Monthly Archives: November 2016

Effective Training for BJJ and MMA

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “What kind of workout should I be doing for MMA or BJJ?” This same question, of course, could apply to any sport.

Sometimes you’ll see magazine articles by strength coaches outlining workout programs for various sports and martial arts but I have a problem with this cookie-cutter approach: these programs end up being one-size-fits-all…but-me!

Creating workout programs is as much an art as it is science. Before slapping numbers into arbitrary sets and reps on paper you have to know something about the athletes with whom you’re working because, in many cases, the wrong exercise prescription can do more harm than good. Martial arts and grappling are especially strenuous activities and the people who participate in them tend to be extremists already prone to falling into the dreaded overtraining. Participation in these arts provide, for the most part, the specific conditioning needed for same, i.e., if you want to be a good grappler, you’ve got to grapple; if you want to be a good boxer, you’ve got to box, etc. The smart strength coach analyzes his athlete to find the chinks in his armor. For example, if I have a BJJ player demonstrating better-than-average flexibility, with good muscular endurance, but lacking strength, it makes no sense to put him on a yoga-based conditioning program or endurance training. What makes sense is to bring his absolute strength up as high as possible. By the same token, if I have a fighter with great strength but no gas, and worse, tight connective tissue, I’m going to put him on an endurance-building program and work on freeing up his joints and increasing his mobility. This is how it’s done, and following a program from a magazine may not suit your particular set of weaknesses. I want to work to the athlete’s weakness–not his strengths–and no two athletes should have the same exact program (unless they happen to be twins.)

I’m going to give you another example: a program I created for myself. I’ve been in Philly for the past month, training at Maxercise in BJJ and submission wrestling. The workouts have been brutal. Lots of sparring and live drills. In the team practice sessions, there are times when everyone in the room has placed in the top 3 in the world, in their respective categories–we’re talking about some truly elite training. As a 55-year old athlete, training with these kids takes a toll and I must be very careful in the way I add supplementary training. I noticed my shoulders and elbows were bothering me, in fact, both my shoulders were tweaked. I decided to create a program that would be shoulder-strengthening while simultaneously mobilizing, brief in time, without overtaxing my recovery and still allow me to practice the basic kettlebell skills needed for my upcoming seminars. Here’s the prgram I settled on, which met my specific weaknesses:

1) Screw Press aka Bent Press
*this is an old-time lift that really hits the upper torso and works the shoulder at an odd angle you might just find yourself in when training BJJ. It’s the only press I know that thoroughly works and stimulates the lats, which are major shoulder stabilizers.

2) Clubbell 3-Movement Kinetic Chain:
a) shield cast
b) mill
c) 45-degree angle lockout
*this kinetic chain puts your wrist, elbow and shoulder into all the submissions you might find yourself in during a jiu-jitsu match, thus strengthening the tendons and muscles at odd angles and producing freedom of motion, as well as strength.

3) One-Arm Long-Cycle Clean and Press
*this adds a whole-body element of conditioning. It’s shoulder/arm intensive but with repeated, explosive leg drive, thus providing an overall metabolic effect.

None of these exercises are especially strenuous, when compared to double-kettlebell drills, so they don’t interfere with my recovery from the heavy, live-grappling sessions. They specifically mobilize and strengthen my joints where I need it and allow me to recover from a heavy training schedule. In other words, this workout is basically a form of active recovery.

The sister workout is a heavy, low-rep, strength-based workout consisting of two movements:

1) a super-slow reverse Turkish Get-Up
* a standing, one-arm clean and press, then very s-l-o-w-l-y lying down, taking an entire minute to get down on the floor, then getting back up, taking a moment to pause in each position.

Included in this super-slow get-up were a side-plank and, once in the recline, an arm-bar.

One repetition of the entire exercise, using the 24 kg, took 2 minutes.

I super-set this with a set of:

2) Weighted Pull-Ups
* done slowly from a dead hang with a 10-second pause at the top with the throat over the bar.
I alternated these two exercises for three sets of each.

When I finished, I felt refreshed and recharged. My shoulders felt worked from every possible angle and I felt what I can only describe as a healing circulation of blood flow through the joints. I didn’t need any more endurance work (I’d already had it with over an hour of live training, including takedowns and throws) so doing swings, snatches, and so forth would have been redundant. In weeks previous, I’d been doing sprints and stair sprints but the sudden increase in BJJ volume and live matches also made that type of training unneeded.

This is how I also analyze each of my personal training clients. In my next blog, I’ll share how I analyzed my own son, world-class BJJ fighter Zak Maxwell, and the specific program with which he currently trains.

Striking In Mixed Martial Arts

 The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), popularized by the UFC, can be complicated and confusing for new fans. Unlike boxing where there is only one discipline to understand, MMA integrates striking, wrestling, and submissions into one sport.

In previous articles these three components of MMA have been discussed, as well as the various styles of wrestling found within MMA. The different striking backgrounds and skills a fighter may possess, however, have not been discussed.

In regards to MMA, the striking arts can be broken down in three general areas: boxing, kickboxing, and Muay Thai.


An established and lucrative sport of its own, boxing also has a place within the skill set of the MMA fighter.Boxing allows striking only with the knuckles of a closed fist and uses enclosed gloves larger than those in MMA. Boxers can strike to the head or torso, but not below the belt or to the back of the head, back, or kidneys.

Boxing encourages head movement, lightness on the feet, and is highly strategic, hence its nickname, the “sweet science.” Fighters will on occasion “tie up” or clinch, but it is against the rules and will be broken up quickly by the referee. Rounds are three minutes in length with a minute rest between rounds. Unlike MMA, a fighter may be knocked out multiple times in boxing if he recovers before the referee finishes his count.


Kickboxing had its heyday in the United States in the 1970s, but it also spread throughout the world in its various forms. It laid the foundation for MMA and many fighters still train styles of kickboxing today.

Whereas boxing uses two points of contact (the hands), kickboxing uses four – fighters are allowed to strike with punches and kicks. In America, kickboxing and full-contact karate are very similar, but globally there are many different schools within the art of kickboxing, like Dutch kickboxing, French Savate, or Japanese karate styles. In other parts of the world kickboxing may allow strikes and techniques more akin to Muay Thai and rules and regulations vary greatly.

Muay Thai

The national sport of Thailand and sometimes considered a form of kickboxing in the broader sense of the word, Muay Thai adds even more elements into the striking game. Known as the “Art of Eight Limbs,” Muay Thai allows punching, kicking, elbowing, and kneeing. Unlike boxing and kickboxing, Muay Thai fighters are also allowed to clinch. The clinch is, in fact, a very dangerous place to be with a talented muay Thai fighter as it allows them full use of their elbows and knees.

Rules for Muay Thai vary from country to country and with different organizations. In general the rounds, judging and refereeing are similar to those in boxing and kickboxing. Traditional Muay Thai fighters will also perform the Ram Muay dance before a fight to honor their coaches.

There are so many aspects to MMA, it can be confusing for a newcomer to watch. With a little understanding of the martial arts behind the sport, however, a new fan can start to discern the strategy and truly enjoy watching MMA.

Wrestling In Mixed Martial Arts

 Each of these arts can be broken down further into many sub-categories. For example, there are three primary styles of wrestling: Folkstyle, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman. Each has different rules and scoring and different application in the sport of MMA.
Here in the United States, when most of us hear of wrestling, we think of people we knew in high school or college, or the occasional Olympic athlete. But, what are they really doing and what do you need to look for to increase your understanding when watching MMA?
To help me answer this question I enrolled the help of Darryl Christian, a two-time Greco-Roman Wrestling National Champion who also works with MMA fighters, to walk us through the styles of wrestling.


Folkstyle exists only in the United States and Canada and is practiced on the collegiate level. Unlike the international styles, Freestyle and Greco-Roman, Folkstyle is not as flashy. “No high amplitude throws exist within this style of wrestling,” said Christian. “Scoring is slow paced and less technical. Sometimes a strong wrestler with strong positions can dominate.” But even college level folkstyle wrestlers bring a special skill set to fighting. It is not just their physical aptitude they have developed, but their mental strength, as well. “A good collegiate background will bring a solid training schedule and mental toughness that has been refined over years of matches and seasons of wrestling,” said Christian.


Unlike Folkstyle, Freestyle wrestling is practiced throughout the world. The two are related, however, and you could look at Freestyle as an evolved version of Folkstyle. “Having a Freestyle background is the same as a collegiate background,” said Christian, “but with the ability to be more technical and refined than a typical collegiate background.” Freestyle has more scoring opportunities than Folkstyle, allowing for an athlete to attack the entire body in a variety of ways. Freestyle does not put as big an emphasis on control as Folkstyle, but instead emphasizes explosiveness and risk. Throws will be more dynamic and of higher amplitude than Folkstyle.


Greco-Roman wrestling may be one of the more foreign styles for a viewer in North America to watch, but it also offers the most reward as it incorporates more high amplitude throws than any other style of wrestling. Unlike Folk-

 and Freestyle, you can only attack from the torso up in Greco-Roman wrestling. You cannot use the legs at all to score points, so the emphasis is on upper body engagement. Because of this, a fighter with a Greco-Roman background brings something unique to the game of MMA. “Greco will bring an aspect to MMA that no other background can create,” said Christian. “In Greco, position is everything, unlike the other forms of wrestling. In Freestyle, wrestlers shoot a ways away to take someone down. Closing the gap and controlling underhooks, body locks, and attacking the body is what Greco is about.” In this way Greco has direct application to MMA and having the ability to get in close and do damage through wrestling or striking to an opponent.
In addition, Christian also feels Greco-Roman wrestlers have spent more time developing their hip power and have that as an advantage, as well. “Power is generated through the hips, like an Olympic lift. Greco-Roman wrestlers usually have more power in their punches or ability to generate it, than any other discipline.”
While wrestling is a complicated sport, you don’t have to understand all the rules and nuances to understand the basics of how it works when applied to MMA. Once you, as a new viewer, start discerning the differences between the wrestling styles and knowing which style a certain fighter is practiced in, it will give you more ability to predict action in a fight and to understand the strategy that fighters are employing.

The Arts Behind Mixed Martial Arts

 While some fans could get into an in-depth conversation about the origins of MMA, recalling Bruce Lee and Helio Gracie, the sport has evolved into something unique from its past and different from any other competitive combat sport. When broken down, however, any athlete aspiring to compete in MMA must study a few basic disciplines.


The biggest promoter of MMA over the years has been the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) which was originally created by Rorion Gracie. The Gracie family has done much over the years to spread the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Although in pure BJJ competition athletes wear a cotton gi, in MMA it is practiced without the gi. BJJ focuses on technique as opposed to strength and is the art of submissions –mainly chokes, arm locks, and leg locks. The strength of a BJJ player is on the ground as it is a grappling art.

Another branch of grappling is “submission” or “catch” wrestling. Born on the old carnival circuit and practiced by strong men and professional wrestlers, catch wrestling is a very real and dangerous submission art.


There are a variety of options for a fighter to train in the striking arts. Kickboxing, Karate, Muay Thai, and boxing are the most popular, but there are even a few successful Tae Kwon Do fighters who are well known in the UFC. What is important to know is that a fighter can use their hands, elbows, knees and legs to throw strikes. Because of this, it is more complicated than what most fans are used to witnessing in boxing – and more exciting and unpredictable. Striking is also different in MMA because there is a risk of being taken to the ground by a wrestler, which does not exist in purely striking sports.


Wrestlers bring more to the table than just their physical skill. Typically they have been competing for far longer than other fighters. In the U.S. it is not uncommon for children to begin wrestling as young as the age of 5. Therefore wrestlers often have a competitive mental edge as well as a familiarity with what it takes to prepare for competition.
There are two main styles of wrestling you will see in MMA – Freestyle and Greco-Roman.Freestyle is similar to the collegiate style most people are familiar with, whereas Greco-Roman is a style of wrestling which focuses on the upper body.
Wrestling has two main uses in MMA – controlling the opponent and taking the opponent to the ground. Wrestling is not a submission art, but can put a fighter in position to go after submissions, and wrestling defense is essential for strikers wishing to keep the fight standing. Therefore, wrestling and wrestling defense can be the linchpin for a fighter trying to keep the fight in their domain.
Also, mention should be made of judo, a Japanese art specializing in takedowns. A number of UFC fighters with Judo backgrounds have demonstrated success.
Fighters known for their wrestling: Mat Hughes, Randy Couture, Chael Sonnen
Every competitor possesses different strengths, both physically and strategically, so the emphasis on one discipline versus another may vary from athlete to athlete.All athletes must have a functioning knowledge of all three areas of submissions, striking, and wrestling, however, to succeed even on a defensive level. It is how these attributes match up between fighters and the sheer number of variables in the outcomes of a match-up that makes MMA such an exciting sport to watch.