Mixed martial arts is one of the most demanding sports you will ever do. It requires elite athleticism coupled with an endless number of skills to master as part of your MMA training.
Fighting 3-5, 5 minute rounds, the sport demands high levels of endurance from an athlete who is required to perform his lethal best from bell to bell.
In an era of high-intensity-interval-training (HIIT) and Tabata protocols, endurance is an often overlooked aspect of MMA training, but probably one of the most essential.
By endurance training we are talking about aerobic capacity, and this is developed by roadwork, swimming, bike riding or triathlons. These are just some suggestions, but any activity performed at a 120-150 bpm range will develop your endurance ability, as long as that activity is performed for between 40-90 minutes.
The aim is to have a resting heart-rate of between 45-50 bpm. This is demonstration that your body is efficient at utilising oxygen as energy and each heartbeat is delivering a large amount of oxygenated blood to your muscles.
Most fighters use traditional roadwork – or long slow distance (LSD) runs, to develop endurance. It is still common for many fighters to wake up at the crack of dawn and go for their morning runs before MMA training fully begins. Such endurance work is great active recovery and primes your body for a day of work in the gym. Some fighters also use roadwork in the evening, or prefer to swim, ride a bike, skip or shadowbox instead. The key is to target the 120-150 bpm heart range, and stay in that range for up to 90 minutes three or four times a week. A heart rate monitor is a great investment in looking to maximise endurance.
As much as having a good aerobic base is the foundation of your athleticism, most your time fighting will still be spent in the anaerobic zone. Anaerobic power relies on glycogen reserves in your muscles and liver to fuel your body.
These energy reserves, although extremely powerful, only last a couple of minutes before being depleted. This is why you will often see a fighter throw a quick flurry of punches and then gas out. It is then up to the aerobic energy system to break down fatty tissue and refuel the muscles with glycogen.
The best way to train anaerobic capacity is using HIIT, Tabata protocols and a variety of other short workouts which keep your heart rate between 150-171 bpm.
These are performed for short bursts of activity with short rest periods. For example using one HIIT protocol, you could perform 30-40 seconds of hard sprinting alternated with 15-20 seconds of jogging or walking. Do that for 15-20 minutes.
The Tabata protocol is even more demanding and requires 20 seconds of intense activity which gets your heart to 170bpm, then 10 seconds of rest for 20 minutes. Anaerobic training is definitely not for the feint hearted and is probably the hardest to endure for most aspiring MMA athletes.
Strength is also crucial to MMA training. Because grappling is such an important part of the sport, being able to manipulate, manoeuvre and control your opponent often comes down to sheer strength.
There are many ways to develop your strength, using barbells, bodyweight training, strong man training or even Olympic weight lifting.
The key to gaining efficiency in these facets requires training with resistance of up to 90% of the amount of weight you can lift for one repetition, using short cycles of 3-5 repetitions for 5 sets.
This could include 3-5 hand-stand push-ups for 5 sets, or 3-5 standing presses for 5 sets. Strength training is hard on your central nervous system so you should have plenty of recovery between sets to make sure you hit each set fully fresh. This could be between 3-5 minutes of rest between sets.
Barbell training is an easy to measure and accessible way to train strength. Stick to big compound moves that train the body proportionally using multiple muscles in sequence. The squat, bench press, deadlift and shoulder press or pull-ups are perfect.
The aim of the MMA fighter should be to develop strength such as you can squat 1.5-2 x bodyweight, bench press your 1.25-1.5 x bodyweight, deadlift 2-2.5 x bodyweight, and perform 10 pull-ups with 20kg of additional weight attached.
MMA is a constantly evolving sport and a number of unarmed combat disciplines have been incorporated by many fighters – from karate to sambo and from judo to taekwondo.
Regardless of which disciplines you chose to incorporate into your own style, you will have to pay particular attention to three key parts of the sport – the striking, the grappling, and the submissions.
All fights start standing, and often end there. You will need to develop skill in striking, be able to deliver knockout blows, and have proficient footwork and hand speed to control the fight and throw combos at your opponent. Two of the best striking arts directly applicable to MMA are Muay Thai and boxing – which often form the basis of most MMA fighters’ striking skills. Some also incorporate taekwondo in order to develop a less predictable striking style.
Grappling is also essential, and probably the most dominant discipline in the sport. You must control your opponent’s body at all times, be able to fight in the clinch, control him up against the cage and on the ground. The best skills for this are wrestling – both freestyle and Greco-Roman, as well as judo and Russian sambo. These skills allow you to take your fighter to the ground if you want, or prevent him taking you down if you prefer to fight standing.
The final skillset is submissions. Many would lump this in with grappling, but the emphasis here is not just controlling your opponent, but finishing your opponent and winning the fight. Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is the most dominant form of submission fighting. It is a highly effective martial art which dominated the sport of MMA in the early days. Catch wrestling is also an alternative, but it is hard to find good Catch wrestling schools.
However, it is not enough just to be good at these skills. It’s how you put them together as part of your MMA training and transition between each aspect of the fight which truly distinguishes you as a mixed martial artist.