Combat Ready: What makes an MMA Fighter?

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Outside of skills and the correct mentality, a modern day MMA fighter requires a blend of many different physical attributes. In today’s blog, I am going to cover what some of these are and how they interlink. In doing so, I will be introducing a fair bit of terminology and then breaking it down so you understand how the science ties in with what happens in the cage.

Strong, Fast and Enduring.

To succeed, you need to be strong, you need to be fast and you need to be able to STILL be strong and fast after several rounds.

First of all, let’s take a look at how strength and speed relate to each other and then apply that to MMA.

The force-velocity curve shows the relationship between force and velocity (strength and speed) in human movement.

At the top left, we have movements that happen slowly but generate a lot of force. At the bottom right we have movements that happen fast, but don’t have much force. Everything you do, both in training and in the cage, will fall somewhere on this curve. Because of the way muscle fibres are recruited when you move, it takes time to develop high levels of force. You can see this if you watch someone do a heavy squat or bench press. The weight moves up slowly when maximal or near maximal force is required.  With a lighter weight or no weight, the same movement can be performed much quicker.

When you think about MMA, where on the curve do most things happen? Is it a sport of mostly slow movements, or fast movements?

MMA skills, like those in most sports, occur mostly towards the bottom right of the force-velocity curve. It’s primarily a sport of fast, explosive movements, albeit separated by periods of slower movement. Visualise 2 fighters sparring; they will always be moving, but at a relatively low speed until a technique is started. So they circle, move around the cage etc with relatively slow movements until they close the distance, at which point everything goes a LOT faster. Different techniques will sit in slightly different places on the curve, but it is all relatively fast.

When it comes to talking about different parts of the force-velocity curve in training, I will use the terminology in the graph below.


  • Maximal Strength – moving slowly, with a lot of force.
  • Strength-Speed – moving faster, but with the speed being limited by the amount of force required to move it.
  • Power – the middle ground between Force and Velocity. Power is highest when both force and velocity are somewhere in the middle. You can think of power as the optimal blend of speed and strength.
  • Speed-Strength – moving faster still, but with the force being limited by how quickly we are moving.
  • Speed – the fastest movement possible, with the lowest force.

So how does our strength training tie in with this?

When we do strength training, we can effectively shift the force-velocity curve upwards (getting more force with no increase in speed) or to the right (getting faster with no increase in force) or both.

In trainees with little or no experience, working on Maximal Strength alone, by lifting relatively heavy weights, will improve both strength AND speed, like this:

But as the athlete moves beyond the novice stage further increases in Maximal Strength do NOT automatically produce increases in speed! 

For the more advanced athlete, the possibilities look more like this:

In short, when an advanced athlete makes an increase in limit strength, it does not automatically translate to an increase in speed, instead, beyond the beginner level a fighter tends to get slower over time if they only focus on building limit strength.

Because of this difference in adaptation profile, a beginner can make easy gains in speed and strength at the same time, simply by increasing Maximal Strength. But, the advanced athlete will need to focus each quality as a separate issue or they risk losing speed as they develop maximal strength.

This is where the myth of “weights make you slow” comes from. If an athlete trains slow, they can expect to be slow, so doing only bodybuilding type training with moderate to heavy weights and low speeds of movement will NOT do anything positive for a fighter beyond the beginner level. Thankfully, not all weight training is created equal though, with some knowledge and planning fighters can and should aim to get both stronger and faster as time goes on.

Take Home Lessons.

  1. The Force-Velocity curve describes all movement. There is an inverse relationship between Force and Velocity. High force requires slow speeds. High speed requires low force. Somewhere in the middle of these extremes lies the holy grail for a fighter…Power.
  2. A beginner can improve all areas of the Force Velocity curve merely by getting stronger.
  3. An advanced athlete with greater strength cannot do this. They must do specific training to improve each individual quality (maximal strength, strength speed, power, speed strength, and speed).
  4. “Weight training makes you slow” is a myth. Brought about by people doing the wrong kind of training. Training in a “Bodybuilding” style WILL do this. Training in a style appropriate for a combat athlete will not.

Next time…

In the next instalment, I’ll look at Endurance, and what it really means to “gas out” in a fight.  Meantime “Like” the Facebook page to see regular video updates of the S and C training of pro fighter Ross Houston.

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