Mixed Martial Arts is the fastest growing sport on earth. It is also the ultimate sport for a Strength and Conditioning Coach like myself to work in. The strength, power and aerobic capacity required of the athlete is extremely challenging to program for. It is the ultimate test of a human being in competition.

From my Personal Training Gym in the Hobart CBD, I also run an athlete development program. The main focus of this is preparing combat athletes for competition.

Whilst there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, today’s blog will be the first installment of three, sharing with you my approach to this challenging task. I’ll be talking mainly about how I approach the strength and power requirements of the sport, I will in other posts, cover developing the aerobic and anaerobic endurance components.

Here are the principals as I apply them.

1. Make the focus of your training program ‘Outcome Specific’.

The major focus for this sport is to be stronger, faster and more enduring for the event. That is, if we can hit harder, wrestle with more strength and do it for longer, then our athlete will probably win the fight (provided that they have a well developed skill set). As such, we should look at helping the athlete make the adaptations mentioned above, with the least possible time in the gym. For every minute you spend in the gym, you lose valuable time in the cage. Time in the gym is rarely more important than time in the cage. Wrestling/Grappling is also a form of strength training and involves all three contraction types (concentric, eccentric and isometric). As such, we must respect the toll it takes on the body and program gym work with this in mind. If we were to clone a great fighter and all skills were even, the one with the highest levels of strength will win the fight. This changes if he sacrifices specific training to attain that strength though. Here is one of the many challenges in balancing the programming for this sport. Strength is also only relevant to the degree that you can apply it quickly and repeatedly.

The Push Arm Band, being worn by the lifter above, gives invaluable insight into the performance of the lifter in any set, rep or session in the training cycle.

2. Relative strength and power are the absolute focus

This means that more often than not, hypertrophy orientated training will be avoided. Whilst there will be times during the Macrocycle (yearly training plan) where hypertrophy will be the focus, we tend to avoid it as we get closer to the fight. Get them strong at their current weight, with the least possible training load. In the training plans that I implement, this involves more training in the 80-95% of 1RM range, working rep ranges that always leave 1-3 reps up our sleeve and a time under tension of less than 20 seconds (per set). This ensures that neural adaptations are made, without the fatigue that negatively affects other training sessions. In doing this, keep it simple and rarely work to failure.

If you could do 5 reps with a given weight, do 3-4. This will leave you feeling better at the end of the session than how you felt when you started. We also want to know that improvements are being made. Objectivity is the key. I use the Push Arm Band to monitor bar/movement speed, this is also a great way to show the athlete how much they are progressing. Some basic KPI’s that we aim for are as follows, 1.7 – 2 x body weight in the full squat, 2 – 2.5 x bodyweight in the deadlift, 1.3 – 1.5 bodyweight in the bench press. Some of you ‘meathead’s out there may be thinking ‘it’s not that much’, and you’d be right. Whilst those strength targets are respectable, they are not stand out numbers for a powerlifter/strongman or Crossfit competitor. The long term goal is always to get stronger than that but we keep in mind that we only need to be strong enough (with skills more important in the short-medium term). That gives us the ability to see strength as a long term focus.

The other thing we measure is how fast they can move a weight (usually about the same as what they’ll have to overcome in the cage i.e. their opponent). For this we use extracts of the olympic lifts or the olympic lifts themselves. We then aim for bar speeds of 1.1 m p/s and a power output of 2100 Watts or above (Measured and tracked by the Push arm band).

3. Non-Specific and varied motor patterns in the sport mean that you can train the athlete for general strength.

This makes things a little easier than training a track and field athlete or a cyclist for example. By simply getting them stronger in all the main lifts (Bench Press, Deadlift, Squat and Pulls) and in a number of different planes of movement, you give them the potential for greater conversion to power later on.

 

4. Transition to power for optimal force expression, super compensation and peaking for the event.

Whilst strength is the key quality we focus on developing, it must be converted to power for optimal performance. This simply means that as we get nearer the event, training becomes more about rate of force development, rather than maximal application of force (in a non-time dependent situation).  In this phase of training we will use Olympic lifts (or extracts of), Plyometrics and Medicine Ball throws. The athlete will also be doing a lot more full contact sparring so the respite that comes from less Barbell work is a welcome adjustment to the training week, allowing them to recover and peak for competition. As mentioned above, we are also monitoring bar/movement speed to ensure that progress is being made. Watch the video below as an example.

 

5. Don’t forget to work the ‘corners’.

This is a term that I first heard of when I was going through my training to become an Army Physical Training Instructor. The term refers to things that may likely be a limiting factor for the sport. It doesn’t matter how strong you are through the trunk and arms if you have weak grips for example. Same goes for the muscles of the neck and the rotator cuff of the shoulder. We implement a year round focus, particularly on the grips and rotator cuff strength. This also covers ‘counter function’ work where we work on restoring good posture, Scapula and Core function. Neck strengthening is also a VERY important thing to develop and is covered in detail at grappling sessions.

 

Summary

MMA is about being a skilled and effective fighter. Increases in strength, power and work capacity will further facilitate this process, allowing the athlete to be a better version of themselves. Developing these qualities should be done in a deliberate and objective manor that doesn’t detract from training the core skills of the sport. I often talk to my athletes about S&C being the icing on the cake. It has to be complementary and supplementary to the specific skills training they are doing. They must first have all the key ingredients for putting together and baking the base of the cake though. Only then can we make them a better athlete for expressing their skill set (the icing). Working in 3-6 week blocks during the off-season (usually directly after a fight) will give the greatest chance of successful adaptation to the program. After all, if it were only about strength and fitness, the UFC would be full of Crossfitters and Strongmen (no hate here for you guys, just an example). Whilst strength can overcome skill if the deficit between the two athletes is great, it has to be a REALLY big difference. Just watch the way former UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia deals with the worlds strongest man in the video below. Superior skill wears down the obvious physical attributes of Mariusz.

 

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO WHERE I WILL COVER THE DEVELOPMENT OF ENERGY SYSTEMS

About the Author

Daniel Lowry

Daniel is a Strength & Conditioning expert and the Co-Founder of the gym concept GTT. He has been in the industry for 13 years, training a broad range of people from Army Special Forces to general populations. He has also worked with professional athletes, specifically in mixed Martial Arts. Daniel has worked with and learnt from the best of the best in the industry, names like Mark Buckley, Charles Poliquin, Dan Baker Phd, Gavin Heward and many more. Daniel considers himself a product of the great mentors he has learnt from.

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