The Ultimate Guide to Bodyweight Training for MMA

Bodyweight Training History

Bodyweight training often gets dismissed as ineffective for building strength. Today we're going to take an in-depth look at the benefits of bodyweight training, and why it's so effective for mixed martial artists.

For a long time, there was a misconception that building muscle and martial arts should not go together. The assumption here was that being strong meant being bulky, and that being bulky meant being slow.

If you became too muscular, then your punches would slow down and you’d tire out quickly, leaving you as a sitting duck.

But then came Bruce Lee. In many ways, Bruce Lee is the father of MMA and he had a lot to say about the role of strength training in martial arts.

Bruce Lee believed strongly that developing muscular power is not only a good thing for martial artists but should be considered essential.

He spent a lot of time lifting weights and developing the ripped physique he is now famous for and he was living proof that this style of training worked wonders.

Building muscle doesn’t slow you down, in fact it makes you faster and more explosive when done correctly.

Not only that, but it will also increase the power of your blows, your ability to grapple and fight at a close range and your endurance for long, drawn-out matches.

But what Bruce Lee also knew, was that there are specific approaches to training that work best for martial artists and others that aren’t quite so effective.

Today, sports science has further developed this understanding and we now know precisely how to generate huge power and speed in athletes.

The best part? You can do this all from home using bodyweight training.

In fact, as we’ll see in a moment, bodyweight training is among the best forms of muscle building for any martial artist.

So read on and let’s take a look at how you can become a better fighter.

pushups using your own bodyweight

Types of Strength and Strength Training

The first thing to recognize is the difference between the different kinds of strength training and why only certain types are ideal for martial artists.

The Two Types of Hypertrophy

In bodybuilding, it is generally agreed that there are two types of hypertrophy – hypertrophy meaning muscle growth.

These are:

  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy
  • Myofibrillar hypertrophy

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

Broadly, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the kind of hypertrophy most associated with building size and aesthetics, whereas myofibrillar hypertrophy is preferred by strength athletes who are interested in building pure strength.

In sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, the muscle cells swell with fluid called sarcoplasm.

This means they retain more fluid, which provides them with greater energy in the long term for large rep ranges (repetitions in an exercise).

This is triggered by a build up of blood in the muscle, which triggers the release of metabolites like growth hormone and testosterone, stimulating growth.

Longer rep ranges accomplish this by ‘occluding’ the muscle, or in other words, keeping the blood trapped in that part of the body.

To accomplish then, a weight lifter will choose a weight they can lift for around 10-15 repetitions and they’ll perform these to failure, or past failure.

bodyweight training with bands

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy

To cause myofibrillar hypertrophy, the weight lifter chooses a heavier weight and performs just several repetitions.

When they do this, they cause minute tears in the muscle fiber, which in turn cause the burning sensation and the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) that you feel the next day.

During rest, the body will repair these tears using satellite cells, causing the fibers to grow back thicker and stronger.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy doesn’t cause quite the same amount of visible growth for the athlete, which is actually considered a good thing for bodybuilders on the whole as it won’t hinder flexibility or speed to the same degree.

Scientists are completely in agreement when it comes to the distinction between these two forms of hypertrophy and some people claim that this is speculation at best. 

But most bodybuilders will agree that their experience seems to corroborate this story and that lifting lighter weights for more repetitions will develop more size and endurance, whereas lifting heavier weights for fewer weights will build more power.

For the martial artist, myofibrillar hypertrophy is of course preferable.

But don’t rule out sarcoplasmic, seeing as muscle endurance is very important too – the ability to exert strength over longer periods.

This comes in especially handy during wrestling and grappling, so if you want to improve your ground work, then this is a good area to focus on.

We’ll see how this applies to bodyweight training and how both can be incorporated into a ‘power building’ program later on.

For a highly detailed guide to muscle hypertrophy, check out this post by Muscle for Life!

Compound vs Isolation

Another big divide is between compound training and isolation. Compound training is exercise that involves using multiple different muscle groups in conjunction with one another and thereby mimicking the way that we might move in real life.

Examples of compound movements include the squat, the deadlift, the clean and press or the bench press.

Of course, almost all bodyweight movements can be considered compound.

Here's a great video on how to properly perform one of the most effective compound movements: the squat:

In contrast, isolation movements are movements that focus on just one muscle group and often only involve a single joint.

A perfect example of this is the bicep curl. Here, only the elbow moves and this causes the focus to be entirely placed upon the biceps.

This is not as useful in a functional sense as a compound movement because it means that you won’t be using your muscles as you would use them in real life.

In a fight, or even when moving furniture, you don’t use just one muscle on its own but rather using your entire body as one cohesive kinetic chain.

So then why does anyone use isolation movement at all? The answer comes down to its usefulness in building muscle.

When you isolate a single muscle, it makes it much easier to go to failure and to thereby cause both types of hypertrophy.

During bicep curls, you can curl to the point where the bicep fails and tears are created.

But during a squat, you are forced to give up before this point because it only takes one muscle to fall behind the others for you to lose the strength needed to carrying on with more repetitions.

For martial artists, compound movements are definitely the priority as these build more coordination, real-world strength and supporting muscles.

The stabilizing muscles that help you to balance during a squat will also help you to stay upright while wrestling, or to balance when delivering a side kick.

But for creating maximum myofibrillar hypertrophy, don’t rule out the importance of isolation as something to layer on top.

Once again then, the best answer is to use a combination of different approaches, or to use middling exercises like bench press and press ups which do incorporate multiple muscle groups, but which also involve enough focus to let you cause serious muscle damage and metabolic stress in your target area.

Muscle Fibers

Your muscle fibers come in a range of different forms. These include Type I, Type IIa and Type IIb. These get progressively ‘quicker’ and more explosive, which is owing to a greater proportion of mitochondria (energy factors) inside the cells.

When you perform a movement slowly for lots of reps, you will use more slow twitch muscle fibers. Likewise, if you go for a long walk, you will use more slow twitch fibers.

That’s because these are more energy efficient and are capable of going for a long time without burning out.

But when you sprint or when you explosively use a very heavy weight, that’s when you engage the faster types of muscle fiber and this allows you to generate more power and force in a shorter amount of time.

You also have hybrid muscle fiber and this is the type of muscle fiber that exhibits traits of both kinds.

This is also exciting because it is what will allow you to convert muscle from one type to another.

With enough sprinting, you can slowly increase the amount of type II fibers. And theoretically, you might be able to convert some Type I fibers to Type II.

muscle fibers

Well, again this is an area of debate. Some experts believe that you can’t convert Type I to Type II, but it is generally agreed that Type IIa can be converted to Type IIb (or IIx).

Whatever the case, we know that your ability to exert power quickly can be improved through training by using exercise that requires fast, explosive movement. To what extent however is somewhat unknown.

Interestingly, our boy Bruce Lee used to use a specific technique to engage his fast twitch muscle fiber during training.

He would perform a regular workout with curls and presses but he would perform every exercise with extra speed.

These ‘speed workouts’ would be timed and by lifting faster, he essentially required his body to output more force – which is equivalent to lifting greater weight.

In bodyweight training, the most popular way to build more power and to increase fast twitch muscle fiber density, is to use plyometrics.

Plyometrics are exercises that involve explosive movements and often involve jumping – a good example being the clapping push up.

Again, we’re going to go into this in a lot more detail shortly.

If you'd like to learn a bit more about plyometrics and have some specific routines, check out our guide to plyometrics for MMA.

Muscle Fiber Recruitment

As you can see, there are many different ways to train and many different types of strength. You can have bigger muscles than someone else but actually be weaker if they have built only sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and if they have only ever used their muscles in isolation!

But another factor that gets overlooked very often is muscle-fiber requirement – the ability to actually use the muscle you’ve built.

Did you know that when you try to lift a weight or throw a punch, you will typically only use 30-50% of your strength? 50% is for the highly trained athlete, whereas 30% is the average.

This is due to your muscle fiber recruitment, your ability to actually engage the muscle fiber by sending the right signals across your neuromuscular junction.

Normally we can only use a fraction of our strength, which is intended as a way to prevent us from injuring ourselves partly and as a way to conserve energy.

When you lift something that is around 90-100% of your one rep maximum, you use your fast twitch muscle but you leave some in reserve and you also won’t engage all the slow twitch fiber in conjunction.

If you did, you could risk damaging your connective tissue and you could risk leaving yourself completely fatigued – to the point where your arms hung uselessly by your sides.

But in times of extreme stress – such as when trapped beneath a heavy rock – a sudden rush of adrenaline is produced which can sometimes allow us to call upon untapped reserves of strength.

This is called ‘hysterical strength’ and it is the reason that you hear stories of Mothers lifting cars off of their children.

Think back to films where someone gets an electric shock and is catapulted across the room.

They’re depicted as being sent flying and many of us assume that this is due to the jolt from the electricity.

In fact though, it is our own muscular strength that allows us to fly so far. The electric current causes our muscle fibers to contract and this means we use 100% of our muscle fiber throughout our entire body.

And the result is that we can leap like a kangaroo.

Now, imagine if you could always call upon that kind of strength and power. Imagine how powerful you would be!

The best way to build this kind of strength is to train with something called overcoming isometrics, which once again was a favorite tool of Bruce Lee.

This means that you are pulling or pushing against an immovable force – perhaps trying to push down a wall, perhaps trying to curl an iron railing or maybe trying to pull down a tree, like the famous Indian wrestler Gama.

When you try to push or pull something that can’t be moved, your body and brain act just as though they were trying to move something too heavy.

This recruits as much muscle fiber as possible and thereby strengthens the connection between your mind and body. Gradually, you can increase your fiber recruitment.

This is particularly effective when used to train your grip strength. You can do this by trying to bend an iron bar, or trying to rip books in half.

This will build your muscle fiber recruitment, allowing you to create incredible power in your hands – which is instrumental in not only your strength training but of course in your locks, holds and grappling.

Note as well that you can boost your muscle fiber recruitment by strengthening the connections in your brain – by practicing your technique and your form.

This will improve the neural representation of the muscle and of the movement in your motor cortex and cause ‘myelination’ to occur – insulation of the connective tissue to allow signals to be carried more quickly and strongly.

Want to recruit more muscle fiber when you deliver an upper cut? Then practice that upper cut over and over.

Why Bodyweight Training is Ideal for MMA

The notion that muscle will slow you down is of course nonsense – after all, muscle is what generates your speed!

And it’s not even true that muscle will negatively impact on your flexibility – there are plenty of examples of highly muscular individuals who are very flexible.

But there is still benefit to focussing on the right kind of strength and the right kind of training to accomplish that. In our case, we’re interested in relative strength.

Relative strength is your ‘strength to weight ratio’.

Someone with amazing relative strength is going to be stronger than someone else in their weight category which is of course highly important for an MMA fighter who will be going up against fighters of a similar weight.

Sarcoplasmic strength is only useful to a point then, because it adds weight as well as endurance. We want the endurance, but not necessarily the weight.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy also adds weight but is better at building power more quickly.

Muscle fiber recruitment is very useful and as we’ve seen, it’s possible to accomplish this using bodyweight training if you focus on emphasizing speed in place of weight.

Relative Strength

But the best part of bodyweight training is that it is inherently relative. In bodyweight training, you are the weight.

You are what is providing the resistance and as such, you will always be strong for your size.

The other advantage of bodyweight training is that it is highly compound and functional. In fact, it is more functional and more compound than squatting or deadlifting.

Deadlifting is only transferrable to real-life events to an extent.

Sure, it teaches you to pick things up off the ground, but how often do you find yourself picking up straight bars from a flat surface in the real world?

Probably never!

Conversely though, bodyweight training is different every time you do it. The precise position of your hands and gradient of the ground subtly alter the small supportive muscle fibers working, as does your weight at that particular point.

You are then forced to not only lift your body, but also to balance it at whatever angle you are at.

Even something simple like a press up requires you to tighten your core, to engage your legs as you keep them straight, to use your pecs, your shoulders, your triceps… you get the picture!

Using Progressions

You might have already spotted a problem with bodyweight training though, which is that it doesn’t involve heavy weights.

We can get around that to some extent by using explosive movements and by performing repetitions quickly, but even when you train something like press ups in this way, it will still only be so difficult.

Most of us can perform 20 clapping press ups easily enough, which means we are going to be building more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy rather than myofibrillar.

Worse than that, because the movement is performed quickly and we spend a lot of time in the air, we actually don’t get much in the way of ‘time under tension’.

This phrase refers to the amount of time spent actually contracting, which is a critical variable when it comes to creating microtears and occluding blood in the muscle.

Progressions for Bodyweight Training

So how can you use bodyweight training in a way that increases the necessary force and increases the time under tension?

The answer is to use progressions. In other words, MMA fighters shouldn’t just be focussed on the few basic bodyweight exercises (sit ups, press ups, chin ups) but should focus on more complex variations that challenge the muscles more.

These might include handstand press ups, planche (press ups with your feet not touching the ground!), one armed pull ups, maltese press ups, one armed push ups, spider-man crawls etc.

The aim here then is going to be to gradually build up to more and more challenging moves, which will increase the amount of force felt by individual muscle groups and the body as a whole.

The maltese push up for instance involves moving the arms further down the body to the weight and turning the hands outward.

This lengthens the lever arm, thereby requiring the muscle to exert more force.

Many people will struggle with the maltese push up at first, but by progressing from regular press ups, to something like triangle push ups, to the maltese and then perhaps to various planche variations… that way you can gradually increase the challenge just as though you were adding weight to a movement in the gym. This is the equivalent of what we call progressive overload.

Mechanical Drop Sets

Classic bodybuilders in their prime would often use a range of different techniques in order to go past failure and create the necessary sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, along with some micro-tears.

For instance, a drop set would involve curling a 20kg for 10 reps and then as soon as they couldn’t perform another curl, they would drop the weight down to 15kg and perform 5 more, then they might drop it to 10kg and perform 5 more.

This is highly effective as it allows for massively long sets that really create that necessary metabolic stress – and because it allows them to create the necessary tears in the muscle fiber.

But how can you mimic this with a bodyweight workout?

The answer is the mechanical dropset. Here, you ‘drop the weight’ by changing the precise exercise you’re doing.

So, you might perform as many maltese push ups as you can and then when you reach failure, switch to regular push ups. You might then switch to push ups on your knees!

This is another way that you can make bodyweight training difficult enough to create the necessary challenge and to stimulate the growth and strength gains you’re looking for.

Explosive Eccentrics

Okay, time for one more bit of theory before we get into the practicalities of creating a workout.

A surprisingly effective form of bodyweight training for MMA fighters is to use eccentric training.

This means that you focus on the ‘negative’ portion of the exercise – the point at which the muscle is lengthening.

This typically means you are lowering the weight, such as in a curl where you will be slowly letting the weight move toward the ground.

You can ‘train’ the eccentric portion of the movement by either performing it more slowly, or by using a weight that is too heavy for you to lit – assisting the movement on the way up and then struggling on the way back down without the assistance.

In bodyweight training it can be performed in other ways – for example by jumping up to a chin up bar and then slowly lowering yourself.

The Benefits

Eccentric training has a lot of benefits for the martial artist. For starters, it actually builds more pure strength than concentric training because the muscle are stronger in the eccentric portion.

In fact, your muscles are 1.75x stronger when moving eccentrically.

Eccentric training also actually improves flexibility and because it stretches the muscle, it can be used to correct tightness and restore injured joints.

This is especially good news for fighters and especially when training the biceps.

During a punch, the biceps work as ‘antagonistic’ muscles, meaning that they are pulling in the wrong direction against the movement. Eccentric training can lessen this resistance.

What’s more is that eccentric training actually makes you more explosive by allowing you to tap into that dynamic elasticity of the muscle.

When we go to punch someone, we first pull back the muscle.

Increasing the eccentric strength increases the amount of stored energy and allows you to punch harder and faster.

And this effect is improved even further if the eccentric training is used in an explosive manner – as in a depth jump (where you jump off of a platform, land, and then leap straight back up into the air).

Forms of ‘explosive’ eccentric training like this include clapping press ups (where you land back onto the hands), burpees and even clapping chin ups.

You should definitely incorporate this training into your routine.

The Routines

Without further ado then, let’s take a look at some routines. For each routine, if you can’t reach prescribed rep range, then go to failure. If you don’t know what an exercise or an instruction means, then take a look on Google for an explanation.

 

Beginner Full Body Routine

(Pull Ups x 8) x 2

(Chin Ups x 8) x 2

(Push Ups x 30) x 3

Clapping Push Ups x 10

1 Minute Plank

(Jumping Squats x 10) x 3

(Crunches x 20) x 3

 

Intermediate Full Body Routine

Mechanical Drop Set: (Clapping Press Ups x 15 -> Press Ups x 10) x 2

Decline Push Ups x 10

Mechanical Drop Set: (Pull Ups x 10 -> Reverse Push Ups x 10) x 2

(Chin Ups x 10) x 3

Isometric Hold -> Negative: 1 Minute Pull Up Hang

(Tricep Dips x 15) x 3

Isometric Hold -> 1 Minute V-Sit

(Burpees x 15) x 3

(Squat Jumps x 15) x 3

Calf Jumps x 10

(Crunches x 20 x 3)

(Hanging Leg Raises x 10) x 3

 

Advanced Full Body Routine

Mechanical Drop Set: (Handstand Push Ups x 10 -> Decline Push Ups x 10) x 2

Mechanical Drop Set: (Maltese Push Ups -> Clapping Press Ups x 15 -> Press Ups x 10) x 2

Isometric Hold: 1 Minute Planche

Mechanical Drop Set: (Clapping Pull Ups x 10 -> Pull Ups x 10 -> Reverse Push Ups x 10) x 2

Mechanical Drop Set: (1 Arm Chin Ups x 5 -> Chin Ups x 10) x 2

Isometric Hold -> Negative: 2 Minute Pull Up Hang

Mechanical Drop Set: (1 Arm Tricep Dips x 8 -> Tricep Dips x 15) x 3

Transitions: Minute V-Sit -> Handstand x 5

HIIT Tabata Burpees

Drop Set: (Pistol Squats x 5 -> Squat Jumps x 15) x 3

Depth Jumps x 5

Calf Jumps x 10

Mechanical Drop Set: (Hanging Leg Raises x 10 -> Frog Kicks x 10) x 2

(Crunches x 20 x 2)

 

You can of course vary the specifics in these workouts and increase or decrease the difficulty as needed.

This is not set in stone and everyone is going to be different.

Hopefully though, this proves that you can certainly create enough challenge using bodyweight alone and especially if you combine it with drop sets, with explosive eccentrics, with isometrics and more.

Build up to the advanced full body routine and combine it with lots of bag work and training in the ring and you will not only develop explosive power but also pure strength, muscular endurance and even cardio.

That’s one final benefit of bodyweight training – when performed correctly it can also serve as a form of ‘concurrent training’, itself a form of cardio.

And as Bruce Lee said, if you don’t do cardio then you have no place being in the ring.

This workout will make sure you have the staying power to last until the end of the fight and the formidable punching power to ensure you don’t have to.

P.S. Don't forget to grab your free copy of “Cage Cardio” and start drastically improving your cardio today!