If you are serious about competing in MMA, core training is an absolute priority. Depending on what you do for a living and your athletic background, you will more than likely have serious deficiencies in this area, especially if you are new to combat sports.
The Role of the Core Muscles in MMA
The main muscles of the core are as follows:
- transversus abdominis,
- internal and external obliques,
- rectus abdominis,
- erector spinae
Without going into a full blown anatomy lesson, the muscles of the core do two main things: stabilise the torso, and dynamically move it in a rotational manner. The MMA athlete will be drawing heavily on both functions during a fight so specific MMA core training is an absolute must. Any weaknesses will kill your game, whether you are a ground fighter, stand-up fighter, wrestler etc. Nearly everything you do during a fight is dependent on the core.
Problems with Traditional Training Routines
If you train regularly with weights in a gym, it is likely you have been focusing on movements and exercises which ignore the static and dynamic functions of the core. Take the 3 ‘big ones’ – bench press, deadlift and squat. The bench press, although a great movement for packing on size and strength, does little to work the core as both sides of the body are balanced. There is no static resistance required by the obliques, and as the torso does not twist at all during this movement, there is zero dynamic core involvement.
In the same way, the deadlift, although involving the lower back, does not involve any rotational function of the core. It is a good mass and strength builder, and it will have some carry over to certain movements in a real fight, but there are far better options for MMA. Core training must be focused on specific movement patterns that are called upon in competition.
The traditional back squat is also a bi-lateral movement. The static and dynamic potential of the core is not challenged much at all. Also, the bar, being placed so high on the upper back, bears little resemblance to picking up an opponent off the floor, compared, say to a zercher squat.
Modifying Weight Training to Aid MMA Core Training
One of the simplest methods to make an exercise:
- More MMA specific
- Stimulate the Core muslces
- And not lose its original benefits
..is to switch it to a unilateral movement. This means training one side of the body at a time. This makes sense, because if you take a punch for example, it is not thrown two hands at once. Neither are kicks.
So how would we take an exercise like the bench press and make it unilateral so that it has more carry over to punching power? First you would have to change from a barbell bench press to a dumbbell bench press. Then you would have to perform the movement one side at a time. If you have never attempted this before, you’ll be challenged to maintain balance, and will not be able to lift as heavy as you would using two sides together. In time, however, your weaker core muscles will catch up and you may even end up lifting more weight.
You can apply this principle to more or less any exercise. Just switch from barbells to dumbbells (or kettle bells) and train one side at a time. I find for myself that I am now a lot stronger on some movements e.g. the dumbbell shoulder press, with one side at a time, than I ever was when I performed it two handed.
Other Apparatus To Aid MMA Core Training
I could reel off a list of several hundred items you could use to work the core. But I would rather help you understand the principles involved and then you can create some of your own moves. The key factor is to think about actual movement patterns in a fight. There are some pretty good off the shelf core training products such as the one in the video below. But there many ways to train without the need to purchase extra equipment.
If we take a straight right punch as an example, you want to find something in the gym that will enable you to stress the musculature and connective tissue of the core and other muscles involved in throwing this type of punch. Using a cable pulley set at shoulder height would be perfect. You would mimic the exact same movement pattern of a punch by:
- grabbing a handle,
- starting with channelling power from the balls of the feet,
- through the thighs, glutes and hamstrings,
- into the core, and
- chambering the final delivery via the shoulder, arm and fist.
Using a heavy enough weight will force you to engage your core, rather than just throwing out your arms.
You could use any weighted object but a barbell plate is convenient if you are already in a gym. The following is a great exercise for MMA core training:
- Position yourself on a sit up bench with weight plate held in front, just off your lap.
- Twist to the left and then power back all the way over to the right.
- Repeat for reps.
Vary the degree to which you lean back from full sit up to laying back on the bench. The further back you lean the harder the movement becomes.
This one is best performed outside, unless you have an area set aside in your gym specifically for this. You will need a sledgehammer and something to hit that won’t smash. A large tyre is ideal. The object is to hit the tyre as hard as you can from varying angles. If you position the tyre leant up against a wall and pound into it from the side, this will stimulate the obliques big time.
It also seriously engages the forearms, lats and chest. Work on flurries with the same type of timing and intensity you would use trying to finish a fight. I would suggest doing 15 minutes of this over 3 five minute rounds, a couple of times a week. It seriously develops core power quickly. This is one of the best MMA core training exercises in existence.
Grappling Bags / Dummies
These are punch bags shaped like a human torso. Some even have arms and legs. Training with grappling bags is all about man-handling. So you want to practice throws and slams from all sorts of angles. If you have a weakness anywhere in the core, you’ll soon find out about it using this piece of MMA training kit. There are several manufacturers such as Title and the UFC. Bags start at around 50lbs and can go up to 200lbs.
You can buy these from fitness equipment suppliers or make your own. They can be used in the same way as grappling dummies, but are not so big. However, they can be made to weigh well over 80lbs and are great if you want something that is easily transportable. Going on holiday? Pack one in your suitcase and have some great beach workouts!
I hope you get the general picture of how to incorporate MMA core training into your workout schedule. It is an absolute must for the combat athlete. If you dedicate time and effort to it, you will have a decided advantage come fight night.