Mixed Martial Arts Conditioning For The Rest Of Us

Martial arts have been around for centuries. Practically every culture has its own indigenous form of fighting. Most of us have heard of Bruce Lee, Kung Fu, and Karate etc. Recently a very interesting shift in our awareness has taken place.

I am speaking about the phenomenon of mixed martial arts. Now, it is important to understand that many martial arts have elements inherent in them that would make them “mixed”. But for the average “consumer” the term “mixed martial arts” (MMA) conjures up a very specific picture.

Mixed Martial Arts has become more mainstream. Most teenagers have heard of it, many adults are fascinated by it. From “Pay per View” to free TV, MMA draws in big crowds. In short, “mixed martial arts” is big business. It combines elements of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and submission grappling in an exciting format. It can be brutal but often is less damaging than the average pro boxing match. Just watch the Ultimate Fighting Championships to see my point.

So what’s in it for the average man or woman that doesn’t want to be a fighter? What lessons can we learn from Mixed Martial Arts approach to training and conditioning? Well, we can learn a lot about training with intensity, passion and commitment. This article will shed light on principles that will benefit anyone trying to take their fitness to a higher level. I am providing general guidelines and tips, along with some specific modified workouts, that you can apply to your training. I have been a martial artist for 30 years and have trained many athletes, martial artists and military personnel. I hope that my experience will add to your experience.


While many may fantasize about it, most people will not become pro fighters. The discipline, dedication and extreme pain tolerance is beyond what most people can endure. Most people will not compete in traditional martial arts events (karate, judo, Tae Kwon Do etc). So what will training like a martial artist do for them? First of all, the training is well rounded, integrated and intense. Most people don’t know that the secret to changing their body, and burning fat, is not more “cardio”, it is “functional” high intensity training that focuses on multi-joint, multi-planar and total body training. Training that mixes energy systems requirements (aerobic and anaerobic etc.) and changes the stimuli on the body will get results. Without the right intensity you will be wasting your time. Training like a mixed martial artist requires that you train with high intensity. (**Before you start pushing Pick-up trucks around the parking lot as a warm-up remember to progress gradually and be smart!)

The results include a decrease in body fat, an increase in muscle size and efficiency, increased power and endurance, improved flexibility, mobility, agility and balance.

Take up a Martial Art

As a person who has spent more than 30 years studying a variety of martial arts perhaps this step is the easiest and most obvious. If you want to train like a martial artist then study a martial art. The cross training benefits are remarkable. Mixed martial arts have elements of grappling and striking arts. The training for each respectively is different and so is the effect on the body.

Striking arts like karate or Thai boxing develop balance, speed, power, accuracy, core strength and endurance. The kicking and punching combinations require a great deal of fitness. Strikers like to stay on their feet and keep the opponent within striking range. Getting hit is not always so enjoyable but as one advances in training the pain is not so obvious. Over time reflexes improve, reaction time improves, you can throw multiple punches, kicks, elbows and knees in a flash, flexibility improves, you notice a definite improvement in core strength and your confidence level soars.

Grappling arts develop similar traits but go about it in a different way. The main emphasis however is on very close range fighting. There is always contact with the opponent, muscles are constantly firing. In the beginning the fatigue is immediate and obvious. Your muscles strain to hold on a little longer before the inevitable “tap out” ; the sign of one submitting to the opponent’s superior technique. This is a nice way to say that you could no longer withstand the pain of the joint lock or were about to pass out from a choke. As your skill improves you learn to relax, your technique improves and you won’t be so exhausted. The result is a stronger, more supple, powerful, and balanced body along with the confidence of knowing that you posses the ability to defend yourself at close range with little fear.

The bottom line is that to really train like a mixed martial artist you will probably need to experience a bit of sparring. If you have never done so you will quickly realize that this isn’t your gym’s fitness kickboxing or aerobic class!

Schools that teach mixed martial arts, as they are known today, will cover all aspects of unarmed fighting and in turn you will become more fit. When coupled with an effective strength-training program you will feel invincible.

If studying a martial art is not for you try to find a heavy bag to hit for three rounds of three minutes, twice a week. Use 12-14 oz. bag gloves and learn the proper way to strike.

Principles of Athleticism

Mixed Martial Artists, or any martial artist for that matter, are athletes. As such they must train like athletes. Bodybuilding should not be used as the main training approach for a mixed martial artist. While bodybuilding does work to put on mass, athletes need more than muscle mass to be successful.

Training must meet, what I call, the “Nine Principles of Athleticism”. Everything I do, no matter who I train, follows these principles or variations of them.
Learn more about them here.
Training Tools

The modality is not nearly as important as the program design, after all it is just a tool, but some equipment is better suited than others:

The “usual” training tools are all effective. I am referring to dumbbells, medicine balls, resistance tubing and bodyweight training. These all have a place in your training regimen. The important thing is to use them appropriately. In addition to the training tools that every gym has I recommend some others that may not be so prevalent.

Kettlebells: Kettlebell training is tailor made for fighters or anyone interested in training like one. A kettlebell looks like a cannonball with a handle. They have been around for centuries and have recently made a big comeback. They develop functional strength, power-endurance, flexibility and an iron will. These are very important traits for a mixed martial artist. Learn how to use them and add even the most basic kettlebell swing to your workout. A classic kettlebell exercise like the Turkish Get-Up is tailor made for grapplers and in fact was mad popular by Turkish wrestlers.

Sandbags: Sandbags should have a place in any MMA athlete’s workout routine. They are oddly shaped when compared to a barbell and can be used like a kettlebell, medicine ball or barbell/dumbbell. They will develop overall body strength and endurance as well as great grip strength. You can squat, deadlift, press, clean, and snatch them. You can throw them also without worrying about breaking a toe.

Training Technique

Circuit Training is a great way to get a lot done without spending countless hours in the gym. Put the circuits together in the most “functional” manner possible. Don’t do a circuit that consists of knee extensions, biceps curls, dumbbell flyes etc and expect to win a gold medal. Choose exercises that are multi-jointed, multi-directional, speed specific, core dominated etc. I suggest performing exercises for a set time period i.e. 40 seconds of work, followed by 20 seconds of rest (a total of one minute per exercise station).


Sample Circuit:

Work: 40 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

Three to Four Passes

Five to ten stations


Kettlebell Swing

Basic Push-Up

Dumbbell Squat to Overhead Press (“Thruster”)

Med Ball (or weight plate) Russian Twists





Sprinting: Long runs are a good way to build a fitness base but sprinting is a great way to build the endurance that a mixed martial artist really needs in a fight. I recommend interval training, hill runs and even resisted running (you will need a heavy duty rubber band for this). This type of training can be added to your workouts about two days per week. Don’t overdo it. When form suffers, you want to throw up or you feel your heart is exploding you must rest and recover.

Work Capacity Training is one of my new favorite training methods. This type of training has been made popular by Cross Fit gyms, but has been used by many others as well. I often train my clients this way at my facility.

The concept is to plan out a workout consisting of several exercises. A specific total rep number per exercise is then determined. It is your job to complete the workout as quickly as possible. This is self-paced; the number of repetitions that you do per set is determined by you. The goal is to keep the total work time low, speed is important. This type of training can be harsh but it works and the results speak for themselves. As your fitness improves you will be able to complete the workout more quickly and efficiently. The following is just a sample. The possibilities and variations are many.


Sample workout:

Single Arm Kettlebell (or dumbbell) Swings x 50 (per arm)

Pushups x 50

Lunges x 50 (per leg)

Chin-ups (can be assisted with a rubber band)

Box jumps

Alternating Dumbbell Presses x 50 (per arm)

Sit-Ups x 50 (for fun)

Total reps: 450


Mobility and Flexibility Training: Don’t neglect this part of your training. Martial artists are very flexible for a reason. Make sure to perform a dynamic warm-up and movement preparation routine before training. Purchase a foam roller and “roll” your body daily. It should only take a few minutes. Make sure to roll your legs, gluts, shoulders and back. It may hurt in the beginning but will become more comfortable as you release the spasms and tension in your muscles.

Many MMA fighters train while injured. It is important to remember that they are modern-day gladiators that are paid to fight. We don’t have to do this. The most important thing is to train intelligently. Train for “balance” and listen to your body. If something hurts it isn’t necessary to “train through it”. Rest, re-evaluate and regroup so you can come back stronger the next session. It is often easier to prevent injuries than it is to treat them.

While this article is by no means the final word in mixed martial arts training it should give the beginner or intermediate exercise a better understanding of what is important. Remember that mixed martial art training requires speed, power, strength, flexibility, and a strong will. Take the time to properly prepare yourself and you will enjoy the experience. You can accomplish great things when you progress gradually and with common sense. Try the workouts, do some more research and find your own way. If you apply the principles outlined here you will reach new levels of fitness, guaranteed. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll see you in the Octagon!

Take me to the Martial Arts Home Page Circuit Training Basics Warrior Training Concepts I want to learn more about the power of kettlebells