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Specific Physical Preparedness for Combat Sports

October 8, 2002 02:00 PM

Specific Physical Preparedness for Combat Sports

By Coach Scott Sonnon, Co-Founder of RMAX Athletic Performance Enhancement Solutions, former USA National Sambo Coach, Distinguished Master of Sports |

As supreme action guy guru Mike Gillette once told me, "you can't take someone where you haven't been and you can't give someone something you don't have." As a result, I have concentrated my focus on fighting efficiency and training effectiveness for combat sports.

I didn't invent club swinging. It's been done for centuries by various cultures. I developed clubbells as a natural progression of wanting to make specific conditioning gains for combat sports, in particular grappling. As a former international champ and US Coach of SAMBO (the 2nd style of international submission fighting), I had vested interest in tweaking performance through any and all means possible. When you read my story, you'll understand Roger von Oech's comment that, "necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father."

The model of training towards which I have naturally gravitated can be understood as a pyramid (which I call the Training Hierarchy Pyramid) with GPP on the bottom, SPP next upwards, Physical Skills (PS) next, with Mental and Emotional Skills (MES) on the top. GPP holds priority as the BASE of all solid programming because without this level of readiness the mind and body cannot effectively absorb specificity. My theory is much like Maslow's Pyramid: meaning one cannot effectively address higher levels of training without the lower level's fulfillment. One can practice MES, but without GPP, it's a house on quicksand. Furthermore, without fulfilling the SPP level, PS and MES lay on a shaky foundation and have limited potential.

Three notable quotes influenced me over the years and my concentration upon sport-specific conditioning:
  • "Conditioning is the greatest hold." Karl Gotch
  • "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Vince Lombardi
  • "Progression is the law of growth. Whoever accedes to that law will succeed." George Jowett
I see in new clients continually from various pro and amateur sports I call over-practice. Over-practice is the notion of combining skill acquisition and physical conditioning. People try to get a work-out by practicing the skills of their respective sports as if the skill practice developed GENERAL attributes. Remember, everything you do competes for development and growth. There are many good coaches in the GPP methodology, but basically you can go Dino (simple, compound, abbreviated, heavy, and intense) for strength and go HIIT for endurance.

After GPP on the bottom of the pyramid comes SPP. Sport-specific exercises to develop attributes as further refined platform for skills. The Soviets were genius at this and developed an array of exercises and apparati to augment attributes within the contexts of the specific sport.

The development of clubbells was a just a result of my intention of utilizing exercises and methods of SPP for combat sports, in particular grappling. As a respected friend of mine once told me, "you can't take someone where you haven't been and you can't give someone something you don't have." As a result, I have concentrated my focus on fighting efficiency and training effectiveness for combat sports. As a Distinguished Master of Sport (international champ) and US Coach of SAMBO, I intended on intensifying grooved-in development of my clients in the shortest time possible. But I always experiment on myself first, so?

I began with conventional equipment such as barbells and dumbbells in odd exercises most closely approximating the range, scope and depth of motion for the activities of fighting. When I determined that these apparati were too bulky and awkward, not suited to dynamic motion, I moved on to kettlebells having first been exposed to this manner of training in Russia and then later from my friend Pavel Tsatsouline, Master of Sport in Kettlebell Lifting.

I began to make modifications to equipment, understanding I did so at my own risk and did not ask any of my clients to follow suit. I cut-and-pasted, grafting whatever I could until my Frankenstein inventions were more readily crafted from junkyard reconnoitering. Old church curtain weights equipped with karabiners to load plates, to lead shot filled aluminum baseball bats, to sledgehammer heads on steel poles, to axes (don't try that at home or anywhere else, please. I still shudder at some of the property damage that could have been flesh.)

Walt Disney said, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible." Slowly, this impossible design evolved with a lot of "play-time" spent in between the beginning of the journey and the final prototype. To understand how it evolved, I'll share the thought-process of the investigation. I had two intentions that needed to be fulfilled. These intentions molded the design rather than some prefabricated mental blueprint.

Firstly, I intended to maximize the physical ability to resist, stop and overcome the application of submission holds in fighting. I intended to create equipment that would allow me to build combat specific strength under what I named the Yield-Halt-Overcome? protocol. In other words, ballistic motion needed to be slowed (eccentrically), stopped (isometrically), and reversed (concentrically) when the arm was taken out of the normal functional range. The equipment needed to be able to address this Yield-Halt-Overcome? protocol in dynamic ranges of motion.

So, I began to utilize my devices in ranges of motion most closely approximating the range, scope and depth of various submission holds. I would add inertia to the pendulum, slow the device as rapidly as possible, stop it "on a dime" and instantly reverse the motion or send it to an angle that countered the submission attempt.

The equipment needed to function even at extreme ranges of motion where submission holds are typically final. I gained in sight from the sport science of the former Soviet Union in their concept of "dynamic flexibility." Their Olympic Coaches would have their athletes train slightly outside the range, scope and depth of the ranges of motion "expected" to be found in their sport. They did so because WHEN the movements of the athletes deviated from the expected ranges of motion, they would effectively possess a "safety valve" to prevent injury.

The intent of submission holds in fighting is to bring a joint to extreme range of motion until either the athlete receives so much pain that he concedes the win to the opponent, or his joint breaks and he loses the match. The notion of dynamic flexibility exhibiting both the characteristics of strength and flexibility enhancing properties became an invaluable standard influencing the design evolution of what would become the Clubbell.

Simultaneous to the intention of thwarting submission hold attempts through superior physical conditioning, I held another agenda. I intended to cultivate EXPLOSIVE throws in SAMBO, which in addition to being the 2nd style of international submission fighting, was also the 3rd style of international wrestling and 2nd style of international jacket grappling.

Throwing or taking an opponent to the ground requires a special combination of three characteristics:
  1. kinesthetic sensitivity to balance and tension,
  2. specialized skills and tactics,
  3. and most importantly - physical attributes.
I say that physical attributes are most important, because at elite levels, superior GPP conditioning becomes the measuring stick of success. Furthermore, SPP is the EDGE over the competition. SPP is the gap between GPP and Physical, Mental and Emotional Skills: a gap that's too large in most sports training.

I intended to research and develop equipment that could most closely approximate the range, scope and depth of motion in throws. Most throws occur at extreme ranges of motion; the strength required must explode over a fulcrum, like one's shoulder or hip, and happens at the earliest portion in the range of motion, such as depicted in a "shoulder throw" or a "hip toss." For instance, in the shoulder throw the power generation requires forward explosion from one arm in the position of hand behind one's head and elbow pointed skyward. The other arm begins across one's body fully extended gripping the opponent's sleeve, and must explosively rip the jacket around in front circularly.

More importantly, not only did I require explosion from "fit-in" positions, I needed the strength to continue to ACCELERATE throughout the movements of each throwing technique.

I concocted various devices such as ropes on pulleys with nets containing various amounts of stones, rubber strands attached to dumbbells, and medicine balls attached to ropes and belts. These devices slighted improved performance that my client athletes specifically required, so I continued with the R&D in this direction.

Honestly, I had no idea that these two intentions, to firstly thwart submission holds through superior physical conditioning and to secondly create explosive, speed strength for grappling throw and takedown techniques, would evolve into a singular piece of equipment - the Clubbell.

Experience with fighters from other cultures and training with Olympic and National Team coaches from different countries allowed me to discover a rarely known aspect of old-time strongman physical culture: club swinging exercise.

The most ancient weapon, the club, evolved over millennia into devastatingly effective martial arts worldwide. Many cultural martial traditions across the planet utilized the club not just for combat, but for restorative health and developed strength: Indian Kalaripayatu, Iranian Varzesh-e Pahlavani, Burmese Thaing and Bando, Philippino Kali, Russian Sambo and ROSS.

Club Swinging can be traced to the to strongman competitions in Ancient Persia. "They created a definitive edge in strength and endurance training. During these times, the weight-lifter, wrestler or fighter was called a Pahlavan, or club swinging strongman."

The most popularized international form of Club Swinging originated in India, though originally deriving from Persia and ultimately from Ancient Greece. Regardless of the method, whether with the Philippino, Burmese, Indian karela, ekka, jori and gada, Iranian meel, Russian bulava, Club designs and exercises can be dangerous if not rigorously tested and trained.

Sim D. Kehoe brought "Indian Clubs" to USA from Britain. In 1862, he opened a New York shop to manufacture clubs. To spread the word, he sent free samples of his clubs to prominent individuals in the hope of securing positive endorsements.

The famous Civil War era boxer, John Heenan, wrote him that, "as an assistant for training purposes, and imparting strength to the muscles of the arms, wrists, and hands, together in fact with the whole muscular system, I do not know of their equal. They will become one of the institutions in America." USA President Grant wrote to thank Kehoe for the clubs, "Please accept my thanks for your thus remembering me, and particularly my boys, who I know will take great delight as well as receive benefit from using them."

Bornstein stated that Clubs were, "the most universal method of developing the muscular anatomy of the human body. Schools, colleges and even theological seminaries have adopted their use in their respective institutions with the most beneficial results. For keeping the body in a healthy and vigorous condition there has as yet been nothing invented, which for its simplicity and gracefulness can be favorably compared with club exercises."

In 1866, Kehoe published Indian Club Exercise, A beautifully illustrated book which showing the benefits of HEAVY club training, with two aspects of significance. Firstly, he distinguished between the short, light-weight "bat" - a one to four pound club used in the popular Don Walker's and Dio Lewis' callisthenic drills. Secondly, Kehoe distinguished the "long Club."

Light-weight bats became the Ivy-league vogue in popular Victorian culture, and heavy club swinging was eventually phased out through social pressure - ironically simultaneous to the eventual phasing out of Catch as Catch Can wrestling and general Strongman enthusiasm.

Despite distasteful comments for club swinging by Arthur Saxon, many turn of the century and modern strongmen such as George Jowett, Joe Nordquest, George Hackenschmidt, Paul Von Boeckmann, John Grimek, Steve Gardner, and "Slim the Hammerman" Farman, and of course, Ghulum "the Great Gama" Mohammed used many different types of clubs (and club variations , such as the Weaver Stick, Thor's Hammer, the Fulcrum Bar and even store-bought sledgehammers as substitutes.) These exercises allowed them to pulverize stone into pasty-cakes!

More recently, club swinging was implemented in the military physical training programs for both the USA and Britain. Posse (1894) stated that clubs were "the oldest known implement for military gymnastics." In 1914, the US Army Manual of Physical Training explained that these exercises, "supple the muscles and articulations of shoulders, upper-arms, forearms and wrist. They are indicated in cases where there is a tendency toward what is known as 'muscle bound.'" (There are opposing opinions regarding this statement in the physical culture industry.)

Club Swinging became an Olympic Sport in 1904 (St. Louis, USA) which Americans won in all divisions. It endured until 1932 (Los Angeles, USA) which Americans swept again, and is still considered Olympic in Russia, used by various Olympic and National sports teams for strength and endurance conditioning.

This method forged a long history of success in physical conditioning for combat specific strength, speed, endurance, agility, coordination and flexibility. My research and experiences with club swinging exercises evolved the final genesis of clubbells.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that clubbells resulted from the singular intent of gaining superior physical advantage over opponents in hand to hand combat. I believe that clubbells and what I have named the standard of Circular Strength Training? IDEALLY suit performance enhancement in combat sports and all forms of human fighting. I believe so simply because I journeyed through this evolution arriving at the final, functional design, rather than thinking of a hypothesis, creating some invention and hoping to "test" its merit.

Birthed in ancient Greece from filling the hollow inside of a musical bell to use for strength conditioning, Clubbells offer unique advantages over barbells (BBs), dumbbells (DBs) and kettlebells (KBs). Lifting BBs, DBs and KBs adds weight to the end of the lever equaling linear strength, whereas Clubbells (and to a lesser degree - KB exercises) increase momentum of the pendulum.

The unique benefits of leverage challenge progresses increasingly greater from BB to DB, then KB, to finally the greatest leverage challenge with clubbells. Consider that Clubbells are 2 feet in length with a center of gravity 6 inches from the base, and you have incredible leverage! Decreased leverage translates force more effectively to develop superior grip strength, as well as lower arm, upper arm and shoulder girdle synergy, stabilization and dynamic flexibility. NO other apparatus translates this amount of leveraged force!

Understanding the evolution of this equipment should give you insight into my intentions behind clubbells and Circular Strength Training?. I am blessed to make "enough" of a living training my clients to have the financial and creative freedom to develop training programs and equipment that advance people to their greatest potential in the most expedient and safest manner possible.

I'm not out to aggressively market clubbells and Circular Strength Training? and I have no intention of doing so. Honestly, I developed it for myself and my client athletes alone. My partner thought the equipment coincided with our company credo of making clients "tougher, stronger, healthier, more prepared than the challenges they'll face!" He convinced me that we should make the equipment available to the public after several clients having observed my prototype equipment and private training. I thought to myself, "Why not?" Businesses are not create to hemorrhage for financial altruism, so don't expect to get the equipment or programs for free. It costs money to make these things available and to insist on the highest training caliber in preparing certified Circular Strength Trainers (CST). And in my opinion, if stranded on a desert island with only two pieces of equipment from which to choose, I'd take a kettlebell and a clubbell! So why not make them available to everyone?

So, RMAX Productions resurrected HEAVY club swinging, with a first release model hitting the scales at a burly 15 pounds each, now used by strength coaches, collegiate football teams, world martial art champions, US Secret Service, US Army Rangers, and SWAT Team personnel. The debut program Olympic Clubbell Swinging? would have made John Henry and Paul Bunyan squeamish.

Do you NEED clubbells? No more than you need KBs; you can reproduce KB exercises with DBs, though not with the same amount of benefit due to design function and emphasis. Do you need DBs? You can reproduce the same exercises with a rock, but...

Can you make homemade versions of clubbells? You can with the same sacrifice of design specificity, functional safety and commercial grade quality.

How much of your training should you dedicate to clubbells? The answer lay with how much you dedicate to specific physical preparedness in utilizing these exercises, and in how much you emphasize grip strength, forearm and upper-arm synergy in speed-strength and muscular endurance, and shoulder girdle strength and dynamic flexibility.

To understand how I design program for my clients realize that every person and team has SPECIFIC individual needs, and as a result I make them undergo an assessment interview and examination in order to:

1. Determine their entry GPP level. A basic physical examination something like the Soviet GTO helps both me and the client understand his or her current conditioning level.

2. Determine their entry SPP methods. This typically is not a factor since most client's have never done any SPP methods.

3. Determine their entry Physical Skill level in their sport's respective skills. Specificity determines all program design.

4. Determine their entry level Mental and Emotional Threshold. One's threshold of performance equals their threshold of mental toughness and emotional control. Assessing where a client begins helps me understand his or her current potential ceiling of potential, and where the bar can be raised.

5. Determine their goals, expectations and commitment to accomplishing those goals. It's important here to state that some people are more willing to work more intensely than others. Understanding a client's commitment helps me create a program that neither bores them (under-motivates) nor overwhelms them (over-motivates). Furthermore, some people are willing to invest more of their hard earned money than others. Understanding how much a person is willing to invest determines frequency of personalized training sessions, equipment, gear, and facilities. Finally, understanding how much time a client allots for achieving their goals determines the nature of the program design.

As you can see it's all relative. However, one thing is common and that is the Training Hierarchy Pyramid: GPP firstly, SPP secondly, PS thirdly and MES finally.

I harbor strong opinions regarding Clubbells. I believe they belong in their rightful place next to barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells - hence their name Club-BELLS. I do not believe that they should be shrouded in mysticism and antiquity. It's STRENGTH training - it doesn't matter if it's circular or linear.

Specific Physical Preparedness has rapidly become the highest dollar training addition to fitness gyms and sports teams, and Clubbells is the ONLY device specifically designed for the task of designing SPP programs for teams and athletes.

The following suggestions derive from the OLYMPIC CLUBBELL SWINGING BOOK, which shall be available very soon.

A. "Cardio Clubbell" Progressive cardio-endurance protocol:

Choose an exercise (technically easy for you) so that you can complete with perfect form 8-12 repetitions in 8-10 seconds. Perform 5-6 sets, with 60 second rest periods. Over time the sets may be increased to 10-12 and the rest period compressed to 10-30 seconds.

B. "Cardio Clubbell" program based on Indian Club program of Dr. Paul Phillips, MD:

1. Right Lunge with a left backward pendulum, return to standing in order. Repeat 8X.
2. Park and Rest 10 seconds
3. Left Lunge with a right backward pendulum, return to standing in order. Repeat 8X.
4. Park and Rest 10 seconds
5. Right Lunge with a right backward pendulum, return to standing in order. Repeat 8X.
6. Park and Rest 10 seconds
7. Left Lunge with a left backward pendulum, return to standing in order. Repeat 8X.
8. Park Rest 30 seconds
9. Right Side-step with a right outward pendulum, return to standing in order. Repeat 8X.
10. Park and Rest 10 seconds
11. Right Side-step with a right inward pendulum, return to standing in order. Repeat 8X.
12. Park and Rest 10 seconds
13. Left Side-step with a left outward pendulum, return to standing in order. Repeat 8X.
14. Park and Rest 10 seconds
15. Left Side-step with a left inward pendulum, return to standing in order. Repeat 8X.
16. Park and Rest 30 seconds
17. Shoulder Park Clubbells and squat 16X
18. Drumming 16X

C. Here are some additional Endurance exercises from which to choose:

1. Hops: Forward Pendulum with a forward jump squat, landing with knees bent and clubbells in "order".

2. Jumping Jacks: From Order slide clubbells laterally to 45 degree angle when legs go wide, then back to Order when legs come together. Park them. Clean to Order and repeat.

D. Heavy Hands Fartlek - an additional beast to the Cardio Clubbell!
With clubbells parked on your shoulders, sprint 10 yards. Stop and do 30 basic arm swings. Sprint 10 yards and stop. Do 20 BAS's. 10 yards. 10 BAS's. Start over. Do this until one rep before your grip begins to fade.

Always take care that sweat and hand oils do not deteriorate your grip cohesion.

Coach Sonnon