Should You Lift Weights for MMA?
When it comes to training for Mixed Martial Arts, every serious MMA fighter is always looking for the extra edge to add to their program. We all understand that MMA proficiency requires endless drilling of striking, wrestling, and grappling techniques, in addition to sparring rounds and cardio. That being said, when browsing MMA forums or discussing MMA training, the following question often comes up: is lifting weights beneficial to MMA performance?
Most MMA fighters at the highest level are unlikely to follow the type of routine found in a powerlifting or bodybuilding program. Nevertheless, while few fighters are likely to be trying to go for a high 1-rep max, it is rare these days at the elite level for an MMA fighter not to do any strength and conditioning. But the question remains, should weightlifting be part of the strength and conditioning program.
Whether or not MMA fighters should lift weights is not a black-and-white question. There are many considerations for a strength and conditioning coach when determining whether weight training makes sense for a fighter. We take into consideration the following aspects: Training Status, Age and Weight Class.
Training Status and Age
The training status and age of the fighter, for a part, will help determine whether weight training makes sense. However, you could use age as an argument to minimize weight training, but you could also use it as an argument to maximize weight training.
On the one hand, for a newer, younger fighter who has less muscle mass and has had less time in the gym, weight training to add some muscle mass, improve strength-to-weight ratio, and improve explosiveness and power would likely help the fighter come closer to their full athletic potential.
On the other hand, you could argue that a younger fighter has a lot more to learn. There are still many techniques he* has to master. On top of that, the fighter also has to develop his own fighting style, his game. He will spend more time sparring, to get used to fighting as compared to a seasoned fighter. When lifting weights, the athlete will compromise this development for a part. It’s not that the weightlifting sessions take up that much time, but the recovery afterward does. During this recovery, it's best to minimize strenuous activity to avoid injuries.
The seasoned fighter has developed a game that he masters. He has his favorite techniques and fighting style that he is familiar with. This does not mean that he won’t be doing any technical training or sparring at all, but we could say he needs less than the rookie. This, in turn, clears up time to spend on strength and conditioning. However, strength and conditioning does not necessarily involve weightlifting, but it can.
Examples of fighters who have stated to spar little to none, partly because of the attained experience in fighting they already have, are Donald Cerrone, Robbie Lawler and Matt Mitrione. For these fighters, experience diminishes the need for certain types of training, which clears up time for other types of training. Weight training for example.
The weight class in which an MMA fighter operates, determines for a big part whether there is room for lifting weights in the fighters’ training regime, or not.
If a fighter has a hard time making weight before every fight, he should make sure he does not gain too much weight in between fights. This includes muscle mass, which is harder to lose than fat. For this reason, you won’t see a fighter doing a lot of heavy lifting if he fights in a weight division for which he has a hard time making weight.
Up until December 2018 Kevin Lee fought in the lightweight division of the UFC. Because he had a hard time making the 155 pound weight limit, and even missing it a few times, he moved up to welterweight in 2019. In 2017, while fighting in the lightweight division, Kevin Lee answered questions in a Q&A on Sherdog. To the question whether he ever lifts weights, he answered the following:
“I never lift weights, haven't since college. If I ever do I'll never be able to make 155 again lol.”
A fighter who is light for his weight class, or a fighter who wants to move up a weight class, will benefit from getting bigger and stronger. Here, lifting (heavy) weights is potentially very beneficial.
Below we see a picture taken of Conor McGregor squatting heavy weight during his preparation for the fight with Donald Cerrone, which took place on January 18th 2020. It was the first time we saw the Irish star doing heavy lifts. The fight with Cerrone took place in the welterweight category, a weight class above lightweight in which he usually fights. Welterweight is a weight class for which McGregor does not have to cut any weight. So in fact it was for Conor McGregor beneficial to gain muscle mass, hence the heavy lifting.
Opponents of lifting weights for MMA.
Some fighters and coaches discard lifting weights as part of a strength and conditioning program altogether. Even when the fighter is very experienced and is competing in a weight class for which he doesn’t have to cut any weight.
One of the most outspoken strength and conditioning coaches with this particular point of view is Nick Curson. Curson trains some of the elite MMA athletes in the world like Rafael Dos Anjos, Lyoto Machida and Fabricio Werdum.
In a podcast with Ben Greenfield, he explained why he isn’t a fan of heavy lifting for professional MMA fighters.
First of all, Nick Curson acknowledges that lifting heavy does improve power. However, research has shown that when an athlete maxes out regularly in weight training (lifting until failure), the athlete becomes stronger but at the cost of diminished speed. In fact, when training to lift the heaviest weight possible, your muscles are getting used to contracting slowly.
Furthermore, he states that excessive weight training impairs your ability to perform complex motor tasks. It’s easy to see how this would negatively impact an MMA fighters' performance. Fighting, and almost all high level sports in general, is all about executing complex motor tasks with the best coordination, accuracy and efficiency.
Lastly, Curson is convinced that the habit of lifting heavy weights in the MMA world is a primary cause of the high injury occurrences of the athletes. Contrary to popular belief, he states that having perfect form won’t prevent, weight lifting injuries. Putting too much weight on your frame, regardless of form, will increase the risk of hemorrhoids, herniations and joint damage.
Lifting weights can be beneficial to the MMA athlete. It can make him significantly stronger and make him put on more mass. The fighter, however, has to make sure the weight training isn't at the expense of sufficient and qualitative Martial Arts training (wrestling, grappling, striking,...)
Furthermore, he should be aware that excessive weight training could diminish speed and coordination.
*Although well aware that there are both male and female elite MMA athletes, we only use the male pronoun in this article for reasons of convenience