Hardcore Fitness For Grapplers: An Interview With Stephen Maxwell!

Stephen Maxwell has been a competitive athlete for over twenty-five years and is the first American to earn a black belt from Relson Gracie. I had a chance to talk to Steve recently and discuss his views on training, grappling, and nutrition.

Stephen Maxwell has been a competitive athlete for over twenty-five years and is the first American to earn a black belt from Relson Gracie. He is a two-time world and Pan American Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion. Steve is an incredible strength and conditioning coach and in addition to running his gym in Philadelphia called Maxercise, Steve works with several professional athletes including the Philadelphia Eagles. Steve recently produced a kettlebell training video for grapplers that is receiving extremely positive feedback. I had a chance to talk to Steve recently and discuss his views on training, grappling, and nutrition.

The Interview

MIKE MAHLER: Hi Steve, how is it going today?

STEPHEN MAXWELL: Great, keeping busy as usual.

MM: I hear that and thanks for taking the time from your busy schedule to do the interview.

SM: You're welcome and glad to do it.

MM: What is more important for a grappler: strength training with weights or exercises that really work on muscular endurance?

SM: Well, it is hard to separate strength from endurance because endurance is a form of strength. I do think that it is critical for a grappler to be able to work with a high percentage of his or strength for a prolonged period of time. Thus, I would say that strength endurance would be the most important factor.

MM: What exercises would you recommend to increase muscular endurance?

SM: Just about any exercise that involves whole body movements is useful.

MM: Can you give me some examples?

SM:: A pushup is a whole body exercise and a bench press is an isolation exercise. A chinup is a whole body exercise compared to a lat pulldown. Thus, I prefer using exercises that involve your bodyweight due to all of the stabilizing muscles that are involved. Moreover, you have to use all of your core muscles to stabilize your trunk and that is critical for grapplers.

MM: You don't think that exercises such as hammer strength machines and
bicep curls are useful?

SM: Well as Pavel Tsatsouline once said, "One of the worst things that ever happened to athletic training and strength training is bodybuilding." Weight machines have a place in a bodybuilding routine or for anyone that wants to put on some size and does not really care about functional strength. Plenty of bodybuilders have had success with machines. However, it is not a good way to go for combat athletes. A combat athlete has to determine what energy systems to use. What are the muscular moves that are used in the sport, and how to supplement grappling to enhance your abilities. In grappling, you use so many different kinds of strength such as static strength, power speed, strength endurance all at the same time. I have put together routines that address all of these important forms of strength and conditioning.

MM: Do you do anything specifically that works on static strength?

SM: I do using one's bodyweight.

MM: Would holding the wrestler's bridge for time be an example?

SM: Yes, also some other examples are holding the jack knife position for time, balancing yourself on your elbows and toes for time, holding yourself at the top of the pull-up bar for time, standing on one leg and bending over and touching the floor for time.

MM: Interesting

SM: To make things harder for my victims I have them skip rope in between sets of static exercises. In grappling you are rarely ever holding a fresh position. You are often in a breathless state and need to know how to function under stress and fatigue. It is important that people know how to breathe properly in static positions and under stress.

MM: In an interview that I did with Frank Shamrock, he indicated that he is a breathing fanatic and that nothing happens properly without proper breathing.

SM: I agree and breathing is the secret to grappling endurance. My first teacher in jiu-jitsu was UFC champion Royce Gracie. Royce worked with me a great deal on breathing. He was adamant on breathing and how to control the breath and rob your opponent of his breath. They taught me how to make my opponents tired, which is very important in elite competition. That is how smaller guys often beat bigger buys; by wearing them out.

MM: One thing that Ori Hofmekler and I discussed in a recent conversation is the concept of being mentally tough. Ori has a training system called "controlled fatigue training" in which you do some intense cardiovascular exercise such as sprinting for 15-20 minutes before hitting the weights. Of course this makes the weight training much harder and you have to be tough to make it through a routine that would normally be much easier when you are fresh. Does this kind of training have a place in grappling?

SM: I agree 100% with Ori. I naturally gravitated to that style of training years ago when I discovered that fresh strength is of little use. It is one thing to be able to bench press 250lbs when you are fresh. However, how much can you bench press when your heart rate is 180 beats per minute? That is exactly what happens to you in a competition. Now you have to have functional strength under the duress of an elevated heart rate.

MM: What are some good ways to train for mental toughness?

SM: I like jumping rope or doing jumping jacks between sets of calisthenics. It is a brutal way to train. It takes your metabolism through the roof and gives you what Arthur Jones used to call metabolic conditioning. It is not really strength or cardio, but a combination where your metabolism is being taxed to the max. It is very tough.

MM: Seems like a practical way to acquire functional strength as you are probably not going to have "fresh strength" in most situations in life.

SM: Sure and I will give you an example. When I am fresh, I can do 21 pull-ups. However, when I do pull-ups after grappling and skipping rope, I will be lucky if I get ten pull-ups. Fatigue can really cut your strength in half. Nevertheless, it is important to be able to handle that loss of strength mentally. This is exactly how one should train for grappling as that is what happens on the mat or in a fight.

MM: Reminds me of what Vince Lombardi stated, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all."

SM: It really does. That is where technique comes into play. Guys that are well conditioned with awesome technique will be able to persevere and shine when the fatigue kicks in.

MM: It is amazing how one adapts to this kind of training and I remember how I used to do some heavy bag work after doing hundreds of squats and pushups. At first, it was extremely difficult. However, eventually I adapted and my conditioning went through the roof.

SM: Didn't you find that your technique on the heavy bag improved? Didn't you find that you were forced to hit the bag just right?

MM: I did and I am glad that you brought that up. When you are fatigued, you have to focus on proper technique as that is all you have left.

SM: One thing that Helio Gracie, the inventor of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, told me is the hardest people to teach grappling to are the really strong guys and really smart guys. The strong guys do not want to learn the technique and want to use brute force in everything. They never want to learn clean technique. The really smart guys tend to analyze things too much and question things before learning them.

MM: They intellectualize it too much?

SM: Yes! I overcame a lot of the strong guys by making them really tired. They were forced to do the techniques properly. Normally when you teach people, you want them to be as fresh as possible. However, with some of the really strong guys, it can be much better to get them really fatigued. Your strength is gone and the technique is the only weapon left.

MM: I find that happens a lot with my kettlebell clients and even with myself when I first started. I did everything with brute strength instead of technique at first. I could not believe what a difference it made when I mastered the proper exercise techniques.

SM: I had a guy this morning that was like that and was ridiculously strong and had a hard time getting the techniques down. He had to get really fatigued for the techniques to kick in.

MM: Really amazing how that works!

SM: Another great exercise for developing mental toughness is high repetition Hindu pushups without putting your knees down when you fatigue. It takes a great deal of mental toughness just to be able to hold that position. Didn't you find it incredibly aerobic when you were doing hundreds of repetitions?

MM: Oh ya, it is really amazing. I used to do 500 Hindu pushups a day in one set and at one point got up to 800.

SM: Unbelievable!

MM: It is an amazing cardio workout.

SM: There is a famous actor, wrestler and former NFL player named Wood Stroad that was really big into bodyweight calisthenics. I believe he was the fist African-American NFL player and was in the movie "Spartacus" as well. This guy had an amazing physique and his daily routine consisted of 1,000 pushups, 1,000 squats, and 1,000 sit ups every day!

MM: A lot of military guys are really into that kind of training as well. For example, I did an interview with former Navy Seal Richard Machowicz and he stated that he is a big fan of high rep bodyweight calisthenics. He feels that it is important for body awareness and wants to be very efficient with his own bodyweight.

SM: Another great exercise for muscular endurance is wood chopping or simply taking a sledge hammer and pounding some tires for high repetitions.

MM: Sounds like a good way to blow off some steam.

SM: Right, nothing like hitting something hard to get it all out!

MM: What are some of the most common mistakes that a lot of trainers make regarding their workout regimens?

SM: Well, there is a fine line between doing too much and too little. A lot of guys just do not push themselves hard enough to get much in the way of results. On the other hand, the other camp of guys push themselves so hard that they are always in a chronic state of fatigue. It is difficult to know where the fine line is. I find it difficult myself and I think that as a combat athlete you are always walking that fine line between training hard and overtraining. It changes every day and is difficult to monitor. There are so many external factors such as lack of sleep, a fight with your significant other, sudden changes in weather, etc. You really have to experiment and get to know your body really well. It is always a self-monitoring process. People do not monitor themselves enough. Of course, I guess if it were that easy, guys like me and you would not have jobs. That is what I do at my gym Maxercise and make my living doing personal training and teaching jiu-jitsu.

MM: I think that it is important for people to become instinctive and in tune with their minds and bodies so they know when to step it up or back off from training. It is really something that takes a while to become proficient at.

SM: Another problem that many people make is not getting enough rest. We are a sleepless society and many people are trying to get by on six hours of sleep or less. If you want to be the best that you can be, you need to get quality sleep and make time for relaxation.

MM: It is amazing what a difference it makes when you get quality sleep on a regular basis.

SM: It really is. Another mistake that people make is poor nutrition programs. That said, let me state that I think that proper training is primary and that nutrition is secondary. If you train properly and regularly, you can probably get by on just about any god-awful diet out there. I know, because I have done it. I was fit and strong before getting into the high protein and fat camp. Nevertheless, I think that a high protein and high fat diet has worked very well for me. What it really comes down to Mike is what can you live with? What are you going to be able to do for a lifetime? If you cannot do it long-term, don't even bother doing it in the short run. For example, if you try a low carb diet and cannot maintain it because you crave carbs, then it is a losing proposition from day one and should be avoided.

MM: I agree and I get a lot of people asking me diet questions and I tell them that they need to develop a diet that is part of their lifestyle that they can follow indefinitely. For example, in my case I realized that the "Warrior Diet" was the best way for me to go. I never enjoyed eating 6-7 small meals a day and hated having to think about food all the time.

SM: I found that frequent feedings made me a slave to food. The one major feeding such as the Warrior Diet professes it pretty much what I follow and has worked well for me.

MM: You basically have one big meal per day that is primarily protein and fat?

SM: Pretty much. Maybe 20% of my diet is carbs. However, I do not count carbs or calories and just eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full.

MM: You do not find yourself hungry during the day?

SM: No, I am only hungry when I am bored and not staying active. I really like the freedom of the "Warrior Diet" and think that Ori is correct from a historical perspective. For example, warriors did not stop in battle to have a snack or prepare major meals all day. I think that our bodies are geared toward large feedings and it feels natural to me.

MM: Do you eat fruits and veggies?

SM: I pretty much have cut fruits and veggies out of my diet and after talking to my friend Dr. Greg Ellis think that I am on the right track. Dr. Ellis states that one cannot digest raw fruits and veggies efficiently anyway and what we get from them is so limited. I think that the human digestive tract is very similar to that of a dog's and is one of the reason why humans get along so well with dogs. Like humans, dogs do best on a meat and fat diet. When I used to eat salads and veggies, I would get irritable bowel and loose bowel movements and I do not have any problems like that anymore.

MM: You do not have any problems with the lack of fiber?

SM: I asked Dr. Ellis about that to and he said that whole fiber thing started as a result of white flour. When you eat a lot of white flour, you better get some fiber in as well to act as a colon brush. The meat goes through my system real well. Whatever you do, I think that it is important to be consistent. For me beef, chicken, eggs, cheese, and cottage cheese gives me an incredible amount of energy and makes me feel great. I cannot touch any overly processed protein bars and feel terrible when I do. Nevertheless, I do fine with meal replacement powders such as Myoplex.

MM: Do you take any nutritional supplements besides the protein powders?

SM: Yes, I take Dr. Ellis' Vitamin and antioxidant formula, his mineral formula, and an energy product that he has called x-cellr8.

MM: What does the X-cellr8 contain?

SM: It has magnesium and potassium chelate. It really gives me a pronounced increase in muscular endurance. It is subtle and is not like a stimulant like caffeine. What I noticed over 2-3 weeks was a gradual increase in muscular endurance. I really notice how well it works when I stop taking it for a few days. When I do that, I feel much more tired and realize how effective it can be.

MM: I definitely think that minerals are important.

SM: Right, Dr, Ellis basically told me that if you take anything, you should take the minerals. You cannot expect to get everything from food these days.

MM: Good point. Are you working on any new projects these days?

SM:: As a matter of fact I am. Rob Lawrence, a certified kettlebell instructor in Philadelphia, and I are writing up a new workout series. I am really into writing workouts and like to mix and match different regimens. A lot of people crave creative input and want some workouts. We are coming up with a series that you can buy in packets. They will come in three ring notebook type of deal and will come in a series that you can purchase all together or individually. It is going to be really easy to follow and cover kettlebell regimens, bodyweight only regimens, and combinations of both.

MM: Sounds great and I am sure that people will really benefit from those. Tell me a little bit about the kettlebell video that you came out with recently.

SM: Pavel approached me and stated that I need to videotape all of the drills that I do and I was like man no one is going to be interested. Nevertheless, he kept the pressure on and would not let me off the hook. Finally under duress, I decided to do it on a low budget and got it out there.

MM: Well it is a great video for grapplers and anyone that is interested in hardcore fitness.

SM: Thanks, I was really worried that people would hate it and post their negative feedback all over the Dragondoor message board.

MM: I know how that can be stressful. Give me some examples of strength coaches and conditioning experts that have influenced you?

SM: I have a lot of really great teachers over the years. I have been heavily influenced by Bradley Steiner, Ken Leistner, Bob Hoffman. I really liked Ken's no nonsense approach: Simple, brutal, and direct. Also, I was influenced by Arthur Jones and Ken Hutchins. Even though what they had to say is not the best way to go for grapplers. Of course, Matt Furey's stuff had a profound effect on me. Matt showed me the accessibility of high rep bodyweight exercises. He made that training accessible to regular people and showed you how to start. Finally, Rickson Gracie. Rickson started doing bodyweight exercises years before anyone else started doing it. As a matter of fact, I learned a lot from all of the Gracies.

MM: Steve it has been a real pleasure talking to you and thanks for doing the interview.

SM: My pleasure Mike and please contact me if you need anything else.

For more information on Steve Maxwell, visit Steve's site at maxercise.com