MMA Training: Performance vs. The World – Six Tips to Break the Cycle

Travis Steffen

In society today, it’s shocking to see how many people bring their ego with them to the gym. They’ve been working out for years and seem to have a fairly decent physique. Why should they listen to you and your new-age hippie business called “science” anyway? And this is just people in general. Fighters are a whole different story.

Regardless of your training history, the look of your current physique, how much you bench or how many wins you have on your record, there’s one thing you have to know before you’re able to harness your true potential as an athlete.

There’s a difference between training…and training for performance. A BIG difference.

What’s unfortunate is that nearly all of the information out there in the media – the fad diets, the exercise equipment, the advice and information you’re getting – very little (if any) of this applies to you whatsoever.

The real money in the fitness and training industry as a whole is in training the general population to look good naked. However, appearing in shape and fit is only loosely correlated with performing well in an athletic event. Knowing what applies to you as an athlete and what applies to others with varying goals is extremely important when assessing the way forward.

The way your muscles look on the outside isn’t a very accurate prediction method of your explosive power. The ripples in your 6-pack aren’t a great indicator in your power-endurance (or the ability to maintain a similar level explosive power repeatedly over the duration of a competition).

There’s an unfortunate trend in MMA. People think that the most “in-shape looking” dude is the better athlete. This isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, you’d be surprised to hear that there are quite a few pieces of conventional wisdom that, while will likely give you a better looking physique, you should ignore when trying to perform at your peak in MMA.

Here are six training tips that may both surprise you and also allow you to start training more effectively right away:

Traditional lifts are over-emphasized in MMA. When athletes employ traditional lifts to help them train for sport, the contraction phase of these exercises typically takes around two seconds on average. However, MMA-specific movements, striking movements in particular, occur between 250-300 milliseconds (1, 2). When training using traditional lifts, it’s unlikely athletes will be able to generate peak force in the small window of time they have available. This suggests the need to prioritize exercises that develop explosive power and increase the rate of force development before exercises that simply build strength in the traditional sense.

Know where the majority of your power is generated, and how to increase it. After a biomechanical analysis of numerous fighters – from novices all the way up to high level pros – it has been shown that those fighters who generate the least amount of punching power derive their power from their arm extension and trunk rotation, while the fighters who generate the most power (nearly always the higher level pros with mastery-level technique) generate the majority of their power from the extension of their back leg (3). Therefore, training explosively targeting the triple extension of the knees, ankles and hips would appear to be the most effective method for generating maximum explosive power for MMA.

Long bouts of cardio may hurt you more than help you. There’s a principle in the field of training high level athletes called training for specificity. It emphasizes training athletes by taking into account the primary metabolic demands of their sport. MMA competition is characterized by and large by explosive exchanges lasting from 3 to 90 seconds. While there are occasionally exceptions, periods of inactivity (i.e. circling the opponent) are often peppered in frequently. However, long bouts of cardio trains the aerobic energy systems, which play a minimal role and are usually involved only in ring movement and recovery mechanisms (4). This leads to the conclusion that longer bouts of steady state cardio may be detrimental to MMA performance as they alter energy system adaptations. Once you develop an overall aerobic base, place your focus on interval training and sport-specific activities such as sparring in order to more directly train your energy systems for sport.

Never try to design your own training program. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been training or how much of a workout veteran you think you are. Only start a strength and conditioning program designed by a professional that is educated in the science of exercise and fitness program design. Unless you’ve got years of research under your belt, realize that there is a LOT about training that you simply don’t know. This doesn’t make you less of an athlete. On the contrary, it makes you a smarter one. By employing a program designed by a pro, you’ll have a leg up over the majority of your competition who still have too much of an ego to place their training in the hands of specialists.

Recognize the science of sports psychology as a proven (and legal) performance enhancer. Every athlete is looking for an advantage. Well here’s the reality – the higher up you get in MMA, the more likely you are to be drug tested. Don’t roll the dice on performance enhancing drugs. You’ll be sacrificing both your health and also your eligibility to compete. Instead, turn to science. Like in any sport, MMA is largely mental. Why then, do so many athletes make their training 100% physical? Performance anxiety and various other psychological factors can make the difference between a mid-level pro and a headliner. In fact, mood and various other psychological factors have been shown to be EXTREMELY effective predictors of performance. As many as 92% of combat sports performances were effectively predicted based on pre-competition mood scores according to a 1995 study (5). Sports psychology works – plain and simple. The sooner you believe it and start putting it to use for you, the sooner you’ll have that advantage you were searching for all along.

Eat for performance, and use your diet as your primary method of weight control. Low-carb dieting is all the rage in the media and in the commercial weight loss industry. However, unless you’re trying to blatantly sabotage your performance, athletes training for competition should NEVER engage in a low-carb diet. In fact, as much as 60% of an athlete’s overall caloric intake should come from carbohydrates. In addition, it’s been shown that rapid weight loss is associated with significant decreases in performance due to depleted energy stores, reduced lean muscle mass and negative effects on mental state (4). The most popular methods of rapid weight loss to make weight before competition are crash dieting, long bouts of cardio (which we previously covered as a negative) and dehydration – all of which destroy the athletes capacity to perform at peak levels. Instead, control weight via a reduced, yet carefully planned dietary intake composed of all necessary nutrients, and avoid rapid, significant weight loss immediately prior to competition if at all possible.

These six tips do two things:

  1. They’re all at odds with most old school fight training methodologies.
  2. They’re all backed by science.

Want an edge over the competition? Start putting these six tips to use for you right away. Start now while your opponents are still training in traditional (sub-optimal) ways!

Works Cited: 
1. Stone MH, Pierce KC, Sands WA and Stone ME. Weightlifting: A brief overview. Strength Cond J 25: 50-66, 2006.
2. Zatsiorsky VM. Biomechanics of strength and strength training. In: Strength and Power in Sport (2nd Ed.). Komi PV, ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science, 2003, 114 – 133.
3. Filimonov VI, Kopstev KN, Husyanov ZM, and Nazarov SS. Means of increasing strength of the punch. NSCA J 7: 65 – 67, 1985.
4. Turner AN. Strength and Conditioning for Muay Thai Athletes. Strength Cond J 31: 78 – 92, 2009.
5. Terry P and Slade A. Discriminant capability of psychological state measures in predicting performance outcome in karate competition. Percept Mot Skills 1995:81: 275 – 286.

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