Should MMA Athletes Strength Train?

By Sean Keefe


Unless you have been knocked out by Shane Carwin, choked out by BJ Penn or simply not been with it lately, you will soon realise that some if not most MMA fighters are starting to introduce some form of strength training into their routines. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will see them performing endless bicep curls or smashing 20kg’s on the ‘pec deck’ or even shadow boxing with those 1kg pink dumbbells that your mum used to use for step aerobics back in the day! I’m talking about proper strength training, where the focus is on developing maximal strength and power.

“A stronger fighter with the same set of skills as his opponent will always prevail”

I think a lot of fighters are getting confused with the term ‘Strength and Conditioning’, because all they seem to read is the ‘conditioning’ part. When I first meet a fighter who comes to train at Strength and Performance, the first question they ask is “are we doing 3×3 or 3x5min rounds of hardcore circuits with the sledgehammers, battle ropes and tractor tyres today?” My reply usually comes by way of a rear naked choke followed by showing them where the foam rollers are! (soft tissue and mobility work is a whole new topic for fighters).

I regard ‘Strength and Conditioning’ as developing the qualities necessary for your chosen sport. So as a fighter you have to improve both your strength and cardiovascular systems.

If you are a fighter and looking to take your career to the next level then you need to get on it and start introducing some strength training into your routine. MMA is one of the hardest sports to train for. Not only have you got to master disciplines such as muay thai, ju jitsu and wrestling, for example, you also have to try and develop strength, power, speed, endurance. Try sticking that into one week of training!

With this in mind, you have to plan what areas of strength you will work on. For example if you are a beginner to strength training, just learning the basic compound exercises such as Deadlifts, Squats, Chin Ups, Recline Rows and Press Ups. With good form will show good results, not only improved strength but speed as well. (I’ve lost count of the number of MMA athletes I’ve seen who can’t even do a press up properly. It’s either about 50 half reps in 20 seconds or you get something resembling the Hunchback of Notre Dame!)

As you become more experienced you have to plan what areas of strength you will work on, eg speed, strength endurance, power, maximal strength. You should always analyse your performance after a fight, whether it was a win or a loss, either way you will pick out your weaknesses and strengths. If your weakness was speed then this can be trained through strength work in addition to improving fighting skills. Speed can be developed through various means including plyometric work, medicine ball throws, jumps, sprints and strength training with bands or chains (bands and chains are used to accommodate resistance and can therefore be used to develop Speed or Rate of Force Development). Doing this in conjunction with regular strength work should improve your speed through improved motor unit recruitment and an increase in Lean Body Mass.

Putting this all together I believe that if you want to improve yourself as a fighter you have to include strength work into your routine. A beginner will see great results from the likes of Rippetoe 5×5, and even Wendler’s 531, training 2-3 times per week. A more experienced and superior fighter will most likely work directly on strength training in their ‘off season’ (after a fight) and before their 8 week camp starts. This may include basic strength exercises coupled with improving mobility and posture, depending on their goal.

Once their camp has started the fighter may still do ‘strength work’ but it becomes more specific to their sport; for example using sandbags instead of barbells. You have to remember that as a fighter recovery is key, so don’t get drawn into hitting maximal weights (above 90%) 5 days a week. Follow a plan and stick to it.

In a nutshell, further away from a fight you will work on general strength and as the fight draws nearer you will work on specific strength training.

Below is a sample of Michael Bisping’s last strength and conditioning session he had, currently 7 weeks out. You will notice the use of speed and strength exercises used in various means.

A1 Med Ball Jump and Throw 5×3

B1 Safety Squat Bar vs 6 Chains 3×3

B2 Rebound Jump onto Box 3×3

C1 DB Alt Press 3×6

C2 DB Rows 3×8

C3 KB Swings 3×12

D1 Isometric Neck Hold with Lat Raise 3×10

D2 Band Woodchop 3×10

On the flip side to this, as some people might argue that strength training is irrelevant for fighters I may agree. Not everyone needs to strength train, e.g. if you’re becoming an MMA fighter and spending more time in the gym working on those biceps when you are still getting your ass whooped by a 5 year old girl then yes, get out of the gym and start learning how to punch!!

“A stronger athlete is a more powerful athlete”

Sean Keefe
Director and co-founder of Strength & Performance.
Strength and performance is a training facility providing bespoke individual training, delivered in small group settings.
We work hard, but intelligently to get our athletes stronger, fitter and leaner as well as improving posture and reducing injury. Our clientele varies from elite athletes to young professionals.


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