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
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)
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
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.“
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)
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
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.
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)
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
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
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.
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!
Recovery Training should be performed the day after a high intensity session. Learning How to recover faster can be a game changer.
Prioritizing recovery will speed up your gains and reduce injuries.
Purposefully using recovery training can improve your strength, endurance and resilience to stress.
“No Pain, No gain…”
“The harder you train, the more you gain…”
This is the common logic used by most of us who are passionate about our training. But the logic is wrong, and it’s costing you. Best case it will simply cost you progress in your training. Worst case, it’ll take an injury or two, or three, to make you realize the importance of properly programming recovery into your training.
I used the train-all-out-every-day method for a long time. I was stuck in a cycle of driving myself into the ground. I always wondered why I wasn’t much better with all the effort I put in. Recovery was the missing link.
What is Recovery Training?
Recovery Training is a specific type of training you can implement to speed up recovery from more intense sessions. Recovery training will allow your body to adapt to training faster, i.e., you can get bigger, stronger, better.. in less time, with less risk for injury.
Why You Need It
Training with high intensity more than once or twice a week should be reserved for elite level athletes. Even they keep it to no more than 3 high intensity sessions per week. This is because the body simply cannot recover from (and adapt to) that much intensity. Training too hard, too often will lead to negative results 100% of the time. Get it out of your head that progress = max effort every time you train. Research clearly tells us that this is false. Check out my article on the dangers of too much High Intensity Training Here: Is HIIT sabotaging your fitness?
How to Implement Recovery Training to Recover Faster
A Recovery Session can be broken down into 5 parts. The total length of the session shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes or so.
Assume a quadruped position (on all fours) on the floor, or just lay flat on your back. Take in 5 deep breaths through the nose, and out through the mouth. This isn’t meditation. You’re simply preparing the mind and body for the upcoming session. Take note of any soreness or fatigue you feel in the body.
2. Foam Rolling and Light Stretching
Perform about 5 minutes of light, dynamic stretching and foam rolling. This isn’t the time to do static stretching (holding for prolonged periods). Check out the video below by TrainHeroic (an amazing app if you’re looking for training programs and great coaches). The “Agile 8” is a great warmup.
Video by TrainHeroic. Check their App out for awesome programming
3. 30 Minutes of Light Cardiovascular Training
This is best accomplished with a heart rate monitor. You should aim to keep the heart rate between 120-135 beats per minute. You can use any method you want… treadmill, elliptical, swimming, light shadow boxing or drills, or a mixture of implements. I like to spend 10 minutes on 3 different activities.
4. 1-2 Strength Movements
Perform 1-2 strength movements, preferably full body compound movements like the Deadlift or Olympic lifts. Perform 3 sets of 3-5 reps at no more than 85-90% of your max. Aim a little low if you’re in doubt. We want to stimulate recovery in the body and nervous system, not incur more stress to recover from.
5. Cool Down, Stretching, Breathing
Spend the last 10 minutes or so with a cool down. Perform 5 minutes of very light cardio, and really try to drive the heart rate as low as possible. Spend another 5 minutes or so doing some longer, static stretching. Continue to focus on being relaxed. End the session the same way you started. Take some deep, relaxing breaths. Drive the heart rate as low as you can. You should walk out of the gym feeling good.
The Benefits of The Recovery Session
This light training will allow your body to remove waste products built up from previous, higher intensity workouts. It will push blood flow into the joints, ligaments and tendons, which can be slower to recover. Blood flow will also be pushed into damaged muscle tissue, speeding up recovery.
Most importantly, the low intensity cardiovascular work trains the heart to pump more blood per beat (cardiac output). The low intensity work is essential for a strong foundation of aerobic fitness. A strong aerobic base allows the body to recover faster… You see where this is going?
By prioritizing recovery, your high intensity sessions, once or twice a week, can become even more intense and productive, and your progress will certainly become more rapid. You’ll be less likely to get injured, more resilient, and healthier overall. Learning how to recover faster has dramatically improved my overall fitness and conditioning, and I know it will do the same for you. Let me know what you think!
“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training… what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” -Socrates
“If it’s important, do it every day. If it isn’t.. Don’t do it at all.” -Dan John
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” -Muhammad Ali
“Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body.” -Arnold Schwarzenegger
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) can be a game changer for you.
With just a few minutes each day, you can gain some incredibly important information about your health and fitness.
Let’s first understand what HRV is. Then we can learn how to use it to improve our performance and health.
What is HRV?
More specifically, HRV is a measurement of the time intervals between heart beats, measured in milliseconds.
The heart does not beat in perfect rhythm, but instead beats with tiny variations between each beat.
When we’re under stress, these variations between beats become smaller and smaller, indicating that we’re in a sympathetic (fight or flight) stress state.
When you’re in a fully relaxed state, the variation between beats becomes larger, indicating a parasympathetic dominant state.
Thus, a higher HRV correlates to recovery and adaptability, and a lower HRV signifies a lack of recovery and stress.
How Do You Meausre Heart Rate Variability?
In order to analyze your own HRV, you must establish a baseline for yourself. This means taking daily measurements to establish that baseline so you have something to compare to.
There are several Apps that do this for you, such as Elite HRV (free) and Morpheus. All you need is 3 minutes of your time and a chest strap heart rate monitor.
I use the Polar H10, and it is fantastic and very accurate for both workouts and measuring heart rate variability.
Most importantly, you MUST take your daily measurement as soon as you wake up each day, and in the same position. It can be laying in bed, or sitting back in a chair… as long as you use the same position each time.
Taking the measurement right after sleeping is ideal, as you can get a snapshot into your current state, minus any new stress, caffeine or other outside influences. It’s okay to use the bathroom and drink some water first.
How Heart Rate Variability Can Improve Your Workouts.
Several studies have looked at working out based on heart rate variability scores vs just following a training program.
The results indicate that decreasing workout intensity when HRV is low, and training with more intensity when HRV is high results in improved performance (improved adaptation to the training).
Trying to push your body when it’s in an over-stressed state is counterproductive. If you notice your HRV score is trending low, that means your body is struggling to deal with stress. You can then take a rest day, do some light cardio, or use relaxation techniques. That way, you can get your body back into an optimal state.
Heart Rate Variability and Your Health
Studies have linked Low HRV to several different diseases, including; depression, heart attacks, and increased risk of death. It’s important to realize that HRV is not the Cause of these issues. It is a symptom of underlying issues taking place in the body and mind.
Take control of your health by learning to better manage stress. Use tools such as meditation, cardiovascular workouts and HRV monitoring. This can have a dramatic impact on improving your overall health and resilience to stress.
Nutrition Affects HRV
Studies have begun looking into how what we eat affects our heart rate variability and overall risk of disease over the course of our lives.
These studies are finding that what we eat has a very big impact on heart rate variability. That should tell you that your ability to handle stress and remain resilient has a lot to do with what you eat.
Stick to whole foods and natural ingredients. Eat fruits and vegetables and avoid the processed garbage on most shelves. This will allow your body to be more resilient in fighting off diseases like cancer and heart disease.
How Do You Improve Your Heart Rate Variability?
Studies have shown that while HRV is genetically influenced, it can be improved.
There are two primary ways you can go about increasing your heart rate variability:
1. Cardiovascular Training
Light to moderate cardiovascular training can improve the strength, size, function and efficiency of your heart. This can result in a lower resting heart rate, which is itself a huge indicator of health and fitness.
Your heart will be stronger and under less stress. This means your body will be better able to deal with both physical demands and psychological stressors. The result being increased heart rate variability, improved energy and a host of other benefits.
The best way to get these adaptations in the heart is to perform cardiac output workouts, meaning:
30 – 90 Minutes of Light to Moderate cardiovascular training.
Maintain a heart rate between 130-150.
Use jogging or any cardio machine, circuit training, anything that elevates your heart rate for at least 30 minutes.
perform 3-6 sessions per week, depending on your fitness level.
Yoga and other relaxation techniques
Yoga has been shown by research to lower resting heart rate. It does so by training the mind to relax, nudging the body into a parasympathetic state.
HRV is a measure of the health of your parasympathetic nervous system, and of the balance between stress and resilience.
Yoga can improve heart rate variability by teaching the body to be more resilient.
Practicing Yoga, or other relaxation methods regularly can reduce stress and help flip the switch from stress mode to recovery mode.
If you’re stuck at home, check out Yogadownload below for awesome yoga sessions you can do from anywhere.
Use Both Methods to Achieve Maximum Health and Fitness Benefits
The best way to improve HRV and give a huge boost to your health and fitness levels is to improve both your cardiovascular fitness AND your ability to relax and deal with stress.
This holistic approach will result in a stronger, more resilient body and mind. It will only naturally be reflected by improved HRV scores, which will tell you that you’re doing something right.
All About Stress
It’s really important to understand that “stress” can come at us from many angles. Stress is any stimulus that causes a sympathetic response from the nervous system.
Work stress, physical stress, relationship stress. Lack of sleep and poor nutrition. Any life stress we encounter can push the body into a sympathetic stress state.
Being in a constant state of stress, be it from too much high intensity training or from life stress, or both.. results in the overproduction of stress hormones by the body. This keeps us in a revved up state until the parasympathetic system can put the brakes on and nudge us into recovery and relaxation.
The trick is in being able to recognize this and take action to make it happen faster. That is the real value of tracking your Heart rate variability.
The True Value of Tracking Your Heart Rate Variability
The real value in keeping track of your HRV is in identifying trends in your data. After tracking your HRV for several weeks and months, you’ll notice that it is either:
Trending upwards, indicating improved fitness and ability to handle stress
Trending downwards, possibly indicating that you are over-training or just plain over-stressing.
Remaining consistent, indicating you may want to work out a little harder to stimulate cardiovascular improvements.
Using free apps that are readily available on your phone, such as Elite HRV, you can track your heart rate variability, sleep, weight, and other variables to get some really great insight into which way your health and fitness are trending.
Improving your cardiovascular fitness and learning to better deal with stress by practicing Yoga and other relaxation techniques can have a dramatic impact on your health. Take control of your health and fitness and give up 3 minutes every day to track your HRV.
It’s your body, your mind, your responsibility. The knowledge is out there, now it’s on you to make it happen.
As always, I hope this article helps you get a little closer to that best version of YOU!
*Note: This article contains affiliate links. Anything purchased comes at no additional cost to you.
Bioforce Certified Conditioning Coach and personal trainer. I’ve run boot camps and served as the wellness coordinator for a fortune 500 company. Currently a Federal Agent in San Diego, CA, and an Infantryman in the Army Reserve.