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A 12-Week Metabolic Conditioning Program for a Mixed Martial Artist

Mikeska, J. Daniel MS

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 5 - p 61-67
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000068
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Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a hybrid combat sport using techniques from various striking and grappling arts such as Tae Kwon Do, kickboxing, Brazilian jujitsu, and wrestling. As with many sports, an MMA match comprises intermittent periods of intense activity interspersed with periods of low-intensity or even no activity. Because MMA matches have 3 or 5 five-minute rounds, it is considered aerobic by definition. However, because of intermittent intensity levels, the anaerobic system is also used (11). Accordingly, to optimally prepare for an MMA competition, the metabolic energy systems of the body need to be progressively overloaded.

As first theorized by Seyle, the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) suggests that the body will adapt to stress in a predictable manner (1,3), and the system of the body that is stressed will specifically benefit from that particular stress (5). Applying the principles of GAS to MMA would dictate that training practices consist of aerobic training and anaerobic training. However, endurance training (aerobic) and interval training (anaerobic) will often elicit incompatible results. Rhea et al. (16) highlighted a fitness continuum that consists of neuromuscular power, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular endurance when directly discussing metabolic training. Training for the individual components in the fitness continuum will result in differing physiological outcomes. They proposed that the closer the components are in the continuum, the more compatible the training adaptations will be. Similarly, the further apart the components are in the continuum, the less compatible the adaptations will be.

The 3 energy systems of the body, phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative, work together and often overlap, but because of the independent uses for each system, they need to be progressively trained as individual components. For MMA, explosive movements such as takedowns and striking combinations lasting just a few seconds primarily use the phosphagen system. For engagements lasting approximately 30 seconds such as clinching, controlling positions, and longer striking combinations, the glycolytic system is primarily used. The oxidative system is used for active recovery periods and in the later rounds when endurance is critical (11).

Anaerobic training that involves interval or sprint (burst of speed or activity) interval training (SIT), will progressively overload the phosphagen and glycolytic energy systems (1,3). Aerobic or oxidative capacity is determined by maximum oxygen uptake (V[Combining Dot Above]O2max), lactate threshold (LT), and running economy (19). V[Combining Dot Above]O2max and LT are not only improved by aerobic training but also by high-intensity interval training and will adapt simultaneously. Once an aerobic base has been developed, SIT can begin. By repeating bouts of high-intensity near-maximal exercise with periods of active rest for up to 2 minutes, the anaerobic system can be stimulated while maintaining aerobic power.

Wilmore et al. (20) suggest that SIT practices are similar to any type of periodized exercise protocol, in that the rate of exercise intensity, the number of sets and repetitions, the length of the activity and corresponding rest periods, the type of activity, and the frequency of training should be considered. Additionally, because training needs to closely mimic the activity, the work-to-rest interval needs to be established. Unfortunately, although the work-to-rest relationships have been determined in more mainstream sports (Table 1) such as basketball (18), soccer (14), baseball (4), and football (10), very little modeling has been completed for MMA. One available abstract reveals that the work-to-rest ratio for MMA is 1:2–1:4 (6). This is similar to other combat sports; however, with such little information available, the best approach may be to determine the metabolic demands of the component sports of MMA and develop a training model based on the individual criteria.

Table 1:
Work-to-rest relationship in mainstream sports

Kickboxing, Muay Thai Boxing, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, wrestling (freestyle and Greco-Roman), and Brazilian Jujitsu have all had time-motion and/or modeling analysis completed (2,7,8,12,13,17). The results of these analyses (Table 2) suggest that the component sports of MMA have an average work-to-rest ratio of 13.34:12.68 seconds or approximately 1:1 (the results of the Brazilian jujitsu analysis were excluded because of the large variance compared with the other sports). This ratio, based on the individual sports, can and should be manipulated to meet the needs of the athlete and to match the strengths of the opponent.

Table 2:
Work-to-rest relationships of the component sports of MMA

The following example of a 12-week metabolic conditioning progression is based on a number of assumptions. The athlete is a 30-year-old man who has been involved in MMA for over 2 years. He has a solid cardiorespiratory and strength base and is familiar with training protocols, as well as individual sport-specific techniques. The athlete is also performing a periodized strength training program in conjunction with the metabolic conditioning program. He has just competed in an MMA match and has another match at the end of the 12-week training program. The upcoming match will consist of three 5-minute rounds with a 1-minute break between each round.


Table 3 lists the training schedule and intensity levels of each day; Table 4 details each day's metabolic workouts.

Table 3:
Training schedule and intensities
Table 4-a:
Detailed description of each day's metabolic training
Table 4-b:
Detailed description of each day's metabolic training
Table 4-c:
Detailed description of each day's metabolic training

Week 1: assessment week

With just 12 weeks to prepare for a competition, there is not an off-season, and the first phase of training should be treated similar to a preseason. Daniels (5) suggests that the first phase of a training program should be considered a foundation phase and consist of building a base and injury prevention. After an intense training camp and the subsequent contest, the athlete needs to have an assessment completed to determine whether there are any imbalances caused by training or injury. Posture, strength, power, cardiorespiratory endurance, speed, agility, and quickness will also be assessed to provide a direction for improvement, a baseline for goal setting, and to determine the outcomes of the previous training camp (3). Muscular imbalances and injuries will be treated and corrected as needed.

Because an MMA match uses the oxidative energy system for bouts lasting longer than 2 minutes, the first phase will focus on exercises that emphasize steady-state training to increase endurance and establish proper mechanics. Long slow distance (LSD) cardio training that uses 80% maximum heart rate (MHR) will enhance cardiovascular function and oxidative capacity. LSD training will also increase mitochondrial energy production and improve the body's ability to clear lactate (1). Additionally, the benefits gained from LSD training can be maintained throughout subsequent training phases (5). Beachle and Earle (1) propose that 6–7 training sessions per week can be performed during the preseason. Training will consist of a variety of traditional cardiovascular protocols and use some sport-specific equipment. Additionally, although metabolic training will take place 6 days per week for weeks 1–4, and 5 days per week for weeks 5–12, intensity levels will vary.

Week 2

Week 2 continues the LSD training of week 1 with the addition of some higher intensity training involving pace/tempo training (aka threshold training or cruise training) (1,5). Pace/tempo training is steady-state training that will continue to improve endurance. Pace/tempo training can be performed at up to 90% MHR, which is of a higher intensity than LSD training. By training at LT, the intensity of pace/tempo training stresses both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, and will increase economy and LT. Although the upcoming match will last a maximum of 15 minutes, it is important to understand that the benefits of LSD training and pace/tempo training are gained by completing 30 minutes of LSD training and 20–30 minutes of pace/tempo training.

Week 3

Week 3 is the last week of phase 1 training. LSD training and tempo/pace training will continue for week 3.

Week 4

Daniels (5) suggests that although 6 weeks in each of the 4 phases of training is ideal, 3 weeks in each phase is adequate. Therefore, week 4 begins phase 2, in which speed and mechanics are improved upon. Repetition training will be introduced into the program, the sparring intensity will increase, and LSD training will occur only 1 day. The goal of repetition training is to improve technique, speed, and economy with the focus on the areas that need improvement. Repetitions consist of repeated bouts of sport-specific training for up to 2 minutes at intensities greater than V[Combining Dot Above]O2max or MHR. The anaerobic system is extremely taxed, and the active rest period of approximately 70% MHR is about 5 times as long as the work period to allow the anaerobic system to fully recover (1). Sparring is very intense and will consist of fighting and drills that will mimic competition (2).

Week 5

Repetition training, LSD training, and sparring continue as described in week 4. High-intensity training should be performed no more than 3 days per week (1,2). Accordingly, in addition to a day of very intense repetition training, there is also an added day of rest.

Week 6

Week 6 should be a repeat of week 5, but because of the shortened nature of training camp, a day of interval training will be introduced. By repeating bouts of intense training that reaches close to 100% MHR, V[Combining Dot Above]O2max capacity is increased and anaerobic metabolism is improved. Each interval can last from 30 seconds to 5 minutes with an equal or shorter amount of recovery time (1,5). Because of time constraints, the intervals will start at 1 minute and progressively shorten as the competition day approaches.

Week 7

Phase 3 starts this week. Termed “Transitional Quality Training” by Daniels (5), the emphasis is on developing the metabolic systems needed for competition. At this point, the aerobic base has been established, so the phosphagen and glycolytic energy systems will be the sole focus. Two days of interval training will be added, and training paces will start to move into the direction of competition pace.

Week 8

Week 8 closely resembles week 7; however, the intervals will become shorter.

Week 9

Because of the shortened training camp, phase 4 will start in week 9. Although similar to the third phase in intervals and intensities, phase 4 focuses on the strengths of the athlete's fight game with the intent to improve already existing skills. The training needs to be as close to the actual competition as possible. Accordingly, the intervals will continue to shorten, as the competition day approaches.

Week 10

Week 10 consists of short intervals comprising of MMA-specific techniques.

Week 11

The first half of week 11 mirrors week 10; however, tapering starts in the second half of the week. The goal of tapering is to maintain the physiological adaptations achieved during training, not to add to them. A fast-decay taper consisting of high intensity and low volume has been shown to increase performance and may provide the best results (15). Although the training volume is decreased by 60–85%, the training frequency remains the same (9,15).

Week 12

Week 12 is competition week. The first half of the week will mirror week 11 with moderate intensity, and the second half of the week will be reserved for rest and very light movements.


Although the principle of specificity is not new, applying these principles to MMA conditioning is. The suggested protocols are not meant to be inclusive, but rather an example of how specific metabolic training practices can be incorporated into an overall MMA conditioning program. Coaches and athletes should adapt the proposed metabolic conditioning program, so that it meets their specific needs.

Sports such as basketball, soccer, wrestling, and judo enjoy the benefits of time-motion analysis. Athletes can use improved training protocols and gain a competitive advantage by incorporating sport-specific metabolic training. Therefore, future research should focus on determining the work-to-rest ratio and length of time spent using each of the energy systems during an MMA match so that training can meet the demands of the competition.


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metabolic conditioning; training; mixed martial arts

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