Top 10 Exercises for MMA [2022]

This is my best go at creating a top 10 MMA Exercises but remember that everyone is different and your strength and conditioning should be secondary to actual MMA Training. Don’t kill yourself doing strength exercises and then be useless in MMA classes. I used to warm up and do 2/3 sets before an MMA class, e.g. warm up, 2 sets of chin ups or front squats…then do an MMA class. This helped me to recover instead of doing another S & C session in the morning.

MMA ‘strength’ in my eyes, is all about explosive hips. strong grips, a powerful neck, great balance and core strength. At the same time strength training should develop and not hinder agility, flexibility and endurance.

Remember –
The best way to get strong (and fit) for MMA, is to ‘do’ MMA and to replicate the movements in your training.

Aim to use exercises to build the following:

  • Core Strength & Balance
  • Grip Strength
  • Neck strength – makes it harder for you to be moved around
  • Explosive Power
  • Relevant Whole-Body Movements (not bodybuilding movements)

You should also consider building a base of strength and strength-endurance before looking to do explosive power exercises, especially Olympic Lifts.

Remember to think about ‘Return on Investment’ and ‘Risk to Reward Ratio’ of exercises.

In other words, minimise the risk of injury during conditioning sessions, whilst optimising your progression.
For example – I choose not to do Snatches & Olympic Ring exercises, as I feel the risk of injury outweighs the potential benefits for MMA (my friend dislocated his elbow doing snatches, the same friend tore his pec doing muscle ups)

1. Power Cleans (or a variation of)

Explosive hip extension (standing up/thrusting your hips forward from a squatted down position) is an extremely important movement in most sports.
In MMA it will help with your bridging, your thai kicks and knees and your general explosive power.
Here’s me attempting a power clean.  Don’t copy it.  I need to drive my hips through more and get my elbows higher

At the start of doing ‘Power Shrugs’.  Pick up the bar, as you would with a deadlift, then shrug the bar up and jump up at the same time. Like this, but I would do it more explosively, and with less weight:

Obviously, if you leave the floor as you jump, it will have some impact on your back and knees when you land, so don’t over do it.
From Power Shrugs, you could then move onto “High Pulls”.
Keep your elbows out, deadlift the bar from the floor (with a symmetrical grip though, both palms facing you), drive your hips through and pull the bar up to your chin.
Be careful if you have any shoulder problems.

Warning – with almost every Olympic Lift there is a high chance of injury when you start off.
I would advise paying an Olympic Lifting coach to tutor you.
I rate Olympic lifts as the best style of exercise for building explosive power, however, they also carry a risk of injury and tax the central nervous system.

Ensure you have adequate time to recover from an Olympic Lifting session.
Be especially careful when performing the snatch exercise.

2. Neck strength – Use a band or an iron neck machine

I wouldn’t recommend doing neck bridges, you’ll knacker the discs in your neck.

Instead start with ‘manual resistance’ – use your hand or hands ro resist your neck when very slowly nodding, shaking or sode to side moving your head, and then lateral side to sode movements.

Neck strength is vital in grappling. You have to be able to maintain posture when someone grabs your head or neck, in a clinch, or when they are trying to ‘break you down’ from guard.
Neck bridges are often used by wrestlers, but many believe this exercise is really bad for the discs in your spine.
I do them anyway, but alternatively, you could use a medicine ball to do exercises, or get your training partner to grab you in a thai-clinch and drill extending your neck back up to a full standing position, after he/she has pulled your head down.

Isometric neck exercises are a good compromise for those concerned (rightly so) about injuries to the discs in the neck.
Just use your hands to resist, placing them on your forehead as you try to flex your neck forwards (nod forwards). (but not actually moving as isometric exercises are static).
Then put your hands behind your head as you resist backwards movement.

Then resist as you turn your head side to side.
Remember to stretch your neck afterwards

3. Clinch Pull ups (or pull downs)

Do a chin up, utilising the hand over hand Thai clinch plum/grip.
You may need to use some kind of sling to do this. Check out 4mins 30 secs on this video:

Other people use a kettlebell, suspended by a piece of climbing rope
I sometimes wrap a very thick and taught ‘strength band’ around a chin up bar, and pull the band down to my chest and hold it there for 10 secs, before extending my arms and pulling it back down.

4. Rope Climbs 

Grip strength has to be the most important and functional type of strength there is.
Training grip strength can also cause a few different overuse injuries, so make sure you stretch and rotate exercises.
Try rope climbing, with your legs, then without. Here is my training partner Lee, expertly using his legs to climb a rope:

You can also do chin ups with a rope or even a gi.

Take care of your hands  where possible though.  Stretch them, massage them etc.  You don’t want arthritis in them when you 40…

5. Push Press

This can be done with a barbell, a kettlebell, or even dumbells, it doesn’t make a huge difference.
The barbell is arguably the most effective for power development, but I find it also places the most strain on my (already knackered) shoulders.

Drive from the legs, through the core and then continue the momentum as you push the bar upwards.
Technique is really important with this Olympic Lift too.

6. Medicine Ball Shot Put

Any variation of a medicine ball shot-put or chest-pass is good.
I imagine ‘2 points of power’ when executing the movements.
For example, if I’m doing a chest pass with the medicine ball.  I’ll use maximum power right at the start of the movement, then, again, I’ll ‘push through’ right at the end.
The ‘2nd point of power’ is definitely the most important. I use this concept when I punch, and for most exercises and movements.
For example, a chest-to-chest sweep from guard.  I’ll drive from the floor, and then drive my hips through at the top of the movement, when I’ve made contact with my opponent/partner.

7. Sledgehammer or Medicine Ball Slams

Old school, but awesome.
I like to do this with one hand, the immediately throw 5 or 6 overhand right/lefts on the bag.
Great for power development from the core.
Be careful though, as with any explosive exercise, make sure you are warm, and make sure it doesn’t slip out of your hands, or that you end up hitting your feet!

You can do the traditional overhead swings:

You can also hold the sledgehammer so that it’s upside down, and hit the tyre so that it’s to your side – so you are doing a twisting, oblique exercise.

8. Single Leg squats

Any squat is pretty awesome, but single leg squats, with dumbbells or kettlebells are awesome for flexibility, stabilisation etc.
Also, squats and variations of squats, tend to be more functional, because we tend to use one leg a lot of the time.  e.g. when jumping some people jump of one leg.
This article by Charles himself, also suggests that ‘unilateral’ plyometrics may be the way forward

9. Overhead squats

Awesome for core strength, flexibility and shoulder stability.
I find these really difficult to do, as my calves are so tight.
If you find yourself in the same position as me, try foam rolling your calves before each set, and do some dynamic stretching of your calves too.
Be careful with the knees, don’t push them forwards too much. Ideally get a (good) fitness instructor to show you the proper form, and/or film yourself for feedback.
Front squats are awesome for flexibility and core strength too.  Normal squats, of course are mega awesome as well.

10. Guillotine hammer curls or band ‘curls’

1 exercise I made up.  Practice your ‘squeeze’ by standing on a strength band, placing your hands together as if your doing a choke, and pulling them upwards and squeezing them like a choke.
Here’s a rather friend, demonstrating it rather badly.  It’s better to put both feet on the band to make it more difficult.

Some extras:

11. Plyometrics – depth jumps

Awesome for power development.
Not so awesome for the knees etc. so as with most plyometric exercises, I’d advise to use them sparingly

Nick Curson is big into plyometrics on unstable surfaces like stability balls, BOSUs and air discs.

12. Stability Ball Bridges & Curls

With a stability ball, try planks, planks into press ups, press ups, etc.
On a bosu try throwing knees, drill blocking a low thai kick
Also, if your gym has Olympic rings, get going on those too.

Whenever possible sit, stand or workout on an unstable surface.

As a standard part of your warm up, I would advise doing:
– Stability ball press ups
– BOSU squats
– Stability ball hamstring curls

13. Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

Normal deadlifts are awesome too.
For wrestling and defending takedowns, I feel it is important to strengthen the ‘kicking back’ movement of a sprawl.
There also help with the movement of an uchi mata throw in judo.
Do this with bands, dumbbells (trapped between your legs) and ‘manual resistance’ – e.g. get your training partner to pick up your leg as if he/she’s going for a single leg takedown, and get him/her to resist as you try and kick your leg back and plant your foot back on the floor.

Example MMA Strength Training Programme / workout

General Base of Strength

Day 1
warm up with something functional
– e.g. pummelling, drilling a technique with a partner, shadow boxing, skipping, shrimping, forward rolls, sit throughs

Foam roll the muscles you are about to use plus anything tight or knotted

Do some dynamic stretching – e.g. leg swings, sumo squats

Barbell Bench Press x 3 sets x 6 reps.
Final 2 sets are supersetted with medicine ball chest pass x 6 reps

– Rope climbs or thai clinch chin ups x 2 sets

Front Squats x 3 sets of 12 reps

– Depth jumps x 2 sets x 6 reps

Stability ball plank to press up x 2 sets x max reps

Dumbbell push press x 3 x 6 reps

Hammer ‘swings’ on the tyre x 2 sets of 12 reps (alternate right to left arm on each rep)

– Foam roll again and stretch – lower back, hip flexors and chest should be stretch after every workout (and every day IMO)

Day 2

warm up with something functional
– e.g. pummelling, drilling a technique with a partner, shadow boxing, skipping, shrimping, forward rolls, sit throughs

Foam roll the muscles you are about to use plus anything tight or knotted
Do some dynamic stretching – e.g. leg swings, sumo squats

Barbell Bent Over Row x 2 sets x 6 reps

Olympic Ring Row (put your feet up on something, hold a ring with one hand and pull yourself up) x 2 sets 12 reps

Power Shrugs x 3 sets x 4 reps

Power Cleans x 3 sets of 2 reps

Single leg squats or Bulgarian split squats x 2 sets x 12 reps

Kettle Bell bicep curls x 2 sets of 12 reps

Reverse Hyperextension x 2 sets x 12 reps
ball reverse hyperextension –

– Foam roll again and stretch – lower back, hip flexors and chest should be stretch after every workout (and every day IMO)

Routine 2 routine /workout

Day 1

Deadlifts x 5 sets of 3-6 reps

Barbell Bench Press x 2 sets of 6 reps

Plyometric Press Ups x 3 sets of 6 reps

Cable Punches / Band Punches (cross) x 2 sets of 12 reps on each arm

Cable Punches / Band Punches (Hooks) x 2 sets of 12 reps on each arm

Multidirectional lunges x 2 sets of 6 reps on each leg

Depth Jumps x 3 sets of 6 reps

Day 3

Rope Climbs x 2 sets of maximum – climb up and down (start on your bum and only go halfway up) until your grip fails

Negative Chin Ups x 3 sets of 10 reps

Bulgarian Split Squats x 3 sets of 8-12 reps on each leg

Negative Barbell Bicep Curls x 2 sets of 8 – 10 reps

Band Guillotine Curls or Dumbbell curls – 10 reps on each arm. Hold for 30 seconds at the top of the movement.

Day 5

One arm Dumbbell Push Press / Kettlebell Press x 3 sets of 10 reps on each arm

Barbell Front Squats x 4 sets of 8-12 reps

Stability Ball Reverse Hyper Extension x 2 sets of 10 reps

Stability Ball Hamstring Curl x 2 sets of 10 reps

Sprints – 4 x 30 second sprints

Closing Thoughts

Please consider this:
If you are not at an elite level, and injury prevention & longevity are your goals, consider avoiding too many functional exercises.

Sounds crazy?

Perhaps, but now I’m in my mid 30s, I actively avoid doing any grip strengthening work for example.

This is because, if I use my grip extensively when training in a gi, the last thing I want to do is burn out my grip and overtrain by doing gi chin ups etc.

In fact, I’ll look to do work on wrist extension, to prevent any imbalances.

I don’t want to overtrain my shoulders or place too much impact ‘through’ my back either, so I will generally avoid plyometrics.

Balance is key – vary training to avoid imbalances, and train intense for some periods, but less so for others.

Balance periods of explosive work & training, with yoga, pilates and low impact work. You must periodise your training or you’ll burn out

See also how to enhance recovery

Image refTop 10 MMA Exercises


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