The Ultimate Guide to Preventing and Treating MMA Injuries: Featuring advice from UFC Hall of Famers Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock, Bas Rutten, Pat Miletich, Dan Severn and more! (2016)
INJURY PREVENTION: THE KEY LESSONS
Throughout my interviews and conversations with the fighters and trainers featured in this book, several themes were repeated. This should attest to the importance of these lessons in injury prevention. While many of these rules may seem obvious or simple, the actual application of these rules to MMA training are either overlooked or not deeply understood by the fighter and his team. Here we will explore them with some of MMA’s top talent. The top five most repeated principles of injury prevention are:
1. Choose the right camp and surround yourself with a good team.
2. Use proper equipment in all aspects of training.
3. Listen to your body (not your ego) and adapt.
4. Avoid overtraining.
5. Train smarter, not harder.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT CAMP AND SURROUND YOURSELF WITH A GOOD TEAM
Surrounding yourself with a good team is often a disregarded part of injury prevention, especially in mixed martial arts. Professional athletes in more mainstream sports are usually part of a large organization that includes doctors, certified athletic trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, and more. The MMA athlete is often limited to who his gym has hired. They may be working with the best striking coaches or grappling coaches in the area, but they may not be surrounded with people who are specifically trained in injury prevention and treatment. Finding a training team that is knowledgeable and experienced is important in fostering your growth as an athlete. Legendary UFC champion Randy Couture has some advice for newer fighters: “Younger guys are restless and tend to jump around from camp to camp even while they’re preparing for a specific fight. Having continuity in the training environment is very important to achieving a peak performance and measuring your progress in a sport where experience is very valuable.”
However, you should branch out and avoid limiting yourself to the teachings of just one camp. And while the process of finding a good camp should be continuous and updated as necessary, you should always have a core training family to return to. As Brandon Vera, a veteran of the UFC and ONE FC, recommends, “Finding good training partners and coaches will always be an ongoing journey for you, because you should never want to stop learning. You should be going to other gyms, learning new things, sharing new things, and bringing them back to your home gym. There are a lot of coaches/training partners with good intentions, but they are not necessarily good training partners. Some camps are all about being tough, some are all about being technical, some are more of a stand-up school, and the list goes on and on. So you can still go out and learn, but choose the training partners you return home to carefully. These people will sweat with you, bleed with you, cry and laugh with you. So it has to be a good vibe and a good fit. They become your family, so you can go out and learn, but always bring this knowledge back home to your family.”
Carlos Condit finds that not all camps fit all fighters, and you need to find a camp that works for you and promotes your progress and style. “Where I train, at Jackson’s MMA, there are a lot of great guys, but it’s not super structured. You have to be self-motivated, which I am. But a lot of guys can get lost in the shuffle. There is no one telling you when to show up for practice. Some guys need more encouragement. You need to find what type of camp works for you.”
You need to surround yourself not only with good coaches, but also with safe, reliable training partners. It takes a team to build a champion. Nate “Rock” Quarry, a UFC and MMA veteran, as well as co-host of the TV show MMA Uncensored Live, sees egos in training partners as a potential source of injury. “The fight game, by its very nature, is filled with egos. Your training partner may want to hit you just a little harder than you hit him. He may never let you work to get back on top when he gets the better of you. He could be the legendary ‘Club Pro’ or ‘Focus Mitt Superstar.’ Those are the guys that, while they never fight professionally at a high level, have to make sure all the athletes in the gym know how good they are. And they do that by refusing to ‘flow.’
“With a good partner, you develop the ‘flow’ in training. You train each other and both get better as a result. For example, if he’s working on his head movement to avoid getting hit so much, I’ll slow down my punches, let him see them coming so he develops the necessary skill to avoid them. And, shockingly enough, he gets better and gives me a better partner to train with so we both win. I see it all the time in sparring sessions, a live version of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. And every time I see that happening all I can think to myself is, ‘Man, I’m glad I know I’m tough so I don’t have to prove it every day in the gym.’”
Quarry goes on to say, “Make sure you find a good camp and a great coach. A coach who cares about your success and safety — not just the winning record of his gym. Train with partners that understand the fight isn’t in the gym. The fight is in the cage. The gym is where you prepare for it. Every champion is built. They are an amalgam of their coaches and training partners. They are standing on the shoulders of giants who helped them reach new heights. Or, if you aren’t paying attention, those coaches and training partners could be tearing down the house you built, brick by brick. Perhaps maliciously, perhaps out of ignorance. Either way the end result is the same: a busted career and, most likely, a busted body.”
Don Frye and Mark Coleman first met at UFC 10. Since that time, these two MMA pioneers have spread the same two key pieces of advice to new fighters. Don Frye remarks, “My advice to new guys is two things: one, take the time to stretch, and two, find a good team. Fortunately, my career was 13-15 years long, but I didn’t have the patience to stretch. If I did, I could have stolen a couple more years. As for number two: surround yourself with quality, professional people. That’s really the first thing you should do. Start with a trainer who knows what he is doing and doesn’t put you in risky situations. And your sparring partners need to know they are just sparring partners. In our camps, guys would come in fighting like they were there to win the world title, and we were quick to kick them out.”
Mark Coleman almost echoes what his fellow MMA pioneer advises. “What I never did when I was younger, but now I know better, is stretch. You have to stretch to protect yourself. Do yoga or something similar. Being flexible can help you prevent injuries. In the weight room I was old school, just ripping out heavy weights. I just assumed the stronger guy wins. But now I am older and wiser and stress technique and stretching. I do yoga. As for what you and your team do in practice, when you train, save all the dangerous moves for the cage. Make sure you and your partners are on the same page. You are there as a team to help each other out. Injuries can ruin your career. You need to simulate the fight, but don’t do dangerous moves that can end your or your partner’s career.”
BEING A GOOD TRAINING PARTNER
Being a good training partner is a give-and-take relationship, so that both of you can improve the skills you’ll need for your next fight. Josh Barnett, an MMA veteran and the youngest UFC Heavyweight Champion in UFC history, understands that fighters need to “build a relationship with your training partner and let them know if you do beat them up in training, you won’t go out on the internet and talk trash. Both of you need to know that the fighter needs to focus on his opponent and what they bring to the fight. So, if they need a southpaw, and you are a southpaw, you will be there for him. If your opponent is orthodox, understand they may need someone else. They also need to remember to help focus on my improvement by letting me lead. Trust that I am not looking to hurt you in training. I want you to come back tomorrow or next week. And I will do the same. Instead of looking to kick your butt while you are training, I will give you the opportunity to see what you need to improve on and [will let you] use me to work on that.”
MMA veteran and Olympic silver-medalist wrestler Matt Lindland knows what it takes to make a great team. “The 2000 Olympic wrestling team was one of the greatest teams I was ever a part of. It’s not that we didn’t have problems, because we had plenty, but what made the team so great was we had such great team members. What is it that makes a great teammate? Great teammates are finishers. Great teammates hold themselves and their teammates accountable. They get the job done. They finish what they start. They keep their word. When they say they will meet you for an extra conditioning workout, they show up on time ready to go.
“Great teammates anticipate, understand what needs to be done next, and look for ways to step up and help the team. One of my teammates at the Olympic training center did not make the Olympic squad but was one of the most valuable teammates we brought with us to Sydney. This man got an apartment right next to the wrestling venue, so we had a place to rest in between rounds. No one asked him to do it, he just showed up and took care of it. Little things like this can make such an impact. Finally, great teammates are humble. Pride comes before a fall, and for teams the same holds true. A teammate should always be pulling others up to their level and never tearing others down. They never criticize the leadership or their teammates, especially in public.”
MMA coach Renzo Gracie has advice for fighters looking for a good camp. Make sure the guys you train with leave you feeling comfortable knowing that they aren’t going to try and hurt you or test you too much. “You need to pick guys you are comfortable with. I remember how guys would come from all over the world to spar with Georges St-Pierre, so he would always have to give it 100%. It’s tiring. He looked forward to coming to me to relax and just train jiu-jitsu. You can’t take away a guy’s comfort zone. He needs to know his training partners are not there to hurt him. I once saw GSP train for seven different rounds with seven different guys. This is too demanding. You can’t relax. You can’t grow. George told me he looked forward to retiring so he could just relax and do jiu-jitsu. You don’t want to have to kill a lion every day. You want to feel comfortable with the guys around you.”
Dan Severn notes, “I set up most of my workouts and training camps myself. I just had good people that were around me and we had safe camps, too. When you hear or you read about all these upcoming cards, how people are getting hurt and the change of opponents or scratching of matches, a lot of it, I truly believe, can be prevented by running a proper training camp. There’s no way that you can train 100% and still have workout partners. Or your workout partners will get so sick of becoming punching bags for you that, because they’re human beings, they’ll want to take it back out on you. It’s a give-and-take relationship.”
EDUCATE YOURSELF IN THE PROCESS
Josh Barnett has long realized the importance of surrounding yourself with reliable and educated people. “The biggest difference between [MMA] and more mainstream sports is the money they have at their disposal. Each football team spends hundreds of millions of dollars on players every year. No one fighter will ever equal that. You are only one athlete. That being said, you don’t need an entire NFL staff. But if you want care and training at the highest level, you will need to spend money. If you want the highest level of knowledge, you need to invest in yourself. In Japan, I used to hire Stitch to come out with me to do my cuts and wrap my hands. Folks would see him around and wanted his expertise, but they would have to pay for his services. While many guys hired him, other guys thought the meager amount of a couple of hundred dollars was not worth the investment of a world-class hand wrapper and cutman. Unfortunately that’s the mentality of many fighters in MMA — to get more for less. But if you work with guys in a more direct manner and form a relationship, like I did with Stitch, you will not only be around experts, but you will also learn from them. He taught me to wrap hands properly. If I wanted to, he could teach me how to treat cuts. You are responsible for you at the end of the day.”
USE PROPER EQUIPMENT
Wearing and using proper equipment and protection is paramount. Whether it’s correctly applied hand wraps, headgear, or even clean mats, proper equipment can help prevent a lot of injuries. Headgear should be worn any time there is a chance of getting a head-butt, even if you aren’t practicing striking. If you are practicing striking, you should be using heavier gloves (around 16oz) for your hands and padding your shins and elbows. Save the MMA gloves for grappling and technical work. Vaseline and a well-fitting mouthguard should also be in your equipment bag. The gym you are training at should use permanent or roll-out mats instead of puzzle mats. For Frank Shamrock, you can never protect yourself too much. “If you are going full contact, pad every surface. Either you train in a strictly technical way or you have contact. At the end of my career I had a pad on every square inch of my body. I even use a lubricant on the face and other bony surfaces to prevent injury.”
Pat Miletich is the founder of Miletich Fighting Systems, which has spawned UFC champions Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, Jens Pulver, and Robbie Lawler. He also makes sure his fighters are using the correct equipment for sparring. “I am a heavy believer in padding our guys up fully. When our guys spar full-contact, we never use MMA gloves. We use 16 oz gloves, headgear, and shin pads so they can train at fight-speed. Guys training striking with MMA gloves develop bad habits like not hitting fully and leaning back to avoid fingers coming into eyes. I like using MMA gloves more for technique in the mornings, but then we use full boxing gloves at night for striking practice.”
However, just wearing gear isn’t always enough — you have to make sure it’s the right gear and that it’s doing its intended job. “When you spar,” Bas Rutten says, “pay attention to your protecting gear. If it gets old, buy new gear! Take your time to ‘pack yourself up.’ You don’t want to go into an MMA fight with an injury from training.” And since one cut can derail your entire training camp, elite trainer Mark DellaGrotte makes sure all of his fighters use headgear. “I have seen a lot of guys get a big cut or even a broken orbital from a knee to the face. I understand a lot of guys don’t like to wear headgear because it’s cumbersome and it’s hard to grapple with and get out of chokes with. But as the fight gets closer, you need to make sure you stay healthy enough to get to the fight in top shape. The last thing anyone wants to do, including the fighters and the promoters, is to have to cancel a fight because a guy gets hurt. As the fight gets closer, all my guys are using headgear and large boxing gloves.”
Gilbert Melendez always wears protective gear, but adjusts it based on what type of training he is doing. “Anytime I am punching, I am wrapping my hands. I wrap them with cloth hand wrap and then tape over the top of the wrap. Anytime I am sparring I have headgear, 16 oz gloves, and the thickest pads, not just MMA pads. I use elbow and knee pads and always wear a cup. For strictly MMA sparring, I may go with thinner pads. And every day, I throw on Vaseline, even if it’s on strictly jiu-jitsu or wrestling days.”
Besides padding, mouthguards are an important part of training. Andy Foster, former MMA fighter and CSAC commissioner, calls his mouthpiece “the most personal piece of equipment” he owns. No matter where he was or who he was fighting, he had his mouthpiece with him. Make sure to use a mouthguard that fits your mouth. There are boil and bite models as well as professionally made mouthguards custom fit by dentists. In addition, there are now dual-arch mouthguards that cover both the upper and lower teeth. Foster prefers a fitted, dual-arch mouthguard. There is some thought that this dual-arch technology may help limit the amount of trauma the brain receives by absorbing and distributing some of the impact of a jaw punch.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY (NOT YOUR EGO) AND ADAPT
The next three keys to injury prevention work in unison. Following the principle of listening to your body and adapting keeps you out of dangerous situations and allows you to still progress in training or in a fight. You can then focus on structuring your training regimen appropriately with the final two principles: ensuring you don’t overtrain and training smarter, not harder. Step one in listening to your body is to leave your ego at the door. Sure, tough guys enter the world of mixed martial arts, but there is a difference between being tough and being ignorant. Don’t push your body until it breaks down. Don’t refuse to tap or give up a takedown during training.
If you aren’t performing at your normal level of training, focus on something else rather than putting yourself at injury risk. Good coaches also recognize this and need to protect fighters from themselves and their egos, especially if they are tired and underperforming. When that happens, the fighter and his training partners are at risk for injury. And if an injury does occur or something is painful, listen to your body. Back off on the things that hurt and focus on other areas of your game strategy. That is the adaptation portion of the principle. You must adapt to the situation at hand. Like Bruce Lee, you need to “be like water.” You may end up becoming a more well-rounded fighter in the process.
UFC champion Demetrious Johnson knows his body can’t handle going hard doing the same routine all the time. “This is the only body I have for my career. Be smart. A guy has to make sure he doesn’t get hurt but is also ready for a fight. I know my body better than my coach Matt Hume. I talk to him. You have to communicate with your coach. I let him know what’s hurting. We then try alternatives to push my body in other ways. What works for me as a fighter, works for my body.”
HOW TO BE A GOOD COACH
When training top-level fighters, a coach has to pay attention to a fighter’s body — pushing him to his limit, but encouraging him to rest before he gets injured. It’s not always enough to just listen to a fighter, because they won’t always vocalize how they’re feeling or when something hurts. Sometimes a coach has to be more intuitive and has to know what their fighter needs before the fighter knows. This can mean altering the game plan, even on fight night. Pat Miletich, coach to Tim Sylvia and Robbie Lawler, recalls having to train Jens Pulver for an upcoming fight while avoiding further injury to Jens’s back. “Jens Pulver had hurt his back going into a fight against John Lewis, a strong grappler. Jens is an All-American wrestler who could match Lewis on the ground, but Jens is also a solid boxer. From watching John, I knew he would throw a southpaw jab and would drop his hand. By focusing on out-striking Lewis rather than out-wrestling him, we could spare Jens having to stress his back on the ground. In the fight, Lewis threw the jab, and Jens threw a counter that missed. But the second time the window opened, Jens shattered Lewis’s jaw. Again, if there is an injury, we have to work around it. We have to do that a lot in the sport. It comes down to keeping fighters safe and still helping them win.
“As a coach or fighter, you also have to change your practice plans too. Often we would have running practice and also drill takedowns in the same session. Takedowns are the most physical aspect of the sport. Guys are trying to post and stop a takedown, but this can lead to injury if the guys are tired. In fact, I think a lot of guys need to learn the fundamentals of wrestling. They need to learn how to land. I try to keep guys fresh. When I saw guys starting to land wrong or they got tired, I stopped it and we took a break. Then we changed the practice to ground fighting. As a coach it’s important to make sure your fighter is practicing safely.”
Renzo Gracie recalls a story from his grandfather, which he applies to the fighters in his camp. “A common mistake coaches make is driving guys too hard. I remember hearing about how my grandfather had trained a farm rooster into a fighting rooster. He could get the rooster to fight for 20 minutes. I asked how he did it. He told me he would have the rooster fight until he got tired but wouldn’t let him get hurt by the big fighting roosters. He would pull him back before he got hurt. You have to do the same with your fighters. Otherwise if he gets hurt or trains too hard, he will think about that and it will stick with him. This separates a good coach from an ordinary one.”
Greg Nelson, another legendary MMA trainer of UFC champions Sean Sherk and Brock Lesnar, reiterates these sentiments. “Fighters have to listen to their bodies and trainers have to listen to their fighters. If a fighter has all the ingredients to be a champion, he probably won’t want to appear weak and will always want to push hard. It is up to the trainer to design a program that will allow the fighter to progressively develop their conditioning and skill level so that they peak on competition day. Then they need to rest, recover, and reevaluate their performance.”
WORKING AROUND INJURIES
If you do have an injury, you need to learn to work around it. Don’t go home and sit on the couch and don’t push through the pain just to keep doing your typical, unadjusted routine. Pat Miletich recalls, “Over a 20-year period of coaching guys, I learned to work around injuries. Many fighters, including myself, often hurt their dominant striking hand. I saw that as an opportunity to work on the lead hand. I saw injuries as a blessing in disguise. When I injured my right shoulder, I still managed to fight three times professionally, because I controlled the fight with my left hand. I even focused on using my hand for other activities. For example, I practiced shooting free throws with my left hand.”
AVOIDING THE LAST WEEK CURSE
The last few days before fight night require considerable discipline on the part of the fighter and his training camp. Nerves are running high and every minute not spent training feels like an opportunity for an opponent to gain an advantage. Dean Lister understands this and can relate to his fellow fighters, but he knows listening to his ego can lead to injury. “As fighters, we all think that the extra little bit we do will help. I can’t tell you how many fighters I’ve known, me included, that thought the last day of hard sparring four days before the fight would give me an edge. But instead, it can often result in injury. It’s like a curse. I call it the ‘last week curse.’ Be careful what you do in training camp the days leading up to a fight and always be careful who you train with before a fight.”
Since MMA has no traditional “off-season,” it is important to maintain a steady, healthy level of fitness year round, but it’s also imperative that you don’t burn yourself out when it comes to training for a fight. Legendary two-weight-class UFC champion Randy Couture offers his advice on injury prevention: “The biggest issue I see in MMA injuries is that fighters’ fitness levels wax and wane between competition. MMA is obviously an intense contact sport, so accidents and injuries are going to happen no matter what. I notice younger fighters especially lay off training until they have a fight signed, and then make the difficult climb back into top fight shape, putting their bodies under more than usual physical stress. It’s this up and down in fitness where I see the majority of more serious injuries occur. These injuries are usually more serious and are the type that affect your athleticism and life in the long term. They can be avoided by maintaining a higher level of fitness activity between fights. This stresses your body less severely and allows for the achievement of peak competition fitness with less risk of fatigue-based injuries. Make fitness a lifestyle and train with a team you know and trust that has your best interest and athletic development at heart. Listen to your body. Nobody knows it better than you do.”
Once you have signed up for a fight and begun your training camp, entering with a base-level of fitness will help prevent early-camp injuries. Then, as you enter into deeper parts of your camp, it’s important not to overtrain. Nate Quarry has felt the sharp edge of overtraining. “One time, I signed for a big fight months in advance. Since I knew my opponent was tough, I really kicked my training into overdrive. Some days training three times a day! And of course, to me, every workout was the most important workout of the day, so I trained to exhaustion at each of the three sessions. And when fight week came, I stepped on the scale Friday afternoon and made weight easily, then spent the next five hours vomiting violently with a 102 degree fever. I’d overtrained. Of course I fought the next day. When fighting is how you feed your family, sometimes you have to make unwise decisions. And I did my best. I gave it my all. And I lost in the first round. That was my ego getting the better of me. As fighters and athletes, the easy thing for us is to work. The easy thing is to show people how tough we are. The hardest thing is to rest when we need it. To ice down our sore shoulders. To get regular massages. To get stretched out. To warm up properly. I needed a head coach that could save me from myself. The best coaches are scheduling the workouts and, sometimes more importantly, the much needed rest.”
As a coach and fighter, Josh Barnett understands that a coach that has a strong relationship with their athlete can help encourage the fighter to take a step back during training, and the fighter will trust that it’s the right decision. “[Fighters] might complain, but they listen, because we develop trust in our relationship. And if I am wrong, I admit it and we make adjustments because we are a team. As a coach, my word is not law, but I am accountable for what I tell my athletes and helping them accomplish what they want. If they want to be a world champion, I expect world champion output. That’s how I get them to listen. I provide an example of someone who follows through on their word, and I understand that they are all individuals, not just carbon copies. They each have different physical capabilities and different performance outputs.
“As an athlete you need to just sit back and breathe. Be honest with yourself. You know when you are doing enough. If you aren’t, you can’t just do more to make up for it. When you hit overtraining, you don’t sleep through the night. You are on edge. Your energy levels fall in training and you constantly feel tired, like you’re underwater — you can’t push harder through that. You need to step back and shorten your workout — keep moving and stay limber, but also give yourself some time to rest. Get a massage and go to a spa. Whenever I hear interviews, I always listen to athletes telling everyone how many hours a day they are training, as if that’s the benchmark of their performance. I say, if you are training eight hours a day, then you aren’t trying hard enough. With me and my athletes, two to three hours a day is enough.”
Renzo Gracie is not only a veteran MMA fighter and pioneer, but also a top-level coach. As a coach it’s his responsibility to help his fighters avoid overtraining. “You see the most overtraining in the most insecure athletes. They worry too much about the fight and train too much. As a coach, you have to look at the fighter’s personality. Follow and examine what he does on a daily basis. For example, with Frankie Edgar, we would just do positions for two hours. He would train in the morning and then come to me and then go train again after lunch. It was my job during my time with him to calm him down and work on technique. I would just push him mentally. I had to make it fun and make him relaxed. He had to enjoy being there. Then he would be fresh for his training. One of the main reasons you see us sitting down in a circle, smiling, is because we talk, we crack jokes. This takes their mind away from their worries, even the day before the fight. This helps them perform better.”
It is the balance between maintaining a good year-round level of fitness and avoiding overtraining that is a key to being a successful athlete and fighter, and also avoiding injuries. As only “El Guapo” Bas Rutten can describe it: “The guys who don’t run out of gas, the ones that shine, like Benson Henderson, Frankie Edgar, Cain Velasquez, etc., those guys train really, really hard and know how to train, so they take rest. I overtrained myself a long time ago. I was three months out of commission. At the time, I had only 4% body fat. I was very dumb. Nobody told me I needed rest in order to get stronger. So I trained seven days a week, two times a day, full-out. Needless to say, I collapsed one day. After that, I saw what happened when I took a day off. I got even stronger, I was amazed. Nowadays everybody knows what to eat and how much to rest. I was stupid, even training on beer, steak, and pizza!”
Gilbert Melendez understands that fighters need a certain amount of time to train for a fight. But if you are overtraining or getting too tired, you need to take some time off. A remedy to take time off, but still have the same number of strong training days under your belt when you step in the cage? Extend your training camp a little. “During training camp, listen to your body. Have your map of how you are going to approach training camp. But if you plan on doing some hard wrestling or hard striking and are feeling overtrained, pull back and focus on light training or technique. You can work on just footwork. As a fighter, that light day is tough, and if you are anxious about your upcoming fight, you may feel you need to play catch-up. You will find yourself at a crossroads in your camp. Maybe you need to have a longer camp. Instead of an eight-week camp, do a 10-week camp, and take two to three more days off. You still get the same training and get more days off. Also being in good cardio shape makes you feel better about taking some time off and not losing anything.”
It can also help to take a scientific approach to ensure you are training at an appropriate intensity and to help you track what you are doing and how much you are improving. As Carlos Newton suggests, “A key to avoid overtraining is record keeping. Your coach must keep data on what you are doing — for every day and for every activity. When I did that, I didn’t overtrain. It also helps navigate psychologically through the ups and downs of training. I have had training stretches where I felt I needed to push harder and wasn’t getting enough out of the workout, and my trainer could look at the data and see I was doing eight minutes per circuit where last week I was doing nine minutes. With data, you can see if your performance has improved, even if you feel it hasn’t. Work-wise you are stronger or faster, but it becomes psychological. Record keeping helps to set goals, but also motivates without overtraining. You don’t need to train based solely on gut feeling. Keep the gut feelings for the fight in the cage.”
No fighter is the same and no fighter has the same goals or the same baseline fitness level. Therefore, it’s up to you and your coaches to find the fitness regimen that’s right for you, instead of mimicking someone else’s that may have been successful for them. Ray Longo, trainer to both UFC champions Chris Weidman and Matt Serra, is a big proponent of individualizing his training camps to make sure his guys stay healthy. “Everything we do is on an individual basis. The goal is to get the guy to the fight as healthy as possible. Some of our training camps are as short as five weeks, depending on the guy. You have to experiment and you have to research. Don’t take everything you hear as gospel. Research what you hear and what you read. I teach my guys I don’t have all the answers, but we will work together to get you where you need to be as safely as we can with a good training camp.” Randy Couture tells his guys to look out for signs of overtraining. “Increased insomnia or elevated resting heartrate are indicators of physical overtraining.”
CROSS-TRAINING AND ACTIVE DAYS OF REST
Pat Miletich notes, “Most winners in my camp had a strong work ethic. But we also took a day off and focused on cross-training. We might go do one hour of swimming.” Dan Severn recalls, “I think overtraining is more of an American trait. Through my career spanning the globe, I was exposed to international training where I have seen wrestlers actually go out and play soccer for one hour rather than spend the day in the gym. They are out there running and having fun and at the same time, actually doing some cross-training. I call it ‘active rest.’ You can go play basketball or even just take a hike. As an NCAA wrestling coach, I will take guys to the sand volleyball court on campus to run barefoot, practice falling on the sand, and feel what it’s like to train on sand. It’s a fun alternative way to keep training. We have even gone to the beach and practiced throwing each other in the water.”
Like Dan Severn, UFC heavyweight and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion Jeff Monson has some strategies to avoid overtraining while still working your body. “Unfortunately, I learned the hard way about overtraining. I have always been a hard worker and willing to push through fatigue and pain barriers. However, many times I was guilty of overtraining. I remember having insomnia, losing interest in outside activities, and inevitably injuring myself while training. Along with separating days between maximum effort and more technical practices, I have found that having what I call ‘active rest days’ are great to incorporate into a training regimen. This involves doing a completely different sport or training than martial arts. For me this means once a week, I will play pick-up basketball at the gym or go swimming. These active-rest-day activities also have an added bonus of working different muscles that I didn’t typically use while boxing, grappling, or [doing] other MMA related practices. This has helped me keep mentally and physically fresh. Training hard but taking the time to stay invigorated and adding variety to the training has worked for me.”
KEEPING YOUR MIND IN THE GAME
If you need mental stimulation to get your mind off overtraining, Army Ranger and UFC veteran Tim Kennedy has some advice for you, “It’s hard to not overtrain. To step in a cage and not worry about being unprepared is scary. But, I have some tricks to focus on other things: video games, reloading ammo, gun smithing, and working on guns. You need to find something to do where you can focus on working on your mind and not your body.” Like Tim Kennedy, UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia also likes to keep his mind and body busy to help avoiding overtraining. “I believe in active rest — doing something where you can run around and keep active, but also letting yourself have a day off. I like to play paintball or go hunting.”
If guns aren’t your style, Cesar Gracie has another option for you — yoga. “Many years ago, it was all train, train, train. Training helps fighters in a camp settle their nerves, but then they overtrain. You leave the best part of you outside the cage. You need to go into the fight feeling good, not tired. If they have to do an activity, I tell them to do something healthy like yoga. It’s a workout but not a training stress. Someone else might like swimming. You should do low impact exercises and know when to take breaks.”
ICE AS A RECOVERY TOOL
Don’t forget about ice during recovery periods, especially for reducing inflammation. The ice works to constrict the blood vessels around the muscles and joints to reduce bloodflow, which helps reduce inflammation and soreness. Granted, there are arguments against using ice after workouts because the post-injury inflammation may be beneficial to long-term endurance enhancement, but the majority of college and professional athletic trainers still use it on their athletes and it appears to be doing its job. Frank Shamrock points out, “Ice is a wonderful tool. I learned it doing physical therapy. It helps to calm and rest your body and let it do amazing things.” Brandon Vera also feels ice baths are one of the many parts of a healing regimen. “My best advice for injury prevention includes warming up, stretching, listening to your body, and learning the difference between pain and injury. And don’t forget an ice bath at least twice a week at the end of training.” To further optimize the benefits of ice, you can utilize the principle of contrast by alternating hot and cold. The heat helps to dilate blood vessels, increasing bloodflow to the sore areas, and the cold constricts the muscles and blood vessels. The alternating contrast can help flush out soreness-inducing lactic acid and lead to a quicker recovery.
TRAIN SMARTER, NOT HARDER
Above all else, the mantra “train smarter, not harder” has emerged as the greatest take-home message. The first generation of stars in mixed martial arts entered uncharted territory. They had no reassurance that the organization they were fighting for would ever have another event, or if they would even be physically able to fight in an event again. Thus, every injury was a barrier to a payday and a barrier to the growth of the sport. As a result, many of the fighters trained and fought through injuries, ignoring medical advice or denying what their bodies were trying to tell them. As a result, their bodies eventually wore down, and many feel the effects on their careers to this day. There is no doubt that these warriors sacrificed themselves for the good of their careers and for the glory of the emerging sport, but today, things are different. MMA athletes do not need to drive their bodies until they break. Greg Nelson’s advice on injury prevention and career improvement is that “it is not just about simply training hard, it is about training right.” Or as Dan Severn put it, “Young athletes think they are invincible, but sooner or later a car breaks down.”
Feared UFC welterweight Matt “The Immortal” Brown stresses the importance of proper training, listening to your body, and maintaining it for the duration of a career. Much like Dan Severn, he sees the body as a car that needs to keep running. “I have been fortunate throughout my career to not have very many debilitating injuries. I attribute this partially to luck but more so to proper training. A lot of trainers think that injuries stem from overtraining. I agree, but I would also argue that they are caused by improper training. A large portion of my daily regimen is focused on prehab: correcting muscular imbalances, creating symmetry, improving mobility, and general strengthening of tendons and ligaments. It’s analogous to tightening the nuts and bolts of your car or changing the oil and keeping the chassis lubed. I built a strong vehicle over years of training. Now the important part is fine-tuning the vehicle and performing proper maintenance. I don’t get out of shape when I don’t have a fight, and this allows time to maintain, build, and fine-tune on a consistent basis. If you have a well maintained vehicle, you can run it harder and more often, which results in better performances in all aspects of your life.”
Part of training smarter, not harder is to look beyond just strength, and instead focus on flexibility and functionality. Sure, everyone wants to look good in the gym and when walking into the cage, but don’t be one of those guys who spent all their time lifting weights and not enough time training to fight. The key is to balance strength with flexibility. Sean Sherk points to more functional-type training. “Don’t grab the heaviest weights in the gym and throw them around. That’s how you get hurt. It’s a big reason why I got hurt. Over time, I realized I am not in a weightlifting competition. I am a fighter. The key is to train smarter with functional training.”
Pat Miletich likes the idea of gravity boots as part of functional training. “They help to strengthen the core and legs. I would do reverse squats, hanging upside, pulling my butt to my heels. I like functional exercises. I would often work out at Turner Halls, which are German-American gymnasiums. They were the original crossfit dating back to the 1900s. We would do kettlebells, Olympic lifts, throwing medicine balls, and pommel horses. It taught me all of the functional fitness I do today.”
As has been said multiple times already, a proper warm-up is vital. Warming up the muscles not only prevents injuries, but also helps prepare for hard training; the elevated heart rate increases the blood flow to the muscles and helps relax the joints. Like many veteran fighters, Jeff Monson, an MMA veteran, world-champion grappler, and member of the world class American Top Team, stresses an adequate warm-up before going hard in training. “At American Top Team, we have found that warming up with drilling proper technique at a slow pace that gradually increases over a 30-minute period is an excellent warm-up that solidifies proper technique and prevents injuries.”
It’s also beneficial to take an introspective approach to your trainings and evaluate your regimen, asking yourself what you are doing and for what reason. Josh Barnett has had much success with this approach. “Whenever something on my body starts hurting, instead of just saying this part of my body hurts and move on, I think about what is actually making it hurt and why, not only for myself but also for my athletes, and I learn from that. Athletes need to get the most they can each day in training, but not by just doing the hardest workout they can do. There are many avenues to consistently improve, whether it’s sparring or watching tape. It doesn’t matter if you beat up everyone else in the gym or you get beat up. You need to think about what you are doing and always seek to improve your personal MMA journey. The first thing you can do is focus on perfecting technique. That’s number one. Then realize that strength and conditioning training doesn’t replace fight training. There are many guys who focus on strength and conditioning, but don’t have knowledge of fighting. Your strength and conditioning coach is not your fight coach. In fight camps, they are doing ropes, kettlebells, and taxing their body and then sparring hard, and as a result, they can’t recover. You exhaust your mental and physical capabilities. You get sluggish in the ring or find yourself in a bad position. There are times when you do need to go hard, but hard training doesn’t mean getting suplexed on your head and getting concussions. Going to war every day at your gym may work at your gym, but it may leave a gaping hole in your game outside the gym. The guys I train may get beat in the gym, but that may just be part of where they are in their journey. Look at every workout you do and tailor your camp according to your opponent and where you are on your MMA journey. Don’t just participate in mindless training scenarios that don’t focus on what you need to improve.”
Mixed martial arts is here to stay and is one of the world’s fastest growing sports. Athletes are entering the sport in hopes of a long-lived career, just as one would enter more mainstream professional sports. If they are to succeed, they need to learn to train smarter, not harder. Today’s mixed martial artist is a multi-dimensional athlete, and as such, fighters and those around them need to bring the athlete to the limits of training, without going over the line into injury territory.
Mark DellaGrotte understands the difference between training hard and training smart. “I see a lot of these younger guys and they try to do too much, too hard. It’s a bravado, a ‘machismo.’ You see these guys in their thirties doing great? It’s because they know their body; they know their age, their past injuries, and their limitations. As you get older, you should get wiser. As a sport, we need our fighters to continue to get wiser. To move in the other direction is suicide. When I see a young kid in the gym hitting his shin on one of the poles or support columns, he has to be educated right away that this is not the way to think. If these guys continue in that mentality and in that direction of training, they are moving further away from good health and further away from that title, and maybe even moving towards their demise. A lot of fighters don’t realize how hard it is to make it to the big shows like the UFC, but it’s even harder to stay there. That doesn’t just mean winning fights, it also means staying healthy. A lot of guys have winning records, but can’t stay at that level because they can’t stay healthy. It starts with good, healthy fitness and awareness. You need to train smartly. It doesn’t always have to be bigger and stronger. It should also be smarter.”
DellaGrotte continues, “Injury prevention doesn’t start when the fighter steps into the Octagon. It begins on day one of training camp. You need to think about everything you are doing from the warm-up onward and make sure you are doing it right. We have made leaps and bounds in fighter preparation and training. When I first started, everyone just went to Thailand and watched what the guys did there. They did a light jog, and that was about it. They didn’t have proper conditioning coaches, warm-up, recovery, active rest days, ice baths, or physical therapy. That worked for them, but that doesn’t work for today’s MMA athlete.”
Sometimes it takes an injury to cause a fighter to change his training habits for the better, as was the case for Matt Serra. “The only fight I ever pulled out of was my fight with Matt Hughes. [The fight] was a big deal because we had bad blood. The day I got hurt, I had been purposely training from bad positions since Matt is such a good wrestler. At the end of the session, I was already cooled down, my muscles were tight, and I was ready for the shower. Matt Arroyo, one of my teachers now, asked me to show him a neck crank. I got back on the mat to demonstrate the move and felt my back hurt immediately. I ended up herniating my L4-5 disc. This experience made me change my training habits. I trained smarter after that, always listening to my body. Before the injury, I was going too hard all the time. I was about 34 at the time of my injury. I wasn’t in my twenties anymore. I usually would start training by being put in a crucifix hold, then do 20 suplexes, and then go right into the heavy pads. I was getting myself pretty worn out. But as I got older I focused on training smarter, not harder.”
Nate Quarry has learned similar lessons in his two decades of fighting. “I’ve been in and around the fight game for nearly 20 years now. What’s the best piece of advice I can give to an up-and-coming fighter? Train smart. That is the best advice I can give you. Take care of your equipment. Don’t train injured. Don’t overtrain. Don’t train with people who don’t care about your safety. And don’t train under coaches who don’t care about your health. Fight for the love of fighting, but you also better treat fighting like a career. And a big part of a successful career is self-preservation. Train smart.”
Mixed martial arts is an inherently dangerous sport. Fighters will get hurt, but it is our responsibility as doctors, trainers, coaches, therapists, training partners, and combatants to educate each other on proper training and rehabilitation. Don’t just take the advice from someone who you roll with or see at the gym. See a doctor or certified athletic trainer or physical therapist. You don’t want to ignore an injury that can easily be treated now, just to have a big surgery down the road. Many fighters are uninsured and therefore don’t seek the advice of medical professionals. In the key words from Demetrious Johnson, “Get some insurance if you plan on fighting.” And most importantly, educate yourself and remember to train smarter, not harder!
Proper planning of a training camp is the blueprint for injury prevention and performance improvement that you will follow in order to peak on fight night. Greg Nelson describes how he approaches a fighter’s training camp. “A training camp should be eight to 10 weeks maximum. If a fighter is training daily, year round, he should be at about 60% of his optimum fight shape. The training camp is going to be a very directed training camp that is shaped by the opponent that we are preparing to meet. A game plan is devised. Where should the fighter focus the fight? Do they want to keep it standing or pressed up against the cage? Are we fighting a better striker and want to get the fight on the ground or against the cage? Or is our fighter better on the ground but we are fighting a very good takedown blocker or another strong wrestler? There are many factors that come into play. Where are we weak and need to improve and where can we stifle our opponent’s attacks?
“I am a big believer in working on as many fight-specific training methods as possible during fight camp. I have recently seen many fighters stress outside conditioning (throwing tires, doing weight training circuits, sprints, etc.) and they come in tired for the actual fight training. If a fighter cannot hit the mitts or Thai Pads like they should, as close to fight pace as possible, or they are fatiguing too fast in live grappling or sparring, they are most likely spending too much of their energy with supplemental training.
“You should have your training sessions broke apart and set up throughout the week. For example, Monday: wake up and run before eating to increase your metabolism and build overall stamina. Know what you are eating and why. Then rest and mentally prepare for the first training session of the week. Monday morning training focuses on takedowns and grappling. Warm up properly and stretch for 30 minutes. Then do striking to takedowns for six 5-minute rounds. Then striking to takedowns again but adding submissions on the ground for 5-minute rounds. Then incorporate MMA-style live grappling with five-minute rounds, starting with striking to takedowns, and once your partner hits the ground it is live. Strikes are controlled, but are placed with enough force to register their potency. At the same time, you are battling for position and submission. After the hard training, focus on building technically sound movements during a fatigued state. Then, take a short water break. A short, sprint-style conditioning session can follow to wrap up the morning session.
“In the afternoon, fighters can do a strength and conditioning circuit. The circuit should be 20-30 minutes, but very intense. It should push the fighters, building what is most needed: muscular endurance, power, speed, agility, or all of the above. Always make sure the fighter is hydrated, has eaten the proper fuel to allow them to push past their perceived limits, and knows what to eat after the session to rest, rebuild, and recover. At this point, having done the hard sessions, it is important to have a drilling session where the fighter focuses 100% on the specific submission or striking skills he wants to build to become a better fighter. This focus on improving weak areas must be part of a fighter’s training, if not, he will have holes in his game. This type of day should happen three times a week.
“For sparring sessions, do a variety of striking drills to properly warm up the fighter, physically and mentally. As part of the warmup, do combo for combo, shadow boxing with your partner. Only after the fighters are properly warmed up should you initiate sparring. Sparring rounds start with timing sparring (live but controlled, attempting to build timing over speed), and then gradually build up to full sparring. On the outside, the coach and others should monitor the action, making sure no one is getting hit too much, getting fatigued, losing focus, or allowing their emotions to rule over reason.
“Lastly, there should be a day off for full recovery. It is necessary that the fighter have a game plan that increases in intensity as his conditioning grows. They should always be monitored and the coach should be aware of all of the supplemental conditioning and nutrition that is being done. The fighters must be hydrated, fueled with a proper diet, and getting the necessary sleep.”
Some fighters like to do their cardio in the morning and their grappling or sparring at night, keeping at least one or two days off for recovery. A typical training week for Demetrious Johnson begins on Monday morning. “Monday morning I do cardio to get my heart rate up. At night, I do Muay Thai and standup. Tuesday I try to swim a mile and then some brick work and underwater work for recovery. Tuesday night I spar. Wednesday morning is time off and the afternoon is for grappling. Then I take Thursday completely off. Friday, I start up again with cardio and then later in the day pads and MMA/pankration. Saturday I spar again.” It’s also important to alter your training routine as you get closer to fights. As for when to focus on strength versus speed, Pat Miletich likes to focus more on explosive Olympic lifts 10-12 weeks out from a fight, and as it gets closer to fight day, he concentrates on speed, endurance, and high reps.