Mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the newest professional sports around and has been gaining a lot of popularity over the last two decades. With the pride, fame, and money that comes with prize-fighting, it's extremely important for strength and conditioning coaches to ensure the fighters are in top physical condition come fight night - the fighters' health depend on it.
Strength and conditioning work must be balanced with martial arts skills training and psychological performance and therefore presents a complex problem for performance coaches to solve. Luckily there are professionals in the field to do just that - create strong and healthy athletes to elevate the sport of MMA.
Before we start, I'd like to give a special thanks to all the coaches that spent time to contribute to this article. Thank you PJ, Phil, Carmen, Danny and Dr. Galpin. My goal was to reach out to coaches from different areas of expertise to compile a list of performance tips to help both the fitness and MMA community become more educated on the physical preparation process. Enjoy!
Geoff's Commentary: PJ Nestler will be starting this article off by dispelling the myths about strength training in the sport of MMA and how strength training can set the foundation for other physical attributes.
PJ Nestler is a performance specialist with a decade of experience training athletes from the UFC, NHL, NFL and MLB. With a passion for combat sports, he has worked extensively with multiple Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champions like Otávio Souza and Ranked UFC fighters like Kailin Curran and Pat Cummins.
MMA Training Mistake: Lack of Strength Training
The myths behind strength training are endless. “Heavy lifting makes you tight”, “Lifting heavy weights makes you slow”, “too much muscle will make you gas out quicker” are some of the commonly perpetuated myths plaguing the combat sports community.
Since I could address each in their own full articles, for the sake of brevity I will just state that these claims are completely misguided, proven to be incorrect in hundreds of studies as well as decades of practical experience with coaches in the field improving athletic performance. Most are either completely fabricated (the tightness or gassing out myths), or are based on cherry picking research that is so esoteric to 99.99% of MMA fighters, just to sound contradictory or support unconventional and ineffective training methods, that all of this information only serves to further confuse the fighters who need it most.
Strength is the underlying foundation upon which all other athletic abilities are built. Speed, balance, endurance, power, quickness, agility, coordination, all require specific levels of strength to reach a baseline performance as well as optimum levels. The word strength gets misconstrued with thoughts of 1 rep max squatting or deadlifting, and athletes typically don’t understand what true athletic based strength training looks like, and how much it can expand their physical abilities. Proper strength training will lead to improvements in all the above-mentioned motor qualities, aid in performance during strength based exchanges like grappling, improve operational outputs that will allow fighters to perform sport specific skills with greater power, speed, and duration, and will significantly reduce the incidence of injuries sustained in training.
Progressive overload of foundational movement patterns is one of the simplest, most well researched and practiced methods for improving athletic performance in existence. That is why it has been used at the highest level of sport for decades. This does not mean strength is the only important factor, and meathead coaches who love to crush athletes under the barbell are only fueling the fire from disbelieving fighters and skill coaches. There are many other necessary components of a well-structured performance training program, but proper strength training will always be the foundation that will keep fighters healthy, their bodies performing properly, and builds the motor qualities that will maximize their athletic potential.
Geoff's Commentary: Expanding on PJ's thoughts, Phil Daru details the why's and how's of strength training, specifically how to set up a strength training block to optimize performance and reduce injury rates.
Phil Daru (ACE, FMS, CFSC)
Phil "Bam Bam" Daru is a former professional MMA fighter and has competed in Strongman, bodybuilding and powerlifting. Holding an Exercise Science and Sports Medicine degree, he is now the Director of Sport Performance at American Top Team. Phil has worked with the likes of Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Tyron Woodley, Amanda Nunes, King Mo Lawal, Dustin Poirier and many more combat athletes.
The Why's and How's of Strength Development
Let me start off by stating that with any program there must be structured plan, a method and system that will facilitate growth. Without a plan, yes you plan to fail. So before we talk about strength in MMA we must make sure all keys to victory are set up to be worked accordingly to induce the greatest amount of success possible. Working on your technical skill is very important. These are the specific techniques and tactical drills that a fighter must show competence in to become a good fighter. Working on all aspects of the sport is the priority, you must create a hierarchy of modalities that you will need to put into place for maximum performance. Once this is in place and your drilling and technical practice has been set then we must get STRONG.
Strength first and foremost cannot be achieved without properly assessing movement capabilities of a fighter. If they have dysfunction, we must take care of the issue first before even thinking about putting external load on the body. Once all joints are mobile and stable in their given areas that's when the fun starts. When working with a fighter I must identify their weaknesses and strengths. What's their style of fighting, and what is their training background. When this is established, I find out when the competition is, then put together a solid strength training program to initiate progress.
The Structure of Strength Training
Depending on how long I have, I will start the camp with a structured block of hypertrophy and joint integrity training phase. This will include slow eccentric movement exercises and higher volume sets. Eccentric strength and plyometric exercises are used to prime their joints for high impact collisions that they will be experiencing in skills training (sparring, grappling). After a few weeks of that, we then go onto a strength block phase where we are trying to push the envelope of maximal strength output. Working primarily in the 85-90% of 1 rep max range with sets of 3-5 repetitions. All exercises will focus on 5 major movement qualities, a squat, hip hinge, push, pull, a carry, and core work. With these exercises, we cover all aspects of physical preparation with a general to specific periodization model.
In the beginning of the strength phase, we are working more on overall work capacity and movement efficiency. At the end of the strength phase, the focus becomes more specific to the sport. So exercises we choose will have a higher carryover to the physiological demands of the sport. For instance a Zercher Squat, Med Ball Double Under Carry, & DB Hip Bridge Floor Press will carry over well into the competition from a physical preparation standpoint.
A solid strength program should have two objectives in mind, get the athlete physically capable to train at a high level, and develop superior biomechanical and physiological capabilities over the opponent. Stick to basic multi joint movements at first like Back/Front Squat, Barbell Deadlift, Overhead Press, Sled Push/Pull, and Planks. Once the foundation of strength optimally met then we can move on to the specificity of sport exercises. Don't get caught up in trying to do what you see on social media do what needs to be done to help that athlete become better. Solid multi-joint movement exercises with stabilization techniques will get a fighter strong and capable to withstand load and impact.
We all should strive to become a stronger version of ourselves. Strength is not easy to develop but if all things are lined up and programmed properly then it can most definitely be done. Dominate your opponent and reduce injury while getting STRONG!
Geoff chiu (bkin, nasm-cpt)
I don't have the same experience in the trenches in comparison to these coaches I look up to, however, I still have a undying passion for MMA and the field of strength & conditioning. My goal is to get people thinking more critically about training, periodization, nutrition, and at the end of the day, make a positive impact in the sport.
Thoughtful Exercise Selection
Building on Phil's knowledge on training structure and exercise selection, I wanted to talk about a mistake some coaches make: selecting overly-specific exercises in hopes of directly improving punching and kicking power, takedown strength, etc. Any MMA coach will tell you striking and grappling proficiency is built on the mitts or on the mats, not in the weight room.
As performance coaches, especially those who may have limited experience in the martial arts, we will do our athletes a disservice by trying to mimic and inappropriately load sport-specific movements in the weight room. Incorrectly holding a dumbbell while punching, or performing band-resisted kicks can alter the biomechanics of the movement, rendering any transfer effect to sport-specific performance obsolete. Banded punches and kicks if used, must be light enough where the quality of technique is retained but at the same time, be challenging for the athlete.
I'm also big believer that physical preparation should be injury-reductive in nature, while exercise selection aimed to improve strength, power or plyometric ability are individually catered towards the athletic profile of the MMA fighter. Are they primarily a striker, if so, what type of striking style do they use? Do they excel mainly as a powerful grappler, or an enduring, grinding wrestler? Do they have any hand, shoulder or hip injuries/limitations that may compromise exercise selection? These are all questions that should be asked when choosing exercises in a periodized plan. While the goal should be to improve their performance measures in the gym, it should not be done so at the expense of their sport-specific training.
In addition to a proper warm up like band pull-aparts for the shoulders or banded lateral shuffles for the hip, include injury-reductive exercises like decceleration drills and various concentric-focused or eccentric-focused plyometrics that improve the athlete's ability to absorb force and to increase knee and ankle resilience.
Instead of weighted punches/kicks, prescribe Olympic lifting variations, multiplanar medicine ball exercises, and exercises that improve core stiffness for better power transfer.
Instead of randomly timed tire flip circuits, box jumps and battle rope drills, utilize Zercher squats, foot-strength-focused plyometric drills and striking pad work intervals that reflect the energy systems used in a fight.
Geoff's Commentary: Many mentally tough athletes like MMA fighters feel uneasy about taking breaks and have a "no pain - no gain" mentality. However, it can't be stressed how important recovery is. Recovery times between sets and between training sessions have a significant impact on the adaptations that are being made as well as the mental and physical health of an athlete. Carmen Bott gives us information about the time periods of each recovery process.
CARMEN BOTT (MSc., BHK, CSCS)
Carmen Bott is an internationally renowned sport scientist and performance coach. She has been in the fitness training industry for over 20 years, focusing on strength coaching for combative and collision sport athletes.
She has recently put out an E-Book titled "The Wrestler's Edge: Complete Strength & Conditioning Program For Wrestlers". A complete strength & conditioning plan for some of the toughest athletes on earth.
The Details of Recovery Time
Encourage hard days followed by easy days, balanced nutrition following hard sparring and long rest periods between speed work if the goal is, in fact, to improve speed/alactic power.
The aim of this information is to give you knowledge about how long it takes to restore the body to a baseline state again.
When we look at recovery from a metabolic system standpoint, we are looking at specifically replenishing energy stores and recycling lactate back to stored fuel.
Geoff's Commentary: What is the adaptation we are seeking to make with the athlete? Are we trying to improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity? - Side with shorter, submaximal recovery times between sets.
Are we trying to improve speed and top end power output? - Utilize longer, maximal recovery times ensure peak power output is maintained from set to set.
Build in easy mobility and recovery days following hard sparring sessions and pay extra attention to recovery as the fight nears.
Geoff's Commentary: Weight cutting not only affects a fighter's performance, but puts their brain and bodily health on the line. Thus, preaching safe and effective weight cutting methods is both a personal and professional responsibility of a coach or nutritionist. Danny Lennon outlines a relatively uncommon, but safe way for athletes to cut weight for a fight.
Danny Lennon (MsC. NUTRI. SCI.)
Danny Lennon is a performance nutritionist to professional MMA fighters, boxers and competitive powerlifters. He is also the founder of Sigma Nutrition and the host of the Sigma Nutrition Podcast where he interviews top experts around the world to discuss everything fitness, training and nutrition related.
Cutting Fiber To Make Weight
There are several practices that can be used in a successful weight cutting strategy. Some of these are common knowledge amongst combat sport athletes (e.g. water restriction and induced sweating). However, there are a couple of excellent methods of achieving acute weight loss, without the potential for performance decreases, that I believe many athletes are unaware of.
One of these is the use of a short-term low-residue diet. This is something I use with every one of my athletes who are making weight. Quite simply, when we eat certain foods, particularly those high in fiber, a certain amount remains undigested in the intestine and hangs around for a few days. This "residue" of course has weight. So if we can reduce how much is contained in our intestine at a particular time, we can acutely drop bodyweight.
The use of a low-residue or low-fibre diet, is common practice in medicine when a patient is preparing for a colonoscopy or even as a treatment for IBS. This simply is the reduction of fibre into the diet to very low levels. So out go wholegrain products, vegetables, and high-fibre fruits. In the scientific literature we see a bodyweight drop of anywhere between 1 - 2%, even after only a few days of a low-residue diet, depending on the person's habitual fibre intake.
So combat sport athletes can drop 1% of BW reliably through this practice. And in contrast to dehydration and glycogen depletion, there is zero risk of a negative impact on performance. Of course, water loss and glycogen loss are still used in my Sigma Weight Cutting protocol, but through use of smart tactics like low residue dieting, we can decrease the amount of the weight cut that has to come via water loss. Therefore making it a bit more bearable, but more importantly, decreasing the risk of poor performance on fight night.
Geoff's Commentary: While the overuse of technology has not hit the sport of MMA by storm yet, it's nice to always remind ourselves that technology is a simply a tool in the toolbox, never a magic bullet. The best cryotherapy machine is only as good as it's context of use, the best high-altitude training chambers is only as good as the details of a periodized energy system development plan. Dr. Andy Galpin will expand on the use of technology in sports, and give a more detailed example.
dr. Andy Galpin (phd, cscs*d, nsca-cpt*d)
Dr. Andy Galpin is a professor at the Center of Sport Performance at CSU Fullerton and is the director of the Biochemistry and Molecular Exercise Physiology Lab. He has worked and consulted some of the best combat sport athletes in the world, from Olympic gold medalist freestyle wrestler Helen Maroulis to Top UFC featherweight Dennis Bermudez, as well as various MMA athletes.
Check out the Dr. Galpin and his co-authors Brian Mackenzie and Phil White's latest book titled "Unplugged: Evolve from Technology to Upgrade Your Fitness, Performance & Consiousness".
Use Technology to Cue, Calibrate and Create Independent Problem Solving
The latest generation of fitness trackers promise to be an all-in-one solution, offering everything from accelerometers that monitor our movement to altimeters that measure our altitude gains to blood oxygen sensors that supposedly help us identify sleep apnea. Yet in reality there is no tech-based magic bullet, no matter what marketers and publicists might want us to believe.
Instead of buying into such lofty claims, we should follow the advice that Tim Ferris gave me and my co-authors Brian Mackenzie and Phil White in our new book Unplugged: “Use the least technology necessary, not the most you think you can handle.” What Tim is suggesting is not that we should gather our devices, build a bonfire and ritualistically burn them before retreating into the woods. Rather, his point is that we should use technology purposefully, intentionally and with restraint to solve a specific problem, increase insight and connect the dots between what we’re feeling, what’s going on with our physiology and our performance outcomes.
One way to do this is for a coach to utilize tech appropriately as part of their teaching process with an athlete. The first step is to identify the problem and its effects. So let’s say an athlete is landing on their heels when they jump and run and as a result they’re making mechanical errors that compromise speed and power and could lead to injury. One way to use a simple piece of technology here would be to deploy the Shoe Cue, which is a piece of plastic with little knobs on the top that such an athlete could easily place into the heels of their shoes at the start of a training session.
When they jump or run and land on their heels, they’ll get immediate and somewhat painful feedback. You could then remind them to instead land on the balls of their feet and lightly tap their heels to the ground. This could be repeated through several running and jump rope drills, after which you’d ask the athlete to remove the Shoe Cue inserts. You’d then repeat the drills and hopefully they would’ve stopped landing on their heels and instead started landing softly on the forefoot area. Now they can use their newly attuned self-awareness for the rest of the session. As the coach, you could repeat this sequence – first using the Shoe Cue to highlight or exaggerate the heel-striking issue and encourage a certain solution, then removing the technology and having the athlete use their elevated instincts to improve the movement pattern.
This is just one simple example of how you can use fitness tech to overcome a specific issue as a cueing and re-calibrating tool that leads to improved and more self-reliant problem solving, not as the crutch that it can sometimes become. For more examples, check out Unplugged on Amazon. If you have questions, suggestions or comments, I’d also welcome the chance to continue the conversation on Instagram (@drandygalpin) or Twitter (@DrAndyGalpin). And yeah, I get the irony of a tech-aided discussion!
Geoff Commentary: In MMA, technology can be as simple as a tennis ball under the chin to remind fighters to keep their chin tucked, to complex devices like the Hykso punch intensity and velocity trackers. With so many skills, movement patterns, different training sessions and nutrition to balance, MMA fighters are already swarmed with information. As coaches, it is our job to ensure only the necessary pieces of technology are used - avoid the fluff and focus on principles and consistency.