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Integrated Combative Systems (ICS) Combat Conditioning

October 20, 2004 01:00 PM

Hoplology has been defined as "the study of the evolution and development of human combative behavior and performance." (In short, the study of why we fight, how we fight, and how different cultures manifest that behavior.)

The International Hoplology Society (IHS) has been involved in researching human combative behavior and performance for about half a century. Being primarily research oriented, the work can be termed as descriptive.

About six years ago, staff of the IHS became involved in consulting with military and law enforcement on designing more effective training methodologies. As a result, a spin-off sister organization was formed -- Integrated Combative Systems (ICS). Most of the ICS work has been aimed at enhancing combat capabilities, specifically, designing training methods that better allow the individual to survive and dominate in combat. A vital aspect of combat skills and capability is an area that can be called combat fitness. Combat fitness, combat conditioning and the training to achieve combat fitness have been an area of study in hoplology as well as an important aspect of ICS training programs.

In researching combat fitness, it became apparent early on that while there are important parallels with athletic or sport fitness, there are also some critical differences that must be addressed. First, it's important to define combat fitness and combat conditioning:

  • Combat Fitness is the ability to perform in a combatively effective manner under conditions of extreme physical and mental stress.

  • Combat Conditioning is the training that prepares the body/mind to perform at optimal levels of combative efficiency under less than optimal conditions.

The goal of Combat Conditioning is to increase the combat performance capability of the mind and body under stresses that are realistic for the combat environment.

Function Drives

The most important factor in any type of training for performance enhancement is to understand the function for which the training is designed. The functions for which sports athletes are training cover a wide range, including strength, speed, coordination, endurance, and neural-drive. In training for function there is a well-established principle of specificity, sometimes called S.A.I.D. -- Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. Specificity essentially means that the results of any specific type of training has its greatest effect on the exact movement being performed. For example, the greatest result from performing a lot of pushups is a greater ability to do a lot of pushups. Of course, there is a general strengthening of the involved muscles, but they are primarily strengthened in the patterns in which they are neuromuscularly involved doing the pushup (rigidly stabilized legs and torso, relatively short amplitude elbow extension, and shoulder flexion). While there is some transfer effect to other elbow extension and shoulder flexion movements, it is relatively small. This is the reason, for example, that while bench press and the pushup superficially resemble each other, a strong ability in pushups don't necessarily make one a strong bench presser, and vice versa. Specificity, of course, applies to all types of strength, speed, endurance, range of motion, or neural-drive.

The key in any performance training, then, is to look at the specific desired end function and then work backwards. This is relatively easy in training for sports application, but considerably more difficult in training for combat. Why?

There are two key axioms underlying the differences between conditioning for sports and conditioning for combat:

  • The sport athlete trains for performance that takes place in a contained, structured, controlled environment.

  • The combat athlete trains for performance in an open, often unstructured and often uncontrollable environment.*

*(Here the term Athlete is used to refer to the individual whose performance demands require a capability in a set of physical/mental skills and capabilities that generally are enhanced by some type of training. This is true whether the athlete's performances are in the venue of sports competition, or any other form of physically demanding skill activity.)

The sport athlete trains for performance in some type of standardized, structured (purposefully designed) performance context and arena, whether it's a boxing ring, a tennis court, or wrestling mats. These structured environments are literally designed to enhance smoothness of performance action that contribute to the flow of sport. The structured context includes established rules, parameters and limitations that govern the actions of performance. Part of that structure allows the athlete to train for specific competitive demands, and even to train to a conditioning peak based on competition schedules. This structuring is just as true whether the competition is in the roughest of combative sports such as boxing, wrestling, full-contact fighting, or in something physically less risky such as bowling or golf. The structure within which the performance skill operates acts to provide both safety cushions and means of equalizing competition, i.e., making level the playing fields.

The well structured environment and context of the sports performance also means that there is relatively specific conditioning demands for the athlete participating in any particular sport. The athlete, then, can concentrate on the specific training demands of the sport. A tennis player can concentrate on eye-hand coordination, speed, agility, lateral mobility, etc.; a boxer can specialize in striking power, muscular and cardio-pulmonary endurance specific to the systems of rounds and rests in boxing, agility, hand speed, etc.; and even the full-contact sports fighter can concentrate on the strength, speed, endurance, agility, factors that are specific to the rules and structured environment of his sport. In short, the sport athlete has the luxury of training for specific performance factors (strength, speed, power, endurance) to peak for a specific, limited context, competition event in a well structured sports environment, followed by a recovery time before the next such event.

In contrast, the combat athlete has to be able perform in a wide variety of environments and contexts, over which he has little-to-no-control. As well, the performance context has virtually no structure that allows ease of play; there are very few rules that are followed in the heat of combat, no safety cushions, and combat athlete cannot afford to peak for any single event. Peaking is typically followed by a steep decline peaking again. The combat athlete cannot afford this decline. The combat athlete must constantly maintain an optimum conditioning level in a wide variety of factors that allow him to function optimally in a chaotic combat context in an unstructured environment. As Pavel Tsatsouline has pointed out in his work with the Marines, the Marine has to able to function optimally even when he's been in the field for several weeks, lost 20 pounds from bad food and water, likely has diarrhea, and is sleeping on the ground in bad weather... certainly not the competition conditions the sports athlete likes to work in.

How, then, can the combat athlete train to achieve optimum functional combat fitness?

Functionally Adaptable Attributes

In essence, we are looking at enhancing the trainable attributes (strength, speed, endurance, neural-drive) that are necessary for combative performance. We call these Functionally Adaptable Attributes.

Functionally Adaptable Attributes can be divided into two areas for training -- the mental/neural and the physical. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on physical attributes. Mental/neural will be covered at a different time.

The division between mental/neural and physical attributes is artificial in that ultimately, we want an enhancement of the integrated whole. It can be safely stated that mental/neural attributes are of primary importance, with the physical being secondary.

Mental/Neural Attributes are defined as:

  • Intent - The focused determination to achieve a specific end over a short or extended period.

  • Neural-drive - The volitional force required to put forth a demanding short term effort to overcome/achieve a desired high intensity performance function; for example, attempting a jump that has questionable chances of success, or continuing through a set of high rep kettlebell snatches.

Physical Attributes are defined as:

  • strength
  • speed
  • endurance (muscular and cardio-pulmonary)
  • power
  • flexibility

The primary importance of mental/neural attributes doesn't lower the importance for training the physical. The key to optimizing physical training for combat readiness requires that the physical training be enhanced and driven by the mental/neural needs.

In keeping with that basic principle, the focus here is on training the Physical Attributes using exercises that incorporate or are driven by strong mental/neural components. That is, even a long-term endurance exercise should have an intrinsic intent/neural-drive component. In particular, those exercises that are most likely to omit intent/neural-drive, such as long distance jogging, should be structured to include mental/neural components. This can be done, for example, by periodically varying levels of intensity at irregular intervals.

Training Programs

For conditioning, the combat athlete must be a generalist rather than a specialist. All of the physical attributes are necessary. In training for a generalist capability, however, there are priorities in combat conditioning. While certainly debatable, the order of most important to least physical attributes would be something as follows:

  • lower body (hips, legs, lower back) muscular endurance
  • cardio-pulmonary endurance
  • lower body strength/power
  • upper body strength/power
  • speed (quickness)
  • flexibility
  • lastly - looking good in a tight t-shirt

It is important to keep in mind that the combat athlete has to perform in a chaotic environment and context, often over extended periods of time (almost always longer than the competition period of sports combat). As well, he often has to transport himself and his gear to the area of combat. He'll not be wearing lightweight nylon shorts and running shoes, but wearing utilities (BDUs) and boots. In addition to what he's wearing, he'll be carrying gear weighing in at a minimum of 35 lbs (16 kg) in gear (weapons, ammo, armor, helmet, water, etc.). It's possible that he'll also be transporting well over a hundred pounds (45 kg) including extra load. Any type of training that does not take into consideration the basic load is moving away from the concept of specificity. A 5 mile run over smooth, even ground in shorts and running shoes really has little to do in preparing the combat athlete for carrying a combat load for ten miles over rough terrain in boots. High rep pull-ups do virtually nothing for preparing a gear-laden individual to pull himself up over a wall or in through a high window (they do make him better at doing high rep pull-ups though). It is not that running and pull-ups are bad, they're simply not the most effective means of training the combat athlete for his performance functions.

In particular for the combat athlete, but really for any athlete, training should be as functional as possible. Most exercises whether in endurance or strength training are done for the sake of the exercise; rarely are they performed based on a realistic assessment of their need and use for the desired outcome. Unfortunately, many of the more functional exercises are not the sexy ones; they're rarely the ones that make you look good in a tight t-shirt.

Following are some examples of exercises and their categories.

Lower body muscular endurance - load bearing hill climbing, hill running, cross-country rucking, etc.

Cardio-pulmonary short term endurance - fast, load bearing hill climbing; hill running; sprints; kettlebell snatches, etc.

Cardio-pulmonary long-term endurance - long, load bearing, hill climbing; load bearing running; etc.

Lower body strength/power - pistols (single-leg squat); weighted jumps; lower body plyometrics; weighted, short, steep, hill climbing/running; etc.; hill sprints.

Upper body strength/power - low rep, weighted, power pull-ups; low rep, weighted, power dips; kettlebell snatches; pulls; presses; etc.

Speed (quickness) - speed training should be specifically designed to the needs of the athlete. Speed needs should be assessed realistically, and a minimal appropriate time spent.

Flexibility - Flexibility training should be integrated with other exercises. Here again, the need for flexibility should be assessed, and approached accordingly. Extreme ranges of flexibility are simply not necessary for combat athletes.

Stress and Recovery

As mentioned earlier, the combat athlete needs to maintain a fairly high optimal level of conditioning at all times. He cannot afford the steep decline that inevitably follows high level peaking. The key to more efficient conditioning starts with a realistic assessment of one=s restorative capabilities, and then designing a training schedule that applies a sequencing of appropriate stress levels (exercise) and restoration (recovery that allows increased capability). This does not mean a simple pattern of exercise and rest. More effective is an irregular sequencing of variations in types of exercise stimulus factors (duration, intensity, frequency) and stress types (muscular endurance, strength/power, cardiopulmonary). By planning a training schedule based on the length of a training session, the level of effort at any moment of time, and how often the workouts occur in conjunction with exercises for the different physical attributes can allow an optimum level recovery for one type of stress stimulus while performing another type of stress stimulus. Done appropriately, one can not only maintain but increase the overall level of combat fitness.

For example:

Training Day 1 - fast, load-bearing hill climbs (short term cardiopulmonary)

Training Day 2 - upper body strength work

Training Day 3 - long-term cardiopulmonary

Training Day 4 - lower body strength work

An important factor here is to gauge one=s own ability to recover to the different types of stress stimulus and plan the program accordingly.

As the combat athlete is a generalist, and faces wide variations in demands, variety in the types of exercise is important. Training bench press three times a week might give him a new bench max, but will do nothing to increase his combat fitness. Likewise, running 5-6 times a week will maintain or increase running fitness levels, but is both an inefficient use of time and does not increase combat fitness. The combat athlete must try to gradually improve to meet the full spectrum of combat demands.

Combat fitness is professional requirement. Just as the skills training of the professional are incorporated into the lifestyle, so must combat conditioning be part the lifestyle of the professional. A constant state of readiness is part of the professional's job requirement, and that readiness capability must be maintained mentally and physically.

Hunter "Chip" Armstrong

Hunter Armstrong has been professionally involved in the research and development of hoplology since the late 1970's. As Director of the International Hoplology Society (founded by Donn Draeger), he has spent considerable time on field research on the training and fighting arts in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India.
Concurrently, Armstrong has been involved in strength & conditioning training and study. In that area, his focus has been on the enhancement of combative performance capabilities through functional training methods.
In 1996, Armstrong co-founded Integrated Combative Systems (ICS) specifically to work on training programs and seminars for the military and law enforcement. The ICS program of instruction is based on the principles of efficient behavior and performance in combat, especially as expressed in and extracted from the world's major traditional martial cultures. The ICS has been working with the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) since 1997, prior to its official inception.

For information on the services offered by Integrated Combative Systems, please visit their web site at, or contact Hunter "Chip" Armstrong directly at