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Fight Conditioning: How To Build An Engine That Won't Gas Out

Aug 31, 2015

The easiest way to lose a fight is to gas out. When this fatigue sets in, not only are your muscles weaker, but you also make poor decisions because of it. This is why proper conditioning is absolutely essential.

But how do you do it? If you know a little bit of physiology, it’s actually not that difficult to understand.

A fighter of mine recently competed in a tournament, so I’m going to use his case study to illustrate how someone like him would want to prepare for a fight.


First, I had him send me a bunch of pictures and videos to get an idea of his muscle balance/imbalance.

After that, I had him perform multiple conditioning tests.

From this assessment, I can come up with a rough outline for what he needs to work on.

Here are my notes on his assessment (we’ll define these abbreviated terms soon):

  • - Extended posture; obvious need for deep abdominal muscles
  • - Not in pain
  • - HRR to 130 BPM took 1m50s (biggest weakness)
  • - RHR ~58 BPM (not great)
  • - AT = 172 BPM, almost went one mile in 6 minutes (not bad)
  • - Fight rounds are 6 minutes with a minimum of 6 minutes between rounds
  • - Fights are only one round
  • - Has a good training foundation

We had 11 weeks from when I started with him to the day of his fight.


Since his fight prep will start 8 weeks out, we have these two weeks to build a stronger foundation (which is always important).

The focus will be on max strength and local muscular endurance using the strength-aerobic method on one day with two different exercises. The strength-aerobic method consists of heavy weight, low rep sets followed by low weight, constant tension sets. This method trains the contractility of the fast-twitch muscles to make him strong, then the size of the slow-twitch muscle fibers to make him more resistant to fatigue while maintaining work output.

We also incorporated some explosive repeats to develop his HRR, which, as you recall, was his biggest weakness in the conditioning tests.

Heart Rate Recovery (HRR) - a measure of the ability for the recovery systems to turn on after a bout of intense activity

Here is how we organized his explosive repeats.

  • - 10s:50s (work:rest) x 6-7 rounds
  • - Then a general strength exercise
  • - 10s:40s (work:rest) x 6-7 rounds
  • - This gradual decrease of the rest period is to develop aerobic power

Really good exercise options for this are the assault bike, versaclimber or loaded carries.

Aerobic Power - how quickly the aerobic system is able to turn on and produce energy

The aerobic system can produce the most energy over a long period of time, but it takes a while to get going. Developing aerobic power is essential for any fighter.

We also used some HICT for fast-twitch muscle endurance (so he can still be fast in later rounds).

High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT) - a training method for making the strong fast-twitch muscle fibers more resistant to fatigue

And we used COD for left ventricle eccentric hypertrophy (so his heart can beat more efficiently).

Cardiac Output Development (COD) - a training method for increasing the efficiency of the heart.

The following image is a graph of his heart rate during COD.


This was a taper week to get ready for a grueling training camp, so his training volume was low here.


The focus of these weeks was on local muscular endurance.

We used HRI to develop aerobic power.

High Resistance Intervals (HRI) - a training method similar to the explosive repeats we talked about earlier, but the recovery time of each set is based on HRR instead of a fixed time interval.

He had a general strength and movement day.

We also ramped up the difficulty of the explosive repeats:

  • - 15-20s:50s (work:rest) x 8-10
  • - Split squats
  • - 15-20s:40s (work:rest) x 8-10 (made the intervals slightly more difficult than before)

The longer work periods just place a little bit more stress on him, making it even more necessary that his heart rate turn on.


The focus of these weeks was on cardiac power.

Cardiac Power - the contractility of the heart; how hard it can work.

To make his heart contract harder, I had him do MMA drills for CPI (increased sport specificity)

Cardiac Power Intervals (CPI) - a training method for developing contractility of the heart muscle.

This is how I had him do CPIs:

  • - 60s-120s work
  • - Recover HR to 130 BPM
  • - 10 rounds

The following image is a graph of his heart rate during CPIs.

He also did the strength-aerobic method from earlier to hold onto his max strength and the hypertrophy of his slow-twitch muscle fibers.

Lastly, we introduced some threshold training.

Threshold Training - a training method for raising the anaerobic threshold, allowing for more work to be done at his maximum sustainable level of intensity

His initial tests showed me that his estimated AT was 172 BPM.

Anaerobic Threshold (AT) - the point at which the work being done becomes too much to maintain; where the energy demanded surpasses the energy produced

For his threshold training, he just needs to keep his heart rate around at 172 +/- 5 BPM for as long as I prescribe. We started off 4m:3m x 3 rounds, and progressed to 6m:6m x 3-5 rounds, making the intervals just like the worst-case scenario for his tournament (his rounds are 6 minutes long and he will have no less than 6 minutes between fights).

The following image is a graph of his heart rate during threshold training.


In an email exchange, he sent me the above picture and told me that he noticed it takes him 40-45 seconds to rev his heart rate from 130 to about 165 BPM.

What this tells me is that he’s super efficient, but could use some increased contractility of his heart muscle. This made me decide to keep in his CPIs and make that a focus of his training camp for as long as possible.


The focus of these two weeks is fight specificity.

Basically, everything needs to resemble the fight so that his body is acclimated. As I mentioned above, we decided to continue CPIs.

We also continued threshold training.

  • - 6m:6m (work:rest) x 3 for worst-case scenarios, or
  • - 6m:10m (work:rest) x 4 for better-case scenarios

The reason we didn’t stick to only the 6m:6m intervals is because I wanted him to be able to develop higher intensity during the 6m work period if he was given a long rest time between rounds. The hope was that he would be able to spar at these intervals. If not, I asked him to do drilling on whatever skills needed practice instead.


The focus of these weeks is rest. This is also known as a taper.

Start taper on 7/10.

Fight is on 7/18.

Intensity and volume both come way down during the taper so that he can recover from the intense 7 weeks he just had.

On one day, I gave him a COD exercise circuit to get some active recovery.

He was allowed 3 easy mat days.

I instructed him to recover as hard as he’d been training (e.g. diet, sleep, compression leg sleeves, acai bowl by the pool).

He went in to the gym on Friday, did his warm up, then left.

On Saturday, his instructions were simply to go whoop ass.

To measure his recovery, we monitored his RHR.

Resting Heart Rate (RHR) - how fast your heart beats first thing in the morning; can be collected and used to monitor recovery

I had him start tracking his RHR a few weeks before the competition. Your heart rate will usually be lowest in the morning because you haven’t been moving, then it will rise and fall throughout the day.

The following graph shows his recovery (as measured by his RHR) over the last few weeks.

This is especially remarkable when I tell you that the 46 BPM he measured on July 15th was at 2PM, not immediately upon waking. Plus, this is the lowest his heart rate has ever been, telling me that he is more prepared for this fight than ever.

This graph illustrates the power of a taper before a fight. Had we not allowed his body to recover from his training, he would have been fatigued going into the competition and would not have been able to perform his best.


Here’s what he had to say when I asked him how he did:

“All in all - not bad. Choked the guy in first match, lost on points in second. I showed both physically and mentally. Gas tank was for days.

“Not happy with overall results though wanted to bring home some hardware. Next time.”

The second round was actually kind of amazing. He pulled off a great move that would have scored him enough points to move on to the next round… but time expired too soon.

“There is a rule [that the] athlete needs to stabilize position for 4 seconds before getting points. What I did was 5 points move: 2 for take down + 3 for getting to side control. If I initiated scramble 5 seconds earlier - I would have stayed alive in the tournament… Shitty timing on my part. Lesson learnt though.

“Just want to say thank you for the though [sic] and work you put in [sic] my prep. It changed many things in a positive way. The biggest tournament of the year for me is ***** [removed] in spring and I look forward to getting ready for it with you.”


  • - This guy is the perfect client and 100% compliant
  • - It was difficult to plan what he would do on the mat
  • - Life stress can get in the way
  • - I'm glad we had good communication because otherwise I wouldn't have known how long it took his HR to climb during CPIs
  • - As he becomes more experienced, he will do better and better
  • - I am 95% happy with his training leading up to the tournament
  • - I wish I had asked him what drills he needed to work on the mat
  • - I wish I had redone the conditioning tests after the fight

The biggest lesson that I want you to walk away with is that your conditioning alone probably won’t win you a competition, but it can certainly lose you a competition.


Lance Goyke, CSCS, is a Nerd Extraordinaire and secret admirer of lesbians everywhere whose expertise focuses on the human body. His clientele ranges from other trainers to kids to house moms to fighters to baseballers to anyone who needs to be taught how to exercise. Go invade his home base at


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