Iron Will Training: Lessons from MMA Conditioning

Back in the day, boxers used to fight for 15 rounds. Later rounds were the most grueling; both mentally and physically challenging. Imagine 15 rounds of constant pressure from your opponent, constant impact, pain, and stress. Your body aches, wishing it all to end but your mind pushes you forward, challenging your will power and conditioning against that of your opponent. Training for 15 rounds didn’t only make great fighters, it made battle hardened people, people who were truly “tough.” Not tough in a Jersey Shore bad-haircut, gold-chain, style-your-eyebrows, kind of way, but really tough in the true sense of the word: resistant to failure. It created warriors whose spirit wouldn’t accept defeat or the idea of quitting. Training for 15 rounds gave you a hell of a lot more than a chiseled physique or a butt you could break a coconut off of; training for 15 rounds forged a hard body and an iron will.

Long before I became known as a Kettlebell instructor, I was a competitor and martial arts instructor. I have been lucky enough to train with some of the top names in the world and many unknown but brilliant coaches. I worked color commentary for TKO, Canada’s Major League MMA event which spawned the likes of George St Pierre, Patrick Cote, David Losieaux, and other great fighters. Through all of those experiences, and from having the honor to train with many talented martial artists, I learned the greatest gift a martial arts instructor or fitness coach can pass to his students; that gift is the knowledge that the greatest benefit we can receive from hard physical training isn’t about appearance, it is about will. The will to win, the will to continue, and the will to give it all you have, both body and spirit. This is a power that nothing can match. If your training helps you to develop this characteristic, then every day on the mat, or in the gym, is time well spent. ill is a skill and like any other, you can cultivate it with daily practice and dedication.

As a trainer, you can share this by crafting workouts to challenge and inspire, or you can train people to look cute at the beach. I know, you want to look cute at the beach too right? Well, guess what, if you train the way I am suggesting and the way I teach my students, the “side effect” will be an appearance that is most definitely beach worthy. I use the term “side effect” because that is exactly what I think your improved appearance should be. Training can give you so many gifts, it is a shame that people focus so much on the side effect rather than how they feel, perform, and the quality of life a healthy body and mind can bring.

Recently the fitness world has seen a return to performance based training. Workouts are shifting from typical bodybuilding programs to more skill based training. The idea of everyday people training like athletes is becoming more common. More and more people are training for performance goals rather than simple physical ones. Along with this growth, the sport of MMA has gained in popularity, becoming a world wide phenomenon. People marvel at the skill and incredible conditioning of these fighters. As a trainer and one who has worked with martial artists and fighters I am often asked what it is like to train an MMA fighter and what I have done differently with them. The truth is that I have no secret special techniques to show fighters. An excellent lift for a doctor, housewife, or track star will also be of tremendous value for a fighter. The secret (if there is such as thing) is in the way I structure their training and how we work on their mental strength. Consider barbell training. Is there a super secret deadlift for an MMA fighter? Maybe there is a secret barbell snatch technique that will turn you into George St Pierre overnight. You see, there are no secret moves, only solid basics prepared in an ideal manner to suite the needs of the individual. I have taught a 62 year old woman the same kettlebell basics that I showed a professional fighter. The difference was how I presented them and the methods we used to employ them during training.

Fight training is Will training. You need an iron will to get through an MMA fight or any combat sport. You also need endurance, strength, and the ability to recover quickly. All of those physical challenges will test you mentally and your training should reflect this. Simple basics that develop your entire body as one well coordinated unit combined with psychological challenges are the staple of any great fighter’s conditioning program. Fighters train their mind and body. If we want to train like athletes and have the full benefit (not just the aesthetic ones), then we must also partake of this training of the mind and spirit. Over the years my training hasn’t gotten easier. It has become more challenging, more diverse, and is a constant tool I use to remind me of the power of my will. One day while sprinting up a snowy hill wearing a 40lbs weight vest, someone asked me what I was training for. I replied, “life.” I don’t train merely to be fit. I am fit. I get up and train to develop myself. To challenge myself and for the constant reminder that I have the will to rise against any of life’s challenges and to conquer them all. This may be a far cry from why people are dancing around fitness studies swinging two pound kettlebells, but it is the philosophy I share with my students and one I have traveled the world spreading. You can dance the Macerena with a two pound kettlebell, maybe even firm and tone that sagging butt! Or you can use the same amount of time to develop the skills to challenge and change your body and mind in ways you can hardly imagine. The training you do in both cases is very different, and as you can imagine, so are the results.

I want to share three simple workouts that provide excellent examples of what we call Iron Will training. The first is a nice little benchmark workout we perform at every Agatsu Instructor Certification. It also happens to be great training for MMA fighters as it develops the endurance to change levels and continually get off the floor. This simple workout is made up of only two exercises. It is performed at every Agatsu course as it offers trainers insight into how to craft simple and powerful training sessions. It also challenges many first timers mental strength. At some point in the first set, many people want to quit. People are shaken by the numbers and start to cheat their count or technique. This workout is called “Second Wind” and it is a test of will. The following is to be performed for time with the strictest possible technique. Try to complete the workload in the shortest possible time. Record your progress and enjoy!

Second Wind Workout:
30 Tuck Jump Burpees
20 Two Hand Kettlebell Swings
25 Tuck Jump Burpees
25 Two Hand Kettlebell Swings
20 Tuck Jump Burpees
30 Two Hand Kettlebell Swings
15 Tuck Jump Burpees
35 Two Hand Kettlebell Swings
10 Tuck Jump Burpees
40 Two Hand Kettlebell Swings
5 Tuck Jump Burpees
45 Two Hand Kettlebell Swings

Training for time as we saw in the “Second Wind” workout is a great motivator. It places the emphasis on performance and the ability to finish a given task quickly and technically. Along with time training, we can push ourselves or our clients by making use of other mental challenges. I designed the Agatsu Ring of Fire Workout to motivate groups of martial artists. The concept of the workout is more important than the individual exercises chosen. With the basic template in place, you can mix and match exercises as you see fit. The main point should be the use of motion and constant pressure to keep driving the group forward. This workout is performed with participants in a circle that is constantly in motion. Have everyone holding two kettlebells (this would be ideal) or one kettlebell of a reasonable weight. If your ego is stronger than your body, your mind better be willing to see you through to the end. On the instructors command, everyone will begin to walk in a circle with their kettlebells in the rack position. Perform the following exercises for two complete rotations of the circle. (Number of rotations may change depending on the size of the circle).

Agatsu Ring of Fire Workout:
Sea Saw Press
Overhead Hold
Farmers Walk
Overhead Shrugs
Farmers Walk
Sea Saw Press
Lunges (Kettlebells Racked)
Farmers Walk
Lunges (Kettlebells Overhead)
Rack both Kettlebells

The 15 Rounds Workout challenges participants by making it hard for them to quit. With someone in front and back of you constantly pushing forward there is no place to hide your quitting. You aren’t an anonymous class participant hiding in the corner of the gym taking a quick water break that lasts from five to ten minutes. In this workout, everyone sees you stop. They can see you quit and that is a great motivator not to. The final workout takes us back to those old school fighters going 15 rounds. This double kettlebell circuit is made up of 15 sets of two minutes with one minute rest between sets. The challenge is time and working with two bells. Round after round you must move efficiently to keep your hands fresh and ready for more. Round after round, you must recover quickly so that you can sustain throughout the 15 round. Round after round, YOU MUST NOT QUIT.

15 Rounds Workout (Double KB’s):
30 Seconds Clean
30 Seconds Clean and Jerk
30 Seconds Front Squat
30 Seconds Double Snatch
(1-Minute Rest)

Remember, will is a skill. Every opportunity to train is a chance to strengthen that skill. Every day you sweat through another workout is another day you get to remind yourself that the mind controls the body and not the other way around. Go out and train today and remember that nothing can stop someone who has an iron will.

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Comments
One Response to “Iron Will Training: Lessons from MMA Conditioning”
  1. josh says:

    Excellent and motivating post as usual! Keep up the good work Shawn.

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