Add Some Weights to Your Mixed Martial Arts Training

The goal of the mixed martial artist must be to not only learn striking and grappling techniques but to also develop the stamina to sustain these activities for long periods of time. Stamina is the combination of strength and endurance. To attain stamina, the strength and conditioning of the mixed martial artist must be of a hybrid nature.


By Alex Miller

Masutatsu Oyama’s Expirament with Mixed Martial Arts and Weight Training

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Decades ago, the late Mas(utatsu) Oyama, founder of  Kyokushinkai Karate, and arguably the undocumented godfather of mixed martial arts, once conducted an informal test between two of his students to determine what kind of physical conditioning was best for hand to hand combat performance. The first student’s preparation for the competition consisted mostly of calisthenics as background conditioning. The second student trained with weights.  The exact exercises used were not documented exactly but it may be assumed that while the first student did bodyweight exercises such as pushups, pull ups, jumping, stretching and the like, the second student was newly introduced to barbell and dumbbell exercises (probably without a strength and conditioning coach around).  The first student’s body became supple and wiry.  The second student, whose exact conditioning may not have been recorded, gained muscular bulk.

After a few months, both fighters tangled on the mat.  The contest most probably allowed not only striking but also grappling.  According to the story, the karateka who trained with classic karate calisthenics “beat the muscle boy hands down.”  Does this prove that training only with calisthenics is the best conditioning method for Karate or Mixed Martial Arts?

What if the first student was just a better fighter?  Did they have the same nutritional plan?  Did they use supplements?  Did they understand the value of weight training recovery at that time?  This kind of test hardly proves anything given the fact that there were too many uncontrolled variables involved.  The concept of barbell exercises being an integral part of mixed martial arts equipment was new and under the authoritative auspices of Mas Oyama, it must have made sense that weight training slow

ed you down by making you what was known at the time as “muscle bound.”  Also, there was only one student of each conditioning discipline.  There should have been a larger sampling.

Mixed Martial Arts is an Anaerobic Activity

A 1998 study [1] observed that advanced practitioners of karate tend to be much stronger in the bench press and half squat than beginners.  This is probably due to a constant regimen of push-ups and jumping but could it also be the other way around? That is, if a martial artist was to begin a weight training regimen, including bench press and squats, would this help them better in their sport?  The same study analyzed that martial artists such as karatekas tested out more or less to be anaerobic (strength and power oriented) athletes.  This is interesting because although the same study did not consider them to be endurance (aerobic) athletes, their uptake of oxygen efficiency (VO2 max) was measured to be about 19% above non-athletic participants in the same tests.

The goal of the mixed martial artist must be to not only learn striking and grappling techniques but to also develop the stamina to sustain these activities for long periods of time.  Stamina is the combination of strength and endurance.  To attain stamina, the strength and conditioning of the mixed martial artist must be of a hybrid nature.  In yet another study [2] it “. . . is recommended that karate practitioners perform more specific weight training, plyometric exercises, and interval training to increase the ability to buffer acid muscle and blood concentrations and to build lean body mass, strength, and power to develop the specific motor skills required in sparring.”

Mixed Martial Arts Requires Training Specificity

MMA conditioning for a cage fight can be a grueling affair.  One should not waste time with exercises that are not specific to the sport.  It would be best to practice skills and conditioning at different times or preferably, on different days.  Practice skills on Monday and Wednesday and work on stamina Tuesday and Friday.  If you have a busy schedule, however, then you may be pressed to do everything on the same day. If this is the case, you should never tire yourself out first with stamina training.  This should be done last.  Skill Movements requiring critical accuracy, finesse and timing should be practiced first.  These would be pinpoint speed strikes, punches and kicks which are then followed by the practice of grappling movements requiring more brutal strength such as throws, take downs, reversals and such.  Stamina conditioning is done last.

If you practiced the more skilled and explosive movements first when you are fresh, you are telling your body through the language of muscle memory something like, “I want you to do it this way; sharp, accurate, crisp and powerful.”  If, however, you train finesse techniques when you are exhausted, your muscle memory will tend to return sloppy and tired movements in the future.

There may, however, be a sound argument in that you should exhaust yourself first and then practice a skill such as kicking.  “After all”, you say, “what if a bout lasts many rounds?  My body should have the muscle memory to know what is needed to fight well when exhausted, shouldn’t it?”  If this is your thinking then first practice skilled movements in your workout, then exhaust yourself and if you still have enough energy left, finish up with skilled movements.  This will develop concentration.

A Sample Weights Interval Workout to Develop Stamina

Here is a great workout for building stamina for mixed martial arts.  You should only do a workout of this type after you have been weight training for at least a few months and you are in reasonably good shape.

1)Cardio: Jump rope for one minute.

2)Strength: Do six to eight repetitions of power cleans.  Use a light weight.

3)Cardio: Do step ups for one minute.  You can use an ordinary chair for this.  First thirty seconds step
up onto the chair with your right foot and thrust yourself up bringing your left foot up beside your right foot.
Then step down onto the floor first with your right foot bringing your left foot down beside the right.  Your
right leg provides the concentric movement up.  Your left leg provide the eccentric motion down.  On the
second thirty seconds you reverse feet.  Your left leg will push you up and your right leg will let you down.

4)Strength:  Incline (or regular) bench press. Use a weight you can perform 6 to 8 repetitions without straining.  Bar dips are acceptable as a substitute.

5)Cardio: Jump rope for one minute.

6)Strength:  Back squats.  Use a weight you can perform 6 to 8 reps with without straining.

7)Cardio:  Step-ups for one minute.

8)Strength:  Chin ups.  You should be able to do about 6 to ten reps without straining. Bent rows are acceptable as a substitute.

9)Cardio:  Jump rope for one minute

10)Strength:  Power cleans .

11)Repeat three or four rounds.  No rest.

This stamina developing workout will definitely get the job done.  Again, you should not attempt this workout unless you are in reasonably good shape.  Consult a doctor first before you do it. Don’t do it more than two or three times a week.  One very important note:  Don’t think you can turn this workout into a high intensity training workout by doing the strength exercises to failure.  You will definitely over-train.

After you achieve better conditioning with the above workout try variations by super-setting the strength intervals to be:

1)Jump rope.

2)Cleans and presses or sandbag lifting.

3)Step ups.

4)Bench press and bent rows.

5)Jump rope

6)Back squats and partial good mornings or deadlifts.

7)Step ups.

8)Dips and chin ups

Repeat 2 more times-quickly moving between exercises with no rest for a total of 3 rounds.  If the weights are too light, it’s okay to go heavier with lower reps.

The Take Away Conclusion

The stamina workouts such as those above should not be done more than twice a week—three times at the most.  If you’re looking for a interval type of circuit workout that develops your both your strength and VO2 max then try this for 6 to 8 weeks.  If you’re exploring options, this is one of the best stamina routines out there.  So consider weights to be part of your mixed martial arts training gear.


[1] Maximal Oxygen Uptake, Body Composition and Strength of Highly Competitive and Novice Karate Practitioners http://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/ahs/17/5/17_215/_article/-char/en

[2] Physiological responses of simulated karate sparring matches in young men and boys http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18438232

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