To Lift or not to Lift as a Combat Athlete?

It’s pretty hard to argue that getting stronger could ever be a bad thing for any kind of athlete. However, to this day there are combat athletes avoiding the iron like it’s some kind of kryptonite.

Don’t get me wrong; I get it…It’s not the ‘getting stronger’ part of the equation that is the problem – it’s what you need to do to get strong.

In a general sense, getting stronger involves technical lifting exercises under heavy resistance (relative to that individual) for a prescribed number of sets and reps which utilise the principles of progressive overload (increasing resistance over time). It’s the ‘technical lifting’ and ‘heavy resistance’ that raise a few eyebrows and throw people into a debate of risk vs reward.

Although these days, with the advancement in technologies, equipment, recovery methods, supplementation, real science and peer reviewed and published data, the rewards of a proper Strength and Conditioning program under the guidance of an experienced coach far, far outweigh the risks involved.

With that in mind, Strength and Conditioning’s reputation is still tainted in some circles – being blamed for injuries and loss of performance. What if I told you we could easily mitigate that risk?

First, we must understand where all these problems are coming from:

I. Lack of General Physical Preparation including a ‘practice phase’ to learn and understand the lifts involved in a training program.

II. Incorrect prescription of exercises and training methods.

III. Incorrect planning and programming.

IV. Lack of recovery methods.

V. Over training.

VI. Lack of nutrition and supplementation.

VII. Lack of hydration and electrolytes.

So, how do we mitigate all these risk factors and reap all the rewards?

Treat S&C with the respect it deserves.

For too many athletes, S&C is an afterthought; something to cram into an already packed schedule of sport-specific skill and drill-based training; something that a lot of athletes believe they can do on their own or after watching a few YouTube videos or reading a couple of articles.

If you take your sport seriously, you would have sought out the best coach for your development. Unfortunately, that coach is not likely to excel in both the sport and S&C fields. It’s rare. In fact, in my personal combined 20 years of high level sport competing and coaching, I am yet to see it. Every professional sports team have coaches that stay in their lane and specialise in what they do. This is how to attain professional level performances.

Does a combat athlete really need Strength and Conditioning?

I get asked this question a lot.

I answer it like this: we can all agree that the majority of a fighter’s power is generated out of the ground. To launch an attack, a good fighter will establish a stable base and use that base as a platform to generate energy into the ground which then, through an athletic process termed ‘Ground Reaction Force’, will receive that energy/force back into the body, which can translate into an attack such as a punch, kick, takedown, etc.

Many sports involve a similar sequence of events with a different outcome, such a golf, tennis, and, more to my point, throwing sports such as shot put, discus, javelin and hammer throw.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that there are literally zero high level throwing athletes that do not undertake a S&C plan and if there were, they would be at a great disadvantage.

This is exactly how I feel if a combat sports athlete does not invest in Strength and Conditioning.

With this in mind, I feel it is imperative to define S&C and importantly, differentiate between Strength and Conditioning for an application in sport compared to general fitness training.

What I consider to be even more of a mistake than not partaking in a S&C program at all would be to undertake and invest time and energy into the wrong kind of program! At least avoiding S&C altogether will not rob you of precious (and limited) resources such as time and energy.

In my opinion, an effective S&C plan will have an athlete leaving the gym feeling more energetic and motivated than when they first arrived.

The emphasis should be on quality, not quantity.

We need to use the weight room for its intended purpose – to get stronger and more powerful; not to grind out circuits and high rep, short rest intervals. There’s a BIG difference between training to increase the physical attributes of a given sport and ‘fitness.’

If you want to get fitter for your sport, then there’s no better ‘sport-specific’ way to do so than replicating that event at competition or slightly higher than competition levels of intensity for relative time periods or slightly longer.

If you’re a boxer, hit pads with the same intensity and intentions you would have during a fight. Try to accumulate a similar amount or 15-20% more punches thrown as you would average during a fight. If you fight 3min rounds, start with hard and fast striking 2min rounds and build up to 3min rounds or 15-20% longer while maintaining the same work rate.

I get it; you want to work harder than your opponent, so you’re not just going to train for 3min rounds, you’re going to do 5’s or 6’s or even 7 minute rounds!!!

The problem with this logic is that you will inevitably be training at a lower intensity to last that long. You won’t hit as hard, you won’t throw as many punches and you will begin practicing with sloppy technique, which will become familiar and translate into your fight.

Keeping things in terms of VOLUME (round time and number of quality punches thrown) familiar to competition is an advantage and easy to translate to a live competition.

Quantity or volume is NOT a good indicator of QUALITY and quality is where we positively develop as an athlete.

Too often I’ve heard fighters describing a good workout in the gym using words like ‘exhausted’, ‘gassed’, ‘almost spewed’, ‘DID spew’…Similarly, I’ve heard athletes judging an increase in performance by reducing rest intervals between lifts and/or increasing the volume of work done.

Getting stronger and more explosive and powerful requires short, near-maximal efforts with the dictating influencers of performance being weight lifted and/or the velocity being moved at. This itself requires LONGER rest periods as your performance increases.

As a combat athlete under my guidance, your session plan could look something like this:

Warm up

3-5min Rower. 


5min RGStrength Priming Routine. 

Functional power

Sandbag and/or Kettlebell exercises that involve explosive triple extension with postural awareness and maintenance. 


Major, compound lifts such as Deadlifts, Squats, Bench Press, Rows, Pulldowns & Overhead Pressing programmed with specific periodisation protocols relative to competition dates. 

Accommodating resistance

Major, compound lifts as above with the inclusion of bands and/or chains programmed at a slightly lower resistance compared to the Strength exercise to increase in resistance as a weight is moved through its range of motion which will encourage the athlete to move the weight with greater velocity. 

Assistance exercises

This is where an coach/athlete can spend time on smaller muscle groups including pre & rehab protocols and/or the inclusion of further plyometric exercises depending on what training phase the athlete is currently in. 


Usually programmed at the begging and towards the end of a training block involving a short, high intense selection of exercises such as sled sprints and weighted carries to develop anaerobic capacity. 

Key takeaways

  1. Treat your Strength and Conditioning with the respect it deserves. Source a reputable, experienced coach and develop a personalised program.
  2. Give yourself plenty of time to learn the lifts involved. Consider a ‘practice phase’ where you become familiar with quality technique.
  3. Use the weight room to develop Strength and Power. Don’t grind out circuits.
  4. Remember that adding a Strength & Conditioning program to your current training schedule will rob you of energy and time. Be on top of getting quality sleep and nutrition and be sure to employ effective recovery techniques.

Ryan Gambin is a 2008 Beijing Olympian (100m Butterfly) and multiple national record holder who successfully transitioned into a career in Strength and Conditioning. Recognised as one of Australia’s top 10 fitness professionals and having a lifelong career as a professional athlete, Ryan provides an expert level of advice that sets him apart from any other coach.

To find out more about Ryan, follow him on Instagram @ryan.gambin and visit his website

Ryan Gambin