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Endurance Training for MMA

Updated on May 25, 2014

Why You Need Endurance in MMA

Mixed martial arts is a sport that requires a high level of endurance, as athletes are expected to perform at a high level for five minute rounds with minimal rest between rounds.  For non-title fights, the bouts last for three rounds, whereas title fights last for five rounds; fifteen and twenty-five minutes respectively.  Because of the highly intense nature of grappling and striking, many fighters gas out in the first couple of minutes, due to lack of cardiovascular health or glycogen depletion.  The purpose of this hub is to address the former, as this is far more common; most athletes know to eat a lot of carbohydrates before competing or exercising.

But before I continue, I want to throw this number at you: a 150lb boxer can expect to burn 816 calories in one hour.  Compare this to soccer and football, which are 680 calories and 612 calories respectively, and you see how difficult martial arts are.  Now incorporate wrestling and a larger cage, and an athlete can be easily burning 1200 calories per hour, or between 400-500 in just a single fight.  While this number can vary significantly, it gives you a general idea of the intensity that MMA demands from its athletes.

Endurance Training for Beginners

When you first start training your cardio, you'll want to start small. It's pretty easy to get yourself sick when beginning, especially if you have never trained before or train very little. For the first week or two, you should start out with light exercise like jogging, jump roping, burpees, or jumping jacks. These will make your body more efficient. These endurance exercises should be done five or so times a week, and the intensity should be increased every day.

There are several ways that you can increase intensity. The most popular way is to increase the total volume of the workout. Say you were jogging a half mile when you first started, you can bump it up to three quarters or even a whole mile if you feel up to it. Another way to increase intensity is to decrease the time that it takes to do the exercise. Using jogging as an example again, you could run slightly faster than you did before. If you're doing three sets of ten burpees, you can decrease the rest time between sets. Finally, you can add resistance to your endurance exercise. Using a weighted jump rope or wearing a vest when jogging are two good ways to increase the intensity of your workout. I don't recommend adding resistance, though, until you reach the intermediate level. You'll find that your body becomes more accustomed to exercise as each day passes.

Good exercises for beginners

  • Jogging / running
  • Swimming
  • Jump roping
  • Striking sparring - 50%
  • Burpees
  • Bicycling
  • Jumping jacks

Endurance Training for Intermediate MMA Athletes

This section is for someone that has been training for at least three months and feels that they are ready to push themselves to the next level. At this point, you should be getting a workout in at your training gym, and at an additional training center. You will not get a complete workout at a normal MMA gym, so it's important to have a membership or access to a facility that has proper training equipment.

At this level, you'll really want to focus on increasing the intensity of your exercise. You can do any of the exercises detailed below, or you can modify the beginner ones with added intensity. If you want, for example, you can do one-armed push ups with the burpees or you could do pull-up burpees, which are significantly more difficult than normal ones. It is important to pay attention to your nutrition as it's very easy to deplete your glycogen levels when training at a higher intensity.

Good Exercises for Intermediate MMA Athletes

Advanced Endurance Training for MMA Athletes

You should stay at the intermediate level for at least a year, although many people will have trouble getting passed this level in under two years. One way to gauge how advanced you are is how quickly you are able to run two miles. An advanced athlete should be able to complete a two-mile run in about 12 minutes, although this depends on how fast he's able to run in the first place. If you are able to get within this range, then you should be able to complete most of these exercises. A good indication of anaerobic endurance would be the ability to do twenty or more pull-ups.

At an advanced level, you will be using more difficult techniques and exercises to increase the intensity of your workout. The point of advanced training is to push your body past its natural plateau with high intensity training that will force it to adapt. Overtraining is common at this level, so it's important to pay attention to your overall health and energy levels. Nutrition also becomes increasingly important.

Exercises for Advanced Athletes

  • Power snatch burpees
  • Weighted pull-ups
  • High-intensity interval training or pyramid interval training
  • Supersets
  • Olympic lifts
  • Sparring 80-90%

Additional Notes on Developing Cardio

Most people are able to reach high level cardio with proper training and enough time.  How long it takes you to reach is mainly a factor of your workout intensity and genetics.  If you are not seeing progress, then it's likely that you are doing something wrong or overtraining.  You should first try to bring down the intensity and see if that helps.  If it doesn't, then altering your routine might help you break past the plateau. 

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