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When training MMA fighters, I've incorporated every exercise and tool you can imagine—dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, tires, sleds, Prowler, TRX, Ultimate Sandbags, Kamagon Ball, Home Depot creations, bodyweight exercises and many more.
The more experience and knowledge I acquire, the more I believe in the "less is more" theory. Although I love to experiment and try new methods and tools, I will always incorporate some essential bodyweight exercises into my fighter programs. Your body is truly your greatest "piece of equipment," and there is no membership fee required to use it.
My favorites change on a weekly basis, so this is not an exclusive list. But here are my current top five bodyweight exercises for MMA athletes. (See the video below for more details on how to perform each exercise.)
1. Upper Body Pull: Pull-Ups
To develop upper body strength, the Pull-Up is still king. It engages several muscle groups in the shoulders, back and arms—including the delts, traps and biceps—plus, studies have shown that Pull-Ups also activate the ab muscles. With so many muscles recruited, this compound exercise should be a keystone in your program.
Variations include band-assisted Pull-Ups for people still developing strength and weighted and plyometric Pull-Ups for advanced athletes. Grips vary as well. Because they a bit more shoulder-, elbow- and wrist-friendly, I prefer to go with a pronated grip (palms facing away from body) or a neutral grip (palms facing each other), as opposed to a supinated grip (palms facing body).
MMA Skills Improved: Controlling your opponent on the ground or along the cage
Band-Assisted Pull-Ups (Beginner): 3x8-12
Pull-Ups (Intermediate): 3x8-12
Plyo Pull-Ups (Advanced): 4x8-12
2. Upper Body Push: Push-Ups
Push-Ups are another staple bodyweight exercise. When done properly, they force you to engage your entire body, from your feet to your fingertips. To protect your lower back and shoulders, keep your body stiff and engaged throughout the movement.
I recommend performing three variations, in order of difficulty—Bench Push-Up, Plyo Bench Push-Up and Around-the-World Plyo Push-Up—to develop strength and power.
MMA Skills Improved: Punches, kicks and takedowns; the ability to create space between you and your opponent
Bench Push-Up (Beginner): 3x8-12
Plyo Bench Push-Up (Intermediate): 3x8-12
Around-The-World Plyo Push-Up: 2-3x6 each direction
3. Midsection/Mobility: Inchworms
This movement provides a great backside stretch for the hamstrings, calves and Achilles, as well as developing stability and strength for the trunk and shoulder joints. The version demonstrated in the video includes a small hop to get you into a deep Squat position,which aids with hip joint mobility.
MMA Skills Improved: Overall mobility; kicks
Inchworm (all levels): 3x6
4. Lower Body: Broad Jumps
One of my favorite exercises to develop lower body power is the Broad Jump. Generally speaking, power is the ability to generate force as quickly as possible, which is crucial for MMA athletes. If you can train your body to be quicker and more powerful, you'll be much more dangerous in the octagon. Work your way up to Broad Jumps by mastering the beginner and intermediate levels first.
MMA Skills Improved: Striking, kicking, takedowns, takedown defense and grappling
Bodyweight Squats (Beginner): 3x5
Squat Jumps (Intermediate): 3x5
Broad Jumps (Advanced): 4x8
5. Conditioning: Hill Sprints
Hill Sprints don't take long to complete, but they push you to your physical and mental limit. I prefer performing them on a soft surface, like grass, if possible. MMA athletes endure enough pounding throughout the week from all the sparring and joint locks. If you can incorporate conditioning sessions that are "joint friendly," your body will thank you in the morning.
MMA Skills Improved: Conditioning, for endurance in the octagon
Beginner: 6-8x30 seconds; rest for 45 seconds
Intermediate: 8-10x30 seconds; rest for 45 seconds
Advanced: 10-12x30 seconds; rest for 45 seconds
Doug Balzarini, CSCS, MMA-CC, is a personal trainer and strength coach in San Diego, Calif. He works with the Alliance MMA fight team, where he trains UFC champion Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Brandon Vera, Travis Browne, Alexander Gustafsson and others. Visit DBstrength.com for more information.