Functional Training Meets Mixed Martial Arts

by: Kevin Kearns

Functional training fits perfectly with the rigors of MMA. Not only will it aid in reducing potential injuries, but it will assist in rehabbing current injuries.

From my perspective, the marriage between mixed martial arts (MMA) and functional strength training is an easy one. Many of these athletes train like bodybuilders instead of fighters. The MMA industry has simply been unable to anticipate the unique training needs that this type of fighting requires. Lack of education and old school approach is entrenched, but we are attempting to break the mold.

The obvious disconnect in MMA is that bodybuilding is not specific to fighting and does not prepare the athlete to win. MMA is a combat sport that requires many different physical components. The athlete must have knowledge of boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, and Brazilian jujitsu, as well as movement skill sets that match. When watching a match, it is doubtful to see movements similar to bench pressing, lat pulldowns, or leg extensions. Each MMA athlete is literally in combat. And combat is organized chaos. Therefore, preparation is key!

During fights, chaos is represented by unpredictability and awkward positions that provide little leverage. Balance, quickness and agility are constantly being challenged in a hostile environment. One mistake may result in "lights out" or a career ending injury. In my humble opinion, traditional strength training exercises have limited or no place in the octagon or ring.

What does belong in the MMA training program is functional training. Combat athletes need to feel and prepare for movements to be experienced during matches. My training has a high degree of transfer to actual competition. I prepare my fighters to win…period!

Functional training rules the training floor because:

  1. Form fits function and carries over to specific skill practice.

  2. Increased demand on the central nervous system.

  3. Proven effectiveness in other sports.

  4. Reduction and prevention of injuries (prehabilitation).

  5. Maximum training benefits are realized with minimum time investment.

  6. Sports specificity transfer.

  7. Movement through all the three planes of motion is challenged.

  8. Endless possibilities exist with exercise progression and regression.

In MMA, the sprawl is a movement essential to preventing a take down to the mat, and one of the cornerstones of blocking. Sprawls executed with a degree of instability using a product such as the BOSU® Balance Trainer (BT) stimulate increased demand on the central nervous system (CNS). The instability of functional training equipment targets the small, deep muscle groups required for stability and body control. Generally, these key muscle groups are not targeted by traditional exercises or conventional strength training methods. However, within the functional strength training paradigm, small stabilizers and neutralizers are highly trainable. The more the CNS demands results, the greater the muscle fiber recruitment. By activating more muscle fiber, the combat athlete is not only stronger, but reaction times are quicker. Therefore, the speed in which the signal is sent from the brain to the working muscles increases. By performing the sprawl, the CNS learns to recognize instability, and creates a performance blueprint for future reference. So, at the elite level of MMA, the unstable nature of the BT challenges competition appropriate balance.

With the use of a BOSU® Balance Trainer, the sprawl is performed as follows:

1. In a standing position, the athlete grabs the BOSU® Balance Trainer with the dome side down.

2. The athlete explosively drops to the floor. At the same time, the athlete shoots his legs backwards and drops all his bodyweight toward the mat.

3. To mimic blocking the shoulders or head of the opponent, the athlete's arms are locked out on the BOSU® Balance Trainer.

4. The athlete pops back up to a standing position.

5. The sprawl is executed for a specific number of reps or fixed duration.

When considering injury reduction, functional training fits perfectly with the rigors of MMA. Not only will it aid in reducing potential injuries, but it will assist in rehabbing current injuries. As human beings, we acquire knowledge through a learning process. Many times this learning process needs to be physical. By training in an unstable and functional environment, the muscles learn to read and react to what is happening during an unstable action, or the chaos of competition. Similar to a computer in a car that senses slipping of the wheels in bad weather, the body's computer reacts as the human machine encounters instability.

For an injured athlete, a functional training approach is preferred over a live training session with a sparring partner that could increase the chance of injury from the point of controllability. Functional strength training allows the athlete to practice essential moves for the octagon or ring while rehabbing a shoulder, wrist, elbow or other injury while simultaneously limiting the risk of acerbating the injury. In this way, the athlete is still able to train and build combat skills for his upcoming fight. No missed training time equals no missed paycheck.

Working hand in hand within the functional strength model include attaining maximum benefits in a short period of time, training movement through all three planes of motion and having endless exercise possibilities.

When more joints are activated during a functional movement, more muscles are needed to perform that action. The more muscles are working, the more power, strength, agility and calories burned during that exercise. The math is simple. If more muscles are used, more muscles benefit. This increases the effectiveness and decreases the duration on the training floor. Also, by incorporating the three planes of motion (sagital, frontal, and transverse) to the formula, the athlete is better prepared for the chaotic nature of his sport because the muscles have been educated. Within this education format, muscles respond better to outside stimulus during competition which is largely unpredictable.

To continue with this formula, functional strength training using tools such as the BOSU® Balance Trainer provides endless possibilities and combinations of movements. It encourages the trainer to think "out of the box" and gives him the tool to do so. Ideally, the trainer should focus on the movement first and performance second. Functional strength training is chosen over traditional methods because the training emphasis focuses on athletes' needs, movement, and performance. For too many years, many conditioning coaches have thought in reverse.

Kevin Kearns "aka" Dr. Evil is the creator of Burn with and the Basement tapes conditioning series for MMA. He is the strength and conditioning coach for 12 UFC, WEC, and Pride fighters. Visit for more information, or contact him at [email protected]

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