November 9, 2020

Deciding to move up a weight class is a difficult choice. There can be plenty of doubts that may stop you such as if you will be able to maintain your fitness. Or if you will be able to maintain your speed. If you perform your training correctly during your weight gain, you likely can maintain most of your speed and fitness.

When moving up a weight class as a fighter, it is imperative that speed is not lost. That means not using a bodybuilding-style program, but rather one that is geared towards an athlete looking to get faster and bigger.

In order to do that, there must be a thread of speed, power, and strength throughout the training program without neglecting the martial arts training itself.

Why Do Fighters Move Up Weight Classes?

Fighters will often move up weight classes when they’ve outgrown their current weight class. By outgrown, I mean the amount of weight they have to cut for the current weight class just becomes too dangerous or the drastic weight cut impairs their performance.

There have been many cases in the UFC where athletes have stopped the drastic weight cut and fought at a higher weight class closer to their natural weight and start performing well.

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Fighters may also move up weight classes if the perceived competition is weaker. This would mean an easier road to the title.

Should You Move Up A Weight Class?

This is going to be up to you personally. Some fighters do well cutting large amounts of weight for their fights. Others have the energy sapped out of them. Adding some muscle mass to train slightly above the higher weight class will give you a far easier cut.

If you know it’s easier competition in the weight class above which may equal a faster title shot or professional contract, then that may also be a deciding factor.

How To Train To Move Up A Weight Class Without Losing Speed

How To Gain Weight Without Losing Speed

The biggest mistake you can make as a fighter when moving up a weight class is to run a bodybuilding training program.

This happens all too often not only with fighters, but with athletes from many other sports that require extra muscle mass such as rugby.

Athletes realize they need to be bigger to compete but take this wrong approach. We know bodybuilders specialize in growing muscle. So it would make sense to train like a bodybuilder. However, you are not a bodybuilder and the martial arts require sound technique, speed, power, strength, and a gas tank.

By running an exclusive hypertrophy program, you start to detrain qualities of speed, strength, and power. Guess what happens after your few months of gaining mass? You’re slow. You don’t have that “pop” anymore. Or worse. You get injured as you’re not adequately prepared for techniques thrown at 100%.

And then you end up telling yourself you’re not meant to be in that weight class and you stop lifting weights to get back down to your old weight class.

Jon Jones was a prime example of this even though his training was directed at powerlifting. Focusing all of your efforts on one physical quality just doesn’t cut it when it comes to mixed sports like martial arts.

So, how do you gain muscle mass as a fighter without losing speed? By taking a vertical integration approach. Meaning, keeping a thread of all the required physical qualities for martial arts within your training program but emphasizing the quality for your current goal.

In this instance, we will be keeping speed, power, and strength qualities within the training program while increasing the volume of hypertrophy work. So how does this look at a macro level?

Exercise CategorySet/RepLoad
A1) Speed/Velocity2-3 x 2-4Light
B1) Power2-3 x 1-3Moderate
C1) Strength1-2 x 2-5Heavy
D1) Hypertrophy3-5 x 8-12
E1) Hypertrophy3-5 x 8-12
F1) Hypertrophy3-5 x 8-12
G1) Hypertrophy Accessory3-5 x 15-20
H1) Hypertrophy Accessory3-5 x 15-20

As you can see, speed, power, and strength are performed at the beginning of the workout. These could be combinations of throws, jumps, plyometrics for speed and velocity exercises. Olympic lifts, kettlebell swings, and loaded squat jumps for power exercises. Squats, bench press, rows, pull-ups, etc for strength exercises.

What’s most important about this is example is the low volume of everything outside of hypertrophy. As hypertrophy is the emphasis, this means everything is trained in minimal volumes to maintain or slightly improve these qualities.

It also means that energy isn’t taken away from the training emphasis for the day. You could use this template for a training program for 3-4x a week in the gym if your goal is to move up a weight class.

As you gain muscle mass, it’s not just being big for the sake of being big. It’s taking the potential that extra muscle mass gives and transferring it into strength, power, and speed gains.

Can You Gain Weight While Training Martial Arts?

Yes! You definitely can gain weight while training your martial art. In fact, as a competitive fighter, you should never stop training your sport no matter what your goal unless you are taking a short break away from fighting to heal your body and give your mind a break.

Gains in muscle mass should be able to be directly transferred to your martial art. In order to do that, you must be training on the mats.

When Should You Start Gaining Weight As A Fighter?

When looking to move up a weight class, starting the process should be done well away from a fight or even fight camp. Ideally, you don’t have an upcoming fight or a fight that has been scheduled far, far away.

You want to take your time to add muscle mass and you also want time to train at your new bodyweight.

At your new bodyweight, many things will be and feel different. Your pacing strategy may change. Your ability to scramble may be reduced slightly so you may have a different strategy there.

Certain movements may feel different due to have different leverages as you’ve increase the mass on your limbs. You may even struggle to get certain techniques to work due to the increased mass.

This will take some time to get used to and is a feeling out process. Training for an extended period of time at your desired bodyweight is far too important to neglect as a fighter.

How To Eat To Move Up A Weight Class

How To Eat To Move Up A Weight Class

The nutrition aspect of moving up a weight class is a little outside of the scope of this website. I like to focus on the training side but I will provide some very general guidelines from my own experience and experience working with athletes that need to gain weight while maintaining or improving speed.

So let’s start with the big picture…

Calories

If you’re not currently tracking your food intake, you need to start. Without knowing how much you are eating, you can’t make accurate changes to your diet to gain weight effectively. You want to gain weight slow enough that you minimize fat gain.

Fat mass is extra bodyweight that WILL slow you down. Doing a “see food” diet and bulking like an old school bodybuilder will do you more harm than good.

The best way of calculating your caloric intake is to start weighing your food for a week. After you’ve tracked 7 days of eating, take the total calories for the week and divide them by 7. Now you’ll have a daily average calorie intake that maintains your body weight.

Now, this is assuming your weight is stable and you’re not actively trying to lose or gain weight.

If you don’t want to track everything for a week and want to get started right away, you can estimate your calories needed in order to gain weight. Simply multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 16-17.

Use that as a guide and monitor your weight each day. If it starts to increase, you’re good to go. If you don’t see any movement after a few days to a week, you can start to increase your calories by another 100-200.

Protein

Many athletes tend to either massively overeat protein or grossly under eat it. When gaining weight, you don’t actually need to eat as much protein as you think as the extra calories from carbohydrates will be protein sparing.

The best place to start is 0.8g/lb of bodyweight. Meaning, if you weigh 185 lbs, you will need to eat 148g of protein each day. One gram of protein equals 4 calories. 148g of protein then is

Hitting that right on the dot can be a little daunting. So it’s much easier to give yourself a range of ± 10g. So in this scenario, you’ll be aiming to eat between 138-158g of protein a day.

In terms of protein sources, there are plenty of good choices. Ideally, stick to lean cuts of meat as fatty cuts of meat will have you hit your fat target very quickly.

Here is a quick, but no way near exhaustive list of good protein sources:

  • Ground beef (90/10 and up)
  • Ground bison
  • Sirloin steak
  • Other lean beef cuts
  • Chicken breast
  • Chicken thighs
  • Pork loin
  • White fish and Salmon
  • Low-fat Greek Yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Protein Powder

Fats

Fats should be kept at the lower end in your diet. When you’re gaining weight, you can afford to increase the amount of fat in your diet as you are not having to reduce your calorie intake.

A good rule of thumb is to set aside 0.25 of your total calorie intake for fats. If you generally like to eat slightly higher fat, you can increase this but this is a good place to start if you are not sure.

So if your weight gaining calorie target is 3000 calories, then approximately 750 calories should come from fat. One gram of fat equals 9 calories so 750 calories equals 83g of fat.

Instead of aiming for exactly 83g of fat, you can have ± 5g so your range would be 78-88g.

Here are some good fat sources you can use during your weight gain:

  • Avocado
  • Olive oil
  • Nut butters
  • Eggs
  • Seeds
  • Fatty meat like Salmon

Carbohydrates

Don’t be fooled by what is thrown in your face by the media. Carbohydrates aren’t the devil and you should NEVER eliminate them as a fighter or athlete.

Carbohydrates are your main source of energy so removing them will cause your endurance and power endurance to drop dramatically.

After calculating the protein and fat requirements, the rest of your calorie intake will be made up of carbohydrates. At first glance, this will seem like a lot. And it likely is! The best thing about gaining on a high carb diet is you’ll have plenty of energy for your training, great recovery between trainings, and carbohydrates are dirt cheap.

Here is how you will figure out your carbohydrate intake based off of our 185 lb fighter who needs 3000 calories (approximately 185 x 16). Just like with protein, carbohydrates can have a range of ± 10g.

ProteinFatCarbohydrates
Grams14883415
Calories5927471661

This would come out to a diet that looks like this:

Protein: 138-158g

Carbohydrates: 405-425g

Fats: 78-88g

Here are some cheap and easy carbohydrate sources:

  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Bread
  • Oats
  • Pasta
  • Sports drinks
  • Cereal
  • Milk (good protein too)

Remember, your weight training is your stimulus for growth. If you eat enough calories to gain weight without weight training, then you’re not going to maximize muscle growth and therefore, will likely just gain fat mass.

About the author 

James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international level teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.


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