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Strength and Conditioning Considerations for Mixed Martial Arts

Bounty, Paul La PhD, MPT, CSCS; Campbell, Bill I PhD, CSCS; Galvan, Elfego BS; Cooke, Matthew PhD; Antonio, Jose PhD

Strength and Conditioning Journal: February 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 1 - p 56-67
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182044304
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MIXED MARTIAL ARTS (MMA) IS AN EXCITING AND COMPLEX SPORT THAT COMBINES THE TECHNIQUES OF BOXING, MUAY THAI KICKBOXING, AND VARIOUS GRAPPLING DISCIPLINES SUCH AS GRECO-ROMAN WRESTLING, FREESTYLE WRESTLING, AND BRAZILIAN JIU-JITSU. MMA IS A PHYSIOLOGICALLY DEMANDING SPORT. IT CAN POTENTIALLY CHALLENGE AND TAX ALL OF THE ENERGY SYSTEMS, AND THE POSSIBILITY OF OVERREACHING/OVERTRAINING IS A CONCERN. TO DATE, THERE IS LIMITED PEER-REVIEWED RESEARCH EXAMINING THE OPTIMAL TRAINING METHODS FOR AN ATHLETE COMPETING IN MMA. THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW IS TO DISCUSS SOME OF THE AVAILABLE PEER-REVIEWED RESEARCH SURROUNDING THIS SPORT AND PROVIDE GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING SPECIALISTS.

1Baylor University, Waco, Texas; 2Exercise and Performance Nutrition Laboratory, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida; 3The State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York; 4Schools of Medicine and Human Movement Studies at the University of Queensland, Queensland, Australia; and 5Nova Southeastern University, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

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Paul La Bountyan assistant professor of Human Anatomy, Physiology, and Nutrition at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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Bill Campbellan assistant professor of Exercise Science and director of the Exercise and Performance Nutrition Laboratory at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida.

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Elfego Galvancurrently working toward his M.S. in Nutrition from The State University of New York at Buffalo.

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Matthew Cookea postdoctoral research fellow in the Schools of Medicine and Human Movement Studies at the University of Queensland in Queensland, Australia.

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Jose Antonioan assistant professor of Biology at NOVA Southeastern in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is the CEO and cofounder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

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OVERVIEW OF THE SPORT OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS

Mixed martial arts (MMA), also referred to by some as “ultimate fighting,” is one of the fastest growing sports in existence today. MMA is an exciting and complex sport that combines the techniques of boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, and various grappling disciplines such as Greco-Roman wrestling, freestyle wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Although MMA has been around for decades in other countries such as Brazil, it is still a relatively new sport for most of the world. Specifically, it officially debuted in the United States on November 12, 1993, at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in Denver, Colorado.

In addition to the UFC, there are smaller organizations that continue to be formed in anticipation of attracting a segment of the market in addition to profiting from the sport's incredible popularity and financial success. Today, MMA is respected as a legitimate sport, and its athletes are seen as true professionals.

MMA is a very physiologically demanding sport. It can potentially challenge all of the energy systems. Additionally, the potential for an athlete to overreach or overtrain is a legitimate concern. To date, there is limited peer-reviewed research examining optimal training methods for an athlete competing in MMA. As a result, strength and conditioning coaches often draw upon their basic knowledge of exercise physiology, peers in their field, and various research when designing strength and conditioning programs (11). Specifically, using existing research in sports, such as wrestling (20,21,30,32,41,47), boxing (14,16,33,48), and kickboxing (8,13), may be considered when constructing strength and conditioning programs because of the fact that they are all integral aspects of the sport of MMA.

What are the strength and conditioning habits of current mixed martial artists? To help answer this question, Amtmann (1) conducted the only known survey study that reported such data to date. In this study, amateur mixed martial artists reported that they engaged in strength training approximately 1-7 times per week. This survey also addressed neck strengthening exercises and reported that less than half of those participating in the survey performed specific neck strengthening exercises (1). Similarly, about one-third reported engagement in power exercises (i.e., power clean and/or snatch) (1). However, the survey also revealed that the fighters did participate in fight-specific training sessions such as grappling, boxing, and wrestling ranging from 3 to 12 times per week (1). Although these data do not reflect the training practices of all amateur mixed martial artists, it is the only objective published data to date that strength and conditioning specialists can refer to when designing strength programs for these athletes. However, one limitation is that it does not provide insight into the strength and conditioning practices of professional fighters, only amateurs. It should also be pointed out that just because a winning mixed martial artist trains a certain way (i.e., uses certain strength and conditioning techniques/methods), it does not necessarily mean that it is the optimal or most effective training methodology.

As a result of the limited research on training practices, there is a real need for professional trainers who can effectively design and implement well-constructed strength and conditioning programs specifically for mixed martial artists. As the sport continues to grow in popularity and legitimacy, a greater number of athletes will be seeking professional trainers, coaches, and nutritionists to aid them with the goal of improving their overall performance and success. Although areas such as proper diet, mental preparation, and physical preparation are of paramount importance, the focus of this article will be on the training demands of competing in MMA and the general aspects of designing a strength and conditioning program for a mixed martial artist. That being said, a full description of every exercise and periodization scheme are beyond the scope of this article (for a reference of specific exercises, detailed repetition and set ranges, and other information targeted for MMA, refer to the book of Rooney Training for Warriors [40]). The information contained in this article will provide insight into the demands of the sport of MMA and give general guidance for training a successful professional MMA fighter.

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CONSIDERATIONS FOR AN MMA STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROGRAM

Designing strength and conditioning programs for MMA can be challenging for the following reasons:

  1. Most of their training time should be devoted to developing skills in all aspects of fighting such as wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, and Muay Thai kickboxing/boxing.
  2. The possibility of overtraining because of the rigors of the sport.
  3. Allowing time for recovery.
  4. Synthesizing all of these variables into an effective periodized program.

Another consideration is that some athletes prefer to grapple while others prefer to stand and trade strikes (i.e., punches, kicks, knees, etc). Equally important strategic differences when facing specific opponents may also alter the nature of preparations for each fight. For example, a fighter may want to focus on their stand-up (i.e., boxing and Muay Thai kickboxing) game for one fight but their takedowns or grappling for a different fight. Additionally, some fighters are categorized as “sprinters,” which means they compete at a very fast pace at the beginning of the match (but have difficulty maintaining that pace). Other fighters are more defensive oriented and tend to slow the pace of the fight. All of these factors must be taken into consideration when developing a personalized training program for a professional mixed martial artist. Taking into consideration the individual variability among fighters and many training philosophies, there are some key foundational concepts that should be incorporated when designing a strength and conditioning program for a mixed martial artist. (For a hypothetical training week of a mixed martial artist leading up to a competition, see Table 1.)

Table 1

Table 1

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KNOWLEDGE OF THE SPORT

One of the first aspects of program design is to consider the demands of the sport of MMA. Typically, a nontitle fight consists of three, 5-minute rounds, whereas title fights are usually five 5-minute rounds (with rounds separated by 1 minute). If a fight goes the full 15 minutes (or 25 minutes in a title fight), it can tax all the 3 bioenergetic pathways. (See Table 2 for a brief description of the major energy systems and their application to the sport of MMA.) Although a long MMA match is aerobic by definition (i.e., lasting more than several minutes), it is made up of many relatively high-intensity anaerobic (i.e., immediate adenosine triphosphate-phosphocreatine (ATP-PCr) and glycolytic systems) episodes lasting a few seconds intermixed with several lower intensity paced periods that can be thought of as mini active recovery phases. For example, if 2 fighters are engaged in a classic wrestling clinch, fighting for a takedown, this activity tends to be very intense and mainly anaerobic in nature. However, typically after a fighter successfully takes his opponent down and ends up in a dominant position, there is a temporary decrease in exercise intensity while one fighter uses his weight to control the opponent and assesses what to do next.

Table 2

Table 2

Likewise, when 2 fighters are standing and trading strikes, there are usually high-intensity bursts where a fighter rapidly throws combinations of punches and kicks. Conversely, these bursts may be counterbalanced by numerous low-intensity periods where the fighters are circling each other, feinting movements, and ultimately actively recovering with the support of the aerobic system. These scenarios are the typical ebb and flow of a MMA match. Taken together, MMA is intermittent in nature, and thus, the conditioning for MMA must reflect this.

When training for MMA, or any sport, there must be specificity of training. As previously discussed, there is limited research published on MMA; thus, one must examine sports that use similar movements and/or have similar physiological demands. One such sport is Muay Thai kickboxing. Muay Thai is an aggressive fighting style that uses various punches, kicks, knee and elbow strikes. Additionally, it is used by many modern mixed martial artists as their choice of a “stand-up” style of fighting. Thus, the rigors of a Muay Thai match closely mirror large portions of a MMA match and thus can be considered when designing a conditioning program.

In 2009, Crisafulli et al. (8) examined 10 experienced competitive Muay Thai athletes during a simulated match consisting of 3 rounds (3 minutes per round) with 1-minute rest period between rounds. The investigators discovered that the average heart rate and oxygen uptake for all athletes was above the measured lactate threshold for all the 3 rounds (8). Also, even though heart rate and oxygen consumption slightly decreased in the 1-minute rest between rounds, it was still above their lactate threshold and thus did not allow for full recovery (8). Excess CO2 production (i.e., the CO2 produced above that of normal aerobic metabolism and has been shown to significantly correlate with increases in blood lactate (18,19) as reviewed in (8)) was also measured to assess an indirect index of glycolysis. The authors demonstrated that after an initial increase of excess CO2 peaked in the first round and subsequent rest period, there was a steady increase in the reliance of the aerobic system (8). In other words, glycolysis predominated early in the match and then steadily declined as the contribution of the aerobic system increased in the subsequent rounds. The authors concluded that training protocols for this sport should include both anaerobic and aerobic conditioning (8). Equally important, it was noted by these investigators that previous research involving judo and boxing also has been shown to have very similar metabolic requirements (8).

Other studies examining martial arts such as karate (5) have found that the energy demands of an average fight lasting 4 minutes and 27 seconds derive approximately 77.8, 16.0, and 6.2% of its energy demands from aerobic, anaerobic alactic, and lactic energy pathways, respectively. Wrestling and grappling arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu also make up a large portion of an MMA match as well (depending on the style of fighters involved). The sport of wrestling can significantly tax all energy systems, especially glycolysis, and hence lead to significant elevations in blood lactate. For example, Kraemer et al. (27) have reported large increases in lactate (up to approximately 20 mmol/L) during a 5-minute college freestyle match. As a comparison, the authors of this review mention that maximal treadmill tests only raise lactate to approximately 10 mmol/L (27). However, wrestling also heavily relies on the aerobic system as the match goes on, particularly during overtime (34).

Although Muay Thai and wrestling, in particular, are not the same as MMA, it can be argued that they have relatively similar physiological demands to what a mixed martial artist will face in an actual competition. This is because of the fact that collectively, both individual arts are essential components of an MMA match. As a result, it can safely be assumed that enhancing both anaerobic and aerobic conditioning for MMA is a theoretically sound recommendation. Based on the principle of specificity, one of the better approaches to enhance conditioning in MMA is to simply have the athlete regularly perform their actual fight-specific training such as Muay Thai, wrestling, and grappling training. However, to augment conditioning, various types of interval training, which uses both anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, should be included. Furthermore, a well-designed strength and conditioning routine may help mitigate potential muscle imbalances, minimize certain musculoskeletal injuries, and improve various performance variables.

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INTERVAL TRAINING

Relative to interval training, only your equipment, space, imagination, and understanding of the exercise physiology are the limiting factors. Generally speaking, high-intensity interval training (HIT) is characterized by alternating high-intensity (i.e., near maximal effort or near V̇o2 peak) exercise bouts with relatively longer active recovery periods that are less intense (15). When performing HIT, the duration of the exercise interval is dependent on the intensity. Specifically, the interval may last a few seconds up to several minutes with alternating periods of actual rest or some sort of low-intensity exercise (15). The benefits of performing HIT are that it may increase V̇o2 peak and increase oxidative capacity in skeletal muscle (assessed by mitochondrial enzymes) faster than more traditional high-volume endurance training such as continuous cycling (15). For example, one interval training regimen could include short uphill sprints with alternating active recovery stations where the athlete could perform a myriad of exercises such as simply walking (if relatively unconditioned) to sport-specific sparring or core work (if they are better conditioned) (39). An example of this would include an athlete running on a treadmill for 30 seconds at an 8-12% incline, get off, and practice striking combinations on a heavy bag for 1 minute and then rest for a certain length of time. The less conditioned an athlete, the more time they will need to recover. However, the ultimate goal would be to have the rest period reflect those used during a real fight (i.e., 1 minute).

Another interval training workout could include resistance exercises in which a trainer could choose 8-10 (mainly multijoint) exercises that his or her athlete could perform back to back without rest between the exercises. For example, one could perform a predetermined number of repetitions (reps) of free squats, lunges, step-ups, overhead presses, push-ups, pull-ups, kettlebell swings, and dips performing all exercises back to back and then resting after all exercises have been completed. This hypothetical interval could last 2 minutes and then the athlete could rest or perform an active recovery for approximately 1-4 minutes between exercise intervals, depending on the condition of the athlete. Another example of interval training for a mixed martial artist could include more sport-specific exercises that they would encounter in a fight. For example, have the athlete punch the heavy bag for 30 seconds (15 seconds moderate speed and 15 seconds full speed), followed up by 5 sprawls (a defensive move to avoid a takedown), and then perform a takedown using a grappling dummy and finish with 10 seconds of punches from the mount position. Finally, conclude by having the athlete perform some type of active rest such as lateral side stepping with tubing for extra resistance.

Even though some of these aforementioned HIT examples may have some crossover with more traditional “circuit training,” they should not be confused. Specifically, the aforementioned HIT exercises should be performed at a much higher exercise intensity (i.e., approximately ≥90% V̇o2 peak (16)) than traditional circuit training, which is generally performed at a lower intensity. Furthermore, HIT is performed with much less total volume than when compared with traditional circuit training. Regardless of what exercises are chosen, it is important to include exercises that involve sagittal, frontal, and transverse plane movements that will be encountered in a fight. Although the aforementioned intervals were designed to be sport specific, it is important to note some strength and conditioning specialists advocate that the focus in the weight room should be to improve physical attributes related to the sport, and specificity can be taken too far in some instances. Remember that the focus of interval training is designed to metabolically condition the body.

In a 2008 study by Amtmann et al. (2), the investigators reported that after an MMA bout, lactate levels ranging from 10.2 to 20.7 mmol/L were observed. Of the 4 amateur fighters who were studied, all had participated in 3 different types of interval training before their fights. The interval training included “MMA-specific actions” such as shadow striking/wrestling combined with higher intensity movements such as push-ups, pull-ups, bridging, sit-ups, jump squats, lunges, and tuck jumps. The second type of interval training included two 4-minute rounds consisting of MMA sparring with 1-minute rest between rounds. The last type of conditioning they performed consisted of sprinting on a cycle ergometer at maximal levels for 20 seconds followed by a 10-second rest period (i.e., Tabata cycle ergometer protocol (44)). This was performed for 8 reps. Interestingly, all but one individual had experienced higher lactate measurements (8.1-19.7 mmol/L) after an interval training bout (3 weeks before fight night) than they did after their actual fight. In other words, interval training appeared to effectively prepare them for the metabolic demands of an actual MMA competition.

It is important to note that lactate accumulation can inhibit actin and myosin cross-bridge cycling (i.e., muscle contraction) (27). As a result, fighters need to be able to adequately buffer high acidity levels in both the blood and skeletal muscle to optimize performance (27). The goal of interval training is not to primarily develop strength but to condition one's body metabolically (i.e., reduce and/or clear lactate more efficiently and enhance oxidative capacity in skeletal muscle by specifically increasing the activity of the mitochondrial enzymes such as citrate synthase and cytochrome oxidase (15)) to prepare for the high-intensity bouts that will be experienced through the rigors of fighting.

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POWER DEVELOPMENT FOR MMA

Relative to athletic performance, strength and power are both important factors. However, power may be a better predictor of athletic success as compared with strength (7,42). Although strength is a major contributing factor to power, power is associated with explosiveness (i.e., how fast you can move against a resistance). Although power is not the sole predictor of success in an MMA match, the fighter who is more powerful will likely be at an advantage over a less powerful opponent. Specifically, a fighter needs to have power endurance, which is the ability to perform power-based movements repeatedly without undue fatigue. Ideally, fighters should specifically possess powerful hips, trunk, and shoulder musculature. This should be of utmost concern to the individual who trains fighters. Other attributes being similar, the powerful fighter will be more successful at taking an opponent down, performing a reversal or escape when opponents are grappling on the ground, securing submissions, and throwing devastating punches or kicks.

Exercise programs aimed at improving power should focus on explosiveness (i.e., how fast the weight is being moved during the concentric portion of the exercise). Although power is crucial for success in MMA, muscular strength and endurance are also needed. That being said, it has been established that aerobic/endurance training may negatively affect strength/power attributes (34). It is accepted that when training for a sport like MMA, some power may be lost as result of concurrent training. However, it may be mitigated by proper periodization (34).

A 2009 study by Hartmann et al. (17) observed a significant improvement in both 1 repetition maximum (1-RM) and power (measured by a maximal movement velocity [V̇max] in the bench press throw) whether the subjects followed a 14-week daily undulating model (protocol outlined in Table 3) or a more classic strength-power periodization model (i.e., 10 weeks of hypertrophy training followed by 4 weeks of power training [Table 4]). The interesting finding of this study is that although the strength and power gains were slightly greater in the strength-power periodization group, they were not significantly different (statistically) from those who performed the more classic hypertrophy-power periodization model (17). In other words, by devoting as little as 1 day a week to power training (in conjunction with 2 other days focused on hypertrophy and strength endurance training, respectively), it may lead to similar improvements in strength and power as observed in individuals who performed this type of training 3 days per week.

Table 3

Table 3

Table 4

Table 4

Although this is only the result of one study and it should be replicated to make more definitive conclusions, this finding may be considered when designing a periodized plan for a mixed martial artist. Training for power is paramount, but a mixed martial artist may not always be able to devote 3 days to power training because of the fact that they also need to train for muscular endurance, muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance, and sport-specific skills. The authors concluded that although strength endurance training (as performed in the daily undulating model) does not offer a sufficient training stimulus to enhance power, it may not have a deleterious effect on the neural stimulus that is required for power training as long as sufficient rest/regeneration time between workouts occurs. This protocol is by no means ideal for every mixed martial artist. However, it can serve as a general starting point for an athlete and can be modified to fit different individual's needs.

In 2009, Garcia-Pallares et al. (12) showed that the subjects significantly improved both strength and muscle power when the emphasis of their exercise protocol was placed on performing each repetition explosively. In this study, the subjects performed a typical bench press and a prone bench pull using 45% of their 1-RM, and emphasis was placed on explosive movement through the concentric phase of the exercise. Other researchers have seen improvements in power output while using a higher percentage of the 1-RM. For example, it has been shown that using 80% of the 1-RM produced the greatest power output during a hang power clean in professional rugby players (24). However, it is important to note that there is still debate on the optimal load to produce the peak power output (PPO) in both the upper and lower extremities (24). External loads ranging from 40 to 70% and 40 to 80% 1-RM in the upper and lower extremities, respectively, have been reported to produce PPO in the scientific literature (24).

Interestingly, Baker et al. (3) showed a significant increase in power output using a resistance that equaled 75% of 1-RM using chains as part of the overall resistance. The chains used provided about 15% of the 1RM, whereas a typical barbell provided the remaining weight (60% 1-RM). During a bench press exercise, chains were added to the bar so that the total weight being moved would equal 75% 1-RM (3). Specifically, when the bar was lowered, the majority of the weight of the chain would rest on the floor and not add resistance to the bar. As the barbell moved upward, the weight of the chains would eventually contribute to the weight being moved. In the same manner, those chains were used to apply a portion of the overall resistance, and typical strength bands can also be considered. It should be noted that although the 2 previous studies cited used the bench press exercise as a mean of measurement, the same guidelines could theoretically be applied to many different exercises.

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SPEED DEVELOPMENT FOR MMA

One physiological variable that is extremely important to a fighter is speed. The ability to execute rapid punches, kicks, and takedowns is paramount to success in MMA. The speed at which punches or kicks are executed can play an important factor in the knockout potential of that punch or kick (as the total measurable kinetic energy of the punch or kick is exponentially related to the velocity, whereas only arithmetically related to the mass of the striking appendage [i.e., Ek = (1/2)mv2]). Therefore, speed development should also be addressed by trainers when designing an exercise program for a fighter.

One way to develop speed is to incorporate plyometric exercises as part of a weightlifting regimen. Perez-Gomez et al. (36) studied the effects of a 6-week exercise program that consisted of resistance training and plyometric exercises (unloaded drop jumps from a height of 40-60 cm and explosive hurdle jumps using 5 hurdles spaced 1 m apart at a height of 50 cm) incorporated into the same training session. Researchers observed that the participants' angular speed of the knee significantly increased (21.9 ± 1.3 before training to 24.5 ± 1.2 rad/s after training) after the 6-week training program and ultimately lead to an increase in football kicking performance (36). The results of this study can be easily extrapolated to fighting, as open kinetic chain kicking techniques are widely used in MMA.

Ballistic resistance exercises have also shown increases in movement speed. McBride et al. (31) examined the effects of performing 8 weeks of heavy-load (80% 1-RM) versus light-load (30% 1-RM) jump squats on various performance measures (i.e., an agility test, 20-m sprint, peak velocity, power, and jump height during resisted jump squats) and compared those with a control group. The investigators found that the participants who performed jump squats with 30% 1-RM had statistical increases in peak velocity, peak power, and a trend toward improving their 20-m running speed (31). Conversely, individuals in the 80% 1-RM group had significant decreases in their 20-m running speed although they had increases in power and 1-RM (31). The researchers concluded that training using light-load jump squats might increase movement velocity as compared with that using heavier resistance. The authors report that velocity-specific changes in muscle activity may be attributed to the adaptations that were observed (31).

Another way to possibly improve speed is by incorporating the use of resistance bands combined with maximal velocity movements. Dinn and Behm (9) examined the effects of an 8-week punching protocol using resistance bands as compared with that using an unyielding strap (isometric) and a control group. The bands varied in resistance from 7 to 25.3 lb (9). The resistance of the band was determined when the participant could barely extend his or her arm fully. Resistance bands were used 3 times per week, with a goal of progressively increasing the band resistance throughout the 8-week protocol (9). Subjects performed 3 and 4 sets of 10 reps in week 1 and 2, respectively, and 5 sets of 10 reps in weeks 3 through 8. Individuals using the resistance bands were asked to perform the punching movements as fast as possible. In the isometric group, subjects were instructed to perform the punching movement with the intent to contract explosively. Participants rested between 45 and 60 seconds between sets. At the conclusion of this study, a significant increase in punching movement speed (determined by a 17.6% decrease in movement time) was only observed when subjects practiced a punch using a resistance band even though both the experimental groups tried to move as fast as possible (9).

Taking these results into consideration, the use of resistance bands, combined with maximal velocity training, could also be used to develop not only punching speed but also possibly kicking and takedown speeds as well. Bands are inexpensive and can be easily applied in numerous positions (i.e., while standing or in various positions on the ground to improve both standing and ground-striking speed, respectively). On the other hand, resistance bands may theoretically become limiting and in fact take away from performance transfer because of the limited dynamic correspondence between resistance bands and ballistic free body activities such as punching. Finally, it is important to consider that in the aforementioned study, the increase in speed was seen with recreational athletes and not professionals. Although it is believed that there may be less room for improvement in speed development when working with a professional athlete, it still can be incorporated into their overall training program (36).

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ISOMETRIC STRENGTH CONSIDERATIONS

An overlooked area in strength and conditioning regimens for MMA is isometric holds using the upper extremities and trunk. Most aspects of grappling involve pulling or squeezing motions (as compared with pushing motions). In grappling or wrestling situations, a fighter often has to isometrically squeeze the trunk, head, or limb to take down, control, or submit an opponent. Therefore, isometric holds using medicine balls, heavy punching bags, and sand bags can simulate the demands of isometrically controlling an opponent. To accomplish this, the athlete would perform short duration maximal isometric holds to simulate a real-life fight situation. These types of exercises can be incorporated into an existing periodized program on days where enhancing strength is the focus of that training session.

Another commonly overlooked area is grip strength. A strong grip is needed to dominate an opponent during the many grappling tie-ups that are encountered during a fight competition. Mixed martial artists need to grasp an opponent's wrist, ankle, back of the head, or trunk to control them, stop a punch, or submit their opponent. Although grip strength is often indirectly improved through traditional exercises such as pull-ups and rows, it still can be augmented, if deemed necessary, through specific grip-strengthening exercises such as maximal isometric squeezes using theraputty (or similar product) or towel hangs, for example. (See Figure 1 for “towel hang” exercise using body weight as the resistance.)

Figure 1

Figure 1

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NONTRADITIONAL EXERCISES

The incorporation of nontraditional exercises appears to be increasing in popularity among certain mixed martial artists. The following is a brief list of exercises that have become relatively popular over the past few years.

  • Kettlebell swings, cleans, and snatches
  • Heavy rope training/rope climbing
  • Tire flips
  • Sledgehammer swings/wood chopping
  • Sled pulls
  • Pull-ups using towels or other alterations in grip size
  • Pushing automobiles (while in a neutral gear)

Many of the aforementioned exercises have sound rationale behind them. Additionally, there are testimonials from certain professional fighters that support the efficacy of these aforementioned exercises. However, it is important to point out that there is little or no peer-reviewed scientific research examining many of these exercise modalities. Thus, it cannot be conclusively stated that these exercises are any better or worse than other more traditional exercises.

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CERVICAL SPINE

Although MMA can be dangerous, the injury rates in regulated professional MMA seem to be similar as that of other combat sports (35). Even though injuries are likely to occur, a well-designed strength and conditioning program will likely reduce the risk of acquiring certain musculoskeletal injuries and improve performance. One area that is often neglected in many strength and conditioning programs are exercises specifically designed to train the neck musculature. As mentioned above, the survey study by Amtmann (1) reported that less than half of the participants in his study participated in specific exercises to strengthen the neck.

Kochhar et al. (25) have reported that when several wrestling moves (i.e., various takedowns) were analyzed, it was concluded that the forces involved were similar to those seen in whiplash injuries to the cervical spine. As a result, not only is neck strength important to a fighter, but a well conditioned neck can potentially reduce the risk of a cervical related injury. A strong neck is needed for several reasons. One reason is to absorb strikes typically encountered during a MMA competition. Another reason is to combat the fact that the head is constantly being grabbed and pulled on in various directions to control an opponent, when they are taken down, and to submit the opponent with various chokes and neck cranks. Neck exercises should target all of the major motions normally produced at the cervical spine, such as neck flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion. In addition, both the isometric and isotonic neck exercises should be incorporated into a cervical strengthening program.

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PERIODIZATION CONSIDERATIONS

Periodization encompasses programmed perturbations in exercise frequency, intensity, and volume, as well as incorporating days of planned rest (26). The overall goal of periodization is to optimize training adaptations and prevent overreaching or overtraining. When designing the conditioning programs, it is important to periodize the workouts in regard to intensity, work to rest ratios, frequency, and mode. Periodization has been shown to improve performance in high-level athletes (28,38). Furthermore, according to a comprehensive review by Stone (43), proper periodization can mitigate the risk of overtraining by varying exercise intensity, volume, and exercise selection, as well as planning specific days of rest. Regarding periodization, there are 2 general periodization models often referred to as linear and nonlinear (undulating) (45). (To address the basic differences between linear and non-linear/undulating periodization models, see Table 5.) Designing a quality periodized program should theoretically be completed based on a known period preceding the actual event. However, unlike many sports with regular predictable schedules, preparing a well-designed periodized program for a mixed martial artist is sometimes difficult because in many cases, fighters have to commit to a competitive fight on short notice (i.e., anywhere from 1 day to a couple of weeks notice).

Table 5

Table 5

Conversely, if a fighter does not take a fight on short notice, he/she can expect to have approximately 6-12 weeks to train specifically for a fight. As a result, a nonlinear or undulating model might be the most advantageous model as it is designed for sports that have many in-season contests, similar to what an active fighter may encounter (45). Although there is not a large body of research that directly compares these 2 periodization schemes, some research shows that an undulating model may be advantageous. A 2009 study by Prestes et al. (37) compared the effects of a linear periodized (LP) resistance training program with a daily undulating periodized (DUP) resistance training program on maximal bench press, leg press, and arm curl strength in resistance trained young men. After 12 weeks, the DUP group, when compared with the LP group, had the greatest increases in maximal strength (25.1 versus 18.2%; 40.6 versus 24.7%; 23.5 versus 14.2% for bench press, leg press, and arm curl, respectively). However, no statistical difference was found between the groups. Although more research is still needed, the authors conclude their findings by stating that the DUP may be superior to the LP in increasing maximal strength and that varying daily intensity and volume was more effective than weekly changes (37). These aforementioned results and that of the previously mentioned study by Hartmann et al. (17) give validity to the notion that following an undulating model may be advantageous for a mixed martial artist. Detailed specifics of designing a comprehensive periodized exercise program are outside of scope of this article. However, for a more comprehensive overview on periodization, see “Optimizing strength training: designing nonlinear periodization workouts” (26) or a review by Issurin (22) entitled “Block periodization versus traditional training theory: a review.”

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OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Another way to make strength and conditioning sessions more challenging and sport-specific is to wear the mouthpiece that will be used during fight competitions. It restricts airflow slightly and will make the exercises or circuits seem a little more difficult. However, it is a very good idea to get athletes feeling comfortable wearing their mouthpiece during their conditioning sessions as opposed to fight night. Another great exercise modality that can be incorporated into circuits/interval work is swimming. Specifically, the regulation of breathing patterns during swimming, compounded with the additional constraint of wearing a mouthpiece, can assist a fighter with breathing control during the competition. Remember, there are countless ways to set-up and manipulate circuits and exercises. It should be pointed out that when you train an athlete, it is highly recommended that a heart rate monitor be used to assess both maximal heart rate and how quickly the heart rate decreases during rest periods. This will quantitatively allow the trainer to determine if the fighter is improving in regard to their conditioning.

Remember, overreaching and overtraining are always a real possibility when training a professional mixed martial artist because of the volume and intensity of the exercises they perform. Table 6 lists common signs of overreaching/overtraining. Therefore, it is important to keep detailed records of the athlete's training regimen, heart rate, blood pressure, injuries, and mood to track progress while minimizing occurrences of overtraining. For more information regarding overtraining, see “Overtraining in Sport” (29) and/or “Overtraining: Theories, diagnosis and markers” (10). Finally, strength and conditioning specialists should be cognizant of the fact that there is not a “one size fits all” approach to training mixed martial artists, or any athlete. Strength and conditioning coaches sometimes can make the mistake of just “adding” exercises and never “subtracting.” Thus, careful consideration should be given when adding new exercises into an athlete's existing protocol, based on their particular goals and needs.

Table 6

Table 6

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RECOVERY FROM TRAINING

Even though the mixed martial artist regularly engages in intense training, it should be noted that these athletes actually spend a greater proportion of their time recovering than they do in actual training. The concept of recovery and its importance to exercise performance is an evolving phenomenon. In fact, some exercise scientists are devoting their research efforts into various aspects of recovery from exercise. Understanding the importance of recovery to optimal performance has not escaped the United States Olympic Committee, as they have opened a new Athlete Recovery Center located at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Recovery from training and competitive events has been categorized into 3 domains: immediate recovery, short-term recovery, and training recovery (6). Immediate recovery is the period, which occurs between rapid and finite efforts. Relative to MMA competition, the mixed martial artist has immediate recovery between wrestling tie-ups, after throwing a combination of strikes, and defending from such moves immediately after their attempts. During the immediate recovery phase, the stimulated/active muscles must regenerate adenosine triphosphate and remove by-products of energy-producing pathways (6). Short-term recovery is the recovery between interval sprints or between sets of a resistance training program. In competition, short-term recovery would be equated to the time between rounds. The last type of recovery, training recovery, is the recovery between 2 individual training sessions or competitions. For the mixed martial artist, typical durations of training recovery could range from several hours to several days. Although all the 3 types of recovery are important, there seems to be more of an emphasis on training recovery and those techniques that are used to enhance recovery between the training sessions and competitions.

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Recovery Techniques

Even though there is a lot of emphasis on training recovery, there is very little scientific evidence supporting the modalities used to promote training recovery. Despite the lack of scientific inquiry, the following are some of the techniques that are commonly used between training sessions with the goal of enhancing the recovery process (4).

  • Massage therapy
  • Active recovery
  • Cryotherapy
  • Contrast temperature water immersion
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Hydration
  • Timed nutrient ingestion
  • Nutritional ergogenic aids
  • Combination modalities

The implied goal for incorporating the aforementioned training recovery strategies is to not only facilitate recovery more quickly and more fully after a training session/competition but also make the mixed martial artist's next workout even more productive and decrease the rate of injuries and the incidence of overtraining. For a recent review of the above modalities, refer to the study by Barnett entitled “Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes: does it help?” (4).

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Theoretical Approaches That May Enhance Recovery for the Mixed Martial Artist

Active recovery (also referred to as active rest), which is the low-volume and low-intensity training, may accelerate the recovery process (23), but published evidence is currently lacking (4). A novel trend that is beginning to gain popularity, although it is not scientifically proven, is to engage in concentric-only contractions during the active recovery period (39). This training technique is consistent with the cellular adaptations that occur within skeletal muscle fibers, as eccentric contractions have been shown to induce greater muscle injury than concentric contractions (46). Concentric-only contractions can be performed in land-based exercise through the use of partners or individually using free weights and ropes/cords. Concentric-only exercises increase blood flow to promote muscle healing but will not cause excessive muscle damage that would normally occur with eccentric contractions. (See Figures 2, 3 for an example of concentric only standing rows).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

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SUMMARY

In conclusion, designing the strength and conditioning programs for MMA is challenging because of its complex and comprehensive nature. A typical program to optimize strength and conditioning should include HIT and specific resistance exercises that strengthen the body in ways that closely mirror a MMA competition. A comprehensive strength and conditioning regimen is paramount for success in modern day MMA. It is important to consider that the sport is still relatively new, and much more research is needed to elucidate optimal training modalities to enhance performance and reduce recovery time. However, with this information mentioned above, a trainer can start to formulate a well-designed program that is specific for the mixed martial artist.

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FIGURE. Ca

FIGURE. Ca

Keywords:

mixed martial arts; combat sports; strength; conditioning; performance

© 2011 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association