When I was training BJJ, Muay Thai, and also boxing competitively, I never felt like there was time for cross-training. I was already at the gym six days a week. How could I possibly fit another workout into my day?
My time as a competitive jiujiteira, Muay Thai fighter, and boxer ended with injury, which happens to a lot of us. I tore the muscle that connected my hamstring to my glute, but I didn’t know that when it happened, so I continued to train until I couldn’t walk anymore. I ended up with piriformis sciatica that left the outside of my right leg numb for six months. When I started physical therapy for the injury, the athletic trainer told me that he wasn’t surprised I’d ended up with this injury. He said my hips were hypermobile, and that I didn’t have the musculature to support that mobility. Basically, my glutes, core, and back weren’t strong enough to support all the face-kicking and contorting I was doing in Muay Thai and BJJ. Therefore my hips compensated until they couldn’t anymore. That was the first time I ever regretted not doing any strength training.
After that injury, I needed to take a long break from martial arts for my mental health. I went to a few classes here and there, but I didn’t really come back until about six months before the pandemic. I was a new mom and training twice a week was literally the only movement I could fit in, other than walking or hiking with a kiddo on my back or teaching yoga. So, cross-training was out of the question.
After the pandemic and quarantine, my relationship to exercise started to go haywire. I went through periods of compulsively working out and periods of shunning movement altogether. I began to get anxious and obsessive with how much I was working out. My mental health was suffering..
When I brought this up with my therapist, who’s been seeing me since I went into treatment for eating disorders, he suggested that I work with a health coach. I bristled at the suggestion. I have to admit that I’ve never had a very good feeling about health coaches. The ones that I’ve interacted with in the past have all been focused on weight loss and dieting advice and a “no pain, no gain” mentality. I know those things don’t work for me. So, I was reluctant.
Then I remembered that there was a personal trainer at my gym who’d always seemed different than the others I’d encountered. She didn’t do weight loss programs with her clients. She focused on strength and stability gains rather than weight or measurement. She seemed encouraging, but not a “grind” person. So, I reached out to her.
Within a week, I knew that I would workout with her forever. Putting a professional in charge of my workout schedule removed all the anxiety from exercising. Knowing exactly what exercises to do and how to do them, thanks to the videos in the app we used, took all the guessing and trepidation out of strength training. She moved at my pace and let me set my goals.
One of those goals was to have the cardio, stamina, and strength to return to martial arts after the pandemic. She kept that goal in mind as she designed my programs. We worked a lot on core and glute strength. She taught me how to power my movements from those muscles instead of the secondary muscles that had been compensating for my muscular weakness. I felt stronger and more capable within a few weeks. A few months later, I could see and feel tangible gains that had nothing to do with my body’s shape or size. I could hold a plank for longer. I could do more squats in a minute. I could hike further without getting winded.
As we continued to work together, we added new kinds of exercise and focused on my weak spots. When we added running to my program, we also added ankle mobility and strengthening because I have weak ankles. She also added specific stretches to each running workout to ensure I actually stretched before and after each run.
At the beginning of June, I returned to Muay Thai classes. No BJJ yet, but hopefully soon. Again, the training that I’d been doing was immediately evident. My muscles didn’t fatigue as easily during drills. My cardio wasn’t a disaster. My punches and kicks felt strong and powerful. I felt great instead of exhausted after class.
Though it’s hard to fit in all the workouts I want to do in a week (on top of teaching yoga!) cross-training is no longer optional for me. The benefits are too great to be ignored or pushed aside in favor of more “fun” workouts. Right now, I’m strength training twice a week, teaching yoga three times a week, and training Muay Thai twice a week. All my strength training is focused on building the muscles and improving the functional movements I need to do martial arts well and safely. I feel better doing Muay Thai than I ever did when I was training competitively.
I wouldn’t be able to manage this without the guidance of a professional. For me, having someone else in charge is what works. So, I follow directions and I get stronger and more proficient every day.
Robin Zabiegalksi i is a writer and editor from Vermont. Her work has been published in several digital media publications and literary magazines. She’s been training BJJ for several years and she is a 2 stripe blue belt, currently training at Combat Fitness MMA in Winooski Vermont. When she’s not writing or training, she can be found playing with her toddler, hiking or snowboarding depending on the season, or bingeing her latest TV obsession.