Martin Rooney wants to change how you think about mixed martial arts (MMA) training.
Considered to be the pioneer of physical training for MMA, Martin has 13 years’ experience getting fighters ready for action. He’s trained and cornered hundreds of fighters, including several UFC champions.
He’s knowledgeable and opinionated, but he isn’t above admitting when he’s made a mistake. Fact is, Rooney says it’s his mistakes – and learning from them – that’s had the biggest impact on his development as one of the most sought after coaches in the sport.
Rooney’s indoctrination into MMA began in the late 90’s in the decidedly non-Brazilian city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Rooney was a member of the US Bobsled team and his roommate was Olympic silver medalist Todd Hays, who also happened to be a pro fighter.
Hays started teaching Rooney a few things on the side and soon Rooney was hooked. Upon returning to the U.S., he quickly joined a nearby Gracie school. Rooney eventually began training the fighters he rubbed shoulders with and the rest as they say, is history.
But not a long history. Although the various fighting disciplines of MMA have been around for centuries, the actual sport of MMA is just a kid; even worse, it’s a teenager.
“At 16 or 17 years old, MMA and its training is in adolescence,” says Rooney, “and like adolescent teenagers, they think they know everything, they don’t listen, and they make a lot of mistakes.”
Rooney says that one of the biggest mistakes is the “evolution” of MMA training. Trainers and coaches are continually looking for the latest and greatest ways to improve their fighters, but Rooney says it’s bordering on ridiculous.
“I’ve travelled the world, to places where the martial arts began, and none of the trainers are doing any of this nonsense,” says Rooney.
“It’s like sushi: You go to Japan and sushi is beautiful simplicity, fish and rice. And it’s incredible.
Head down to the local sushi shop in the US and you can get the Hackensack roll, which has 10 ingredients and 15 sauces. It’s more complicated, but it sure isn’t better.
With MMA training, I see the same thing, and the same myths being put out there…”
1 – Training for MMA should be all circuit-style high-volume training.
If you’re going to train to be an MMA fighter, you have to perform a bunch of high volume circuits as they test your will, not to mention leave you crazy sore, right?
Not so, says Rooney.
“I was circuit crazy for years. I’d destroy my athletes with them,” says Rooney. “And guess what? My guys would still get gassed in the ring. Circuit training does not build a better fighter; training like an athlete does.
I get guys telling me all the time that they love circuits cause they get so crazy sore. Great, but what’s the result? You do these circuits enough and you’ll get better at them and won’t be as sore, but you’re still weak.
You’re now a weak fighter who’s good at circuits.”
Rooney says that the circuit craze in MMA is a byproduct of the whole macho tough guy attitude that surrounds MMA training. It may look cool and sell magazines, but it isn’t effective.
“It’s pursuing fatigue and not improvement, all part of the idea that you’re not a man unless you’re getting your ass kicked in the gym as well as in the ring.”
So what’s the right way?
“Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, power cleans; the basics, combined with some sprinting and some stretching. It may not be glamorous, but it makes you stronger and faster.”
For Regular Dudes: If you want to burn fat and improve your conditioning, use circuits sparingly. Think one, maybe two sessions a week, with the remaining time spent on basic heavy lifting.
“You have to think of longevity,” says Rooney. “Performing five days of circuits a week doesn’t make you tough, it just makes you injured. You can lift weights forever, but good luck hitting those circuits in 20 years.”
2 – Fighters need a minimum of 8 weeks to get ready for a fight.
“Nonsense,” says Rooney. “If you’re a fighter, you should be ready to fight all the time. This whole 8-week camp standard just gives guys an excuse to get out of shape.”
Rooney says the “8-weeks out” thing all started with boxing, where old school boxers used to go to training camps 2 or 3 months before a fight to get into shape. But Rooney says MMA is not boxing, and current MMA fighters are fighting all the time, sometimes 7 or 8 times a year. Getting out of shape just isn’t an option.
“If you get out of shape, you have to kill yourself for 8 weeks and will show up wiped out,” says Rooney. “But if you stay in shape year round, you show up fresh.
Frankie Edgar is known for his incredible motor and he stays in shape and trains hard year-round. For him, a fight is just another day at the office.”
For Regular Dudes: Don’t take unnecessary breaks. Do something, anything, to keep you in the game. Sure, life gets busy and priorities sometimes need to change (“I can’t change Junior’s diaper honey, I gotta train legs tonight.”), but you should never have to quit training completely. Have periods where you train less and periods where you train more. But never just do nothing.
3 – If I follow fighter X’s program, I will be fit like him.
Here’s the pitch: Follow Georges St. Pierre’s (circuit based) workout for three months and you’ll be mistaken for GSP at your favorite nightclub.
“It’s like the Schwarzenegger arm routines we all used to follow. Five sets of barbell curls, 4 sets of preacher curls, a couple sets of 21’s. It’s lunacy; why do we expect it to work with fighters?”
It’s a good segue to one of Rooney’s biggest peeves, and biggest sources of amusement.
“I don’t watch the Ultimate Fighter but I always know when it airs – the next day at the gym, there will be guys doing stuff like running backwards on a treadmill with a snorkel on.
The training programs have all been sensationalized to get ratings. I know the top trainers and what they really do, and it’s what you’d expect – basic, smart training. But that doesn’t get ratings.”
Rooney says the goofball training also plays an important psychological role.
“Think about it – if I’m training Jim Miller for a fight in two months, when the cameras arrive do I show how we really train, or do I try to psyche out my opponent’s camp by having Jim swim in shark infested waters while I shoot flaming arrows at him?”
For Regular Dudes: Try new things: basic, intelligent training that’s tailored to your specific needs – not some celebrity’s. That’s the smartest option. “I give seminars all over the world, and I always ask the room who has flexibility issues,” says Rooney. “Virtually everyone will raise their hand. Next, I ask whoever’s working on it (flexibility) to keep your hands up. Maybe one or two are.”
Only you know what you need. Do that, not the latest thing.
4 – MMA is tough, so the training needs to be even more strenuous.
This one frustrates the hell out of Rooney.
“We destroy guys with these grueling camps and endless death circuits to ‘mimic’ what supposedly happens in a fight, and then we wonder why they show up absolutely bagged.”
Rooney says the logic behind it is simple: if a fight is 15 minutes and the fighter gets his or her heart rate up to 160 BPM, why not push the fighter to 30 minutes and 200 BPM?
“It’s a neat theory, but physiologically, all that’s accomplished is the nervous system and the adrenals get cooked. No wonder the poor athlete shows up wiped!”
As for mimicking the conditions of a fight?
“Look at how NFL players train: they lift, sprint, and stretch. They don’t run into walls, train for three hours, or have guys smash them in the legs with bats because it ‘mimics’ a game situation.
When I train a fighter, he’s never gassed on the mat. I train them to feel the opposite, and after every round of training or circuit work I tell them to raise their hands in victory.
Not only does this send a signal to the opponent, it conditions them to be champions. Lying on your back in the middle of the gym is not champion behavior.”
For Regular Dudes: We’re not saying never perform hard work, but don’t make training an ego-driven process. Destroying yourself day after day makes you weak, not strong.
5 – MMA fighters are supposed to be injured and beat up all the time.
“More macho nonsense,” says Rooney. “All athletes must compete through aches and pains and a certain amount of discomfort, but if an NFL player is legitimately injured, he’s not playing – he’s on the treatment table.
But I forgot, MMA fighters are supposed to be too tough for that.”
Rooney says a fighter should feel amazing coming into a fight, not smashed, injured, and looking like he’s on death’s door.
“Inexperienced trainers smash athletes, plain and simple. It’s that adolescence thing rearing its ugly head again, the whole I’m bulletproof and will live forever attitude.
I bought into it too, and trust me, my hindsight is your foresight.”
For Regular Dudes: Recoveryis the most underappreciated variable in training, whether among professional athletes or weekend warriors juggling 60-hour workweeks with family and hitting the gym four days a week.
If you feel run down when you show up at the gym, don’t train! If your shoulder aches when benching, don’t bench! Regular guys need rehab too – rest, ice, nutrition, and sleep.
6 – Throwing up during a workout means the trainer is tough.
This is the epitome of macho meathead training, says Rooney.
“Throwing up is a nervous system defense mechanism that something very wrong has happened – why you would want to associate that with training is beyond me.”
For Regular Dudes: It all boils down to pursuing positive indicators of training, not fatigue.
7 – Strength work shouldn’t be done too often, especially for fighters trying to cut weight.
This stems form the old school myth that lifting weights and building strength will make you gain significant amounts of bodyweight. Rooney blames that on muscle-head marketing and small-minded folks who confuse getting fat with building muscle.
“People forget that lifting weights helps you burn fat,” says Rooney.
“Jim Miller is 7 & 1 in the UFC, and two years ago he never used to lift weights. He also never used to knock anyone down. Now he has a 455-pound deadlift at 155 pounds and is knocking guys down left and right. And he still makes weight.”
For Regular Dudes: Kettlebells, battling ropes, and sledgehammers are effective tools, but they should be used accordingly. The point is, getting stronger in the basics is the foundation of any smart program.
8 – Fighters can eat what they want since they train so much.
Often the fighters with the best genetics eat the worst, something Martin finds frustrating. He also knows just who to blame:
“I blame Michael Phelps for this myth. When that stupid article came out showing all the crap he supposedly ate every day, I was inundated with fighters thinking this somehow validates their junk food habit.
Look, a guy like that is the exception, not the rule. If you truly believe that you’re a genetic superfreak and can reach the top eating garbage, good luck to you.
My experience suggests guys like that are few and far between.”
Rooney says that to have a superior body, you have to feed it the best possible fuel. “I’m huge on whole foods, lots of fresh produce, and plenty of water,” he says. “Supplement wise, I’m big on protein powders, vitamin D, fish oil, vitamin C, glutamine, and Biotest Superfood."
For Regular Dudes: Although it’s as outdated as your dad’s 8-Track cassette player, a lot of guys still think you can out train a lame diet. ‘I did a grueling circuit today and threw up all over the floor so I can have this Big Mac on the way to work.’
Nonsense. “Elite athletes can’t do that, and you can’t do that,” says Rooney.
9 – Wrestlers make the best MMA fighters.
“Surprise, this one isn’t a myth,” says Rooney. “If you could only learn one discipline before stepping into the octagon, wrestling should be your discipline of choice.
Just look at the top guys. Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Frankie Edgar, GSP, Josh Koscheck; they all had outstanding wrestling careers before MMA.”
Rooney says that wrestlers are not only very strong, they can also decide where the fight goes. “If I’m good at striking and I know it’s a weakness for you, I can use my wrestling takedown defence to keep the match off the ground to where I can use my striking advantage. Obviously, the opposite is true as well.”
Rooney describes the process of coming up the wrestling ranks as a giant meat grinder. “Ten thousand guys in various programs competing week after week, until a handful of men emerge as champions."
“These champions are basically unbreakable. You can’t injure them, can’t break them, can’t defeat them.”
Rooney adds that wrestlers are also the best weight cutters of them all. “For a wrestler, dropping 25 pounds in a few days is just par for the course. Other fighters can find that really challenging.”
For Regular Dudes: Not much to say here, other than if you’re thinking of being a great MMA fighter, conjure up the spirit of Albert Einstein, build a time machine, and persuade your folks to enroll you in wrestling as a kid.
10 – The best way to train for endurance is with endurance work.
This is a popular myth that’s desperate for debunking.
Rooney says everyone assumes that fighters and wrestlers have outstanding V02 max scores, but they really don’t, at least not in comparison to cross country skiers or the like.
“What they do have is incredible strength and as we all know, maximal strength work will also work the aerobic energy system.
Between rounds, I’ve never had a fighter say, ‘Wow, he’s got really good endurance.’ But I do hear, ‘Man he’s so much stronger than me’ all the time,” says Rooney.
Overwhelming strength can wear you out fast. If two fighters clinch in an isometric hold but one fighter is three times stronger than the other, obviously the weaker fighter will tire first, because at 100% exertion his opponent would only need to be exerting 30%.
“Circuits won’t develop significant maximal strength,” says Rooney, “so you get guys who gas in the middle of a guillotine lock.
Frankie Edgar is known for his incredible motor. His secret – tons of strength work.”
For Regular Dudes: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, heavy basic lifting combined with some sprinting and stretching is a near perfect combination for the average guy looking for an above average physique.
11 – You can train MMA and still have your high powerlifting numbers.
“I hear this all the time,” says Rooney. “Coach, my bench is going down! Look, you can’t ride two horses with one ass. Although I know some strong MMA fighters, none of them are watching their bench or deadlift go up as a fight approaches.”
Rooney says it boils down to deciding what you want. If you want to have an elite total, great! Go for it. If you want to have veins and abs and bring up your brachialis, more power to you. Just don’t think you can excel at those things and excel at fighting.
“No boxer has ever been famous for his bench press,” says Rooney.
“Deciding to be an MMA fighter could and should be one of the most serious, life-changing decisions you ever make. Respect it as such.”
For Regular Dudes: As the old saying goes, pick a goal and work backwards. It’s highly unlikely that if your goal is, “Compete in bodybuilding in 3 years” that, “Submit Ricky from accounting” is one of the targets along the way.
Pick a goal, own it, and become it.
So enough myths, how about some tips?
Here are some tips for aspiring MMA fighters and regular guys trying to look like an ass-kicking man:
- Schedule recovery first. Recovery is priority number one. Always build your schedule around it, not training.
- Clean up the diet. Everyone thinks they eat better than they really do. Peri-workout nutrition is top priority.
- Get 8 hours of sleep a night. Humans are the only species that get up when they aren’t supposed to and go to bed when they aren’t supposed to. You can’t perform if you’re tired.
- Drink a gallon of water a day. You hear this a hundred times a day, but how many actually do it? Double your water intake and you’ll feel better, perform better, and get leaner.
- Add strength training into the program. Circuit training is useless if you’re weak. You must develop strength first.
- Sprint three to four days a week. Sprints not only lean you out, they build significant hamstring mass and power. Plus, look at sprinters – who wouldn’t want to look like those guys?
- Fit circuits in only around the other MMA training. With circuits, a little goes a long way. As the technical demands of MMA training go up, things like circuits need to be scaled back.
The Heavy Stuff
Weight training exercises every MMA fighter and average dude should be doing and why.
Deadlifts: “These could be the best exercise going, and definitely the most misunderstood. For fighters and weekend warriors alike, it’s extremely functional. What’s more functional than picking up a heavy object – like a gassed opponent?”
Single-arm farmer’s walks: “Most sports are unilateral. This exercise transfers well to the kicks and takedowns exhibited in MMA.”
One-arm dumbbell row: “Vertical pulls like chin-ups are important, but for MMA, the horizontal pull is crucial. You need to pull your opponent towards you to control him.”
Floor press: “This is an exercise that’s crucial for MMA. If you’re on your back, you need good pushing power to get an opponent off you and pass guard.”
Jump squats: “Great exercise for developing lower body power. Sets of six reps are ideal.”
Hamstring curl or glute-ham raise: “To control an opponent, you have to be able to recruit the hamstring by flexing at the knee. Hip extension movements like deadlift variations are not sufficient.”
Sit ups: “Trading spinal flexion for anti-rotation and plank variations is the trendy thing to do, but most submissions in MMA require some degree of spinal flexion. It’s a mistake for fighters to leave them out completely.”
Neck harness: “The neck is the pillar of the body, but nobody trains the neck at all these days. The top guys all have extremely strong necks; to compete with the big boys, neck training is essential.”