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Warm-up, Stretching, and Cool-down Strategies for Combat Sports

Costa, Pablo B PhD1; Medeiros, Hugo B O BS2; Fukuda, David H MS, CSCS3

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 6 - p 71-79
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31823504c9
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Abstract

Contemporary mixed martial arts (MMA) originated from No Holds Barred competitions in Brazil, which derives from the Portuguese translation “vale-tudo” (literally, “anything goes”) (29,37). MMA has existed for decades in Brazil and other countries (13,29), and is increasing in popularity, while combining different fighting styles (martial arts) (1,2,6,13). Combatants wearing minimal protective gear can use punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes, stomps, chokes, joint locks, throws, and more to obtain a victory by knock-out, technical knock-out, or submission (16). Arguably, the most important occurrence has been the creation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which, along with the interest of executives, has required fighters to become more prepared in their training as well as physically conditioned and well-rounded in different disciplines for these events (32). Thus, the UFC was the major commercialization of a sport that has been around for thousands of years. The physiological demand of MMA as a sport is tremendous, potentially taxing all energy systems (13).

PROPER WARM-UP

Adequate preparation is necessary for any athlete during the various phases of training and competition. This is especially true given the overall training intensity that is required of an MMA fighter (8). Consequently, a warm-up routine before a training session is generally accepted and is a widely used practice before performing other forms of exercise (15,31,34). With an effective warm-up routine, an athlete can improve the initial state of physical and mental readiness necessary for muscular performance (31). Thus, a successful warm-up routine can improve subsequent performance, reduce muscle soreness, and aid in the prevention of injuries (5,15,30,31,39). Muscles, tendons, and ligaments become more compliant as the temperature of the tissue is increased, possibly decreasing the risk of injury (31). Other benefits include enhanced aerobic power and lower levels of lactate, increased speed of muscle contraction and transmission of neuronal impulses, greater movement economy, facilitated oxygen delivery, and increased cardiac output and blood flow (8,24,27,31,43). Scientific evidence has suggested that an active warm-up appears to be more beneficial than a passive warm-up (5). Hence, a warm-up should involve major muscles used in the training or competition, be similar to the activity to be engaged, progress from lower to higher intensity, and be at least 10 minutes in duration (14), depending on environmental conditions. It should gradually increase in intensity sufficiently enough to increase muscle and core temperature without causing fatigue or depleting energy stores (31). In contrast, although an increase in body temperature may be advantageous, an excessive rise in temperature may impair body function processes and consequently lead to negative effects on overall performance (10,11,25). Thus, more attention must be given to the methods and types of warm-up.

A warm-up can be classified as general or specific (31). A general warm-up refers to the type of warm-up in which movements and energy substrates that are predominant in the sport are not explicitly addressed. With this type of warm-up, heart rate, blood flow, muscle temperature, respiratory rate, and sweating are increased (5,9). For example, a general warm-up involving running increases internal body and muscle temperature and prepares the cardiovascular system for performance. A warm-up is normally considered adequate when the athlete begins to sweat.

A specific warm-up refers to a routine that is more specific to a particular activity, in which movements are performed that mimic the training of the intended activity, in this case, combat sports. Dynamic and static stretches have traditionally served as a warm-up for the muscles directly involved in the sport (5,9). A warm-up routine that is appropriately timed and performed is essential for the athlete to benefit the most from training and competing. For the purpose of practical application, a sequence of exercises is demonstrated (Figures 1, 2 and Table 1) and can be placed into the warm-up routine of an MMA athlete. This combination of stimuli lasts approximately 10–15 minutes, with only 20–30 seconds of recovery between exercises.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Example of a warm-up routine. (a) Alternating the base with a trunk rotation mimicking the movement of takedown. (b) Alternating the base with a trunk rotation mimicking the movement of a single-leg takedown. (c) Mimicking the sprawl movement, used to defend from takedowns with upright stabilization using preferred leg forward and isometric push-up once on the floor. (d) Stabilization exercise known as “superman,” used to mimic passing the guard while moving and in balance. (e) Movement to mimic abdomen strength effort from the guard position.
Figure 2
Figure 2:
Example of a warm-up routine. (a) Movement to mimic abdomen strength effort during trunk rotation from the guard position. (b) Movement to mimic stabilization done with a partner, using isometric muscle actions to stabilize the lower back and abdomen, increasing the strength in this region during the movement of guard passing. (c) Same concept as above, but from a standing position, to increase lower back and abdomen strength. (d) Dynamic movement to switch bases, mimicking knee strikes. (e) Movement of getting up from the guard, heavily used during fights.
Table 1
Table 1:
Warm-up routine

FLEXIBILITY

During a fight, it is evident that certain movements require a rather large range of motion and mobility. A decreased range of motion in the basic movements necessary in a fight can impair striking motions while standing or on the ground. In addition, a lack of mobility can make it more difficult to escape from possible submission attempts. Hence, the level of flexibility in this case is directly associated with range of motion, and if it is low, it can negatively affect performance. Furthermore, the importance of flexibility is increased in combat sports, which require movements to be performed in the extreme ends of the range of motion, such as in jiu-jitsu, muay thai, and MMA (17,42). For example, head kicks and arm-bar submission escapes require high levels of hip and shoulder flexibility, respectively (Figure 3). Specifically, high levels of flexibility of the hip and knee joint are necessary for a high kick, and high levels of flexibility (and strength) of the shoulder joint are necessary when trying to rotate the arm around the shoulder joint when attempting to escape from an arm-bar submission. Hence, MMA is a combat sport that requires mobility and an enhanced range of motion in specific movements, particularly in the hip and shoulder joints. Stretching exercises should aim to mimic and replicate these movements as much as possible. Although an extensive discussion on stretching is beyond the scope of this article, a distinction between dynamic and static stretching is crucial because studies have shown that acute static stretching may induce performance decrements (7). For example, pre-activity static stretching has been shown to reduce strength, power, speed, balance, and vertical jump performance (7). In addition, the theory of stretching for injury risk prevention is questionable (18,19). Furthermore, static stretching does not elevate body temperature and hence cannot be considered a warm-up. Therefore, it is suggested that static stretching exercises should be performed after training or in an entirely separate training session.

Figure 3
Figure 3:
Example of the importance of flexibility in combat sports. Fighter performing a front high kick to the face and attempting an arm-bar submission escape.

Flexibility is used and required for various movements in activities of daily living, and in some sports it becomes more important than others. Thus, maintaining an optimal level of flexibility may increase the performance of athletes in combat sports. Flexibility can be defined as the maximal passive physiological amplitude for a given joint motion (3,4). Flexibility is specific and may be different across gender, age, level of physical activity, and anatomical and musculotendinous structures (5,35). Flexibility is also specific to each joint and movement, and, for example, one athlete can present different levels of range of motion for flexion and extension in the same joint (20,38). Maintaining an adequate level of flexibility is both crucial and necessary to enhance performance in athletes. The stretching exercises (listed in Tables 2, 3 and Figures 4, 5) for training flexibility can be classified as active, passive, ballistic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (5). As an example of this training application for MMA, dynamic stretching is recommended for various reasons. First, the athlete reproduces similar movements during the warm-up that he/she will use in training or in a fight, including specific rehearsal of movement before exercise (22,23,41). In addition, research suggests an advantageous increase in body temperature with dynamic stretching (23,44) when compared with static stretching, an increase in neuromuscular activity (21), stimulation of the nervous system (28,44), and an association with postactivation potentiation (21,26,36,41,44), leading to performance enhancements.

Table 2
Table 2:
Static stretching
Table 3
Table 3:
Dynamic/ballistic stretching
Figure 4
Figure 4:
Example of static stretching exercises. (a) Static stretching for the guard. (b) Static stretching for the open guard, used often during sweeps. (c) Static stretching with a switched base, used during sweeps. (d) Static stretching for the upper body limbs.
Figure 5
Figure 5:
Example of dynamic stretching exercises. (a) Dynamic back roll, mimicking movements when fighting on the ground. (b) Movement of flexion and extension of the hips and lumbar spine while attempting to switch bases often necessary during a fight or training. (c) Base switch while on the ground, using the movement of “scissors” to switch bases and to stand up during a fight. (d) Dynamic stretching for the adductors, often used during passing of the guard.

COOL-DOWN

A training session consists of a warm-up, the training itself, and a cool-down (14,33). After training, a low-intensity cool-down session should be performed to facilitate a gradual transition from an exercise level to a resting state (33). A cool-down period is essential after a training session and should last approximately 5–10 minutes (33,34). This cool-down period is characterized as a way to transition the body to a state of relaxation after training and if done properly can optimize the process of recovery (12). In fact, a cool-down protocol can effectively recover the heart rate and blood pressure to pre-exercise resting levels leading to an antiarrhythmic effect and protecting the individual from a cardiac event or hypotensive episode (40). For example, the cool-down during recovery can help facilitate venous return and subsequently prevent pooling of venous blood (33,40). Thus, intensity should be gradually decreased followed by stretching (14). In addition, the cool-down may minimize muscle soreness and stiffness after training or competition (14).

Table 4 and Figure 6 presents examples of 4 movements that can be used during the cool-down period after an MMA training session with the purpose of enhancing relaxation of the muscles and reducing the time needed for recovery for subsequent training sessions.

Table 4
Table 4:
Cool-down
Figure 6
Figure 6:
Example of cool-down exercises. (a) Lumbar cool-down using the “scissors” movement. (b) Trunk cool-down, especially of the abdomen muscles heavily used during a fight or training. (c) Back roll mimicking fighting movements in which the opponent rolls the fighter backward and achieves top control. This exercise helps the fighter relax in this position often used during a fight. (d) Light stretch for the lumbar region and anterior thigh muscles mimicking positions in which the fighter is on the ground and attempts to stand up by grabbing the opponent's leg(s).

CONCLUSION

MMA is composed of various combat sports that require intense physical training. A comprehensive strength and conditioning program for an MMA athlete should include appropriately planned warm-up, cool-down, and stretching components. Warm-up sessions may be both general and specific but should be designed to focus on active or dynamic movements. Stretching programs are crucial for sport-specific movements but should be part of postexercise cool down routines or used as a separate focused effort to enhance flexibility. Cool-down strategies should be developed to enhance the return to basal metabolic levels and aid in postexercise recovery.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The authors would like to thank former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight title contender Thales Leites for the time taken to pose for the pictures in this article. They would also like to thank Mega Sport Center Gym and Huston Huffman Center for making their facilities available for the pictures to be taken.

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Keywords:

combat sports; grappling; Ultimate Fighting Championship; reality fighting; mixed martial arts; MMA

© 2011 National Strength and Conditioning Association