Why NFL Players Use MMA Training (And You Should, Too)

STACK Expert Ryan Hoover conducts MMA training with Carolina Panthers players. In this article, he explains how MMA training can benefit football players and offers a sample workout.

Punching power

NFL players training in combat sports? It may seem odd and the connection may not be readily apparent, but football and MMA have many parallels. Some movements vital to mixed martial arts are of great benefit to football players looking to gain an advantage.

I started working with the Carolina Panthers over two years ago after a chance encounter with Coach Ron Rivera. He recognized the benefits of MMA training and introduced me to Joe Kenn, the team's strength and conditioning coach. Since then, I have worked privately with players and coaches, and my Fit to Fight® team and I are regulars at stadium workouts during camps and throughout the season.

Exactly what do players and coaches have to gain from incorporating MMA training?

Better Conditioning

A good strength and conditioning program plays a significant role in training every successful football team. The best coaches are constantly innovating, researching, and programming, as well as trying to find creative ways to keep players fit and motivated. Most players have done ladder drills, cone drills, fieldwork, and traditional weightlifting exercises since their Pop Warner days.

MMA training, particularly mitt work, heavy bag work, and wrestling, are tremendous conditioning protocols outside of conventional training. Punching allows players to hit explosively in a safe environment, which helps them melt away calories as well as stress. Wrestling allows players to work with constant resistance and real pressure with minimal risk of injury, while simultaneously improving their overall fitness.

Depending on a player's individual needs and position, the conditioning can be easily made aerobic, anaerobic, or some combination of the two. Although the average football play is only around six seconds and the average rest between downs is 36 seconds, this series is repeated many times in a game. Thus, players must be able to perform in short bursts for many repetitions.

A.J. Hawk's MMA Training

Linebacker A.J. Hawk's MMA Training

Increased Body Awareness

Learning to engage the entire body for maximum power, efficiency, and explosiveness is immensely important in football. Striking focus mitts or a heavy bag requires the same kind of exact coordination. (Get started with these heavy bag workouts.) Teaching a player to involve his entire body in a strike often translates to the field, where players must hit and generate power from awkward angles. A player who hits with his entire body, instead of isolating individual body parts, has a distinct advantage in power, efficiency, and long-term sustainability. Striking drills teach players to coordinate their legs, hips and core, as well as their upper bodies—ultimately making them more powerful and versatile on the field.

The Elbow Rule

At Fit to Fight®, one of the first principles our members and clients learn is the Elbow Rule. Basically, this states that as long as you are inside your opponent's elbows, you're inside of his power. My goal, therefore, is to create angles that can get me outside of my opponent's elbows while still keeping him inside of mine. If we are inside each other's elbows, we are "positionally neutral," which means the player with the best attributes will typically win. Through footwork, hand fighting, and tactile sensitivity (emphasized next) learned in punching and wrestling drills, players learn the importance of the Elbow Rule and body positioning.

Tactile Sensitivity

This is where wrestling takes over in the program. For the purposes of fighting and football, there are two energies: the opponent can push or pull; there is nothing else. The more time you spend working with real resistance and pressure (wrestling), the more prepared you are to feel that energy in real time. The energy must be felt. If it is "seen," it is too late, because it has already reached completion (or close enough). If it is "felt," the player still has time to respond and gain an advantage.

One of my first NFL clients was James Anderson, who is now with the Bears. James is a perfect example of a player willing to do what it takes to gain an edge, understanding that he will have to get uncomfortable to do so. James still has a home in Charlotte, and he trains with me when he is there. Everything discussed here is represented in this workout (which totals about 45 minutes).

Sample MMA Workout


  • Two to three rounds of jump rope
  • Two to three minutes per round, one minute of rest between rounds

Mitt Work (with a coach)

  • Six to eight rounds
  • Two to three minutes per round, one minute of rest between rounds

Rounds should consist of basic punch combinations, usually less than four punches per combination. We often have clients "double up," throwing multiple punches from the same side, to work on re-engaging the body. Depending on the focus of the day, the coach may also include footwork, head movement, and basic hand fighting. Typically you want the puncher to end the combination "outside of the elbows" of the mitt holder/coach. Some basic combination examples:

  • jab/cross/lead hook
  • jab/lead hook
  • rear uppercut/cross
  • rear uppercut/lead hook/cross
  • jab/slip a jab/cross


  • Two to three rounds
  • Two to three minutes per round, one minute of rest between rounds

Some basic wrestling examples:

  • Pummeling (compliant but with resistance)
  • Arm drags
  • Hand fighting
  • Head clears

The number of rounds, times, and levels of intensity can be adjusted based on the needs of the session/client.

Training in combat sports can provide a welcome and necessary change of pace for serious athletes. By conditioning athletes in a unique environment as well as training them on body positioning and coordination, combat training can break up a traditional routine and further prepare athletes for success on the field.

Watch examples of MMA workouts in the following videos:

Demo video with James Anderson:

Segment with Tight End Greg Olsen:

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock