Don’t let injury hamper your skill development. Incorporate joint mobility into your training and keep yourself pain free and on the mats!
Mixed martial arts is arguably one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. Participants put their bodies through hour after hour of rigorous training that tests their strength, endurance, flexibility, and mobility. Even the best conditioned and technical fighters are at constant risk of injury every time they step on the mat to train or compete. To reduce the chance of injury and improve their overall conditioning, all MMA training programs should be built around a solid joint mobility prep routine.
Unlike flexibility training that seeks to stretch muscles, joint mobility work is performed as a means of improving and maintaining the range of motion and health of our joints. Think of your body as a sophisticated airplane; prior to take off, a run through of all operating systems is required. Just as a pilot would perform a preflight check list, your joint mobility training offers you time to observe and explore the range of motion in your joints. Do your shoulders move freely or are they locked up and tight? Do you have good thoracic mobility or do you walk as though you have a board nailed to your back? A preflight check list can give you a clear picture of your overall mobility (or lack thereof). For a fighter, it is just as important as a pilot checking the flaps on his airplane. If the flaps don’t move as they should, he won’t fly. If a fighter can’t move as he should, then his performance will suffer. In simple terms, if your shoulders are tight and you can’t lock your arms overhead then you won’t be able to perform a proper overhead squat. If your body is tight and stiff, then you won’t be fluid when fighting on the ground or on your feet. Furthermore, the lack of mobility increases our chances of injury during competition and training. Without proper joint mobility prep work you may have to spend a great deal of time doing joint mobility physiotherapy post-injury.
In fitness and in sports we are constantly looking for positions of mechanical advantage. Fighters scramble to pin, submit, and punish from secure positions that will give them an advantage over their opponents. If they are technical, fast, and efficient they will find the positions that give them the most leverage, affording them the greater technical advantage from which to work their techniques. When fighters perform their supplemental conditioning training they look for these positions of mechanical advantage as well. When they squat they seek to place their bodies in a position of optimal alignment protecting their backs/knees and allowing them to be at their strongest. From exercise to exercise, much of our training time is spent finding a strong stable position to operate from. While this is a great way to safely work against the resistance found in weight training and other forms of general fitness conditioning, it is only a piece of a larger puzzle.
In addition to working from positions that afford us the greatest mechanical advantage, we must also observe and train in positions of disadvantage. Watch any professional sporting event in slow motion and you will begin to see the variety of positions that players pass through as they perform. Watch the slow motion replay of a tennis player as they strive to contact the ball at the last possible second. Are they in a strong position with their bones and joints optimally aligned, or are they passing through positions where they are compromised? It is during competition and training that we encounter these less-than-ideal positions and if we have not spent some time preparing our bodies to handle them, we are often injured as a result. By slowly and carefully spending time in these positions of disadvantage we learn how to move in and out of them safely. Our bodies become more comfortable and adapted to them and we move with more grace and awareness.
All of my seminars, regardless of the topic, begin with Joint Mobility training. This training allows me to see how the participants move and the level of control they have over their own bodies. I can also see who forgot to tell me of existing injuries or even conditions the participants may be unaware of. Everything that I teach begins with the ability to control your own movement free from resistance. With that mastery of movement in place, you can then look at overcoming external forms of resistance like kettlebells, barbells, or in the case of Mixed Martial Arts, other people. If you can’t control your own body, what makes you think you can control your opponent’s?
The Agatsu Joint Mobility program follows this simple process; first we select the joint, then we explore the range of motion, refine it, and then coordinate it. By moving from isolation to coordination, we can improve the overall health of the joint as well as our ability to move our bodies as a single unit.
In the following exercises, Eugene Shewchuk (Combat Sambo/MMA Trainer and President of the Canadian Institute of Combat Sambo and myself will introduce you to this approach to joint prep and help reduce your chance of injury during MMA training. Move very slowly and with great care as you explore the range of motion in your joints. You should not feel pain as you work on these movements; as always, consult a physician before starting this or any other conditioning program.
Striking and grappling are very demanding on combatants’ wrists. It is essential for fighters more than just strong wrists, they need highly mobile ones. You can begin to develop your mobility in this area with wrist push ups. Moving from a closed to and open hand and performing a push up, return to a closed fist in the top position. If you find this to be too much pressure on your joints from a full push up, then drop to your knees to reduce the amount of weight on your wrists. Training time is precious. The majority of any fighters time should be spent working on his combative skills. However, without excellent general conditioning, the fighter will not have access to those martial skills during combat. Furthermore, without proper joint mobility preparation his body is likely to suffer prematurely from the effects of hard training and competition. If you don’t make time to prepare then prepare to make time to heal.
Stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart and your hands out to your sides, palms forward. Turn your right palm down and around until it is pointing up. Notice how your shoulder rolls in as your arm turns around like a screw. As you turn your arm and shoulder, it is normal for the same side foot to turn as well. Allow your foot to pivot slightly inward with your heel up. Roll the shoulder back to the starting position and perform the exercise on the other side. Keep both arms up and out as you switch from side to side. As you progress in this exercise think less about the orientation of your hands and more on refining the movement with your shoulder. Your shoulder should move freely as it moves toward your jaw line and then down.
MMA is very hard on all of the joints and some of the greatest abuse can be directed at the hips, knees, and ankles. Preparing your body for a rigorous training session should include movements like the Shoot Creep that will help mobility in those areas. From a squatting position with your heels up, extend one leg. Turn the extended leg inward as your body follows. Drive off of the back foot and begin to assume a position similar to a grappling shoot. Draw the back leg up so that you have returned to the squat position and repeat on the other side as you move across the room.
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