Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen the success stories we’ve posted of our fighters… but what makes a fighter go from good to great?  Well, that’s debatable- but from an athletic development standpoint, conditioning is definitely high up on that list.

This past weekend, Beyond Strength Performance athlete, Dustin Pague, showed superior grappling skills with an endless gas tank to dominate his opponent, Yves Jabouin, in a three round thrill fest.  We’ll skip over the part where the incompetent judges awarded the home-country boy the win and take a deeper look at what the training of a monster looks like.

Here is a link to an article on the fight itself (after you read my post!):

Assessing the Needs of the MMA Athlete (short version)

MMA is an interesting sport in that it takes place in all planes of motion, at any given moment, from the ground to standing, sprint to cruise, and everywhere in between.  Under the unified rules, pro rounds are five minutes in length and every single fight can have rather different energy demands, but once that bell rings there’s five minutes of output for three rounds with a one minute break in between each.

Strength = the base of worthwhile conditioning

Last time I checked, this company is called Beyond Strength Performance, so it should come as no surprise that I believe conditioning starts with being strong as hell…

Let me give you a solid reason why.

You understand that if you had to rep something around 80% of your 1-rep-max, you’re only going to have a handful of reps/time under tension in the tank.  You also understand, or at least could rationalize, that you could rep something around 50% of your 1-rep-max for a far greater number of reps/time under tension.

Still with me?

Well, what if you were 30% stronger than your opponent?  Imagine you find yourself in the clinch fighting for position.  If you’re working at 60% of your maximum strength, your opponent would have to be at 90% to match you [thanks to Martin Rooney for the example].  Sounds like a recipe for an adrenaline dump and quick road to fatigue if you ask me.  Setting technique aside, do you think that a little more time on the mat conditioning would save you in this situation?  Nope.

Make a monster strong.  To be honest with you, that’s what is lacking, at least by my observation, in many MMA gyms.  There’s more mat time, more conditioning, more sprawls, spar harder for x minutes longer than your rounds, never die.  Guess what?  That’s just teaching you to survive.  Get strong, that’ll make you a killer.

We work strength with the above demands in mind.  All planes of motion, variety of positions, heavy, fast, etc… After/during that, we add on appropriate amounts of conditioning for the sport!


My facility just so happens to be attached to Disciple MMA Academy.  I get to see these guy/gals train on a daily basis.  A typical BJJ, Muay Thai, Judo, or other martial arts practice is usually over an hour and covers technique, application, and rolling/sparring.  These guys do spar hard on a semi-regular basis, but we’re not talking about going as hard as possible.  You can’t take your training partners’ heads off and expect to have someone to train with the next day.

These sessions result in a decent amount of sub-maximal conditioning in and of themselves.  So why would I do more of the same when they come see me?  We focus on strength and power for the majority of the session, but when it comes to conditioning, we use high intensity finishers implemented in a variety of ways.  My two favorites are intervals and complexes.

  • Intervals*
    • Fixed. Example- :15 high intensity work/:30 low intensity active recovery or complete rest.  This could be as simple as using the battling ropes at maximum intensity for fifteen seconds of work and then complete rest or shadow boxing for thirty seconds.  Repeat for a fixed number of rounds.
    • Fixed/Variable.Example- :15 high intensity work/recover until heart rate reaches predetermined BPM and start next round.  This one is especially cool in that you can track your time to recovery and, as long as your training is going well, you should be able to complete the same task quicker over time!
    • Variable/Fixed. Example- High intensity work until HR reaches predetermined BPM/:30 low intensity active recovery or complete rest before starting next round.  The variable work intervals are awesome because they typically make guys push for a higher output to finish the workout faster.  Want to dog this one?  It’ll only take you longer to hit that goal HR.
    • Variable/Variable. Example- High intensity work until HR reaches predetermined BPM/recover until heart rate reaches predetermined BPM and start next round.

* Much thanks to Alwyn Cosgrove and Dan John for the ideas to experiment with the protocols presented here…


  • Complexes – Complexes are a series of a handful exercises that are strung together using the same implement.  Typical implements used are barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. The idea is to transition from one exercise to the next without setting the implement down or taking a break.  Comlexes can be done for rounds, using timed rest or variable rest as listed above.
    • Rep Based. Example- Barbell: back squat, push press, RDL, bent over row, and clean pull.  Perform 5 reps of each exercise and move on to the next one immediately.  The goal is to get through the complex as quickly as possible.
    • Time Based. Example- Complete the same exercises listed above for 10 seconds each before moving on to the next one.  Complete as many reps as you can, in the allotted time, through the whole complex.
    • AMRAP.* Example- Complete the rep based protocol, for as many rounds as possible, in a given time.  For instance; 5 minutes on the clock, perform five repetitions of the back squat, push press, RDL, bent over row, and clean pull for as many rounds as possible in that time.  You must keep the barbell in your hands for “rest.”

* No, this doesn’t make it Crossfit.

As for the time spent doing these intervals and complexes?  Shorter than you’d think…  We only spend about 5-10 minutes at the end of each session on these techniques.


Whether you decide to use intervals or complexes, the idea is to go as hard as you can (with proper form) and recover as well as possible between rounds.

Recover as well as possible, therein lies the hidden gem.  Conditioning is a great time to get into good habits early.  In between rounds it is not uncommon for  a fighter to be gasping for air.  Don’t you think we should train those situations, and what to do in them as part of the preparation?  Well that’s exactly what we do.

Rather than just wait for the break to pass, or wait for your HR to come back down on it’s own, use your rest to practice relaxation, and focus under pressure.  Come fight time you will just need a simple reminder or two and those techniques will come right back to you when they matter most.

Notice how calm Dustin is in the above picture?  That’s no coincidence…

Where’s the running?

Let’s be honest, I didn’t talk about running, but I know that you’re all looking for that part.  Well, I’m not totally against running.  In fact, Dustin did a decent bit of running in his train-up for UFC 161.  Stair runs,  long(ish) distance runs, interval runs, etc… but I didn’t program them.  He did them on days he felt like it, for the amount he felt right with.

A moderate distance run is good for your “off days,” but I stay focused on general physical preparation in the weight room and the specific physical preparation on the mat.

Moreso than running, I recommend sleds on “off” days.  Don’t stress too much over what to do, how long to do it, etc…  Get your ass in the gym, put some plates on the Prowler, and push it around a little bit.  Don’t bury yourself, just get a good lower intensity workout in and have fun!

Final thoughts

So there you have it.  Figure out where you’re at before you go picking a fight… weak and deconditioned?  Start with getting strong.  Once you’ve built a base level of strength, it’ll be much easier to build USEFUL conditioning on top of it.

Check out this sample training day of how to put it all together…

 Sample Strength & Conditioning Training Day

This is literally a day right out of the final four weeks of Dustin’s train-up for UFC 161.  I’ll give it to you straight- there’s nothing flashy about it, but it was written for what Dustin needed, taking the rest of his training load into mind, and it worked great.

 Neural Charge Workout (performed in the morning) – Todd wrote aout neural charge workouts a while back, so I won’t kill you with the details, but these workouts are performed with a HR monitor on.  After each and every exercise, Dustin worked on recovery techniques until his HR was back down to 110bpm.  He would then move on to the next exercise and do this for the prescribed rounds.

Exercise Name Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
A1. Axe MB Throw 3 x 3/ 3 x 5/ 4 x 3/ 2 x 5/
A2. Seated Dumbbell Jumps 3 x 3 3 x 5 4 x 3 2 x 5
A3. Upper Body Box Jumps 3 x 2 3 x 3 4 x 2 2 x 3
A4. Hang Cleans 3 x 2 3 x 3 4 x 2 2 x 3
A5. Sled Sprint Starts 3 x 1 trip 3 x 1 trip 4 x 1 trip 2 x 1 trip

Strength/Conditioning Workout (performed in the afternoon before evening skills training)

Exercise Name  Week1 Week2 Week 3 Week 4
A1. Bottoms Up KB Rack Carry 3 x 30yds/ 3 x 50yds/ 4 x 30yds/ 2 x 50yds/
B1. Barbell RFE Split Squat 4 x 8/ 4 x 10/ 5 x 8/ 3 x 10/
B2. Rib Grab T-Spine Rotation 4 x 5/ 4 x 5/ 5 x 5/ 3 x 5/
C1. Rack/Suitcase Crossover Step Up 3 x 5/ 3 x 6/ 4 x 5/ 2 x 8/
C2. Plank Walkback 3 x 8 3 x 10 4 x 8 2 x 10
D1. Walking Battling Ropes 4 x (2 x :20/:10) 4 x (2 x :20/:10) 2 x (4 x :20/:10) 2 x (4 x :20/:10)
D2. Recovery Techniques (monitor HR and practice breathing to bring HR down to 110bpm before starting next round)


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Chris Merritt
Strength Coach/ B.S. Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University/ FMS/ Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist/ Certified Kettlebell Instructor/ Owner of Beyond Strength Performance and Beyond Strength Performance NOVA
Chris Merritt
About the author

Strength Coach/ B.S. Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University/ FMS/ Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist/ Certified Kettlebell Instructor/ Owner of Beyond Strength Performance and Beyond Strength Performance NOVA
2 Responses
  1. Catherine Walsh

    Hi Chris, This is Bryan’s mom. I’m interested in a program with you. I have some back, knees, and wrists issues. I went for a week of Bikram yoga, but it made my joints worst, yuk. I’ve been thinking about making an appointment with you for a while now. I have confidence that you can help me. I’m available between the hours of 10:00 & 11:30 am; and 5:30 pm until 9:30 pm. Mon.-Fri. Thank you. Cathy

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