I’m always hesitant to say anything is the “best” when it comes to MMA strength & conditioning. What might be best for someone else may not be best for you. However, I will list what I believe are excellent MMA cardio options so you can pick and choose based on what fits your current needs.
Best Non-Specific Cardio For MMA
Non-specific MMA cardio is useful for easily tracking outputs and giving variety away from MMA when your training schedule is congested. Here are multiple options.
Running is steeped in MMA tradition from older martial arts such as boxing. Many fighters and coaches will make it seem like you cannot be a successful MMA fighter if you don’t pound the pavement. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and you can read why you can stop running for MMA here.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t run if you enjoy it and feel it benefits your MMA cardio. Depending on the adaptations you want to target, you can perform the traditional long-distance road work or high-intensity intervals.
Typically, I don’t advise performing HIIT using running for MMA fighters as your risk of injury is much higher than off-feet cardio options.
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Another way to implement running is performing a 5 km time trial, a favorite of Andrew Usher and his World Champion boxers.
Airbike, Airdyne, Assault bike, these are all the same thing. A bike with a big fan uses wind as resistance with the bonus of incorporating the upper and lower body while seated. What I like about the airbike over running is the removal of ground impacts.
You’re already taking a pounding at training, and there’s no need to add further stress to the system with continuous impacts with the ground. You can similarly use the airbike to how I presented it with running.
But you can also use it to assess your conditioning using the display screen and the information it gives. For example, Gavin Pratt of the UFC Performance Institute details an alactic power and capacity test on the Assault bike involving 12/10/8 second sprints on the minute.
Swimming is another no-impact conditioning modality that has an added recovery benefit due to the hydrostatic pressure of water. Essentially helping improve blood flow because of water’s “massaging” effect.
For example, well-trained triathletes performed better the following day after a swim recovery session consisting of 20 x 100 m at 90% of 1 km time trial speed .
Swimming lengths of a pool, whether continuously or in an interval fashion, are options you can use. Or if you are swimming for recovery, a colder pool or the ocean where you can move around is enough.
I like rowing as a non-specific conditioning modality for MMA as it’s a full-body exercise involving upper-body pulling. Since MMA is primarily performing actions in front of the body, it can provide a break from pushing movements.
Being full body means the adaptations derived from rowing aren’t isolated to the legs or arms. This may provide better transfer to MMA as a non-specific conditioning modality.
Most MMA fighters jump rope. It’s an excellent modality for strengthening the ankle and foot, so I believe jumping rope is critical to your fight preparation. However, it’s not the only way to strengthen the foot and ankle. But most fighters already do it, so why not continue?
Jumping rope specifically targets the fast stretch-shortening cycle of the foot and ankle, enhancing reactive strength. Essentially the ability to be bouncy and explosive. As low-intensity aerobic training sessions are typically long, continuously jumping rope for an extended period when you’re not prepared can cause problems.
I recommend jumping rope in a circuit if performing a non-specific MMA cardio session that combines other modalities from this article.
Contralateral DB Circuits
These were made famous by strength coach Cal Dietz. I love this method of doing cardio, as all you need is a light dumbbell, a resistance band, and a small bit of space. Simply, you will combine a single leg and arm exercise with the opposite arm and leg.
For example, a reverse lunge stepping the right leg back and overhead pressing with the right arm.
You will be surprised how quickly this spikes your heart rate. You must regulate the speed you perform the exercises if you’re aiming for low-intensity cardio.
Medicine Ball Circuits
You rarely see medicine ball circuits as a conditioning option for MMA fighters. But they are great for strengthening movements similar to MMA and performing movements you don’t typically do during cardio. For example, various rotational throws and slams.
Plus, when throwing against a wall, you get a repeated eccentric action of having to catch and decelerate the medicine ball.
Bodyweight circuits are a simple cardio option if you’re short on equipment and space. Just be careful with the volume you perform, as this can carry residual fatigue and soreness to MMA training. To keep your heart rate elevated, alternating standing and floor exercises are the secret to bodyweight circuits.
This forces you to stand up and down between exercises, helping to keep your heart rate elevated. For example, squats to push-ups to lunges to sit-ups.
Best Specific Cardio For MMA
I always recommend using specific conditioning modalities where possible for the best transfer to MMA performance. Unless your training schedule is packed with MMA training where time off the mats is important.
Shadowboxing is a staple of your MMA training and is likely used in class as a warm-up or cool-down. But it makes for the perfect specific cardio modality for MMA as you need no equipment, no partners, and very little space.
You can hone your technique, varying the rhythm and tempo of your strikes. But don’t throw punches and kicks randomly. Visualize your opponent and what they do to add realism to your shadowboxing. This will increase the possibility of transfer to your MMA.
Depending on the goal of your training session, you can shadowbox continuously at a low intensity or throw hard and fast flurries of strikes in an interval fashion.
You can also combine both into an epic conditioning session by performing low-intensity shadowboxing with random short 5-10 second bursts of high-intensity strikes.
This allows you to practice moving from low to high-intensity actions and back so you can focus on lowering your heart rate.
Bag & Pad Work
Bag and pad work are typically middle to high-intensity cardio options for MMA. You can flow on the bag for lower-intensity aerobic conditioning, but it is much more difficult. The only thing to be wary of is the impacts on the hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
If you’re already hitting the bag and pads often in class, it may pay to limit their use outside MMA training and use other specific conditioning modalities.
Sparring is not always an all-out war. In fact, some gyms don’t do 100% sparring. But nothing will give you the intensity of a fight than sparring. Out of fight camp, you may spar at a moderate intensity once a week.
As you enter fight camp, this may ramp to twice a week with one day at maximal intensity. From a skill acquisition perspective, regular light sparring, like the Thai’s, is an excellent way to condition yourself for MMA and drastically improve your game.
Solo Drill & Shadow Wrestling Circuits
MMA is more than throwing strikes. Wrestling and BJJ are critical components of MMA and require years to master. Shadow wrestling and solo drills help to reinforce these techniques and develop work capacity in these positions.
Even better, combine it with shadowboxing, and you’ve got MMA-specific cardio. Shadow wrestling can easily be performed at higher intensities by quickly shooting doubles and sprawling often. But low intensities are also easily achieved, as shown in the video below, especially if you don’t have mats.
Partner Technical Circuits
If you have a training partner, you have a distinct advantage for improving MMA skills and enhancing your cardio. Like you may drill techniques in class, you can continuously go one for one for a prescribed period.
This could be grappling or striking techniques. If you’ve participated in or watched Dutch-style kickboxing drills, they can be a simple way to keep a tempo and rhythm. Or drilling various takedowns one for one.
What Kind Of Cardio Do MMA Fighters Do?
MMA fighters do a range of cardio, like the examples I’ve given in this article. You may be wondering where you see CrossFit and hardcore circuit training lies on your favorite fighter’s social media. Many MMA fighters do CrossFit-style workouts, which, in my opinion, are senseless and cause more harm than good.
Hence, I did not add these to the best cardio for MMA list. Instead, I recommend MMA fighters do a range of specific and non-specific cardio options like Airbike, swimming, rowing, jumping rope, shadowboxing, and solo drills.
Does Running Help MMA Cardio?
Running is a tool you can use for general MMA cardio adaptations. It is not the magical cardio exercise that will ensure you never gas out. But it’s easy to do without needing any special equipment. It also gets you fresh air outside the gym, which can be great for your mental health.
Is Biking Good For MMA?
Bike is a good option for MMA conditioning as there is no eccentric stress or ground impacts. It means you aren’t going to carry the same soreness or fatigue that can be associated with other activities.
They also allow maximum effort sprints without the risk of injury that sprinting has.
MMA Cardio Workout At Home
My favorite method for MMA for low-intensity cardio at home is to blend specific and non-specific conditioning modalities. It cuts through the boredom of sitting on a bike for an hour and transfers better to the sport. Here’s a simple example:
Jumping Rope – 5 mins
MMA Shadowboxing/wrestling – 10 mins
Airbike or Rower – 15 mins
Shadowboxing – 5 mins
Shadow wrestling – 5 mins
Jumping Rope – 5 mins
That’s 45 minutes of quality work without the boredom of repeating the same exercise.
The best cardio for MMA comes in many shapes and forms. What’s best for others may not be for you. If you have a hectic MMA training schedule consisting of multiple double days, then you may select non-specific cardio options. If you can only make class a few times per week, hone your skills and cardio simultaneously with specific MMA cardio options.
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1. Lum, D., Landers, G., & Peeling, P. (2010). Effects of a recovery swim on subsequent running performance. International journal of sports medicine, 31(01), 26-30.