As a fitness professional, I am often asked how much I can lift during various resistance exercises. My answer is "What difference does it make unless I am preparing for a bodybuilding or powerlifting contest." As a Mixed Martial Arts practitioner, I am classified as an endurance athlete. Therefore, my resistance workouts consist mostly of high reps with lower weight. I have my own home gym now but when I used to visit major gyms to do my resistance workouts, I would often get snickers from the heavy lifters when they would see the light weight on the barbells. After the workout, they would no longer be snickering when they saw how much effort it actually took to get through my workouts.
In the world of MMA and other combat sports, we rely almost exclusively on endurance and anaerobic capacity to survive the competition. This means in a five round fight, you must be just as efficient in the fifth round as you were in the first. Strength and power training do have their place but they must be secondary to endurance training. After all, the odds of landing that one lucky knockout power shot are slim to none.
Allow me to illustrate my point with an example.
Below is one of the MMA-based circuit workouts I perform each week:
5x5 minute rounds
1 minute each station
No rest in between minutes
1st Minute: Squats while holding 45 lb. barbell plate (as many as possible)
2nd Minute: Overhead press with 45 lb. barbell plate (as many as possible)
3rd: Minute: Upright row with 45 lb. barbell plate (as many as possible)
4th Minute: Bent-over row with 45 lb. barbell plate (as many as possible)
5th Minute: Get ups with 45 lb. barbell plate (as many as possible)
1 Minute Rest
Repeat above circuit for four more rounds.
Now let’s just take one of the exercises from the above circuit and compare it to how a heavy lifter might perform the same exercise. We’ll use the overhead press. A heavy lifter might start with 135 lbs. for 10 reps. He then may do a second set at 205 lbs. for 5 reps. He then may do a third set at 255 lbs. for 3 reps. Finally, he may do one last rep at a max of 305 lbs. People who train mostly for strength and hypertrophy usually take plenty of rest in between sets to fully replenish their energy systems for the next lift. So assuming the lifter in this example took 5 minutes of rest between sets, he just moved a total of 3,445 lbs. in about 20 minutes.
Now let's take that same exercise and apply it to the MMA circuit I illustrated above. Let's say on average I move the 45 lb. barbell a total of 30 times in one minute. After the entire 5 round workout, I will have moved 6,750 lbs. in 25 minutes. While this took a few minutes longer than the strength training example, I moved almost twice as much total weight. Also, keep in mind we are talking about just this one exercise with no rest until the 1 minute between rounds. I still have to perform four other exercises during the circuit with no rest in between. So not only have I moved more weight than the heavy lifter, I have also worked my cardiovascular system more due to the high pace and the minimal rest between circuits. This, my friends, is how you build endurance and durability; not just for combat sports, but for life in general. In your everyday life, unless you move extremely heavy objects for a living, rarely will you be called upon to apply all-out exertion to perform tasks. You need endurance to do a number of things: carry bags of groceries to/from your car, carry a child for long distances at a theme park, hold a pet on a leash at the park, carry a weighted-down purse or briefcase to/from work, etc.
Again, this is not to say that training for strength and hypertrophy does not have its place. This logic certainly would not apply to a professional bodybuilder, power lifter or someone who must lift extremely heavy loads on a daily basis. The point is that in our sport (MMA) and in most activities of daily living, your workouts should focus more on building endurance and durability in order to perform more efficiently and increase your anaerobic working capacity.
Until next time, work hard, stay motivated and be safe!
Certified Personal Trainer
The American Council on Exercise