Mixed martial arts — MMA — isn’t an easy sport. It requires technique, dedication, and an incredible level of physical and mental conditioning. Most MMA fighters don’t only train inside the ring; instead, they diversify their workouts.
MMA is a whole body workout combining cardiovascular, speed, flexibility, and physical and mental strength abilities. During a fight, lacking one aspect can become a significant disadvantage, leading to losing a bout. For this reason, it’s critical to include various drills in your weekly routine.
The following tips will help you bring your conditioning to the next level. We’ll explain why they’re necessary during a fight, and give concrete exercises for you to practice.
#1. Cardiovascular Exercises
Why is Cardio Needed?
Although you’re not running a marathon inside the ring, endurance is required to give you more energy during a fight. If you’ve watched MMA fights, you’ve likely noticed that fighters don’t stay in one spot. They’re constantly moving and bouncing around the octagon in all directions to prevent the opponent from knowing their next move.
Cardiovascular exercises are activities that increase your heart rate. Not only that, but stamina and energy levels too. Overall, your heart will be stronger when faced with intense activities such as boxing.
Besides, throwing powerful punches also requires a great amount of oxygen to feed the muscles. The good news is that cardio also increases lung capacity.
By pumping faster, your heart is able to send more blood — and therefore, oxygen — to the muscles. By improving pulmonary power, your muscles also use this oxygen more efficiently. Aerobic exercise helps you keep your breathing under control. You won’t feel out of breath and will be able to recover faster between rounds.
Endurance doesn’t come overnight, though. You’ll need to include cardio routines regularly as part of your ongoing training.
Although any exercise that increases your heart rate also improves endurance, here are the most popular tips to increasing MMA conditioning.
This type of cardio training is extremely popular as it requires only one and very inexpensive equipment: a jumping rope. Wherever you are, it’s easy to bring one along. This exercise should save you some training time as it makes you work on several aspects at once.
Typically, a jumping rope is used to warm up before hitting the heavy bag. You’ll improve your endurance, but also leg coordination, rhythm and foot dexterity. Start by making regular slow jumps, then add speed when you feel comfortable.
Once you’re ready to take it to the next step, include more complicated variations. Try to jump with high knees, side to side, cross legs, turns or twists, and double-unders. There are no set rules, switch up the combinations as you see fit, the key is to keep going.
Here are some variations you might want to try:
Routine: 15 minutes per day before the heavy bag training.
Going on a run is a great way to increase your aerobic capacity. Many fighters run for 4 to 5 miles daily. Because MMA fights happen in several rounds, interval running is ideal for imitating the endurance needed for this.
Amateur fighters typically need to withstand 2-minute bouts, corresponding to a 0.4-mile for interval training. When competing as a professional, however, the 3-minute bout now corresponds to 0.5-mile intervals. This means that every 0.4 or 0.5 miles, you’ll stop to rest before continuing running.
Routine: 5 times per week / 1 hour per day.
- Warm-up by jogging for 1 mile.
- Sprint for 0.4 miles, then recover for a minute.
- Repeat until you’ve completed 6 intervals.
- Slow run for 0.5 meters.
Swimming is a widespread workout among MMA athletes as it has a low impact on joints. It also spices up your cardio routine. Over time, swimming increases muscle mass, endurance and improves lung function and capacity.
During a week, fighters typically alternate swimming and other cardio exercises. When including other endurance workouts in your weekly training, swimming routines can be done twice a week.
Routine: Twice per week / 60 minutes per day.
Use your preferred strokes for the following swimming routine. Try to swim as fast as you can for the first 20 to 30 minutes, then continue at a slower speed for the remaining time.
- Sprint over 820 feet.
- Rest for 20 seconds.
- Sprint swim for another 1,640 feet.
- Take a rest for up to 60 seconds.
#2. Work on Your Speed
Benefits of Speed Training
In MMA, speed training typically uses a speed bag, which is a small bag shaped like a water drop. It’s attached to the ceiling or a wall mount and can tilt in a 360-degree angle. Because it’s light, it bounces at a fast speed, improving your hand-eye coordination.
These bags come in various sizes; the smaller they are, the faster they are. It generally looks easier than it is, and even a 1-minute routine isn’t that simple.
Although the punching range of motion is smaller than with regular strikes, the speed provides a great cardio workout and muscle endurance. On top of that, you’ll get to improve your boxing technique, accuracy and focus!
Don’t use regular boxing gloves; instead, only keep your hand wraps. Place both hands at eye level. If it’s your first time using a speed bag, keep your palms open, and as you gain experience, turn your palm into a fist and use the back of it to strike.
Speed Training Drills
- Start the routine by using the right hand only.
- When it becomes easy, and if you’ve started with your hands open, continue using the heel of the right fist.
- Then alternate hands: right-left-right-left.
- Include footwork and start to move around the bag while punching.
Training: Typically, boxers and fighters train on speed anywhere from twice to 5 times a week. Workouts generally last from 30 minutes to 1 hour, either at the beginning or end of a heavy bag workout.
To read about speed bag workouts, read our article here.
#3. Build Muscles
A Controversial Subject
The combination of both speed and strength training makes a powerful strike. Without strength, a fast punch won’t do much damage when landing on your opponent. On the other hand, without speed, a strong one will take too long to reach its intended destination.
Keep in mind that strength training for boxing differs from bodybuilding. You want to build muscle mass, without putting unnecessary weight on your arms, which could indeed lead to a slower punch.
When training with weights, a punch thrown with bare hands will eventually feel much easier and lighter. During grappling and on the ground, your strength will also play an important role in controlling your opponent and winning the bout.
We recommend stopping strength training at least a week before any competition. Before a fight, training should focus on technique and ring training, while only maintaining your strength. To avoid body and muscle imbalances, workout both your upper and lower body equally.
Strength Training Drills
The snatch is our favorite routine to increase your punching power. Start with light weights to first get the right form.
- Grab a dumbbell with your right hand.
- In an explosive movement, bring it straight above your head and shoulders.
- Repeat with your left arm.
- Don’t forget to keep your knees soft.
Routine: 2–3 times per week
For more strength training workouts for boxing, this article should help.
#4. Mental Conditioning
Mental strength can sometimes be underrated. Training your brain can be as important as exercising your body. Mental conditioning involves focus, discipline, concentration and willpower.
This is what a boxer’s mind sounds like:
Choose Your Coach Well
Although motivation and inner strength need to come from you, your coach will play a significant role. When your trainer is patting your back after every good strike, you probably won’t build the most determined mind.
Find a coach that makes you go beyond your limits and comfort zone — one who pushes you no matter what. Your coach should care little about your excuses or if you’re having a good or a bad day.
A good coach isn’t one you’re friends with or someone you like. It’s them who’ll make you get up after you got hit and fell for the tenth time.
Have you ever told yourself, “Take a deep breath” to calm down after being emotionally or physically injured? In MMA, breathing works in a similar way.
Inhale and exhale deeply to slow down and relax your body between attacks. It’ll feed your muscles with the needed oxygen and slow down your heartbeat. Slow breathing can also help you work through a sudden and unexpected hit you’ve taken.
During an offensive, however, speed up your breathing. This is critical if you don’t want to find yourself out of breath. When watching MMA fights, you’ll always see boxers emitting a “pshhh” sound as they hit their opponent.
Fast breathing improves both your mental force and physical conditioning by providing a constant source of oxygen during intense activity. It may feel odd at first, but it’ll soon become second nature as you punch:
- Inhale slowly through your nose before the strike.
- While throwing the punch, breathe out in a fast burst from your mouth.
- Repeat each time you’re striking.
#5. Automate Your Skills
When getting started, with so many techniques to remember, it can be overwhelming. Start by keeping a proper stance and hands up at all times.
You also have to maintain your defense at all times, while finding how and when to land a punch. On top of that, you also need to control your breathing during and between offensives.
How can the brain detect what to do first? How can you become the most efficient and win a fight? The answer is simple, yet not that easy: you need to focus on what’s important and let your reflexes do the rest.
Automating fundamental skills and tasks comes with time. Just as when a baby learns how to walk. They focus on putting one foot after the other. Once walking becomes an acquired behavior, a baby will start concentrating on more elaborate tasks, such as running or climbing stairs.
Slowly, basic boxing skills — such as breathing or maintaining a proper stance — will become second nature. You’ll then be able to dedicate your energy to offensive strategies.
#6. Work on Your Balance
Losing balance might signal the end of your fight and a broken nose. Being stable allows for swifter responsiveness and faster footwork. You’ll feel more comfortable and confident escaping an attack.
Balance and positioning are the foundations of MMA – they affect everything from your punching power, speed, and defense techniques. Dedicate time into developing a strong fundamental in foot work at the beginning of each training session – whether it’s shadowboxing, heavy bag drills, sparring, or speed bag work.
Routine: 5 times per week / 10 minutes per day.
#7. Don’t Forget Flexibility
Most boxers are under the impression that they don’t need to be flexible for their fist to reach their opponent’s face. While they’re right, flexibility increases your range of motion and lowers the amount of energy required to complete a move.
For instance, let’s have a look at a kick. Take two fighters that can at the same height. The most flexible fighter will be able to land the kick with less energy and therefore kick faster.
The same concept goes for punches. Better flexibility in the back and shoulder areas will give you a broader range of motion, improving speed and strength.
MMA is a sport requiring multiple types of training. To increase a fighter’s conditioning, he or she needs to consider cardio, speed, strength, balance and flexibility. In addition to these fundamentals, mental conditioning is one of the most critical factors to work on.
With time, some of a fighter’s most fundamental skills will also become automatic. You’ll then be able to take your training to the next level and start focusing on more advanced skills.