I never did any kind of serious strength and conditioning routine in 5 years of being an MMA fighter. I’d always figured that a martial artist was better off spending their time working on technique, rather than building muscles for show. Every day I would do two jiu jitsu classes, a muay thai class and a run. Sometimes I’d throw in some wrestling and a random circuit but my focus was almost exclusively on training techniques. I got better, I got stronger and I lost weight. There were a lot of techniques I wasn’t able to do unless I was going with somebody who was really bad or was really, really weak. I heard about Crossfit but dismissed it as reports of bad techniques and injuries came with it. Besides, I didn’t want to look super masculine and lose my flexibility.
Pretty soon I realized all the other women that were finding success in the more exclusive promotions had a strength and conditioning routine. Then I realized that most of the men did too. I wasn’t losing fat or gaining muscle anymore; and I wasn’t getting better at jiujitsu at the same rate I had been. I started to feel like a fly, or a hummingbird: I had endurance, but I wasn’t a threat. Whether standing or on the ground I wasn’t as imposing as I wanted to be. My knowledge and my skill set didn’t match up. I would learn a great sweep, or an awesome arm bar set up and I’d be able to drill it, remember all the steps (even the ones my partner would forget), get a ‘good job’ from the instructor, but practical application would elude me. As soon as we went live I couldn’t execute what I had just learned because I wasn’t strong enough, explosive enough or confident enough. Then I heard about Functional Muscle Fitness.
FMF, a strength and conditioning gym, NOT CROSSFIT, and the guys that trained there were good – they were strong, had good technique, were flexible and I liked them because they were nice guys. They weren’t muscle headed jocks with fake tans, tribal tattoos and extra medium shirts. They said their strength and conditioning coach could help me and I had been thinking I needed help.
You Don’t Have To Be Great To Start, But You Have To Start To Be Great
I hated it. Pushups on balls and straps and pull ups with gigantic rubber bands under me (because I couldn’t do them on my own) and I still needed somebody’s hand to push me after the 4th rep. Dumbbells and barbells were embarrassing because I had to use the small ones. Jumping onto boxes was hard and again, embarrassing, because my boxes weren’t even half as high as everybody else’s. Heavy ropes sucked, they seemed glued to the ground when I touched them but they danced when anybody else held them. Even running was bad, I couldn’t keep my slow and easy pace anymore, not with people yelling in my ears to try harder, go faster, push more. I would finish a set and walk in a circle cursing before moving on to the next set, I’d stamp my feet and hold my breath or yell at corners of the building about how stupid exercises weren’t going to win me any fights anyway. During sprints I’d think about how I’m not a lousy runner, I’m a fighter and fighters don’t need to run because they stay and fight! I’d do a circuit twice, realize I had to do it a third time and want to cry. I was sore and my muscles were spent. It was hard. Then I had my first fight since starting at FMF two months earlier.
The fight was good, I went toe to toe with a fighter that was more experienced and had better technique than I did but I was able to push her back and stay more active. The fight went all three five minute rounds and the judges called it a draw. I went back to training and six months later I was lucky enough to get a rematch. I had done more work at FMF than ever and I wasn’t cursing in corners as much. The last few weeks of my training camp saw me with tears in my eyes more than I would like to admit. My Alessandro would see me and tell me to go wash my face as he blocked my red eyes from the rest of the people training. He gave me two great quotes that helped me so much. The first one was at the beginning of this section, “You don’t have to be great to start but you have to start to be great”. I’d repeat this over and over to myself whenever I felt weak or embarrassed that I was only able to do 1/3 of the weight I could see other people doing. The second was “I’m not crying to stop, I’m crying to keep going”. I never cheated my reps, even when everybody else had finished and left the gym to run their cool down lap, I completed my workouts with tears in my eyes while repeating “I’m not crying to stop, I’m crying to keep going” in my head.
I won the rematch. I was now stronger and faster than my opponent and my boxing had gotten better. Most importantly, I was mentally prepared for another war. Usually when you get better at something it gets easier. Almost everything gets easier with practice. Lifting weights doesn’t get easier. As soon as you can handle a 45lb weight there is a 60lb weight to move on to. The goal on many days is to reach muscle exhaustion on the fourth repetition of a heavy set. That means several times a day, so many times a week, I would be in a situation where I was trying my hardest- pushing or pulling or squatting or whatever – and going nowhere. Trying my absolute hardest and accomplishing nothing, a stalemate between me and whatever inanimate object I was trying to move. When I first started, this made me feel weak and pathetic. After 8 months of pushing myself this made me feel like I was getting a good workout. I should be maxing out and anything less would’ve been a less effective workout. This mental training was, I believe, the most decisive factor in my rematch. I was mentally prepared for a war. I was ready to go as hard as I possibly could go and I wasn’t expecting or hoping for anything easy. Strength and conditioning made me stronger and faster with better endurance and faster recovery but most importantly it fortified my mind. I dealt with the frustration of feeling weak and exhausted, of identifying my limits and completely emptying my gas tank so many times in the gym that when it was time to fight in the cage nothing could make me feel weak or pathetic.
I know I am no poster child for strength and conditioning, I’m not as strong as most, I am still working on my technique and I still have to give myself pep talks before some of the more difficult sets. But I am determined to have a good attitude about it now. Someday I will smile through an entire workout.
Thank you, Mark, for making me a better athlete. Thank you for teaching me how to train like a champion. I’m more athletic, more confident, and mentally stronger than I have ever been. I have been learning how to train smarter, instead of just harder, and the result is I am injured less, improving more quickly, and I have more energy to learn more technique.