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Fab Five Finishers for MMA Conditioning

If you’ve ever witnessed or participated in a metabolic circuit designed for combat athletes, you’ve seen hard core. You’ve seen guys pushed to their physical limits. You’ve seen tire flips, prowler pushes, and ground & pound drills. You may have even seen some guys on their knees reaching for the nearest bucket. There are many variations out there these days, but the majority consist of circuits that are 3-5 rounds/sets that last up to 5 minutes long and include a variety of compound movements designed to improve the athlete’s strength, power, endurance, coordination, and overall physical and mental toughness.

The average individual would be completely exhausted and headed to the showers after one of these training sessions. There couldn’t be any more to the day’s workout…right? Wrong. Depending on where we are at with our training camp, we like to implement “finishers” at the end of the workouts from time to time.

What do we mean when we say “finisher”? We are referring to a final push that finishes up your routine before you start your cool down. It’s usually one last unique circuit or exercise that pushes the guys to their absolute limit…it’s where they “empty the tank.” Why incorporate finishers? Here are a couple reasons:

1. Mental Challenge

Mixed martial arts include such a large mental aspect, and why not “train it” during our conditioning sessions? We have a “session board” where I will write the days training session and sometimes I will purposely exclude the finisher. After we complete our last exercise and are ready to cool-down and stretch, I’ll throw it up there and tell them we aren’t quite done yet. Yes, I’m frequently threatened with chokes, takedowns, and high knees, but we always get it in and they always give 100% effort. My goal here wasn’t to get thrown in an arm-bar; it was to prepare them for the unexpected. You never know exactly how a fight is going to unfold. Just because your opponent was an All-American wrestler and has a history of taking matches to the mat, doesn’t mean you should neglect training your stand-up game completely. Be prepared.

2. Metabolic Push

The combat athletes we work with will never be exposed as having poor cardio. Our strength training and circuit training sessions will improve their metabolic conditioning. These finishers will really challenge the pace, drive lactate threshold levels to new heights, and push anaerobic conditioning like nothing else. We don’t use these every session, but instead incorporate them strategically throughout camp to avoid burn out and overtraining.

3. Change

No MMA match is exactly the same and while I’m a firm believer in a well planned program, I do find it necessary to think outside the box and change things up on occasion. We execute our staple movements every week; plyometrics, deadlifts, vertical and horizontal pulls, pushups, etc.  But add in some Superband sprint work at the end of a session now and then to get 1% better and get to that next level in your conditioning.

4. Competition
These combat athletes, like most people, are extremely competitive. Any time we add a “punishment” for the least amount of reps or the slowest time, the stakes are increased and so is the focus and intensity. An example might be the loser of the “card challenge” has to perform 25 burpees; something simple but tough after a challenging workout. Make it a competition and watch the energy levels soar.

I often here coaches tell their athletes, “If it’s an exercise you dread and just plain hate, then it’s probably good for you”. While I don’t necessarily agree with that statement on all occasions, I do in this instance as these finishers definitely fall into this prestigious category. Here are five finishers that most of the guys just plain hate…and yes, these are one’s that I use frequently.


1. Treadmill Sprint Work

These are quick 10-20 second all out sprints. At Fitness Quest 10, we’ll use the dynamic mode feature with our Woodway treadmills. If Woodway’s are not available, traditional treadmills will work as well. You simply hop on and do not touch any of the buttons. Have the athlete grab the handles, get in a slight forward lean, and begin to accelerate as fast and as hard as possible. I’m not sure the treadmill manufacturers would approve of this; however, it works great for developing powerful leg drive which is vital for takedowns and controlling your opponent in the octagon.

Treadmill Sprints Video

2. Superband Series

I love Superbands because they are so versatile. They can be used for just about every major muscle group and the movements are endless. When it comes to finishers, I like to partner the guys up and do a series of different movements. Some of my staple movements include: sprints, shots, bear crawls, jumping variations, knee drives, lateral work, just to name a few. Here is a quick, sample clip.

Superband Series Video

3. Sand Sprints

Sand sprint work has been used for decades by many athletes. Being here in San Diego allows us to take advantage of this great resource. I’ve also experienced the Manhattan Beach Sand Dunes which was one of the toughest workouts of my life. Google these dunes if you aren’t familiar. Running and exercising in this unstable surface provides a number of benefits:

  • Increased strength development in your lower shank – calves, feet, and ankles
  • Increased coordination and balance
  • Not that it’s necessarily a goal for these fighters, but you use more energy and burn more calories running on sand

Sand Sprints Video

4. “Carry” Variations

There is no argument that grip strength is critical in the world of martial arts. Controlling your opponent requires a powerful, strong grip and these “carrying” variations help to achieve this. In addition, these exercises are great for developing strength in your forearms, upper back, and core. Some of the tools I like to use include: heavy dumbbells, kettlebells, farmer bars, heavy med balls (d-balls), heavy bags and dummies, and even your training partners. Some people laugh at the thought of partner exercises, however, try holding Phil Davis in a bear hug and walking for 40 yards and you won’t find it so funny. These last few tools (med balls, heavy bags, and dummies) are great for challenging your breathing patterns as well. Try to maintain a power grip on the tool and keep it tight to the chest much like an opponent would do when they are applying heavy pressure down on you during a match. Here are some of these tools in action:

Carry Variations Video

5. Card Challenge

This is one I typically incorporate with other finishers as it is more for hand-eye coordination and concentration than anything else. I like to create a competition amongst the athletes with this one. Like I mentioned above, these guys are highly competitive so this challenge certainly brings out their best. In fact, try this one with your everyday housewives and busy executives as well…the competitive spirit will be in full force and they’ll love it. Check it out!

Card Drill Video

If you want to push your clients or athletes both mentally and physically, include one of these finishers into their routine this week and see if they are up for the challenge.

About Doug
Doug currently works at Fitness Quest 10 as a personal trainer, strength coach, and Operations Director for Todd Durkin Enterprises (TDE). A Massachusetts native, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science with a minor in Business Management from Westfield State College. Since moving to San Diego he has completed some graduate work in Biomechanics at SDSU, obtained an ACE Personal Trainer certification, the NSCA-CSCS certification, a TRX instructor training, EFI Gravity instructor training, FMS training, Spinning certification, and received his CPR/AED instructor status. He has also appeared in 8 fitness videos, written numerous fitness articles, completed a MMA Conditioning Coach certification program and has competed in multiple grappling tournaments.

Prior to working at Fitness Quest 10, Doug worked for the American Council on Exercise as the Continuing Education Coordinator where he was responsible for managing over 400 continuing education providers.

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