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Strength & Conditioning for Combat Athletes

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is here to stay. Increased TV time, Pay-per-view success, major partnerships and sponsorships in place; this MMA “fad” isn’t going away. We are beginning to see the popularity of this sport effect the fitness industry as well. From the professional fighter to the casual fight fan, more and more clients are coming in asking for MMA-type workouts.

This growing trend led me to begin my own “path” of researching and experiencing the sport. Whenever a trainer or coach asks me about how they can get more involved in a particular sport or new trend, I always tell them to get as much education as possible…so I took my own advice. I bought a number of books and DVDs, I looked into workshops and certifications, I contacted coaches and colleagues with MMA coaching experience, and I even began taking various classes and instruction in the sport. I wanted to experience what the athlete’s body (and mind) goes through in training and preparing for a fight (or tournaments in my case). I grew up participating in team sports, so this unique sport was a big change for me as it requires a different mind-set when training and preparing.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned…

Similar to other professional athletes, these individuals have tremendous drive and focus. Their training schedule is intense and for the 8-12 weeks before their fight, that is all they concentrate on. Injuries are very common in the sport so a key with these athletes is to find the proper balance between their training and adequate rest (recovery). There are so many different skills and backgrounds in the sport that it is important to be well-versed in many disciplines. Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, etc. are all common styles used in a typical match. Many of the athletes today come from one background or another. Many were collegiate wrestlers and don’t have a lot of “stand up” experience. Conversely, a number of athletes have a Muay Thai or kickboxing background and are not comfortable on the ground. Because of all these variables, an athlete’s training program may include days with up to three sessions per day! An example may include conditioning work at 7:00am, wrestling/ground work at 11:00am, and Muay Thai/pad work at 7:00pm.

With these intense programs, it is vital to get adequate rest and, if necessary; massage, physical therapy, and/or other forms of bodywork (i.e. Active Release Techniques) work to aid in recovery. While three sessions per day may seem like a lot, if they are efficient and well-planned, then they may be necessary. Two-a-days are more common during an 8-12 week camp or program, and I would include one day with just one session and one day of complete rest.

With regards to strength and conditioning, we like to incorporate 2-3 sessions per week during the program. A lot of programs I’ve seen out there just include intense, all out “metabolic circuits”, however; if our athletes want to the best, they must be strong, and they must incorporate resistance training into their programming as well. Metabolic circuits alone are not enough. We must continue to build that foundational strength that is necessary to get to the next level. We do not want to work on developing our endurance and conditioning if our strength base is not adequate.

Our typical training sessions include the following phases:

A crucial point to remember – We don’t “isolate muscles”. We train movements, not muscles.
Maximum strength training is a great way to “lay that foundation” early on in a periodized program. As we get closer to the fight or tournament, we will then start to transition from max strength work into more “functional” or “combat specific” strength training. It is vital to develop an undulated periodization program. Anyone can put together a challenging “workout”. We want to have our sound program for the full 8-12 weeks determined prior to day 1. Since this is a sport of weight classes, relative body strength and endurance is paramount. Obviously, technique is an important piece, however; if you have superior strength and power endurance, then you are going to have that competitive edge.

Since these individuals do not have the same schedule as professional fighters, we definitely modify things when putting a session together. They may have a marketing meeting at 8:00am on Tuesday instead of a 90 minute grappling session. When putting these MMA-type workouts together, we must keep this important point in mind. They can be challenging, inspiring and fun…as long as we keep in mind that safety is first and foremost in our approach.

Regardless of level and background, we include the same phases that we use with our professional athletes (see 5 phases listed above). The movements and intensity level will vary from our professionals, however; we use this same system because it is an effective way to prepare and strengthen the body and reduce the risk of injury.

A resistance training session may look like this:

1. Foam rolling, glute activation, thoracic spine mobility work (10 minutes)
2. Jumping jack series, high knees, carioca’s, lunge with reach work (5 minutes)
3. Med ball work against a wall (5 minutes)
4. Vertical push, vertical pull, quad dominant
Horizontal push, horizontal pull, hip dominant (30-35 minutes)
5. Assisted stretching (10 minutes)

A metabolic circuit training session may look like this:
1. Foam rolling, glute activation, thoracic spine mobility work (10 minutes)
2. Jumping jack series, high knees, cariocas, lunge with reach work (5 minutes)
3. Med ball work against a wall (5 minutes)
4. Tire flips, sledgehammer work, heavy ropes, sled drags (30-35 minutes)
5. Assisted stretching (10 minutes)

The purpose of this article was to give you a brief look inside growing trend of strength and conditioning for the MMA athlete. I hope you finish with a little insight into this rapidly growing sport. As I continue to research and experience, I will be sure to pass more information along. Meanwhile, if you are looking to train like an MMA fighter, bring your focus, intensity, and passion to every rep, set, and session and get in the best shape of your life.

About Doug

Doug, a
Massachusetts native, earned his Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science with a minor in Business Management from WestfieldState 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 Spinning certification, TRX instructor training, EFI Gravity instructor training, FMS training, and received his CPR/AED instructor status. Currently, he is completing the MMA Conditioning Association program and preparing for his next Jiu-Jitsu tournament.
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