Strength Isn't Everything

In the build up to the 1964 Olympics in Mexico, a wide scale physical experiment was rumored to have been conducted. The experiment supposedly compared athletes from various sports along baseline measures of athletic prowess. The results were somewhat surprising. The fastest times in the 25 meter shuttle run, for example, belonged not to the Olympic sprinters, but to the Olympic lifters. Similarly, the highest vertical leaps were registered not by the high jumpers, but again by the Olympic lifters. "Pound for pound, Olympic weight lifters have a greater level of speed-strength than any other class of athletes," concluded Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D., himself a renowned power lifter.

Because of the explosiveness it helps develop, Olympic lifting has now become part of the strength training regimen for athletes participating across many different sports, including sprinting. And certainly the program has its merits. MMA athletes in search of a strength advantage might even opt to add Olympic lifts to their training regimen. But those who implement it in hopes of a cure all would be misguided.

A lot of MMA enthusiasts know that strength is not everything in fighting, but it's sometimes easy to get carried away after watching Tito Ortiz overpower Ken Shamrock in each of three contests. Watching Rampage pick up and body slam 230 lbs Kevin Randleman is pretty convincing, too. While strength can sometimes be decisive, it's not a given. Remember that both Rampage and Tito struggled against Forrest Griffin, a guy not known for his strength. While we still occasionally see fighters use a raw strength advantage to win a fight, it's much more often that we see a fighter's weakness as his decisive disadvantage.

Often times, the weaker fighter isn't weaker in terms of muscle strength, but weaker in terms of endurance, cardio, and heart. Think about most of the fights you've seen where you thought to yourself, "Wow--that fighter is done." BJ Penn looked great in his rematch against Matt Hughes, until he came out in the third round looking gassed. And Matt put him away. Pete Williams's highlight reel knock out of a young, stronger Mark Coleman took place only after "The Hammer" had gassed and dropped his hands. Frank Shamrock's comeback against the much larger Tito Ortiz is simply the prototypical victory of cardio over strength.

Think of it this way: a fighter may or may not be at his strongest using the latest strength training techniques. But a fighter without cardio is definitely at his weakest after gassing.

Realize, too, that at the end of the day, it wasn't the lifters who ran the sprints or competed in the high jump at the 1964 Olympics. Explained one Olympic-level thrower years later: "The weight lifters were probably faster than the sprinters for the first 10 or 20 meters, but they wouldn't win in the actual, much longer 100 meter event." It seems that even for sprinters, strength is not the be-all, end-all.