Training for MMA Fighters: Using the Grappler

With mixed martial arts fighting being arguably one of the most popular sports in the world right now, and definitely one of the fastest-growing, there is still very little available on strength training programs for the MMA athlete.  With that in mind, over the next couple of weeks I will be putting up a couple of different articles directed specifically at that group.  This article will primarily focus on what I believe to be the most important variable for both stand-up and ground fighting – core training.

For core work in general, I have found most conventional ab training exercises to be rather useless – things like situps, crunches and bicycle twists done for absurdly high reps does little to develop strength and at best will develop the slow-twitch, endurance muscle fibers in the abs and core, as opposed to the more powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Instead, I prefer to see a mix of both compound (multi-joint) traditional strength movements that can be done with a heavy load (such as squats and deadlifts) that include a significant core component, and direct work done with heavy weight for low- to moderate-rep ranges.  To get the best of both, I suggest using movements based around The Grappler.

The Grappler is a device invented by Louie Simmons of the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio.  Louie is arguably the greatest coach in powerlifting history, but he has also worked extensively with both fighters and track & field athletes and produced great results.  One of his methods is using the Grappler, which is essentially an anchor point for two barbells so that they can be held one in each hand to mimic various barbell and dumbbell movements while increasing the workload coming from the trunk.

Below are a few of my favorite Grappler exercises.  If you don’t have access to a Grappler or something like it, you can get the same effect by wedging two barbells into the frame of a power rack or in the corner of a wall.  Just add a moderately heavy dumbbell or plate over the end to anchor the bar down and you’ll do just fine.

#1: Landmines

Odds are pretty good you’ve seen somebody doing this exercise or something similar already – it’s by far the most popular movement using the leveraged barbell concept.  My favorite way to do it is to use two barbells, as it incorporates the rotational work of a regular landmine with an extra gripping requirement, since you have to hold onto the sleeve of the bars with each hand throughout.

#2: Standing Flyes

This is pretty similar to the landmine, but with the resistance moving in the opposite direction.  It also adds in some upper chest and anterior deltoid work, which can aid in punching power.

#3: Standing Military Presses

Again, you may have seen this one before with one barbell, but I like the 2-barbell version both from a time-efficiency standpoint and from a difficulty standpoint – I think the two-bar version is significantly harder than the 1-arm because you can’t twist and turn to cheat the weight up.  You can do it both arms at a time, or alternating, and can do strict presses or push presses.

#4: Bent-Over Rows

This is kind of like a T-bar row with a better range of motion.  You can do it as shown in the video, or face the other way and grab the bar sleeve to add some extra gripping work.

#5: Floor Presses

Even though these can be a pain in the ass to get into without a partner, I like these as an alternative to regular barbell or dumbbell floor presses because the bars tend to get pretty unpredictable with their movement and therefore has some good carryover to being on the bottom of a guard or mount position.

Try out a few of these different movements and figure out which ones work the best for you.  Keep the reps in the low-to-moderate range (as low 3 reps, all the way up to 12) and keep the technique clean.

Building Mass for Life: Part 2

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

People ask me all the time: Why did I do it? What was the real reason why I added so much weight when I was already “healthy”?  I didn’t want to be the skinny guy, that’s why! But when I stop and think about it, I realized what influenced me the most to make changes. I am currently a competitive athlete so my sport and performance was a huge influence. My career as a strength and conditioning coach was another thing. Would you really listen to a skinny strength coach? I didn’t think so. And you know what? I’m not gonna lie. The Kid wanted to look damn good!

And looking good does not mean "look like Will Smith's little cousin."

Currently I am a competitive mixed martial mrtist who has aspirations to turn pro in the near future. In my mind MMA is the greatest sport in the world. But before I even began to train in MMA I boxed competitively as an amateur in Chicago. From 2005-2008 I competed at middleweight, which in boxing has a maximum weight of 165 pounds. I’m 6-feet tall, so as you could imagine, as a 6-foot, 160 pound guy I was the definition of bean pole. I was so skinny that my legs looked like the number 11 when I walked. I was a naturally thin guy, but not quite that thin. It was hard work to keep my weight in that range. I had to do a lot of cardio, minimal resistance training and, to be honest, my nutrition sucked. After training sessions I always felt sluggish and weak. I knew there had to be a better way.

By this time I had began training in MMA and I noticed something – those thick wrestlers who look like the mini fridge in a college dorm were tossing everyone around!

At times these guys might not have had the best technique but their quickness, explosion, athleticism, power and overall strength got them through. It was impressive to say the least. I had to ask myself, “Self, how are you going to improve as an athlete if you’re not doing everything possible to be successful?”

I saw firsthand how the stronger athletes fared in sports. Look at any major sport and literally only the strong survive. And even though I knew it wasn’t going to be easy I had to make it happen. I had a goal of being a successful athlete since I was a young child and I love to compete at the highest level possible. I was going to do it.

If you look at the world’s top athletes, take their best traits and find the common denominator. Well besides great genes – it’s true; none of us got to pick our parents. But not all of the world’s best athletes were always known as the best. Both Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan are both currently considered by most to be the greatest players of their respective sports but they both had setbacks in their rise to greatness. What separated them? Hard work!

I started getting into the weight room hard in the spring of 2008, and I did predominantly bodybuilding workouts to start – that is all that I knew. But I got stronger, and I gained a little bit of weight! I was even starting to walk around with imaginary lat syndrome (ILS). You know, when the skinny guy gets done working out and walks around like he’s holding two oversized duffel bags under each arm pit. And even though I looked goofy looking back, my performance improved!

Now when guys tried to take me down, not only was I able to shrug them off, I had more explosion in my step and more quickness in my strikes.  It surprised me more than anyone else because I was always told that lifting weights would slow down my hand speed, and in reality it had improved.

I soon began helping out with the high school strength and conditioning program in Skokie, Ill. I was able to work with their strength coach Mark Feldner, who was a former assistant strength coach at Penn State. Through him I began to learn more sports specific workouts. He showed me that in every sport there are different ways to train so there is no one specific workout for every sport and not to focus on individual muscles as much, the “show me muscles.” You know, the ones that make you look sexy when you get them all pumped and cut up.

Now at 25 I’m bigger, faster, stronger and WAY more explosive than I’ve ever been. I kept training and evolving not only as a mixed martial artist but as an athlete as well. I can also begin to see a change in my body because of my sport, thicker torso from my twisting and kicking, more pronounced shoulders from my strikes; there has even been a calf sighting!

Now I have figured out the things that are most effective for me and cut down on the fluff. I love my powerlifting base (bench, squat, deadlift). With that there has been a noticeable difference in my glute and hamstring size and strength which directly translates to my leg drive and power, which equals SPEED.

Now even though I love my powerlifting, I’ve had to do a bit more for my explosion, so Olympic lifts such as cleans have been added as needed. So if anyone says lifting doesn’t assist in being a better athlete just get your five chuckles on and keep it moving, there is no need to try to rationalize with irrational people. I’ve learned a lot in the time that I’ve made my transition and in this time my experiences have helped me become a better strength coach. The last thing anyone wants to hear is some skinny 155-pound guy telling them how to get “jacked!” That’s kind of like the guy who flunked out of school telling somebody how to study. It just doesn’t add up.

5 Easy Changes to Maximize Body Composition

Lots of attention is paid to the glamorous side of fat loss and muscle gain – fancy training programs get a 10-page spread in “Muscle & Fitness,” fad diets that make incredible “too-good-to-be-true” promises get to be on the New York Times bestseller list, and supposedly cutting-edge supplements get a shiny label and a huge, shredded bodybuilder with a model on each arm advertising how Super-Ultra-Hydro-Whey 50 is the reason they look the way they do. But what about the basics? You know, the boring stuff that actually works? We give them lots of love at AST, and suggest you do the same.

#1: The Meat & Nut Breakfast

When it comes to bang-for-your-buck dietary adjustments, nothing beats the meat and nut breakfast.  This is a trick that we borrowed from renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin, and it’s been effective in everything from dropping lots of bodyfat (one of our clients lost over 25lbs just by consciously making an effort to fix his breakfast) to improving energy and productivity at work.  The premise is simple – sugary and starchy breakfasts raise insulin (a fat-storage hormone) and serotonin (the happy, feel-good hormone), which usually results in the need for a nap 2-3 hours later.  Protein and omega-3 fats, on the other hand, keep insulin low and raise acetylcholine and dopamine (the “drive” hormones), which leads to less bodyfat and more productivity and mental clarity.

Want to read more?  Check out The Meat and Nuts Breakfast article from Charles Poliquin himself.

#2: Increasing Water Intake

Quick question – how much water should you have every day?  For about 99% of overweight and obese people, the answer is simple – more than what you’re having right now.  If I had to estimate from past experience, I would say that most of my clients over the last 10 years averaged about 12oz of water a day before they started doing something about it.  You would be surprised at how quickly weight starts coming off when you fix your water intake.  It doesn’t even have to be anything like a gallon a day (although that would be great!), just start with adding 2-3 extra glasses a day on a consistent basis.  Doing it for 2 days at a time doesn’t count, doing it for 200 days does.

Water is an essential component in fat metabolism, so trying to get lean without water is like trying to drive a car with no gas.  Push on the accelerator all you want, that car is going nowhere.

#3: Optimizing Basic Mineral Status

Before any fancy supplements are necessary, I like to ask clients to have blood levels of 3 things checked – vitamin D3, red blood cell (RBC) zinc, and RBC magnesium.  99% of people who come into our center are deficient in at least one of those 3, if not all of them.  Ignore what the “lab norms” might tell you is good, since the norms are purely the range that 95% of people fall into, and since most people who get their bloodwork done are not that healthy, you don’t want to compare yourself to somebody who is in less than ideal health.  Read more here about optimal levels and supplementation.

#4: Supplement with a Quality Fish Oil in High Doses

Fish oil is another boring old supplement that gets far less credit than it deserves.  Yet in high amounts, it can work wonders to kickstart the body’s lipolytic (fat-burning) genes and turn off the lipogenic (fat-storing) ones.  We use the same dosing recommendations as experts such as John Berardi, Charles Poliquin, and Johnny Bowden – use 1-1.5g of fish oil per % bodyfat, per day.  So somebody who is 30% bodyfat would use between 30-45g of fish oil per day for up to 4 weeks.  Try to split it into as many small doses as possible (5-10g per serving), and liquid fish oil is easier to take and more cost-effective in high amounts than capsule forms.

#5: Use a Cheat Meal

While it might seem counter-intuitive, a cheat meal once every 5 to 7 days can serve to keep you leaner and more compliant with your nutrition program.  The cheat serves two functions: first, it helps to preserve sanity and prevent you from “falling off the wagon.”  In my experience, the average person can make it about 4-6 weeks on a restrictive diet without deviating, but after that, things become too difficult and instead of going off a little, they will go way off and completely lose any benefits that the diet had given.  A weekly cheat meal gives you something to look forward to and is not so infrequent as to make it unrealistic.

The second function is more physiological – a low carb, paleo-style diet free of gluten and dairy will work wonders over about a 2-3 week time span, but after that, progress will slow due to depletion of a hormone called leptin, which contributes to fat-burning.  Throwing in a cheat meal with more carbs and calories in general boosts leptin levels and kickstarts progress.  The key is not to overdo it and to follow some simple rules:

  1. Always eat your protein first.
  2. Eat your cheat meal at the table, not on the couch or in front of the computer.  It needs to be a meal, not an entire evening.
  3. Put everything you want to eat at the table with you within arm’s reach.
  4. Eat whatever you want.
  5. When your butt leaves the seat, your meal is over.
  6. Try not to have your cheat meal be the last meal you have before bed.  Eating between 5-7pm is ideal.

There you have it.  Give these simple tricks a try and enjoy a leaner, stronger you!