Episode #36: 30+ Years as a Martial Artist: Interview with Tom Furman

Tom Furman has been involved in martial arts and conditioning since 1972. With an early background in wrestling and a student of the methods of the York Barbell Club, Tom immediately separated fact from fiction growing up outside Pittsburgh. Eleven members of his family were combat veterans, the most famous one being “Uncle Charlie” (Charles Bronson). His down to earth training methods are derived from his decades long practice of martial arts and his study of exercise science. The application of force, improvement of movement and durability rank high on his list of priorities when training.


In this episode we discuss:

  • Dangers of ‘Crossfit’ style workouts
  • Assessing new athletes
  • Pillars of a training program
  • General strength and endurance vs specific workouts
  • Using skill as a conditioning tool
  • How to prioritize your training
  • And Much More…

To Learn More About Tom and His Programs, be sure to check out TomFurman.com



Full Transcription of Our Podcast with Tom Furman


COREY:         Hey guys, this is Corey Beasley with Fight Camp Conditioning and I’m on the phone here with Tom Furman. Tom, how are you?

TOM:             Very well, very well.

COREY:         Yeah man, thanks so much for joining us. So Tom just for everybody that’s listening, give everybody a little two minute bio on you and where you’re at and what you’re doing.

TOM:             I’m currently in Fort Lauderdale. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I’m 58 years old. Most of my training knowledge, nutritional knowledge comes from being self taught, I had an interest in this from a young boy. Still [inaudible] oddly enough, I started martial arts when I was 16, started wrestling when I was 14. So it’s kind of a combative background and I wasn’t the most gifted athlete so I had to dig down at that time bodybuilding magazines and whatever fitness books were out and try to study up on how to be better myself and I started applying it to other people actually in high school, then later on in martial arts training and in boxing gyms. I moved to Florida and I was involved in the entertainment industry for about 25 years and also in the fitness industry whenever I could. Now I do this exclusively as my living and I coach individuals long distance and write eBooks and articles and I try to stay — I’m probably more combatively oriented towards martial arts training but I consult people who do power-lifting, I consult people who are specops, everybody wants to say that but — I’ve trained jiu-jitsu athletes, and we’re talking about lay people who do jiu-jitsu and compete multiple time athletes. So I won’t make that a statement, but it seems to work out. So far, so good.


COREY:         Cool, cool. Cool. Now you’re out there and you’ve competed and trained for many, many years, obviously.

TOM:             Well, my competing was largely what we call club flights and the fact of our gym

which did martial arts back in the 70s. And it was much less liability was a boxing gym below with [inaudible] so people would drink upstairs, come down, watch us train and then challenge us to fight. So we were doing martial arts at the time very much like Bruce Lee, and guys like boxers would fight us and guys who were drinking in the bar, who worked in the steel mills would fight us. So that’s the truth. So that was kind of a nice baptism.


COREY:         Right. Okay, that’s pretty unique. So as far as training goes, from your experience and your age now, obviously you’re 58 years old and you’re still training and doing all this stuff, which is awesome. You have a great, unique perspective as far as strength and conditioning, as far as skill training, as far as things you’ve seen over the years. What are some of the things that you see currently, with all the things you’ve seen over the years, from bodybuilding, the power-lifting, kettlebells and body weight and all these different things, what are some things that you see today that people might have a little off or that have changed, that you think are hurting some of those fighters out there?

TOM:             Well, let’s get back to some of the CrossFit influence. They’ve had a huge influence in this. And people don’t realize this but I was looking to get invoke, God, this is many years ago, one of the first CrossFit gyms in Florida down in Miami with some of my partners and one of my training partners. And he was one of the first CrossFit certification people, Mark Webber who was a [incomprehensible] and a combat paramedic, very tough guy. And when they’ve taken Olympic lifts and turn them into aerobic exercises, that’s inappropriate, explosive gymnastics for repetitions that’s entirely inappropriate. But now, if you pick up men’s health or if you look at a fighter training for a fight, you’ll see him doing things, repetitions muscle ups, or repetitions snatches or repetition overhead squats, which are just tools specific to Olympic lifting or gymnastics. They’re considered tools within that game. There is a toolbox, you insert ones depending where the weaknesses are. A muscle up is how to get into position. According to gymnastics, check with Coach Summer on this who I guess we can refer to authority there. And an overhead squat is if you’re weak in overhead position, you had to develop the range of motion around your joints.

Now they’ve become tools for everyone and not everyone is suited to them depending on shoulder structure and hip structure. We related down to fighters, all fighters are going to be different. They don’t always look — B.J. Penn is very far from being Frank Zane, the bodybuilder. He’s extremely effective person in the combat arena, not only legendary but he was a pioneer. And he’s a very natural — I saw him in a pool jumping from like, you see within the pool and like waist deep water, he jumped on the dry land which is huge amount of fast twitch and explosiveness and everything else. And that’s not from him maybe — that’s from him maybe surfing and having the gene pool and training jiu-jitsu. That’s not from him doing overhead squats. Okay? That’s in the wire, right. So we have to understand is — I always say thing it’s like being a doctor when you train someone it’s do no harm and I think a lot of training for your — training should prevent injury and not cause it. And we have to look at that — if you hear a fighter you’re hearing a lot more now, fighters are getting hurt in training like oh, he hurt his bow. It was Matt Brown or something like that he blew some dips he trains with Louie Simmons Westside Barbell Club, he has some ball dips that’s taken care of. And they’re going to happen, accidents happen, we’re human it’s combat. But really training you should not be hurt by training. Your hands should be safe, if you have ankle issues, your ankles should be safe, your fingers protected, your eyes protected, and if you’re training, if you’re strength training and you hurt yourself, then there goes the payday for everyone. All your trainers don’t get paid, you lose endorsements, you’re out for a while and the sherdog is writing some article on how long you’re going to be out of the game. And I think the biggest trend is I use the hashtag “train for life” that is can you maintain — not maintain but can you train the duration? Can you train throughout your career? And that’s really I mean, Keenan Cornelius in jiu-jitsu, he says 20% — he is 24, 25; 20% of his hand function is gone. I mean, that’s disturbing to me. I’d have to look at some older guys like Renzo Gracie. And that [inaudible] see what type of condition his fingers are in for like typing or even holding a child.


COREY:         Yeah. So I mean you have these trends, you have Olympic lifting in gymnastics. Obviously there’s a million other tools that people are using in the gyms that may be misinterpreted or maybe not. As far as coordinating all this stuff, you have skill training, you have jiu-jitsu, you have wrestling, you have boxing, you have Muay Thai, you have MMA, you have sparring, you have drilling, you have all these different aspects. Then guys want to do cardio, they want to do strength and conditioning stuff and they need to mix all that stuff together. From your experience, and then trying to be an athlete for life without completely just wrecking yourself, what are some tips that you have or tricks that you’ve used over the years to kind of keep all that stuff balanced out?

TOM:             Well, it goes back to if you’re going to use high force in training like football or MMA, there’s going to be force. I mean, you can roll fairly gently depending on your training partners. Wrestling takedowns are exhausting. There’s some bumping and running, you can do standing grappling, at level striking, you can strike pads, but you have to minimize damage but there’s impact. So it’s an impact sport. So why are you going to go to a training regimen that involves jumping to boxes? That is more impact. That is a step in the wrong direction. If the guy’s vertical leap increases, is that going to increase his ability to resist punishment in the ring? I’m not so sure about that. If it involves like hitting a tire with a sledgehammer, is he doing it or is it disturbing the nervous system or his elbows or his wrists? There are better ways to strengthen the wrists or elbows than hitting a sledgehammer against tire but it looks cool. It looks great.

And a lot of these people look at farm work, and I’m familiar with this and I put this in my books about the guys who did manual labor between fights back in the 30s and 40s and built their bodies up and you have to realize, one, they were the genetically elite, they were the champions, and these champions no matter what they did so they’re good in spite of their training not the cause of it, but they had some sort of resistance and built it gradually. So if you worked on a farm, you started at 12, the only [inaudible] you get a 12 year old can lifting to build up till you’re 21. And in college and during summers and baling hay, and when you go on the football field, the guy had a 500 pound bench and you’ve been baling hay for 10 years. You don’t think 500 million – you don’t even know what 500 pound bench is you don’t really care. You know this guy’s got to be moved and sometimes it works out very well. But then we transfer that and we have like a baling hay exercise with sandbags in the gym.

When the guy has been doing takedowns for an hour because his takedown skills are weak, and then you say okay, get up and grab a sandbag. We’re going to [distortion] the spine and put shearing force on the spine for another half hour of sandbag action. I think that’s a step in a wrong direction. And training not only needs to build strength but it needs to remove as much trauma as possible. You shouldn’t be hurt during training. And doing trauma and strength training, aerobic training, flexibility training is going to add up, and you’re going to see these guys just drop off. They’re not going to drop off at Randy Couture‘s age, they’re going to drop off at 32. Sometimes the only way they laugh like Josh Barnett laughing at 37 is he’s taking some time off and doing just submission work. He’s taking time off just to do teaching. And his names just wait a little bit better and so forth in this last fight. And they’ll take some time off between fights and even Rickson Gracie in his time, he didn’t have regular – a very few fights actually but he took a long time off in between them and still he’s suffering I understand from bulging discs from being in a guard position most of his life and he’s got involved in this but imagine, because he has always done healthy things; eating healthy, done aerobics, done yoga, done strength training and so forth.


COREY:         So Tom, if somebody walks in to determine what they should be doing, their strengths, their weaknesses, assessing injuries and stuff like that, somebody walks in or they’re consulting you at a distance. Where do you start with your guys?

TOM:             One thing — I kind of look at them, and you can tell when person’s — some people are deceptive. You’re always going to have a Fedor Emelianenko walk in and be a chubby bald Russian guy and be dynamite, or like B.J. Penn. You’re always going to have those outliers, and then you can look at them physically and some guys are going to be very developed wrestlers with very strong, like Greco style upper bodies and undeveloped legs. You’ll see guys come from Muay Thai and come in with underdeveloped legs and maybe their upper body. I think a little sense of bounce there, isn’t a bodybuilding cause, a little sense of bounce there might be better. And then you warm up with them and do joint mobility and right there you see restrictions. When you see no restrictions, you see their habits, how they move what they complain about. That’s your diagnostic for me. I can do it with a 80 year old and I can do it with an 18 year old. Look at how they move and so forth. And then of course you’re going to do something with aerobics and so forth and the biggest thing with good athletes is they’re extremely competitive. And years ago, we had a soccer team down in Fort Lauderdale, Fort Lauderdale strikers and the guys would come in and they play soccer. And they were just getting this concept called strength training with a Nautilus jump. And they come in and they had a few bruises the previous night and you find out what their weight was on the chart and put them on a like a leg press machine and you’d say okay, last time you did 150 for 10 slow reps. Let’s hit 12 and then we’ll raise it. He’s like give me a better number than 12. Give me a number. I’d say okay 20. And then get 20; they’d get 20 if they died. And that’s the nature of a competitive athlete but sometimes it’s restricting them in certain areas. It’s always — take a young athlete and kill them. [inaudible] class for people, oh, I get killed today I could barely walk to work, I mean it makes no sense to me. It’s about improvement, and if every fight you have a young fighter or a middle aged fighter improving, getting a little bit stronger, getting a little bit more dynamic motion, flexibility with a strength, aerobic level that there you can measure their aerobic load, measure heart rate, mark it out, check it and are getting more aerobically efficient over a period of three or five years and they’re avoiding injuries because you’re minimizing the amount of impact, then you’re going to get a better athlete. But if they’re getting the crap beat out of them and having these tremendously hard fights, you’re going to see them slowly diminish, and I’m saying it, we’re seeing that and that’s the sad part of watching fighters, just taking punishment at a destructible pace, Ken Shamrock and Kimball; watching Ken Shamrock the difference of him trying to get off the ground versus the first UFC in ‘93. It’s really sad.


COREY:         Yeah. So you have these guys come in, you watch them move, you go through a few assessments. Once you kind of get a ballpark, what are some pillars as you’re kind of programming their workouts? What are some pillars or things that you think about in developing those workouts for those people each week?

TOM:             Yeah, well, the thing I’m looking at is some of the fundamental movements and various athletes, various coaches describe those movements very differently but I think it’s pretty fundamental that we want someone be able to squat to whatever level that is good for their hips. We want them to hinge and do a deadlift swing type exercise. We want them to have an upper body pull and an upper body push whether horizontal or vertical. We want them to have optimal belly to brace the body and that we say core and when people think crunch or plank but bracing works on the sides, bracing works on the back, ability to stiffen the body so you can transfer power from the lower body to the upper body for punches or just standing on one leg transfer of power like kicking.

So I mean you can assess people — I can do with a kettlebell. I carry even while I’ll train females and carry like kettlebell and teach them a swing and see how they hinge their hips. Some people are natural, some people aren’t. They can all learn it. How is their squat? What’s the range of motion? Is that a problem? Then we’ll address that range of motion. Same thing with pushing; some people have like an artificial way they push, it’s very awkward and it has to be taught. And then you have to do it a lot of times and slowly add resistance and then it becomes a good pattern. And same thing with pulling; whether it’s pulling from a horizontal position or from a vertical position, like a pull up. Those are things you look at and I’ve had two friends I’ve known online who are both Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts and one can do about five pull ups. He’s a pretty big dude about 220, very strong probably — he probably could deadlift 400 anytime a day without training for it. But his pull up strength is weak. It didn’t stop him from being a high level Black Belt under Relson Gracie. Another, who was with Gracie Barra and now he’s with another Gracie’s school. He can do 20 pull ups and he’s around the same weight, 20 pull ups which is good for anyone.

Now, they’re strong in different ways but what we would do for the guy doing 20 pull ups is just get him leaner and make sure everything’s strong. His back is strong, his legs are strong, his knees are strong. And what we would do for the guy with a pull up thing we’d would work on leanness for him too but really work on that pull up strength because if that’s the missing link, that’s really going to improve his game. So if you find a weaknesses that is wins like football years ago guys still smoke, took away the smoking, put them on a running program long slow distance they came into the season and they get less injuries. That’s just a given. So you find that one link. And Dan Jones, you say are you doing hinging? Yeah I’m doing squatting, yeah. Doing pushing? Yeah. Doing pulls? Yeah. You’re doing weighted carry? No. Why don’t you try weighted carry? They do weighted carries all of a sudden their game explodes. That’s coaching. It doesn’t take a genius but it’s hard to assess for yourself because your ego is involved. You’re not objective with yourself. Some people can be but you still need a little reflection of someone may be close.


COREY:         Now in your opinion as far as strength goes, and I agree with you just assessing squat, assessing the hinge, pushing, pulling. Just some very, very basic resisted movements. And then you have the conditioning aspect, which I know a lot of guys have a ton of questions about, you might have a guy that’s really super strong but he gets his out in about two minutes. You might have another guy that can run five minute miles but you put a body on him and make him wrestle, he falls apart. So as far as conditioning goes, what are some of the ways that you found over the years to not only keep people in shape but also keep them healthy?

TOM:             Yeah, I’d refer back there was an article I read [inaudible] been in early 90s. And there’s a rock climber. Probably the best American rock climber was named Tony Yaniro. He was the first one to put a lot of sports science into rock climbing training. And he would train also — he would set up artificial indoor wall so to mimic routes and the mountains, and then train that specifically to develop the strength needed to train that specific climb. And he said something pretty profound — or he said a couple things profound. People say, well, your endurance is bad. And he said, “If you can’t do a hard pull, like a pull on a rock once, what do you have to endure? You’ll never do it 20 times if you can’t do it once”. Makes a lot of sense.

The other thing was, he said, “Strength is hard to build and fades slowly. Endurance is hard to build but fades slowly. But in between the metabolic, the chippers, they build up fast. They’re very specific and they fade quickly”. And if people understand that in training — say you’ve just had a fight, you’ve rested, you’ve healed, and you don’t have a fight on the horizon. What you should be doing is focusing on one, getting stronger. Focusing on becoming more enduring and then gradually build up the pace of what you do which is if it’s jujitsu, if it’s submission game, do the submission game. If it’s MMA, what’s your weakest link there? Is it stand up? Is it takedowns? Is it your wrestling game? Is it is your ground game? And focus on that with whatever coaching the best coach you have. And then the other, you have to go on maintenance because you can’t work hard, play hard. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t go full bore [distortion] to lay things. But your training is very, very specific to the skills and developing skills because — years ago there was a fighter in TKO Karate Eddie and the hardest position I think is a heart surgeon now. He fought a kid up in New England named Tom Bacalacus. Why I remember these names is obscure. But Tom Bacalacus, they said, his training program before he went in there for six months, he ran 8 miles everyday. Wow, I’m telling plus but I’m reading this stuff like wow. And guy who came in there ripped. But Andy Hug had fought like a lot of good fighters. He fought Benny The Jet Urquidez, he fought a guy in Mexico who was the world champ at the time Isias Galinas. And he had a lot of high end flights for longer round. I think he had fought Ernie hard who was a very big fighter [distortion] was a very big fighter, very good fighter at the time. So he had the fight and the maturity of the pacing. He knew what it took to fight longer, but he was fighting a guy who was ripped and who had astonishing endurance, 8 miles a day for six months. And what happened later in the fight, the guy would run eight miles a day got tired. Why? It wasn’t specific to fighting, really good fighters. It’s just like lifting. Bench pressing 100 pounds was a very different skill than bench pressing 500 pounds. The closer you get to that 90% of one rep max, it’s a different world.


The same thing is if you’re just rolling with your buddies at a jiu-jitsu school, they say we got to fight in two weeks, there’s just no way. You might pull it off because you’re better than your opponent, but you have to be specific. So when you’re far from the fight, the focus should be on strength and that long term healthy endurance, and a little bit of the in between. As you get closer to the fight, strength becomes less of a feature. It’s more like not losing strength. Endurance should be not losing endurance but the conditioning has to be more fight specific because you’re not going to take a marathon runner inject them in the brain with a [incomprehensible] grappling skill and put them in a ring and he’s going to outlast everyone, that isn’t going to happen. So your conditioning, passing guard under pressure and then getting another fresh guy and passing guard under pressure is going to help you pass your guard in the ring. Okay?

The fact that you hit a tire with a sledgehammer 50 times might not be the best condition for that day. There might be transfer and heart rate and grip and all those things. That’s kind of vague. I’d rather have those underlying parameters of good range of motion in the joints, strength gradually been increasing, cardio has been smooth and increasing, and you’re just a better athlete every time you get a ring in a better physical condition.


COREY:         Right on. So I mean that right there, I mean, going from — and tell me if I’m wrong, but going from very general strength and endurance work and then as you’re getting closer to the fight, intensity is slowly increasing and becoming more specific. Is that kind of what you are talking about in a nutshell?

TOM:             Yeah, I mean, that’s going from GPP to SPP, general physical preparation to specific preparation. I actually have a template on my desk from Russia on kettlebell preparation and they tell you how long each phase, block periodization, and they start with believe it or not they start with the first thing specific is skill. You learn skill when fresh; skill has to be practiced fresh. If you’re beat up from running or lifting, you might have to learn to train like fight tired of course that’s a whole another aspect. But you really want to learn new things, you want to learn new strategies, like maybe you’re starting your takedowns from two, four out so you have a really good wrestling coach and he teaches you to shorten up on your takedowns and hit them faster. Okay, so you do that when you’re really fresh, you don’t do that when necessarily fatigue. But you move into like the kettlebell template, you are doing your kettlebell lifts and then you are doing weight training like bodybuilding for certain parts of your body, and then after that you are doing aerobics every day and after the aerobics you’re doing stretching. You work out four days a week. That’s for however long that you’re out of competition. When you get closer to competition, it gets down to like the final week of doing your competition lifts, finishing up with some stomach work, finishing up that with aerobics, and then after the aerobics you stretch.

So basically your whole focus is on the ellipse for competition. There is no bodybuilding. There is no circuit training there. I’m saying there’s no specific things like working snatch a kettlebell with a glove on so it improves their grip, let’s throw that out because that’s nonspecific, again, it builds the grip but your grip should be built by the time you’re getting on a platform to lift. Same thing with you see guys will do take downs with a resistance against them whether that transfers properly or not, maybe half a half does. They say there’s negative transfer, positive transfer and then different transfer. It might be in different for one athlete and might be positive maybe he’s just lazy about getting off is asking the fighting that gives them something in his mind to charge against and his takedown get better. I’ve seen it every type of way guys invent things that we might think of as the latest, greatest thing and people follow trends and they do it because the best guy does it. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best thing for them. I mean, Randy Couture walks around 52, 53 pretty good shape, pretty good physique for movies and he does circuits with a small barbell on his shoulder. So many hinges, so many cleans, so many presses, so many squats, picks up the barbell down he goes through them again complex as he does. And if someone down the street did complexes they wouldn’t necessarily look like Randy Couture or have his conditioning or abilities. So it’s whomever is doing what’s popular, yeah.

COREY:         Right on. So Tom, that’s absolutely killer information, a lot of great tips for the guys that are out there listening. If guys are wanting to connect with you or learn more about what you’re doing, what’s the best way for them to reach out?

TOM:             The easiest place is www.tomfurman.com, very easy to find on the internet.

COREY:         Perfect. All right guys. I’ll put that link down below. Tom, thanks again for your time, man. I really, really appreciate it, and we hope you have a great day.

TOM:             Okay, sure.