Build Your Core Like an MMA Fighter

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Sandbag Get-Ups

I cringe every time I hear someone say that it's time to blast the core and then see him begin Crunching away for 50 reps. The definition of the core has gotten lost in translation over the years, and you need to understand what it really is if you want to train MMA style.

I like to refer to the core as any muscles and structures that support and stabilize the pelvis, spine and shoulders, which include muscles from the thighs up to the chest. So, lying down and pulling on the back of your head is not my idea of healthy "core" work. You are only engaging one of the many muscle groups involved in the core!

Training your entire core is especially important for the sport of MMA. Having mobile hips and a strong, stable and efficient core will lead to better footwork, stronger takedowns, improved defense and increased power in all of your striking.

While we train most muscles to move and accelerate, we should train our core musculature to decelerate, control and transfer movements. The core works to prevent motion and provide the solid foundation needed for safe, effective movement in MMA—and almost any other sport.

Physioball "Stir The Pots"

This exercise is a great progression from the traditional Plank. It increases difficulty by adding instability from the physioball. By incorporating small movements such as circles, we can really challenge the core muscles on both the frontside and backside of the body. Be sure to watch the lumbar spine on this exercise, as the goal is to maintain a flat back.

  • Assume plank position with forearms on physioball and feet on box or bench
  • Rotate elbows clockwise on physioball to create circle; repeat for specified time
  • Rotate elbows counterclockwise on physioball to create circle in opposite direction; repeat for specified time

Sets/Duration: 3x20-30 seconds each direction

TRX Body Saw With Knees

This movement improves overall core stability and integrity. It also improves rotational stability by adding a leg movement, which is critical when punching or kicking.

  • Assume plank position with feet in TRX straps
  • Shift bodyweight back so shoulders are three to four inches behind elbows
  • Shift bodyweight forward and simultaneously drive right knee to elbow
  • Extend leg to start position; perform rep with opposite leg
  • Repeat in alternating fashion for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 2-3x10

TRX Hi-Plank Stops and Perturbations

These are two variations that force your core to stop and stabilize. In particular, the Perturbation forces you to stabilize against an unexpected movement, which mirrors the unpredictable nature of competition.

TRX Hi-Plank Stops

  • Assume push-up position with feet in TRX straps and feet together
  • Swing legs to the side, forming a 45-degree angle with body
  • Swing legs to opposite side; repeat motion in continuous fashion
  • Stop motion at partner's command
  • Repeat for specified time

Sets/Duration: 2-3x20-30 seconds

TRX Perturbations

  • Assume push-up position with feet in TRX straps, feet together and partner at feet
  • Maintain tight core and flat back, while partner taps feet in random directions
  • Repeat for specified time

Sets/Duration: 2-3x20-30 seconds

Sandbag Get-Ups
The traditional Get-Up, which I also love, is typically performed with a kettlebell and an extended arm. I choose to show the sandbag version for two reasons: it's slightly easier, and I like having the heavy sandbag laying across the chest to challenge breathing patterns.

Begin on your back with the sandbag over one shoulder and the same side knee bent, with foot flat. Leading with your chest, roll to the opposite elbow and continue to shift your weight up to the hand. From this position, drive through your hand and opposite heel to extend your hips. Then sweep your leg underneath your body and come to your knee. Next, you want to line up your body; think of being "tall" and having length through the spine. From this Split Squat or Lunge position, come to your feet and stand up tall. To return to the starting position, simply reverse the steps in a controlled manner.

  • Lie on back holding sandbag on right shoulder, right knee bent and opposite arm extended to side
  • Slowly sit by shifting weight to left hand and bringing feet toward butt
  • Drive through left hand and right heel to extend hips
  • Swing left leg under body and assume kneeling position
  • Drive though right heel to rise into standing position
  • Return to start position through same movement pattern with control
  • Repeat for specified reps; perform set with bag on opposite shoulder

Sets/Reps: 2-3x4 each side

Hanging Wipers

This is one of my favorite  more challenging midsection movements. If you are a beginner in the weight room, don't perform this movement yet. You need to build up to it. It forces your entire body to engage, and it also targets core rotators, which are important for throwing, swinging, kicking and punching.

  • Assume neutral-grip pull-up position facing away from rack
  • Pull torso up to parallel with ceiling and swing straight legs up in air, perpendicular to ground
  • Rotate legs to side with control to a 45-degree angle
  • Rotate to center and repeat to opposite side
  • Continue in alternating fashion for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 2-3x20

Want more core-focused MMA exercises? Check out my TRX Exercises for MMA post.


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 for more information.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock