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Mixed Martial Arts Conditioning

A Theoretical Template

Mixed martial arts is a unique sport with a very unique set of demands. Look at any other sport and there are only a certain amount of predictable ways in which a person is required to move. Mixed martial arts is vastly different. Within a single round of five minutes duration a fighter can be punching, kicking, clinching and grappling. Within these disciplines there are endless positions and situations that an athlete will find themselves in. for the non-fighter it is difficult to fathom the difficulty placed on an athlete during a fight. In addition to the taxing demands on strength and anaerobic capacity there is adrenalin and the fight or flight response as well as positions that cause breathing restrictions and temporary oxygen deprivation. Put simply, an mixed martial arts fighter is no ordinary athlete, they are a unique breed requiring exceptional levels of conditioning in a very broad range of skills and physical capacities.

Skills and Capacities

Lets start by looking at the various skills and physical development required of an mixed martial arts athlete. Keep in mind that there are more ways than one to skin a cat, however these are the necessary priorities for a mixed martial arts fighter based on my own experience working with these athletes and observations made through comparison with athletes of other sports.

Strength

Strength should form the basis of just about any athlete’s physical conditioning. If a fighter isn’t strong they have absolutely no base to work from in order to develop striking power, grappling strength and even biomechanical efficiency, among other things of course. Essentially strength is the athlete’s engine. The bigger and more powerful the engine the greater the ability to develop both skill and additional components of fitness. Strength is the most general component of fitness and is the easiest way to ensure a fighter has a solid foundation to work from.

How do we develop strength in mixed martial arts fighters? The answer is stages, just like any other athlete. In developing an athlete there are varying levels of specificity. We must start with a solid foundation using basic, large compound movements in order to develop the major movement patterns. From there we can focus on getting more and more specific to the unique demands of mixed martial arts and developing some of the finer strength demands.

Keep in mind that strength is a very general component of fitness and serves as a means to an end. We can only be so specific to a limited degree when it comes to strength development. Rarely will you find strength movements that match the specific movement patterns required of a fighter exactly. With that in mind it is essential to ensure that the foundations are never neglected. When in doubt always aim for bog movements that cover essential motor patterns such as deadlifts, squats, horizontal and vertical push and pull and remedial exercises that protect joints from injury.

Power

Power is a product of strength to a certain degree. Power can accurately be referred to as speed-strength, the application of force at high speed. It is power that makes the athlete. It is one thing to possess strength and the ability to generate high force, however sports like mma do not occur in slow motion. Mixed martial arts is a rapid sport and requires speed of movement as well as the application of a lot of force. That’s what power is about.

How do we develop power in the mixed martial arts athlete? I like to look at this simplistically. A certain level of power can be developed as a part of strength training when lifts are performed at high velocity. However most strength exercises require deceleration at the top of the lift. For this reason we need to employ other means of power development that are relevant to the task at hand. We would not train a mixed martial arts athlete for power in the same way we would train a shot putter for power. Or would we? Well yes and no. some of the basic foundations of power development are applicable across the board. Things such as basic plyometrics and Olympic lifts are general power development methods that are applicable to the broadest range of athlete. Getting more specific to the combat athlete we employ tools such as kettle bells, which are uniquely designed specifically for power movements with a moderately high level of force. Kettle bells can be used effectively to train a greater number of movement patterns while controlling an external load than can be targeted through plyometrics training and Olympic barbell lifts.

Anaerobic capacity

Anaerobic capacity is simply the capacity of an athlete to perform at maximal or sub-maximal levels for an exhaustive period of time. It is the combined capacity of each of the unsustainable anaerobic energy systems and is generally characterised by burning in the muscles through the production of lactic acid, being completely out of breath and an overwhelming desire to slow down or stop. If you have ever trained or fought in mma then you know the feeling quite well, the feeling can be described as hell on Earth or being completely gassed.

How do we develop anaerobic capacity in the mixed martial arts athlete? Well here’s the fun part because we have so many creative options. Mma athletes are not runners, they are not AFL players, they don’t play basketball. Movements used in the sport of mma are vastly different to anything else and far more varied. We need to cover as many different postures and demands as possible while matching the energy demands of the sport.

Lets break it down…

Mixed martial arts is fought in rounds. Rounds are most commonly five minutes duration, however other formats are occasionally used. During a round there are ups and downs with periods of intense activity followed by very brief periods of recovery. The patterns of movement are endless from striking with all limbs to grappling in a varied array of positions. This needs to be matched when increasing the anaerobic capacity of a fighter. For this reason single modality, continuous cardio such as distance running and cycling are non-specific and are a poor choice for the fighter.

What do we opt for instead? Well this is where we consolidate other physical capacities developed through strength, power and skill training and put it to use either through high intensity circuits that match the time demands of a fighter or actual fight training on the mat or in the ring/cage. The more specific the energy demands the more transferable and effective the training.

Of course, there are other components of fitness involved such as a base of aerobic endurance, however in my experience all aspects of fitness required of a fighter are targeted through the aforementioned three components.

Consolidation of Skills

It must be remembered that mixed martial arts is a sport and that fitness training is a means to an end. The fighter can be the greatest Crossfit athlete on the planet, however this will not overcome poor technical ability for the sport itself. On that note mixed martial arts conditioning must not interfere or impede on fight-specific development, it exists to enhance the athlete and make them a better fighter.

Here I will provide a basic outline for programming for a mixed martial arts fighter of moderate fitness that is relatively new to the sport. We will break down the training into two sample cycles of 90 days each, intended as a follow-on from each other. This will be just a broad outline of programming structure as opposed to specific workouts.

CYCLE ONE - 90 days.

FREQUENCY - five days per week with two rest days.

Breakdown of sessions…

1. Strength - large compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, bench press etc. Keep it simple, keep it heavy, build a base and be progressive.

2. Power and Intervals - basic power training using kettle bells, Olympic lifts (optional) and plyometrics. Long rests, short sets. Finished off with intense intervals of full body movements such as bag slams, burpees and lighter kettle bell exercises. 3-4 intervals of 3-5 minutes each after 20 minutes of heavy power training.

3. Gymnastics Strength Session and Mat Drills/Intervals - Begin with difficult strength training movements using gymnastics rings, floor work, pull-up bar and TRX. Follow up with mat specific floor drills for 3-4 minute intervals of 3-5 minutes each.

4. Strength and Power - low rep compound strength moves followed by power work with kettle bells and plyometrics.

5. Exhaustive Session - mixed intervals involving multiple modalities such as bag slams, burpees, shuttle sprints, kettle bell work, wall ball, obstacle course etc. 7-10 intervals of 2-4 minutes, with each to absolute exhaustion. Finish with a 3-5 minute fast-pace sparring session.

6. Rest day.

7. Rest day.

CYCLE TWO - 90 days.

FREQUENCY - five days per week with two rest days.

Breakdown of sessions…

1. Strength - keep building on the big movements with the addition of rotational movements and begin working on specific isolated weaknesses.

2. Power and Intervals - work the power and intervals together with shorter intervals of 1-2 minutes using kettle bells and plyometric. This session can optionally begin with a few sets of heavy Olympic lifts.

3. As per session three for cycle one with a progression of movements from more basic movements such as pull-ups to muscle ups and push-ups to two-point push-ups etc.

4. Strength and Power - compound barbell work combined with strongman training and lifting and carrying awkward objects. Finish with low-rep plyometrics and heavy kettle bell movements.

5. Exhaustive Session - mixed intervals where anything goes. Introduce a competitive aspect with tyre flip races, kettle bell swings for time or an intense Crossfit session such as Fran.

6. Rest day.

7. Rest day.

Overall this is just scratching the surface of mixed martial arts conditioning and is a very basic and rudimentary look at the sport of mma from a fitness and conditioning perspective. In a face to face and practical situation training fighters I would personally use the structure outlined here with a saw-tooth pattern of periodisation working from broad foundations to specific components to develop a well-rounded fighter.

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