I spend a lot of time thinking about fitness, about strength & conditioning, about nutrition and about mixed martial arts (MMA). For those who don't know, MMA has been my favorite sport for the last 8 or so years. I love how raw the sport is, the amount of mental and physical preparation that goes into training and competing, as well as the movements and the culture itself. This series will not be as structured as I would like it to be, this is just a platform for me to elaborate on variables and methodologies I believe are crucial in creating a strength & conditioning program for fighters; some of which have been covered already, some of which, perhaps, haven’t been. I'll be providing sources and peer reviewed articles whenever necessary. With that said, lets dive into a brief history of martial arts and the creation of modern MMA.
Practiced as a form of competition and for close combat conflicts, martial arts have existed for thousands of years. Professional modern mixed martial arts (MMA) however, has been in the mainstream eye for only ~20 years. Compared to professional ice hockey and football leagues (created almost 100 years ago), it is safe to say that MMA is still a young sport.
MMA initially exploded onto the scene thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and their earliest competitions, pitting martial artists against each other from different disciplines to find out which martial art reigns supreme. Royce Gracie and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu proved to be the most superior at UFC 1, the first ever MMA tournament held by the UFC. After the famous, The Ultimate Fighter Finale fight between Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar, MMA started to gain traction in the mainstream media. However, MMA hasn't been received all that nicely by all demographics. And you know what, it'll never be, seeing 2 athletes punch each other in the face or put each other in submission holds aren't for everyone. To this day, critics call the sport "barbaric" and liken it to "human cock-fighting". Ironic, because boxing was also once looked down upon for its aggressive nature and violence. It was not until the mainstream media and spectators learned more about to sport that it started to be called the "sweet science".
Compared to other sports, MMA's skill ceiling is ridiculously high. The skills of MMA fighters have drastically improved thanks to more education in the sport, and the growing community of fighters and coaches. We’re starting to see well-rounded martial artists and athletes and we're starting to witness techniques we used to see in old martial arts movie, like the karate-kid front kick, spinning heel kicks, and spinning elbows.
With the growing popularity of MMA, I really hope the sport will be more appreciated in the years to come.
Now, let's get down and dirty with the training side of things.
The Role of the Strength & Conditioning Coach
This is no longer the MMA of 1993, skills from many different disciplines of martial arts are needed to become a Top 3-5 fighter in any weight class. Strengths must be maintained and improved throughout a career, while weaknesses must be eliminated, or reduced enough to allow your strengths to shine. Positions, movement patterns, combinations and techniques that can be used in an MMA match are limitless.
Because of how novel strength & conditioning is in this sport, coaches are still trying to figure out the best exercises and training methodologies to build the best MMA athlete. Traditional endurance training modalities like running, or strength exercises like squats and power cleans may not always transfer well into the performance of a full contact athlete. The body types and skills in MMA differ greatly from fighter to fighter, there are no one-size-fit-all strength & conditioning protocols. Endurance and power drills must be tailored to the individual and must be prescribed in a way where it does not interfere with the skill acquisition of the athlete. A high performance coach must not forget that strength & conditioning training is only one piece of the puzzle. At the end of the day, MMA skills are the backbone of success in this sport.
The Goals of a S&C/Physical Preparation/High-Performance Coach:
1) Do not cause an injury to the athlete
2) Ensure the athletes physical attributes are peaked and tapered correctly going into a fight
3) Improve athlete-specific performance measures over time
4) Selectively pick exercises and training protocols that compliment the specific skill-set of the mixed martial artist
The Importance of Strength & Conditioning for MMA Athletes
Why do MMA fighters need strength & conditioning?
To develop physical capabilities that would otherwise be neglected or missed when exclusively performing MMA drills and sparring.
How does strength training improve performance?
The biggest benefits that come from strength training are increased force production and power, as well as injury prevention. I will be specifically talking about force production and power in a later part. Right now, I'll just dive into injury prevention.
Many muscle injuries come from the inability to decelerate a certain limb, or the inability to tolerate the forces produced when a muscle undergoes an eccentric contraction (EC). An EC happens when an external force is applied to a muscle, while the muscle fibers lengthen. Think of the lowering portion of a bicep curl, the deceleration/ground impact portion of a vertical jump, or the feeling in your quads while walking downhill. As long as we perform full range of motion resistance exercises and progressively overload them, we increase our ability to handle larger magnitudes of forces, especially at longer muscles lengths (where we're most susceptible to injury).
One of the most common injuries in professional sports are hamstring strains. Occurring in athletes from sports such as rugby, football, soccer and any other sport that requires running/sprinting. While the demands of MMA are much different and small strains and nagging injuries are bound to happen from rolling (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) or sparring (striking), fighters can still learn from the modifiable risk factors involved in hamstring strains that are so prevalent in other sports in order to reduce chances of injury while training. These modifiable risk factors include sub-par functional muscle lengths, poor posture, strength and muscle imbalances and muscle inflexibility amongst others. Strength & conditioning practices should revolve around addressing these issues first, before focusing on increasing strength, power and endurance.
Isn't MMA practice enough for conditioning?
Yes and no, it depends on what training plan the head MMA coaches put their fighters through. Unless the head coach is knowledgeable on concepts such as heart rate monitor training, lactate threshold, cardiovascular training methods and periodization, a fighter's conditioning and physical preparation should be overlooked by a high performance coach. Much like how strength training should fill in gaps and address the weaknesses of a fighter, specific-conditioning work must be performed to optimize a fighter's gas tank on fight night.
Without getting too in-depth into the metabolic and endurance demands of MMA (I will cover this later in the series), conditioning must be done at the right intensity, at the right time, with the right amount of rest in order to induce the changes we want in a fighter.
Strength & Conditioning is useless?
Some MMA coaches don't believe in strength & conditioning outside of the skills training and sparring that fighters already perform. This may stem from stubbornness or undying tradition, I'm not quite sure. There are even elite fighters like George St. Pierre coming out and saying "I don't believe in strength & conditioning... I lift weight for looks". Ironically, GSP is known for being a pioneer in how fighters perform strength & conditioning routines. He was one of the first successful fighters to train in Olympic weightlifting and gymnastics during his fight preparation. I have a feeling these training modalities have contributed to increasing his power development, core stability and movement quality; although I could be wrong.
There is still some truth to what GSP is saying, however. Strength & conditioning should not be prioritized over skills training. A bigger, stronger, and more conditioned fighter does not always win, and we're reminded of that at almost every UFC event. Strength & conditioning is simply a platform and a preparation strategy that allows a fighter's skills to shine and allows them to develop those skills effectively and safely in training.
That's it for now. I'm interested in what you think, if you have any questions, opinions or insight, feel free to comment down below or contact me! In the future, I'll be writing about topics such as the metabolic/endurance requirements of MMA, how much hypertrophy and muscle mass plays a role, individualizing training strategies, training over-specificity, nutrition and more! See you guys in the next part!
An Evidence-Based Approach to Hamstring Strain Injury (2009) by Mathew Prior et al. Injury rate, mechanism, and risk factors of hamstring strain injuries in sports: A review of the literature (2012) Hui Liu et al.