By Matthew Palfrey
“…we have not spent the last 65 million or so years finely honing our physiology to watch Oprah. Like it or not, we are the product of a very long process of adaptation to a harsh physical existence, and the past couple centuries of comparative ease and plenty are not enough time to change our genome. We humans are at our best when our existence mirrors, or at least simulates, the one we are still genetically adapted to live. And that is the purpose of exercise.” - Mark Rippetoe
In my last article, I discussed how Olympic lifting could be used as a useful form of resistance training for MMA Athletes. I spoke about how, when used correctly, it can produce tremendously powerful athletes and is therefore a very valuable training technique. In this article, I will be discussing the prevalence of body building routines utilised in MMA, why you shouldn’t be training this way and how your strength and conditioning programme can be adapted to improve performance.
What is a body building routine?
The practice of body building is to improve aesthetic appearance – its primary goal is to make you look better. The routines used by body builders are typically characterised by both isolation exercises and spilt body part training days. There is also little distinction between the use of machine based exercises and free weights. Whilst there is some strength and power lifting work it is generally used for the primary goal of increasing muscle size.
As an MMA Athlete this should not be your focus. Your focus should be on increasing your athletic performance – strength, speed, power, agility and skill.
Why are so many of us following body building routines?
Chances are that most of us, at some point, have been following a body building routine. But if these routines aren’t designed to improve athletic performance then how has this happened?
Back in the seventies, when body building started to become really popular, the distinction between athletic performance and looking good became blurred (in the western world at least). The mainstream health and fitness industry adopted the practices of the body building world. Machines began to fill our gymnasiums and coaching slowly started to die out. If you’ve ever had a gym ‘induction’ where the instructor shows you how to turn on various pieces of equipment you’ll know what I mean.
Today most modern gymnasiums are littered with various bits of fairly useless machinery and generally zero coaching staff and this idea of idiot proof exercise is all too common. There has been a rise in popularity of so called ‘functional fitness’ in the last decade. Whilst this has helped to move people away from body building routines it should be noted that it’s not ideal. Many of these ‘functional fitness’ routines are no different from your average body building routine – except you’ll be doing it while balancing on a stability ball.
The programming in mainstream fitness is also typically designed to improve aesthetic appearance and not performance.
If you’ve read one of the fitness magazines recently you’ll appreciate that practically every article is about how you can look better without your shirt on. While this is a nice bonus you’ll look, and feel better, having your hand raised at the end of a fight.
What is an isolation exercise?
An isolation exercise is typically one that uses a single joint or an exercise in a reduced range-of-motion (ROM). Some examples would be bicep curls, tricep extensions or leg extensions. My opinion is that these types of exercises have no firm place in an athletic conditioning programme. Why? They bear little to no relation to basic human movement and regular practice creates neuro-muscular pathways that don’t support athletic improvement. There is an argument to support their inclusion for joint rehab but they should not form the backbone of the programme.
How can I improve?
It’s not entirely necessary to choose exercises that exactly resemble the movements that you will perform in training and competition but they must have relevance. Choose compound exercises that utilise multiple body parts through a full range-of-motion. For example,
Knees to elbows
These types of exercises, done in a variety of combinations and over a range of work outputs will improve athletic performance.
What is a split body part training day?
This refers to the practice of dividing your body into sections e.g. chest and triceps, back and biceps etc. For the athlete this makes no sense – your sport doesn’t require you to do that so why condition yourself for it. Try wrestling using only your back and biceps – not gonna happen.
How can I improve?
You should either base your programming on the basic movement patterns of the human body or a required training outcome e.g. power or agility.
The basic human movements are generally recognised as the following:
Most useful exercises and indeed MMA specific movements will fit into one or more of these patterns. Correct attention to increasing competence in all of them will therefore lead to improved athletic performance. You could do a lot worse than to ensure that you include a movement from each pattern in your strength and conditioning sessions.
What’s wrong with machine exercises?
Again, in keeping with our attention to matching our programme to our sport you should avoid using the majority of fixed resistance machines e.g. chest press, leg press, leg extension. Putting your body in the confines of a machine and applying force against a lever/pulley system is just not very functional. Working with external loads and your own bodyweight is a far more effective approach. Some work with uneven/odd objects/partners is also useful as it has a more direct relation to the demands of the sport.
How can I improve?
Remove machine based exercises from your programme. Replace them with free weights/external loads and bodyweight modalities like these:
Pull Up Rigs
If you have any specific questions on Olympic lifting, Strength & Conditioning for MMA or you’d like to discuss workshops, professional fighter coaching or a review of your current programme feel free to get in touch.
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