In my opinion, the fairly abbreviated routines that even well educated, drug free strength trainees follow are excellent, but only if you are that – a strength trainee. This approach to training is not necessarily appropriate for MMA practitioners who have very different training requirements. It must be remembered that most of the strength trainees who write even the best books and articles relating to the subject are writing them for an audience who’s number one priority is lifting i.e. they are lifting weights for the sake of lifting more weight and gaining muscle. For MMAers the strength gains from lifting weights are sought after to aid their performance in a separate sport. We cannot lift with the same frequency and intensity as if we were full time strength trainees who do two or three weights routines a week and are able to rest for the remainder of their time. We still have to hit the mats several times a week in addition to our weight training, not to mention cardio sessions too. A lot of people overlook this fact and fail to adapt their weight training to suit the intensity of their activity for the rest of the week, so easily become over-trained.
Like many people I started off doing the traditional bodybuilding type exercises with moderate success. Over time I reduced the amount of exercises I was doing each session and devised split routines to hit different muscle groups on different days. I became more power-lifting orientated in my exercise selection too. This approach had some success, but again the sticking point where gains would dry up came all too soon. It was only recently when I started training at a gym used by many full time athletes that I realised I was going about weight training the wrong way. Like MMAers these athletes lifted weights to aid their performance in their sport. As a result they only perform exercises that are of benefit for that purpose and only lift twice a week because they have other training to fit in. Very sensible I thought.
With this new incite in mind I took some fairly radical steps. I decided to drop all accessory exercises and concentrate on power-cleans, deadlift, squat, pull-up and bench press and cut my training to two days a week. At the same time I was lucky enough to obtain a program from an athletics coach that used a mini-cycle where you go from higher to low reps every four weeks, adding whatever weight you can achieve over the period and the following months. The exercises work the whole body and the rep variations from week to week worked better than I ever hoped. The approach helps eliminate the problem so many people have of getting stuck trying to add 2.5kg onto say their 6 rep bench press every week or two for example – I always found those types of jump in weight very hard. Instead the muscles are given variety as the reps and weight changes each week. I really believe this helps stimulate growth much more than slogging away with fixed reps. With the program I use you work down to low reps every 4 weeks. This seems to work well as you build some endurance in with the multiple cleans and 10 rep squats some of the time and can have fun with some singles at the end of the cycle.
Weight 87-90kg (drops if I don’t train)
I’ve been lifting weights on and off for around 3 and a half years now. I have been regularly including squats and deadlifts in my routine for just over a year and performing the Olympic style lifts for around 6 months. In this time I have trained MA, moving progressively more towards MMA, 2-3 times a week. I do cardio training a couple of times on top of that.
I’ve always had high metabolism and naturally good cardio, but found it difficult to make strength and weight gains despite my massive appetite and hard work in the gym. This program worked better than I could have hoped. I started using it after a three month lay-off following a shoulder injury I picked up doing judo. For 12 weeks solid I made every lift as planned and increased my lifts in the squat, power-clean and deadlift by 15kg over all the rep ranges in the program and 7.5kg in both bench press variations. Single rep performance went up even more. I also gained up to 5kg in bodyweight, which was nearly all muscle. At some points making the lifts seemed almost too easy, but I resisted the urge to add more weight than planned in order not to max out too soon. After 12 weeks had passed I faced a 5-6 week period of many coursework deadlines followed by my uni finals, so had to cut out the MMA training due to time constraints among other reasons. I continued to gain, but the gym sessions were very tough and my form was beginning to suffer because I was not resting and eating properly. I decided to switch to doing maintenance weights to keep me ticking over for a few weeks when I would again be able to pay more attention to training. Now I’m back training properly again I just cut back a couple of weeks from where I left off and the strength levels are building back up easily.
For someone who is tall and lean, like myself, I feel the exercises I have picked are the most appropriate. Using free weights doesn’t restrict you to the fixed range of movement of machine weights and works far more musculature, which is very useful for the irregular lifting movements involved in MMA. With simply an Olympic barbell, some plates, a bench and a power rack you can perform all the lifts you will ever need to, and in safety. Using abbreviated training means the risk of overtraining is greatly reduced and gains easier to achieve. I eat a pretty healthy diet and lots of it.
Carryover strength benefits for MMA
It is difficult to measure how gym strength carries over into MMA, but I feel the type of strength one can gain through the exercises in this program does cross over well. I lift explosively, trying to power the weight through the upward phase of the lift with my whole body and lower slowly under control. This develops explosive power that you need for shoots and many other aspects of MMA. Power cleans are particular beneficial as they require especially explosive movement and include the whole body. All the exercises develop core stability strength, so crossover to dealing with unbalanced objects, i.e. training partners/opponents in MMA, is less of a problem than if you only lift machine weights or use a smith machine extensively. One final area that benefits is grip strength, as long as you don’t use support gear. My ability to clamp onto an opponents wrist has definitely improved from the lifting.
The program – very simple and only two short sessions a week. Add some pull ups and ab work too if you like. It has worked well for me so far so hope it benefits anyone who tries it.
I consider the first 3 sets as a warm-up that gets progressively harder as you approach the final work set. You don’t need to do any other warm-up sets other than with just the empty bar prior to performing the first set. You may be tempted to just pick the weight you estimate to be right for your warm-up sets and only record your work sets, but I would advise you to follow the program you work out for yourself exactly rather than leaving anything to chance. If you don’t you may tire yourself out more one week than the next and not be able to make the lifts in the work set due to this.
I like to break up my 4 sets of squats with 3 sets of pull-ups as noted in the table below. The simple reason I do this is because there is a pull-up bar built into the power rack I use to squat in. Also combining the exercises together means the workout’s over quicker so this saves time and means I can get home and eat sooner. I just do regular bodyweight pull-ups to near failure, but if you are particularly good at pull-ups you could always add weight.
During the rest of each week during the 12 weeks I was making good gains I was training a couple of sessions of MMA and one of judo. I played football a couple of times a week so didn’t really bother doing any extra cardio. The MMA and judo sessions all involved quite intensive wrestling/randori and plenty of bodyweight exercises, which didn’t cause a problem in relation to the weight training. The additional training I do throughout the week seems to actually aid recovery in comparison to doing nothing at all. This is one of the reasons why I found it difficult to keep gains coming when I cut out my MMA training due to time demands. I also make sure I stretch out well after lifting so I don’t ache too much the next day.
Personally I prefer not to weight train on the same day as I do MMA training as I prefer to be fresh for both activities. The weights program is quite intense, but I’m sure many people could cope with other training before or afterwards if they make sure they fuel up with a good meal or shake between sessions.
Tips for success
Start on low weights so you can build up slowly and let your body adapt, rather than struggling to make the lifts from week to week. If you start off with weights you can hardly lift with good form you’ll have serious problems progressing. There’s no need to train to failure either because if you continue doing this week after week it won’t be soon before you’re failing to make the lifts at all. You can still train very hard without training to failure. If you have difficulty identifying the correct intensity to train at pick a weight where you can make the reps, but would still be able to squeeze 1 or 2 more reps out if forced. Another tip is to watch your form and make sure it is perfect at all times. I think 2-3 minutes between sets is best — not too short so you can’t recover, but not too long that you cool down or have a queue building up in a busy gym. The exception to this is my session of light cleans where I like to take less rest in between to build up my muscular endurance and get me well warmed up for the squats that follow.
Don’t add too much weight
Think about the long term. Sure, you might be able to make good gains with big increases in weight for a few weeks, but you’ll hit sticking point sooner rather than later and be forced to go back weeks in order to build up again. Add a small amount of weight, but aim to train consistently throughout the year. Say the weight you add on your deadlift is 1kg a week for 40 weeks of the year, that’s 40kg extra you can lift in that time. I think most people would be happy with been able to make that much progress in a year.
I like to produce a spreadsheet with my anticipated gains over the next few months. This gives you an idea of what you can achieve over the period. It is vital to print/write out to take to the gym rather than having to work everything out or guess the weight each time and risk making mistakes.
Keep a record
Keep a record of when you go to the gym and what lifts you are making. Make an entry in your records every week even if you don’t train. If this is the case state the reason you didn’t train. Compare your record to the gains you anticipated. If your performance falls short keeping a record can help you identify problems and make changes accordingly. The sense of achievement you get from ticking off each lift as the weeks pass and knowing you are making gains makes keeping a record well worth the effort.
Don’t be tempted to add exercises & sets
There’s no need. Remember what I said about the athletes only performing exercises that benefit their sport. If you’re training MMA throughout the week as well as lifting you’re probably performing enough accessory type exercises doing that anyway.
Don’t chop & change routines too often
Pick a routine, plan out your anticipated progress and stick to it for 3 months. You really aren’t going to know if it is working if you only give it a go for a few weeks before changing to something else. If after 3 months has passed you are still progressing well then keep going with the same program — why change? If your progression is slowing down consider reducing the rate at which you increase the weights, for example 2.5kg every 4 weeks rather than 5kg.
You are sure to have people telling you that you are going about your training the wrong way and trying to get you to follow new advice from week to week. It’s great if you look at the advice out there and develop a thirst for knowledge. However, an even more important skill, in my opinion, is to look at everything with a critical eye and be able to politely ignore most of the advice that you’re bound to be bombarded with and just get on with your own training — consistency rules.