4 Keys to ‘Cardio’ for MMA Fighters

Cardio as it’s popularly referred to by Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg every UFC is what will keep you from looking like the Ultimate Fighter Heavyweights.

Man it’s so frustrating seeing dudes on TV who can’t hold their hands up… in the first round!!!

Anyway, the term cardio doesn’t include just one aspect of fitness, like the name implies, and if you don’t understand how cardio is developed, you’ll never be in great shape.

Luckily, I’m going to tell you what you need to do.

So here’s how developing your cardio is more than just running, or intervals, or 5 minute circuits, or CrossFit:

Now let me tell you that these things are in no particular order, because the order in which it’s best to develop these aspects is different for each individual.

The first key is general strength.

If you’re weak, then you’ll be working closer to 100% of max strength than a guy who is strong. You can only last a short period of time working at 100% max strength (like 20 seconds) so then you’ll gas out quickly.

If you don’t quite get it, let’s make it even easier to understand.

Let’s say you can Bench press 100 lbs for 1 rep (you monster, you).

If a guy is laying on top of you, and you need to bench press him off (because your technique sucks) , and he weighs 170 lbs, you’re using 100% of your strength to try to do this.

You’ll be able to push with all your force ONCE, then every attempt after, your level of force will go down, until your energy supply runs out and you can no longer lift your arms, unless you rest them.

Now let’s say you can Bench press 250 lbs for 1 rep and the same guy is on top of you.

Now, his bodyweight of 170 lbs is about 70% of your bench, meaning that you’ll be able to bench him up and down for at least 15 reps before starting to lose strength and tire out.

Make sense now? Good.

Now let’s say you’re strong, but you’ve never trained or don’t know how to train your cardiovascular system (pay attention, TUF Heavyweights).

What do muscles need to recover after they’ve been spent? 

If you guessed OXYGEN, you win the Ferrari and 1-on-1 training sessions with your new stretching coach.

The second key is to get blood to the muscles. This is where your cardiovascular system comes in.

Your heart has to be fit enough to pump blood quickly to the muscles that need it.

To develop your heart to do this you need to increase the amount of blood it pumps with each beat in 2 ways: increasing the volume of blood the heart can hold and increasing the % of blood the heart pumps out with each beat (heart strength).

Dreaded traditional steady-state cardio training improves the volume of blood, while strength training and hard interval training improves the strength of the heart.

[One note – heavyweights have more trouble with cardio because they have more muscle mass to get blood to, and their hearts aren’t proportionally bigger compared to smaller guys, but that’s no excuse for what we’ve been seeing on TUF]

The third key in the process is that your muscles need to be efficient at extracting the oxygen from the blood and getting rid of the waste products developed from contracting.

This is where specific local muscular endurance training comes into play, where the muscles are forced to recover faster through progressively longer sets and shorter rest periods.

The fourth key is that your lungs need to be able to efficiently take oxygen from the air and they have to be trained well enough to avoid fatiguing.

This is a relatively new concept but there is some good research that shows that specific respiratory muscle training can improve endurance. I just make sure to incorporate different lengths of hard intervals to get the lungs working at high levels, but I’m looking into trying respiratory muscle training myself to see if it’s really beneficial. I’ll let you know the results.

So now you understand that cardio requires general muscular strength, and it also requires a 3-pronged attack to make sure you’ve got all your bases covered from a cardiovascular point of view.

Make sure you’re not leaving yourself exposed by neglecting any of these important aspects of your physical fitness, and you’ll be sure to keep going if the fight goes the distance.

Got questions – comments – milk? Leave them below:

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[…] could write a whole other post on breathing and stamina exercises which an MMA beginner should try out to get themselves prepared. The most important thing of all, […]

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[…] you’re considering becoming an MMA fighter, or if you would simply want to try a similar forms of workouts that MMA fighters do, you […]

John Burke
John Burke
5 years ago

Thank you Erik I started at a gym tonight I gassed out bad I’m 49yrs old I spared one round but had a tough time with a few sets of sit ups push ups shadow boxing then right into sparing I though I was going to die I couldn’t catch my breath I was told I’m breathing through my mouth but I was sucking for air had to take a knee so anyway it was my first time in a MMA gym on excited but I need to listen to you I’m starting cardio in the AM thanks my friend I appreciate the words of wisdom. Thanks john

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[…] resistance when you are training in water. Training in water is a great way for you to boost your endurance and resistance without seriously maxing out your body. You should take care though not to accidental drown […]

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[…] build on your strength. Bench presses are particularly a good form of exercise because you can add more resistance and build strength as you […]

Derek Harris
Derek Harris
6 years ago

i’m an ammy 205. i’m really honing in on my technique and i feel myself getting better and better but i know its useless unless i have the cardio to use it! what are some cardio workouts you use yourself or someone you know uses?! i’m just not a big cardio guy but i’ll what it takes to be at my best!

kat
kat
6 years ago

Heyy Eric.. this is my first time reading something of yours and well would these methods be good for women too??

Eric
6 years ago
Reply to  kat

For sure, if you’re looking to get in great shape.

Aaron
7 years ago

I love mma workouts and keeping up my routine I do biking using my BMX bc it helps control my breathing because I have to keep breathing and strengthens my legs I stop for at least 5 minutes to get my breathing kept at normal pace and I do 5 to 10 km bike rides get home and do a bunch of push ups. Your tips really help me out bc I use to play foot ball I’m on 21 and 6 ft 3 and 180 pounds but it’s not fat it’s actually muscle so thank you lots for your tips and help. And I plan to quite smoking bc I love mma ad it will help me out more.

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[…] Ads over/podcast begins 15:50: The rise of MMA’s popularity 20:05: MMA training 4 Keys to ‘Cardio’ for MMA Fighters 23:25: Nick Diaz Michael Jai White training video (youtube) 28:30: Jeremy Jackson Former UFC […]

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Stop BS’ing yourselves. 5 times 5 minutes, at 90-100% VO2 max. In other words, multiple all-out mile repeats, once per week (to start). Do you really want to face a man that consistently trains in this way, and you choose not to, “because it’s hard…” ??? Grow up.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago
Reply to  Sam

Different Sam, by the way. Guy, I like your comment. Excessive rest, but you’re on the right track.

jorge gutierrez
jorge gutierrez
10 years ago

I’M WORKING ON THE CRAZY’S 8 ADVANCE PROGRAM NOW FOR TWO WEEKS
IS TIME FOR A CHANGE OR JUST KEEP GOING ON THAT DO YOU HAVE ANOTHER GOOD CARDIO WORKOUT

THANKS ERIC

DT
DT
10 years ago

…just to clarify…quit smoking, not the Military!

corey
corey
10 years ago

I smoke about a half a pack a day, how much is that going to effect my oxygen intake because i hear that smoking messes up your lungs but i run faster than everyone in my platoon

DT
DT
10 years ago
Reply to  corey

In the short term, probably none…but unfortunately, as time goes by and more cigarettes are smoked and the toxins damage your lungs and blood vessels and the older you get, the slower you’ll get and one day you’ll look back and say to yourself, “ole DT was right…my youth went up in smoke”. Do yourself a favor and look at your future square in the eye without excuses and quit smoking. It’s not just smoke coming out of your lungs…it’s your strength and youth. And thank you for serving your country! I, for one, appreciate that you’ve stepped up where so few have the balls to….now just step up for yourself and quit.

Eric
10 years ago
Reply to  corey

corey…

Right now, you run faster than everyone IN SPITE of smoking… I just helped a friend quit, he’s been a non-smoker since October 1st and LOVING IT!

A big thing that helped was a book called Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr. I actually read the book too just for fun and I could see myself quitting if I was a smoker after reading the book!

Here’s a link to Amazon.com:

The Easy Way to Stop Smoking: Join the Millions Who Have Become Non-Smokers Using Allen Carr’s Easyway Method

I highly recommend this book if you want to stop smoking. I don’t recommend you read it if you actually enjoy smoking.

Fabian
Fabian
10 years ago

Hi Eric,
Of the keys you pointed out, which of these is closest or directly related to oxygen saturation is the blood stream? Query is related to the reason some athletes having used “blood doping” to improve red blood cell count. Thanks!

Eric
10 years ago
Reply to  Fabian

Fabian,

The thing with blood doping is that it increases the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream not through increasing the saturation %, but increasing the available Hemoglobin, which is the molecule that carries oxygen to the working muscles.

Saturation isn’t really the issue because the lungs are good at fully utilizing the available hemoglobin.

The 4th key which I discuss about specific respiratory training has more to do with the endurance of the respiratory muscles, such as the diaphragm and intercostals, as opposed to blood levels of oxygen.

The research that I’ve seen shows that respiratory muscle fatigue plays a factor in the level of work you can produce – those with stronger respiratory muscle could cycle for longer or run longer at a higher pace than those without respiratory muscle training.

DT
DT
10 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Eric,

ABSOLUTELY…I’ve also noted in my own training that it’s possible to decrease my heart rate (thus reducing overall fatigue) simply by relaxing peripheral muscles/muscle groups that I don’t intend to workout. For example, if I run with my fists balled up, heart rate is higher, if I relax my shoulders, heart rate decreases and so on. Of course, relaxing/controlled breathing/overall control of muscle tension reduces heart rate, which helps reduce premature fatigue…and, of course, it absolutely helps your Jiu Jitsu/MMA game to maintain that control and energy level as well!

Guy (South Africa)
Guy (South Africa)
10 years ago

Hey Eric

Check out the Ironman triathlon fraternity for gizmos relating to training your chest muscles with respect to reducing fatigue and increasing lung volume. There is anecdotal evidence both for and against, though the theory is sound.

Eric
10 years ago

Will do, thanks for the tips Guy!

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Hey man, gret info.
I have been trying to find a good cardio workout for a while now without any luck. do you have a good one that you use that you would be able to share?
cheers bro

Guy (South Africa)
Guy (South Africa)
10 years ago
Reply to  Sam

Hey Sam, try this:
1 set = 15xburpees, 15xpushups, 30xbodyweight squats, 2 minutes at your effort level 9 (out of 10) on a treadmill.
Rest interval 2 mins aim to get down to 1 minute.
Try 2 or 3 sets for starters, work up to 8 or 10 if you can.
GASSED does not cover it.

Juli
Juli
10 years ago

Good article, as usual. If all you want reading and buying your products is men, you’re on the right track. If you want ANY business from ANY woman with ANY self-respect, you will lose the bimbo approach. You’re too smart and too good at what you do to offend half the population out there.

Eric
10 years ago
Reply to  Juli

Hey Juli sorry sometimes I throw that in there but it keeps me amused… some women aren’t bothered, and most guys like it, I’m not trying to please everyone… if you like the content then you can overlook it, if not, well….

johnnybeegoode
johnnybeegoode
10 years ago

Will give you the Ferrari for the coach. What are the mechanics of respiratory muscle training? Keep up the great work.

Nate Miller
Nate Miller
10 years ago

Informative info as always, Eric!

DT
DT
10 years ago

Eric…for the record, I guessed Oxygen. Looking forward to the “stretch personal training”! Oh, yeah, and the results of the respiratory muscle training. I’ve wondered that as well…is there a way to train/improve the exchange of oxygen in the lungs therefore making your blood, for lack of a better way to articulate it, more “oxygen rich”.

William
10 years ago
Reply to  DT

yes there is. there are ways to make your body more used to breathing less oxygen(climbing mtns., or plastic chambers that can be placed over your bed) this will make is much easier on your body while training or fighting when you have more concentrated oxygen like at lower altitudes. many divers, football players, and other athletes use these chambers and other methods to get their bodies used to less oxygen

DT
DT
10 years ago
Reply to  William

I think there is a subtle difference between getting used to less oxygen and increasing the oxygen level in your blood (if possible)…and therein lies my question.

larry
larry
10 years ago
Reply to  William

hi there
just a simple naive question,,what about steam saunas? do they get your body more used to breathing less oxygen? I mean it s bloody hot in those things and humid
yer reply to this is much appreciated

Eric
10 years ago
Reply to  DT

DT – the exchange of oxygen in the lungs is improved through the various methods of cardio training, both steady-state and interval training… basically anything that gets you to breathe hard and suck some wind will result in adaptations – it’s all about finding the proper frequency, volume, intensity, and progression.

Justin Zabroski
Justin Zabroski
10 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Now, here I have to raise the question of oxygen restriction again, because, sometimes excruciating, breath control is a foundation element in my own training, while running on hills and flat ground. It is done by counting the footsteps per in-breath and out-breath, and increasing the length of the breath cycle thereby until you reach a psychological barrier of tolerance to the discomfort. I have thought of it in this way: that it is in effect an isolation of the heart muscle, eliminating the necessity to sprint on the leg muscles and still get the same feelings of cardiovascular exhaustion – this allows me to engage in more lifting or sparring because I don’t get as sore in the legs from cardio training (though even if this thinking is a fallacy, I would still do it to maintain mental familiarity and comfort with the specific sensations of dropping blood O2… Read more »

Justin Zabroski
Justin Zabroski
10 years ago

Oh ya, and what was the cardinal sin of mma training? My computer won’t play the video, I’ve tried it over and over…

spencer paige
spencer paige
10 years ago

great read, man. you did a great job explaining the hearts volume vs pump rate with respect to the cardio systems. good stuff.

Steve Preston
10 years ago

Eric,

Nicely put. I’ll be interested to hear how you respond to the respiratory muscle training.

Great info…

Steve Preston