A Strength and Conditioning Program to Train Like a MMA Fighter

female mixed martial arts fighter kicking

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Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport sometimes referred to as cage fighting. It draws from a mix of other combat sports and martial arts disciplines such as wrestling, boxing, judo, and Taekwondo.

To succeed in the octagon—an eight-sided ring surrounded by a cage—MMA athletes must be strong in their body and light on their feet. The combination of speed, power, and strength is fundamental for fighting in this sport, which requires skill, precision, and calculated moves. Depending on weight classifications, building bulk can be either an advantage or a disadvantage to the athlete.

MMA fighters undergo rigorous strength and conditioning programs to build muscle and improve agility. They're trained to use their whole body in a single move or punch without losing their balance.

Many MMA athletes find that weight lifting combined with full-body workouts work well for developing the ideal physique for the sport.

Weight training or resistance training, when used intelligently, can enhance these athletic characteristics. For example, by strengthening the abdominals and chest muscles, an MMA fighter is better equipped to absorb the impact of shots to the front of the body. Fighters can build strength in their shoulders for arm endurance and in their triceps and biceps for power, speed, and quick jabs. They may also develop the muscles in their hips, quads, and calves to promote balance and stability.

However, the disadvantage of overdeveloping certain muscles means that there's more weight for the fighter to carry around, which could slow their movements. That's where cardiovascular conditioning comes in handy, since it helps maintain lean muscle. Plus, MMA athletes require a strong heart and lungs to be able to sustain five rounds in a fight.

But you don't have to be an MMA fighter to train like one. The following weight training program is designed for MMA athletes and novices alike. While many of these moves require gym equipment, some can be modified and performed at home with dumbbells or a weighted barbell. If there's an MMA training facility you can spar in near you, you may wish to take advantage of it.

If you're brand new to weight training, read up on the fundamentals first. Whether you're aiming to get stronger or wanting to build a foundation for future MMA fighting, these tips can help get you started:

  • Warm up prior to weight training (and don't skip the cool down after).
  • Don't train through serious injuries—acute or chronic.
  • Don't sacrifice an octagon session for a weight session, unless you're treating or recovering from a weight-training injury.
  • If you're working with a personal trainer or coach, ask them if they have any suggestions to personalize this training program to better suit your abilities and fitness goals.
  • If you plan to compete, take a few weeks off from training at the end of the season to recover.

Athletes of all levels each have individual needs. You should modify this weight-training program to suit your level of fitness, age, goals, abilities, and even your fighting style.

Strength Conditioning Fundamentals

The first phase of this training program prepares you for the octagon by focusing on all-around muscle and strength conditioning. If you happen to train on a seasonal basis, this phase would essentially be used during the early preseason.

If you don't train in "seasons," then you'll slowly progress through one training phase to the next as you gradually build up your strength and endurance. Again, the duration of each phase will depend on an individual's level of fitness.

If you're not competing this season and do not have access to a training facility, swap the octagon for your home fitness studio and try kickboxing or shadowboxing. And as a general rule for MMA training programs, do not perform weightlifting workouts prior to a sparring session. It's better to do weight training following work in the octagon or on a separate day, if possible.

Start with a single compound move that works your hamstrings, glutes, core, and even your upper back, shoulders, and forearms.

  • Frequency: 2–3 sessions per week for 8–10 weeks
  • Type: General conditioning
  • Warmup: 10 minutes of aerobic exercise (walking or jogging on a treadmill or outside, riding a stationary bike, or using a cross-training machine such as an elliptical)
  • Weight training: 3 sets of 10–12: Romanian deadlifts (RDLs)
  • Rest between sets: 30–90 seconds
  • Cooldown: 5 minutes of light jogging or walking followed by stretching

Building Power and Endurance

Now that you've built a foundation for strength, the next phase of this program focuses on developing more muscle and power. For MMA fighters, this is the phase that leads up to the start of the competition season.

  • Frequency: 2–3 sessions per week for 4–6 weeks
  • Type: Strength and power
  • Warmup: 15 minutes of brisk aerobic exercise
  • Weight training: 5 sets of 4–6: RDLs, incline dumbbell presses, hang cleans, pullups, and barbell back squats
  • Abdominal workout: 3 sets 10–12: bicycle crunches
  • Rest between sets: 3–5 minutes (weights); 1–2 minutes (crunches)
  • Cooldown: 10 minutes of light jogging or walking followed by stretching

Weight Training Maintainance

The aim of the third and final phase of the training season is the maintenance of strength and power. Training in the octagon and competition should dominate this phase if you have access to an MMA facility. If you're competing, take a 7–10 day break from any heavy weight work just prior to the start of the competition and focus on maintaining your work in the octagon.

Weight training during the competition phase should essentially play a maintenance role, regardless of whether or not you're competing.

  • Frequency: 1–2 sessions per week
  • Type: Power with lighter loads and faster execution than in previous phases
  • Warmup: 20 minutes of brisk aerobic exercise
  • Weight training: 3 sets of 10 using rapid concentric movement at 40–60% of max resistance (quicker movements with lighter resistance): squats, hang clean, RDLs
  • Abdominal workout: 3 sets 10–12: bicycle crunches
  • Rest between sets: 1–2 minutes
  • Cooldown: 15 minutes of light jogging or walking, followed by stretching

Remember to try to avoid sparring and weight training on the same day or back-to-back, if possible.

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  1. Mangine GT, Hoffman JR, Gonzalez AM, et al. The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained menPhysiol Rep. 2015;3(8). doi:10.14814/phy2.12472