MMA is one of the most demanding sports on the planet, and any weaknesses in your physical preparation will be ruthlessly exploited in competition. To stop that from happening, I’ve put together this complete guide on strength and conditioning for MMA fighters. We’re going to cover…
- Physical Demands of MMA
- 3 Common Mistakes in MMA Strength & Conditioning
- Recommended Strength and Conditioning Exercises for MMA Fighters
- A Sample Strength & Conditioning Program for MMA Fighters (Recreational / Amateur)
- A Sample Strength & Conditioning Program for MMA Fighters (Professional)
- Want an MMA Strength & Conditioning Programme Custom Built For Your Needs?
- Frequently Asked Questions About Strength and Conditioning for MMA
- Summary and Next Steps
This article is also available in video form if you prefer…
Physical Demands of MMA
Mixed Martial Arts is an incredibly physically demanding sport. In essence, you’re combining the physical requirements of multiple different combat sports.
As well as conducting my own sports breakdowns, and drawing on my own experience from within Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and Kickboxing, I’ve also used some of the great information drawn from Papers by Chris Tack and Ben Lonergen, which I highly recommend checking out if you really want to geek out on this stuff.
At their core, MMA fights consist of 3 five-minute rounds, or 5 five-minute rounds if for a title. During this time, physical demands for fighters include…
Power: Ability to express force quickly
Strength: Ability to generate maximal forces
Power Endurance / Anaerobic Endurance: Ability to repeatedly express force quickly
Glycolytic / Lactate system endurance: For intense work lasting 40+s
Aerobic capacity: For rapid recovery between intense work and between rounds
Dynamic Movement, Agility and Mobility: For all technical qualities
We also have to consider that the amount each of these qualities is used per fight will vary based on both the individual mma fighter, and their opponent. I.e. if you’re in a match against someone who loves grapping and groundwork your physical demands are going to be pretty different than if you’re fighting someone who stays stood up, works the jab, and relies on defensive counterpunching.
3 Common Mistakes in MMA Strength & Conditioning
For a sport that began as a way to find and prove the most effective fighting style, it’s weird that a lot of MMA gyms don’t always take the same approach to strength and conditioning. Here are three mistakes I see over and over again…
Random Timed Circuits & Exercises: Look, throwing 5-10 random exercises together in a circuit and calling it ‘metabolic conditioning for MMA’ is not good strength & conditioning. But I still see it across hundreds of gyms. Just because it looks cool and gets you out of breath doesn’t mean it’s making you a better fighter.
One Dimensional S&C: Since we have so many physical qualities to train, why do so many MMA strength and conditioning programmes just focus on 1 or 2. Who cares how strong you are if you fatigue after 30s? Similarly, who cares if you can fight for an hour if you’re not powerful enough to pose any real striking threat? You have to be a well-rounded fighter.
Too Much S&C / Too Much Fatigue: S&C Supports MMA practice but shouldn’t negatively interfere with it. If your strength and conditioning training is leaving you too sore or tired for MMA practice then you’re messing up.
Recommended Strength and Conditioning Exercises for MMA Fighters
Power exercises for MMA
These are all about teaching your muscles to contract quickly, allowing you to create explosive movements for your striking and takedowns.
Simple exercises like med ball throws, banded punches, and various jumps will work perfectly.
They’re quick to learn, require very little equipment, and they work.
Strength Exercises for MMA
Strength underpins power. The stronger you are, the more power potential you have. Strength also keeps you robust, and reduces injury risk.
Aim to stick to basic movements across the upper push, upper pull, lower push and lower pull (hinge) movement categories.
Power Endurance for MMA fighters
Maybe you’re lucky and KO your opponent in the first couple of strikes. For 99% of fights though, this isn’t the case, so you need the ability to repeatedly deliver powerful shots, takedowns and grappling manoeuvres.
To do this, combat intervals can be used. These are a full-body, sport-specific conditioning tool that you can use to give yourself the edge. Essentially, you’re recreating the demands of a match against an unrelenting opponent, with the primary aim of maintaining powerful movements and good technique under fatigue.
Glycolytic / Lactate System Endurance
When intense bouts of work go on for longer than about 40s, lactate starts to build up and your muscles burn and cramp like hell.
To prevent this, you need to improve your bodies ability to buffer lactic acid.
This type of workout is painful, it’s hard, and it will leave you feeling drained for hours afterwards. But as the saying goes, train hard so that you can fight easy.
Aerobic Capacity for MMA
You might not be running a marathon, but aerobic capacity still plays a part in recovery between intense bouts of fighting, and in between rounds.
Luckily, it’s easy to improve, and a simple 30-minute off-feet (low impact) activity like cycling, swimming or time on the cross-trainer will work just fine.
Agility and Movement for MMA
For the most part, your agility and movement should be being developed in your MMA training under the eyes of a coach.
However, you can enhance the process by adding some varied exercises into your warm-ups; lunges, side lunges, skips, yoga flows, hurdles, hops. Literally, anything that presents a new movement and coordination challenge for your body
A Sample Strength & Conditioning Program for MMA Fighters (Recreational / Amateur)
*All workouts to be performed with a good dynamic warm-up beforehand
In this mma strength and conditioning programme you’ll see 3 sessions of MMA practice (typical for many recreational fighters) with 3.5 sessions of strength and conditioning.
Tuesday provides power endurance and strength, with a lighter and easier aerobic cardio day on Wednesday so that you’re fresh for training on Thursday. Friday provides a power and strength stimulus, whilst the disgusting glycolytic / lactic acid session is placed right after saturdays MMA session, with a full rest day afterwards.
Remember, this is just a SAMPLE. I don’t know your exact timetable, or personal strengths and weaknesses. If you want a fully customized programme built around you, you can get me to build you one here.
And each of these sessions will use the exercise, set and rep scheme recommendations we’ve already discussed.
So, when we say power + strength, that means picking a mixture of 2-4 power exercises and doing 2-4 sets of 3-5 reps per exercise. Then you’ll do the recommended strength exercises for 2-4 sets of 4-6 reps each.
A Sample Strength & Conditioning Program for MMA Fighters (Professional)
*All workouts to be performed with a good dynamic warm-up beforehand
In this mma strength and conditioning programme, we’re looking at a professional training timetable. There are 6 MMA training slots per week, and these slots might be subdivided into 1, 2 or 3 discipline specific sessions ranging from 30-90 minutes.
There are 6 strength and conditioning sessions per week, arranged very carefully so as to minimise interference with training by following a High/Low/Medium (or close) pattern of stress.
For example, Hard MMA practice (High stress) then aerobic cardio (low stress) then power endurance (medium stress)
And again, this is just a SAMPLE. I don’t know your exact timetable, or personal strengths and weaknesses. If you want a fully customized programme built around you, you can get me to build you one here, or drop me an email (email@example.com) to chat about your training and competition needs.
Want an MMA Strength & Conditioning Programme Custom Built For Your Needs?
Learning all about MMA S&C training concepts is great, but if putting it all together into a programme yourself seems like a bit of a hassle, then I’ve got you covered.
I’ve put together a custom programme writing option, where you can ask me to build you a training programme from scratch, specifically for your needs.
I’ll also combine this with a monthly check-in so that you can review progress, ask questions and provide feedback. You can learn more about custom programming here.
Frequently Asked Questions About Strength and Conditioning for MMA
Do UFC fighters lift weight?
Yes, UFC fighters follow Strength and conditioning programmes written by professional S&C coaches like myself. Nowadays you’re very unlikely to find anyone at the top of the game who doesn’t have close contact and support from a physical preparation coach.
How strong should an MMA fighter be?
Data from the UFC suggests that pro MMA fighters should have a Reactive Strength Index greater than 2.6, an Isometric Mid-Thigh Pull greater than 3.5x bodyweight, and a vertical jump greater than 50cm.
Realistically though this varies massively by individual. So, the best answer is AS STRONG AND POWERFUL AS POSSIBLE.
What is the best physique for a fighter?
Lean, mean and ready to deal damage. MMA is a weight classed sport, so you want to carry as much muscle as possible for your weight class. We’re looking for good power to weight ratios.
What About Long Term Periodisation and Programming for MMA fighters?
The sample programmes above are what we call ‘concurrent’ periodisation, which means that we’re training all physical qualities simultaneously, so there’s no real need to have specific phases of training.
If you have any real, glaring weaknesses then maybe we might bias more training time towards a certain physical demand, but I’d rather my fighters be in decent shape year-round so that they can have the most productive MMA training possible.
The only thing we would change is that in the week or two leading into a fight, strength and conditioning would take a back seat and drop down to just basic maintenance so that we can reduce fatigue and peak for the fight.
Summary and Next Steps
Alright, we’ve learnt that MMA requires a wide variety of physical abilities, and that good S&C should target all of these, without interfering with MMA training
I’ve provided you with specific recommendations for…
- session types
Plus a sample training structure to put it all together.
Your next steps are to…
1) Get in the gym and start putting all this into action ASAP.
2) Consider joining my mailing list for more strength and conditioning tips, workouts and programmes.
3) If you want someone to sort all this out for you and build a programme for your exact needs, then check out my custom training programme option.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex has spent 7+ years within strength & conditioning, supporting 2 major universities and 3 national talent pathways.
He is also a jiu-jitsu purple belt, has competed in Judo and Kickboxing, and has provided S&C support to taekwondo and karate fighters at the international level.