SPORTS SCIENCE: The Value of Core Strength, Mobility and Stability for MMA Performance and Longevity

By Adam Tindal, MMATorch contributor

Photo Credit Wade Keller © MMATorch

One of my favorite misconceptions about the rapidly growing sport of mixed martial arts is that some people think it’s just two crazy guys throwing caution to the wind and slugging it out.  This ideology couldn’t be further from the truth. Both of the men who are competing know good and well what they’re getting into and they’ve undergone endless preparation to try to ensure a victory. 

Even with all the training that a fighter goes through during camp, I still see some giant holes that could be filled through establishing a smarter, more progressive program.  Sure, there are a ton of components that need to be practiced such as boxing and wrestling as well as submission defense and conditioning. However, it is my belief that some of the most important and overlooked aspects of combat sports tend to be the little details. Take for example strengthening all of the  core musculature (transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, glutes, and the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex), not just doing the Manny Pacquiao crunch routine to get a little six pack.

Core strengthening and stability can directly translate to improved performance in any sport, especially fighting.  Keeping the kinetic chain in alignment or rather enabling the body to efficiently perform as a whole, fluid unit is case in point.  The transfer of force production as well as the injury prevention provided by a strong core are some of the primary benefits of keeping the kinetic chain in alignment.  Without a tight core, a fighter’s ability to accelerate in for a takedown would be diminished greatly, and even the punching power generated in the legs and sent up through the core and through the arm to the fist would be less effective. 

From an injury-prevention standpoint, a strong core can literally make or break your submission defense.  In order for a fighter to survive a tight chokehold or to get their arm out of an extremely compromising position, they must be able to maintain stability through their core or else they will be going home empty-handed.  It can even translate to the reactive abilities of a fighter to move out the way of an oncoming attack or sprawling to defend a takedown.  Core strengthening has an influence on removing the load from the spine and improving both offensive and defensive components of the athlete’s fighting style.

When selecting exercises to improve your core strength, specificity is an important variable to consider. This means how can we best train the core to mimic the movements of the sport? 

There are three categories of core exercises as well and each one has plenty of room to overlap into the others. They include postural exercises which  focus on muscle contractions used to maintain a tight and neutral posture. Isometric exercises are another category that focuses on holding the contraction for a certain amount of time and can also provide great benefits to enhancing power production. The last category would be proprioceptive exercises that require the athlete to have an enhanced understanding of their surroundings and their bodies position in space and time.

I have grown fond of the standing Russian twist because it is a closed kinetic chain movement with a rotational component and because of the heavier weight loads that can be applied.  A barbell should be pivoted into the ground and then raised to a near 45 degree angle allowing for a full rotation forming a rainbow from hip to hip.  This would fall into the postural and the proprioceptive categories of core movements because of the demand for a stable athletic base and the rotation of the barbell. This would place the athlete in a similar movement situation to what might be experienced when trying to maneuver their opponent off the cage or ropes and transitioning to a more advantageous position.

Another highly-effective exercise would be the L-sit while hanging from the pull up bar or gymnastics rings.  Not only are we controlling our pelvic tilt and using our hip extensors, which will increase force production, but we are also simulating the clinch position through isometric arm contraction. Pulling movements are huge for fighters considering the grueling nature of grappling and battling for leverage.

To sum it all up, core strengthening is a commonly misunderstood component of a fighter’s training regimen.  Devoting more time to increasing the mobility, stability, and overall strength of the core can have an almost immediate effect on generating that knockout blow to end the contest as well as keeping the fight going and getting you out of a dangerous position.

NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS SPORTS SCIENCE COLUMN: SPORTS SCIENCE: Exploring types of natural ability that change strengths of particular fighters from Diaz to Velasquez to Anthony Johnson

(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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