Physical Conditioning Overview 

As we have previously talked about in the Aerobic vs Anaerobic breakdown in the Energy Systems article, having a strong aerobic base is paramount to being the best martial artist you can be.

Physical Conditioning Overview | Fighting Arts Health Lab

Little can save a martial artist that has emptied their gas tank prematurely. No amount of skill or talent can make up for exhaustion. When that point arrives, everything becomes a struggle. 

The ability to execute techniques, to breathe, to think under pressure, to survive are all affected. These skills are fundamentally reliant upon the ability to keep pace.

As previously discussed, aerobic means with oxygen. The aerobic system requires oxygen to function. Once the oxygen ‘runs out,’ this means that the demands to produce ATP (energy) are too high to be filled by aerobic energy systems.

In this article we are going to look at several ways to train the aerobic system, their applications, how to implement them into your routine and the pros and cons of each.

Aerobic Conditioning Methods

Aerobic conditioning is often referred to as long, slow distance conditioning. Aerobic exercise is conducted at a heart rate that’s well within aerobic zones, for long periods of time. Typically aerobic exercise is done for at least 20 minutes.

How do you define your aerobic threshold? The truth is, it’s extremely hard to determine aerobic threshold without laboratory testing. A common method is to subtract 30 beats per minute (bpm) from you lactate threshold. Again, defining your lactate threshold requires testing and access to special equipment.

Thankfully, Dr. Phil Maffetone, founder of the MAF method (Maximum Aerobic Function) has identified a very accurate formula to allow you to define your aerobic threshold without expensive testing and equipment. “The 180 MAF Formula, an alternative to a one-on-one clinical evaluation, provides you with an accurate exercise heart rate (HR) that helps guide optimal aerobic development.” Dr. Maffetone.

The Maximum Aerobic Function  (MAF) Methodology


Subtract Heart Rate of 180 bpm - your age, that is your Maximum Aerobic Function


Modify this number by selecting from one of the appropriate categories below:

- Subtract 10 bpm if you are recovering from a major illness, any recent surgery or hospitalization, or are taking prescription medication

- Subtract 5 bpm If you are frequently injured, get more than two colds or flu per year, have allergies or asthma, are inconsistent with exercise, or your athletic performance has plateaued

-If you have been exercising at least 3-4 times a week for at least a year without any of the problems in (a) or (b), keep the number at (180–age) the same.

- Add 5 bpm If you are a competitive athlete training 1+ years without any of the problems in (a) and (b), and have made progress in competition without injury


Use a heart rate monitor to identify your top end MAF number. Do NOT exceed this number to optimally train your aerobic endurance

Applying MAF To Your Situation

Step 1.) Calculate Your MAF

For example a 45 year old male, who does 3 to 4 MMA sessions per week would be calculated as follows: 180 bpm - 45 years old = 135 bpm

Step 2.) Test Your Calculation

Once you've established your MAF, conduct any exercise which would allow you to stay within that threshold. These activities could include, yet are not limited to, drilling techniques, jogging, cycling, swimming, circuit training, hiking, yoga, tai-chi, flow sparring, rowing machine, elliptical etc.

Step 3.) Manage Your Effort

Work on your MAF aerobic conditioning for at least 20 minutes per session for a minimum of one hour (60 mins) per week.

Suggestions For Implementing MAF







3 x 20 min Sessions

3 X 20 Min Sessions

3 X 20 Min Sessions



3 X 30 Min Sessions

3 X 30 Min Sessions

3 X 30 Min Sessions



3/4 x 45 to 60 min Sessions

3/4 X 45 To 60 Min Sessions

3/4 X 45 To 60 Min Sessions

3/4 X 45 to 60 Min Sessions

Polarized Training - The 80/20 Rule Of Conditioning

If you were to examine the training protocols of elite level athletes, you’d likely find a predictable pattern emerging. Elite level competitors spend about 80% of their time training below their lactate threshold (aerobic) and about 20% of their training time training above their lactate threshold. Essentially, the vast majority of their training consists of aerobic level, endurance-style work.

This pattern has evolved so much in scientific literature that it has adopted the name ‘polarized training.’

How Long Can You Go During a Workout? Start Conditioning Your Body to Function Optimally!

From the best MMA athletes, top-level boxers, and elite triathletes to world champion cyclists, nearly all elite athletes mimic this kind of polarized training protocol.

They spend the vast majority of their training at relatively easy aerobic intensity and occasionally will conduct extremely intense bouts of anaerobic/glycolytic workload.

You’ll be able to liken this to the typical structure of your martial arts classes. Let’s use a typical BJJ class, for example. In a 90-minute class, you may spend 20 minutes conducting an aerobic warm-up, limbering the body and joints, getting yourself ready for the technique portion of the class. Techniques and drilling will typically comprise much of the 90 minutes, often 45-60 minutes of the class.

What is Physical Conditioning | Fighting Arts Health Labealth Lab

Finally, in the last 15-30 minutes, you may live-spar and up the intensity. If you map that out, you’ll see that it closely mimics that of polarized training - the 80/20 rule of conditioning.

Why Do Elite Level Athletes Spend Most of Their Time At Low-Level Workloads?

Elite athletes have figured out that training too hard, too often, and missing the key development of aerobic base, can lead to burnout, over-training, diminished performance, and increased risk of injury/illness. It makes no sense to spend so much time training if that time isn’t spent efficiently. 

This is why polarized training has become a staple amongst the best athletes in the world. It allows them to train and practice diligently, for prolonged periods, yet minimize the risk of over-training and sub-optimal performance come competition time.

A well known study highlights this very well. Researchers pitted two groups against one another over 5 months of training. Group one was advised to spend the bulk of their training (81%) at “easy” aerobic pace, 12% at moderate and 8% at high intensity paces, whereas group two trained much harder, at much higher intensities (32% of all training to be conducted at high-intensity vs 20% of group one).

Common sense would tell us that the group that trained harder, for longer, would have performed better at the conclusion of the study. In fact, that was not the case. Group one (aerobic conditioning) performed significantly better than group two in spite of the fact that they spent a great deal of their training time at a significantly lower intensity.

Group Aerobic Training | Fighting Arts Health Lab

Studies like this, and an ever-growing appreciation for exercise science is doing much to dispel  the myth that good training always has to be hard training. It simply isn’t the case. 

While going hard is at time necessary, the bulk of your time should be spent working aerobically, at lower intensities, and developing your aerobic gas tank.

What Could Polarized Training Look Like For You?

With so much variance between individual training plans and time commitments, it can be hard to outline a specific polarized protocol. Essentially, you have to be mindful of the 80/20 rule and build yourself a training regimen that consists largely of aerobic development, using tools like MAF training, followed by bouts of high-intensity training (HIIT, sprints, sparring, olympic lifting) that really push you to develop.

This is conducive to the regimen of a dedicated martial artist. Ample time can be spent drilling, practicing, working on technique and fluidity, leaving lots of gas in the tank to turn it up to 10 when it’s time to ‘go live’ and spar.

Be wary of carrying the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality into your training, or you may run the risk of burnout. Remember, your goal should be to train smarter, not harder. Applying these principles will keep you on the mats for longer without destroying your body in the process.

High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T.)

Both of the aforementioned methods can be incredibly effective for development of the aerobic system. However, they’re very time consuming. The adaptive response from training the aerobic system is very similar to it’s approach (long and slow).

Some people, quite frankly, don’t have the time to complete complimentary aerobic conditioning sessions.

This is where H.I.I.T. comes in.

Don’t worry, high-intensity intervals aren’t as scary as they may sound. At this point, you may be wondering why high-intensity work is suitable for the aerobic system, as we have talked at length about aerobic work being lower intensity, conducted in the presence of oxygen. You’d be correct if your intuitive alarm bells were ringing. However, don’t fret, the beautiful thing about the energy systems is their ability to interplay with one another.

HIIT Training with Battle Ropes | Fighting Arts Health Lab

This is particularly true for using H.I.I.T. as a means to bolster the aerobic system. Interestingly, however, training the aerobic systems in the manner of long, slow, MAF-style aerobic work, won’t have much cross-over to high-end anaerobic work. It seems that training at high intensities does a much better job of strengthening our capacity for low-energy work, whereas low-energy work doesn’t provide the same gains to anaerobic work. 

This is something to keep in mind if your primary goal is to increase power yet most of your conditioning is endurance work. Having this knowledge means that you can take advantage of this kind of training. H.I.I.T. is super beneficial for a whole host of health reasons, and it’s quick. An effective H.I.I.T. session can be conducted in just 10 minutes - much better for those martial artists reading this that are strapped for time.

Will you gain as much dedicated aerobic development from H.I.I.T. vs MAF style conditioning? No, probably not, at least specific aerobic development. For example, you will not increase your maximal cardiac output (Qmax) anywhere near (if at all) conducting H.I.I.T. vs long distance aerobic work.

However, do not be deterred! You’ll still reap many rewards for your time “HIIT’ing” (plus train some crossover systems and physical attributes). If you’re an athlete short on time, HIIT could be your new best friend.

Start Your Transformation And Become More Powerful by Conditioning Your Body

How Does H.I.I.T. Increase Aerobic Function?

It all starts with your mitochondria - the power plants that are found in every nucleated cell in the human body. Having more mitochondria and increasing their size and efficiency is a sure-fire way to boost metabolic function. For a long time, it was thought that aerobic training was the best way to develop mitochondria, as they thrive in the presence of oxygen.

However, recent discoveries and studies have concluded that the stress responses from H.I.I.T. and anaerobic work leads the body to undergo mitochondrial biogenies (making of more mitochondria) in order to cope with the demands of exercise and strengthen for future efforts.

All mitochondria contain oxidative enzymes that lead to improved metabolic function, particularly of skeletal muscle. This increase in mitochondria from training adaptations can make you more effective at burning both fat and carbohydrates for fuel and increasing energy availability from ATP. More ATP = more gas in the tank. H.I.I.T. carries more benefits than just mitochondrial adaptations, such as increasing VO2 max, weight-loss, muscle-building, and increased athletic performance.

However, keep in mind that H.I.I.T., although very challenging and short in duration, can be a great addition to your aerobic conditioning.

How To H.I.I.T. It?

There are many variations and applications of H.I.I.T. training, so to maximize efficiency, it’s always a good idea to see how the experts program their athletes H.I.I.T. training. According to lead H.I.I.T. researcher, Stephen Mcgreggor, PHD, a H.I.I.T. training protocol that has been scientifically shown to lead to increased aerobic performance, recovery, power output and VO2 max looks like this:


Start with 4 x 30 seconds maximum sprints, with two to four minutes rest after each sprint, just three times per week


Gradually increase this to 10 x 30 second sprints with 2.5 minutes rest. Again, just three times per week


Do this for for 7 weeks, for a total of 6.5-15 minutes of HIIT per week

Another H.I.I.T. session may use any effort repeats with a work:rest ratio of 1:1 or 1:2. For example: Rowing machine sprint repeats: Max effort for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds or 60 seconds, repeat using the same principles mentioned above.

Other options could include making your H.I.I.T. more martial arts-specific. You could mimic the above protocol while hitting the heavy bag, for example.

It’s also key to note that the sprints don’t always have to be running sprints (although this is desired due to bone density and connective tissue strengthening adaptations). If you have problems with impact (knee/back issues) then you can adapt further and perform these sprints in a pool, on an elliptical, or on a rowing machine. If running is a little too tough on your knees, hit the hills. Running uphill decreases the impact forces on the knees.

Fartlek Training

Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play” and that is just what Fartlek training is. You vary your tempo, intensity and output randomly and for varying times and intensities, as your mood, energy levels, and climate dictates.

This training method is unpredictable and mixes high bouts of moderate to intense efforts, with easy efforts throughout.

You might pick out a tree in the distance and sprint there, taking the next two minutes to slowly jog and recover, after which you tackle the a hill at 75% perceived effort, and go down the hill at a brisk walking pace.

The goal of Fartlek training is to break the monotony associated with cardio and aerobic training.

However, this does come with some drawbacks. It’s a less scientifically validated approach and relies upon your perceived levels of exertion and exhaustion. This can be tricky to navigate, as we have a tendency to go a little bit too easy during our easy phase, and not quite hard enough when we’re supposed to go hard.

Fartlek Training Pros Cons | Fighting Arts Health Lab

Image source: Triathletes Tribe

This lands us in the dreaded ‘black hole’ cardio zone - a place where well-intentioned trainees often find themselves. The pace that they set is not ideal to cause sufficient adaptation to the required energy systems and therefore their efforts aren’t rewarded as thoroughly as they ought to be. They’re either working a little too easy for insufficient time (causing no adaptation), or a little too hard for too long (causing burnout and physiological stress).

You can always avoid such pitfalls by wearing a heart rate monitor and paying attention to training zones to ensure you’re matching them with your desired training outcomes. There’s no ‘how-to’ guide as far as Fartlek conditioning goes.

You have to enjoy the workload and be mindful of your efforts. In many ways, Fartlek does a good job mimicking the unpredictable nature of martial arts competition and training. Much of a match can be spent in a very slow, tactical battle, in between super high-paced scrambles and bouts of explosion. For this reason, you can adopt a Fartlek style approach in your practice, or implement it into your conditioning outside of the gym.

Additional Considerations

The most prominent component of conditioning is undoubtedly the aerobic system - the ‘gas tank’ of a martial artist. This is the solar-powered, clean-burning motor that when well cared for will keep you going for the duration of a workout, fight, or competition.

A solid aerobic base is paramount to faster recovery and surviving those deep waters that you are bound to encounter on your journey as a martial artist. In our next section, Getting Started, we will provide a few ideas to help identify your baseline and establish conditioning goals.