What is at the core of a great MMA fighter? The mastery of various martial arts is a HUGE part of it but strength and conditioning is also a big part. An MMA fighter has to be strong enough to dominate an opponent, throw powerful punches and kicks, absorb impact, and be able to resist a constant application of force. He or she has to be powerful and fast, and have enough endurance to be able to perform at high level for five 5-minute rounds. The training program has to address all of the above qualities without compromising one another. This is the beauty of strength and conditioning training for combat sports. You must become a well rounded athlete. The first eight sessions should be part of a strength phase then you move into a power phase. This is in addition to your own MMA or BJJ training schedule.
First of all, I am not a personal trainer and we are not going to show the hardcore stuff with any sledgehammers, battle ropes, tire flips, or training with a gas mask or snorkel. It does not mean that there is not a place for these. Most people do not have access to these things so they do not use tires and ropes, however you can use them more during the power and endurance development, which happens closer to a fight. In this article, I am simply suggesting that you must consider the following factors. This is based on years of experience in strength and conditioning training myself:
1. Do No Harm
There are still some strength and conditioning coaches out there who train the fighters as if the gym, not the cage, was their main sport. If you get seriously injured during a conditioning session and you jeopardize your career because of it, it means your training failed you. Therefore, the selection of exercise and equipment according to your ability is so important. The gym is not a place to take risks.
Let’s take a sledgehammer as an example. Who remembers David Faulkner from The Ultimate Fighter U.S. versus U.K., when he missed the tire and instead hit the concrete and his leg with a sledgehammer? Does it mean that sledgehammer exercises are bad? Not at all, it just means he shouldn’t have been doing it, as he had no idea how to use the sledgehammer. Sometimes the exercises that look cool are not the best choices.Not to say they are not effective, but the problem is that if you can develop the same qualities using much safer options, why not do that? If you do decide that smashing a tire with a sledgehammer will give you as a fighter an edge, make sure you know how to use the tools before you attempt to do so. Your goal is to make sure the sessions are effective and safe and they contribute to you becoming a better fighter, which brings us to point number 2.
2. Remember The Goal
Seems pretty obvious, but how often do you see fighters who have an ambition to make themselves the best dead-lifters, best sprinters, marathon runners, or even Olympic lifters. The goal is the goal. Cross Fit is the only gym that is a sport. If you want to be good in the Cross Fit Games, Cross Fit training is the way to go, but it does not mean that it is a good way to train as a fighter. Quite the opposite. To give another example, what works for a power lifter will not necessarily work for a fighter. Work on the programs with the goal in mind, remember to test and assess yourself. If you find out that poor mobility is what stops you from increasing strength, address the mobility first before putting more weight on the bar.
3. Strength and Conditioning Are Only Support Sessions
Strength and conditioning sessions are supporting sessions to all other training. If because of your strength and conditioning training makes you so sore for a couple of days that you have to miss fight practice, your strength and conditioning training has failed you. It may happen that you want to increase the intensity of your strength and conditioning sessions, but always make sure it does not conflict with the fighting practices. Also, if it happens that you pushed too hard (which most likely will happen or has already happened to all of us at some point), make a note in your training log and adjust the intensity. The more you know about yourself, the more you can fine-tune the training.
4. Adapt and Overcome
The training has been going great and you are responding well to the sessions. All is going according to the plan. Then one day, the day you have planned a heavy session, you are completely battered from a heavy sparring session. How many times has a similar scenario happened to you? Would you even consider sticking to your program on such a day? The answer is that you have to adapt. Sometimes fighters and their bodies are completely broken. Your job is to build yourself back up, not to exhaust yourself even more. You still need to remember about your goal, however. So whatever you do on that day has to contribute to the goal itself. Don’t skip the workout.
5. Two Heavy Lifts Max
During your strength training sessions you should not use more than two heavy, multi-joint, compound lifts. Sometimes you should use only one. It all depends on how much time you have for a session and your ability on the day. All other exercises done are supplemental work that complements the training and contributes to the strength development.
6. Observe and Record in Detail
During training and assessing, look at the load, technique, the number of repetitions, and the speed at which the weight is moved, which is very important. All of the above should always be logged for future information. For example, let’s say that you dead lift 80% of your 1RM x 5, but the bar moves slowly. You struggle with the last 2 reps but manages to complete them with correct technique. Make a note in your training log, “1x 5 @ 80% 1RM DL.” A couple of sessions later, repeat exactly the same drill, but this time the bar should move quickly. You shouldn’t struggle and there should be no decrease in the speed at which you move the bar. Does it mean you got stronger? Yes, but if you only make a note “1×5@80% 1RM DL” it doesn’t tell you that there has been an improvement. You must also note the speed of the bar.
7. Do Not Max Test Often
You should not test for 1RM more than two times per year, as it is a huge stress for the central nervous system (CNS). Most fighters need to cut weight for competitions, so you should work within 1-6 reps, 80-95% 1RM range, to target the CNS.
8. Keep it Simple
You should like keeping the strength training pretty simple. Exercise selection for strength phase includes deadlift, front and back squat, overhead squat, military (strict) press, bench press, different modification of rows, pull ups (weighted or bodyweight), and various core exercises. The basic principle is to include movements like pull, push, lift, squat, and twist/rotate.
9. Follow a Standard
An example of set standards for combat athletes to make sure they are well rounded and developed in all areas is important. Standards for strength are as follows:
- Deadlift – 2xBW
- Back Squat – 1.75xBW
- Front Squat – 1.5xBW
- Overhead Squat – 5 reps @ 1xBW
- Bench Press -1.5xBW
- Military Press – 0.9xBW
- Pull Up (Weighted) – BW + .5BW
This is only a short introduction, and is only designed to explain the basics upon which you should structure your strength training sessions. Training is based on science, but it is also an art form. In the end there are no right or wrong answers, whatever works is what works, and sometimes it is not what you read in books or articles.