I’m a huge mixed martial arts fan and have been since I watched the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship. (Coincidentally, current MMA fighters Matt and Nick Serra were at my apartment watching it as well. At the time, none of us had any idea how big the sport would become or how fast it would grow.)
Over the years, I have trained extensively in boxing and Muay Thai. I’ve also studied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, under Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro. I don’t claim to be a fighting wizard, but as an athlete and strength coach, I have a solid understanding of striking and ground fighting. In addition to my own experience, I’m currently training several successful MMA fighters, so I have the benefit of direct feedback on aspects of their training that work when competing at the highest level.
The increased popularity of MMA has sparked a trend for other pro athletes, especially football players, to use MMA training to get in shape for their sport. But before we go any further, let me state what I do not consider MMA training. Strongman work—such as odd object lifting, sled pushing/pulling and metabolic resistance circuits—is not MMA training (although I do use it in training my fighters). Similarly, striking and working with focus mitts for extra conditioning (to supplement normal off-season strength work) are not MMA training. I define MMA training as actual sparring while employing methods such as submission grappling, punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing.
Now that we know what it is and is not, here are three reasons why I’m not in favor of pro athletes using MMA training as an off-season training tool.
On the surface, MMA training seems like an interesting idea, especially for athletes who participate in contact sports like football or hockey. MMA guys are tough as nails. They are also among the best-conditioned athletes on the planet. That said, we need to explore the issue of risk vs. reward.
For an elite MMA fighter, over the course of his career—even knowing when to tap out if caught in an armbar, a kneebar or a neck crank—the chances of sustaining a significant injury during training are high. For a beginner, who doesn’t know when he’s in serious trouble, or whose ego won’t let him submit to a smaller opponent, it’s a recipe for disaster—especially if he’s a multi-million dollar athlete. When you consider that a pro athlete’s job is to be ready to compete when the season starts, it’s not a smart idea to train with such a high-risk method.
Second, consider the energy system demands on an MMA fighter. A typical MMA fight consists of three five-minute rounds with a one-minute rest between rounds. Championship bouts go for five five-minute rounds. It’s clear that energy system demands for MMA fighting are significantly higher than most team sports. Basically, an MMA fighter competes at a 5:1 work-to-recovery ratio. To fulfill this demand, he needs not only relative strength and power but also large aerobic capacity. In football, the average play lasts between five and 10 seconds, with a 40-second recovery—for a work-to-recovery ratio of between 1:4 and 1:8. For hockey, the average shift is somewhere between 45 and 50 seconds, with most teams rolling three to four lines, which works out to a 1:2 or 1:3 work-to-recovery ratio. Obviously, the energy demands between an MMA fighter and a football or hockey player are radically different.
Finally, all athletes need to understand and use the concept of specificity in training—i.e., training methods that directly transfer to the demands of the sport. Most strength coaches would agree that an off-season strength and conditioning program should progress an athlete from general physical preparation, through specific physical preparation, to sport-specific training. In general, during the early off-season, most athletes would benefit by focusing on correcting muscular imbalances that may have developed during the season. Therefore, mobility work and prehab exercises should take priority.
Certainly off-season training programs should take into account the demands of an athlete’s position; but in general, the emphasis should shift to improving maximum strength, functional hypertrophy and power development. After the first few weeks, basic movement drills aimed at improving linear and multi-directional capabilities should be added.
During the latter stages of the off-season, the focus of strength training should be on explosive strength, speed and endurance—depending on the requirements of the athlete’s sport or position. Energy system training should also relate to the metabolic demands of the sport. For example, late stage sport-specific training for a football player should include sprinting, cutting, shuffling, backpedaling and jumping.
MMA training develops none of these skills. Why use a training program if it doesn’t help you in your sport?
The reasons I’ve laid out—risk vs. reward, different energy system demands and the importance of specificity in training—are all strong arguments against using MMA training for other sports. Each sport has its own demands and its own training requirements. For success in your sport, follow its specific training program.