What You Need to Know About MMA Training

Back in November of 1993 the original UFC aired on pay per view to answer the question of which combat style was most effective. Of course we all know what happened – some smallish guy wearing a baggy GI destroyed the competition and altered what everyone thought about what was really effective.

What we discovered was that one pure fighting style wasn’t efficient, and you needed a mixed bag of techniques in order to be a champion. Thus the sport was born and MMA training encompassed all things jiu jitsu, wrestling, boxing, and Muay Thai. You can save the Van Damme split kicks to impress the girlfriend when no one else is around.

MMA Training the Smart Way

Fast forward to today and you can find an abundance of MMA training programs on the internet. However, sport scientists have just begun to touch the tip of the iceberg on what effective training is. Much like the sport itself, strength and conditioning for MMA is, well, pretty dang hard to train for. A running back in football has a pretty specific training program to follow: the demands of the position as well as the sport won’t require much fine tuning. The only difference between program to program is where the individual is weakest at.

MMA on the other hand, presents quite a problem. You know you need strength, but you also need strength endurance: it would be nice to have that strength sitting around in the third round. But you have to be explosive as well. All the endurance in the world won’t do you very good if you punch in slow motion.

If you’re second guessing spending time in the weight room, think again. In a study analyzing blood lactate concentrations (lactate isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an indicator of the intensity of a sport) it was found after competition that purple, brown, and black belts have a 71% increase in their resting lactate concentration (1)! Even 15 minutes after competing, lactate levels were still high. We’ll get to it in a minute, but you can see how specific interval training – and not just endless running – can help the body clear that lactate faster.

Secondly, injuries are huge. A study examined the rate of injury in MMA fighters: they examined 55 pro and amateur fighters over the course of one year. In 12 months, those 55 fighters added up a total of 207 injuries (2). The most common issue was an injury to the neck, making up 38% of all injuries. Interestingly, it’s reported that less than half of MMA fighters train their neck directly (3). Strength training won’t make you completely bulletproof but will certainly help.

So the question is where do we begin? Well, I’ll provide a sample program at the end of this article, but consider the entire body of work a guide of what to do and what not to do rather than just “do this.” As your training evolves, so should your needs. Assuming you have 6-12 weeks to train for a fight, your training should never be the same.

With that being said, here’s the first part of our strength training prescription for MMA, which you can consider the do’s and don’ts:

1. Don’t run. Running is cheap and convenient, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. MMA focuses on five minutes rounds, and sport scientists agree universally that it is a predominantly anaerobic sport (4). This means interval training specific to your sport, and where you’re weak, dominates. The contribution from your aerobic (think endurance) is considered moderate. After all, obsessing over your endurance can suck your body of its strength and power (5).

2. Sport practice and training are not the same thing. Pad work, rolling, takedowns are all done as your sport practice. It’s similar to MJ practicing free throws. It’s not the time to work on your conditioning but rather your technique – and you don’t want sloppy technique from tiring yourself out.

3. Less is more. If you’re training is balls-to-the-wall, then you’re missing the idea. Interval training shouldn’t go beyond the length of a fight, and most strength sessions don’t need to go beyond 50 minutes or else you’ll mess up the balance of testosterone/cortisol in your body.

4. When to change your body. The 6 weeks or so before a fight is not the time to drop body fat or gain muscle. A pound or two isn’t an issue, but trying to drop down a weight class can be disastrous. Fat loss/muscle gain is it’s own animal and needs 8-10 weeks to be accomplished. It also requires a lot of training volume – which is basically time spent away from sport practice.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s cover the basics so you can actually design your own effective program. Like Bruce Lee said – “absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

 

Strength/Power Training

It’s believed that while strength helps, power output can be a direct indicator of athletic performance (5). Sadly, a lot of fighters rely on too many movements and too many reps (see point #1 above for staying powerful). Ditch the high rep schemes and stick to a 2-3 day split. Your best bet is to follow a non-linear training plan. Non-linear refers to daily or weekly changes in the load, sets, and reps that you do.

In this case you can focus one session on strength and the other on power. If you want to train a third day, you could make that active recovery and simply do 2-3 sets of 10 reps (with a 15 RM) or focus on power endurance. In power endurance, you wouldn’t go as heavy but would be focusing on knocking out 1-2 reps of a power clean with 30 seconds of rest between each set. So your workout would look like this:

2 reps clean pull
Rest 20 seconds
2 reps clean pull
Rest 20 seconds
2 reps clean pull
Rest 20 seconds
2 reps clean pull
Rest 3 minute and repeat

The power day is also a chance to up your speed game. Subjects who trained with relatively light weights – 30% of 1RM or a weight you could do reps with endlessly – and had increases in peak power as well as improving their 20m sprint speed (6).

A word on the strength aspect though: you’ll drive yourself nuts trying to be “too specific” to the sport when it comes to strength training. Yes, sport-specificity is important, but I would argue that structural balance is even more important (meaning your external rotators aren’t too weak compared to your pectorals). Stick with the basic movements: a hip hinge, a squat, a press, and a pull are the way to go.

For long term gains, follow a plan that allows you some time to recover. Every few weeks you should take a deload in which you drop the weight down along with the reps. If you’ve been doing 6 sets, than simply cut down to 3. Research supports a 1 week deload for every 3 weeks of hard training (7).

 

Conditioning – The Stand Up Game

Pad work and sparring are great, but that’s not the time to improve your conditioning. Yes, you’ll break a sweat and breathe heavier but you won’t be able to push the limit on your conditioning level. The stand up game though offers some cool things you can do to provide a sports-specific approach to your training.

In one aspect, you could focus on the 5-5 concept – which is where you spend 5 seconds on striking and 5 seconds on recovery (5). This can be done to condition specific technique based on whatever your strategy may be.

You could also crank up the intensity by focusing on a total body, MMA circuit like this:

– Heavy bag punching for 20 seconds non-stop (full speed)
– Switch kicks for 15 seconds non stop (full speed)
– Active rest for 60 seconds (footwork). 5-8 rounds should do the trick.

MMA Training the Smart Way

Conditioning – The Ground Game

Once again you can have some fun with this. You basically have two choices when it comes to your conditioning: loaded carries and tumbling. You can even combine the two for a nice one-two punch.

Loaded carries are pretty simple: simply bearhug a grappling dummy, training partner, heavybag, or a sandbag and carry it for a distance. The distance shouldn’t be anything excessive, because this is more about repeated efforts than anything else (unless you plan on carrying your opponent through the cage, down the aisle, and then slamming them into the locker room floor).

Tumbling is just getting on the ground. Sprawls, shoulder rolls or even mimicking guard passes can work. A workout would look like this:

Loaded carry for 5 seconds / 5 sprawls / loaded carry for 5 seconds / 5 sprawls. Active rest (footwork) for 60 seconds

Physical Challenge

Sometimes it helps to throw in a physical challenge at the end of a hard week. This should occur right before a deload and of course shouldn’t happen anywhere near a scheduled fight. This is your chance to get a little crazy before recovering for a week. Physical challenges build mental strength, character, and confidence.

The only rule here is to not get too crazy – basically set something up that should take around 10 minutes to complete. Maybe a 50 rep squat challenge with bodyweight, push a heavy sled for 200 meters, etc. It shouldn’t be something that you can knock out without taking a break but it also shouldn’t be too easy. Just make sure it’s something that you can recover from and that won’t affect your sports practice.

Sample Workout

Here’s a sample workout of everything that we discussed:

Power DayStrength DayPower Endurance
Full Snatch (65-85%)

5 x 2, 180 sec rest

Front Squat (70-90%)

3 x 3, 4-1-1-1

Power Clean (50-65%)

4/2 x 3*

Speed squat (30%)

6 x 3, 45 sec rest

Snatch Deadlift (70-90%)

3 x 3, 4-1-1-1

Snatch Pull (50-65%)

4/2 x 3*

Box Jump

4 x 6, 90 sec rest

Overhead Press (70-90%)

3 x 3, 4-1-1-1

Power Step Up

4/4 x 4*

Med Ball Chest Pass

4 x 8, 90 sec rest

Gi Pull Up

3 x 3, 4-1-1-2

*4/2 means do 4 sets of 2 reps with 25 seconds of rest. After your fourth set, then rest for 3 minutes

They don’t call it mixed martial arts for nothing. Make sure that your training game has enough sensible variety to make you a mixed master of the training game too!

 

References

 

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