A Conditioning Lesson From A Birthing Book

My second child is almost 6 months old now. Earlier this week, I finally put away some of the birthing books that my wife and I read during her pregnancy. As mentioned in a past entry, she endured more than 24 hours of natural labor! It didn’t happen by accident however. Yes, she’s obviously a tough woman, but we had also read everything we could about natural deliveries.

Anyway, six months after the delivery, I almost forgot a section that I had highlighted in one of the books. I’m glad I marked it with a sticky note, as it is actually applicable to the training of athletes. It comes from The Bradley Method of Natural Childbirth.

Dr. Bradley, M.D., suggests the following:

“To perform any physical feat with grace and dexterity, the human being must practice and practice to achieve relaxation of uninvolved muscles. Such simple acts as running, jumping, even walking, are instinctively performed gracefully and automatically by nonhuman animals.”

He continues to say:

“Grace in physical action is a result of ability to keep the uninvolved muscles relaxed, and economy of muscular action. This does not mean we human beings cannot achieve physical feats similar to those of animals. It means, rather, that we must recognize the human need for practice and physical conditioning of our muscles in the apparent absence of human instinct.”

There are many strength and conditioning coaches who could learn from this birthing book. I continually see those in the S&C field who focus more on fitness challenges than they do on actually improving the athlete for his sport. They seem to forget that athletes compete in specific sports, hence must prepare specifically for such events. This isn’t to suggest that general preparation is not important, but rather that one must prioritize the needs of the unique individual.

Conditioning involves much more than running, calisthenics, and fitness exercises or routines. I’ve seen so many fighters over the years who can run all day, yet run out of gas after a few rounds of sparring. From a physical fitness standpoint, they are in excellent shape, but from a combat sporting standpoint, they are in terrible condition. This phenomenon often hinders novice fighters. They train feverishly in the gym, yet cannot figure out why they fatigue so quickly inside the ring.

These athletes are often too tense. They are unable to relax and operate freely. Instead, they become tense whenever their opponent moves, feints, punches, etc. They cannot operate under those circumstances mentioned in Bradley’s text (i.e. achieve relaxation of uninvolved muscles).

No amount of running, burpees, or kettlebell swings will teach a fighter to relax inside the ring. The only way to become comfortable inside the ring is by stepping inside and building your experience one round at a time. Experience doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Experience means sparring with more skilled fighters, competing in competitions, etc.

What Does This Have To Do With the S&C Coach?

An S&C coach cannot give his fighter experience. What he can do however (unintentionally) is interfere with his fighter’s development of skill and experience. S&C work is a supplement, not a replacement. The supplemental work that takes place outside of the ring must jive with the skill needs of the fighter.

For example, if a conditioning workout destroys the fighter so he is unable to spar the next day, it hasn’t improved the athlete. It has interfered with more pertinent matters. This is particularly true for novice fighters. These fighters will have enough trouble adapting to the physical demands of the actual sport. It isn’t natural to receive punches to the body and face, which is why it is natural to tense up when placed in such an environment. The only way to remain calm under fire is through experience, which is why a novice fighter must focus his efforts towards the actual sport. Remember, the sport itself is strenuous. Over the years, I’ve seen many so-called fitness studs collapse after a few rounds of intense bag or pad work.

A fighter must be fresh and prepared to endure such a physically challenging sport. Novice fighters need more time in the ring, on the mitts, on the bags, etc. They must tackle a significant learning curve as they learn to perform without tension. This doesn’t happen on the track or pull-up bar. It happens inside the ring.

This isn’t to say that supplemental work cannot and should not follow ring work, as it remains important, but such workouts must be designed with sporting performance as the primary concern. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the athlete’s development. A coach is there to improve the athlete, not brag about how his workouts were too difficult to perform. Anyone can create a challenging workout, but not everyone can create workouts that aid in the development and performance of the unique individual.


  1. That’s good to hear Dadi.

    One the things I always say is that the best gym in the world is not the one with the best equipment, but rather the best sparring partners.

    The best work we perform takes place on the mitts, bags, and of course inside the ring. Everything else is secondary.


  2. Dr Bradleys suggestion and your words are an essential part of training.

    The athlete must be able to relax, no matter what the endeavour. Relaxation allows the athlete to respond to the task as required.

    I have found that it is a very difficult component for some athletes to master

  3. Interesting post! I study a Chinese martial art called I-Liq Chuan, and my teacher has told us something very similar. Being able to relax is essential for moving freely and generating power (both of which become a lot less effective when the body is unnecessarily tense). An important part of developing fighting skill is learning to recognize when you can relax and breathe in the moments between force exertions. If there is no recognition of where those moments are to relax and breathe, you’ll gas out a lot faster.

  4. I want to say that Ross is right on about novices and taking punches and getting more comfortable. I have done bag work for quite a while. Then the Tae Kwon Do instructor at the Y asked if I would like to spar once a week. I have no formal training and felt like a fish out of water in these sparring sessions. Flinching too much, closing my eyes, etc. However, over time, I have become much more comfortable and fluid although my success in these sessions is very limited. Just very interesting, though, to feel the metamorphisis that has occurred through experience and the ever so fun trial and error. Getting punched and kicked hurts and these sessions leave me sore and spent even the day after. What respect I have for these combat athletes.

  5. You’re right on with this, Ross – You have to keep the client in mind first when making routines – After all, they’re paying your to actually HELP them get to their goals – Not for you to feed your ego as a trainer –

  6. This is a constant in every endeavor. I wholeheartly agree and it applies in my own, non-physical business, as well. People are making things so complicated that they are forgetting the very rudiments that are essential for building a solid foundation. Well done!

  7. Interesting that you’ve read Dr. Bradley! My wife is a certified Bradley Teacher.

    We had all 3 of our girls at home and my wife used no drugs. All of her labors lasted under 30 mins!


  8. That’s a great quote. It’s amazing how sheer determination and willingness to try and try again is ultimately the best way to improve (in any endeavor).

    I know I personally had to work through a lot of tension and fatigue throughout my martial arts training, and relaxation is something I always harp on.

    Very nice post.

  9. Interesting to read your post after I just finished an article in “Training and Conditioning” by Tim Wakeham on training Rashad Evans to fight Chuck Liddell. In the article he remarks that innexperienced combat athletes spend to much time in the gym lifting to get big and experienced fighters spend most of their time working on fighting.

    Skill work should always make up the majority of a combat athletes conditioning – train for the the sport. Supplemental work (if you have the energy left) should take the form of GPP. It all depends on goals – if your goal is to fight, spend the majority of your time training fighting skills (matt, mitts, heavy bag, glove drills, sparring etc).

    I train fight skills first (sometimes only, since trainees may be spent). At the end of training I sometimes add a “Finisher”.

    To many fighters focus on roadwork, lifting etc. when the majority of their time needs to be spent on practicing the basics. I take a page from Miyamoto Musashi’s book, I don’t have a quote but, he wrote that a great swordsman focused tiredlessly on a few basic and effective techniques and didn’t spend time on flowerly techniques.

    This isn’t to say that GPP is not worthwhile only that it should be done in addition or as a supplement to training for your sport.

    Be clear what your goals are, is it general conditioning, lifting heavy, getting big, fighting, etc. and then put your focus their for training. Everyone is different: goals, weaknessnes, challenges to overcome and as a result everyones training is different.

  10. Ross,

    This is, by far, my favorite post of yours yet. Having been a martial artist for years and studied under many (very competent) teachers, I’ve seen this lesson violated time and time again. Of course, the instructors are innocently ignorant of motor learning principles and are merely doing what their instructors did with them “to toughen them up.”

    Better conditioning can make a better athlete, to be sure. But nothing beats actually playing your sport.

  11. Hey Ross,

    As unrelated as a game may sound to human athletic conditioning, what that quote also holds true to is in the MMO Sandbox Second Life- interestingly enough, keeping joints that are not involved in a particular animation ALSO allows the animation to appear more natural in game! To know this principle is rooted in real life is a realization I felt that I needed to share.

  12. Thanks for reposting this link on facebook. As a new personal trainer, these kinds of bits of info will help me improve greatly. I’m applying this right away, so thanks a ton.

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