MMA strength training

The importance of MMA strength training for MMA athletes is pretty well documented, and most fighters understand and implement strength programmes within their overall MMA programme and see great results. However I still feel that there is an under appreciation of just how important it is to your overall performance…

MMA strength training

If you think of the energy required to perform a double leg takedown in sparring or competition. Let’s say for example that to perform it requires 15% of your maximum effort. If you can then increase your maximum effort (or maximal strength) from 100% to say 120%, that 15% required is then actually reduced to around 10%, meaning that you can then perform the movement whilst using far less energy and you’ve not even considered conditioning!

This makes you a more explosive and more efficient athlete….it’s a no-brainer!!

The same applies to all movements in the sport, clinching, kicking, and general movement around the cage. So giving yourself a solid base of strength will add to your game in many ways.

Different types of strength that need to be factored in

There are many different types of strength utilised within MMA. All of which can be developed and should be emphasised according to your individual needs and existing strength profile. Here are some of the different types of strength that need to be factored in:

  • general strength
  • maximal strength
  • eccentric strength
  • starting strength
  • reactive strength
  • ballistic or explosive strength
  • specific strength and
  • strength endurance

Yes, there is more to it than just being able to move a heavyweight off your chest.

When preparing for a fight, strength and conditioning coaches should be able to monitor and track the fighter’s progress so that the focus on the specific strength quality being chosen will change over the course of a training camp.  That being said most programs will start with an initial focus on general and maximal strength through to a focus on strength and power endurance as well as specific strength.

When the athlete comes back after competing, the focus should be on building general strength and preparation levels for a period of around 2-4 weeks, then quickly switching to maximal strength with the goal of building up to the strength levels shown below. The targets for strength are all based on your 1 repetition max (1RM) in relation to your body weight, which results in your relative strength, which for a weight-controlled sport like MMA, is by far the most important quality!

How strong is strong?

You need to be realistic in your goals but still look to set the bar high.  Of course you need to consider what your starting point is. If you have not done much MMA strength training or working with weights the progress that you make in the first few weeks will probably surprise you. This is due more to a ‘neural’ learning process. i.e. your body is learning how to move the weights after the initial increase progress becomes more gradual.  There is no reason why you cannot continue to increase your strength as you age. You can continue to get stronger well into your 50’s.

Best exercises for MMA fighters

So with that being said here are the strength standards in 4 fundamental exercises that I work towards with my athletes: If you get used to weighing yourself in Kg it will be easier when it comes to loading up the bar to assess what you are lifting. There’s also a quick tutorial showing HOW you do the movements properly.

For most of the exercises I have indicated a range e.g. for deadlift it is 2-2.5 your body weight in KG. The lighter you are the higher you should set your target e.g. a 50Kg fighter would be looking towards the higher end 2.5x BW which would be a deadlift of 125Kg whereas a heavy 120Kg fighter would be looking more at a target of around 2 x BW or 240 Kg.

It’s more achievable for a lightweight to deadlift 2.5x bodyweight than it is for a heavyweight. All the other weight categories fit in between this range so it is fairly straightforward to interpret where you need to be according to your weight class. This applies to all the ranges for all the exercises.

Deadlift 2-2.5 x BW (Bodyweight):

The deadlift is one of the best full body movements around and features in pretty much all of the programmes I produce for my athletes. It’s important for it to be technically proficient, (e.g. using your hips and legs as well as your back) lift with a straight bar from the floor. You’ll notice that there is a range of strength that is acceptable for me.

Back Squat 1.8-2.5 x BW:

Depending on body shape the squat or the deadlift will be the lift I look to develop maximal strength. Taller leaner individuals sometimes struggle to get into the deep squat position. This doesn’t mean that we don’t squat, on the contrary, it is an important lift for all athletes in some way, however, the deadlift may be a better choice for those who have limited mobility as the knee and hip flexion required is less than the deadlift. The squat is excellent for developing total-body strength with a greater focus on quad and hip strength versus the deadlift which focuses more on hip and lower back. When I talk about squatting I mean getting your hips down to at least in line with your knees, and nothing in between!

Chin BW + 50-75%:

Yes that’s right, 50-70% again in bodyweight for 1 rep. So if you weigh 100Kg I am looking for an extra 50Kg as a minimum.  The chin-up is in my opinion the best exercise for upper body strength. It’s very important that you can chin significantly more than your own bodyweight. When you are clinching and grappling you need to move yourself and that other lump opposite you around the cage therefore you need some serious pulling strength to do this repeatedly. When you are training chins make sure you fully lock your arms out and pull until your shoulders touch the bar.

Press- Dumbbell Press / Bench Press 1.5-1.8 x BW:

Upper body pushing strength is very important for the same reasons as pulling strength and it’s also important to be balanced in terms of pushing and pulling. If you put the time into developing maximal pulling and pushing strength to these levels, I can assure you that the number of bodyweight chin-ups and push-ups you can perform will be pretty high too, so don’t worry about your strength endurance on this one. Most people will be better at pushing and than pulling initially because everyone trains the bench press! If this is the case for you, put more time into pulling movements to get your strength up.

Are all of my athletes this strong?

Absolutely not, it’s a target that we are working towards which may take some time to achieve. Is it realistic to be this strong all of the time? If your working on anaerobic endurance it will be very tough perform a double bodyweight lift in this phase of training.

That being said, Danny Mitchell achieved his 2x bodyweight deadlift in the penultimate week of his last camp, so you can constantly makes gains in strength even though the focus is on conditioning with certain athletes. Will this happen with every camp? Possibly not but it is possible in some athletes.

Don’t forget that the BW goals reflect your weight that you will be fighting at in the cage not your weight at the weigh in, so make sure you allow for this in your MMA strength training goals.

A note on MMA strength training technique!

Don’t sacrifice your technique for extra load on the bar. It is key that you train yourself to produce force in the correct movement patterns, and train safely. This is going to benefit your performance on the mat or in the cage.

And don’t forget, you don’t get better when you’re injured do you!

If you enjoyed this article leave me a comment, and if you want to further your knowledge on strength training for MMA fighters

If you’re looking to learn more about MMA strength training or looking to become a S&C coach you should check out our SCE Level 4 S&C courses

To your success,


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