Should you include partner training for MMA? My answer is a resounding yes, for both mental and physical reasons.
Not too long ago, I was coaching an athlete in a traditional one-on-one setting and noticed his strength, energy levels and overall intensity were down. He was just going through the motions. Perhaps my teaching cues and motivational lingo were not hitting home, or maybe he had a fight with his girlfriend earlier that day. Whatever the reason, the session started out poorly. Sensing that I was not connecting with him, I decided to join the session and train with him. While I may not try this with every athlete, this athlete is an experienced fighter with excellent lifting technique, so I didn't give it a second thought.
As soon as we started our Jumping Jacks during the dynamic warm-up, I immediately saw a change in his mood and effort. He was more attentive, worked much harder and even started some friendly competitive banter. After what turned out to be one of his best strength training sessions to date, we got to talking about his morning. I found out he had been dealing with family issues—which was why his session had started out so poorly. His thoughts had become his actions and he just wasn't there mentally. Your mind is powerful and it influences everything you do. What's going on "upstairs" allows you to utilize your physical skills to the best of your ability.
Partner Training: Mental Benefits
Why did having me join in the session elicit such a positive mental response for him? And why would I partner train with someone who competes in an individual sport? Generally speaking, I believe it's due to "competitive fire." Having someone to train with sparked his endorphins and put him in the right frame of mind. In both partner and small group training sessions, more cooperation and communication is required from the coach and the athlete(s) involved. These characteristics drive the competitive fire inside us all—which you obviously need in surplus for a MMA match or tournament.
Olympian Bruce Jenner once said, "You have to train your mind like you train your body." This particularly makes sense when talking about combat athletes. Think about it: an athlete may train for a specific fight for up to 12 weeks. But this fight could last a mere 15 seconds...that's 9,600 minutes of blood, sweat and training for one-fourth of a minute! How do you prepare for this intense pressure?
From a physical standpoint, you need a well-designed periodized program so you can feel quick, powerful, strong and well-conditioned. From a mental standpoint, do you feel unwavering and mentally focused? Is your mind right for battle?
As a coach, it is my responsibility to not only get my athletes stronger physically, but mentally as well. I must enhance their mental toughness while controlling anxiety. I need to understand what motivates them and push them to improve and succeed—and partner/small group training does just that.
Since completing the partner session that I discussed earlier, I have consistently incorporated this type of training into my program design. Here's just a brief list of the positive benefits it provides:
- Develops camaraderie and a strong support system
- Gives positive reinforcement and motivation, especially on "off" days
- Instills friendly competition
- Improves confidence and self-esteem
- Pushes you even more to keep up with your team
- Increases responsibility (even if you don't want to wake up for a 6 a.m. strength session, you'll get up because your partner will be at the gym, waiting for you)
Partner Training: Exercises
I try to incorporate full-body movements that include everything from pushing, pulling, rotating, changing levels to jumping. For metabolic circuits, I will typically set up five stations that are each 60 seconds long. You and your partner will complete all five stations consecutively and then rest for one minute before repeating the circuit again. A sample partner training metabolic circuit routine might look something like this:
1. Alternating Tire Flips with a 15-second battle at the end
2. Horizontal Rope Pulls — aim for two lengths each (40-foot rope)
3. Band Jumps — 20 yards with partner resistance
4. Prowler Pushes (with Burpees) — 20-yard push
5. Dumbbell Grip Walks — 20-yard walk with 10- to 20-pound dumbbells
I believe that anything that contributes to your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual state has everything to do with your focus on the mat. You must be in peak condition mentally or you won't be at your best physically. I consistently do informal assessments of my athletes to evaluate psychological balance.
As my athletes work to become faster, stronger and more explosive, I see their self-esteem and confidence being positively impacted. Is this more of a psychological or a physical response? It's probably a bit of both, but regardless, it's good. I'm not saying partner training should be your everyday workout, but incorporate it into your program design to shake things up and train in a new way physically and, more important, mentally.
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.
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