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Conditioning for MMA and Combative Sports – How to Not Gas Out!

by Matt Jordan on May 20, 2012 3 comments

I am a big fan of combative sports, and I have always taken a special interest in training fighters.

Recently, I was asked some specific questions on how I train one of my athletes.  I think they were hoping to hear about some flashy out-of-this-world exercise or a unique training device that had never been seen in the fitness world.

Unfortunately I have nothing to share in this department because generally speaking I stick to the basics.  I am a firm believer in trying to affect the physiology of the athlete, and I do not attempt to mimic what I see happening in the sport.

I let the sport take care of the specificity and I try to improve the physiology whether that be maximal strength, maximal muscular power, elastic (reactive) strength, structural tolerance and motor ability, the power of the anaerobic glycolytic system, maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 Max), or the maximal power of the aerobic system.

– If an athlete needs maximal strength development we squat heavy weights for less than 5 reps

– If an athlete needs maximal muscular power we lift moderately heavy weights very explosively

– If an athlete needs elastic strength we bound and jump

– If an athlete needs structural tolerance we link with a good therapist and focus on mobilizing areas of restriction and activating sluggish muscle groups

– If an athlete needs to develop the anaerobic glycolytic system (20-90s) we do high intensity intervals

But what if an athlete needs to develop the power of the aerobic system? Then what?

Well the personal trainer in your local gym is going to tell you that if you blast off a high intensity circuit focused on full body strength exercises you will develop your “cardio”.

If you read an issue of the most popular fitness magazine they will tell you to NOT do long aerobic capacity training because it will decrease your muscle mass and increase muscle catabolism. (By the way, this is a total fallacy – I can promise you this. I have tons of athletes who do lots and lots of aerobic training combined with the right type of strength training and put on lots of muscle).

If they saw the world of human performance through my eyes they would start by asking “how do I best affect an athlete’s physiology?”.

If they scoured the scientific literature and interviewed the world’s best coaches the answer to this question would be: “Focus on the basics and focus on training strategies that work – don’t worry about bells and whistles like breathing through a straw or buying a $10,000 tent – focus on basic training methods that are hard, effective, and proven in sports that demand this form of energy production”.

As I mentioned above, I’m all about the basics.  My belief in the basics is rock solid but this weekend, after spending time with the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team,  the rock solid foundation just got reinforced.

My day on Friday started out with a skate ski in Mount Bachelor.  As I was stumbling around the 5 km loop I realized that the metrics a strength coach uses to judge his athletes is so myopic.  These skiers are in incredible shape and their sport demands muscular power, maximal strength, and extreme cardiovascular power and capacity.

They are phenomenal athletes who do more in a single training day than many of us will do in 10-days.  They have power.  They have strength. But most impressively they can absolutely haul ass anywhere for anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes.  It’s actually incredible.

At the start of this blog I mentioned that I was asked how I approached the training program design for a combative athlete.

If we take boxing, athletes fight 10-12 x 3 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.  An MMA fighter fights anywhere from 3×5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest up to 5×5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.

Let me tell you that the 1 minute rest is doing nothing for your physiological recovery.  If you are gassed after 5 minutes, I can promise you that at 6 minutes you will still be gassed – it’s merely enough time to get the blood wiped off your face and to have a sip of water.

If you are doing the math you are probably saying: “How can a combative athlete produce as much power as possible over 15 to 36 minutes so that the first round’s power output is the same as the 5th round?”

When I say power output I’m referring to the power of the aerobic energy system.  I’m not talking about maximal muscular power (e.g. a maximum power clean or vertical jump).

I’m also not talking about the anaerobic energy system because no matter how hard you train, this energy system is limited.  If you’re blood lactate goes above 10 mmol it doesn’t matter how fit you are you will fatigue.  The key is producing big power outputs but also being able to keep your blood lactate levels to a minimum.

When I approach this problem I look to sports where the cardiovascular demands are similar.  What parallels 15 to 36 minutes of continuous high intensity full body cardiovascular energy production?  I’m sure there are a few answers to this question but a standout in my mind is cross country skiing.

As luck should have it, I happened to run into one of the world’s top cross country ski coaches this weekend in Bend, Oregon.  His name is Tor Bjorn.  He’s coached Olympic Medalists in cross country skiing, and he has an impressive pedigree in high performance sport.

And there’s one more thing… he’s a huge MMA and combative sport fan.

After we finished our ski session I started picking his brain on how he improves an athlete’s power output for a 5 to 25 minute event.  The reason I asked him this question is that he is an expert in this department, and he had surprising insights into what he thought a fighter should do.

I just need to remind you that the Norwegians are powerhouses in the sport of cross country skiing, and the approach of top coaches like Tor Bjorn are all about affecting the athlete’s physiology.  Improving VO2 Max is critical, and interval sessions focused on the power of the aerobic system are the cornerstone of the training program.

Contrary to interval sessions that are typically seen in the fitness world, which are very very intense and involve substantial strength endurance, these sessions are carefully prescribed, and are carefully progressed within and between training sessions.

In fact, as I sat and watched Tor coach an interval session I suddenly realized how much detail was going into every aspect of the session.  I always thought I was particular and specific about how an athlete was to perform an interval session.  I am very strict on ensuring the intervals are done according to plan.  However, Tor took this to a completely different level.

This interval session had so many layers.  There was a psychological layer, a competition specific layer but at the heart of the session was the physiological layer.

According to Tor each properly performed interval session offers the potential of a modest 0.25 ml/kg/min improvement in VO2 Max. Using this scientific estimation it could be said that 12-15 interval sessions are required to result in a noticeable improvement in VO2 Max.  Done at a frequency of 2x/week, this means a training block has to last somewhere between 8-20 weeks.

As we discussed the training methods that are often shown in TV documentaries he quietly scoffed at what he has seen.  He has heard the claims about altitude training, high intensity intervals and all sorts of other methods, and what he observes are athletes who still gas out too quickly.

Why does this happen? Well in Tor Bjorn’s world, the athletes lack one critical ingredient: power in the aerobic energy system.

His formula for training an MMA fighter would be quite simple:

1. Improve efficiency and technical ability.  This means it doesn’t cost you a ridiculous amount of energy to do your sport – so, plan specific sessions that really tax your ability to be efficient.

2. Improve maximal muscular power and maximal muscular strength. By improving these qualities you give yourself another gear, and this in and of itself improves efficiency.  It’s obvious as well that most combative athletes would benefit greatly from being strong and powerful.

3. Improve VO2 Max.

Improving VO2 Max is a key in his mind to making sure you have the gas tank to last 15-25 minutes.  Without a huge VO2 Max you are starting a fight 20 meters behind your competition, assuming your competition has trained properly.

As our day wrapped up in Bend, Oregon I felt as though my approach to sticking to the basics had been validated.

However, the key message is that the basics need to be done properly.  You can’t get the program 80% or even 95% right.  It has to be done 100% correctly each time for the benefits to be gained.  Skipping out will result in sub par results.

As far as I see it, the basics rule the training world…. you just need to make sure the basics are done perfectly.

Matt JordanConditioning for MMA and Combative Sports – How to Not Gas Out!

3 comments

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  • Dan Zucconi - May 24, 2012

    Hey Matt…any chance of giving some more insight and details into how Tor Bjorn planned his interval sessions?

    jordanstrength - June 2, 2012

    The interval sessions are done consistently throughout the Acquisition (Accumulation) and Specialization Phases with blocks of higher concentrations (Principle of Concentrated Loading). The duration of the interval is around 2-4 minutes (maximal aerobic power) and done in a progressive manner with the last interval being the most difficult. Three to five repeats are performed with a 1:1 work to rest ratio. The key is making sure that the intervals are properly progressed within the sessions.

  • greg - July 30, 2012

    Good advice Jordan. I’ll be incorporating that into my personal training as well as my athletes training. Liking the Olympics? You would think it was just an American competition with the amount of fact time that their athletes get. I guess when you pay a billion dollars for the rights thats just the way it is. How bout those Chinese? 17 medals so far. I wonder if half there coaches even know what aerobic power is….

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