“IF you don’t have the squat in your program, you don’t have a program!” is a popular expression in the Iron Game. Why? Because the back squat is the single best exercise for increasing overall body strength and muscle mass. Even so, the back squat is not an ideal exercise for most fighters, and here’s the reason.
Body mass can make or break a fighter’s career. So, determining a fighter’s weight class is one of the most important issues for a coach. After losing to Nate Diaz in UFC 196, Conor McGregor caught lots of flak from his decision to move up from his weight class of 145 pounds to challenge Diaz at 170 pounds.
In contrast, light-heavyweight world champion Michael Spinks was able to move up to the heavyweight class in 1985 and defeat Larry Holmes to become world champion. Holmes weighed 221 ½ pounds and Spinks only 199 ¾ pounds. However, Spinks’ tactic misfired three years later when the much stronger Mike Tyson finished off Spinks in just 91 seconds to capture the championship belt.
My criticism of the squat for fighters is that, except for heavyweight competitors, the lift creates excessive muscle bulk. Focusing on the squat, especially with relatively higher reps (such as 10-12), may force a fighter into a heavier weight class. A case could also be made that the movement of the squat is not sport-specific to movements that occur in boxing.
The solution is to focus on lower reps with exercises that are more specific to the movements that occur in the ring. Such exercises include split squats and lunges, because the most effective punches are thrown in a split position (not a straddle position such as with the squat). These unilateral exercises offer many other benefits.
When performed through a full range of motion, these exercises help to stretch the hip flexors, place much less stress on the spine than squats do, and prevent structural imbalances that result from performing partial movements. On this last point, it’s not enough to achieve the appropriate strength ratio between the hamstrings and quadriceps. It’s also important that the strength of the right leg matches the strength of the left.
Let’s look at a few of the variations of these exercises, starting with lunges.
In the most common type of lunge, you take a step forward, lowering your hips as far as possible, and then step backward to the start. Resistance can be increased by holding dumbbells in your hands or resting a barbell on the back of your shoulders. It’s also important when performing these unilateral exercises to keep the front knee aligned with the longest toe of the foot.
The downside of lunges is that they require good stability in the lower body. For many individuals, this requirement prevents them from using heavier weights, thus reducing the strength training effect. To get around this problem, a boxer can lunge forward onto a low platform, about four to six inches high. This method creates greater stability because more body weight is placed on the back leg and there is a reduced range of motion.
If stability is still an issue, one option is to perform a backward lunge. With the forward lunge the entire center of mass is shifted forward several feet. With a backward lunge more of the center of mass stays on the non-moving leg. For many individuals, this variation is a more natural movement.
One advanced type of lunge I like is called the drop lunge. A drop lunge is a plyometric exercise in which you perform a forward lunge off of a low step (about 4-6 inches). When you first perform this exercise you focus on landing with your knee in alignment with your foot. From there you lunge forward and then immediately push forward and return to the start.
Lunges can also be performed with the feet starting in a split position (a variation known as a split squat), and then moving the hips down and forward. Shifting forward is key because just dropping the hips down reduces the range of motion of the exercise.
One type of lunge I especially like is called the Bulgarian lunge, which was promoted by Bulgarian weightlifting coach Angel Spassov. It is performed with the rear foot elevated on a platform about 10-15cm (4-6 inches) high. Because it places more weight on the front leg, this variation increases the stress on the quadriceps of the front leg.
Another unilateral leg exercise I occasionally have my athletes perform is the step-up. The most popular variation involves placing one foot on a box, and then stepping upward with the opposite foot. Using a lower box puts more emphasis on the quads; using a higher box puts more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. To focus more stress on the front leg, lift the toes of the back leg, as this inhibits your ability to push off with that leg. A relatively high amount of weight can be used with this exercise when you perform it with a barbell, so it’s best to perform it inside a power rack.
One key to performing unilateral exercises is to perform an equal amount of reps and sets for both legs. Also, start a set with the weaker leg so as to put more intensity into the lift.
For most athletes squats are the king of exercises, but for fighters, better lifts by far are lunges, split squats, and step-ups.
As a strength coach for boxing, Moritz Klatten has trained three Olympic champions, four amateur world champions, and five professional world champions, including Yuriorikis Gamboa, Juan Carlos Gómezs, Herbie Hide, and Jack Culcay. Among the boxing coaches he has worked with are Ismael Salas, Orlando Cuellar, Fritz Sdunek, Michael Timm, Freddie Roach, Joey Gamache and Jimmy Montoya. Coach Klatten is also an accomplished strength coach for football and has attracted an international clientele that includes Zlatko Junuzović, Werder Bremen; Tolgay Arslan, Beşiktaş; and Piotr Trochowski, Augsburg. Coach Klatten works primarily out of Champ Performance, his own gym in Hamburg, Germany, where he offers strength coaching internships and operates a satellite training service to work with athletes worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org