Strength and Conditioning: Planning and Implementing around Mat Time

When we are looking at the relationship between lifting and sport specific training there are a few considerations that need to be addressed. First, what is your main priority? Are you looking at being the best fighter you can be or the best weight lifter? Maybe you’re looking to be a bit of both?

All are completely valid. Everyone gets into combat sports for different reasons and that alone is why considerations must be made when planning and implementing different phases of training.

The primary goal will always take priority in terms of structure and planning. If you are looking at being super strong or a physique competitor, then six heavy days of mat time per week probably isn’t the best way to go about it. Concessions must be made in order to make substantial strides in your primary focus.


Nobody became a good combat athlete by only lifting weights and the same can be applied the other way around.

Selfishly, as my main focus is the development of myself and other combat sport athletes (as I presume most of you reading this will be) I will mainly stick to structure and training of those within these sports. If you are on the other side of the fence and looking at how to fit some additional BJJ, MMA or any other sport into your schedule as a secondary focus for some additional training then please check out this great video by Dr Mike Israetel. As one of the world leading experts on muscular hypertrophy and an avid BJJ goer he provides some fantastic information surrounding both sides of the coin.

As an individual is adding supplementary strength and conditioning work with the goal in mind of increasing sport specific performance, there are a few things we need to consider. There are additional considerations as we get deeper into the topic of training management but within this article I will simply look at fundamental structure and planning of training schedules.

Training volume

What and how much are you already doing?


This can be a big one, especially for part time athletes who have to fit everything around work, family and current training routines.

The goal within the goal

The specific performance measure we want to improve.

Current phase of sport specific training

Are you currently in or out of competition preparation?

Before we begin to dissect each element individually it is worth noting that these factors all interlink and changes in one can have a direct effect on another. Therefore, it is important to take all factors into consideration when assessing the structure of supplementary training measures.

Training Volume

As stated above, all these sections tend to interlock. Training volume typically is the biggie. Your overall training volume will be dependent on time restraints, what you are looking to achieve and your current phase of training. Thus, managing your training volume is arguably the most crucial factor to considering within training structure. There are a few terms we must be familiar with when assessing training volume.

1. MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume) – when the total amount of training volume exceeds your ability to recover.
2. MAV (Maximum Adaptive Volume) – the total amount of training volume you can produce significant results from and recovery sufficiently.
3. MEV (Minimum Effective Volume) – minimum dose of volume needed to create adaptations.

If we are to quantify these different terms, they will change from person to person. Being highly individual, there really is no general rule or framework to use to guess your numbers. It can take some experimentation of acute increase and decrease in training volume to find a comfortable range. Most combat sport athletes should primarily aim to be within the MAV & MEV range when considering supplementary lifting. This is simply because our aim with performance based training is to stimulate a physiological response whilst minimising any negative effects that may be caused on our primary focus (BJJ/MMA performance).

The simplest way to quantify training volume is to break your strength and conditioning training and sport specific training into two separate entities and then combine for assessment.

For example: strength training volume can easily be quantified by multiplying total sets, reps and loads for each exercise and then adding each exercise up to give you your total training volume for that day. Multiply that by how many strength sessions you have in a week and you have your weekly training volume. Now to compare that with sport specific training, if we look at BJJ, you can take total rounds sparred within each session or total minutes sparred and add them up for the week to create your total sport specific training volume.

We would then take those figures and compare them week by week with some recovery based markers e.g. stiffness 1-10, fatigue 1-10, injury rate 1-10, heart rate variability, sleep rating 1-10, performance 1-10 etc. If you are finding your total training volumes correlate with high recovery based scores and you are not improving on the mats but also in the gym you have most likely reached your MRV and it might be time to back things up a little bit. This is where it is important to make a decision based on your original goal. If your S&C training is impacting your mat time it may be time to take a different approach. Vice versa, if your time on the mat is impacting your development off the mats then it may be time to consider dialing that down a bit!

Now, before we move on to the next topic, I just want to go back to my original point: sport specificity always comes first. However, I have just mentioned spending less time on the mats. If dropping down to 4 sessions a week rather than 5/6 means you can get in 2/3 S&C sessions, and allowing time for strength and conditioning development allows for greater longevity within the sport, then surely that is a better strategy. The alternative would be training really hard on the mats for a month then getting injured, spending all that time and money on rehab to then let it all happen again – pushing you further away from your goals.


Time will play a big factor in structuring your supplementary training. For example, a lot of people have to fit in additional training around mat time, family commitments, work commitments etc. It’s cliche but true: There is always time, you simply have to find it! However, time is often limited so it comes down to prioritising the areas that need development.

If you are looking primarily at become a better fighter/competitor or simply just wanting to get better at your sport you will probably already be doing decent levels of conditioning work within the sport itself (unless you have some glaringly obvious conditioning issues). Therefore, it is safe to assume we can save time by presuming that going for an hour’s run probably isn’t going to provide the biggest benefit in terms of mat specific performance. We would simply be causing additional fatigue that may prevent your development within your sport (going back to training volume).

However, one of the biggest issues I see in the wide variety of people within combat sports is a lack of relative strength and the other components that extend from strength.

With strength training we have the potential to not only improve strength related performance markers (speed, power, etc.) but also impact conditioning (strength endurance, efficiency of movement, etc.) and increase longevity through minimising injury risks.

You can employ tactics within the sessions themselves that can help conserve time. For example, you can pair exercises together (opposing muscle groups) in supersets. By using opposing muscle groups we minimise the overlay of fatigue that may transfer from one exercise to the other. Another tactic we can use is planning your total training volume, so individuals who struggle for time may find aiming there weekly training volume will primarily be based around MEV. You may not find you are developing at a rate as quickly of those who can push the boat out a little more but you are still providing a decent enough stimulus to facilitate adaptation.

The Goal within the Goal

Your primary goal will probably be focused around development of the sport itself. However, within that goal we can dissect specific areas which we want to develop at a certain time to enhance performance and longevity in the long term. For example, as a general guide, this may look like:

Primary goal – “get better at BJJ”

Secondary goal – “increase maximal strength for competition”

If this is the case, then adjustments can be made in order to develop your secondary goal. These adjustments would then, in turn, benefit your primary goal. To further this example, if strength is the specific area you are looking to develop, using different periodisation strategies and specific programming can help to trim the fat. It will minimise any unnecessary training volume. Furthermore, it will reduce time-wasting on areas that have little to no benefit on your development (starting to see a trend here?).

Current phases of training

Your “current phase of training” is a simple way of referring to training strategies and the method of organising these strategies to achieve a desired outcome. For example, if you were in prep for a competition, you may be focused more on maintaining strength levels and peaking speed/power to ensure you are in an optimal state for a competition performance. If you were in a development phase or out of competition, your focus may be more biased towards the development of sport specific techniques and building relevant strength/hypertrophy that will ensure the greatest carry over into competition preparation.

So here we go again linking everything back together.

Your current phase of training will fundamentally be dictated by your primary/ secondary goal. From there, we can make relevant plans in order to ensure correct adaptation via overloading stimulus and optimise your time. This could avoid causing additional stress which may have negative effects on your overall development as a combat sport athlete. Your training phase will need you to make rational decisions based on your overall training schedule.

A hypertrophy phase will require larger amounts of volume than a strength phase. It is also more likely to create higher levels of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) than a power/strength phase due to the additional volume of work. Therefore, it is imperative to make adjustments to your sport specific work. Completing high levels of sparring during this phase is almost a surefire route to fatigue and injury. Realistically during a phase of this nature, it would make much more sense to dial back on the sport specific training. If you focus on development of technique, it will be much less taxing on the body. Then you may increase the intensity as you enter into another phase of strength work. If managed correctly, this should be less taxing week to week.

In essence:

Higher intensity sport specific work (competition prep/high levels of intense sparring) = reduced volume in the weight room

Lower intensity of sport specific work (higher amounts of drilling/technique work) = higher volume in the weight room.

Piecing it all together

Decide on what your primary & secondary goals are.

This is your starting point and will dictate the adjustments you need to make in order to achieve desired results.

Calculate how much free time you have to devote to off the mat development.

Most combat sport athletes will find more than enough stimulus for desired outcomes from two or three strength and conditioning sessions per week.

Track training volumes and make necessary adjustments based on recovery levels, phases of training and are you getting desirable results.

Plan your phases of training over the long term and make rational adjustments to sport specific development.

The more detailed your plan, the more guess work is minimised. You will be more aware of how to tweak and change things dependent upon your primary and secondary goals.

Try different methods of arranging your training weeks. For example, try high training volumes early in the week and reducing as the week goes on. Spread the total volume evenly throughout the week to ensure a constant stimulus.

Recommended research topics for further understanding

– High/low day training organisation

– Low volume/high intensity training methods (Triphasic, etc)

– Periodisation methods for desired outcomes & phase potentiation (hypertrophy, strength, power, speed etc).

For more info, check out Andrew at Brotherhood Health & Performance.

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