If you walk through the doors of any commercial gym in the country you'll be met by row upon row of cardio equipment and resistance machinery. But, is this the best training environment for Mixed Martial Artists who want to build elite strength and conditioning?
The sandbag remains one of the greatest strength and conditioning tools for MMA athletes for one major reason: it closely resembles the demands of the sport.
Ultimate Functional Training
The term functional training has been bastardized heavily in health and fitness. If you ask most trainers and coaches about functional training they'll have you balancing on a stability ball in no time at all. This always baffles me; if I don't spend time balancing on a big ball during my daily life then how can training for it be functional? These coaches have typically neglected to examine the variables of function in relation to the individual. Functional training simply refers to matching, in some way, the training to the results required.
MMA athletes need strength, power, speed, agility and endurance. They work with awkward external loads (called opponents) so the training needs to replicate this.
Isnâ€™t MMA the best way to train for MMA?
Strength and conditioning for MMA is designed to support skill development: greater physical development allows the athlete to train harder, manage injury and increase the quality of skill learning. Furthermore, when two opponents of fairly equal skill level are matched, the better conditioned athlete will usually come out on top.
Strength and conditioning is your way of attaining greater physical development in a controlled environment. You can work on specific movement patterns that would not be possible during the demands of high level competition.
Traditional weight training places demands on the grip that aren't necessarily directly applicable to martial arts and MMA. Barbell and dumbbell lifting, for the most part, allow a "closed grip," one where you are able to completely close the hand around the bar. While this allows the athlete to lift more weight safely it is a luxury that MMA doesn't typically provide. Apart from wrist control, this is not a common grip position in MMA.
Gripping something with an "open grip" where the hand is not able to fully close around the object, has a much greater application. The sandbag is perfect for this as it allows an athlete to grip in a variety of different ways, including gripping the canvas with an open grip. The benefits to competitors who fight with a Gi are also very clear.
The inclusion of handles on your sandbag, also allows the versatility to perform other highly valuable exercise like the Snatch.
The idea of an "open grip" can be further developed. Zercher and Bear Hug grips add another degree of function to MMA strength and conditioning.
It is important to realize that "grip" does not start and finish with the hand. Grip should be classed as the ability to hold onto an external load or to the ability to hold onto a fixed surface. The need to effectively match the demands of the sport with the strength and conditioning is paramount.
Practical Applications for MMA
Besides multi-planar compound movements there are plenty of specific drills for the MMA athlete. The following exercises will help to produce fight-specific strength and conditioning.
1. Bear Hug Load Carry
Holding the sandbag with a bear hug grip, carry it across a set distance. You can practice this with both light and heavy bags, and over short to long distances. Although, a bag the weight of your opponent carried between the cage/ring walls would be highly specific. You can also experiment with different grips on the bag.
2. Sandbag Hip Bridge
Lie on the mat with the sandbag across your hips. Then, in one powerful movement, drive the sandbag upwards by using a hip bridge. This exercise will help develop the power needed to escape from the bottom position. Experiment with different sandbag positions and escaping from under the bag in different ways.
3. Platform Load Shift
Using two platforms, stand in between them and move the sandbag through 180 degrees. Experiment with different height platforms to simulate a change in the centre of gravity of your opponent. This drill can effectively be used to encourage an escape from being pressed up against the fence and general opponent control in the clinch. Again you can experiment with different weights and grip positions.
"Be formless, shapeless...like water"
One of the greatest advantages of the sandbag is its versatility. MMA competition is free flowing so why not match your training to this concept? Have fun and get used to swinging, throwing, pressing and pulling your sandbag in a variety of different ways for some great results.