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The Hierarchy of Physical Needs for Combat

The Hierarchy of Physical Needs for Combat 
by J. R. Workman 

For what it is worth skill is what will take you the farthest in a self-defense situation. But without the proper physical conditioning you will be limited when it comes to the damage you can inflict, how long you can last, and how much of your skill you can even usesince if you do not have the required power or strength to disable or submit your opponent or you do not have the endurance to last long enough to find an opening to end the fightthen your chances of safety or survival will be compromised. This is why conditioning your body for self-defense is so important if you want to be able to defend yourself in combat. When it comes to combat, not all physical needs were created equal. There is a hierarchy of physical needs when it comes to combat and some of them are more important and will be more useful to you than others

"But a sound and healthy body is a strong protection to a man, and at least there is no danger then of such a calamity happening to him through physical weakness..." ― Socrates, Xenophon, Memorabilia

The Order of Priority When It Comes to Training 

1. Muscular Development/Strength 

Muscular development and strength are your base because it is size and strength which lay the foundations for power and make everything else more solid

If you are not large enough to harm your combatant or you do not have the strength to be able to hold your own against an attacker and not have them run you over or over-power you; then everything else is rendered less useful. 

The aim is to acquire ample size so that you are not effortlessly pushed around and so that you back enough weight/mass to generate copious quantities of force.  

Strength-wise you should be able to compete against the majority of aggressors without being subdued. 

For self-defense purposes the largest size you can attain without losing satisfactory amounts of power, strength, speed, endurance, agility, or flexibility is ideal. Being too small to the point of missing out on supreme measures of power or strength or being too massive to the extent of dropping speed, agility, or flexibility is going too far. 

As far as strength goes, as long as there is no unnecessary bulk holding you back one can increase their strength-to-weight ratio practically limitlessly (to whatever the individual's maximum attainability is) without abandoning their power, size, speed, endurance, agility, or flexibility because one can improve their strength without increasing their bulkiness or decreasing their overall physical fitness. 

A prime Evander Holyfield could rep 360 lbs for 10 repetitions on the bench press all while his heart was pumping at over 180 beats per minute. Evander a former heavyweight champion (with two impressive victories over Mike Tyson) exhibited astounding levels of strength at his peak. It is no coincidence that one of the most well-conditioned heavyweights of all times (who contained stunning degrees of strength and lean muscle mass) is also one of the greatest. Holyfield's unbreakable strength empowered him with the ability to walk-through many of his competitors in the ring:

 ""Today he's 33 percent stronger than he was last year," says Tim Hallmark, Holyfield's physical-fitness guru. "He does 10 repetitions with 360 pounds after his pulse rate has risen to 180 or 190 beats per minute. A football player can do 360 pounds, but that is with his normal heart rate. If you get his heart rate up to 180 or 190 and tell him to do 360, he'll look at you like you're crazy. There is a tremendous strength decrease [as the heart rate increases]. He won't be able to do it."" (Lean and Mean by Pat Putnam)

Evander Holyfield used a high-calorie, healthy diet and proper weight training methods as a means to bulk up from cruiserweight so that he could successfully enter the heavyweight division without losing too much of his speed or agility. Evander is a firm proponent of weight training because it aided him in reaching his goal of becoming a heavyweight champion

"Holyfield had to build up his 190-lb. cruiserweight body with a carefully targeted weight-training program to get to 215 lbs., so he could successfully compete against men who weighed close to 240 or 250. Holyfield had to gain the extra weight without sacrificing speed, agility and flexibility. ...Former power lifting champion Frederic Hatfield, Ph.D., was brought in to supervise Holyfield's strength and conditioning work prior to his heavyweight world title fight against James "Buster" Douglas in 1990, according to With former bodybuilding world champion and eight-time "Mr. Olympia" Lee Haney monitoring his progress, Hatfield introduced a modified bodybuilding and strength program to increase Holyfield's body mass from 208 lbs. to close to 220 lbs." (Evander Holyfield and Weight Training by Ollie Odebunmi)

Greater size and strength contributed to forging Evander Holyfield into one of the most formidable heavweights of his era and it will also help you to become more indomitable in a life or death situation on the street where physical mass and strength come in hand.   

2. Endurance 

Endurance training (conventional cardio, HIIT, muscle endurance, etc.) should come next in order of priority because without it you cannot effectively utilize your power or strength since the use of both of these require at least some endurance and the more endurance you have without sacrificing any strength or power the better off you will be in a self-defense situation. 

There are different types of endurance. Aerobic endurance, anaerobic endurance, muscle endurance (also known as strength endurance), and others. 

Increasing your aerobic endurance will help you last long periods of time in a fight. It is aerobic endurance that gives you the stamina you need to go the distance. Slow and steady cardio training that lasts for several miles or over an hour in duration works wonderfully for this as does long duration interval training:

"The aim of aerobic training is to improve the working capacity of the heart and its ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles. There are 2 main ways to train this system:

1. Long duration interval running
2. Long distance (low intensity) steady state running

Brooks and Fahey (1985) found continuous training as the optimal way to improve oxygen delivery, while interval training increases oxygen utilization and lactate threshold. With interval training, there is the ability to perform large amounts of high intensity work in shorter time. This type of training can also be manipulated to alter which metabolic pathway is emphasized, longer intervals involve more aerobic pathways, shorter intervals involve more anaerobic pathways." (Endurance Conditioning for Boxing by Grant Kerr)

Anaerobic endurance training is faster and more intense than aerobic endurance and it lasts for shorter periods. HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) is an example of anaerobic endurance training. This form of training will help your quick bursts of attacks and offensive combinations last longer and make them more intense:

"Training the lactic acid system involves a special form of interval training that maximally stresses the metabolic pathway at intensities of 85-100% V02 max. It is performed with intervals of 15-40 seconds as well as intervals of 40-90 seconds. Recovery periods are long, as the lactic acid formed leads to fatigue." (Endurance Conditioning for Boxing by Grant Kerr)

Then there is strength endurance or muscle endurance. Performing high repetitions of push-ups in a row without stopping would be an example of an exercise that would require high degrees of muscle endurance. 

Muscle endurance is useful for keeping your muscles from tiring in a self-defense situation whether it is your arms getting worn out from throwing too many punches or from several minutes of grappling/wrestling around and burning out your muscles. Having adequate muscle endurance will help you:

"Strength Endurance – Strength endurance is defined as the ability to effectively maintain muscular functioning under work conditions of long duration. Strength endurance is a vital strength quality for any combat athlete. Power and speed are useless without the stamina necessary to apply these physical attributes throughout the contest." (Strength Training for Fighters by Ross Enamait)

Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton used to run 3 to 8 miles a day depending on how far he was in progress during his training camp. Muhammad Ali ran 6 miles a day in around 40 minutes while wearing army-style boots: 

"How far did you run? Anywhere from 3-8 miles, depending on my progress in training camp... I ran about 6 miles, which took about 40 minutes [I always ran in army-type boots]..." (Workouts from Boxing's Greatest Champs by Gary Todd)

Rocky Marciano was rumored to run 12-15 miles a day during the end of his training camp:

"Ben Bentley, Rocky's press agent and friend, told me Rocky would normally run at least 5-6 miles a day year round, but when a fight was signed he'd increase the distance to 9-10 miles, and usually the last week up to it 12-15 miles." (Rocky's Amazing Stamina)

Expanding one's endurance is critical for surviving the entire duration of a fight which is why countless boxers have depended on roadwork for decades. 

3. Flexibility 

ext comes flexibility training. This will help with mobility and will also enhance agility, by loosening up your muscles and increasing their range of motion. Flexibility is exceptionally important for kickingespecially head kickingand for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu since it makes leg maneuvers (both defensive and offensive) and submissions using the legs (such as triangle chokes) much easier to perform efficiently: 

"Adequate joint mobility is essential for sustainable training and high-level performance. ...It’s especially important in a sport such as BJJ because of the infinite amounts of complex body movements it contains. The more range of motion and control you have of your joints... the more defensive and attacking options you’ll have." (Mobility Training for Jiu Jitsu by Billy Edelen)

Gracie Jiu-Jitsu borrows from Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) by making use of controlled articular rotations (CARs) to enhance leg and hip mobility and flexibility: 

"In the case of the hip CARs... this neural control then gives more innervation throughout the leg, with the leg becoming more ‘arm and hand’ like. You will notice you begin to feel your feet more especially as you integrate CARs of the ankle, which is the same premise as for the hip. As a BJJ player, this gives you more tools because you become more in control of your own body and ultimately the body of your opponent, the whole premise behind the grappling arts." (Mobility Training for Jiu Jitsu by Billy Edelen)

BJ Penn a former UFC champion in two weight classes and a gold medalist winner in the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship was so flexible in his hips that he could put one of his legs behind his head unassisted from any of his hands. 

Jujimufu (real name Jon Call) a blackbelt in Taekwondo and an acrobat who can kick well-over head height/face-level is capable of doing splits between two chairs while supporting a dumbbell with 100 lbs over his head. This astonishing feat showcases astounding leg and hip flexibility as well as mobility and the amount of limberness it takes to execute it is especially aidful for supplying the nimbleness and dexterity to be able to land head-kicks or to carry out Gracie Jiu-Jitsu techniques in a self-defense situation. 

4. Speed 

Once you have developed your body to the right size necessary for protection and have plenty of strength and your flexibility is on point speed training is going to take you even further. Size and strength combined with speed create power. Therefore taking time to develop your body to a sufficient size for strength and then working on your speed will lead to you having considerably more power. Even though speed is often more necessary than flexibility due to the fact that it is our speed which helps us execute and land our techniques, flexibility training comes before it in order because the acquiring of it is so beneficial to speed performance. 

Bill "Superfoot" Wallace a former PKA Kickboxing world champion had a left leg kick that was clocked traveling over 60 mph. Wallace's blindingly rapid lead leg kicks allowed him to retire as an undefeated champion:

"One of Bill Wallace's gifts to the martial arts world was that he taught folks how to "really kick." Known to the karate world simply as "Superfoot," symbolic of his awesome left leg, which was once clocked in excess of 60 mph, Wallace left a string of battered and bruised bodies along the martial arts fighting trail." (Bill "Superfoot" Wallace) 

Bruce Lee was so fast that his films had to be slowed down for his viewers to be able to see his punches and kicks. Bruce Lee's speed is what allowed him to spar larger men such as the middleweight American Karate champion Chuck Norris: 

"Bruce was so fast that he was just a blur on the camera, so they slowed him down." (Twelve Myths About Bruce Lee by John Steven Soet)

"But Lee’s moves were too fast for the camera to pick up, and they appeared only as a blur. “At first, it was ridiculous,” Lee said, as retold by Linda in her biography of Bruce. “All you could see were people falling down in front of me. Even when I slowed down, all the camera showed was a blur.”" (Bruce Lee by Rachel A. Koestler-Grack)

"The truth is Lee was a formidable opponent with a chiseled physique and technique. I totally enjoyed sparring and just spending time with him. He was as charismatic and friendly in the ring and at home as he was on film." (Legendary Showdown between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris by Shawn Cooper)

Muhammad Ali was said to have had the fastest jab of any heavyweight or boxer in the 1960s. Having lightening quick speed made Muhammad Ali virtually unstoppable in his prime

"The Muhammad Ali of 60’s was the fastest heavyweight ever. In the May 5, 1969 Sports Illustrated, Ali’s jab was measured with an omegascope. Ali’s jab, it was found, could smash a balsa board 16.5 inches away in 19/100 of a second. It actually covered the distance in 4/100 of a second, which is the blink of an eye. Jimmy Jacobs, who owned the world’s largest collection of fight films, said that on film tests with a synchronizer Ali’s jab was faster than that of Sugar Ray Robinson. Jacobs contended that Ali was not only the fastest heavyweight, but also the fastest fighter he ever saw on film." (Muhammad Ali, the Greatest by Monte D. Cox)

Manny Pacquiao used his speed advantage to become the only eight-division world champion boxer in history—having excellent speed is a boost that anyone can benefit from in a self-defense confrontation.

5. Agility 

Now is the time to practice agility. Having mastered flexibility and speed which are the most essential foundations for agility, it becomes time to train for agility more specifically. Agility helps with stand-up defense a lot in particular because it will make it more effortless for you to evade punches and kicks when you can move around lighter on your feet and slip/dodge punches quicker. Agility also comes in handy when defending against submissions in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu because it makes you more slippery and harder to catch and pull off submissions on. 

The famous defensive genius Willie Pep is known for using his elusive agility which he had to last an entire round without getting hit. He ended up winning the round because his style was so impressive to the judges that they gave it to him on the score cards (making his opponent hit thin air at will showed the judges that he was in control of the round):

"Pep is generally regarded as one of history's greatest defensive wizards, and the most famous piece of lore connected with his ability occurred on July 25, 1946, when he boxed a 10-rounder against Jackie Graves in Minneapolis. The story goes that Pep told sportswriters to watch the third round because he was not going to throw a punch.

"I went out and bobbed and weaved and made him miss all throughout that round, and making him miss he looked so foolish," Pep recalled in Peter Heller's book "In This Corner."

"He missed a hundred punches, I guess, making him look so bad they gave me the round," Pep said. He went on to win the bout by TKO in the eighth round." (Pep Regarded as One of the Pound-For-Pound Greats by Lee Groves)

The former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman was nicknamed, "The Monster" for his explosive wrestling take downs which required an extraordinary level of agility to carry out with the success rate that he did. Randleman had a Takedown Accuracy of 56% in his MMA bouts (keep in mind that Matt Hughes had a Takedown Accuracy of 50% in his career and Randy Couture had a Takedown Accuracy of 46% in his and both of these men were known for having outstanding wrestling skills compared to other MMA competitors).  

6. Power 

After all of that is done we have power training. This is the icing on the cake, this is the final piece! It is your power which will allow you to finish your adversary and which is the most absolutely useful physical need for combat. Power is to combat conditioning, what skill is to combat in general—it is what will take you the farthest for what it is worth. 

Combined with precise timing, power beats speed! This is due to the same reason why counter punching beats combination punching in boxing—one punch landed hard and well beats many punches thrown fast and softly landed. Endurance is also important but if one lacks power having endurance alone will not provide them with the capacity to produce the necessary damage.

Rocky Marciano punched so powerfully that he could punch an opponent's arm and break their arms and pop/burst their blood vessels at the same time (as he did against Roland LaStarza):

"Rocky KO’d LaStarza in the 11th round. Afterwards, it was revealed that LaStarza had broken bones in his forearms and had hematomas in his shoulders from Marciano’s assault." (Rocky Marciano: Stop it Already That he Couldn’t Compete with the Heavyweight Champions Today by Brad Berkwitt)

"Marciano banged Roland LaStarza so hard in the arms that he broke Roland’s blood vessels." (Rocky, Archie and the Lost Magic by Mike Casey)

The knockout that Marciano imposed upon Rex Layne was so powerful that it sheered his teeth off of his gums:

"The right hand that knocked out Layne sheered his teeth off at the gums. Rocky even broke Roland LaStarza’s arms! LaStarza needed surgery to repair the chips and cracks on his elbows, and to repair his smashed blood vessels." (Rocky Marciano – The Unstoppable Force by James Sadler)

George Foreman often considered alongside Ernie Shavers as the most powerful heavyweight boxer of all times had a knockout percentage of 84% in his boxing career. A whopping 68 of his 76 wins came from knockouts. It is no accident that the hardest puncher of all times had a staggeringly high knock out percentage—his fantastic knockout power is one of the qualities most responsible for such a large number of his victories coming by way of knockout. Therefore the advantages of acquiring immense knockout power are obvious because of how far that quality has been able to take professional champions such as Foreman and Shavers in their careers (Shavers' knockout percentage was also sensationally high at 76% with 68 of his 74 triumphs being by knockout).

The Hierarchy or Order of Superiority 

1. Power

Power is superior to both strength and speed when it comes to both stand-up fighting and grappling. Most of the time powerful people are both strong and fast although if they have enough strength they can be powerful without possessing substantial amounts of speed and if they have enough speed they can be powerful without having significant levels of strength.

Assuming that a powerful person has adequate strength and speed he will have a greater advantage over a faster or a stronger guy assuming he is more powerful because being powerful is the greater advantage of these three due to its ability to inflict more damage and to end the fight quicker. 

2. Strength 

Strength also defeats speed when it comes to both stand-up fighting and grappling because is easier for a strong person of adequate speed to catch a fast person via stand-up strikes or grappling takedowns than it is for a faster guy to hurt or takedown a stronger guy of adequate speed; therefore strength is a greater advantage than speed when it comes to self-defense. 

3. Speed

Speed helps your attacks get there. But without competent strength, it lacks power and without requisite power, it cannot cause acceptable damage. Speed in itself does not help much if someone does manage to get a hold of you since without suitable strength it can be difficult to escape. 

4. Endurance

Endurance is what keeps you going. Without endurance, you will not last the full duration of the fight. If you lack endurance you will become too tired to utilize your skills to their fullest potential because you will lose the ability to execute them at your best. Endurance without speed to help it land the moves and power to help it carry out damage cannot do very much. This is why power, strength, and speed come first. 

5. Agility

Agility is what helps you use your speed and is what makes your speed effective. It is your ability to use your speed to move efficiently and avoid attacks or belt them out.  Without speed agility is impossible, therefore speed is more important than agility is. But without power and strength, speed and agility will not make as much of a difference because they will cause no pain. 

6. Flexibility 

Flexibility is great for Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (executing and defending against submissions) as well as doing head kicks, but it does not do as much damage as power or strength can and it is not as useful as speed or endurance due to speed helping you land the techniques and endurance helping you to keep going in the fight

Read my articles on health:

Putnam, Pat. “Lean and Mean .” Vault, 24 July 1989,'. 

Odebunmi, Ollie. “Evander Holyfield and Weight Training.” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group,

Kerr, Grant. “Endurance Conditioning for Boxing.”, 2003,

Enamait , Ross. “Strength Training for Fighters.”, 2006, 

Todd, Gary. Workouts from Boxing's Greatest Champs: Including Muhammad Ali, Roy Jones, Jr., Fernando Vargas, and Other Legends. Ulysses Press, 2005. 

“Rocky's Amazing Stamina.” OoCities ,

Gregoriades, Nic. “Mobility Training for Jiu Jitsu: Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood.” Jiu, 10 Feb. 2019,  

“Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace.” Fightingmaster, 

Soet, John Steven. “Twelve Myths About Bruce Lee.” JKD London | Bruce Lee | Jeet Kune Do, 28 Nov. 2010, 

Koestler-Grack, Rachel A. Bruce Lee . 2007. 

Cooper, Shawn. “Legendary Showdown between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.” The Underground, 24 Feb. 2016,

Cox, Monte D. “Muhammad Ali, The Greatest.” Cox's Boxing Corner, 

Groves, Lee. “Pep Regarded as One of the Pound-for-Pound Greats.” 
ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 24 Nov. 2006, 

Berkwitt, Brad. “Rocky Marciano: Stop It Already That He Couldn't Compete with the Heavyweight Champions Today.” Ringside Report, 24 Feb. 2015, 

Casey, Mike. “Rocky, Archie and the Lost Magic.”, 

Sadler, James. “Rocky Marciano - The Unstoppable Force .” Boxing News Archive, 31 Aug. 2005,