Specificity of Conditioning in Fight Activities: Basic Concepts & Application

Specificity of training is the basis on which all modern physical training rests. Briefly, to produce a desired physiological adaptation, a training program must place sufficient stress on the physiological systems in question (Willmore & Costill, 2004). In training environments this is commonly referred to as Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID).  Adaptations to training are limited to the physiological system overloaded by the program. This includes neuromotor, morphological, hormonal and metabolic elements. Fighting activities (encompassing both combat sports and fighting/self protection scenarios) present a unique programming challenge, requiring a range of adaptations to all systems.

In an athletic performance enhancement context, examining the physiological performance demands and the action goals of an athlete provides the basis for determining the appropriate training specificity(s) for a given activity. For example, a boxer’s performance demands are mostly successive periods of intense ATP/CP and glycolysis interspersed with periods of relative oxidative recovery (Ebben & Blackard, 1997), whereas a distance runner’s challenges are predominantly long periods of aerobic oxidation with potential for bouts of glycolytic demand. The boxer will be engaged in tasks requiring rapid and powerful concentric and eccentric movement of the head, trunk and limbs (Ebben & Blackard, 1997), whereas the runner will predictably use the trunk in a repetitive stabilizing role as the lower extremities repetitively produce a running gait.

It would therefore not serve the boxer well to perform lengthy daily runs, whereas the runner will spend most of her training time cycling through runs of various distances. With these observations in mind, programs that develop the physiological performance needed to achieve the goals of either athlete’s activity can be devised.

A sprawl escape from side headlock, following a throw. The motor and muscular demands of this technique are highly similar to dand/divebomber pushups, but only partially so to standard pushups .

To continue with the example of a general boxer, the following physiological demands can be observed: short and intense bouts of multiplanar footwork requiring agility; short and intense bouts of multiplanar upper extremity action requiring high force production, high impulse movement; continual isometric action of the muscles of the torso, with frequent powerful multiplanar concentric and eccentric actions. A boxer with a training goal of increasing hand speed for his punching techniques must take two factors into account: the muscular recruitment patterns of a given punch, and the order and velocity at which those movements occur in performance contexts. Training to improve speed will occur within the parameters of the kinematics of a given punch, and the physiological mechanisms involved in producing high velocity, high impulse movements.

For the kinematics associated with striking and maneuvering actions, all exercises selected must mimic the load and displacement that an arm will move in, as well as the lower extremity and posterior chain mechanics involved. For a cross in a performance context, the movement is typically involves high velocity displacement from a hand position just below shoulder height to just above shoulder height (where the opponent’s head may be).

The major local muscles involved in a cross are the anterior & medial deltoid, biceps brachii, pectoralis major, and triceps (Floyd, 2009). The lower limb, trunk and posterior kinetic chain contribute significantly to the overall power of a punch as well (Verkohansky et al. found that leg, trunk and arm muscles contribute 39%, 37% and 24% to a punch; Koryak found that a punch begins with neurological impulse in the big toe of a boxer’s support legprior to beginning the punch itself  (as cited in Ebben & Blackard, 1997)), but the upper extremity will be the focus for local speed development. An exercise such as a single arm standing chest cable press, with or without an accompanying contralateral step and trunk rotation, best mimic the concentric loading for the muscles involved in the displacement of the arm and fist. Performing this activity with a dumbbell or other weight may mimic the same displacement, but resisting gravity’s pull on the dumbbell would require more eccentric action of the deltoids and biceps brachii than is required, whereas the cable press requires gravity to be resisted in the same direction as the strike. The cross is initiated with concentric action of these muscles, and placing eccentric load on them early in the movement will produce a slower punch, which will transfer negatively into performance.

Whether or not the desired adaptation is improvement of  strength (maximal voluntary force production) or power (maximal force production in a given time interval) will dictate the variables for an exercise or training program: load, tempo, volume and recovery. The load may be based on maximal strength measures of 1RM, or on a percentage of the boxer’s bodyweight. Recruitment of type II muscle fibers is the priority in both maximal strength and power training, which require rapid actions. Volume varies depending on the training status of an individual, but a minimum of 3 sets of 5-8 reps are sufficient. Since these motor units fatigue quickly, and take longer to recover (neurologically and metabolically), adequate recovery times are needed between sets.  For developing maximal strength via the cable pull, 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps with a high intensity load (85-90% 1 RM) at a rapid tempo, and a >2 minute rest is optimal. For  increasing power, 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps with a lower intensity load, (30-45% 1RM) at an explosive tempo and intent, with a >2 minute rest between sets is optimal.

Exploiting the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) in explosive plyometric exercises with bodyweight/percentage loads may also be useful. By having the boxer initiate and return the punching movement from a close guard position with the shoulder and elbow slightly more acute than 90 degrees, elastic storage of kinetic energy can be maximized and the following concentric contraction may be more forceful, due to the slight eccentric loading of the muscles prior to concentric contraction. Traditional exercises such as plyometric pushups may also provide similar training for the chest and arm musculature, and explosive medicine ball passes from a fighting position, and plyometric strikes involve the global musculature.





Ebben, W.P. & Blackard, D.O. (1997). Developing a strength-power program for amateur  boxing. Strength and Conditioning, 19(1), 42-51.

Floyd, R.T. (2009). Manual of structural kinesiology (17th ed.). NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hall, S.J. (2007). Basic biomechanics (5th ed.). NY: McGraw Hill.

Wilmore, J.H., Costill, D.L. (2004). Physiology of sport and exercise (3rd ed.).      IL: Human Kinetics.


3 responses to “Specificity of Conditioning in Fight Activities: Basic Concepts & Application

  1. Impressive article, Randy.

    A question: If long runs are unconducive to a boxers training (and a martial artists, by extension) then would sprints be better?

    I am guessing they would be, as they would probably create more fast-twitch muscle fibers in the legs. What are your thoughts?

    • Hey Brett,

      In general, HIIT (high intensity interval training) is more useful for metabolic conditioning in fight activities than LSD (long, slow distance), both from a metabolic and a neuromuscular perspective. However, aerobic work does have a place in fight conditioning, but not to the extent that it is traditionally emphasized. Moderate intensity/distance runs (swims, etc) 1-3 days a week can improve heat tolerance, O2 capacity, the vascular system’s ability to transport metabolic fuel and waste products, and recovery between high intensity exertions. But high volume aerobic training can produce two undesired adaptations: developing a greater percentage of type I fibers over the type II group, which is not useful for this context; and interference with power adaptations.

      Sprint intervals are excellent, there aren’t many other exercises that can develop type II fiber recruitment and anaerobic capacity as efficiently. I’m also a big fan of jump rope intervals for 8 min. that cycle from 10 on/10 off to 30 on/10 off at high intensity.

      A general rule of thumb for aerobic metabolic and strength work is: program high intensity with high intensity, program low intensity with low intensity. So a 3 mile run followed by explosive powerlifting will likely be counter productive to one or both of the adaptation goals. Likewise, an intense HIIT session followed by low load/high volume endurance lifting will shortchange one or both adaptations. Instead, program the high intensity strength training with the high intensity metabolic conditioning, and vice avers. Save SAQ and plyometric training for high intensity days, and program it before metabolic or resistance work in the session.

  2. Pingback: Ntense Performance Boxer Briefs

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