rest should be taken at the completion of each round (30 seconds – one minute at the most).  Perform three to four sets of mini circuit 1 and then move on to complete 3 – 4 sets of mini circuit 2 using the same template to finish the entire workout.

  • Mini - Circuit 1

  • mini - circuit 2

Barbell Front Squat

One Arm Dumbbell Bent Over Row (both sides)

Medicine Ball Wood Chopper (both sides)

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

2 sets of 8 -12  reps

2 sets of 8 - 15 reps

30 seconds each side

2 sets of 8 - 15 reps

Travis Stevens Circuit Training Workout:

Travis Stevens and his coach developed a weekly planned circuit training program to help him advance as a grappler.  Below is one of the circuits that Travis incorporates into his routine:

Perform every exercise in circuit 1 from top to bottom with as little rest as possible between each exercise for the completion of one round.  Complete 2 continuous rounds for each circuit before moving on to the next.

  • Circuit 1

  • circuit 2

  • Circuit 3

KB Deadlift

Goblet Squat Hold

Side Plank

2 sets of 8 reps

2 sets of 15 seconds

2 sets of 20 seconds

Whether you are a serious full-time grappling competitor, or a part time hobbyist, strength and conditioning training is crucial for optimizing your game. While there is no one-size-fits all training routine, the athlete can assuredly enhance their grappling ability by selecting intelligent, efficient, and effective exercises to train the major muscles needed for their sport while at the same time improving their cardiovascular efficiency.

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About the author

Ryan is the CEO and Founder of Hitback Evolution LLC, a company specializing in personal development, customized fitness programs and fitness for the time-restricted individual. With over 10 years of experience as a personal trainer, Ryan has successfully aided clients with various conditions and needs in achieving their goals. Ryan has been a lifelong combat sports fan and practitioner. He is also an active blog writer and author, having published two books up to this current moment. During his spare time, Ryan is devoted to charitable service as he competes in fitness competitions, endurance sports, and athletic endeavors in order to raise money for The Foundation For NIBD In Kids. Contact Ryan via [email protected] or via his website at www.hitbackevolution.com.

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