MMA strength training is something that needs to come into play at some point in your fighting career. Strength does matter in MMA. If it didn’t, then no one would care about PED’s, banned substances, TRT, etc. in professional MMA fights. If strength doesn’t matter in MMA, then neither do steroids.
(I appreciate you putting up with the pop ups!)
The term “strength training” is actually pretty vague. There are lot’s of ways to train, and we want our training to improve our fighting. So we need to know how to correctly do MMA strength training.
For our purposes, we will differentiate between two different strength training aspects and determine which aspect we want to focus on for MMA strength training. The two aspects are INTENSITY and VOLUME.
Once we have identified the aspect that best serves our goal, we will formulate a plan of action to meet that goal. The goal being better fighting performance.
Intensity vs. Volume in MMA Strength Training
Strength training for sports is easily done wrong, and MMA strength Training is no exception. In my opinion, there’s not enough focus on training intensity. To understand what I mean, let’s break down the two.
The Benefits of Training Volume
Training volume refers to how much time you spend moving weight. If you do 100 reps, that’s more volume than 10 reps. Easy enough.
Of course, a lot of MMA strength training favors high volume workouts because an endurance effect is desired. This is understandable. Every fighter knows what happens when you can’t catch your breath in a fight. Anaerobic endurance is essential in MMA.
However, fighters and coaches often rely on things like high intensity interval training (not to be confused with the training intensity we’ll discuss later) for this anaerobic endurance. They typically use body weight exercises, drills on the bags and sparring rounds for a sport-specific training effect.
This is absolutely correct, and it’s one of the most important parts of a fighter’s MMA strength training. However, this is not the whole picture.
We Use Our Muscular Strength Too
You’ll notice I said this kind of training is for ANAEROBIC endurance. Meaning that when we fight, we use the anaerobic energy system, specifically ATP, the muscles’ main source of energy.
That’s because we’re throwing punches and kicks with the malicious intent to briefly incapacitate our opponents. We’re moving with considerable force and effort. We’re using near maximal muscle contractions to generate power and speed. After all, the punches won’t land themselves.
So endurance clearly isn’t the whole picture. We also need strength. We want to have more strength and speed than our opponents because that may mean the difference between victory and defeat. Let’s see if intensity has anything to offer us in our MMA strength training.
The Benefits of Training Intensity
Intensity is inversely related to volume in strength training. Intensity refers to how heavy the load is. Naturally, the heavier the load, the less reps you can do. So the 100 reps I mentioned earlier would mean you were using a load that was very light for your level of strength.
Intensity should be an area of utmost importance of any MMA strength training program. Using a high intensity will train your muscles to increase their force of contraction. That translates to faster movement, stronger take-downs and harder striking.
Strength Matters in Fighting
Most grown men can generate the minimum force they need to deliver a knockout punch or finish a choke. In fact, BJJ is, of course, based on this concept. But that doesn’t mean more strength won’t benefit you. There are three other reasons you should use your MMA strength training to get stronger:
- More strength, when done right, means more speed. Speed comes from muscle contractions, so the harder you can contract your muscles, the faster you can move. This only works when you train for relative strength, that is, strength with little to no hypertrophy or growth of the muscle fibers. More on this later.
- When grappling and wrestling with an opponent who’s equally skilled, both endurance and strength will come into play. You’ll need to be able to manipulate your opponent against his will. So being stronger than him will give you an advantage. As we established before, there’s plenty of well-established methods for improving endurance. We’ll just focus on strength here.
- Increasing your max strength also has an effect on your strength endurance. If your 1 rep max goes up, so does your 10 rep max. It’s interesting to note that the reverse is not true.
With these things in mind, it’s pretty clear that putting some high intensity in your MMA strength training is in your best interest as a fighter. Now the question is, what methods are best for using high intensity in our training programs?
How to Use Intensity for MMA Strength Training
Just in the realm of high intensity, there are multiple methods available to the trainee. Do we want to just lift as heavy as we can, doing sets of one rep all the time? If not, how many reps per set is too high? How long should the rest periods be between sets? How many sets should be done, and how many days should we rest between these strength workouts?
These are all valid questions, and some of them have complicated answers. I can’t answer them for everyone in this post, but if you follow the general advice I’m about to give you, you’ll be well on your way to developing that animal strength in the cage. You’ll become an unstoppable machine with an unfair advantage.
I covered a lot of the basics of high intensity strength training in my last post, “How to Get Stronger With Lifting Weights.” I’ll re-touch on those a little bit here, and show you how to best apply them to MMA strength training.
MMA Strength Training Basics
The basic parameters for your strength training should be this:
Number of Reps
Sets should be kept below five reps and last no longer than 20 seconds of you touching the bar. This will keep the training effect in the central nervous system without causing too much muscle growth.
Number of Sets
At least six sets of each exercise should be done in a training session. If you are a total beginner at lifting weights, you might get away with only three sets.
Nice, long rest periods of at least three minutes should be used between sets. This is not your endurance training, letting your nervous system rest between sets will allow you to put in the minimum volume of sets needed to see results. I know volume is not our focus, but we still have to abide by the law of repeated efforts.
Those big-ass compound movements like deadlifts and chin ups should be the focal points of your workouts. It’s no secret that the compound lifts are, overall, more effective than curls and leg extensions. You should use small, accessory lifts strategically where needed. This is where that individualization comes in. You’ll have to use the lifts that best suit you, but I’ll give you a tip. Most of the small lifts are done for the shoulders, such as external rotation with dumbbells.
The big lifts will typically give you the most bang for your buck in carry-over to your fights. You’re training schedule is already full, so you’ll need to choose your exercises wisely. You don’t have any time to waste. Here’s my recommendations for exercises with the most carry-over to MMA:
- Conventional Deadlifts
- Incline Bench Press
- Barbell Front Squats
- 1 Arm Dumbbell Rows
- Garhammer Raise (hanging knee raises)
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Barbell Overhead Press
- Push Press (cheating overhead presses with a small knee drive)
- All Kinds of Chinups
If you aren’t sure how to do any of these exercises, there are plenty of YouTube videos that demonstrate them. You can search the name of the exercise. I like the ones from Coach Dan Garner where applicable.
Rest Days Between Workouts
The time off between workouts of the same muscle group, i.e. from one deadlift day to the next, will also kind of vary from person to person. As well as vary from exercise to exercise. If you’re a beginner to intermediate trainee, it should take about five days to fully recover from a leg workout, if you did enough sets. Upper body may be the same or a little less.
Now I know you just yelled (even if it was in your head) “THAT’S EXACTLY WHY I DON’T DO HEAVY LIFTING IN MY TRAINING. I CAN’T GET THROUGH THE WARM UPS IN BJJ WITHOUT MY LEGS GIVING OUT FROM ALL THE SORENESS!”
Don’t you worry. Your boy, A-A-Ron has you covered. I experienced the same thing as a fighter. At the end of this post, I’ll show you EXACTLY how I fixed that problem. In fact, it’s what made me want to start this blog in the first place.
Periodize Your MMA Strength Training
Any good program has periodization as a component. A lot of time is dedicated to this topic in strength coaching courses, but it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. In a nutshell, periodization is really just variation; you just do it with a strategic pattern.
Most experienced coaches use undulating periodization. Think of it as two steps forward, one step backwards. You go hard for a certain period, then you go light for just a little while. That light period will facilitate super-compensation, i.e. GAINZ.
Learning the timing of this periodization can be intimidating. But that’s where you don’t want to get too complicated. A simple model like three weeks of two reps per set, followed by three weeks of four reps per set is both simple and effective.
Other Thoughts on Periodization
There are other methods of periodization out there. DUP is a popular one among power lifters. But as a fighter, you need one and only one kind of strength, and that’s relative strength. You don’t want to move beyond that five rep range, unless you want to move up a weight class. Therefore, our periodization model should be a small window of different rep ranges.
Again, don’t get too hung up on periodization. There’s actually some interesting work done my Dr. Mike Zoredous where he did 1 rep max squats on a daily basis for several weeks with good results. In the 80’s Ivan Abadjiev, led Bulgaria to many Olympic medals in weight lifting using his method of daily maximal lifting, and I mean 1 rep max sets, every single day for each of the main lifts. I wrote a whole post about that as well. You can read about “The Bulgarian Method of Weight Lifting” here.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use different rep ranges, I’m just saying don’t let that stop you if you’re not sure you understand. I cover a couple more points about periodization before we sign off.
Use a Deload Week
A lot of good programs will utilize the benefits of a deload week at the end of each periodized section of their training. MMA strength training should be no different. If you’ve been doing six sets of three reps for three weeks, you’ll want to use a deload week before you change your rep ranges.
In a deload week, you reduce the number of sets per exercise (not the number of reps per set or the load) by 1/3 to 1/2. So those six sets will become three sets during week four. On week five, you might switch to doing five sets of five or eight sets of two, depending on where your periodization window is.
Tapering is when you lower the volume of work (number of sets) you do in your workouts. You would do this in a traditional strength training program when the athlete get’s close to competition time. You taper down the volume and enter a maintenance phase. This doesn’t really apply to fighters, unless you only fight once or twice a year. I’m merely including it here so you don’t think I missed it and wonder if you should be doing it.
Well that’s most of what you need to know about MMA strength training. You can see, it’s a large topic to cover, and there’s still more to say. But this is starting to feel like George RR Martin wrote it, and I know you’re ready to get on with your life. Just remember that you build power and speed with heavy weight. If you do it right, you won’t put on any significant amount of muscle. If you hope to get to the top one day, this is something you’ll need to add to your MMA strength training regimen sooner or later.
That’s all for now,