by PJ Nestler
Optimizing Power for MMA
The expression of power is a critical component of mixed martial arts (MMA) performance. Power underpins many of the most common techniques in MMA, from shooting for a takedown, launching a head kick, or exploding into a fight-ending punch, the use of force at high velocities (power) will determine the effectiveness of skills in the cage. The ability to use these techniques with a brutal combination of force and speed can make the difference between a big fight night bonus check and being woken up by the doctor on the canvas. In addition to the obvious implications of power on MMA performance, it has been well documented in the scientific literature that maximal power expression is a defining characteristic of elite combat sports athletes versus their lower graded counterparts (1). In another study on elite boxers, Loturco et al., concluded that strength-power qualities (in this case squat jump and countermovement jump testing) accounted for 75% of the magnitude of punching impact forces (2). Through my working with combat athletes over the past 10 years, I’ve seen that power remains one of the most sought-after abilities from athletes looking to improve their performance in the cage.
- Improving operational outputs leads to improved power in sports
- A mixed methods approach to training is superior to any individual method alone
- Strength is the foundational characteristic that underpins all other athletic abilities
- Plyometrics and Ballistic training are the suggested methods for improving RFD
- Post-activation potentiation can expand abilities to express power
While it’s accepted that power is the desired trait for MMA athletes, the best practices for developing power are highly debated amongst skill coaches and performance coaches alike. Many skill coaches believe that simply practicing the skill (throwing more punches or kicks) is the best way to elicit greater power adaptations. While this approach has excellent transferability, due to the specificity of the training stressors, it lacks the ability to overload. Overload is a vital component of improving any parameter of physical performance (3).
“Without stress, there is no adaptation.”
There are great bodies of research to show the correlation of improvement in operational outputs, such as maximal force production, rate of force development, motor unit recruitment, speed, and many others, with improvements in sports specific abilities (4, 5). Performance coaches agree that power can be developed outside the skills session through the application of intelligent training, but many disagree on the BEST way to structure this training to create the most efficient adaptations.
Many performance coaches believe that plyometrics or light loaded exercises performed with high velocities are the superior (and sometimes only) method for improving power in fighters. Others have a more traditional viewpoint, arguing that maximum strength development through heavy weight training is the more effective method. Advocates of Olympic style weightlifting maintain that weightlifting movements are the best way to improve MMA specific power. As with most aspects of high-level performance, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and can shift up and down the spectrum depending on a number of variables.
It is important to have a clear definition of power, to understand the best methods for improvement. According to Knuttgen & Kramer’s paper “Terminology and Measurement in Exercise Performance,” from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, power is defined as the product of force and velocity (6).
Power = Force x Velocity (P = F x v)
This means that maximum power has a force AND velocity component. If force is the magnitude of push or pull on an object, and velocity is the speed at which an object is moving in a particular direction, then it is apparent that training methods from both ends of the Force-Velocity curve (shown below) should be used together to optimize power outputs in MMA fighters.
Neither maximum strength or maximum velocity training methods are superior, but instead, the proper implementation of both into a periodized training program will create the most efficient power improvements. This is a crucial understanding and is supported in the literature through many studies (5, 8, 9). There are a variety of methods across the force-velocity spectrum, such as heavy strength training (high force/low velocity), weightlifting and similar power methods (high force/high velocity), ballistic training (high-low force/high velocity), and speed or plyometric exercises (low force/high velocity). Due to the unique neural activation patterns in each method, the mixed methods approach leads to better improvements in inter-muscular coordination as compared to each strategy individually (10). Cormie et al., demonstrated that combined heavy strength training and ballistic exercises together showed more significant improvements than ballistic training alone (11). Further, Fatouros et al., found that mixing all four previously mentioned methods created more significant increases in vertical jump performance, strength, and power outputs as compared to any method in solidarity (12).
Heavy Strength Training
Heavy strength training, or the use of training loads greater than 80% of the athletes 1RM (3), has been shown to improve force production, inter and intramuscular coordination, hypertrophy, power, rate of force development (RFD), among a multitude of other benefits (13, 14, 15). Strength is also the foundational characteristic that underpins all other athletic abilities. Therefore, strength training plays a critical role in the development of power in MMA athletes. To excuse strength training as a viable and crucial component of MMA training would be misguided and irresponsible. Increasing the size of the engine will lead to more considerable abilities to develop speed and power qualities (3, 13, 15), while also creating additional benefits motor control and stability, which can aid in injury reduction during training and competition. Strength training alone can lead to massive improvements in strength, motor control, coordination, and speed & power in weaker athletes or those with a low training age (10). For those reasons, strength training MUST be a part of any intelligent training programs for MMA athletes.
“Strength training MUST be a part of any intelligent training programs for MMA athletes.”
However, there is a point of diminishing returns in strength development for more advanced trainees. As adaptations occur over a few years of proper training, a larger and more targeted stimulus must be applied to create similar adaptations (9, 16). At a certain level, more strength training will not lead to improvements in power or velocity. Even though strength training does not improve power or velocity in highly trained athletes, it is essential to maintain high levels of strength throughout training, because detraining effects in strength outputs have been shown to create a decrease in power output as well (17).
Olympic weightlifting exercises are excellent in improving RFD (10), power, and inter and intramuscular coordination (3). Weightlifting exercises have shown high correlations to athletic abilities like jumping and sprinting speed (18). The sequencing of muscle actions is a major principle of specificity, and therefore the transfer of training (3). For those reasons, many people believe Olympic weightlifting exercises are the optimal approach to improving power in athletes which will transfer to sport.
“Your job is to find the fastest and most efficient method to achieve the desired result.”
While there is probably a lot of merit to this thought process, weightlifting exercises also have a significant technical component and therefore associated learning curve. When dealing with athletes who are already learning a plethora of complex motor skills from a variety of sports on a daily and weekly basis, introducing a new technical skill can be counterproductive to long-term performance. In practice, I have seen many combat athletes struggle with the process of learning weightlifting movements, particularly in a group setting. As a performance coach, your job is to find the fastest and most efficient method to achieve the desired result, which is why I rarely use complex weightlifting movements for power development with fighters. When appropriately implemented this can be a powerful (no pun intended) tool in your arsenal, but tread cautiously and always ask yourself if you can achieve the same adaptation in a quicker, easier, or safer manner.
Ballistic exercises are performed when the athlete releases the implement near the end of the concentric phase, thereby eliminating the eccentric or deceleration phase of the movement (3, 10). These can be a variety of jumps, throws, and weightlifting movements, and have a considerable degree of specificity to ballistic actions in sport. As previously mentioned, ballistic training alone was shown to be less effective than ballistic exercise and strength training together (11). The best times to use ballistic movements during a workout are either near the beginning of the session when fatigue will not limit the explosiveness and motor control of the action, or coupled with heavy strength training movements to create a potentiation effect (more on this later). Due to their relative simplicity, and specificity to sports movement, ballistic exercises should be a component of training programs aimed at improving power in MMA fighters.
Plyometrics differ from ballistic exercises in that plyometrics include a rapid eccentric muscle action to potentiate the subsequent concentric action (10). This rapid elastic muscle action is referred to as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) and has shown strong correlations to improvements in activities at the lower force-higher velocity end of the F/V curve. Many sport specific movements of MMA, particularly striking moves, evasion of opponents while standing, or shooting for takedowns, require the same rapid utilization of the SSC, leading to high levels of transferability from plyometrics to MMA skills.
Anywhere from 3-10x bodyweight forces can be absorbed during the landing from jumps (19, 20). Due to these high levels of force being absorbed in certain plyometric exercises, proper progression, prescription, and mechanics must be used when implementing plyometrics with fighters. Force absorption should be prioritized early in a training cycle, with sequences leading to RFD and fast ground contact times becoming the priority later on.
Post Activation Potentiation
Post-activation potentiation (PAP) is a phenomenon best described as the use of maximal effort exercises (potentiating exercise) to create supernormal abilities in subsequent tasks. Meaning if an athlete can jump 30 inches, you may use a maximal effort exercise like 1-3RM back squats before jumping, and the athletes jumping abilities may reach 31-32inches (hypothetically). If the athlete continues to train at this heightened state of capabilities, the body will adapt to that stimulus, and therefore the athletes new jumping ability will be improved to 31-32inches (10, 21, 22, 23).
Post-activation potentiation can be used in combat sports training to improve the speed and power capabilities of athletes in general outputs or specific MMA tasks. A heavy loaded movement can be coupled with unloaded or light loaded ballistic methods, plyometrics, or even sport-specific skills to create a trainable window during which the athlete has increased speed or power ability. Exercises with similar movement patterns, motor unit recruitment, and muscle and joint sequencing should be paired together to enhance the potentiation effect. Below are two examples of general output supersets and sport-specific supersets using PAP to increase force potential.
General Output Example:
Back Squat 4×2 Depth Jumps 4×4
Weighted Pull-Ups 4×3 Reactive Med Ball Slams 4×4
Sport Specific Examples:
Reverse Lunges 4x4each Knees into Pad 4x4each
Chain Bench Press 4×3 Heavy Bag Punches 4×6 seconds
A few important factors when using PAP are volume, intensity, and rest intervals. The volume of the potentiating exercise and the power exercise should be kept low, so the reps are high quality and to limit the onset of fatigue restricting the velocity, force, or precision of the movement. In practical experience, I’ve seen the most success keeping sets under six reps or 6 seconds. Intensity must be high enough to force the body to recruit the necessary motor units and muscle fibers to create the potentiation effect (21, 22). I typically use loads between 1RM to 3RM percentages for the potentiation exercise, paired with extremely light (<30% 1RM), unloaded, or even assisted loads for the power movement. It is crucial that the athlete is coached to perform every exercise with the INTENT of moving as fast as possible. This intent will create the most beneficial effect in both exercises (24).
Rest intervals must be long enough not to allow fatigue to limit the power output in the follow-up exercise, but not so long as to lose the potentiation effect. Most studies recommend somewhere between 2-12 minutes of rest between exercises in a superset (23). However, in many cases, it is not possible to implement such rest periods in an already limited training session, so I find it best to use between 30-60 seconds of rest between exercises and 2-3 minutes between sets. This is based 100% on anecdotal evidence through trial and error and input from many experienced coaches on best practices. We may be losing some benefit of the potentiation activity, but since the more extended rest periods are just not practical, some is better than none in my opinion.
Well Rounded Approach
It’s clear from research and practical experience that a mixed methods approach to power development is superior to a singular focus for most athletes. However, this is meant to be a guide to possible techniques for improving speed and power in MMA athletes, not a one size fits all roadmap. As always, these methods and suggestions should be considered along with athlete goals, training history, and various individual traits which may limit certain approaches. Science should continue to direct our applications in practice, along with the influence of other domain experts and the results and perception of individual athletes. Through this combination of scientific research, domain expertise, and athlete values, we can continue to embrace an evidence-based approach to preparing fighters, and transition from archaic times of slightly educated guesswork, to a new era of Engineering Combat Athletes.
Want to learn more?
Dive deeper optimizing power for mma and the specific methods used to prepare hundreds of elite level combat athletes for competition, along with many other topics on Engineering Combat Athletes in the upcoming seminar by the same title. The seminar will feature Coach Phil Daru (@darustrong), Strength Coach & Nutrition Specialist Dan Garner (@dangarnernutrition), and Combat Sports Training Specialist PJ Nestler tackling the most critical topics in combat sports preparation today. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
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