There are several approaches to the whole subject of MMA strength and conditioning training. Some see Strength and Conditioning as two separate components that must be trained separately. Others view them as two sides of the same coin. Which approach is right?
Both. How we incorporate both approaches into our own MMA workouts depends on several factors. First of all, what are your long term goals in terms of your own bodyweight? What weight division you want to compete in? If you think you have reached an ideal weight, but are only in your late teens or early thirties, think again. You may still have a lot of growing to do. Strength training could go hand in hand with your genetic physical development, pre-programmed by what you inherited from your parents.
The MMA Fighter that Needs to Gain Size
Strength training is often used as a method for gaining size. If this is your goal, then a separation of strength and conditioning in your training schedule is a must. You need to work towards gaining mass via the use of progressive overload principles applied to weight training. A hybrid approach at this point in your career would lessen the impact of your weight room work. Full recovery between sets is a must when you are aiming at upping your loads on basic compound movements – which are the key to gaining muscle size.
MMA strength and conditioning training has to be managed carefully. For example, if you were to circuit train during your weights sessions, your muscles would be catching up with your lungs and would not allow you to perform at full intensity with regard to maximising the loads you used.
Two words of advice here though. You still need to work on your conditioning. But if your current goal is increased strength and size, the conditioning work needs to be separated from the strength work. Secondly, any weight training you do, must still be MMA specific. You need to focus on movement patterns that come as close to possible to those planes of motion used in real competition. So for instance, this would mean using a lot of unilateral movements such as one arm dumbbell presses. These stress not only the chest, shoulders and triceps, but also recruit the rotational muscles of the core and posterior chain used in punching.
So for the fighter that needs to gain size, 2 to 3 total body workouts every 7 to 10 days would be ideal. During these sessions you would concentrate on:
- heavy compound lifts,
- heavy grappling bag work,
- heavy unilateral movements and the like.
When I say heavy, you want to be training in the 4-8 rep range on most movements. This ensures that both strength and hypertrophy are targeted. Fight specific movement patterns are a must in MMA strength and conditioning training. And you also need to perform movements with acceleration and maximal production of force.
Conditioning workouts should be scheduled either a few hours later in the day, or on separate days altogether. To allow for adequate recovery between your heavy gym sessions, you should also back away from using any weights during the conditioning work. If you are smart, you can actually use your conditioning workouts to aid recovery from your MMA strength training sessions. So the two aspects of your training during this type of phase would benefit each other, rather than hinder progress.
So during a phase designed to add maximum strength and mass, your conditioning training should consist of:
- jump rope work,
- focus mitt drills,
- lots of mobility work
- stretching drills,
- speed ball
- heavy bag punching and kicking, etc.
Just steer clear of involving weights again until the next strength training session. You mainly want to concentrate on moving your own body about, but without resisting anything except air, if you get my drift. So no pull ups or press ups either during this phase. You will just be doubling up on your training in the weights room and it could prove counter productive.
You still need to push yourself as hard as ever with regard to your conditioning work during a mass and strength gain phase. If you don’t you’ll pay for it fight time. You will also need to watch what you eat. You can gain muscle and stay lean at the same time, but you need to push it on the conditioning front to do this.
The MMA Fighter at his Perfect Weight
So what about the fighter who has found his ideal fighting weight, and has no desire to increase in size? First of all you have to determine if you really are at your ideal weight. You may be able to drop a weight class, and still maintain or even increase your current strength levels, if you are carrying a bit too much body fat. Some fighters find that they can strip off fat and come down a weight, maintain all their power and increase their cardio capacity in a matter of weeks. The advice I offer that fighter is identical to the fighter that is truly lean and at the ideal weight. The following plan not only builds on current strength levels but is in my experience the fastest method of fat loss. So read on.
If you genuinely are at your ideal fighting weight, you can really go to town and maximise everything you do in the gym to apply to MMA competition. It is the ideal place to be as a fighter. During this type of training phase, MMA strength and conditioning training is one and the same. No divisions into weights sessions and conditioning sessions. You maintain strength by still training heavy and continue increasing your training poundage, but you will be working at a much faster pace over shorter sessions which mimic the timing of an actual fight.
Ideally, you want to train in blocks of 5 minutes, with fluctuating levels of intensity within each of those blocks. You want to begin with 3 rounds of 5 minutes, and work up to championship levels training 5 round of 5 minutes.
Within these blocks – or rounds, you hit everything via the use of MMA fight specific movements, using both weights, bodyweight, grappling bags etc. Your ‘rest’ intervals, would mimic movement patterns in fights, so things like jump rope drills, heavy bag work, sparring etc. all come into play. To give you an example of what this might look like in practice you might do the following over 3 rounds of 5 minutes:
- Unilateral dumbbell floor presses alternating left and right – 1 minute
- Jump rope double unders – 1 minute
- Heavy grappling bag throws – 1 minute
- Low kicks to heavy bag – 1 minute
- Zercher squats (widow maker style) – 1 minute
Rest for 1 minute (you’ll need it!)
- Inverted (leaning back) pull ups with 5 second static holds at top – 1 minute
- BJJ Rolling with partner – 1minute
- One leg get ups with barbell thrust punches – 1 minute
- Closed mouth jump rope medium pace – 2 minutes
Rest 1 minute (vomiting optional)
- Plyometric barbell throws from floor (partner to catch and perform high pull and return) – 1 minute
- Ground and pound punch outs to grappling bag on floor – 30 seconds
- Elbows to heavy bag – 30 seconds
- Heavy dumbbell snatches alternating each side to failure – 1 minute
- Closed mouth jump rope double unders – 30 seconds
- Rope pulls with weighted sled (heavy) – 30 seconds
- Sled pushes (heavy) 1 minute
That is 3 rounds of strength and conditioning for the entire body. You could design these sort of workouts to target various body parts. For example, one day you could focus on pressing movements, the next workout, pulling movements, and the next lower body and ab work. The combinations are infinite. The key is to maximise the weights used and let the lungs catch up as you progress. You must not train light. It is going to be a little lighter than a purely strength training phase, but you still want to keep the rep ranges about 8 – 12 on most exercises that involve the use of barbells, dumbbells, kettle bells and body weight.
A lot of people make the mistake of ignoring strength levels and the weights used when approaching conditioning workouts of this nature. You must not do that. Keep a record of what weights you use, how many reps you get, and make it a goal to beat those figures in the next workout. Substitute exercises when gains cease. Monitor your progress so you can best decide for yourself if you need extra rest days in between. Other aspects of your training such as technique work, stretching and mobility, etc., should help you to recover when focusing on this type MMA strength and conditioning training.