Conditioning For MMA Athletes Part 1: Build The Engine

Snapshot: This article will cover:

  • The profile of a well conditioned MMA athlete
  • Brief overview of the aerobic system as the foundation of conditioning
  • How to improve and build the aerobic engine
  • High and Low intensity methods/benefits
  • Programming

You have to decide.. Do you want to have a Charger SRT Hellcat engine, or a 4 cylinder prius? Powerful conditioning is within your grasp, if you’re willing to educate yourself and do the work, training smarter AND harder. Conditioning for MMA athletes must have a foundation, and this article will focus on that.

Powerful conditioning could be the difference between having your hand raised, or your opponents.

Strength and Conditioning for MMA athletes can be a slippery slope. Most mistakenly believe that, since the sport is explosive in nature, high intensity training is all that is needed. This is a failure to really examine the energy demands of the sport. Fighters gas out all the time.. and conditioning is at the heart of many victories and defeats.

Profile of an MMA Fighter

Ideally, the following is what I’d want to see in an MMA athlete from a strength and conditioning perspective:

  • Resting Heart Rate in the high 40’s to low 50’s (aerobic fitness)
  • HRV in the low 80’s and up (see: Heart Rate Variability)
  • High level of flexibility and hip mobility
  • High level of strength endurance
  • High level of grip strength
  • High level of mental toughness under stress and fatigue
  • Body fat under 12%
  • High Peak Power/neuromuscular ability. Especially in the lower body.

Obviously, not all athletes will possess all of these qualities, but this is an ideal profile of an elite MMA fighter with high-level conditioning.

The Aerobic System is Your Foundation

Try This out and see how it feels when Your Aerobic Engine is pushed to it’s limits

The Aerobic energy system uses oxygen along with fats and carbohydrates to create energy. MMA fights are characterized by explosive bursts mixed with periods of less explosive activity. The aerobic system is what refuels your ability to repeatedly be explosive throughout a fight. It clears out waste products and restocks energy. If your aerobic system is lacking, you will fatigue over the course of a fight.

“Although, according to the duration of an MMA bout, the energetic demands derived mainly from the aerobic system, it should be noted that the outcome of the match was often decided by explosive actions, which were based on anaerobic pathways.

Anthropometric and Physiological Profile of Mixed Martial Art Athletes: A Brief Review
Sports Med. 2016 Oct;46(10):1525-51 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31207879

It doesn’t matter how powerful you are.. If you can only be explosive for the first round, you are going to run into problems.

How Do You Train and Build the Aerobic System for MMA Conditioning?

The Aerobic system needs a high frequency of stimulation (4-6 days/week), and a variety of different training methods to improve. This calls for a mixture of high and low intensity methods to really build up the aerobic engine. Conditioning for MMA will require various methods to be utilized for maximum adaptations and benefits.

Cardiac Output Method (Low Intensity)

mma workouts.  conditioning for mma.  heart rate monitor for low intensity training.
Example of a Cardiac Output Session

Benefits:

  • Increased volume of blood pumped per beat (Stroke Volume)
  • Increased size of the left ventricle of the heart (eccentric cardiac hypertrophy)
  • Improved capacity for recovery (you can recover faster)
  • Lower Resting Heart Rate
  • Increased Heart Rate Variability

Methods:

  • 30-90 minutes, 4-5 days/week with Heart Rate between 130-150 bpm
  • Can use any activity; cardio equipment, shadow boxing/drills at low/moderate intensity, or a combination of activities
  • Use a heart rate monitor to keep yourself in the proper range
  • Start with 30 minutes and build up over time.
  • Measure your resting HR when you wake up in the morning to track improvements. Use HRV tracking to get a deeper look.
  • Swimming is a great, low impact/high reward option for this method.

Lower intensity sessions will result in improved aerobic abilities resulting from a multitude of adaptations down to the cellular level. The Heart will pump more blood per beat, and your body will be able to utilize oxygen more efficiently. Lower intensity sessions also stimulate recovery, which is huge in such a demanding sport.

training for mma.  conditioning for mma athletes
“Training Smart is more important than training hard.” -Georges St. Pierre

High Intensity Aerobic Training.

Obviously there is also a need for higher intensity training in MMA. These sessions should be limited to 2 times per week, and sparring would ideally take up at least one of these sessions.

The Goals/Benefits of high intensity aerobic training are:

  • Increase in VO2 Max (Aerobic Power) The maximum amount of oxygen your body can use
  • Increased ability to sustain high intensity effort for longer durations
  • Increased power at threshold: You can work harder at the point where anaerobic energy processes start to take over.
  • Faster recovery between rounds (Heart Rate Recovery)

Methods

Power Intervals

high intensity training for mma athletes
Power Interval Session with Hill Sprints
  • Power Intervals are the most intense form of aerobic training. The term “intense” means you’re training at close to your max heart rate.
  • Drive the heart rate up to as close to maximum as you can get, then keep it there for 20-30 seconds.
  • Immediately stop the activity and rest for one minute.
  • Use active recovery (very light activity) for 1-3 more minutes, then repeat for 3-5 total reps.
  • Can use various implements; inclined/hill sprinting, sparring, circuit training, etc..

High Intensity Continuous Training

conditioning for fighters.  mma conditioning
High intensity continuous session
  • Get your Heart Rate up to 155-160 bpm and keep it there for 10-20 minutes. Repeat 1-2 times. This should feel difficult but not max intensity.
  • Keep a consistent pace/effort for the duration. Treadmill/Rower/Machines are best for this purpose.
  • You should be training right below your anaerobic threshold. You’ll know if the intensity is too high because you will feel like you cannot maintain the pace for the duration.

High Intensity Interval Training/Sprinting

high intensity interval training for mma fighters
High intensity intervals
  • Use 400m Sprints or full body circuits with a 1:1 work to rest ratio (rest the same amount of time as the work interval). Aim for 3 minute work intervals.
  • Decrease Rest/Increase Work periods periods over time
  • Use full body movements: Clean/Press, Pull Ups, Explosive movements
  • Shoot for 20-30 minutes total.
  • Max Effort during the work intervals

“High Intensity” refers to any training session where you’re training at greater than 90% of your max heart rate. Get a heart rate monitor and use it. Elite athletes are doing it, why shouldn’t you?

Programming Your Training

Part 3 of this article will cover programming your training in depth. For now, focus on building your engine and break it down something like this:

2 days per week of High Intensity Conditioning. This can include high intensity sparring sessions.

3-4 days per week of low/moderate intensity Conditioning

The intensity of any method can be made higher or lower by increasing or decreasing the volume, total sets or reps.

Conclusion

When it comes to conditioning for MMA, your foundation is the Aerobic system. It is your engine. You have to decide if you want the SRT or the Prius under your hood. Take the time to develop your aerobic engine and make yourself a machine!

On high intensity days, train even harder. On lower intensity days, take the time to back off a little and get specific adaptations from your body by training intelligently and with a purpose. Recover, get better… build the engine! Then, when you don’t have to worry about gassing out… your opponents will be in trouble!

Part 2 will be posted here very soon.

I’d love to hear from you… email me at Contact@supastrong.net, or leave a comment.

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About SupaStrong 50 Articles
Bioforce Certified Conditioning coach, Trainer. Federal Law Enforcement Agent, Army Reserve Infantryman. Husband, Father, Brother, Son, Friend.

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