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Strength and Conditioning Considerations for Female Mixed Martial Artists

Schick, Monica G MS, CSCS1; Brown, Lee E EdD, CSCS*D, FNSCA2; Schick, Evan E MS, CSCS1

Strength and Conditioning Journal: February 2012 - Volume 34 - Issue 1 - p 66-75
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31824443e2
Article
Free

MIXED MARTIAL ARTS (MMA) IS A COMBAT SPORT THAT COMBINES BRAZILIAN JIU-JITSU (BJJ), MUAY THAI KICKBOXING, AND WRESTLING. ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE CAN BE ENHANCED BY THE APPLICATION OF A TRAINING PROGRAM SPECIFIC TO MMA, WHICH IS A PHYSICALLY DEMANDING ACTIVITY THAT USES BOTH ANAEROBIC AND AEROBIC ENERGY SYSTEMS. THERE IS NO PEER-REVIEWED RESEARCH REGARDING THE BEST POSSIBLE TRAINING METHODS FOR A FEMALE MMA FIGHTER. THIS ARTICLE WILL ASSESS THE PHYSIOLOGICAL DEMANDS OF MMA, EXAMINE THE NEEDS OF FEMALE COMBAT ATHLETES, DISCUSS PEER-REVIEWED RESEARCH ABOUT COMBAT SPORT TRAINING METHODS, AND SUGGEST PROPER SPORT-SPECIFIC TRAINING STRUCTURES THAT WILL OPTIMIZE PERFORMANCE AND REDUCE THE RISK OF INJURY.

1Department of Kinesiology, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio; and 2Department of Kinesiology, California State University Fullerton, Fullerton, California

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Monica G. Schickis a doctoral student in the Exercise Biology Laboratory at the University of Toledo.

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Lee E. Brownis a professor of Strength and Conditioning and director of the Center of Sport Performance at California State University, Fullerton.

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Evan E. Schickis a doctoral student in the Exercise Biology Laboratory at the University of Toledo.

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INTRODUCTION

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a new combat sport that combines boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). The growing sport of MMA gained mainstream attention on November 12, 1993, when Royce Gracie, an accomplished BJJ expert, dominated the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in Denver, Colorado (61). Gracie's opponents during his tenure as 3-time UFC champion were practitioners of other styles of martial arts such as boxing, shootfighting, kickboxing, karate, judo, and taekwondo. Competitors during the early days of the UFC were specialists in their trade and, unlike today, did not train in other martial arts. The introduction of MMA into mainstream consequently attracted countless participants in the United States (61).

Although the majority of mixed martial artists are male, there are also female athletes who train and compete in this male-dominated combat sport. The number of participants in women's MMA is continuously growing partly because of 2 reasons: first, MMA is a means for female wrestlers to participate in combat sports after their collegiate wrestling careers. Second, the implementation of Title IX in 1972 led to a large increase of female participation in sports at the high school and collegiate level (11). According to a longitudinal study, the number of women in high school sports increased by a factor of 9, whereas the number of women in college sports increased by more than 450% since Title IX (11). In fact, according to a 2011 report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the 2010–11 wrestling season saw women's participation increase 19.8 percent from the previous year (33).

Male and female mixed martial artists have different needs to address regarding physical fitness and athletic performance. Although men and women increase strength at the same rate, performance can be enhanced by the application of a female-specific training program that addresses physical limitations while being contoured to the unique sport of MMA. Two areas that must be emphasized when designing resistance training programs for women are increasing upper-body strength and preventing injuries, especially in the knee. MMA is physically demanding and uses both anaerobic and aerobic energy systems. There is limited peer-reviewed research regarding the best possible training methods for the MMA fighter and none on the subject of women fighters. The aim of this article is to assess the physiological demands of MMA, discuss available peer-reviewed research concerning combat sport-specific training methods, and suggest proper training structures that will optimize performance and reduce the risk of injury for female fighters.

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STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING CONSIDERATIONS FOR FEMALE MIXED MARTIAL ARTISTS

Designing a program specifically for female MMA fighters is essential because of the physiological and anatomical differences between men and women. One of the most significant physiological differences is the disparity in testosterone. This lack of testosterone explains why men have a greater amount of lean body mass (LBM) than women. Testosterone plays a significant role in determining the extent to which the body adapts to strength training because it is perhaps the most potent promoter of cell growth and muscular hypertrophy (57,58). For example, an average male between 20 and 29 years has 15.9% body fat, whereas his female counterpart has 22.1% (45). Women in combat sports need to focus on increasing LBM because of its direct relationship with strength and anaerobic capacity, to physiological measures that women tend to lack compared with men (21,30,31,37). Female combat athletes must improve their anaerobic power because it is an essential component for technique execution (39). Furthermore, Kubo et al (41) investigated the sport of Judo, which is a common discipline in MMA, and found that across all performance levels, judo athletes (judokas) with greater LBM had a physical advantage over their opponents.

Female fighters can increase LBM by following a structured weight training program that focuses on increasing circulating testosterone (59). Testosterone release can be manipulated by performing multijoint lifts (squat, power clean, deadlift, etc.), decreasing rest periods in between sets, increasing the number of sets (at least 3), and increasing intensity (10RM range) (16). Multijoint and power exercises must be completed before single-joint lifts because they stimulate circulating testosterone serum level throughout the workout (12).

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METABOLIC COSTS OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS

Strength and conditioning professionals must design a training regimen that accurately reflects the metabolic demand of the sport. A women's MMA fight is typically made of three 3-minute rounds compared with men's nontitle fights of three 5-minute rounds. All 3 bioenergetic pathways (phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative) can be taxed within a full 9-minute fight (42). Exercise intensity is the most important variable in determining which energy system is activated the most to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for muscular work (12). Each fight contains periods of recovery and rest between intermittent bursts of high-intensity movements. For example, fighters may actively rest on the mat after a successful takedown or circle each other after a series of strikes. The ATP-phosphocreatine and glycolytic energy systems produce ATP anaerobically at a very high rate and are the predominant sources of ATP in an MMA fight when the fighter attempts a quick movement like a takedown (12). These high-intensity movements are counterbalanced by low-intensity periods that allow a fighter to actively recover. During these periods of recovery, the supply of ATP to previously active tissue must be slower and more continuous. In these instances ATP is produced aerobically, allowing the anaerobic energy pathways to restore for the next high-intensity energy movement (12). Thus, the more aerobically fit the athlete, the better she will be able to recover quickly between rounds and between high intensity bursts.

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INTERVAL TRAINING

The principle of specificity states that sports training must be similar and appropriate to the activity to produce a positive training effect (47). Because MMA is both anaerobic and aerobic in nature, interval training needs to be implemented to mirror the demands of the sport. Since the metabolic demand of the training sessions must be similar to the fight, female MMA fighters should partake in 3 sets of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for 3 minutes followed by rest for 1 minute. HIIT is characterized by alternating high-intensity exercise bouts with relatively longer active recovery periods (23). Benefits of HIIT include increasing o2 max while delaying muscular fatigue (60), improving body composition, increasing anaerobic power (38), and increasing oxidative capacity in skeletal muscle faster than continuous exercise (23). Compared with traditional circuit training, which is done at a lower intensity at a greater total volume, HIIT must be performed at a minimum of 90% of o2 max (24).

An example interval workout could include a circuit where the athlete would cycle through stations and perform exercises back to back without rest (Table 1). She would perform a predetermined number of repetitions of jump squats, medicine ball slams, kettle bell swings, push-ups, medicine ball rotations, and shoulder presses consecutively until all exercises have been completed. An example of a HIIT workout could include MMA-specific exercises (Table 2), where the work and rest periods replicate a competitive fight. For example, the fighter can shadow box for 1 minute, kick the heavy bag for 30 seconds, do takedown drills with a partner for 1 minute, perform a shrimping drill for 30 seconds (Figure 1a and 1b), and finish with guard passing drills for another. The fighter will then rest for 1 minute before starting the circuit again because rest periods in between sets reflect the duration used in a real fight. The magnitude of acute growth hormone responses in strength-trained women is greater with shorter rest intervals between sets compared with longer rest periods (8). Interval training in the form of HIIT and circuit training would be extremely beneficial to mixed martial artists because it is both metabolically and biomechanically specific to MMA.

Table 1

Table 1

Table 2

Table 2

Figure 1

Figure 1

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STRENGTH

Static strength is essential in MMA because fighters use isometric muscle actions constantly during the course of a fight. They use static strength when holding each other in position on the ground to maintain control, grasp opponents above and below the waist, and to pin down their opponent on the mat after a takedown. It is also imperative in kickboxing when the fighters perform a clinch (2 hands behind opponent's neck) when throwing knees. Female MMA fighters can implement isometric exercises in their strength training routine by performing isometric push-ups (lower body half way down and hold the position for 10–30 seconds), isometric squats (back against the wall with hips at or below 90 degrees, hold for 10–30 seconds), or performing pull-ups with a towel to develop grip strength (Figure 2). These exercises will develop isometric strength and endurance, vital abilities fighters must have in MMA.

Figure 2

Figure 2

McGuigan et al (44) examined the relationships between isometric maximal strength (PF), rate of force development (RFD), and 1 repetition maximum (1RM) strength with other variables that contribute to successful performance in college wrestling. Eight division III college wrestlers participated in the study and were tested for PF and RFD using isometric mid-thigh pull exercise, 1RM using squat, bench press, and power clean exercises as well as vertical jump for explosive muscular power. Results indicated strong correlations between measures of PF and 1RM (r = 0.72–0.97). According to McGuigan, RFD may not be as important as maximum strength for collegiate wrestlers because he did not find any correlations between RFD and measures of strength and performance. Female MMA fighters, like wrestlers, may benefit from heavy strength training to increase isometric maximal strength. Although heavy strength training benefits isometric maximal strength, because of the principle of specificity, the best way to increase isometric maximal strength is to regularly perform isometric strength exercises.

Mixed martial artists are required to have exceptional cervical muscular strength due to the loads placed on the cervical spine. The neck is constantly under strain when being pulled down in a clinch or when the fighter is in a contorted position on the ground. MMA fighters must bridge on the neck to escape an unfavorable position from the bottom. For instance, in executing a technique called “the can opener,” which is performed when the fighter is in their opponent's guard (opponent's legs wrapped around the waist), the fighter grabs her opponent's head and pulls hard to force the opponent to submit. The nature of MMA places athletes at risk for cervical injury because of the unnatural contorted positions (36); therefore, having a strong neck reduces the risk of injury and decreases the level of discomfort for the athlete. Neck exercises should target all major motions including neck flexion, extension, and lateral flexion. Female MMA fighters can add isometric neck exercises, bridges (Figure 3), or a face down/face up plate neck resistance exercises to their routine in addition to concentric and eccentric exercises.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Upper-body strength is paramount to the physically well-rounded MMA fighter because much of the sport involves engaging by striking or holding the opponent with the upper limbs. Women lack strength compared with men particularly in the upper body (21,31,37), thereby making it a necessary area of focus in strength training. Upper-body lifts, such as bench press, bent-over rows, lat pull-down, and shoulder presses, must be a regular part of the training routine. Women can incorporate these exercises into their HIIT, circuit training, and strength training programs, placing focus on the multijoint exercises at the beginning of the workout. When completing a heavy strength training day, female MMA fighters will benefit from large multijoint exercises like the military press, bench press, push press, and weighted pull-ups done at high intensity (75–85% 1RM). The female fighter can also integrate a number of upper-body exercises into their warm-up by completing a set number of push-ups and pull-ups before martial arts practice. Thus, women MMA fighters will gain an advantage over their opponent through incorporating intense upper-body training.

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LOWER-EXTREMITY INJURY PREVENTION

Jarret et al (36) evaluated the data of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Injury Surveillance System on collegiate wrestling to report musculoskeletal issues. The knee, shoulder, and ankle were the most commonly injured regions. The mechanism of injury was the rotation about a planted foot, one of the main causes of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in female athletes. Previous literature has shown that a neuromuscular training program using plyometrics and speed, agility, and quickness (SAQ) training can improve athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury in female athletes (17,48-50,53,55). Women are up to 8 times more likely than their male counterparts to injure their ACL in the same sport (2). Combat styles that involve striking, like boxing (7) and kickboxing (22), have been shown to have a higher incidence of injury compared with grappling styles (36), possibly due to giving and receiving high velocity blows. Notwithstanding, grappling also poses a high risk for women because of the distorted positions the limbs can be forcibly placed in (36). There are also many submissions used in MMA, like the knee bar and heel hook, which are used to specifically damage an opponent's knee (3). Accordingly, female MMA fighters need to develop explosiveness and proprioceptive awareness to avoid injury in training and competition (48).

Myer et al (51) examined the effects of a comprehensive neuromuscular training program on measures of performance and lower-extremity movement biomechanics in female athletes. Forty-one female basketball, soccer, and volleyball players underwent 6 weeks of training that included plyometrics, core strengthening and balance, resistance training, and speed training. At the end of the protocol, subjects were able to improve measures of vertical jump, single-leg hop distance, speed, bench press, squat, knee ROM, and knee varus and valgus torques compared with their pretrained values and control group. The improvements were statistically (P > 0.05) and clinically (functionally) significant, displaying up to a 92% improvement (51). Hewett et al (28) used the same neuromuscular training program and evaluated the effects on serious knee injury rates and female athletes. Results demonstrated that plyometrics supplemented with resistance training reduced serious knee injuries in adolescent volleyball, soccer, and basketball players.

Mandelbaum et al (43) investigated whether a neuromuscular and proprioceptive performance program was effective in decreasing the incidence of anterior cruciate ligament injury within competitive female soccer players. Soccer is transferable to MMA because both sports require athletes to quickly change direction, pivot, and perform intermittent explosive movements. All 844 female athletes participated in either their traditional warm-up or a sports-specific training intervention over a 2-year period. The intervention consisted of education, stretching, strengthening, plyometrics, and sports-specific agility drills designed to replace the traditional warm-up. Anterior cruciate ligament injuries decreased by 88% compared with the control group in the following year. In the year after, there was a 74% reduction in ACL tears in the treatment group compared with age- and skill-matched controls. Hence, the neuromuscular and proprioceptive program was effective in decreasing ACL injuries in female athletes.

Neuromuscular training protocols that combine plyometrics and dynamic balance exercises can significantly improve biomechanics and neuromuscular performance and reduce lower-extremity injury in women. Myer et al (49) compared the effects of plyometrics versus dynamic stabilization and balance training on power, balance, strength, and landing force in female athletes. Nineteen high-school female athletes trained 3 times a week for 7 weeks, either in the plyometric or in the balance group. The results of the study suggest that both plyometric and balance training are effective methods of increasing neuromuscular power and control and must be combined to maximize its effectiveness. Women combat athletes are at high risk of lower-body injury from kicking, decelerating, pivoting, abruptly changing direction, and having their joints in compromised positions (6). They will benefit from a combination of power, balance, and SAQ training (Table 3).

Table 3

Table 3

Proper conditioning will help female mixed martial artists remain injury-free in training and competition. Women have specific anatomical characteristics that contribute to the increased risk of injury: larger Q angles (46), excessively valgus knee angles (28), narrow femoral intercondylar notches (52), and an inability to optimally activate hamstrings during deceleration (15,48). Incidences of noncontact ACL injuries are greater in women than men in the same sport (55), but the risk of injury can be considerably reduced with proper power, balance, and posterior chain training. Since strength is the basis for power, athletes are required to be adequately strength trained before undertaking a power-based training program (12).

SAQ training uses speed, agility, and quickness drills to develop straight ahead speed, lateral speed, change of direction, and deceleration. Strength and conditioning coaches design SAQ programs to improve their athlete's ability to execute precise movements at high speeds. Female athletes are known to have anatomical and biomechanical issues that impair their ability to change direction and decelerate (15,48). Decreased ability to decelerate and control dynamic knee valgus may be related to the muscular imbalance of the hamstrings to quadriceps in females (29). Thus, drills such as shuttle runs, speed ladder drills, speed skaters (Figure 4) and dot drills are beneficial for female athletes to develop dynamic leg strength while increasing knee and ankle strength and stability.

Figure 4

Figure 4

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ERGOGENIC AIDS

Nutritional ergogenic aids are useful tools for female athletes to enhance performance, speed recovery, and reduce fatigue. Although some ergogenic aids can be harmful, there are many that are safe and have a positive effect on performance (9,10,14,34,35,62). Supplements that would be beneficial for female fighters include whey protein and creatine. Whey protein is a thoroughly researched supplement that has been shown to be effective in building muscle and decreasing recovery time (32,35). Also rigorously investigated, creatine is primarily used to improve power and performance during short bursts of activity (4,40). Whey protein and creatine may be functional instruments to boost the female fighter's performance.

Many studies suggest that ingestion of protein and branched chain amino acids after strength training can enhance skeletal muscle hypertrophy in response to chronic resistance training (1,5,9,10,14,26,34,62). Supplementation with protein can also reduce postexercise muscle soreness after high-intensity workouts (32). Hoffman et al (32) examined the efficacy of pre-exercise and postexercise protein ingestion on recovery from an acute resistance training session. Fifteen male strength/power athletes were randomly divided into a supplement (SUP) or placebo (PL) group and were tested for maximal strength. Blood draws occurred at baseline, immediate, and 15 minutes postexercise to determine testosterone, cortical, and creatine kinase (CK) concentrations. Subjects reported back to the laboratory 24 and 48 hours later for a baseline blood draw and to perform 4 sets of 10 repetitions with 80% of 1RM for squat exercise. As a result, CK concentrations were significantly (P < 0.05) elevated at the post–24-hour blood draw for both groups but continued to elevate (P < 0.05) at 48 h for PL only. These results indicate that protein supplementation before and after a resistance training session significantly contribute to recovery 24 and 48 hours postexercise.

Creatine is most commonly used to improve power and performance during short bursts of activity. It is a naturally occurring nitrogenous compound made in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas and found in red meat. Creatine supplementation may enhance the effects of intense interval endurance training (38) and has been shown to increase muscle strength, power output, and muscle mass (4,18,40). It is most useful in high-intensity short-duration exercises because it may enhance intramuscular phosphocreatine synthesis, thereby improving the cell's potential for rapid ATP production (20). Cox et al (13) observed that acute creatine supplementation improved elite female soccer players' performance in repeated sprint and agility tasks. Creatine has been shown to improve anaerobic working capacity in both men and women (18) and is a viable option for female mixed martial artists seeking to increase anaerobic power.

In addition to losing large amounts of important minerals during a menstrual cycle, research shows that female athletes often display poor dietary behavior (27). Since MMA is a weight class–based sport, fighters usually undergo a drastic weight-loss process that can be detrimental to performance. Female mixed martial artists can benefit from consuming whey supplementation immediately post-workout to increase muscular hypertrophy and reduce the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness, and creatine will be useful in increasing power output.

Since whey protein can enhance muscle hypertrophy response to resistance exercise in healthy adults (10,34,35,62) and decrease muscle damage and soreness (32), female mixed martial artists can benefit from consuming whey supplementation immediately post-workout to increase muscular hypertrophy and reduce the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness. They must consume a protein–carbohydrate beverage immediately post-exercise, which can be easily accomplished by drinking chocolate milk infused with whey protein after practice. Recommended daily whey protein consumption is 1.5–2.0 g/kg of body weight to increase LBM and anaerobic capacity (12). Effective supplementation may allow the female fighter to retain muscle and recover faster during this strenuous weight loss process.

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PERIODIZATION

The purpose of periodization is to transfer a variety of performance variables (power, strength, and endurance) to their highest rate of development with the goal of peaking at the right time while avoiding stagnation, injury, and overtraining (19). The 2 major models of periodization are linear and nonlinear (undulating) (56). Linear periodization (LP) is characterized by slow but progressive increases of intensity over time, whereas non-LP is varied and includes large daily fluctuations in intensity (56).

A properly periodized program can prevent the risk of injury by altering intensity, exercise selection, and volume, effectively increase strength and LBM and prevent plateaus from occurring (54). Successful female MMA fighters devote countless hours to MMA training because of the sport's multifaceted qualities, consequently spending ample training time in several different martial arts styles. Female fighters will benefit from a properly structured training program that clearly presents detailed workouts that allow sufficient recovery time in between. Periodization will also allow the female fighter to gain muscular strength, power, and endurance simultaneously (25).

Undulating periodization is more beneficial to MMA fighters than LP because it has been shown to induce greater increases in maximal strength than the linear model (54,56). Since a disadvantage of LP is the increased chance of training stagnation (54), MMA fighters need to vary their daily intensity and volume variations to maximize strength increases. For instance, she may perform sets of 12–15RM on Tuesday and 6–8RM on Friday (Table 4). Tuesday strength training workouts should be performed 60–70% 1RM with rest periods of 45 seconds to 1 minute and Friday workouts performed at 80–85% 1RM with rest periods of 2–4 minutes. Manipulating rest period, exercises, volume, and intensity can vary circuit training workouts. A lower-intensity circuit training workout will contain longer rest periods between exercises and will not use plyometrics or power movements. An effective training program will gradually increase training intensity and decrease volume while including daily and weekly fluctuations in both variables. This will prevent the neuromuscular system from fully adapting to training by continuously changing physiological demand, thereby placing greater stress on the neurological components of the neuromuscular system.

Table 4

Table 4

When a female fighter trains twice a day, it is important for her to recover adequately to decrease the chance of overtraining and getting injured. A full day of rest in a week would be beneficial especially when workouts are strenuous and intense. The most strenuous workouts, such as HIIT training, must be performed after a full day of rest so the athlete is properly recovered. Since most MMA fighters condition in the day and train martial arts in the evening, it is best to pair the light conditioning day with the more physically demanding martial art.

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SUMMARY

Designing strength and conditioning programs for mixed martial artists is challenging because of the complex and diverse nature of the sport. Women clearly have physical, anatomical, and biomechanical differences from men and must consider those distinctions when training. Strength and conditioning for female MMA fighters must consist of HIIT and sport-specific power exercises, with a focus on SAQ training and posterior chain development to prevent injuries. Special attention must be directed to increasing upper-body strength and developing total body explosiveness. The training program must be periodized in an undulating fashion for maximal physiological benefit and to be best prepared for last-minute fights.

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PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

  • Take 2 full days of recovery between heavy resistance training days (Table 4) to avoid overtraining
  • Incorporate circuit training (Table 1) and HIIT (Table 2) into workouts with low rest periods
  • Design programs in a nonlinear periodized fashion to anticipate a last-minute fight and avoid overtraining
  • Incorporate lower-extremity injury prevention training (Table 3) that contains agility, balance, and proprioceptive neuromuscular exercises
  • Consume 1.5–2.0 g/kg daily of whey protein and 3–5 g of creatine to increase LBM
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Keywords:

females; combat sports; strength; performance; conditioning

© 2012 National Strength and Conditioning Association