Swimming for MMA Conditioning

For information purposes only. Exercise at your own risk

Written by Kevin O’Hagan

Always consult a doctor before undertaking a new exercise routine. If perform incorrectly these exercises could result in injury or death. 

In this blog post we are going to look at the benefits of swimming as a training aid for the Mixed Martial Artist. Firstly, swimming can be a complete opposite to many other types of combat related exercise (i.e. running, skipping, padwork.).

It can make a nice diverse change in your training regime and also get you out of the gym and training hall environment. As they say, ‘A change is as good as a rest.’ The benefits of swimming are many. It is another great cardiovascular workout and a superb conditioner. If you study an Olympic swimmer none of them are six stone weaklings. Pushing your body against the force of the water is a sure way of building endurance and muscular power. 

For the MMA fighter swimming can be a good way to ease muscle stiffness and soreness after a heavy workout. The buoyancy of the water supports the joints and takes away any strain, plus there is no impact involved in the exercise, which is good news for a tired body. Days before a fight when all the hard training is done, swimming is a great way to keep the cardio system ticking over and also helps stretch out the muscles. Using swimming as pre fight day exercise also means you lessen the chances of any muscle pulls or strains. 

When I was in Japan for Pride, with James ‘The Colossus’ Thompson we regularly swam in the hotel pool last thing at night. It is a good method of unwinding. We also looked really fetching in the blue bathing hats the pool attendant insisted we wore! Many of the fighters found their way to the pool and enjoyed the benefits.

Swimming can also be an excellent form of exercise for re-habilitation from an injury. The water will support the injured body part and allow you to get some cardio training done. The limbs, back and neck can all profit from water. Also in between heavy training days in your normal weekly schedules, swimming will make a welcome change to running. It can also help you relax and give you time to think and ‘chill.’ Lets not forget though that swimming can also be an explosive cardio workout as well.

Most people when they go to the pool do not swim long or hard. The general public’s view of the swimming baths is they are a place of recreation or fun not for serious exercise unless of course you are a swimmer. Most pools will have time set aside for the serious swimmer, where you can do lane swimming free of thrashing limbs, plastic inflatables and polystyrene floats. This will give you the space you need for some serious work. I am not the world’s best swimmer, infact I can only swim breaststroke but I always treat swimming as another physical and mental challenge.

I once swam in the national ‘Swimathon’ for charity and swam the whole 200 length course breaststroke. I was in the water, 2 hours and 20 minutes. That is a long time especially without the toilet. That was a tough challenge! If you are a strong swimmer, get in the pool and do 30 minutes continuous swimming. This will be a good workout. Also add some underwater swimming, as this will help you develop strong lungpower when holding your breath. 

If you can swim a length of the pool underwater then you won’t have too much difficulty when you are ‘stacked up’ in the guard with your diaphragm constricted or when you are working to defend that chokehold. Other great exercises in the pool are ‘treading water’ and ‘water punching.’ 

Treading water 
Working your arms and legs continuously against the force of the water and staying afloat is a surefire muscle endurance workout. Aim to do a 4 or 5 minute round and feel what its like. It is not easy. 

Water punching 

I read in the autobiography of the great heavyweight boxing champion, Rocky Marciano that he used to practice fast, constant punching in the water. With his arms and shoulders submerged he punched against the waters pull. He developed tremendous power in punching. He was an awesome punching machine with a profolic KO record. His fight record was 49-0 with 43 KO’s. He knocked out 88 per cent of his opponents! I think there is something in this ‘water punching’, try it! 

  • Benefits of swimming for a MMA fighter: 
  • Good cardio/muscle endurance workout 
  • Total change of environment for fighter 
  • Good way to ease down pre fight training 
  • Good method of unwinding 
  • Helps ease muscle stiffness and soreness 
  • Aids rehabilitation and promotes recovery 

Safety points for training: 

Remember swimming is no different to any other fitness activity. Stretch out before hard swimming. Paying particular attention to the neck, shoulders and back. Warm up slowly with some steady paced swimming. Don’t just dive in and start blasting. This is a common mistake.

Doing this is no different to getting on a treadmill cold, cranking up the speed and doing a full out sprint. You will injure yourself. Don’t treat swimming any differently. Remember you sweat in water.

People do not always register this fact because the water cools you down constantly. After training drink plenty of fluid or you will become dehydrated. So in closing try and think of swimming as a major fitness exercise.

Do not underestimate its benefits. View swimming as a positive activity not just a bit of fun you may have with your kids or friends or something you only do once a year when you go on your holidays. Swimming should be part of the MMA fighters overall fitness regime. If you are not already incorporating it into your schedule, now is a good time to give it a go. Good luck. 

Kevin O’Hagan is a former MMA fighter and self defence expert.

For Martial Arts & Self Defense in Bristol, UK, please visit his website:

Editor’s Note

When I worked in a gym, back in the days when I was actually competing, I’d do a swim most nights.

MMA Workout for Swimming

  • 4 lengths (25m) of pool x 4 breast stroke
  • 4 lengths of pool freestyle
  • 4 lengths of the pool – doing ‘walking knees’ (walk the shallow-end 8 times if pool is deep)
  • 10 Low kicks with each leg*
  • Underwater shadow boxing – 3 x 3 min rounds

*Roundhouse Kicks are very difficult. Try side kicks to begin with

About Drew

MMA, Fitness & Marketing enthusiast from North Wales, UK. A Stoic Hippy with no hair. Not to boast but - 1st Class Degree in Sports Science from Loughborough, MSc in Nutrition from the University of Liverpool. 20 years experience of weight & fitness training.
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