Top 5 Combat Fitness and MMA Strength Training Mistakes

By Brandon Richey

While this article is geared towards MMA fighters, it can apply to anyone who identifies with the questions I ask below. If you feel like your strength training has stalled, you’ll find out how to get it going again with what I cover.

Do you feel like:

  • Your MMA strength training is not progressing as fast as you’d like?
  • You’re not able to hone and improve your fight technique?
  • Your conditioning is holding you back?
  • You aren’t able to react as fast as you’d like during your fight training?
  • You struggle with building a leaner, stronger-looking body for fighting?
  • You’re weak and slow when it comes to grappling and striking?
  • You’re constantly dealing with muscle pulls and injuries and not recovering well from training?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions then your combat and/or MMA strength training approach is not working. You need to alter your approach to adapt better for your MMA and combat conditioning.

Mistake #1: Lack of Agonist/Antagonist Training

Agonist/antagonist training involves the training of balance in your body by working opposing muscle groups within a given set. For instance, if you’re performing a bench press your chest, shoulders, and triceps are the agonist where your lats, biceps, and traps are your antagonist.

Likewise, if you perform a pull up the lats, biceps, and traps become the agonist where the chest, triceps, and shoulders become the antagonist.

The reason this is significant is that you can correct some serious imbalances and asymmetries in your body by working both sides of the body within a given working set.

By performing a bench press (or push up) followed by a pull up you are creating a push/pull action training the opposing muscles to work in a full range of motion (ROM). This will not only make your MMA strength training workouts more efficient, but it is smart programming to optimize your function for fight performance.

Additionally, you can program this method; either couple the push/pull as a alternating set, OR as a superset.

Alternating Set: An alternating set would involve you performing a bench press and then waiting 2 to 3 minutes before performing a pull related movement such as a pull up. After the pull you wait 2 to 3 minutes again before going back to the bench press. This method has been proven to significantly increase your strength for both pushing and pulling related movements.

Superset: A superset involves you doing the bench press and then immediately jumping into the pull up. Prepare to work for this set up because it’s going to get your blood pumping.

Just remember when you eliminate the imbalances and asymmetries you cut down on injuries… and if you cut down on injuries you are able to focus on being a better fighter!

 Mistake #2: Lack Of Plyometrics


Plyometrics are exercises that involve short burst powerful muscular contractions.

The first phase of the muscular contraction is the eccentric contraction (the stretching of the muscle), the in between phase is the amortization phase (the transition phase which involves a brief pause of the muscle), and the final phase is the concentric contraction (the shortening contraction of the muscle).

The focus of plyometrics is to make the amortization phase as brief as possible. Plyometrics train your muscles to contract rapidly for the purpose of creating a high rate of force production.

Many plyometric drills include jumping, bounding, and sprinting. Plyometrics should be incorporated into your MMA strength training program on a regular basis. However, they should be done so with considerations to an intelligent progression to avoid injury.

Mistake #3: Lack Of Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP)

PAP  is where you perform movements that contract your muscles with a heavy load for a short amount of time (such as a squat or deadlift). This creates the ability for your body to produce an improved rate of force development (RFD). You then follow the lift with a plyometric movement such as box jumps or sprinting.

By lifting heavier loads, you develop significant explosive muscular strength. As far as your MMA strength training goes this tactic is going to be better suited for you if you are a more advanced athlete.

However, in order for this to work, I recommend performing a lift intensity keeping the weight suited for a 5 to 6 rep working set.

Once you execute the heavy lift make sure to follow this up by performing an athletic movement that stimulates the same group of muscles that were potentiated from the initial heavy lift.

The reason PAP is effective for your MMA strength training is you need to generate rapid force production for striking and for gaining an opening to shoot in on your opposition. Moreover, there is no better method to produce this physical trait than the PAP training tactic. As well as, fun.

Of course I used a lower body example here in the first example, but the same can be done for your upper body as well. You can perform a heavy chest press and follow that up with a plyometric push up, or with a medicine ball throw to produce significant upper body power and hand speed for your punches as well.

Furthermore, I would recommend adding in the PAP if you’re a more advanced athlete and even then progress smartly. Focus on stressing good quality movement and execution.

I guarantee you that your strikes will prove to be devastating after implementing this strategy.

Mistake #4: Lack Of Program Planning

When it comes to your MMA strength training needs, you absolutely MUST have a smart plan in place. This allows for strength gains and proper recovery. Unfortunately, many fighters think all they need is to bang the pads and spar in the ring for their training.

The question to ask yourself about this line of thinking is, “What is going to separate me from my opponent?” How many more sparring sessions are going to make you better today than yesterday?

Don’t get me wrong. We can all get better from sparring and used to the act of fighting.

But if that is the sole plan then you’re limiting your training, to say nothing of performance.

Moreover, this is especially true if you happen to be a really advanced fighter with lots of experience. In fact, it’s true for all athletes in every sport. There is a such thing as the law of diminishing return.

That means, without effective programming (which includes periods of rest and recovery), you will see a lack of results that eventually cause you to stall out completely.

The only thing that is going to separate you from the competition the ability to implement a smart and intelligently planned MMA strength training program.

You want to enhance your performance when you are sparring and fighting. In other words, you want to invest some time on focusing on becoming a better “athlete”, not to mention a better fighter. This will be the biggest distinction in your performance.

Mistake #5: Lack Of Undulating Periodization

MMA strength training

“Undulating periodization” means the athlete uses different loads, reps, and sets in a resistance training program on different days of the week. This keeps the momentum going as you’re always pushing your body differently. Without doing so, you’ll hit plateaus fast and stay there.

After training athletes and fighters for 17 years, one thing I’ve learned is that different sport athletes have different tendencies.

Frequently, in terms of fighters, I’ve found that many want to go go GO.

Although I admire this trait, it’s important to note there is a time to slow down and recover.

The truth is, both can be accomplished. But the key to doing this is by managing your intensity. In terms of your MMA strength training programming one way to do this is with Undulating Periodization.

Likewise, this type of weekly periodization is more balanced in that it enables you to:

  1. Train muscle endurance/hypertrophy
  2. Strength/hypertrophy,
  3. Raw strength
  4. Power

Linear periodization is usually just limited to training one energy level that progresses upwards over a designated period of time, leading up to your sport or competition date.

Alternatively, undulating periodization enables you to manage your work intensity. This means you can smartly train and lift heavy on days you can. Then you can go lighter, focusing more on endurance and recovery on days you need the endurance and recovery. You can also play with the volume of your total working sets. Also, offset this to fit your fight training involving your heavier sparring days.

And, furthermore, this can be especially beneficial if you have to worry about “real life” (career, job, family, etc.) while also trying to fit in time to train. Moreover, this works.

The Takeaway

Just remember to take the time to be smart about how you program your MMA strength training program. MMA strength training should be an integral part of your fight preparation and total fitness. The good news is that you can practically apply each of these methods if you take the time to map out the plan. Correspondingly,

Are you currently committing any of the mistakes I outlined here in today’s article?

Of the 5 steps I mentioned here in today’s article, which of the 5 are you implementing into your own MMA strength training program?


SEALgrinderPT coach Brandon Richey is a certified strength and conditioning coach, author, and founder of Brandon Richey Fitness.

He has worked with thousands of athletes over his 17 years of experience, developing fitness training programs for beginners to professional and D-1 level collegiate athletes at the University of Georgia.

He also trains MMA and Muay Thai athletes, both professional and amateur.


QUESTION: Coach—I’ve been feeling stuck in my workouts for the last couple of months. I don’t think I’m overtraining but maybe I am. I also feel like I’m hungry all the time. How can I get back on track?

ANSWER: Check out my article on 10 Tips to Break Through a Training Plateau. Make sure you’re getting good nutrition and hydration–sometimes if you feel hungry you’re actually dehydrated. Check out my Navy SEAL Nutrition Tips article. We also have a Clean Eating Challenge with tons of awesome info and support.

QUESTION: What’s the best equipment to have in a garage gym to do SGPT and CrossFit at home?

ANSWER: Check out this article: Top 10 CrossFit Equipment for a Garage Gym.



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