Strength Training for MMA
Mixed martial arts is a sport that brings together the world’s most talented athletes. Since the first UFC aired in November 1993, competitors realized that training for this style of fighting must be comprehensive in nature. The successful athlete understood cross-training and balancing those elements while keeping the body in peak condition. One needs to be aware of this newly evolved sport before developing a strength and conditioning regimen that will be effective. In fact, Jenness (1998) recommended that all fighters seek out qualified personal trainers for consultation with regard to strength training geared toward MMA.
This article will cover an energy system analysis and a logical approach to strength training for performance enhancement and injury prevention. The strength training program outlined in this article is just one approach to many possibilities. In effect, apply the general concept or direction of the program, but tailor it to your fighting client’s needs and goals.
Energy System Analysis
Our muscles are able to contract and perform work due to the presence of adenosine tri-phosphate—a fuel molecule needed to perform work and physical activity. There are three major energy systems the body uses to supply and re-supply ATP during any particular activity, and these systems that must be trained and conditioned for performance enhancement (Whelan, 1996). First, the Adenosine Triphosphate-Phospate Creatine (ATP-PC) System provides energy from cellular storage and replenishment of the adenosine tri-phosphate stored within the muscles. The second system that can produce ATP is the glycolytic system, or glycolysis. The ATP-PC system and the glycolytic system are both anaerobic, meaning the ATP produced through these systems is achieved without the presence of oxygen. The aerobic system is the third system that produces ATP for physical activity, involving the use of oxygen (Powers & Howley, 2001).
When considering the energy systems used for a particular activity, it is important to analyze the intensity of effort and the duration of that effort, as well as considering the types of muscular actions occurring. Experts believe most activities require energy from both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, but the percentage of ATP production from aerobic and anaerobic sources varies according to intensity and duration of the effort involved.
This information indicates that individuals who participate in MMA probably range from about 60-70% anaerobic and 30-40% aerobic to vice versa in terms of energy system involvement. See Contributions of Anaerobic and Aerobic Energy Systems.
Contributions of Anaerobic and Aerobic Energy Systems
Time Anaerobic Aerobic
0-30s 80% 20%
0-60s 70 30
0-120s 60 40
0-240s 40 60
Varying intensities involved in this activity is another consideration. At certain times the athletes may be working close to 100% of their maximum intensity, and at other times a submaximal percentage. Most experts agree that both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are contributing varying percentages at various times during the fight.
In general, there are two types of injuries: acute and chronic. Applying joint locks to the wrist, elbow, shoulder, hip, knee and ankle are legal maneuvers in MMA. A joint lock is a technique that takes a joint to the limits of its range of motion, causing pain. Common sense tells us that, because of the very nature of joint locks, acute musculoskeletal injuries to these joints are a possibility. Dislocations, fractures, sprains and strains occur to the athlete training for and competing in these events. At present, there are no official lists of injuries in this type of sport.
Also, because the mixed martial artist must train intensely and often, there are chronic over-use injuries to be aware of as well. Though physical activity in general is an important element in promoting and maintaining health in the general population, the risk of musculoskeletal injury increases for all levels of participation with increasing physical activity, intensity and duration (Kovaleski, Gurchiek, and Pearsall, 2001).
Many top-level competitors in this sport train three times a day, seven days/week (Penn, 2002), and many have a hard time preventing themselves from training too hard and too often (Maxwell, 2001). With the amount of cross training involved for the MMA athlete, it is safe to say he/she must be aware that overtraining is a constant danger, especially when exerting extra strength and conditioning into the mix.
Overload is an important principle of strength and conditioning training (American College of Sports Medicine, 2000). However, it is not during the overload session that the body becomes stronger or improves conditioning; it is during the planned recovery periods.
Athletes in any contact sport will tell you strength training not only improves performance, but also decreases the likelihood of injury. First, improving the strength of muscles surrounding a joint improves the structural integrity of that joint (Fleck & Kraemer, 1997; Brzycki, 1995). Second, gaining muscle helps to pad falls. Additionally, some experts believe any contact or combat sport should require training for the cervical spine. Cervical spine training should be a priority rather than an end of the workout thought (Fleck & Kraemer, 1997; Leistner, 1996). Prehabilitation is a concept of preventing sports injuries by training specific joints identified as “frequently injured” (Fleck & Kraemer, 1997).
Additionally, the strength training professional should be aware that injuries are a daily threat to the athlete, and that a strength program aids in prevention. Slow movements are encouraged for all exercises to ensure safety. Olympic lifts are dangerous to the MMA athlete because the explosive movements introduce momentum and increase the likelihood for musculoskeletal injury. The strength training program prevents injury, not cause it.
Matt Brzycki’s theory that performance enhancement is the product of practicing the skills involved in the sport and strengthening the muscles (1995) is a good one to follow. The basic strength program recommended here will strengthen the entire body as one functional unit in the safest manner possible, improving performance and preventing injury. There are a variety of approaches and schools of thought on strength and conditioning; this is one recommended method. The “strength” part of the program will be the focus of this article. Keeping an open mind is key to what works for each athlete.
Consequently, a fairly low volume, high intensity approach is recommended for strength training a mixed martial artist. The first program is designed for an athlete in off-season mode: Brooks Kubik’s (1996) “abbreviated training” method, requiring the athlete to perform brief, intense exercises infrequently. See Off-Season Training.
Exercise Sets Reps
Squats 3 5
4-Way Neck 2 (each side) 10
Bench 3 5
Pull Downs 3 5
Military Press 3 5
Deadlifts 3 5
4-Way Neck 2 (each side) 10
Chins 3 5-10
Dips 3 10-20
Curls 3 8
The first set of each exercise uses a modest warm-up weight. The final sets are geared toward muscle failure. Neck training is included toward the beginning of the program to give priority to this important area rather than as an “after thought”, which is how many athletes treat the neck muscles and its structure (Leistner, 1996). The remaining exercises work the bulk of the body in the fewest movements possible, from the largest to the smallest muscles. Exercises can be substituted, but make logical choices such as leg presses (a multi-joint movement) in place of squats, as opposed to substituting with leg extensions (a single-joint movement).
A “pre-fight” program is the other recommended program, used for the athlete who is within 12 weeks of a fight. It is a modification of Mike Mentzer’s Athlete’s Routine (2000). See Table 2, Pre-Fight Training. This routine is very low volume, allowing for maximal efficiency so the athlete will be able to maintain strength while allowing for time (energy and recovery) to condition for the tactics, strategies and demands of an upcoming fight.
Table 2, Pre-Fight Training
Exercise Sets Reps
Dead Lifts 1 5-8
Dips 1 6-10
5-7 Days Later
Exercise Sets Reps
Squats 1 8-15
Close-Grip Pull Downs 1 6-10
The reasoning for this routine is similar to the first program, wherein you want to work as many muscles as possible in the fewest number of sets. This direction in training becomes increasingly more critical as the rigors of competitive conditioning progress. (Note: Only the work sets in the second routine are referenced, and a warm-up and cool-down is essential for safe and effective training. This is true of the first routine also, although the first set of each exercise may be considered a “warm-up” set.)
Prior to beginning any exercise session, the athlete should increase body temperature and gradually prepare joints and muscles for harder work. This could mean 5-10 minutes of cardiovascular exercise followed by 5-10 minutes of stimulation exercises. For example, light deadlifts or squats, light bench press, overhead press and lat pulldowns would be ideal to increase blood flow to the major joints that will be targeted during the strength training session.
American College of Sports Medicine. (2000). ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (Sixth Edition), pp. 80. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.
Brzycki, Matt. 1995. A Practical Approach To Strength Training. Indianapolis, IN: Masters Press.
Fleck, S., Kraemer, W. (1997). Designing Resistance Training Programs. Champagne: Human Kinetics.
Jenness, K. (1998). Fighter’s Notebook. Amherst, MA: Bench Press International.
Kovaleski, J., Gurchiek, L., Pearsall, A. (2001). Musculoskeletal Injuries: Risks, Prevention, and Care. In ACSM’s Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Baltimore, Maryland: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.
Kubik, B. Dinosaur Training: Lost secrets of strength and development. Louisville, KY: Brooks Kubik.
Leistner, K. (1996). Athletic Priorities. Hard Training. Issue # 1, pp.1-2.
Maxwell, S. (2001). Are You OverTrained? Submission Fighter. January, Vol.1, pg. 3.
Mentzer, M. (2000). Muscles In Minutes. Marlborough, MA: Performance Publishing.
Whelan, W. (1996). Energy System, (Not Sport), Specific Training. Hard Training. Issue #1, pg. 9.
Penn, B. (2002). In Hunt, L. Postfight with the Hawaiian Phenom: BJ Penn. Full Contact Fighter. February, Vol. 7, issue 2, pp. 10-11.
Powers, S., Howley, E. (2001). Exercise Physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.