Top 3 Core Strength Activation Techniques for MMA and Combat Fighting

By Brandon Richey, B.S, CSCS

One of the most significant abilities of fight athletes (or any athlete for that matter) is being capable of breathing and activating their core muscles properly for the purpose of strength and performance. Proper breathing and effective core activation is essential for being able to perform feats of strength and for being able to deliver bone shattering strikes during a fight.

Examining Instability and How it Bleeds Your Power

Let’s face it. In terms of human performance instability is weakness. Furthermore core instability is weakness that will bleed you of function and power particularly during fight and combat scenarios.

During my 17-plus years of training, I’ve seen scenarios like this with certain athletes that were strong in certain areas of their body, but were surprisingly lacking in terms of proper core activation which resulted in several other problems for them.

One example of this I can point to was with one athlete I had failing to properly activate his core during big core movements involving push ups and squats. He was failing to effectively brace his core to stabilize his body during both of these movements.

The funny thing was that he had strong arms and legs, but his midsection was soft. This was the case because he was lacking in his ability to properly brace and stabilize himself under exertion.  This resulted in him experiencing shoulder and neck issues after push ups and low back issues after doing squats.

The million dollar question was: Why was this happening?

This was a bit weird to me because I’ve always inherently understood the concept of bracing my body (particularly through my core center) whenever I had to exert myself for any given physical task. However this particular student was almost shutting off, or relaxing, his midsection during these movements. Somehow he was managing to redirect and isolate the stress of the movement more specifically to his limbs including his arms during push ups and to his legs during squats.

Once I diagnosed this problem, I was explaining to him that having strong arms and legs was great, but due to his lack of core activation it was actually making him weaker overall. To put this into perspective for you I equated the strong limbs and weak core center to being the same as attaching 4 big cannons to a canoe. If you can imagine the canoe representing his core center and the cannons representing his limbs you can see the obvious mismatch. In this case when the cannons would fire it wasn’t presenting a very stable and controlled situation. I’m pretty sure that’s not a boat any of us want to be in!

Breathing Behind the Shield

In martial arts, we often talk about technique known as breathing behind the shield. This technique is how you should breathe when delivering punches and kicks. My good friend and Muay Thai Kru Jeff Perry taught me this when I started practicing Muay Thai 15 years ago, but I had already been applying this similarly to my training when lifting. The student I was referencing before was failing to do this properly and I’ll revisit that issue a bit later.

You see when you have to exert yourself during lifting and movement the proper breathing pattern is a physiological response known as the valsalva maneuver. This is when you forcefully push air into the chest and abdomen with a closed glottis creating intrathoracic pressure throughout your midsection upon exerting yourself during something physically strenuous.

The initial response for this creates the pressure by causing an increase in stroke volume from your heart. At this point you’ve created tremendous intrathoracic pressure to stabilize your core center ideally enabling you to perform whatever physical task you’re engaging in without your body folding up like a tent when under load stress.

Of course, in a trained individual this can be regulated to fit the physical task at hand. In other words, the intensity and repetition of this changes according to the specific demand of the task. For example the intensity of executing this during a max effort deadlift would be different than having to exert yourself in a way to deliver punches and kicks repetitiously throughout an MMA fight round.

Even though the process is very similar during these tasks the valsalva maneuver can be honed (or scaled) to be more tactical so that you can apply it to what you’re doing. In these moments of exertion you don’t want to take in a full breath and hold it with a big chest. This is not breathing behind the shield.

Breathing behind the shield involves creating that intrathoracic pressure from the valsalva maneuver while still being able to slightly breathe. The difference is that when breathing behind the shield you’re not completely expelling all the air from your lungs during exertion, but you’re not completely filling them like a balloon to full capacity either. You should actually be breathing from the diaphragm and the amount of air intake should be optimal for the given task.

A good way to recognize this is when you are throwing punches, kicks, or when lifting. During these activities breathing behind the shield should sound similar to a snake hissing as you push air between your tongue and a closed glottis at the roof of your mouth. At the same time you’re doing this your midsection should still be braced for impact.

To better understand this concept if you’re reading this on your laptop, or desktop sit up in your chair with good posture and brace your stomach as if you’re about to take a punch right to the gut. As you brace yourself make sure your stomach is tight, but make sure you can also speak a few sentences out loud.

Now, as you’re braced slap, yourself in the stomach while doing all of this. If you’re breathing behind the shield properly you should be able to continue to brace yourself, take a hit to the stomach, and carry on a conversation for an extended period of time.

High-Tension Planks

So going back to the student that was having the issues with bracing his core midsection, I fixed the problem and did so by first addressing his ability to breathe behind the shield.

Proper breathing directly correlates with proper core activation. In addition to this I introduced him to a couple of drills to help train and reinforce him on the act of bracing his core when under exertion.

Obviously, good old fashioned planks are a solid option for building core stabilization and can be a great prerequisite, or even a great supplement to the push up exercise.

For many, planks are typically performed with the element of time being the determining variable for how difficult, or challenging the drill should be.

This is where I tend to depart from the status quo in regards to the application of the plank. First of all, strength is defined as the body’s ability to produce tension and force for a given task. With  the high tension plank I want to shift the focus from the element of time to performing the plank exercise while focusing on creating as much tension as possible for a shorter bout of time.

Tension equals force and force equals strength! This is why I believe this version is more valuable in training you on improving the act of bracing. With this variation there is no relaxed area of the body.  With longer duration planks trainees may get creative on figuring out which area of their body to relax just to get through and survive the timed bout. As you can see with a timed bout quality may potentially be sacrificed for quantity.


I would recommend you perform 3 to 7 sets of high-intensity high-tension planks after strength work for a long 10 second count. Once again your focus should be on creating as much tension throughout your body as possible.

We can take this a bit further by adding another level of bracing to the plank making the drill slightly more challenging by adding plank dumbbell drags we hold the plank position.

The plank dumbbell drag is obviously a more intense variation of the high tension plank, but is more intense for a reason that may not be so obvious.

First of all, the most obvious reason that this variation of the plank is more intense is the addition of the weight. However, when moving the weight (dumbbell or kettlebell) across your body the real key is to obviously brace (because you want to improve bracing) while also resisting the urge to twist or move the hips.

By you resisting the natural urge to twist when sliding the bell it forces a diagonal line of tension down your midsection every time the weight is moved from the right and left side. Your ability to resist the twisting is referred to as anti-pattern strength which is also a sure fire way to enhance your development of rotational power which will obviously tie in nicely with your MMA and Combat striking ability.

I would recommend you perform 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 10 drags on each side at the end of your upper body strength training days. The plank dumbbell drag can be performed with either a dumbbell or a kettlebell. This drill serves as a great finisher for all your core strengthening needs.

In Closing

Keep in mind that breathing behind the shield is something that should be developed by you being conscious of how you breathe when exerting yourself for a certain task. When effectively practicing this it should become more instinctual and can be scaled to suit whatever tasks you engage in.

You can reinforce the practice of breathing behind the shield by performing drills that force you to tactically activate your core center. Breathing behind the shield reinforces core activation and effective core activation reinforces proper breathing.

If you liked this article and want to step up your strength and performance for your MMA, or combat performance make sure you check out my 90 MMA Strength And Conditioning Program and visit me at:

Check out SEALGrinderPT’s 90-Day MMA Strength And Conditioning Program to get even more core activation!

Question: Do you have any information about how the Delta Force trains and how someone gets on the team?

Answer: Yes; check out this article—Delta Force Training. Also, Delta Force Training Surviving the Cut.

Question: I’m super tired of the love handles I’ve been carrying for the last few years. I’m exercising more but my nutrition basically sucks. But I’m learning. Do you have some ways I can start working on this better?

Answer: Check out this article: Tips for Healthy Fat Loss.


SGPT Interviews MMA Athlete and US Marine Robert Suter

Top 10 MMA Workouts

Seal Fit Stack

SGPT Upcoming Events

Personal Online Coaching

Work 1-on-1
with SEAL Grinder's Brad McLeod
To Achieve Your Goals

pic of brad

Personal fitness training from Brad McLeod, Navy Seal and CrossFit Level 1 instructor. Delivered online, directly to you.

"I recommend Brad to anyone that seriously wants to go to BUDs or anything else in life... try these workouts. Hooyah!" - Chris H.

learn more button