written by Bryan K. Mossey
“A thinking mans guide to training, and fight preparation”
First off, I wrote this article for a couple of my friends, who are pro MMA fighters. They asked me to share some of my thoughts on MMA fight preparation. This article is just that, my thoughts! I do not propose this as “the way,” only “a way,” to prepare yourself for MMA competition. If I am able to impart anything that is helpful to you, I owe it to my instructors; Guro Dan Inosanto, Mike Mathews, Mike Parker, Mark McFann, Ajarn Chai, Pedro Sauer or my countless other strength, conditioning, and rehabilitation coaches. Each area discussed could easily be a book unto itself. This is not the definitive guide to anything, and my sole goal is that it will spark the reader to learn more, seek help, and prepare to win. With that in mind, lets get started!
You can not objectively evaluate your own performance, or push yourself hard enough to prepare for competition. Pro MMA Fighters today have several coaches, as not everyone is a subject matter expert in every field. The smart fighter seeks out the best coaches in each discipline, in order to progress as a fighter. That being said, it is important to have a head coach that monitors overall progress, conditioning, diet, and athletic performance so as to achieve the game plan set out for the fight. However, this is a best case scenario, and as a coach, you must wear several hats at one time, and as a fighter, you must take advantage of the best available coaches that you have access to. There are no perfect plans, only perfect intentions. Do the best you can with what is available to you. Failing to develop a good plan based upon your available resources is planning to fail.
Strength and conditioning coach
Boxing / Muay Thai coach
Wrestling freestyle / Greco Roman coach
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach
Unbelievably supportive family and friends
Time to Prepare
Strengths and Weakness
I have found that it is impossible to remain in competition shape year round. Mentally, and physically. You must allow down time for mental and physical recovery. This is not to say you should go into pizza, beer, and movie mode. However, you must take more rest time, and decrease the intensity in post fight training. I have found that keeping yourself at 70% of your optimal athletic conditioning year round, you will be able to get in competition shape in a relatively short period of time. I consider 8 weeks to be the minimum cycle needed for fight prep, if you are already at 70%. How close you are to your optimal competition performance, will dictate your required work out schedule. Obviously, if you only have a week before your fight, this changes the game drastically.
Cardio is king and unless you have prepared yourself for sport specific competition you are planning to fail. Each sport requires its own level of sport specific preparation. You can run a marathon, but that does not translate into 10 rounds on the heavy bag. I have found that a sport specific cardio program for MMA consists of both low impact long distance training, and burst interval cardio training. Long distance builds your overall endurance, and burst interval training most resembles the scramble or flurry in MMA competition. I believe cardio conditioning should be done 6 days a week. This consists of running, mixing it up from 3-5 mile runs, to sprints and bleachers. This can also be accomplished on an elliptical fitness machine with varied intensity for 30 second to 1 minute bursts. When the adrenaline has dumped, only your cardio conditioning will save you, for fatigue doth make cowards of us all.
Strengths and Weaknesses
You must analyze your strengths and weaknesses. If your weakness is your boxing, then you need to spend more time in this area. If your strength is wrestling, then obviously you should spend less time in this area. You must also consider your opponent. If your opponent is a better striker than you, and your plan is to take him down, then you should obviously be spending more time working on countering striking, and working for the take down. The below is a generic MMA workout schedule that assumes you are equally strong in all areas, and does not take into account a game plan for the opposition. It also assumes that you are already in good physical condition entering your fight prep. Each program should be tailored specifically for the fighter. As no one plan is good for everyone. This should be viewed as a baseline upon which to begin planning.
In making a game plan for a fight, you should do your homework on who you will be fighting. Get film footage if possible, and watch it constantly to analyze for weaknesses.
A few things to find out about your opponent, and environment.
- How much do they weigh walking around? This will help you determine the size of sparring partners you will need.
- How much weight do they cut for a fight? This will give you some indication of expected dehydration and stamina.
- How much time between weigh in and the fight? This will tell you how much they can potentially put back on in weight before the fight.
- How tall are they, and what is their reach? Again this will aid in the selection of sparring partners
- How long have they trained and in what arts? This will give you some idea of proficiency and what skill set your sparring partners should have.
- Who have they trained with? This can help you determine the quality of the instruction they have received.
- What arts have they competed in, and how well did they do? If they have done well with a certain discipline in the past you can expect them to use it again when the heat is on. Muscle memory always wins.
- When was the last time they competed, and did they win or loose? This can tell you about the mind set of your opponent. If they lost, are they hungry or have they lost their confidence.
- How many total matches have they had, and how did they win or loose the match? There is no substitute for experience and if they have done something in the past it is likely that they will do it again.
- Where will they be training to prep for the fight i.e. sea level and weather.
- Where will you be fighting, and how closely does the climate match up to your training environment.
Know your enemy and your environment! Without this information you are planning in a vacuum.
One of the most hotly debated areas is resistance training. I submit that it is a critical component of your training. Anyone who has ever clinched with a guy who is strong will immediately understand this. Coming from a powerlifting, and bodybuilding background, there are things that are good in each world. However, your max squat and your calf development for symmetry, hardly translate into your fighting ability. Your ability to sustain contraction and muscle endurance over time, however, does. I prefer an all body workout, 3 times a week, that consists of 1 exercise per body part, 3-5 drop sets decreasing weight each time, 10 reps each set, no rest between sets so that it becomes an endurance building cardio exercise. Again, this must be developed based on the individual fighter, and tailored to address any physical weaknesses, and previous injuries. I have found great results doing this workout beginning with cardio training intervals, and then ending with cardio training intervals.
The order of these exercises has been laid out to take advantage of the modified pre-exhaustion concept. Keep in mind we are not working for a one time maximum lift, nor are we working to develop maximum muscle development. Our goal is endurance contraction over time.
Resistance Training Routine
Standing Calf Raises
Leg Press or Squat
Hamstring Curls or Stiff Legged Deadlift
Lateral Dumbbell Raises or Military Press
Bench Press or Fly’s
Bent Over Row or Lat Pulls
Seated or Barbell Curls
Triceps Pushdowns or Dips
This is one of the greatest areas of expansion in training today. Gone are the days where the core can be ignored. Core conditioning of your abs, flexors, and low back are the key to explosion for takedowns, crushing kicks, and position control. This area has seen a rapid expansion in all professional sports, as it is now understood that your core conditioning is in direct relation to your athletic performance. Again, there are lots of ways to train your core using kettle bells, therapy balls, or just basic yoga exercises. What is not in debate, is that you should work your core 6 days a week, along with your cardio. One thing I would add to the importance of core conditioning is working your calves and forearms. You can train calves, abs, and forearms daily, as they require a tremendous amount of work to push past normal levels of fitness, as they are used constantly. They recover very quickly, so overtraining them is not as big a concern. Below are a few exercises I like to do between resistance training sets at the gym, and also between sparring rounds. They are simple, effective, and work very well. Take your pick. I like to mix and match. I like to get around 10-15 sets in succession to failure. Do not rest between sets. If you start to fail switch exercises, and keep going.
Core Training Exercises
- Therapy ball leg lifts
- Therapy ball crunches
- Therapy ball pushups
- Therapy ball superman lifts
- Therapy ball wall squat and hold
- One arm side stands
- Push up position hold one arm and both arms
- Therapy band or cable pull trunk twists
- Chopping wood with an axe rotating left and right swing
- Jumping on Tractor tire
- Jumping jack
- Push ups
- Squat jumps
- Mountain Climbers
Have a training schedule set in stone, and have your couches and training partners commit to it. If you rely on getting your own butt to the gym, inevitably you will have the I am tired and sore day, and unless you know there is someone there waiting on you, it will be all to easy to skip that required workout. Also, understand that it is your consistency in training, and not your intensity, that will promote your development as a fighter. You can not miss three workouts, and make it up with 1 hour of training harder. Commitment, dedication, and discipline are the keys to success.
Again this is fighter dependant. Most people have full time jobs, families, children, and a life, so unless you have a UFC contract with money coming in, and live with your mom, this has to be modified. Below is a minimum schedule based upon already being a well rounded fighter. It also does not take into account the game plan you have developed to exploit your opponents weaknesses. You will notice cardio, resistance training, core training, and isolation sparring are recurring themes. This training schedule is designed to continue your development in both striking, grappling, and conditioning.
Tuesday – Wrestling / Ground and Pound
30 minute sport specific exercises, i.e. duck walk, pummeling
1 Hour technical training
30 minutes light to medium isolation sparring
Wednesday – Boxing / Muay Thai
30 minute sport specific exercises, i.e. jump rope, shadow boxing, heavy bag
1 Hour technical training
30 minutes light to medium isolation sparring
Thursday – Jiu-Jitsu
30 minute sport specific exercises, i.e. shrimping, upa, bridging, rolling
1 Hour technical training
30 minutes light to medium isolation sparring
Saturday – Heavy Free Sparring
If you get depressed its usually from eating to lean or overtraining. Go eat a burger and the saturated fat will have you jumping around like David Lea Roth and feeling great again.
Student of the Game
If you are planning to compete in any sport, it behooves you to study that sport every waking moment. Watch as much of it on TV, DVD, Tivo etc. For MMA you should watch boxing matches, thai boxing matches, K1, amateur wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and of course MMA matches. You must become a student of all disciplines so that you understand the essence of each. You must understand the strengths, and weaknesses, in each art. When you watch, be neither for or against what you are watching. Only when you look at something as it is, and not based upon your own bias, can you objectively evaluate its performance. Also, study fighters that resemble your style for things you can use, and more importantly look for things that work against your style, and body type. Ignorance is not your friend in the fighting arts, and more often than not, what you don’t know hurts. Also look for things that are regularly pulled off in your sport. If you never see the play called, and when you do, it never works, that might be something to consider. Did it work or not, because of the attributes of the fighter, or is it the attributes of the technique that could readily be learned by most fighters? Just because you can learn the exact mechanics of how Michael Jordon does a 360 two handed dunk, does not mean that you will ever be able to do it that way. Be realistic in your evaluation of technique for your game based upon your own attributes, physical skills and level of training. And above all, diligently train in each of the arts you plan to use in MMA. If you never spend any real time in Muay Thai, BJJ, Boxing, or Wrestling, but only jumble it all together right from the beginning, you will be neither technical nor functional as a fighter. Respect each art, and each teacher of that art, for they have spent a lifetime perfecting the craft. Dedicate yourself to training in each of the arts AS THEY ARE TAUGHT. Only then will you ever appreciate, or truly understand the benefits of each art, and realize them in your own personal development.
Technical vs. Functional
I would submit that your goal should be to become a technical, and a functional fighter in balance. We have all seen guys who look awesome on the focus mitts or armbar drills, but can’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag. That’s because it is much easier to work to perfect your technique, than it is to glove up, and get a bloody nose. Martial artist like most human endeavors err towards the path of least resistance. This leads into a maze of technical drills that do not produce functional fighters. You can not simulate being exhausted anymore than you can simulate an adrenaline rush. Drills are a very important part of your training if you keep them in context. If you can’t throw an uppercut, then you should probably work uppercut drills. Use drills to develop your weaknesses. Drills can help you develop a tool, your timing, your sensitivity, and your range. However, once you have done the drill, you must go back to sparring to become functional with that tool against someone who is taller, shorter, faster, slower, stronger and weaker. In one of my students last fights, he hit his opponent with what was probably the worst technical cross I had ever seen. His left hand was down, his arm was bent in a chicken wing, he did not roll his shoulder or hip etc, etc etc. But he knocked the guy on his ass. My point is, keep a good perspective on technique in your training. Be a technical, and more importantly a functional fighter.
Drills are the road to technical proficiency, sparring is the road to being functional.
Without conditioning you can be neither technical or functional. Be conditioned, and not technical, or functional, and you will look great at the pool, and on a stretcher.
When sparring it is important to work the specific art and techniques that you have been training. It makes no sense to learn the double leg takedown, and then when you spar, only do the head and arm that you are good at. Work the techniques being taught, and go slow enough that you are gradually becoming functional with the material being trained that day. Isolation sparring is one of the best tools in your training arsenal. If your jab is weak, then do rounds of sparring using only the jab. Try not to only focus on doing the things you are good at. If you are weak at mount escapes, you must put yourself in the mounted position over and over again, until it becomes your strength.
Isolation sparring has tremendous advantages for developing your tools. However, as you progress in your training cycle, you must begin to mix it up more. Such as striking to take downs, or take downs to grappling, or grappling to ground and pound. Ultimately, you want to progress to all discipline/range sparring the closer you get to your fight. If you stay focused on isolation, you wont be able to put the entire game together with proper timing and execution.
Check the ego at the door, and work to develop your weaknesses. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is sparring heavy all the time. If your goal is to beat the heck out of your training partners, you won’t have any training partners, and you will get hurt and wont be able to fight anyway. At the end of every sparring session, you should do an after action report. What did I do well? What did I do poorly? Most importantly, what must I do to overcome my weaknesses? Adjust your workouts accordingly. Drills are there for you to develop your weaknesses. Do the drills you need to grow, not the ones you like.
One of the things I like to do is make sure that sparring rounds are 1 minute longer than the rounds you will have to fight. If you are going to be competing for 5 minute rounds, you should spar 6 minute rounds. I am not a fan of rest periods. You will usually have a 1 minute break between rounds in competition. I like to use the minute to do pushup, sit-ups, jumping jacks etc. This develops unbelievable stamina, and mental toughness. Then when you are in competition, and your round is shorter, and you get to rest, you will be raring to go. I like to cycle in a fresh sparring partner each round. This will push you even harder, as you will be exhausted while your partner is fresh, and pushing you beyond your limits. For your last round of sparring, go against your toughest partner. Training to fight the best guy for your last round, will develop mental toughness and the will to win against insurmountable odds.
Hurt or Injured?
Everyone gets hurt in training, or you aren’t training. A hurt is a black eye, sprained ankle, dislocated pinky toe, fat lip, etc etc. General rule of thumb, ice is good. It helps reduce swelling, and pain. It also speeds oxygen to the injured tissue and speeds recovery. Use in 20 minute intervals, several times a day until better. Heat is good for muscle spasm. If you are hurt, you most often need to make a slight modification and keep on training. Hot baths with epson salts can really work wonders. Injured is a torn muscle, broken arm, torn meniscus etc etc. If you are injured, seek medical attention and forget training. Don’t be a moron. You will only make it worse, and if you don’t wait to recover, you will more than likely injure it worse, or hurt something else trying to overcompensate. I am still trying to learn this lesson myself. Keep ace bandages, band aids, aleve, ice packs, bio-freeze, and epson salts on tap they are your friend.
Diet and Supplementation
A hugely debated topic. This is for someone who is already in shape, and is not looking drop 20 pounds to make weight for a fight. Again, this is a very basic general guideline for diet and supplementation. I have had good results with eating 6 meals a day. General rule is to get protein with every meal. Protein is the building block for muscle, and without it you will not be able to recover. I prefer 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean muscle mass at target weight per day. You must have carbohydrates for fuel if you are going to train this hard. Keep the carbs moderate to light and you will be burning fat for fuel, as well and leaning up as you approach your target weight. Stay away from white carbs i.e. bread, biscuits, white rice. I prefer brown rice, oatmeal, and some pasta. Take sugar out of the diet completely. Veggies as much as you can stand however, stay away from the yellow ones and focus on greens and reds. Eat primarily lean meats of fish, steak, turkey, chicken. Light to no carbs after 7pm. No cokes, diet cokes, or juices. Nothing fried, or covered in anything. Grilling is your friend. Drink water and tea. Hydration and its importance is another entire book. Suffice to say that you should always have a bottle of water in your hand. Keep supplementation basic. Protein powder, creatine, fish oil, glutamine, glucosamine with MSM, calcium, wheat grass, and a multi-vitamin are a good place to start. Take them daily and they will help with your recovery and overall health.
No one competes these days at their walk around weight. It is a generally accepted principle that your optimal fighting weight is less than your normal weight. The elusive goal is to be bigger, stronger, faster and in better shape than your opponent at your given fight weight, without being so exhaust that you can’t fight. To achieve this I have seen any manner of rudimentary torture deployed. Everything from riding a bike in a sauna for days, to taking ex-lax to crap your way down to target weight. Don’t ask me how I know. Bodybuilders, boxer and wrestlers all know how to make weight and you can learn from each of them. To this end however, I believe most people are entirely off base on how to approach cutting weight. Making weight should be considered at the beginning of your pre-fight planning. Obviously, this comes back to how much time your have to prep. If you are doing an 8 week cycle to prep then your diet should be modified to reflect how much weight you are trying to cut.
This is not something that should be considered the night before as you are crying in the sauna. You will be preparing yourself for the butt kicking of a lifetime, because you are too exhausted to even stand up. Personally, I like to see the fighter be at target weight or lower a week out from the fight. This allows me to actually feed the fighter and carb load 3 days out to come up to weight and not down. The result of which is a fighter that is fueled, rested, and hydrated. Not starved, exhausted and dehydrated. Dehydration, low potassium, and low sodium are a formula for death. Just ask a anyone that has seen a bodybuilder pass out, or die in preparation. Just because you can drop 10 pounds in a day, does not make it a good idea, and certainly does not make it optimal for competitive athletic performance.
Basic Meal Plan
Egg whites and oatmeal
Protein Powder or Bar
Lean meat, veggies, brown rice / pasta
Protein Powder or Bar
Lean meat, veggies
Protein Powder or Bar
We have covered a lot of ground here. Coaches, planning, diet, cardio training, resistance training, workout program, making weight, and even some thoughts on sparring progression. Fighting, and preparing to fight is not a simple game. Hopefully, I have given you a few things to think about that will spark you to evaluate your own training. If you are considering competition, as most things in life, developing a good plan is critical. Train hard, but more importantly train smart!