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Evidence-Based Guidelines for Strength and Conditioning in Mixed Martial Arts

Tack, Chris BSc (Hons)

Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2013 - Volume 35 - Issue 5 - p 79–92
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182a62fef


Supplemental Digital Content is Available in the Text.

Guys & St Thomas' National Health Service Foundation Trust, London, United Kingdom

Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding: The author reports no conflicts of interest and no source of funding.

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal's Web site (

Chris Tack is a highly specialized musculoskeletal physiotherapist working at Guys & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London, United Kingdom. He is a lead clinician and owner of All Powers Physiotherapy, Rehabilitation & Conditioning in London.

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Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a multifaceted sport, with varied subsport components (e.g., boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu [BJJ], Muay Thai kickboxing, karate, wrestling). Each of these sports will provide unique physical characteristics of performance, which require evaluation and assessment to correctly prescribe an effective and successful strength and conditioning program. The difficult task in producing an appropriate and specific program for MMA is that each bout can be vastly different depending on the opponent and precise strategy being planned for implementation in the fight.

As such the strength and conditioning plan is likely to differ for an athlete facing an opponent with 15 years of free style wrestling experience versus an opponent who was a K1 kickboxing champion. Similarly, the previous experience of the chosen athlete will also provide him/her with physical characteristics, which may need to be altered (reduced, maintained, or heightened) during the prefight training program.

As such a specific needs analysis of both the sport and the athlete need to be combined to provide an appropriate program to show optimal results.

The aim of this review was to provide an evidence-based model of strength and conditioning for use by the coach or athlete of MMA to demonstrate the complexities of conditioning for this sport and to provide guidelines as to how to devise a periodized exercise program to optimize MMA performance.

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MMA is multidimensional regarding the physical characteristics required to be successful. The combination of striking and grappling styles involve upper and lower limb strength and power through multiple planes of motion and through the open and closed kinetic chain. Agility is required to change direction to avoid an opponent over short distances (1–2 m) and to close distance and set up an attack. Speed of limb is required for good footwork and to allow effective striking. Due for the need to stay within a particular weight class, which is appropriate for their size, functional, and relative strength to work against an opponent’s body weight is more important than hypertrophy (32). Power is an essential feature to allow successful striking and the ability to control your opponent’s position. Force transfer through the transverse plane is essential for striking (123).

Environmental concerns include the use of 4 oz gloves for competitive matches (although head guards and heavier 16 oz gloves may be used in training for safety) and training barefoot to replicate this element of competition. Training in just shorts, as required for competition, can also be considered.

MMA is predominantly metabolically anaerobic, with a combination of phosphogen and lactate systems dependent on the duration/type of actions of the athlete (117). Amateur fights consist of 3 five-minute rounds. There is a requirement of repetitive application of power fueled by the aerobic metabolism over each round, with relative rest in between. Fights would be supplemented by a high aerobic capacity to allow rapid recovery similar to karate kumite competition (12).

Injuries in MMA typically involve the upper limb (22.7%); head, neck, and face (38.2%); and lower limb (30.4%), with most occurring in training (105) and predominantly to the defending fighter (15,19,98,144).

The most common mechanism is striking either to the area struck or to the limb used to strike (14,138), which is congruent with other striking combat sports (20,84,91,128,145). The specific fighting style will predispose to different injury areas (43,146). Kickboxing specialists are similarly at risk of injury to their striking limbs (e.g., knee, elbow, foot, hand) and the area that is struck (e.g., face, ribs, thighs). However, other subsport analysis identifies risk areas in free style wrestling as the knee, shoulder, ankle, and neck (59) and shoulder, elbow, back, and neck in boxing (36). Further injury rate analysis needs to be undertaken for subsports such as BJJ—however, it is possible that injuries common in wrestling may be seen also in other grappling arts.

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In most instances of amateur MMA competition, the athlete and their team are unlikely to have details regarding their next opponent. As such, strategy will be based on the athlete’s particular strongest physical attributes and performance characteristics. In professional MMA, or with greater details regarding the opponent, the athlete’s program may differ by using a strategy, which relates to both not only their strengths but also their opponents weaknesses. Table 1 provides key areas of investigation to provide information to guide program development.

Table 1

Table 1

For example, an amateur MMA athlete with a vast history of striking through kickboxing or karate would be well advised to “play to his strengths” and ensure a program is in consensus with the physical characteristics required for optimal striking performance. In this instance, a primary training objective may include power and speed development to ensure the athlete optimizes the ability to close the distance to his opponent. Alternately, a BJJ specialist may optimize the ability to control his opponent on the ground through core training and isometric strength development.

The 20-week course of training described presently should be a part of a yearly macrocyle, which will aim to develop all characteristics of performance evenly (out of season) so the athlete continues to improve all areas of his performance.

Another important consideration is that as an amateur competitor, it is likely that the athlete will have a limited time to dedicate to training due to external work obligations. As such efficiency of the program is paramount. Also, the program described takes into account an intention to plan 2 fights in 1 year only. The program timescales may alter if more fights are planned.

Table 2 identifies potential screening tests to be used before program commencement and include sport-specific agility tests, body composition, V[Combining Dot Above]O 2 max tests (77) and Wingate power tests (26). Vertical jump is included as a measure of triple extension power (26) and as a measure of anaerobic performance (31).

Table 2

Table 2

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Within the proposed model, although a linear periodization strategy is used within the preparatory phase to provide controlled method of optimizing overload, this ability to fully manage training frequency and load will be forfeited in the competition phase (7,102,107). Due to increased volume of technical sessions in this phase, an alteration of the periodization style to undulating occurs. As such this will allow more frequent periods of recovery and shorter phases to prevent overtraining, while providing varied stimuli to increase sport-specific adaptation (73,102).

The use of an undulating model is supported by Rhea et al. (110) who report that the variable stress provides greater overload to the neuromuscular system, and as such greater fitness gains, than a linear model. In fact, strength gains are significantly more (62). See the Figure for the evidence-based Annual Periodized Training Model.

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preparatory phase

There are 4 key foci for this stage to discuss. Prehabilitative injury prevention, dynamic flexibility, and core stability development are prescribed throughout the preparatory phase with regular sessions. These are a regular but secondary focus of the preparatory phase, which aim to provide an optimal basis on which the fourth but primary foci of strength and power development are progressed.

When considering athletes of amateur status, it is considered that a substantial preparatory phase is required to ensure that they are in the best physical condition for the varied elements of the competition training phase because it is deemed that failure to prepare fully directly affects the safety of the athlete. The preparatory phase aims to provide a basis of neuromuscular control in all joints to reduce risk of injury and providing a physical platform on which sport-specific abilities can be developed.

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Prehabilitation exercises are used to maintain flexibility and neuromuscular control for a base of efficient movement on which to build sport-specific skills (133). In MMA, basic joint strengthening is essential to provide greater structural joint integrity (4) and tensile strength of connective tissue (39,72) and should aim for optimal muscle balance across all joints (63).

Key areas to focus on are the neck musculature (4,18,42) as elements of grappling techniques can predispose to cervical spine injury (66). Due to the varied injury risk in MMA, it is appropriate to ensure that all muscle groups are equally addressed (4). The shoulder and knee (4,36,59) are also notable areas of potential injury.

Efficiency of load transfer can be developed through prehabilitation exercises (23,51,89,90,92,96) and prehabilitation specific to grappling should include single limb stance and upper limb weight bearing (45). Body weight training is a functional method for this, allowing appropriate multiplanar functional strengthening (52) while maintaining sport specificity.

Improving biomechanical efficiency of the hips and spine through prehabilitation will serve to prevent injury and maximize strength gains, power output, and speed production (44,78,87,124). The “bird-dog” exercise has been cited as an important one to activate the lumbar spine stabilizers and reduce risk of back pain (85) while allowing movement of the limbs independent of a stable core (see the core stability component).

In the striking martial arts, the spinal stability neural subsystem requires both relaxation to allow sufficient speed of the striking limb and “superstiffness” at moment of impact, which involves cocontraction of adjacent joints to allow increased power transfer (85,86). This rapid firing of the neural subsystem from a completely relaxed state should also be trained. For example, a “superstiffness” push up where the individual lays relaxed in a prone position and quickly explodes into a push up, allows the body to practice fast muscle activation of the core and limbs simultaneously.

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Dynamic Flexibility

A dynamic stretching routine should consist of function-based exercises, which use sport-specific movements to prepare for MMA performance. The chosen routine is developed through analysis of MMA movement patterns (54,79). Movements common to striking and grappling should be used, such as shadow boxing at 50% speed or drills such as hip escaping and bridging, respectively.

Sports specificity is essential and allows greater velocity of movement execution during technique (115) while developing correct motor patterning for specific techniques. Jump rope can be used early as a part of a dynamic warm up to develop footwork speed and as a base to progress with sport-specific drills in the competition phase (93).

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The prescribed routine should include foam rolling and static stretching to increase flexibility and recover posttraining. Two minutes of foam roller use increases muscle range of motion as much as static stretching with no impact on force production (53,75) and as such can be used before, during, or after power training. However, MMA requires greater flexibility than can be achieved with just foam rolling to allow performance of some techniques (e.g., head kicks, grappling positions such as the oma plata shoulder lock), and as such static stretching is applied as an adjunct to the dynamic flexibility routine to ensure range of motion is maintained. Hip flexor and adductor range of motion particularly should be maintained through sustained static stretching to allow performance of both BJJ techniques and high kick techniques.

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Core Stability

Core stability training allows the development of greater force and allows a greater base for power from which force can be initiated (27,72,95). Kicking and striking performance requires abdominal activation to provide tension to transfer power into the limbs (10,30,64,139) meaning abdominal activation and control of trunk position while the limbs are moved is essential.

The program is based on perturbation training, which is the challenge of the active neural subsystem of the core muscles by placing them on an unstable surface and asking the body to maintain spinal position while a varied perturbation is provided. Progression is accomplished first through isometric stability in simple positions to multijoint movements involving the hip, torso, and the scapular region (e.g., the plank/side plank/bird dog) (44). The next step would be to add an unstable challenge (125), which challenges the body to adapt to external stimulus, improves neuromuscular control (21), and assists with optimal performance of power activities (10). This increases cocontractile activity of muscles to provide greater joint protection (11). This is further developed by maintaining a controlled trunk/body position while the limbs are moved away from the center of gravity to add a further perturbation to balance.

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Strength and Power Development

The preparatory phase is divided into subsections. A basic transition phase and introductory period are used to teach complex compound lifting techniques to ensure that the athlete has appropriate levels of proprioception and neuromuscular control on to which load can be added and to prepare the athlete for the controlled stress that will be applied.

Four-week blocks are used to develop strength and power, respectively, and allow the use of an 8-week program of moderate volume, which is deemed best to optimize strength and power (57).

Exercise selection initially is based around development of maximal strength (and its underlying neuromuscular characteristics) because this plays an important role in the production of maximal power and superior athletic performance (29). Progression to power development comes subsequently to this subsection.

Strength exercises involving triple joint extension, such as the deadlift and squat variations, are used alongside bench press and other free weight compound lifts to develop core strength and proprioception. Strength training starts at loads of 80% 1 repetition maximum (1RM) for 1–3 sets of 2–6 repetitions and incorporating 3–5 minutes rest (8,37,39,73,106–109).

After 4 weeks of progressive training, increasing loads to 100% 1RM, with an inverse relationship between load and repetitions (73), the athlete is progressed to controlled power exercises.

Power is deemed central to successful sporting performance (31,127) and developed through triple extension power lifts (e.g., clean, snatch, high row) to increase rate of force development (29,46,47,82). Power exercises can replicate the physical burdens of wrestling performance (71) and be beneficial for striking and closing the distance (117). This acceleration power is an important aspect to successful MMA performance.

Power lifts and Olympic style lifts are used with a load of 30–60% 1RM for 1–3 sets of 2–6 repetitions and rests of 5–8 minutes (8,37,39,73,106–109).

Only 2–3 power exercises are used in each session (1,38,115) to prevent fatigue and overtraining. Speed is reduced with the increase in load; however, intention of fast velocity remains to ensure appropriate improvements in power.

Power lifts should always occur first in session to prevent fatigue limiting the development of speed and power (117). Appropriate rest times are used to ensure that training is not compromised due to neural fatigue (57).

Volume is increased for both strength and power sessions in increments of 2.5–5% per week as required to prevent overtraining (3,73).

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The varied training for MMA means overtraining is a serious consideration (68). Unloading periods are planned (weeks 11 and 19) to benefit recovery (65). An off loading week is planned at the end of the preparatory phase to allow sufficient recuperation before the start of the fight camp, but without loss of the performance characteristics developed in this phase. This is followed by an introductory competition phase for 1 week to allow the athlete to learn the new techniques that will be used in the following phase. See Table 3 for specific examples of exercises for each subsection of the preparatory phase and prescription guidelines.

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competition phase (“fight camp”)

The progression from a preparatory phase into the competition phase provides various benefits for the athlete and the trainer. For the athlete, the gains made in the preparatory phase regarding absolute or maximum strength and power can be transferred into an MMA-specific program. This can therefore streamline the development of key MMA performance characteristics (e.g., power, speed of acceleration, absolute strength) into a fight-specific strategy and plan. For example, if the aim of the athlete was to dominate his opponent with grappling on the ground, then “general” power training can be progressed toward focusing on acceleration speed to complete a double leg takedown.

For the coaching team, the move into a competition phase of training allows the strength and conditioning program to become more efficient alongside technical training and allowing the replication of the demands of MMA competition and the appropriate metabolic system required to perform optimally.

Changes to the periodization strategy are mentioned previously and include the movement into an undulating periodized program. This also allows an alteration to the athlete's schedule to permit an increase in the number of MMA, BJJ, and wrestling “technical” sessions with his coaches (which were not a consideration in the preparatory phase). An example of a weekly schedule is proposed in Table 4.

Table 4

Table 4

As previously mentioned, with this model concerning amateur athletes, it is likely that they may be balancing training with full time work. As such the number of sessions and amount of contact with the strength and conditioning professional is reduced and the efficiency of the time spent in strength and conditioning sessions is paramount. Changes made to the program at this stage to allow this, while ensuring development of the key characteristics of performance, are use of complex training (CT) and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Both power exercises and agility drills are included in separate sessions during the microcycle; however, they are also incorporated into CT and HIIT to optimize session efficiency (3) while promoting specificity of movement patterns and “special strength” (sport specific) (118). With martial arts technique, this is important to allow greater velocity of technique execution (50,115).

At this stage, specific MMA training commences and should focus on specific MMA performance attributes, such as power, strength, changes of direction, explosive movement, endurance, and speed (117).

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Complex Training

CT is one of the time efficient training methods used within this phase. CT involves the coupling of kinematically similar high-load and high-velocity exercises in a set-for-set combination to induce a postactivation potentiation response (24,34,35,80,116) and which mirrors the benefits of separate resistance or plyometric training (74,133). This can be an effective tool for exercising all elements of the force development curve in a time efficient manner.

It has been suggested that CT can be a beneficial addition to a program as part of the competition phase strength and power maintenance routine (61,88) while maintaining sport specificity.

Complexes involve the combination of a strength-based exercise with immediate performance of a plyometric/power-based drill. The strength exercise component focuses on multijoint strength exercises (e.g., squat, deadlift) as a base for power production (133) and are combined with appropriate plyometric drills (e.g., sled-resisted acceleration). Triple extension exercises are preferable (e.g., squats, deadlifts) because they assist to improve rear leg drive in a rear hand punch (134) or the performance of wrestling takedown techniques. The back squat at 30% 1RM is correlated with karate kumite success (112) and being correlated with peak power and T test agility times (100).

The plyometric component of the complex should be entirely sport specific using either equipment or a partner to drill a specific situation or functional sporting movement (e.g., acceleration to strike, movement to stand from the floor).

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High Intensity Interval Training

HIIT is important as a substitute for long slow endurance training, which may have a negative effect on strength and power development (117). It also allows the athlete to train at a higher intensity than possible with continuous aerobic training and improve both aerobic and anaerobic capacity (55,69,111,117). HIIT is also a time efficient (99,121,130) effective method of losing body fat and is therefore beneficial to continue during the weight cut period (120).

Power lifts can be applied as part of a HIIT session using an activity: rest ratio of 1:3–6 for phosphogen system conditioning and 1:2 for lactate system metabolism (117) over 5-minute rounds to improve tolerance of lactate accumulation and allow conditioning of aerobic recovery (71) in accordance to the metabolic demands of MMA competition (4,63).

Power training as part of a CT or HIIT schedule uses 30% 1RM (9,81,112,140) combined with an 80% 1RM resisted movement (82). Only 2–3 power exercises, incorporating 2–3 sets (71), should be used in each session (1,38,115).

There are also other various benefits to CT/HIIT within the competition phase. The variety of exercises that can be undertaken with these methods of training allow MMA technique–specific movements to be combined with unorthodox loading techniques (e.g., kettlebells, battle ropes, medicine balls, chains) (31,97,126,129). This allows the athlete to continue to physically adapt to varied stressors while maintaining the athlete’s interest and motivation. This could include transverse plane loading that is deemed to benefit rotational striking technique (123). For example, one CT or HIIT drill could use unilateral power lifts to develop rotational force production and multiplanar strength (10,11,71,119).

Alternately, medicine balls specifically are a good method of working in the transverse plane through the open kinetic chain (123,129) in a ballistic throwing drill. Ballistic training is valuable to increase force development (49,115,142), movement-specific stretch-shortening cycle function, acceleration, and movement velocity (28,29,83,142). This could be performed with medicine ball throws to replicate striking as the plyometric component of a complex drill.

The opportunity to work in high volume within CT and HIIT sessions is used to increase metabolic buffering of lactate levels in preparation for competition (41,134). Six sessions of HIIT (15 minutes duration) over 2 weeks have been shown to increase muscle aerobic capacity and metabolic control (113). This can be applied with 2 sessions (15 minutes—10 minutes rest—15 minutes) per week with fluctuating intensity (120).

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Agility Drills

Speed and accuracy of foot placement are essential in many combat sports and martial arts. The ability to precisely move to control position of yourself and your opponent to close distance, strike, complete a takedown, or defend through evasion is important to replicate and drill in training.

One such example is the 45° step ladder drill. The starting angle of 35–45° for anterior foot placement when performing powerful kicks (48) and can be replicated by traversing an agility ladder through 45° diagonal steps. Other examples could include sled-resisted drills, which can be used to increase stride length (101) and short-distance power (32).

Plyometric training can increase kicking power (48,114) because the stretch-shortening cycle is important for kicking performance (48). However, agility training must be specific to sport performance. It is appropriate to use closed drills and to progress to specific situation drills using partners and live sparring to reflect the precise movements of MMA at “game speed” (60).

It has been suggested that gains from plyometric training can be sustained with 1 weekly session (17,56,114), which can be prescribed with 1 specific agility/speed session in competition phase.

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Maintenance Sessions

In MMA, greater tensile strength of connective tissue (39,72) is required in all joints (4) for optimal muscle balance (63). Therefore, the competition phase microcycle includes prehabilitation exercises, flexibility/recovery sessions, and core stability training to ensure continued sustenance of the biomechanical and neuromuscular benefits of the preparatory phase.

These maintenance sessions are as follows:

  • Flexibility: dynamic stretching protocol, prolonged static stretching, and foam roller;
  • Core stability: isometric trunk musculature loading against perturbations (e.g., bird dog, plank);
  • Prehabilitation neuromuscular control: body weight–resisted dynamic control exercises (e.g., single leg squats, hand stand holds);
  • Prehabilitation general joint strengthening: assistance exercises for strength maintenance (e.g., dumbbell shoulder press, barbell bench press); strength training should be performed 1–2 times per week to sustain gains from the preparatory phase (71);
  • Power lifts/olympic style lifts: limited to 2–3 times per week (25,104,107) to ensure optimal gains without overtraining. As such one power maintenance session can be prescribed, alongside 2 power exercise HIIT sessions (82). Power lifts should always occur first in a session to prevent fatigue limiting the development of speed and power (117). Appropriate rest times must be used to ensure that training is not compromised due to neural fatigue (57).
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Prevention of Overtraining

The varied training for MMA means overtraining is a serious consideration (68). To prevent overtraining and to optimize the efficiency of the program, the following rules are applied across the program.

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Loading/Intensity Parameters

  • A careful balance between training and rest is planned to reduce injury risk as intensity increases (2,5,33,40,58,67,76,94,103,131,132,135,136).
  • There is an inverse relationship between load and repetitions (73).
  • An intensity of 90% of 10RM load in the chosen microcycle in the last 2 weeks of the fight camp is used to prevent excessive fatigue and overtraining (13).
  • Volume is increased in increments of 2.5–5% per week as required to prevent overtraining (3,73).
  • Unloading periods are planned (weeks 11 and 19) to benefit recovery (65).
  • 1 day per week for rest is appropriate for 4–6 week periods of athletically demanding programs (94).
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Taper/Weight Cut

Weight cutting is common in combat sports but can adversely affect performance. A 5% rapid loss of body weight can reduce strength, aerobic capacity (137), and punching force (122).

The optimal tapering strategy prescribes a 2-week period with an exponential reduction in volume by 41–61% while maintaining intensity (16,141). This is achieved by an immediate 50% taper on day 1 of week 19 and graduated regression (141).

For an effective weight cut, loss is limited to 1–1.5 kg/wk (70) and the athlete should commence the competition phase no more than 5 kg above fighting weight. Only 1 kg of acute intentional dehydration should be planned (70).

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Practical Applications

In response to the lack of defined and specific exercise program for MMA, a 2-stage model of strength and conditioning has been provided for an amateur MMA athlete, guided by the best available evidence. The separation of the significant preparatory and competition phases of training ensures that the athlete has completed a well-structured preparatory phase of training developing general fitness, strength and power; before undertaking a sport specific “fight camp.” Hopefully, this should minimize any risk to the amateur fighter from being under prepared to perform in combat sports.

For a professional fighter, the preparatory phase may be extended to include any transitory period between the completion of a fight and the commencement of a new competition phase and as such would include a slower progression alongside continued technical training sessions.

This model demonstrates an efficient way of maintaining physical developments of the preparatory phase through a period of reduced time spent with the strength and conditioning coach and greater demand from technical training sessions. It further benefits by the appropriate use of training methods to transfer gains from general strength and power development into a sport specific environment.



Table 3

Table 3

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    MMA; combat sports; strength and conditioning; power; anaerobic

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