It’s no secret that mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Even 60 Minutes correspondents have reported how “a contest, once reviled and banished, has become one of the fastest-growing sports in America." Not only that: MMA training is one the hottest trends in fitness as well. Everyone from exercise enthusiasts to NFL players seems to be adapting MMA-inspired workouts because of the great results in appearance, strength, power, agility, and mobility.
Unfortunately, many “MMA conditioning” programs are poorly-designed and involve many dangerous or downright ridiculous exercises. These programs are often designed by people who don’t even train real fighters and are more concerned with looking “cool” or have the most “hardcore” workout.
This article will provide you with a real-world MMA workout that’s been used many times over with real fighters training for professional and amateur fight competitions. The MMA-specific circuit workout provided below is scientifically-based and battle-tested to be effective and safe. In truth, actual research on conditioning for MMA is very limited (Bounty et al., 2011), but the art of practical application cannot always wait for science to come out years later and validate the concepts and techniques we already learned worked (or didn’t work) through critical thinking, smart training, and lots of trial and error and anecdotal evidence.
Nothing beats results! And, the MMA circuit you’re about to discover has been used successfully for several years to prepare the fighters of Team Ground Control MMA in Baltimore MD for Shogun Fights, Showtime Elite XC, Bodog Fights, WKA’s, Reality Fighting and several other professional and amateur fight competitions.
Whether you’re a competitive MMA fighter or you’d just like to train like one, this circuit is just what the MMA workout doctor ordered!
MMA-Specific Circuit Training – The Who, What, Why & How
MMA conditioning, like all other forms of fitness training, is both an art and a science. Although all the techniques and concepts in the workout are scientifically-based, this article will focus primarily on the art and practical aspect of MMA training.
This article has been broken down into a “who, what, why, and how” format to give you everything you need to know (and nothing you don’t) about how to get your clients into “fight shape.”
WHO Should Use this Workout?
The workout below is primarily designed for the competitive MMA fighter. The fighter should start regularly performing this workout at least seven weeks prior to the fight.
If you're working with advanced level fitness enthusiasts who already possesses a solid conditioning base, this workout can be used to add a new, fun, and challenging training day to their current workout plans.
WHAT Does this Workout Involve?
This MMA circuit workout is based on a fundamental law of the body — the SAID Principle — which states “an organism makes specific adaptations to imposed demands" (Mathew & Fox, 1976). This principle was shown in action in a Research in Sports Medicine: An International Journal study, in which researchers examined the direction-specific properties of power and agility to demonstrate why training should match the force production patterns of how athletes move in competition (Hoffman et al., 2007).
Additional research from the Institute of Human Performance also supports the SAID Principle. In a 2007 study, Santana et al. established that athletes must match not only the force production patterns of the sport, but also the sport’s body positions, movements, and muscle activation patterns. They demonstrates that a standing single arm press (like what a fighter would do when punching or pushing his opponent) has a completely different muscle firing pattern than a lying bench press.
Based on this principle, the exercises within the circuit replicate the force production patterns, speeds and loads of an actual MMA fight. That’s “functional training” for MMA at its finest!
- Specific exercises: The workout below involves a series of MMA-specific exercises that mimic the movements of an MMA fight: explosive, sub-maximal actions like ground strikes, standing strikes, throws, and takedowns, as well as isometric holds like grappling, clinching and submission attempts. To best prepare the fighter for all of the above, the circuit workout involves both explosive exercises and isometric holds.
- Duration: The length of the average pro MMA fight round is 5 minutes, whereas the average amateur MMA fight round lasts 3 minutes. This circuit workout provided below is designed to prepare a pro fighter for 5-minute rounds. The goal is to complete each round of the circuit in as little time as possible. Each week, he should attempt to finish the rounds in less time. The increase in that power endurance means that the fighter will be able to keep pressure on his opponent throughout the match.
WHY Does this Workout Work?
Most injuries in MMA happen during sparring. This workout allows the fighter to achieve the same fitness level and refine his technique as he would in sparring without the same risk of injury. In an actual fight or during sparring, there are always times where the fighters square off, circle and feel one another out. In other words, there are multiple rest periods throughout a round, whereas a circuit workout like this forces the fighter to work the entire length of the round. This makes MMA circuit training workouts a better, more effective, method of getting into fight shape than relying solely on sparring. It also enables fighters to focus their sparring purely on technical and tactical work.
Many fighters will complain of becoming “arm weary” from local muscle fatigue during sparring or competition. Traditional conditioning workouts like sprints improve central conditioning (heart & lungs), but don’t do much to create the local muscle endurance required to successfully resist fatigue in MMA. In addition to central conditioning, the circuit below consists of many local muscle conditioning exercises, which train the muscles to resist fatigue from constant striking, grappling and submission attempts. On its own, this workout won't make an athlete a better fighter, but it will give him the strength and endurance needed to continually use his MMA skills for a longer period of time during the match.
Fighters often worry about getting too tired during their fights. Regularly performing circuit workouts like this, which match the intensity of a fight, give the athlete the confidence needed to go the distance. This creates a serious mental advantage.
Finally, the incomplete recovery created by the circuit-style workout will get the fighter's metabolism firing on all cylinders!
HOW to Perform the MMA Circuit
Perform all of the exercises below back to back for the given reps indicated for each drill. Finish all exercises as quickly as possible.
Station #1: Fighters Rope Complex x 2
- Why use it: This drill improves upper-body endurance because you are continually throwing punches and keeping your hands up. It also helps with clinching and grip strength.
- How to do it: Complete 2 rounds of all 4 rope exercises below, performing each drill for 20 reps. You’ll complete 160 total reps before moving on to station #2. Move the rope as fast as possible on each drill.
- Specific Drills
- 20x Rope High Punches (Alternate arms, 10x reps each arm)
- 20x Cross Punches (Alternate arms, 10x reps each arm)
- 20x Thai Clinch Rainbows (Alternate arms, 10x reps each arm)
- 20x Pummelling (Alternate arms, 10x reps each arm)
Station #2: Band Lunge & Press x 20 (10 reps each leg)
- Why use it: Improves the leg drive needed to shoot takedowns and to drive into your opponent. The upper-body component improves pushing ability to control your opponent.
- How to do it: Begin in a fighting stance with your left leg in front. Lunge forward and press both of your arms out in front of you. After 10 reps, switch to the opposite leg lead and perform another 10 reps.
- Here’s 41-years-young pro fighter and multiple MMA champion, James Binky Jones, getting it done on the Band Lunge & Press!
- 20x Band Lunge (10 reps each leg)
Station #3: Recline Rope Pull or Rope Climb
- Why use it: Improves grip strength and the ability to pull your opponent in order to go for submissions from your back (AKA guard position).
- How to do it: Keep a stiff, straight torso and row yourself up, bringing your wrists to your ribs. That’s one rep!
- 20x Recline Rope Pull
Or, instead of recline rope pulls, climb the rope 1x. Go up fast and down in control.
Station #4: Sprawls x 20 (10 reps per stance)
- Why do it: Improves takedown defense and level-change ability.
- How to do it: In a fighting/grappling stance, drop quickly to the floor, throwing your hips and legs behind you. Explode off of the floor and return to the starting position. Perform 10 reps with left leg lead and another 10 reps with right leg lead.
- 20x Sprawls (10 reps per stance)
Station #5: Partner Pick-ups
- Why use it: Improves total body strength and the ability to lift the opponent and score takedowns.
- How to do it: Stand behind another athlete who is close to your own bodyweight. Wrap your hands around their waist from behind and explosively lift them into the ground. Lower them down to floor in a controlled fashion and repeat.
- Partner Pick-ups (10 reps)
Station #6: Kneeling Fighters Rope Complex
- Why do it: Improves upper-body endurance for all the hand fighting and striking that's required when you're in the top position and/or in an opponent's guard.
- How to do it: From a kneeling position, perform alternate arm waves and double waves with a rope (1-2 inches in diameter), back-to-back and as fast as possible.
- Specific Drills
- 6a. 40x Alternate Arm Waves (20 per arm)
- 6b. 20x Lateral Crossovers (Alternate top arm each rep)
- 20x Double Waves
Station #7: Hanging Guard Hold
I learned this drill from my great friend and fellow MMA strength coach JC Santana!
- Why do it: Improves your ability to hold your opponent close to you while in guard. This ability is crucial for a fighter, since his opponent must posture up and create space from the man in guard in order pass guard (create a better top position) or rain down strikes. Plus, from guard, you must have your opponent close to attempt a submission.
- How to do it: Wrap your arms through the ab straps. Bring your legs up in guard position and hold yourself still in that position for 15 seconds. Then switch arms in the ab sling and repeat for another 15 seconds.
- Hanging Guard Hold (30 sec - 15 sec per arm)
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use this workout with my regular personal training clients?
This workout is designed for fighters who are preparing for a fight. It's no way intended for the average Joe/Jane looking to get "in-shape." There's nothing wrong with throwing in a few of these fighting-influenced drills for some fun and variety in your workout, but the workout plan provided is NOT a recipe to use with most fitness clients.
How often should I use this circuit?
MMA sparring and practice can be very tough on an athlete’s body, and this type of training circuit can also be very physically taxing. That said, it’s recommended you use this circuit once per week. This way you’ll prevent overtraining and be able to really go hard on the day of the circuit workout.
I may see a fighter two or three times per week for strength & conditioning training. We will do basic strength and power work for two of the workouts. The third training session is the fight-specific circuit. Since the circuit is day is the toughest and most tiring, we try to place that workout on a day that the fighter doesn't have a big sparring day to follow. So, if a fighter spars on Friday, we'll circuit him on Saturday, but never on Thursday.
Keep in mind that without proper rest, the fighter will NOT benefit from all of the training stimuli they get from sparring, practice and these fight-specific workout circuits.
Work hard, but work smart. Fighters are already tough and don’t need to beaten into the ground simply to show how tough they are. Coaches must teach them the importance of recovery and rest.
As a side note, I've found it best to get these fighters to train with at least one other team member. It helps with motivation and personal competition to push past the other guy.
How many circuit rounds should you do?
As stated earlier, this sample circuit workout is designed to prepare a pro MMA fighter for a 5-minute round fight. Most fights consist of 3-5 rounds.
If you’re preparing a fighter for a 3-round fight, complete this circuit 3x through. If you’re preparing for a 5-round fight, complete this circuit 5x through. Basically, perform the same number of rounds of this circuit as will happen in the actual fight.
How should the rest intervals between circuit rounds be managed?
Regardless of how many rounds the fight is, the standard rest interval between an MMA fight rounds is 1 minute. To best prepare the fighter for this, you must gradually reduce the rest interval between circuit rounds each week. This is done so that during the fighter’s last circuit training workout they can successfully complete all the given rounds of the circuit with only 1 minute of rest between circuits. This is a must in order to best mentally and physically prepare the fighter for the exact work-to-rest ratio of the upcoming fight.
Here’s an example of how to gradually reduce the rest interval over a 6-week period:
- Week #1 – Rest 4 minutes between rounds.
- Week #2 – Rest 3 minutes between rounds.
- Week #3 – Rest 2.5 minutes between rounds.
- Week #4 – Rest 2 minutes between rounds.
- Week #5 – Rest 1.5 minutes between rounds.
- Week #6 – Rest 1 minutes between rounds.
What if the fighter finishes the entire circuit in less than 5 minutes?
As the fighter gets in better and better shape after multiple training sessions using this circuit, he/she may eventually finish all of the exercises with many seconds to spare. In this case, fill up the rest of that time with fight-specific drills like bag work, hitting mitts or situational clinching drills and/or grappling drills.
What training should be done the week of the fight?
The week of the fight, the fighter should NOT do any hard conditioning and should instead focus on cutting weight, fight strategy and light technical work.
In other words, if you’re using the 6-week circuit training progression featured above, you must begin training 7 weeks prior to the actually fight.
Always remember that the goal of MMA circuit training is NOT to simply make the fighter tired. Instead, it’s designed to improve a fighter’s MMA-specific conditioning without overworking them or possibly causing overtraining, injury or reducing performance capability.
Anyone, regardless of their knowledge or their lack of knowledge, can make an athlete exhausted (and possibly throw up) from a bunch of random exercises strung together in a haphazard manner with minimal rest. Only a good coach can put together a well-designed and well-progressed (periodized) program that can make an athlete better! Which coach do you want to be?
- Bounty, P.L., Campbell, B.I., Galvan, E., Cooke, M. & Antonio, J. (2011, Feb). Strength and Conditioning Considerations for Mixed Martial Arts. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33 (1) 56-67.
- Hoffman, J.R., Ratamess, N.A., Klatt, M., Faigenbaum, A.D. & Kang, J. (2007). Do Bilateral Power Deficits Influence Direction-Specific Movement Patterns? Research in Sports Medicine: An International Journal (15) 2: 125-132.
- Mathew, D.K. & Fox, E.L. (1976). Physiological basis of Physical Education and Athletics. W.B. Saunders Co.: Philadelphia.
- Santana, J.C., Vera-Garcia, F.J. & McGill, S.M. (2007). A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press. J Strength Cond Res, 21 (4):1271-7.