As the sport of MMA evolves, fighters are becoming better and better athletes. In order to compete at the highest level, a well-developed strength training plan is needed. Neglecting strength training completely is likely to have you being left behind the pack.
Strength training for MMA should be performed twice per week as to not interfere with MMA training. The focus should be on developing both high-velocity and maximal strength in order to maximize performance when striking and grappling.
It’s also important to consider the common injuries that occur during an MMA fight and MMA training in order to mitigate the injury risk.
MMA Injury Profile
Two sets of data are in agreement with facial cuts, bruises, and altered mental states being the most common injuries during MMA fights [1,2].
Hand and wrist injuries were the next most common followed by knee injuries during MMA fights. Training tells a different story.
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Knee injuries were the most common in training followed by shoulder and hand and wrist injuries. All of these injuries occur mainly when striking.
Grappling has a very low injury rate in both training and competitive fights.
MMA Strength Profile
With the birth of the UFC Performance Institute, a greater breadth of research has been done in the sport of MMA.
This means we have access to athletic profiles of fully professional MMA fighters. My article “Strength Standards For MMA” breaks down the strength profiles of UFC fighters.
To sum the article up briefly, MMA fighters need a high level of reactive strength (reactive strength index >2.6), explosive or elastic strength (vertical jump >50 cm), and maximal strength (deadlift > 2.5x bodyweight).
Reactive strength players a large role in striking speed while elastic strength highly relates to powerful takedowns.
This kind of high-velocity strength training can potentially increase the number of Type IIX muscle fibers and improve the ability to produce force quickly.
Maximal strength positively influences all strength qualities. Not to mention maximal strength training can desensitize the inhibitory mechanism that decreases force output. Therefore, greater force can be produced.
Balancing these strength qualities in training is how you can optimize performance. Depending on your athletic profile, you may emphasize one over the other.
To dive deeper into MMA strength profiles, we can compare higher and lower performers.
If higher-level MMA fighters possess a physical attribute greater than lower-level fighters, it suggests that quality is important to MMA performance.
If there are no differences between levels, we can conclude that characteristic does not differentiate between high- and low-level MMA fighters. What counts as a high-level MMA fighter? In these studies, it was semi-professional fighters with a verifiable record on Sherdog with a >50% professional win record.
Lower-level fighters had win records <50% or were amateurs. When comparing strength and power, high-level MMA fighters displayed greater 1RM squat strength (1.84 ± 0.23 vs. 1.56 ± 0.24 kg/BM), but no differences were found for 1RM bench press .
This highlights the importance of lower body strength in MMA, which differs from BJJ, where upper body strength seems more important . The difference is likely due to pure grappling vs. mixing striking and grappling.
Higher-level MMA fighters also possessed greater peak force, velocity, and power during the squat jump with loads of 0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of body weight. This indicates MMA fighters must be able to express high forces and velocities over the entire force-velocity spectrum.
When breaking down the kinetics of the jump, higher-level MMA fighters produce greater concentric force, velocity, and power. Further, they display a greater modified reactive strength index due to less time in eccentric contraction .
Sounds like a lot of scientific jargon, I know! But essentially, they could produce greater strength, speed, and power in shorter time frames. High-level fighters, utilizing superior elastic qualities, didn't dip as low when jumping. This is vitally important in MMA as you have limited time to execute techniques before an opponent can react to defend or evade.
Legendary Russian sports scientist Yuri Verkhoshanksy has an excellent visual representation of this concept he calls the “working effect.” It’s a force-time graph representing impulse, which is the product of force and time.
I go into more detail in my “Physics of Fighting” article. But to keep this simple, Verkhoshanksy defines the working effect as “the amplitude of the impulses of force overcoming the external resistance force.”
This could be bodyweight, external opposition, or external implement. But what you need to know is this:
An increase in the working effect requires increasing maximal force output and/or increasing time (T1-T2 in the diagram above) of the force generated to overcome the external resistance (P).
However, increasing the time to produce force is not advantageous to the MMA fighter. Taking longer to punch, kick, or shoot makes it easier for your opponent to slip, block, or sprawl.
Therefore, MMA fighters must develop the ability to produce maximum force in shorter time frames, as demonstrated by the high-level MMA fighters in this study. There are many ways of doing this through various eccentric training modalities. Professor John Cronin covered them in our podcast episode below.
Further, the program examples at the end of this article will give you an idea of how this can be developed with simple training methods.
But should all MMA fighters train like this? Potentially not. It may be better for weaker fighters (defined as having squats <1.6 relative to bodyweight) to focus on heavy strength training before emphasizing power movements.
For a 70 kg fighter, that would mean squatting at least 112 kg. Once you’ve achieved a decent level of strength, continuing to develop maximal strength with lower volume and increasing the volume of various power exercises will help build qualities across the force-velocity spectrum.
Does MMA Training Build Muscle?
When you see big, jacked MMA fighters such as Yoel Romero, Paulo Costa, or even guys in the smaller weight classes like Henry Cejudo, you may come to the conclusion that MMA training helps to build muscle.
Sadly, this is not the case. The large amount of muscle mass seen on most fighters is from years of weight training and well-performed weight cuts before the fight.
MMA doesn’t provide adequate loading of the muscle through a full range of motion which is needed to maximize the hypertrophic response.
Instead, MMA mainly focuses on quick striking and isometric contractions when grappling. These are not enough to build muscle no matter the size of the opponent you’re training with.
Should MMA Fighters Lift Weights?
100% yes. There are no reasons why an MMA fighter shouldn’t lift weights. The old myths of lifting making you slow are gradually dying out of combat sports.
Strength training for MMA fighters has far too many benefits that cannot be ignored. From reducing the risk of injury, increasing the power of striking, and helping make you more dominant during grappling exchanges.
When MMA weight training is well designed, you will develop the ability to use it in the cage effectively against your opponents.
How Many Days A Week Should You Strength Train For MMA?
It doesn’t take much to get stronger. As long as you’re consistent you will make progress. Juggling strength training and MMA training can be more complex than other martial arts.
MMA training has to juggle multiple striking and grappling disciplines within a week’s training. By the time you’ve covered all of your skills, finding the space to fit extra strength work is tough.
Depending on your phase of training, strength training should be performed 1-3 times a week. Two times a week will be the sweet spot.
2 Day Strength Training Program For MMA
This strength training program is designed in two phases. Phase 1 is more of a general strength and power training program.
It has been developed to lead into the next phase which has more advanced exercise variations.
Phase 2 brings into the program the use of complexes. A complex is when you pair a strength movement where heavier loads are lifted, and therefore higher forces are produced, with a lighter loaded velocity exercise.
The most common example you may have seen before and performing squats then box jumps or bench press then clap push-ups.
The soviet researcher Dr. Verkhoshanksy explains it best in my opinion. He says to imagine what would happen if you lifted a half-full bottle of water when you thought it was full. There would be a mismatch between the force needed to pick the bottle up and the actual force required.
The idea is that the half-full bottle will move twice as fast as intended due to this mismatch. That is the theory behind performing a complex which you will find in Phase 2.
The scientific term is post activation potentiation or PAP for short.
Holistically, this MMA strength and conditioning program is a well-rounded program covering both high-velocity and maximal strength pretty evenly.
If you know you have a deficit in maximal strength or explosiveness, you may want to emphasize your weaker area which will likely carry over to all facets of your overall MMA strength and conditioning.
A1) Box Jump
2-4 x 3-5
B1) Med Ball Rotational Throw
2-4 x 2-5/side
B2) Band Pull Apart
2-4 x 15-20
C1) Squat Variation
2-4 x 3-6
D1) Bench Press
2-4 x 3-6
D2) Row Variation
2-4 x 5-8
E1) Swiss Ball Leg Curl
2-3 x 6-10
F1) Sandbag Bearhug Carry
2-3 x 20-40m
A1) Low Hurdle Hop
2-4 x 6-10
B1) Med Ball Scoop Toss
2-4 x 3-5
B2) Band Face Pull
2-4 x 15-20
2-4 x 2-5
D1) Push Press
2-4 x 2-5
2-4 x 5-10
E1) Lunge & Twist
2-3 x 5-10/leg
F1) Farmers Walk
2-3 x 20-40m
A1) Maximal ISO Trunk Rotation
3 x 6 sec/side
A2) Med Ball Rotation Throw
3 x 3-4/side
B1) Snatch Grip RDL
3 x 3-6
B2) Band Zercher Staggered Stance “Takedown”
3 x 3-5
C1) Bench Press
3 x 2-5
C2) Shock Med Ball Chest Throw
3 x 3-5
D1) Weighted Chin-Up
3 x 3-5
D2) Twisting Med Ball Slam
3 x 2-3/side
A1) Overcoming Split Squat ISO Pins
3 x 6 sec/side
B1) Landmine Jerk
3 x 2-3/side
B2) Med Ball Plyo Step Punch Throw
3 x 2-3/side
C1) Partial Split Squat Pins
3 x 3-5/side
C2) Continuous Hurdle Hop
3 x 6-10
D1) Chest Supported ISO Plate “Bend”
3 x 6 sec
D2) Pendlay Row
3 x 4-6
E1) Landmine Rotation
3 x 5/side
E2) Grip Variation
3 Day MMA Weight Training Program
I would highly advise not to perform three days of MMA weight training. Strength training for fighters is to supplement technical MMA training. Meaning spending too much time in the gym can take away from your MMA sessions whether that is time or energy.
If you are in a training block far away from competition or you are trying to move up a weight class, then a third day in the gym may be warranted. This day however should be single joint isolation exercise emphasis as it is easy to recover from and designed to help build extra muscle.
While this wouldn't be considered specific MMA strength training, it allows you to get extra weight training volume without taking energy away from MMA workouts. Here is an example of how this extra day could look.
A1) Rear Delt Fly
4 x 15-20
A2) Hanging Leg Raise
4 x 10-15
B1) Cable Face Pull
3 x 15-20
B2) Back Extension
3 x 15-20
C1) Decline Push-Up
3 x 10-15
C2) DB Hammer Curl
3 x 8-12
D1) Lying Triceps Extension
3 x 4-6
E1) Seated Incline DB Curl
3 x 10
Dominate The Cage With Unrivaled Strength & Power
A strength training program specifically designed for MMA athletes to develop knockout power and manhandle opponents in the cage.
1. McClain, R., Wassermen, J., Mayfield, C., Berry, A. C., Grenier, G., & Suminski, R. R. (2014). Injury profile of mixed martial arts competitors. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 24(6), 497-501.
2. UFCPI “Cross Sectional Performance Analysis And Projection Of The UFC Athlete.
3. James, L. P., Beckman, E. M., Kelly, V. G., & Haff, G. G. (2017). The neuromuscular qualities of higher-and lower-level mixed-martial-arts competitors. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 12(5), 612-620.
4. Marinho, B. F., Andreato, L. V., Follmer, B., & Franchini, E. (2016). Comparison of body composition and physical fitness in elite and non-elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes. Science & Sports, 31(3), 129-134.
5. James, L. P., Connick, M., Haff, G. G., Kelly, V. G., & Beckman, E. M. (2020). The countermovement jump mechanics of mixed martial arts competitors. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 34(4), 982-987.