Jan 29, 2015
From Mat to Octagon

Athletes who engage in one-on-one combat have similar conditioning needs, regardless of their sport. That’s what this strength coach found when he trained a former college wrestler to compete in mixed martial arts.

By Tim Wakeham

Tim “Red” Wakeham, MS, SCCC, CSCS, is Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at Michigan State University, where he has worked since 1996. He can be reached at: [email protected].

I was excited to get a call from mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter Rashad Evans this past spring. Rashad is a former Michigan State University wrestler who resides in Lansing, and at the time was a perfect 16-0 in the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC is the largest national organization for mixed martial arts). “I just signed a contract to fight UFC legend Chuck Liddell,” he said. “I want you to train me for eight weeks before I head down to New Mexico to work with my fight team in the octagon.”

Rashad is a good man and I remembered him as a tough Spartan. So I immediately agreed to train him.

When performing a needs analysis for mixed martial arts (MMA), I was interested to discover that the fighters rely on many of the same skills as other high-level athletes. They need multi-directional first-step quickness and muscle endurance, much like volleyball and soccer players. They require grip strength and explosive rotational hip and torso power, like baseball and softball players. They also need a high degree of flexibility and balance, like gymnasts. Some college and pro football teams have even hired MMA training experts to help their players develop “combative” hand and foot speed.

But despite all those crossovers, no college sport shares more in common with MMA than wrestling. Many of the top MMA fighters come from NCAA wrestling backgrounds, and I’ve had several wrestlers tell me they plan on becoming MMA fighters as soon as they finish their collegiate wrestling careers. Today, both sports’ athletes and coaches are stealing brilliant ideas from each other.

So even if you’ve never worked with an MMA athlete in your setting and don’t plan to, don’t worry–what follows is not a blow-by-blow description of what I did with Rashad. Instead, I’ll explain our training approach and some specific techniques I’ve used with all types of combat athletes. It’s worth noting, however, that our wrestlers are totally engaged and excited when they find out they’re using some of the same training methods top mixed martial artists use to prepare for battle.


Our training strategy for combat athletes uses planned variation in the form of a non-linear periodization model. That basically means volume (sets and reps), intensity (load), speed of concentric contractions (the positive portion of reps), and rest periods between sets are all varied from one workout to the next. To develop maximum full-body power, strength, and endurance, we employ a triple-progressive system of overload: The athletes are pushed to lift heavier loads, perform a greater number of reps with the same load, and decrease rest time between sets.

Before delving deeper into the specifics of building strength, I feel it’s important to first address movement integrity. Most of the exercises we use for combat athletes are multi-joint, multi-planar activities enriched with proprioception, so any existing movement deficiencies can cause serious problems.

We use Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen and individualized movement prep to address each athlete’s rate-limiting factors for successful training. For example, to prepare for barbell squats, we might have an athlete first perform body weight wall squats–with their hands at chest level while facing a wall six to eight inches away, they lower their body and must sit back in their hips to avoid touching the wall. We’ll also incorporate corrective exercises as needed, such as the half-kneeling chop to correct asymmetrical weakness and increase core stability.

This process of screening, movement prep, and corrective exercise, along with consistent monitoring during weightroom work, tells us which movements we can overload and which ones need improvement. As a result, we create well-balanced, powerful gladiators who can move with grace, quickness, and explosion while also avoiding injury.

Regardless of the exercises we choose, we always emphasize precision motor patterns and optimal firing sequences of the targeted large muscles. This sounds routine and basic, but often it is not. For example, during isolateral hip extension, the hamstring should fire first, followed by the same-side glute, and then the opposite-side lower back. This is a healthy firing sequence, but sometimes, because of injury or muscle tightness, optimal firing sequences can be disrupted.

I have seen athletes activate their hamstring and same-side lower back during isolateral hip extension, without the glutes performing any meaningful activation. If large loads are used, this can lead to overstress of the lower back, and it’s simply not an optimal way to execute hip extension. Athletes with this firing pattern will often complain of lower back pain after executing hip extension movements. In these cases, I’ll quickly send the athlete to our sports medicine staff to begin individualized flexibility and muscle firing re-education training. These athletes will usually end up performing a lot of hip flexor stretching along with gluteus medius exercises like clamshells (lying hip abductions), in which they focus on trying to maximally contract the glute while abducting the hip.

We use other specific exercises to teach and polish the most important movement patterns used in combat. For example, the deadlift and grappler squat-and-press teach an athlete to sit back in the hips, and we use sled pushing to teach positive shin angles during the first two steps of explosive acceleration. To train optimal muscle sequencing, we employ the Keiser hip rotation and low-row exercises, which also help improve hip-torso coordination to generate maximum rotational explosion.


Once we are satisfied with an athlete’s precision in movement execution and optimal muscle activation sequences, we’ll get down to the business of overloading for strength development and increasing concentric tempo in appropriate power exercises. A list of our most popular exercise choices can be found in the “Work That Works” sidebar at the end of this article.

When selecting strength-building exercises, the top priority is overloading the major muscle compartments of the body. However, we want to provide a variety of other sport-specific benefits as well, such as developing mobility, efficient strength transfer, and overall toughness. The “Goal Oriented” sidebar at the end of this article shows examples of specific exercises we use to train those key traits and several others.

Our repertoire contains many fundamental multi-joint movements that affect large amounts of muscle in an efficient way, such as the clean and jerk, front lunge, squat, bench press, and shoulder press. We also use some structural exercises that recruit smaller but still important sport-specific muscles needed in combat sports while simultaneously activating the larger muscles. For instance, rope pull-ups and deadlifts will improve grip strength while also working the upper back and hips. In addition, we use a horizontal ground-based push/pull exercise (a torso-twisting single-arm bench press performed while the other arm does a rowing movement) to target the chest and back while activating the hip and torso rotators.

Another priority is increasing core strength and stability, which is key for combat athletes. Exercises like the half-kneeling pulley bar chop, pulley lift with rotation, split alternating foot jerk, and landmine rotation are among the best choices for this type of training. These exercises teach stability of the hips and torso during arm movement, and also build trunk strength.

In addition, our athletes push woodshed sleds, pull speed sleds, perform tire pulls with a climbing rope, flip tractor tires, and run with 100-pound sandbags. These exercises are especially valuable because they engage athletes from the “neck-up” and inspire the “I’ll never quit” attitude we like to instill here in East Lansing. Our athletes like “Mount Everest” type challenges because they build the toughness and competitive will that are the backbone of being a Spartan.


In an attempt to make conditioning gains transfer as much as possible to the mat and the octagon, we incorporate exercises that reinforce basic sport-specific movement patterns. For instance, front lunges, sled pulls, and push/pulls can be valuable because they are ground-based. Resisted shots and Keiser step-ups are explosive activities that train movement patterns and muscle groups required in combat for wrestlers and MMA fighters alike. Athletes can often help you identify the best exercises, as they usually have a keen sense for which drills and other activities imitate movements and skills used in competition.

We like to choose resistance work that incorporates as many of the required “neck-up,” “neck-down,” and environmental components as possible into a competition-specific pattern. However, we believe it’s even more important to understand that in the big picture of specificity and transfer, traditional weightroom training provides only limited benefits.

Motor learning research has shown that typical weightroom exercises do not provide movement components similar enough to most sports to produce meaningful transfer in healthy, experienced athletes. So while the weightroom certainly shouldn’t be ignored, the majority of a combat athlete’s training time should be spent in repetitive skill-specific strengthening and conditioning on a mat.

A good illustration of this point involves the contrast between inexperienced and veteran combat athletes. An inexperienced MMA fighter who spends most of his time lifting in the weightroom, without much sport-specific work on the mat or in the cage, may develop the raw material to produce more power than a veteran. These younger athletes are often motivated by the desire to bulk up and cast an imposing shadow in the octagon. However, because they are less adept at putting their muscles to work in the execution of explosive combat-specific movements, power is inefficiently expressed and they likely expend much of their strength in the form of energy leaks.

A veteran, meanwhile, may spend the majority of his conditioning time perfecting exact movements against the resistance of an opponent under competitive conditions, building much more sport-specific strength and power. He’ll thereby limit his energy leaks, and while he may not bring as much sheer bulk to the match as his opponent, he’ll have greater strength and power in his movements. The veteran will also exhibit more forceful and efficient acceleration, deceleration, and stabilization in the skilled movements required for combat. The weightroom isn’t ignored by this athlete, but it is not the primary focus of his training regimen.

This is why, in MMA competition and collegiate wrestling alike, the competitor who looks more like a bodybuilder isn’t necessarily the one favored to win the match. Working hard is important, but so is working smart. We always make sure weightroom work is prescribed with balance and moderation, and that every exercise program is designed to maximize transfer to the athlete’s sport.

A final note involves the training schedule for combat athletes. With the possible exception of football, no other sport takes a more brutal toll on the body than one-on-one combat, so it’s essential to build in time for recovery and be careful to avoid overuse injuries.

We’ve found that two full-body workouts per week is usually adequate for MMA and wrestling athletes during their competitive season. During the off-season, three workouts per week is a good benchmark. And of course, it’s always best to include the athletes in workout scheduling–their feedback and communication about how they’re feeling can help you decide whether to scale back the work or whether they can be pushed more aggressively at certain times during a training cycle.


On Sept. 6, Rashad took on Chuck Liddell with over 14,000 spectators in the stands and thousands more watching around the country on pay-per-view. At 1:51 of the second round, Rashad’s explosive overhand right to Liddell’s jaw ended the fight, in an outcome that one report said “shocked the world” of MMA.

The Spartan strength and wrestling staffs played a small role in enhancing Rashad’s strength, explosiveness, and confidence. Greg Jackson’s MMA camp contributed mightily, and the Spartan Nation provided a thundering force of support. In the end, Rashad won the fight because the plan always works for those who work the plan. Rashad got himself into great physical condition, truly believed in his plan, trusted his preparation, and executed boldly. The lesson for all of us is that if we commit to intelligently improving our skill, will, and work ethic, we can expect to stand at the pinnacle.

The author wishes to thank graduate assistant strength coach Kenny Goodrich, who assisted in the training of Rashad Evans and is currently working with the Michigan State wrestling program, for his help with this article.


While this article focuses primarily on movement skill development and building strength and power, combat athletes also need to develop their energy systems to last through long, grueling, high-intensity matches. During the off-season and early preseason, this can be achieved through interval-based running on a treadmill, track, or football field. I’ve also used a slide board to train lateral movement in an interval-based fashion.

Interval times for developing the energy systems of combat athletes should range from five to 60 seconds. Rest periods should start at two to three times the work interval, and the total duration of the interval workout should be between 20 and 60 minutes. We usually start with 20 to 30 minutes, and add 10 percent to the total volume of each workout until the athlete reaches a full 60 minutes.

One workout we have used successfully with wrestlers consists of 60 40-yard sprints on a football field with a 3:1 rest-to-work ratio. We’ll break the sprints into three sets of 20 with two to five minutes of rest between each set. Another conditioning workout for wrestlers consists of 15 60-second sprints on a treadmill separated by two-minute jogs at 60 percent of max effort.

During the preseason, as your athletes move closer to their competition phase, you can supplement the sprint work with wrestling- or MMA-specific movements on the mat. For example, have partners perform all-out live drills in the form of various takedowns, escapes, counters, scrambling, and reversals. Choose the most physically taxing skills–not the ones that require the most precise execution. You want to condition the muscles and cardiovascular system without negatively affecting skill performance.

I recommend starting off with work intervals of 60 to 90 seconds with a 3:1 rest-to-work ratio. You can introduce overload by systematically decreasing rest times by around 10 percent per workout–progressively decrease the ratio to 2:1 and eventually 1:1, and then start increasing the length of the work bouts. Go from a 1:1 rest-to-work ratio to 1:2 and 1:3 for wrestlers, and eventually 1:5 for MMA fighters. This interval programming meets the exact time demands of the two sports: Wrestlers will be ready for high-intensity periods lasting two to three minutes, and MMA fighters for five-minute rounds. A total workout time of 20 to 60 minutes is optimal, depending on the intensity of effort and time in the training cycle.


This list shows some of my favorite exercises to prescribe when overloading for strength development in combat athletes.


Deadlift w/mini-band Power clean and jerk Split alternating foot jerk D.B. front lunge Lower-body lunge matrix Leg press w/mini-band Squat or front squat w/mini-band Prowler or woodshed sled push Speed sled pull Cable run & backpedal w/mini-band Cable carioca & shuffle Resisted shots Keiser hip rotation & low row Tractor tire flips

Posterior Chain

D.B. single-leg deadlift Glute/ham gastrocnemius raises D.B. step-up


Grappler squat-and-press w/mini-band D.B. squat & press w/mini-band U.B. shoulder press matrix on Bosu Pulley alternating step & press


Horizontal ground based push/pull Incline log bar bench press Spiderman Bosu push-up D.B. bench press Pulley single-leg incline press


Keiser sit-up & hip flexion Pulley bar chop Pulley bar lift & rotation Landmine torso rotations Pillar bridge (arm/leg lifts)

Upper Back

Pull-up (using thick ropes) Horizontal ground based push/pull Decline ground based push/pull Lateral bridge & row on Bosu Tire pull w/rope Single-arm/single-leg bent-over row T-bar bent-over row Single-leg/single-arm cable pull-down


This list outlines some specific training goals for combat athletes, along with some of the exercises I use to help achieve them.

Goal: Time-Efficient Multi-Joint Training

Squat w/mini-band* Leg press w/mini-band* Power clean and jerk T-bar bent-over row D.B. bench press

Goal: Multi-Joint Development with Smaller Muscle Activation

Deadlift w/mini-band* Pull-up (using thick rope) Horizontal ground based push/pull

Goal: Stability

Pulley bar chop Pulley bar lift & rotation Landmine torso rotation Pillar bridge (arm/leg lifts)

Goal: Neck-Up Engagement/Toughness

Prowler or woodshed sled push Farmer’s walk Board push Tire pull w/rope Speed sled pull Tire flips

Goal: Proper Movement Mechanics

Deadlift w/mini-band* Grappler squat-and-press w/mini-band*

Goal: Proper Muscle Sequencing

Keiser hip rotation & low row Horizontal ground-based push/pull

Goal: Maximizing Potential Strength Transfer

D.B. front lunge Horizontal ground-based push/pull Decline ground-based push/pull

Goal: Maximizing Potential Explosive Transfer

Resisted shots Keiser sit-up & hip flexion Power clean and jerk Split alternating foot jerk

Goal: Proprioception

Lateral bridge & row on Bosu U.B. shoulder matrix on Bosu Pulley single-leg incline press D.B. squat and press on Bosu

Goal: Mobility

Lower-body lunge matrix

*We place a mini-band slightly above the knees in an attempt to maximize gluteal activation.


Shop see all »

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
website development by deyo designs
Interested in receiving the print or digital edition of Training & Conditioning?

Subscribe Today »

Be sure to check out our sister sites: