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Train like an MMA Fighter

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— May 29, 2018

Train like an MMA Fighter

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Prepping for the octagon requires hardcore workouts.

On the surface, mixed martial arts (MMA) fights look brutal. In these no-holds-barred, full-contact bouts, athletes use elements from different martial arts—from boxing and kickboxing to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo to wrestling—until one competitor submits or is knocked out. What started as bragging rights between practitioners of different martial arts disciplines has spawned one of the fastest-growing sports in the world; in 2016 alone, more than 1 million Americans took part in MMA bouts. MMA fighters are some of the most well-rounded and toughest athletes out there. Not only do these need to be versatile martial artists, they need serious stamina, endurance, speed, power and strength to survive in the cage. “People just see the end results and the professional fights but what these guys and women go through in terms of training is unreal,” says Joel Freeman (joelfreemanfitness.com), co-creator of CORE DE FORCE, an MMA-style workout. Whether or not you intend to step into the octagon, MMA training is a great addition to any workout routine. “It requires you to work in multiple planes of motion and use different energy systems,” says Rob ‘Razor’ McCullough, former professional MMA fighter and senior director for MMA at UFC Gym (ufcgym.com). “You have to bend, twist and rotate. It’s constantly changing and you have to be able to train like that, too.”

Skills and Drills

Since the best MMA fighters are skilled martial artists, you need to use standing and striking techniques (like punching, kicking and using your knees) alongside grappling and wrestling moves. “People think of it as a slugfest but there’s actually a lot of technique involved,” says Jennifer Chieng (jennifer-chieng.com), an Olympic boxer who is transitioning to MMA. Not only do you need to know how to throw a punch and kick properly, you have to learn to defend yourself too, adds Brent Bartley, Muay Thai instructor at Renzo Gracie Academy (renzogracie.com) in New York City. Your training will depend on your individual martial arts experience. Those with a striking background, such as boxing or kickboxing, will want to work on the ground game; those with a grappling background should concentrate on perfecting punches and kicks. Those with minimal experience will need to focus on foundational skills. To develop these technical skills, repetition is key. Drills, whether using a heavy bag or sparring in the ring, is a vital part of the training program. “You need to build the fundamentals and good habits” so they’re ingrained in your muscles, says Chieng.

Feeling Good Explosive Strength and Endurance

“An MMA fight is like a marathon with a lot of sprints thrown in,” says Bartley. “You could be going along at a reasonable pace and then suddenly it’s super-explosive.” To go all-out for each round, MMA fighters need to build both endurance and explosive power, making strength and conditioning critical. However, your goal isn’t just to build big muscles—you need functional strength. “You’re trying to get strong but not buff,” says McCullough. He favors moves like kettlebell snatches, pullups and sled pushes, which can help you hit harder and take down your opponent. Plyometric exercises are another effective way to build power and endurance; think multiple reps of box jumps and jump squats. Sprawls—moves that look like a cross between a burpee and a yoga cobra pose—work too. Standing with your feet hip-width apart, lower to a squat and place your hands on the ground. Then, jump your feet back to a plank position and immediately drop your hips to the ground and arch your back. Then, press up and jump your feet back to starting position. Endurance training isn’t just about running the longest distance possible; Bartley says speedwork and interval training not only build cardiovascular fitness, they also breed confidence. “If you can run a mile or three miles, you know in your head that you’re fit. And that’s a mental lift,” he says.

Moves from Joel Freeman

Pushup with Alternate Leg Check

From a plank position, perform a pushup. At the top of the pushup position, tap your right knee to the right elbow. Then, tap your left knee to left elbow. Repeat. FITNESS WARRIOR

Alternating Side Plank

From a forearm plank position with forearms parallel and elbows stacked directly under shoulders, rotate to a side plank. Balancing on your left forearm, keep your hips off the ground and reach your right arm to the ceiling. Return to starting position. Then, rotate to a side plank on your right side.

Jab-Cross with Burpee Combo

From a fight stance with boxing guard (one foot forward) and knees soft, bring your hands to your jawline with light fists and elbows in toward ribs. Throw a jab-cross—straight punch with your lead arm followed by a straight punch with rear arm—and then perform a burpee for one rep

All About the Core

Since MMA involves movement in all planes, a strong core is essential. Not only will it keep you upright and balanced, it will also power your punches and kicks. “MMA really focuses on the transverse plane of movement, which is rotational,” says Freeman. McCullough says TRX or suspension training is a great way to tone your abdominal and stabilizer muscles since it demands that you use your core all the time. Maintaining a single anchor point—one hand or foot in the handles—for exercises like planks, pushups, and pikes makes it even more challenging. Another favorite? Throwing a heavy slam ball across your body and against the wall.

Don’t Forget Recovery

If you spend hours upon hours in the gym, it’s easy to skip the easy days. But you need to give your body time to repair and reap the benefits of all your hard work. “You tear your muscles in the gym. You recover by sleeping, hydrating and paying attention to your nutrition,” says McCullough. There’s a whole world of recovery tools and methods available from massages to ice baths and cryotherapy to compression boots and socks. Self-myofascial release techniques with a foam roller or lacrosse ball are a simple way to work out the kinks. “It’s going to help get the blood flowing and improve range of motion so that you move better and recover faster,” says McCullough.

Ready to Fight?

MMA fights are governed by the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts and regulated by state athletic commissions. Contests take place in a ring (generally octagonal in shape) or fenced area and athletes wear protective gear like mouthpiece, glove and groin protectors for men and chest protectors for women.

As in wrestling and boxing, there are different weight classes in MMA contests, from strawweight (up to 115 pounds) to super-heavyweight (over 265 pounds). All athletes need an MMA license and to undergo a physical and bloodwork before they can compete, says McCullough.

If you’re interested in stepping in the ring, find a local MMA gym where you can test your skills against fellow students. Depending on where you live, there may be multiple fight promoters in your area who host amateur contests. Amateur fights are typically three three-minute rounds with a one-minute rest period between rounds.

Professional contests consist of three five-minute rounds. The premier MMA organization is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC); Bellator and King of the Cage are other main MMA fight promoters. “The more success you have, the more likely someone from a bigger promoter will discover you and bring you up, says Bartley”

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