Mixed Martial Arts is a power endurance sport. Maximising power endurance is always a trade-off between optimising two athletic qualities that often stand in opposition to each other: the rate of force production and producing that force for a long time. In other words, you need to hit hard and hit hard for a long time.
The focus of my training for the last month, and the month to come, has been on working on my endurance. It’s a quality that has lagged far behind as I’ve sought to improve my maximum strength, my explosiveness and the size of my muscle mass.
For a fighter, aerobic capacity is one of the most fundamentally important traits to possess, often overlooked in an age where HIIT, Tabata intervals and increasing your lactate threshold is seen as key to performance.
Increasing your ability to utilise your oxidative energy system (i.e. your aerobic capacity), efficiently, is fundamental to producing a high work rate throughout a three round or a five round fight. To that end, most of my endurance training has focused on long slow distance runs, training at a moderate pace for 60-90 minutes. At these intensities, over that length of time, my body is being trained aerobically leading to a more efficient cardiovascular system.
Another method for increasing your oxidative capacity is to increase the ability of your muscles to use oxygen as a fuel. Tempo training or continuous training, is designed to specifically target those muscle fibres which are best adapted at using oxygen – the Type I slow twitch muscle fibres. These muscle fibres are much more efficient at utilising oxygen for energy in comparison to Type II fast twitch fibres, which are better at using ATP/Creatine-Phosphate and glycogen.
Tempo training method
In a six-day a week training programme, which includes three sessions to increase cardiac output, I have one dedicated strength session. That strength session is based on tempo training.
Tempo training focuses on time under tension (TUT) to get the desired result. The protocol I’m working on requires lifting weights of around 60% of my 1-rep max (RM) at a slow cadence – 2-0-2-0. This means lowering the weight at a controlled pace for two seconds, no pause at the bottom, then lifting the weight at a controlled pace for two seconds, and then repeating without any pause at the top. The muscles are in constant tension throughout the set, no matter how many reps you do.
My focus is on using big multi-joint movements, such as the squat, bench press and shoulder press, to target the maximum number of muscles.
In his book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning, Joel Jamieson recommends picking 3-4 strength exercises and performing 8-10 reps for between 3-5 sets. He also recommends 6-8 minutes of active rest between each exercise to allow the muscles to fully recover and to keep the heart rate up.
In practice, it turns out, that doing three basic movements (squat, bench press, shoulder press) for my tempo strength session, takes around 90 minutes due to the long rest periods. For this reason I’ve limited my tempo strength sessions to those three exercises. All the following reps/exercises are performed at a 2-0-2-0 pace:
1. Squat at 60% 1RM – 8-10 reps, 5 sets, 6-8 minute rest between sets.
2. Bench press at 60% 1RM – 8-10 reps, 5 sets, 6-8 minute rest between sets.
3. Shoulder press at 60% 1RM – 8-10 reps, 5 sets, 6-8 minute rest between sets.
My active rest between each set is usually shadow boxing.
Effects of tempo training
After only four weeks of tempo training, it is hard to tell what effect this mode of strength training has had on my muscular endurance.
According to the scientific literature, slow twitch fibres which are crucial for endurance are not fully recruited during rapid explosive movements. Only slow movements, which cause the Type I fibres to be under tension long enough can cause adaptation in these fibres to take place.
One article which discusses this is written by Thomas V Pipes, entitled Strength Training and Fiber Types. In it, Pipes takes muscle biopsies of an athlete before and after pre-determined training microcycles.
Pipes found that following a routine in which 8 reps (at the 8 RM) were used, the fast twitch muscle fibers of the trained muscle (in this case the quadricep via the leg press) hypertrophied.
However, he also found that the slow twitch muscle fibres atrophied (i.e., got smaller); and he also found that the number of reps the athlete could perform at 80% of his 1 RM decreased, yet his 1 RM increased. The athlete was then placed on a routine using 12 reps (at his 12 RM). This time the muscle biopsy showed that hypertrophy did in fact take place, but that this time it was in the slow twitch muscle fibres. Not only that but the fast twitch fibres atrophied and the number of reps possible at 80% 1 RM went up, while his 1 RM decreased.
What this shows is that with increased reps, i.e. an increase in TUT, using a lighter weight, slow twitch fibres are targeted preferentially to fast twitch fibres. In other words, muscular endurance increases in preference to maximum strength.
This correlates with the real-world example of bodybuilders. Bodybuilders have long used the principle of TUT to increase overall muscle hypertrophy. The result is muscles which are capable of a remarkable degree of endurance but poor maximum strength in comparison to other weight trained athletes.
Another study I found relating to this was conducted by Dr Patrick O’Shea, Professor Emeritus of exercise and sports science at Oregon State University ( http://cbass.com/SLOWFAST.HTM ).
He used electromyography (EMG) to study muscle recruitment order of muscle fibre types in the quadriceps of a trained athlete during execution of a one repetition squat with progressively increasing loads.
Starting with 60% of 1 RM, O’Shea found that the slow-twitch fibres contributed 60% to the effort and fast-twitch fibres 40%. At 100% maximum effort, however, the percentage of slow-twitch fibres involved was found to be only 5%, while fast-twitch fibres contributed 95%. So lighter loads have been shown to target slow twitch fibres better than heavier loads.
That’s the limit of my understanding at the moment. Using tempo training you can effectively target slow twitch fibres, increase their cross-sectional area and make your muscles better able to utilise oxygen as a fuel.
How far this contributes to the body becoming a better aerobic “machine”, however, I think is still open to debate. There may be another mechanism by which TUT leads to greater muscular endurance.
However, generally with more muscle hypertrophy (more muscle fibre protoplasm) the same workload’s lactic acid can be spread over a larger volume, and not affect PH locally as much. So performance decline should be more gradual, increasing endurance. Since muscles generally have mixed fibre composition, and faster twitch are known to hypertrophy more easily and more than slow twitch, there is a good chance this has something to do with it as well.”
There are articles which I’ve seen that say that hypoxia (depriving muscles of oxygen) can lead to hypertrophy, so the continuous training, i.e. sets performed with no pauses between reps, can deprive muscles of oxygen long enough to cause hypertrophy.
The cause of the local hypoxia has to do with the overall tempo, not pausing at the top or bottom of the rep and the overall loading. This is how slow twitch muscles are targeted, not just because you’re ‘going slow’ exactly.