May 2009 Workshop Review - by Mark Burgess

On May 31st I participated in Lee Morrison's excellent seminar on Combative Fitness at the Bittern Youth Centre. One of the most striking characteristics of Lee's teaching is that the session was planned to have an overall coherence, with a well-developed progression throughout the seminar that consistently highlighted the relevance of each practical task for the development of our combative attributes. Moreover, the practical bursts (though intense) were punctuated with clear explanations of the theoretical rationale that justified us busting our lungs throughout the afternoon.

As we entered the room, we could see a variety of kit had been prepared for our pleasure (and pain). There were tractor tyres, sledgehammers, kettle bells (and other similar professional and home-made equipment), weights, ropes, stretch bands and a host of other seemingly innocuous implements that would be used in imaginative ways to tax us physically and mentally.

The session started with an overview of how the fitness principles we would learn would be directly structured to feed our combat skills, rather than simply being focused on developing a less specific, more general level of conditioning. Lee pointed out that engaging in a fitness regime such as this combative programme would enable us to develop both the physical and mental attributes required in our particular system of fighting. (Those present were experienced in combative street-oriented systems that require explosive strength, but many people also had experience of other forms of martial endeavours).

The principles Lee explained could be adapted for the requirements of an MMA fighter, the boxer, etc, and as we progressed through the different exercises, Lee consistently highlighted where the overall session could be adapted for MMA and other martial artists, making the seminar inclusive for people of different backgrounds and different fighting ambitions.

Lee continued the session with an explanation of the basic energy systems that fuel activity - these systems were linked to different fighting requirements to illustrate why fighters may need to adapt their programme to suit their own goals. The practical sessions progressed from explosive immediate power (particularly relevant for the street-oriented combative fighter) to more sustained systems that would promote the kind of conditioning needed by the sport fighter engaged in multiple-round contests.

For the physical tasks we "primed the muscles" before using them in a plyometric explosive fashion to develop rapid powerful execution of our weapons (whether that be striking with hands, knees, etc). Our first tasks involved priming pulling movements (as if executing a clinch or neck crank) with resistance bands, and followed with powerful and rapid explosive slams of medicine balls into the floor. The focus here was on speed and sheer power. The tasks were simple to perform, and we merged the correct physical execution of each activity with the appropriate combative mental focus of "really meaning it" on each repetition.

We followed the pulling and medicine ball slams with exercises for punching power (primed using press-ups) and followed-up with plyometric clap push-ups, then immediately moved into a priming exercise of squats with a sandbag (the utility and production of home made kit was explained clearly throughout the day) straight into the plyometric hell of split jump squats without weight for lower body power (knees, weight transference, etc).

After a brief explanation of the next progression, we moved into equally intensive, yet longer, sessions of activity. At this point, we were working in bursts of 30 seconds - designed to enable us still to be able to work full out (which was not quite the case with some of the later exercises which recruit slightly different energy systems). For example, one of these tasks involved 30 seconds of tuck-jumps followed by 30 seconds of clinching your partner's neck and kneeing the pad they wisely held in front of what would otherwise have been a rapidly swelling nut sack.

At each stage, Lee preceded each activity with a brief instruction of correct technique and followed this with a short observation of each group to ensure (for both personal safety and purposes of learning effective tool utilisation) we were doing the activities properly. One of the follow-ups to the kneeing tasks was a series of lung-busting burpees interspersed with a three hit combo (palm strike, hammer fist, elbow) that will be familiar to all seasoned in combative work.

From here, we moved to the Japanese system of Tabata to simultaneously develop ATP, speed endurance, and cardiovascular conditioning. Anyone unfamiliar with this programme may see the regime and think it's a piece of cake (20 seconds of furiously hard activity followed by 10 seconds of active rest to get rid of the lactic acid, repeated 8 times without break). Nothing could be further from the truth. By doing this exercise you will create and inhabit your own private hell, and your mind may well try to convince you not to work so hard.

The good news is that the activities themselves can be adapted to develop combat specific exercises, and will inevitably develop a more resilient mental attitude. A feature of the seminar was to explain how the different activities we did might be incorporated into a general programme. The emphasis was on designing a workout with specific aims - therefore, some sessions could be quite short yet would be intense (as with the Tabata where we might "only" do two protocols of 8 x 20secs/10secs).

Working through the different energy systems sounds like a physical nightmare, but the activities were appropriately broken up with explanations of why the exercises worked. The explanations of physiology were pitched at the right level - Lee didn't lose us through overly complicated explanations, but still managed to give us the critical information necessary to understand what's going on inside us.

So, by the end of the day, we had worked hard at a variety of "types" of combative fitness sessions, but had enough in the tank to hit each task with the appropriate level of energy and mental commitment. The idea was to give us a taster of each type of activity in order that we could see the benefit and develop a suitable programme.

Towards the end of the seminar we were introduced to some activities that might be unfamiliar. E.g. working core rotation and hand-eye coordination by smashing a sledgehammer onto a tyre - again, with a range of variations for different strikes; flipping a tractor tyre in the style of world's strongest man; sprinting under resistance using stretch bands.

After this, Alban demonstrated a 3-minute circuit incorporating some of the exercises we had just done. It looked like torture. After a short rest we all (including Alban!) did a 5-minute circuit. At this stage we didn't go full out on each individual exercise, but the cumulative effect of working intensely over 10 exercises still made me glad for the final whistle to come. The exercise stations included flipping tractor tyres, slamming medicine balls, swinging sledgehammers, box jumps, ground-specific punching, swinging the tornado ball for core work and striking power, sprinting under resistance, kettle bell cleans, push-ups into burpees with weights, and sandbag lifts. The 5-minute circuit might be repeated with short rests depending upon your aims.

Prior to the circuit, we had learned of the different ways of lifting weights and the relative strengths and weaknesses of isolation work (as often recommended in men's fitness magazines) and multi-joint lifting employed by functional athletes and fighters. This was new information for me, made complete sense, and has significantly contributed to me changing my resistance training.

The session ended with an over-riding debrief and was followed by a warm-down. This seminar covered fitness training relevant for the person who needs to go from 1 to 10 with immediate effect and who needs to finish the conflict ASAP. It also covered fitness work for the fighter who needs to develop conditioning for multiple rounds.

The beauty of the seminar lay in the fact that the principles were taught excellently, the sessions could be adapted by anyone for their specific requirements, and that, regardless of your level of fitness, you would work at an optimal level for you personally. Moreover, making the gap between fitness and fighting as close as possible encouraged us to adopt the appropriate fighting mental attitude in the fitness session.

I was sufficiently impressed with the seminar to buy Lee's Combative Fitness DVD. I have been using the information from the seminar and the DVD as the basis of my fitness work for the last ten days, and have already noticed a difference in the effect of my training (physically) and also in the way that I train in terms of my mental approach.

An excellent seminar, one that will have a lasting effect beyond walking out of the gym doors!

Mark Burgess