Combat Conditioning
Photo Courtesy of Mark Hatmaker

Good grapplers know that good mat movement — both while upright and while horizontal — is all about creating excellent positioning for you and poor positioning for your opponent.

Good strikers know that having good power means having optimal posture and structural alignment in the middle of striking and that feinting or baiting poor alignment in your opponent can steal his or her power.

The wise combatant trains assiduously for structural perfection whether in motion or stock-still.

Nothing I’ve said so far should foster disagreement. Veteran martial artists, please stay with me a wee bit longer as I outline a thought experiment that easily can be taken to the real world.

The preceding may be obvious, but even obvious hypotheses should be put to the test to ensure that what’s obvious is also true, as more often than we realize, obvious is sometimes just legend, dogma or simply familiar “truths.”


OVERHEAD “LOCKOUT” TEST: For this hypothesis test, you’ll require a partner and a barbell. Load the bar with approximately one-third the body weight of the partner. Have the partner clean-and-press it almost to the locked-out position overhead.(By the way, make sure your partner doesn’t lock it out. Keep a quarter of an inch of muscle cushioning or “play” between the position and true skeletal lockout. The old-timers were scrupulous about this. Why? Ask anyone with arthritis in the knees, elbows, hips, etc.)Once the weight is comfortably controlled overhead, stand behind your partner and slowly use the finger of one hand to push on the right side of the person’s head. Do so until he or she says, “Stop.” If you’re using bumper plates and/or have a safe drop zone, you can go harder and the partner can pitch the weight forward to escape.

Taking the head out of spinal alignment, even in slow motion, alters the body’s structural integrity and reduces the person’s ability to perform the lockout to full strength.

You can repeat the single-finger push on the left side of the head, or you can push on the back of the head to move it forward or even push on the forehead so the chin is raised. All will result in reduced stability and reduced ability to handle the locked load. If you were to skip being gentle and shove the head, the drop would be exceptionally dramatic — and dangerous.

This experiment demonstrates that strength is more than a function of muscles, tendons and ligaments; it’s also a function of alignment. The lockout proves the ability to handle and control a given load, and the shove proves that alignment plays a large part in what we do in most acts — from locking out a weight to sitting in a chair.

The single finger did nothing to alter the strength of the muscle; it merely altered a corresponding vital factor.

APPLICATIONS IN COMBAT: A good grappler mitigates the power of the person he or she desires to crush by altering alignment in the same way you just “stole strength” in the lockout test. You use a deliberately placed elbow pry to steal resistance to the top wrist lock, you alter the orientation of the radius and ulna to “eat” the strength of the arm that’s stronger than yours, you pronate the foot to make locking the powerful leg a literal snap and so on.

Submissions are more than cool moves. When performed scientifically, they are exercises in destructive structural alignment.

In striking, particularly for the old-timers and those who desire to save their fists on the street, the incessant probes to the head are less about the intent to connect bone on bone than to inspire head movement that steals power from the opponent’s strikes and opens the way to soft targets.(It is for this very reason that “head movement” in the striking arts is a misnomer. It is actually upper-body movement with the head acting as a structurally locked section of the spinal column. Head movement steals only power and balance, whereas upper-body movement that takes the head with it, well, now you’re talking!)

ALLOW ME TO REPEAT the title of today’s topic: “Combat Conditioning: Are You Training for Weakness?” I’m not asking if you’re practicing your combat tactics correctly; I will assume that you are. I am asking if your conditioning is weakening those tactics.

Keeping in mind all I’ve discussed regarding the value of alignment, peruse the following questions:• Do you dip your head while doing push-ups, particularly those last few painful ones you squeeze out?• Do you tug your head forward on sit-ups, crunches or SEAL-style flutter kicks?• Do you lean that head side to side while cranking out reps on those heavy hammer curls?• Do you lift your chin on pull-ups?• Do you allow your head to sag on the down portion of burpees?• In short, do you break head-neck alignment while performing any conditioning drills?

Likely the Special Forces dictum “How you train is how you will fight” is at the forefront of your mind more often than not, and if it’s not, it ought to be. Often, though, you might get a bit slippery about being scrupulous with your mechanics when what you do doesn’t resemble the fight itself.

That’s unfortunate because you presumably are engaging in combat conditioning to better your fight game and your survival chances, and if you choose to steal your own power while you train, what exactly do you think will happen under combat stressors when you require all that sought-after power?

How you train is how you will fight.

Old-school boxers, wrestlers and combination fighters all stressed proper alignment and scrupulous head positioning. There were precious few exercises in which they permitted the altering of head position, rare circumstances in which it increased power.

Follow in their footsteps. Remember that wise martial artists seek to steal power and alignment from their opponents and preserve their own power or increase it, even in endeavors that in no way resemble a fight. Those stress-under-load moments you encounter and the minor corrections you make to reduce their impact can spell large differences in your manifestation of power.
Mark Hatmaker’s website is extremeselfprotection.com.

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