As a teenager, I used to take four hour drives down south to Ashland to see Southern Oregon University’s annual Shakespearean festival. It was a town for dreamers, with its winding cobblestone streets lined with artisan craft shops and cozy bed and breakfast guest homes. The outdoor friendly weather and the region never making the national news made it a haven for individualists seeking their own path, away from the expectations of the mainstream culture. The people I met down there were jazz musicians, white water rafting guides, thespians and artisans and all of them were inspired by the heroic, tragic and often violent world of The Bard’s famous story tales.
Amanda Bell first made her mark in competitive, mixed martial arts just north of the college in the more industrial town of Medford. It had taken her three rounds to finish off her initial, amateur fighting opponent. This time she blew through a 195 pound Kathy Jones in just 23 seconds, using the traditional martial arts strikes she’d learned while studying Shotokan Karate, Hung Gar and Tai Chi Chuan. Building off of this fast and decisive victory, Bell increased her focus and her frame showed the fruits of her efforts as she quickly dropped four or five weight classes and forty plus pounds of unneeded body mass.
The Lady Killer began taking bouts in Oregon’s two largest cities and she racked up three more finishes, adding merit to the “Ring your bell” catch phrase that was attached to her style. When she technically knocked out future UFC fighter, Jessamyn “The Gun” Duke, it was time for her to turn pro. As any trainer worth their merit knows, once there’s money involved and cash to be earned, the level of competition immediately rises and to a degree equal to the height of the gold on the table. Bell’s initial outing put her on the roster with the burgeoning, all women’s pro mma show, InvictaFC. Losing that bout by decision, Bell took another challenging match-up by leaving the country to face off against Canada’s top prospect, Charmaine Tweet. “Not so sweet” Tweet would later go on to fight for The Invicta title at 155 and she dispatched Bell with a rear naked choke in the first round. Attempting to earn a living fighting other women in a cage, and then having the first two professionals you encounter defeat you, would make most people question whether or not they were stepping into a career in which they could endure. This was not the case with the tenacious Ms. Bell and so she took her skills on the road and she began to rebuild, scoring finishes in Colorado and California before getting another call from Invicta where she created a referee stoppage with strikes in Iowa. Amanda TKO’ing Denmark’s Djursaa inspired Invicta to keep her on for two more outings, but those match ups saw her finished with a choke and then physically overpowered by six foot tall, future league champion, Megan Anderson of Australia.
A pro record of 3-4 takes you off the national radar and so Bell put her focus on improving her skills while she waited for a touring promotion to come to the NW and to give her the opportunity to start another run. That call came early this year when The King Of The Cage set up shop out on the Oregon coast for their “Heavy trauma” card in Lincoln City. Bell seized upon this opportunity and she out worked Gabby Holloway for a three round decision. A talent scout for the high profile Bellator MMA was paying attention and this victory got her signed to have a shot in the cable TV big leagues. The Lady Killer was back on track with a W, but it takes finishes to make headlines in MMA and finishes in a top league are often a result of the winner having superior speed, power & conditioning. So, with the ink still drying on her Bellator contract, Bell enlisted the aide of Industrial Strength Gym’s Coach Tony Gracia.
Located on the outskirts of Portland’s northwest quadrant, where the boutiques and wine bars end and the freight yards and craft breweries begin, Industrial Strength Gym has been building a name for itself as one of the premier places to build a body that’s built to fight. Its trainers have earned both kinds of accolades a fighter should be looking for in a strength & conditioning coach and that’s the combination of being a winning, competitive martial artist and a university educated athletics instructor. Head Coach Gracia is a competing black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and he holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology in addition to his being a Team Leader for the StrongFirst organization. Bell was introduced to Tony by his women’s team BJJ coach, black belt Hillary Van Ornum and she moved the strength and conditioning portion of her program over to their gym, full time, immediately following her decision win in KOTC. The four months of intensive training with The Industrial Strength crew paid off and her first time in front of a worldwide television audience on SPIKE had her showing her stamina with a forceful finish at the end of the second round. This was her first, professional knockout that occurred after the first round and it showed that her hitting power was now lasting beyond the flurries that come in the first round.
^^^ Coach Tony Gracia Of Industrial Strength Gym ^^^
I have had the great experience of knowing the owners of Industrial Strength Gym since before we laid down the first gym mat on the floor of the 6,000 square foot warehouse. Knowing that the owners always went with the “Highest quality available” for all of their purchasing and hiring choices, I leapt at the chance to study the stand-up fighting game when they began offering kickboxing almost three years ago. Over the course of the two hundred some classes I’ve taken, I’ve had an up close view of how they train their grapplers and mixed martial artists to not only know how to fight, but to be able to use those skills in an extended struggle that may last for up to fifteen, extremely intense minutes of sanctioned, one-on-one combat. Amanda Bell’s putting in a 12 week, “Strength & conditioning” training camp with Gracia & Co. and that camp helping to produce a TKO victory on one of the sport’s biggest stages, prompted me to rush over to Tony’s office to see what light he was willing to shed on the methods they’ve been having The Lady Killer follow inside their fighter factory.
( Amanda works on her martial arts at Animals MMA Fitness & Nutrition www.AnimalsMMAOregon.com )
Coach Tony Gracia: The first thing we do with any new trainee at Industrial Strength is a baseline movement assessment. Our training in this area comes primarily from the Functional Movement Screen, pioneered by Grey Cook. In short, this assessment is looking for any potential problems while hoping not to find one. We want to screen for any restrictions or limitations that could turn into a problem under stress (heavy weights, high fatigue, fast & explosive movements, etc.). The last thing we’d ever want is for someone to come to us for help getting stronger and more fit, only to wind up with an injury in a preventable situation in the weight room … i.e. trying something they’re not ready for yet.
Like most coaching staffs, we have our favorite lifts that we tend to program on a regular basis – but we also recognise and respect that not everybody is ready for every exercise. We use this initial screen to help us determine if the lifter is qualified for all the exercises we generally like to program, and if not, which ones we should modify or hold off on until they have improved their movement baseline. We feel strongly that investing time from the beginning in this initial assessment helps us guide a person in the right direction. The good news is that Amanda moved well according to the scoring criteria, so she was cleared by our staff to participate in all of the main lifts we program.
Based on Amanda’s goals and needs we suggested she participate in a mix of our barbell and kettlebell training programs. Despite her substantial experience as a martial artist, we considered her to be a novice in the weight room, so we focused on establishing a solid foundation on major compound movements. When she first started lifting she needed some coaching on a lot of the same areas we see in most novice lifters, most specifically how to really lock in and maintain a strong core position – i.e. a neutral spine and approximately parallel orientation of her pelvis and rib cage. As one example, when we first had her squat she did the all-too-common butt-out start and butt-wink bottom position. One of Amanda’s best attributes is that she is one of the most coachable athletes I’ve ever worked with – she absolutely wants to do things the right way, and she brings no ego to the table. Due to her fantastic attitude, she was able to nail down solid form on her lifts in a pretty short amount of time, which I think really was key to her progress.
At Industrial Strength we don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel, so we base our programs on time-tested strategies that we know produce results. For example, our barbell program is centered around the “big four” barbell lifts of military press, bench press, squat, and deadlift. Additionally, we include specialized variety exercises such as (but not limited to) push press, floor press, front squat, and Zercher squat. On the kettlebell side, we again focus on the foundational exercises of the swing, clean, snatch, get up, military press, and front squat. Of course, in addition the foundational exercises listed above, we mix in a few other favorites such as pull ups/chin ups, row variations, single leg strength work, and everyone’s favorites: Prowler sprints.
(Tony Gracia continued) As far as the actual barbell programming went, we did not want to treat Amanda like a powerlifter since that is obviously not her sport. We wanted her to be strong and fit, but her sport is in the cage, not on the platform. With that in mind, rather than using something like a 13-week linear cycle (quite common in powerlifting), we thought it prudent to use a more flexible approach to meet her where she was at on any given day. In a sport like MMA your body already takes quite a beating just from your skills training and sparring, and our job as coaches is to BUILD her strength and conditioning reserves, not to drain them. So, for her barbell lifts what we did (after establishing proper technique) is to figure out what weights are challenging for her for sets of 5 repetitions, and focus mostly in that range. So many time-tested strength programs are built on a foundation of 5’s, so we try to honor that here. Volume and intensity were fluctuated independently of one another and cycled on both weekly and monthly bases. As part of that fluctuation, some days we drop the reps and increase the weight a little, and other days we go a bit lighter and climb the reps a bit, but the sets of 5 are the core of our barbell program. We find this rep range is perfect for combat athletes because it allows them to build significant strength via neurological mechanisms while also getting a bit of hypertrophy, but not increase their muscle mass by so much that it makes it hard for them to make their desired weight class. One other major consideration is that lower repetitions combined with only moderate volume allows one to never get too sore – this is a critical aspect for someone like Amanda who has so much sparring and skill training to do.
While barbell training can be an important part of a fighter’s training program, I also respect that they have many other needs to meet, and the barbell is not the right tool for all those jobs. For our coaching staff, our “Secret sauce” to fill these gaps is the kettlebell. The kettlebell offers almost too many benefits to name, but a handful of them include more explosive hips, a brutally strong grip, stronger and more resilient shoulders, a rock solid core, more “3-dimensional strength” than a barbell can offer, and a special type of endurance that based on our experience is absolutely perfect for combat athletes. One common criticism of combat athletes who strength train is that they get slow and they gas out easily – in fact, you may even hear this from various commentators. I think the training protocols our coaching staff uses with the kettlebell offer a solution to this problem. Our athletes improve their explosiveness, and more importantly they improve their ability to execute explosive bursts over and over again on short rest, all without getting slow or sloppy. Is that not exactly what a fighter wants? They need to be able to throw flurries of powerful punches, takedowns, grappling scrambles etc. over and over again for the full fight – and the kettlebell training protocols we use deliver that better than anything I know of. For someone who has issues gassing out in matches, I strongly suggest looking into working with a qualified kettlebell trainer, in particular one who is trained in the systems of StrongFirst (website is StrongFirst.com).
In summary, our general approach to training combat athletes is to utilize the barbell to help build their horsepower and to use kettlebell protocols to fine tune their strength, address combat specific needs like grip strength, and give them the gas tank needed to stay powerful and quick for the duration of their bout. We believe our job is to build the athlete’s reserves – i.e. to challenge them enough that they get stronger and more fit, but to do so in a way that enhances their skill training and sparring, rather than leaving them so fatigued that it compromises it. Athlete safety is of course a top priority, which means proper initial screening/assessment, teaching sound technique on all exercises used, prescribing intelligent and reasonable loads for both volume and intensity that the athlete can always recover from, and ensuring we terminate sets and training sessions on high notes before quality starts to degrade.
Sean Katterle: Grip strength is paramount when one’s trying to control their opponents. Do you add in grip specific work for your fighters and what exercises are you prescribing?
Coach Tony Gracia: No, we do not add specific exercises just for grip strength. We feel we develop plenty of it by deadlifting, swinging and snatching kettlebells with one hand, and doing Turkish get ups. Occasionally we do exercises like pull ups using a towel grip or a rope grip rather than a traditional bar, but we also do this for our general population crowd, so I would not call it specific to our combat athletes.
Sean Katterle: I think a person’s core is also the core of their fighting power. What are your favorite exercises for abdominal and lower back strength and how do you mix them in with the rest of your students’ training programs (especially in Amanda’s case as she’s the focus of this article)?
Coach Tony Gracia: Similar to the answer on grip strength above, we do not add in special or isolated exercises for any particular muscle group. Proper execution of barbell deadlifts, barbell squats (back, front, and Zercher), kettlebell swings, and Turkish get ups typically give all the abdominal and lower back strength a combat athlete needs, and we already do plenty of those. If someone were a competitive powerlifter then you could certainly make a strong case for targeted work to certain weak points that have been identified, however I think for a combat athlete the return on investment for that is too low to make it worthwhile.
Sean Katterle: Where can someone learn more about your coaching styles and influences?
Coach Tony Gracia: As far as our influences, I would suggest you visit StrongFirst.com – while many people consider StrongFirst to be kettlebell specialists, I would argue they are much more than that. The principles learned from them will carry over to all aspects of your training, ranging all the way from heavy barbell lifting down to recovery, restoration and joint health. Additionally, the work of Grey Cook (FunctionalMovement.com), Prof. Stuart McGill (BackFitPro.com), and Dr. Mark Cheng (DrMarkCheng.com and Prehab-Rehab 101) have been big influences on what we do.
To learn more about Portland, Oregon’s Industrial Strength Gym, please visit:
www.IndustrialStrengthGym.com (for strength training information)
www.IndustrialBJJ.com (for more information on their Jiu Jitsu program)
Amanda “The Lady Killer” Bell is currently signed with The Bellator MMA fighting organization. You can follow this league online at http://bellator.spike.com/
While working on her strength & conditioning at Gracia’s Industrial Strength, she is currently developing her boxing, catch wrestling and Jiu Jitsu game at Animals MMA Fitness & Nutrition and you can follow her on Twitter @ TheLadyKiller00 and on Facebook under the same handle.
(Sport fighting photographs of Amanda Bell are courtesy of Bellator MMA’s publicity team.)