SPORTS SCIENCE: Resistance training programming for the professional MMA fighter, how to prepare to fight rather than just “look good”

By Adam Tindal, MMATorch Specialist

Photo Credit Wade Keller © MMATorch

With the rapid growth of mixed martial arts, many of the newer fighters are playing catch up with techniques that pertain to the various styles of martial arts, as well as strength and conditioning.

MMA is a peculiar sport in the sense that it requires the athlete to be as strong as their bodies will allow but without gaining so much mass they are forced to move up a weight class. Lifting for performance is where things can get interesting. Many factors must be considered when programming for fighters. What else are they training that day? What are they training tomorrow? How do they feel? When is the fight? How much weight must be cut?

Having a fighter lift weight to build max strength means that the intensity  (amount of weight) will be pushed very high. Then volume (the amount of reps) will normally be lower. For example, one of the best lifts a fighter could do to improve their rate of force production would be either of the two Olympic lifts, the clean and jerk or the snatch. Due to the high demand for mobility and stability in the snatch, my preferred technique would be the clean and jerk.

Having the athlete do four sets of twelve on such a taxing lift wouldn’t make much sense. However, we can maintain the quality of each rep by reducing that volume to three warm up sets and three working sets. If the 1RM (one rep max) has been established, then percentages could be applied as such: 50, 60, and 70 percent would be your warm up sets for 5 reps, 3, then 2. With the working sets being at 80 percent for 3, 2, 2.

Everything must be progressive for the athlete so, as fight time approaches, the neuromuscular adaptations we are trying to illicit will be peaking precisely at the right time. The percentages listed above would be sustained for probably 2-3 weeks before slightly increasing. You would also see the reps drop as the intensity goes up. So, week four would look something like 50 percent, 65 percent, 75 percent, 85 percent with the reps remaining identical for warm up sets at 5, 3, 2 and the working reps falling down to 2, 2, 1. The same scheme could be applied to other multi-joint lifts such as the bench press, front/back squat, and the deadlift.

Going a step further, I would prioritize a focus for each 2-3 week phase such as training the eccentric portion of the lift first. Later, progress into isometric training and, finally, the full concentric action of the movement. These could really only be applied to lifts such as the squat or bench as they are stationary and closed chain movements. Eccentric simply means the lowering phase of the lift.  An eccentric squat means that during the work sets the athlete would have to slowly descend the weight on a 4-5 second tempo in order to increase their time under tension. For isometric training, the athlete would have to quickly descend the weight and decelerate the load to a complete stop at the bottom of the lift and hold for 3-5 seconds during the work sets.

Doing just one lift a day would likely not be enough for the athlete, so supplementary exercises would have to be prescribed as well. In MMA, and all sports in general, glute activation and strengthening the posterior chain (backside of the body) should be a priority. Grip strength and pulling are huge for fighters, so anything that challenges that would be ideal. Farmer carries and sled pulls are great examples. Unilateral work is a must as well, so anything that puts the fighter on one leg or uses one arm increases the difficulty of the movement by adding an anti-rotational core component. This is great for building their core strength and stability.

Those are some of the basic differences between training actual movements for sport as opposed to training individual body parts for aesthetics.

(Adam Tindal of Orlando, Fla. is new MMATorch Specialist columnist focused on the sports science of exercise. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Performance Enhancing Specialist, and has USA Weightlifting certification . He studied exercise science at UCF and current works for a sports performance company in Orlando. He has practiced Muay Thai for nearly ten years and is a passionate follower of MMA.)

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