We love training fighters. They're humble. They're always happy to work around injuries. They're the kind of people you have to pull back from doing too much. They're our kind of people.
We've been doing some work with the athletes up @profitnessmma in Frankston - check out their place if you're interested in becoming a savage. The first video comes straight from their Instagram and shows some of the awesome work they're doing.
I was lucky enough to visit the UFC Performance Institute back in 2017. It's S&C heaven for both coaches and athletes. They've published a comprehensive journal analysing what it takes to be a top MMA athlete. I refer to their work in this post. If you'd like the link to the full journal, send me a message.
"Fundamentally, the role of supplementary strength and conditioning (i.e., non-technical training) is to develop the physical preparedness, or work potential, necessary for an athlete to effectively utilize his or her technical skills
i) as fast possible and
ii) for as long as possible."
-Duncan French - VP of Performance at the UFC PI.
In this article we'll go through a little behind on the scenes on how we train our fighters and why...
Strength Training - Key Lifts
We like to become extremely proficient in the following lifts:
Front squat, rear foot-elevated split squat, trap bar deadlift, barbell overhead press, bench pull (or weighted inverted row), pull-up, bench press, single arm pressing and all kinds of carries
We don't specialise in "sport-specific" movements or anything like that. Athletes should be trained generally. Building a stronger vehicle comes first. The athlete then applies that stronger vehicle to their MMA training - making their fight skills and tactics more effective.
Our goal: Get as strong as possible without adding unnecessary weight/mass. Because strength is mostly neural (brain power), it's possible to get super strong without adding much muscle mass (we're in a weight class sport remember).
To do this, keep the reps low - 1 to 3. Do more sets to get in some volume - 3-5. And where possible, minimise the eccentric phase (lowering phase) - drop your deadlifts from the top, don't be too slow when lowering the weight down. Also, don't eat too much.
The Force-Velocity Curve
MMA athletes are required to explode, to grind, to maximally lift and to throw with bad intentions. The strength and power needed to grapple against the cage is quite different to the strength and power need to throw a leg kick or a jab.
In order to make sure we aren't missing anything, we can refer to the force-velocity curve. Power is the product of force multiplied by velocity. You can increase power by raising your speed (velocity) or by raising your strength (force). Ideally you raise both.
If we want to work on the force side of the curve (left or Y-axis) then we need to focus more on strength movements. Think heavier weights and by their nature, slower movements. Think of this as your 1-3 rep max on the main lifts i.e. bench, split squat and deadlift.
If we want to work on the velocity side of the curve (right or X-axis) then we need to focus more on speed and power movements. Think no or very light weights, extremely fast and explosive movements. Think of things like jumping, throwing and sprinting here.
The Force-Velocity Curve
In between you have a range of different spots such as peak power (medium loads with the intention to move them as fast as possible). Olympic lifting or weighted jumps fit in here.
We'll often just get our athletes to do something like a squat or a press and let them know in advance what the purpose for this lift is and how we want them to move.
For example, if we want to work on max strength (force end of the curve) we'll say "go heavy, this can be more of a grind." If we want to work on max speed (velocity end of the curve), we'll say "keep this light but move it as fast as possible."
Then for things in between, we might say "for these front squats today, we want a medium to heavy weight, about 70% of your max. but I want you to move it as fast as you can." They're not going to move it as fast as say, a vertical jump, but we're not working on max speed here - the focus is somewhere in between.
Building an Engine
Duncan French sums up energy system development perfectly:
"Importantly, all ESD strategies should be aligned to the specific bioenergetic needs of MMA. This includes:
i) a well-developed alactic system that can provide high rates of energy production in very short time frames in order to throw knockout punches or sprawl to defend against takedowns,
ii) a lactic system with a large capacity that can produce energy during sustained high intensity efforts such as pummelling and clinch work against the fence or flurries of punches and elbows during ground-and pound and finally
iii) a large aerobic system with the capacity and efficiency to resynthesize the energy utilized through anaerobic pathways (i.e., i and ii above), and to sustain moderate levels of activity for longer periods of time (i.e., any exercises longer than three minutes is predominantly aerobic in nature, and MMA rounds last five minutes)."
How we use that information:
1- Hit all 3 energy systems.
2- Focus on the first 2. Fighters get a lot of aerobic work from skills training plus road running.
3- To train the first system, we use efforts 5-10 seconds in length with a work to rest of at least 1 to 10. i.e. work for 5 seconds as hard as humanly possible, rest for 55 seconds and repeat 5-15 times.
4- To train the second system, do efforts from 10 to 60 seconds (we usually stick to under 30 seconds) at 80-95% effort. Rest is at least double, usually triple or more. i.e. for a 15 second all out effort we will have 45 seconds or more rest. Repeat for 10-15 minutes. One of my favourites is 15 on, 1 min 45 rest, repeat 5-10 times.
5- Don't neglect the 3rd system. Mix up your stimulus i.e. rowing, biking, running (most time should be spent on the feet running). Mixing in some heavy carries or some grappling/wrestling with efforts on an echo bike or ski erg is effective here.
Focus on commonly injured areas or areas where you personally have been injured before.
Accessory work should focus on commonly injured areas such as the shoulder, neck and groin. The MMA coaches we work with spend time during skills training to work on neck strength and stability. We also have the Iron Neck up at the Profitness gym for athletes to use as they please. Basic joint work for other areas like external rotations and bottoms up KB presses for the shoulders and adductor planks for the groins can go a long way.
Doing more of the opposite of what you do during skills training can help balance things out as well. Fighters are often pulled forward at the shoulders so opening up with more rowing (TRX rows) can help.
Don't confuse this with bodybuilding though. Doing extra volume work can add unwelcome weight to an athlete. Adding mass may be appropriate at different times throughout the year, but make sure you do it with that intention and stay within your weight divisions range (unless of course, you're trying to move up a division).
REST! It's part of the program
The hardest thing to do with real athletes is hold them back. They're constantly charging ahead. Always wanting to do more. It's a good problem to have.
Make the most of your training by having a day or two off every week. Ideally you'd have two days off - say Thursday and Sunday. And hit it really hard on the other 5 days. If you only want to have 1 day off, use 1 day a week as a lighter active recovery day.
Resting is a weapon. It makes everything else you do far more effective and it'll keep you healthy in the long term. I like ice baths and saunas on days off to make it feel like I'm doing something. Walking or generally being active on rest days is good. Don't just sit on the couch.