How Do MMA Fighters Train? (Answered by an MMA Coach & Fighter)
You’ll find a ton of junk online if you google “How do MMA fighters train?” The reason for this is partly because most MMA websites just outsource their articles to writers who aren’t really experts or aren’t really passionate about what they’re talking about. Also, while the question is simple, the answer is very complex. […]

You’ll find a ton of junk online if you google “How do MMA fighters train?

The reason for this is partly because most MMA websites just outsource their articles to writers who aren’t really experts or aren’t really passionate about what they’re talking about.

Also, while the question is simple, the answer is very complex. And, most MMA writers, who are paid by the article, won’t go into the whole discussion.

You won’t get that with our online magazine, MMA for the Working Man.

For example, on other websites that answer this question you’ll find Buzzfeed-like, cookie cutter articles full of low-quality crap. You’ll get a cheezy list of stuff like “Choose Your Martial Art” or “Join a Gym.” or “Go Slow.” (I actually got this example from the top article as of time of writing when I google searched this query. Jesus Christ, what are kids reading nowadays !?!)

I’m assuming that you want to start training and competing in MMA. Or, you want to know the real deal behind how MMA fighters prepare. (Read: Can MMA Be Self-Taught?)

Well, get those other articles and put them in your metaphorical online trash can.

But you know what? That’s one of the reasons why our website MMA for the Working Man exists. We give you the real deal without the bullshit.

The answer to this question “How do MMA fighters train?,” unlike what the most garbage internet articles suggest, is not as simple as a list of stuff.

Why is this so?

Because there is no specific way that all MMA fighters train. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

There is no specific curriculum or program that is the “proper way” to train in MMA. Fighters from all sorts different fighting disciplines come together and compete.

MMA is a prize-fighting sport. Whoever wins the most fights gets to say what MMA training is correct and what is not. And, he may be proven wrong any time.

Most MMA fighters and coaches don’t give a fart about how they’re “suppose to train.” They train in whatever way they think brings in the wins.

This may be confusing for someone from a traditional martial arts background like Aikido, Judo or Taekwondo. These martial arts have very specific ways of training.

Let’s take a closer look at Judo. (No hate, I’m a Judoka too.) For those who follow the traditional way, their training sessions follow a certain format and teach techniques in a certain order and style. Class starts with a bowing ceremony.  Then it proceeds with a warm-up routine that includes stretching, rolling and falling practice. Then, there is form practice or uchikomi. Towards the end, they’ll do some sparring or randori. They they’ll do a cool down. And, if they’re really traditional, they’ll do a little meditation to cap things off.

The reason why these traditional martial arts have specific training regimens is that they all came from one dominant school or founder. From the original school or founder, the practices spread out throughout the world.

In MMA, something quite the opposite happened. Instead of there being one point of origin of skill, such as a founder or school that taught the rest of the world, there was one competition that brought different schools and backgrounds to compete.

This gave MMA an “anything goes” or “my style versus your style” ethos from the very beginning.

This ethos extends into the training principle of MMA.

Another important factor is that, by far, MMA is the sport that has the least restricted form of combat (see our article on the Rules of MMA). If you specialize too much in grappling, a good striker can punish you if you can’t take them down. If you specialize in striking but neglect your grappling, you’re doomed once you hit the mat.

In other sports, say boxing, you will get a clash of styles (e.g. slugger versus counter-puncher), but what you can do in a fight are pretty much set.

The way you train in a sport defines its rules. Judo with its match-ending ippon favors exactness and explosiveness. Taekwondo favors kicks, speed and flexibility, and so on.

Meanwhile MMA, because the rules are are as liberal as can be, the best train can be interpreted in so many ways.

Okay let’s do a rewind since I’m going to make an important point here.

Earlier, I was saying that MMA fighters and coaches don’t care if the way they train is the “the right way” and all they want to do is win, right?

Yup, so while there is no real MMA curriculum or program, there are definitely are some training concepts that are proving to be the most effective way to train for an MMA fight. And we’re discovering these by just observing who tends to win the most fights.

In other words, the question is all wrong. There’s no answer to “How do MMA fighters train?” But we do know “How should MMA fights train?

An aside: Please don’t misinterpret me. I’m not saying MMA practitioners who don’t apply the concepts discuss here aren’t “real MMA fighters.” That’s exactly the opposite of my mission.  I don’t want to discourage anyone from competing or practicing MMA or martial arts. I believe you should compete or at least practice MMA, even if they don’t aspire to be in the UFC or a professional MMA fighter. But what I’m just saying is if you don’t have these training concepts, you will not get very far in MMA. Not that “getting far” is important. What’s more important is that MMA gives you a more meaningful life. More on that another day.

Okay, so here it is. This is how MMA fighters should train:

Striking – Wrestling – Grappling: You Have to Train in All Three

One thing for sure is that if you don’t have a solid background in all three, you’ll never reach higher levels of competition in modern MMA.

We may also descriptively call these three domains of skill as StrikingTake Downs & Takedown DefenseGround Grappling.

Some even go as far as identifying the sports that will teach you these skills: Muay Thai, Wrestling and BJJ. (Read: Which Martial Arts Are MMA Made Of) Of course, you might substitute some sports. For example, instead of Muay Thai, you practice Sanshou. Instead of Wrestling, your takedown base could be Judo.

At the lower levels of competition, you definitely can win if you’re just good in one of these skill domain. But when you start competing against savvier fighters, your weaknesses can be exploited.

(The difference between striking and the other two is easy. If you want to know the difference between the other two you can read more: What’s the difference between Jiujitsu, Wrestling and Grappling?)

MMA Fighters Must Train in Striking

For lower-level competitions, it’s definitely possible to get away with appallingly poor striking skills.

No hate here. Back in the age of the dinosaurs, I was competing in MMA in a small pond where I was a big fish. Even though my striking skills were crap compared to those in the same league, I could easily dominate many of my opponents with comparatively excellent wrestling and savvy grappling.

Back when MMA was a very new sport, a lot of grapplers with awful striking got all the way to the highest echelons of the sport, particularly BJJ practitioners. (I’m not saying that’s bad. This just shows what an effective sport BJJ is.)

However, good grappling techniques (therefore grappling defense) is so democratized now. This means a lot more people have solid grappling techniques now compared to before. This changed the MMA game a lot.

In modern MMA, the higher up you go in your level competition, the more important striking skills become.

As you fight better and better fighters, the less you can just rely on taking your opponent down.

All fights starts standing. If opponents outclass you in wrestling (more on this later), it’s also likely they can keep standing. Without good striking, you won’t be able to put up any meaningful standing game.

There’s a whole range of things you can do to be a good striker. There’s heavy bag work, mit work, sparring, sparring and all lot of other stuff.

I think heavy bag training deserves a special mention here. This basic form of training is absolutely essential to strengthen your punches and kicks.

A fight is a fight. Nothin’ beats the good old skill of breaking skulls with your fist and shin.

MMA Fighters Must Train in Wrestling

Wrestling in a broad sense, is both your ability to takedown and prevent a takedown.

In other words, the better wrestler you are, the more control you have on whether the fight is kept standing or taken to the ground.

By extension of this definition, you can also lump together other martial arts and sports that train in take downs and takedown defense, such as Judo, Sambo, Sumo, as wrestling.

However, the wrestling techniques as known in Freestyle and Greco-Roman are perhaps the most representative of what’s used in a MMA ring or cage. Because of this, for simplicity, I’ll stick to the term “wrestling.”

In this sense, wrestling is not just a bunch of specific techniques, such as the throws, shoots and sprawls. Wrestling includes clinching, the tussle against the fence, and the scrambles. You could even consider “dirty boxing” as popularized by Greco-Roman Wrestler Randy Couture more related to wrestling than striking, since it’s essentially punching your opponent while you have head or arm control. (Read article on Randy Couture’s book.)

While there is a tendency to lump together wrestling and ground grappling, wrestling refers to the transitions between a standing and ground fight, and how well you can control the transitions.

In other words, wrestling is the messy in-between of striking and ground grappling.

With good wrestling, even if you are eventually taken to the ground, your opponent will probably have to spend a lot more energy to do so.

Conversely, with good wrestling you’ll be able to use a lot less energy to successfully take your opponent down.

This can be huge in an MMA match.

In an MMA match, the takedown attempt is the most energy-intensive part. You can grapple all day or strike all day. However, can’t do more than a few really good hard take down attempts in match, before it takes a toll your power levels.

Competitive wrestlers know that wrestling is a LOT more fitness intensive than MMA.

It takes a LOT of energy and power to take down a wrestler.

But this also perhaps explains why wrestlers, despite their sport being very limited in scope compared to strikers and grapplers, can make such a smooth transition into MMA. (Read more on Transitioning from Wrestling into MMA.)

To be good in wrestling, there are are lot of things you can do. There’s clinching, single leg and double leg take downs. There’s sprawling. There are throws and trips. There’s chain wrestling.

MMA Fighters Must Train in Grappling (BJJ)

There’s a large number of grappling sports. There’s Judo, Sambo, Japanese Jiu-jitsu,  (Confusingly, wrestling is a grappling sport too.) However, what I’m referring here to ground grappling skills.

However, perhaps the most representative sport for ground grappling skills is Brazilian Jiu-jitsu or BJJ. So, in this section, for the sake of discussion, I’ll stick to just BJJ.

(Again, if you are not familiar with the terminology you may want to read: What’s the difference between Jiujitsu, Wrestling and Grappling?)

Of course, BJJ also has takedowns. However, the rules of sport BJJ place a clear emphasis on the ground grappling aspect of fighting.

Because takedowns are so de-emphasized in the modern sport of BJJ, you’ll see a lot of athletes pulling, jumping or dropping to guard in BJJ.

These actions which would lead you to lose a proper wrestling match are a normal part of BJJ. (Read our article on Pulling Guard.)

However, this has allowed BJJ to develop ground grappling techniques that have been adapted by so many athletes around the world. So much so that people frequently refer one’s ground grappling and BJJ as the same thing.

Having good ground grappling is essential in MMA because most fights end up on the ground.

In fact, fights where neither fighters makes takedown attempts are rare. Even when both fighters are more comfortable striking, one fighter will usually go for a takedown if he’s getting the worse of the deal.

Sometimes, two strikers will just collide and end up on the ground after a messy tussle or after being backed up into the fence.

Without a good ground grappling game, a fighter is practically finished. Unless, the fighter’s wrestling game is so good that he can’t be taken down.

The objective of a grappler is to control your opponent for ground and pound or to get a submission. Better grapplers are able to gain more dominant positions, such as back mount, side mount or full mount.

To be your worth your salt in MMA, you should at least practice applying and defending against the top ten most-effective submissions in MMA. An overwhelming majority of all submission successfully applied in an MMA match are part of the top ten. (Read: The Top 10 Most Effective Submissions in MMA)

Ground grappling is highly technical and requires a lot of technique study, repetitive practice and tons of sparring.

Conditioning is King

Conditioning refers to your physical fitness. This is your strength and your cardiovascular endurance.

We just covered the three domains of skill: Striking – Wrestling – Grappling.

The more skilled and well-rounded MMA fighter can definitely defeat a more conditioned opponent. However, if your conditioning is poor compared to your opponent, you’ll be in trouble if your opponent weathers the initial storm.

If a fighter in poor condition is not able to knockout or submit their opponent at the start of the fight, the chances the more well-conditioned fighter has of winning grows as the match progresses.

An MMA fighter has to be selective in conditioning to be successful. There is so much misinformation online, it’s easy to follow a training scheme that won’t help you much.

The most common mistake with a lot of newbie fighters is to train with how body builders train. The ideal conditioning for an MMA match is not the same as a bodybuilding training.

I’m not making this up. It’s science.

There are two kind of muscles fibers: slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers (also called Type I  and Type II).

Slow-twitch muscle fibers are more suited on aerobic work (more on this later). They are more resistant to fatigue but have a low power production.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers are more suitable to anaerobic work (more on this later). They get fatigued faster, but they can produce a lot of energy quickly.

Bodybuilding targets slow-twitch muscles. Why? Because it’s slow-twitch muscles that grow or hypertrophy the most. Bodybuilding sets usually have weights that make you fail at the 8-15 repetition range. This the range that bodybuilders discovered long ago make their muscles grow the most.

Muscular endurance of course matters a lot in MMA. But more important than muscular endurance in MMA is power. (Maybe except when you’re slowly squeezing the life out of your resisting opponent with a rear-naked choke or slowly cranking out another submission.) It’s most often the explosive movements to overpower your opponent, such as a sweep for a dominant position or just a kick to beak his ribs.

The kind of strength training needed for MMA should focus on fast-twitch muscles. Think of power movements, like fast, low-rep bench-presses, shoulder presses, and squats.

Also, bodybuilding and other fitness programs tend to put a lot of focus on the extremities because these make your body look nice and toned. Think all the bicep curls, tricep extension and leg extension bodybuilders do. These body building exercises try to isolate certain muscles ground.

MMA however doesn’t need nice-looking biceps and triceps. (They look cool though, who wouldn’t want them.) What MMA needs is the exact opposite of isolation. What MMA needs is a strong core. You should focus on compound exercises, which targets multiple muscle groups. Think deadlifts and pull-ups.

No amount of skill and strength will matter of you heart and lungs can’t feed your brain and muscles oxygen. Place priority on anaerobic training versus aerobic training.

Anaerobic training is training where the effort consumes more oxygen than your cardiovascular system can deliver. An example of anaerobic training is sprinting a 100m dash. You won’t be able to keep up that pace for more than half a minute or so.

Anaerobic training is good because fighting typically requires a lot of anaerobic effort, such a flurry of punches, or a mad scramble for a top position.

Meanwhile, Aerobic training is when your workout can be sustained by your cardiovascular system. An example of this is a 45 minutes jog in the morning. Or this could be a lengthy half-hour swim.

Aerobic training has its place. It can be fun. It improves your body’s overall composition and strength. It keeps you fit with much less risk for injury or mental burn out. But, for game changing power, you need anaerobic fitness.

The standard MMA match is three rounds of five minutes. It’s usually made of spurts of maximal efforts followed by short rests in between. You have to train your body for this type of effort.

Lastly, with all that said about conditioning, don’t let your conditioning eat up your entire training!

There’s a great temptation to spend the majority of your time and effort in the gym, and working on your fitness. Some MMA competitors think having a bodybuilder’s sculpted muscles and ripped abs will win the fight.

However, for most MMA fights, your conditioning only has to be at par with your opponent. MMA is still primarily a game of skill and strategy.

Don’t get me wrong. A jacked body means you worked hard and you’re damn strong. And, superior strength is an amazing advantage to have.

But, I’ve seen it a thousand times. A fighter can be rippling with muscles. However, if their skills stink, a technical opponent can easily outclass them.

Your Skills Won’t Progress Without Sparring

I think the greatest failure of most training camps is to provide quality sparring to prepare fighters for real MMA matches.

(Check out an excellent contributed article here: On Sparring: Guide for Beginners)

Can you learn how to swim without getting in the pool? Nope. Can you learn to drive by playing a racing video game? Nope. Neither can you learn fighting from just hitting a bag or practicing forms all day.

Sparring doesn’t have to be MMA sparring only. I think plain MMA sparring is good, but there’s a lot you can learn by separate sparring into striking-only, wrestling-only and ground grappling-only. Isolating skills helps develop them.

We know this instinctively.

Think of how the fighter with the boxing background easily wipes out regular MMA fighters in a standup slugging match. Or, look at how those with wrestling background cut through the takedown defenses of non-wrestlers like butter. Or check out how a BJJ specialist plays with less experienced grapplers on the ground.

The verdict is clear, skill specialization helps. Striking-only, wrestling-only, and ground grappling-only sparring will help you develop these skills on their own.

In most MMA training clubs, the number of good sparring partners you have is limited. If you can have five good sparring partners, you can consider yourself lucky.

With having only a few sparring partners, you might have the variety of skills that will help expose the weakness in your game.

For example, if you’re a better wrestler than most of your teammates, you’ll probably consciously or subconsciously lean on your takedowns. Your striking skills will slag behind.

Study sparring is perhaps one of the most useful concepts you can apply in sparring. Study sparring is sparring not with the objective of winning, but to trying out a target techniques in a more realistic situation.

Sparring also should be directed and moderated. I don’t believe it hard 100% MMA sparring all the time, despite what some crazy self-defense gurus might say. Our lives are just too long and valuable to disregard brain damage and injury.

However, it’s important to do hard MMA or striking sparring once in a while. Otherwise, how else will you know what it’s like to really be in a fight?

On a side note, wrestling and ground-grappling sparring can get really intense without many negative consequences. I remember the one-hour long wrestling matches grappling matches my teammate and I would have. You can run through a gauntlet of ten wrestlers and you will still come out alive the other end.

Be careful wherever head strikes are involved. You may not feel the pain like you would a good liver shot, but the damage is cumulative and will haunt you down the road.

Sparring should also be overlooked by an experienced coach or a well-meaning teammate. While you will naturally improve overtime, a valuable insight can help get you to the next level much faster.

Closing Thoughts

How do MMA fighters train? The sport has evolved over the years. More and more, we are seeing that some forms of training are more effective than others.

Despite this, because the sport has so many different facets – striking, wrestling, and ground grappling – there are just so many ways to train for and win a fight.

This perhaps makes this amazing combat sport also an art. This puts the “martial artist” into mixed martial arts.

MMA is not only for the highly-paid UFC fighter that graces our TV on pay-per-view. Many of us still have meaning lives outside the sport.

With jobs to pay bills, family to take care of, and stuff to get done, there is no way to train anyway that can described as anywhere near complete, given the broad nature of MMA.

That doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the sport. (Check out: Can You Competitive Training Once A Week?)

In the end, what makes MMA worthwhile is if it contributes positively to your life.

And, if you find that training in one way makes your life better and more enjoyable, go for it.

For just over 3 years I have been training in Kung Fu and Muay Thai. Learning any martial art is a physically and mentally challenging process that takes years of practice to master. Here are 4 tips I wish I had known that can improve your training and reduce the time it takes between novice and grandmaster.

Flexibility is a fundamental trait of any good martial artist. Having this early on in your training will help boost you ahead for many reasons. Firstly, the more advanced techniques in martial arts require you to be extremely souple, it’s impossible to begin learning them without the required flexibility to do so, and thus you will be learning advanced moves earlier in your training if you’re already performing a perfect split. Secondly, you need to kick high, sometimes higher than your own head. If you’re training in a martial art that is fight orientated, such as kickboxing, being able to kick your opponent in the head is one of the best moves you have in your arsenal of attacks. If you are studying an art such as Kung Fu, flexibility will dramatically improve your technique in forms, helping you to score those extra points in competitions for your technical ability.

One of the best ways to learn, I have found, is directly from the horse’s mouth, in this case your master. Typically, in your classes, your master will demonstrate a technique that they want you to practice with a partner. If they don’t ask for volunteers before performing each technique, go ahead and tell them before the class starts that you would like to be involved in the demonstrations. This will help you get a real feel for what they’re trying to show you, as you can miss subtle techniques that may be out of your vision. Volunteering to be demonstrated on can seem scary, but remember that they are a master of what they do, and they won’t actually be performing the move with the intent to hurt you.

Hitting pads is good for when you’re learning a new move, but you will find you begin performing the technique in a much different way when faced with something that will hit back. Simple things like remembering to cover your head when throwing a kick or punch will become deuxième nature after being punished for dropping your guard, even for a split deuxième. You may be asked or required to participate in a fighting tournament at some point of your martial arts journey, and the best way you can prepare for this is sparring. Remember that it is for the purpose of learning, not knocking each other out as quick as you can. You will begin to learn how to spot and react to your opponent’s openings, and how to defend against different moves. Forget being stronger or faster than your opponent, being an intelligent fighter is what will give you the advantage come fight night.

Your training doesn’t begin and end when you enter and leave the doors. My Kung Fu master always told us that “practice is good, but perfect practice makes perfect”. When you train at home make sure you are performing each technique properly, as if you were in chic, bad vêtements form fast and are extremely to be undone. Purchasing a large mirror is a great investment so you can l'étude yourself at home. Also watching films of other people performing techniques will help you to see how different techniques should look when you’re not at chic.

Did you set a new year resolution this year ? If so, do they happen to be martial arts related ? Do you think you will actually achieve them ?

Statistics for failed New Year’s resolutions run anywhere between 45-80%. Now that another new year is here, it’s time to focus and set our eyes back on the prize in order to not become part of this rather bleak data. tera help you, on this post, I’ll be highlighting a couple personal tips that may help make both your short-term and long-term goals stick

Focusing on small milestones, following your motivation, challenging yourself, and finding what inspires you can help you make improvements for the rest year and meet or even surpass your martial arts goals and beyond !

You’re much more likely to stay motivated and make improvements if you’re doing something you enjoy. What is your absolute favorite thing to do at your martial arts school ? If you love to spar find ways to push yourself harder. Ask your instructor for pointers. Train with higher-ranking students. Seek out tournaments in your area for a challenge.

What if you’re doing what you love, and you’re already good at it, but you don’t know how to improve ? Avoid stagnation by digging deeper into your favorite activity. Find ways to go out of your comfort zone. Ask for help and feedback even in areas where you feel you are at your best. For example, if you enjoy doing forms, ask your instructor to work with you on finer details.

Play around with timing and emphasis. Enter or at least attend a tournament to see how other martial artists practice forms and see what you can learn from them. Seek out master classes, seminars, and clinics in your area. If you want some fun and relaxation while you practice consider taking a martial arts holiday.

Alternatively, you can also work on your training from the comfort of your own home by joining an online martial arts training. As you won’t even have to step foot outside, there’s simply no excuse not to keep up your practice !

Think about your long-term goals and then break it down into small milestones. Do you want to be able to do fifty push-ups in one set, but right now you can only do ten ? Don’t burn yourself out on day one trying to do all fifty. You may injure yourself or simply become discouraged that you can’t reach your goal immediately.

Slow down. Scale back. Try adding five extra push-ups per week, and over time you’ll build up the strength and stamina you need to meet your goal.

Maybe you have transferred schools and need to relearn the particular forms or self-defense techniques practiced at your new school. I have seen this happen with black belts and higher-ranking color belts who have transferred to my dojang. For example, a fellow black belt practiced Taeguk taekwondo forms at her old dojang, but now she needs to learn the Palgwe forms that we practice.

Rather than trying to learn everything at once, which will likely feel overwhelming, start with one technique or one form. Ask an instructor or another black belt for help. Watch scènes online. Move on to the next technique when you are able to perform the first one without any guidance or prompts.

Sometimes you have to do things in martial arts that you don’t enjoy as much but you still have to do due to tradition, chic schedules, and keeping your practice well-rounded. Martial arts may be the hardest thing you do, but it shouldn’t feel like drudgery. Think about what you don’t enjoy as much in chic or what you dread doing, and try to figure out why you avoid it. Perhaps you don’t like it because you’re not very skilled ( yet ), you don’t do it very often, you find it stressful, or you simply find it boring.

Challenge yourself. Find the “fun” in something that has simply felt like work. It’s easy to get better at something you enjoy and you’re naturally good at doing. Just think of how it will feel when you make improvements in an area where you have continuously struggled.

Leveraging your strengths can help you develop skills in areas where you struggle. For example, if sparring is particularly challenging, be mindful of other times when you use blocks or strikes such as in forms or self-defense. Make them as sharp and powerful as you would in a faster-paced sparring match. Ask your instructor to incorporate quick reaction drills into classes. Attend extra sparring classes, and if you are a black belt or higher ranking, attend lower ranking sparring classes and offer to coach or referee. Teaching a skill can help you make vast improvements in your own practice.


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