The Science of Performance: Trends in MMA training

Mixed Martial Arts, although arguably having its roots date back to the ancient Grecian combat style known as Pankration, among other similar styles in feudal times, is still a relatively young sport in its modern expression.

Since its inception in the early 90’s as a melting pot of traditional martial arts styles competing against each other (UFC) and as a hybrid form of shoot wrestling (Pancrase), to the current synthesis of main modalities (Wrestling, Muay Thai, Boxing and Submission Grappling/BJJ), the science of MMA-specific athlete performance is still a developing field. Simultaneously empirical and innovative yet at times mired in traditional, single style focussed methods of preparation, there is a gap between anecdotal and evidence based approaches to maximise athlete performance in terms of strength and conditioning, technique acquisition and live sparring.

In recent years, major MMA organisations have seen a rapid rise in injury rates, resulting in revenue loss for both fighters and promotions as well as ongoing difficulties for consistent marketing. This has also led to problematic tracking of contender status within the upper echelon of each given weight class. Subsequently this situation raises questions about how and why fighters train the way they do and what methods are in line with sports science approaches and which are simply ‘the way it’s always been done’.

Matt Bousson, PhD candidate and Director of Athlete Performance at Core Strength Fitness (Sunshine Coast), oversees the preparation of a growing number of QLD’s rising MMA and Muay Thai athletes as well as serving as the strength and conditioning coach to UFC star Kyle Noke.

He offered his insights into some of the main issues plaguing MMA fight camps:

“Tradition is the enemy of progress. Unfortunately, MMA as a sport has a long way to go in terms of the physical, even mental, development of its athletes. So many camps, whether amateur or pro, still train in ways ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’,” Bousson told Fight News Australia.

Traditional approaches often stem from the methods used to train in a singular style. The disparate styles (grappling, striking, and submissions) that form the crux of MMA employ a varied set of time tested ways of preparing athletes.

Striking arts have generally relied upon overall aerobic conditioning training, such as running or ‘roadwork’ and other variations (skipping, pad rounds) alongside developing the necessary combative skill set. In contrast, the grappling and submission arts, particularly wrestling, rely heavily on anaerobic conditioning for strength and explosiveness, and as such train within this framework. At the amateur and professional level, both striking and grappling arts also have a history of weight cutting and dieting methods and very different time-frames for competition schedules.

Bousson elaborated on traditional approaches further.

“The problem with that attitude is that it doesn’t leave room for evolution and progress. Some of the more common problems with traditional fighter training (for MMA) is long distance running, rounds and rounds of pad work, too much heavy sparring, eating low or even no calorie diets to make weight and another, even more frustrating thing is copying what pros do. A lot of pros get hooked up with these “gurus” or pseudo-scientists, or even companies (Training Mask, for example), that may look great on the outside but in reality are actually doing more harm than good. The best indicator of this is when fighters pull out of fights due to injury. There is absolutely no excuse for a fighter ever pulling out of a fight due to injury. Train smarter, not harder.”

Injuries, particularly in relation to heavy sparring, continue to disrupt careers and often impede the ability of MMA promotions to deliver the fights fans want to see. Although a truly global sport, MMA is only now beginning to see the effects of concussion appear in the mainstream. Even without the level of head trauma consistent with boxing, for example, notable fighters have explicitly and implicitly demonstrated the effects of hard sparring on top of actual damage taken in fights. Names like UFC and Pride legend Gary ‘Big Daddy’ Goodridge, TJ Grant, TUF 2 runner up Brad Imes and current UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler have spoken about the effects of concussion on their cognitive function and careers. One can also speculate about many other early pioneers and recently retired fighters who show the hallmarks of brain trauma such slurred speech and impulsive and irrational behaviour.

Thankfully, many fighters are heeding the warnings of health professionals and retiring before the damage takes its toll or as is the case with Robbie Lawler, adjusting training accordingly. It has since been widely publicised and confirmed by Lawler that his resurgence to capture welterweight gold was due in part to him avoiding hard sparring for a number of years. This adjustment provided career longevity and the opportunity for Lawler to develop other skills without repetitive concussions in the training room.

It is in this context that Coach Bousson believes the next evolution of combat athletes will hopefully take shape.

“Fighters viewing themselves as athletes and training accordingly, warming up correctly, eating to fuel workouts and doing away with unnecessary elements of their training”.

It would seem that the infamous and grueling training methods often linked to pioneer fight camps such as Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den and Chute Box Academy will become a thing of past as the sport evolves along with the science. Already we are seeing alternatives to these examples with the work of Ido Portal and others promoting ‘movement coaching’.

Bousson offered his thoughts on this ideological transition:

“These coaches teach bodyweight movements to develop coordination, body control and joint stabilization.”

“My entire philosophy is based on movement patterns and injury prevention via joint integrity. So I myself have been called a ‘movement coach.’ However, I see movement through science – I see it, measure it, test it and reproduce it. Guys like Ido Portal and Erwan Le Corre (MovNat, and also trains Carlos Condit), from what I understand, see movement from a much more ‘artistic’ point of view. They use the freedom of movement and outdoor environments to teach concepts of body control and balance & coordination. Which, again are drills and exercises I use, only in a training facility.”

With his focus on injury prevention and a scientific form of coaching combat athletes, Bousson provided some insight into his work with fighters as opposed to team coaching (his resume includes collegiate football and the Brisbane Broncos), as well as Noke’s receptiveness to his philosophy:

“As long as you relate it back to fighting and how exercises will assist their performance, and the athlete is willing to listen and learn, the results and development come much faster than when dealing with teams. Generally the sessions are a lot less ego based as you don’t have combative personalities like you can with team sports. Kyle (Noke), for example, is the exact type of athlete a coach dreams about working with. He listens, learns, adapts and practices, even asks questions which is great and only further benefits learning and development.”

Kyle Noke is looking to rebound after a close split decision loss to Alex Morono at UFC 195. Matt Bousson will continue to work with Noke toward his next bout as well as prepare fighters for domestic MMA and Muay Thai promotions and power-lifting competition.