Hammer Down: Endurance

How to Develop MMA Specific Endurance

In my first installment of the Hammer Down program for mixed martial arts' (MMA) fighters, I outlined two outstanding maximal – and explosive – strength building workouts. But the purpose of the Hammer Down: Strength (HDS) portion was to develop a solid base of strength – nothing more.

If you performed nothing but the HDS workouts, you'd be in serious trouble once you stepped into the ring, dojo, octagon or dimly-lit alley.

Of the three installments that make up the Hammer Down series, I consider this portion most important (even though I'm hesitant to single out any of the three installments because the coalescence of the three is really what's most important). But if I had to choose one, I'd choose this endurance-focused installment.

Why? Here are the reasons:

1 Most competition fights last longer than 10 seconds.

Without having sufficient levels of endurance, your performance will drastically drop by the 11-second mark. After all, your most powerful energy system usually peters out within 10 seconds.

If you haven't developed the second energy system that comes into play, you're in a heap of trouble. We've all seen those monstrous muscle-heads walk into UFC or Pride fights that end up gasping for air shortly after the first round begins. Those dudes rarely end up with their arm raised at the end of the bout because their eyes are still in the back of their head while the winner is announced.

2 Rotational strength is probably the most important strength movement quality for MMA fighters.

Sure, deadlifts, cleans, squats, chins, etc. are great strength building exercises, but they only establish a base of strength: that strength base must be further enhanced with rotational movements.

If rotational strength isn't developed, the HDS workouts won't carryover well into competition. And that's why the Hammer Down: Endurance (HDE) workouts revolve around rotational movements.

I designed the Hammer Down Strength workouts so obviously I'm biased towards their effectiveness. But honestly, if I only had 8 weeks to prepare a fighter for a bout, I'd favor a guy who spent the last 6 months throwing hay bales on a farm compared to a guy who performed my HDS program. That's how important rotational strength is to fighters. (Of course, my ultimate preference would be to prepare a fighter who spent the last 6 months performing the entire Hammer Down program).

3 Being a world-class striker depends on two components: timing and distance.

Each fight is unique because each fighter is unique. Even the best fighters need some time to figure out what distance is optimal in a match. Establishing distance allows a fighter to hone in their timing. And neither timing nor distance can be accurately determined within 10 or 20 seconds.

If you're someone who gets exhausted early on, you won't be able to capitalize on the distance and timing you've established because you'll be wasted of energy.

There's probably no better striker in the UFC than Chuck Liddell. Why is he such an outstanding striker? Because he understands timing and distance. But if you've ever watched him fight, you'll notice that he throws many, many punches before he can really dial-in his strikes – and he's one of the best strikers in the business! Those strikes consume energy. So you must have enough endurance to allow you to establish timing and distance.

Yeah, I know, excelling in MMA isn't just about effective striking. Many fighters depend on their ground skills to win fights. The wrestling and jiu-jitsu guys come to mind. So let's take, for example, one of the best ground fighters ever to compete in MMA: Rickson Gracie.

Even considering a guy at Rickson's level of jiu-jitsu expertise, submissions rarely occur within the first 30 seconds of a fight. He must "size up" his opponent on the ground just like Liddell must size up his opponent while standing. In either case, it doesn't happen quickly. MMA fighters must possess sufficient endurance that allows them to determine what timing, distance, or submission hold is best.

All of those activities consume energy and that's why endurance training is so important to fighters.

The Hammer Down Endurance (HDE) workouts are designed to develop the energy system that's most important during fights: anaerobic glycolysis. Before I explain why anaerobic glycolysis is the most important energy system to develop, let me give a brief overview that outlines how energy is produced for muscle contractions.

There are three energy systems known as the ATP-PC system, anaerobic glycolysis, and aerobic metabolism. Here's a brief overview of each system:

The 3 Energy Systems

  1. ATP-Phosphocreatine (ATP-PC): This is the most readily available supply of energy for muscle contractions. The ATP-PC system can sustain energy needs of contracting muscle for approximately 10 seconds. Running a 40 yard dash, or performing a 1-3 repetition maximum (RM), relies on the ATP-PC system since both activities require high levels of power.
  2. Anaerobic Glycolysis: Once the ATP-PC system has been exhausted, anaerobic gylcolysis takes over. This system can sustain the energy needs of contracting muscles for somewhere up to 10 minutes. Importantly, anaerobic glycolysis is the system responsible for the accumulation of lactate. Anaerobic glycolysis can maintain moderate levels of power output.
  3. Aerobic Metabolism: This is the last energy system that comes into play during activity. At some time past 10 minutes, aerobic metabolism takes over. This system can maintain muscle contractions for hours, even days with ultra-marathon runners. Importantly, aerobic metabolism can only maintain energy demands for low-power contractions.

There's an inverse relationship between power and time. What I'm trying to say is this: you can't maintain high levels of power output over long periods of time. Why? Because the ATP-PC system – the system that supplies energy for your highest power activities - can't sustain your energy demands for more than ~10 seconds before exhaustion.

At this point, your second energy system, anaerobic glycolysis, must take over. Unfortunately, anaerobic glycolysis can't maintain muscular power output that's as high as the ATP-PC system (see graph below). But that's how our body was designed, so we have to deal with it.

ATP-PC system

Except for the first round in Pride events, MMA rounds typically last 5 minutes. So it's clear that anaerobic glycolysis is the system you want developed to the highest level. But let's not forget that many fights can last up to 25 minutes in UFC championship bouts. This is where it becomes important for MMA fighters to work with trainers who understand how to develop anaerobic glycolysis.

Note that the above graph depicts the normal relationship between muscle contractions, power, and the appropriate energy system. In other words, if I put a typical healthy person through a cycling protocol and told him to pedal at the fastest rate he could muster for 30 minutes, the above graph depicts what role each energy system would play during the test.

He would be able to develop high levels of power within the first 10 seconds; moderate levels of power for 8-10 minutes, and low levels of power past the 10 minute mark. However, each system can be developed to work more efficiently – precisely the reason why you train.

As an exercise physiologist, I know there's a limit to how much any of the three systems can be developed. Remember I said that the ATP-PC system can only sustain high levels of power for approximately 10 seconds. Well, that sucks for two reasons.

The first reason is because this system is what maintains energy demands during your most powerful activities. If I could somehow develop this system to work for 15-25 minutes, that would be incredible for both you and me. Unfortunately, since the typical limit for ATP-PC activity is 10 seconds, I'd be a simpleton to think that I could stretch out its capacity to 15-25 minutes.

On the other hand, anaerobic glycolysis can already sustain moderate levels of power output for up to 10 minutes. If we really challenge this system through proper training, it's likely that we augment its role in energy demands. Ideally, a proper endurance-focused training plan would enhance anaerobic glycolysis like this:

Training Enhancement

Why not focus endurance training on aerobic metabolism? After all, aerobic metabolism can sustain energy demands for the longest period of time, right? That's true, but we want to develop the system that can sustain the highest level of power possible. The ATP-PC system would be the best candidate, but there's no way you could enhance it enough to function for 15-25 minutes. So, by default, that leaves us with anaerobic glycolysis.

But make no mistake about it: aerobic metabolism will play a role in any fight that lasts longer than a few minutes. However, if your endurance training favors aerobic metabolism, your results will not be optimal since it can't sustain a moderate-high output of power.

As I already mentioned, anaerobic glycolysis is responsible for the production of lactic acid. As you probably remember from your college physiology courses, anaerobic means "without oxygen." Because there's no oxygen, the cell converts pyruvate to lactate. This causes an accumulation of lactate that – for the last century – has been linked to decreased performance.

You see, it's been purported that lactate is detrimental to athletes because it impedes force production (1). A lower pH slows the rate at which muscle can hydrolyze ATP during contractions – or so scientists thought.

Currently, that hypothesis is being refuted.

As recently reported in the NY Times, it appears that lactate might actually fuel your muscles, not impair them (2). Regarding the notion that lactic acid decreases force production and, thus, is a key player in the accumulation of fatigue, Dr. George A. Brooks from the University of California Berkeley stated, "It's one of the classic mistakes in the history of science." (2)

How's that for a shocker?!

So this current lactic acid position further supports my recommendation to train within sustainable levels of anaerobic glycolysis. I make that possible because the HDE program is too long to emphasize the ATP-PC system, and too demanding to favor aerobic metabolism. In essence, this program will force you to more effectively use lactate to fuel your contractions.

When someone mentions endurance training, what comes to mind? Most of you would probably first think of running or jogging. Sure, those are acceptable activities to build endurance, but they sure as hell aren't the best methods to increase MMA-specific endurance!

If MMA events consisted of nothing more than running in a straight line, I could finish up this article in a hurry: run to the point of exhaustion. The next day, run farther.

And you know what? That's exactly what many MMA fighters have done in the past. In fact, that's how most MMA fighters still build endurance. But I'm here to kimura that dogma into submission and show you a much more effective way to build ass-stompin' endurance.

Yep, there won't be any long-distance running in this program. That statement alone will probably cause many aerobic zealots to lash out at me in furious anger. Why no running, you say? After all, fighters have built endurance with long-distance running since the dawn of man, right? Didn't Rocky Balboa spend his days running through the streets of Philadelphia? And he beat-up everyone who stood in front of him!

Well, this ain't the movies. All of those UFC, Pride, and K-1 fighters are held in the highest regard because they are putting their health on the line every time they sign the dotted line. And if you've ever stood in a ring or dojo against another fighter who was bloodthirsty, you know how humbling that feeling can be. So you better be prepared.

Long distance running should be avoided by MMA fighters because it challenges aerobic metabolism. As mentioned, this energy system isn't designed to play a significant role during high and moderate levels of power output. If you want to be a great fighter, you'd better be powerful.

Second, long-distance running or cycling causes a muscle fiber type shift away from high-force to low-force capabilities (type IIB/X -> type IIA and type IIA -> type I). Numerous studies have demonstrated that our physiology is very efficient at shifting our muscle fibers toward the lower end of the force-producing spectrum during typical long distance endurance training (too many studies to reference for that statement).

Long-distance running makes you less powerful, period.

Bottom line: if you want to build powerful endurance, you should develop the system that works for the longest period of time at the highest level. By default, the system of choice is anaerobic glycolysis.

Enough with the science talk, let's move on.

Fighting is a total body sport. That's why it makes little sense to spend so much time performing a lower-body dominant exercise such as running. Why not perform movements that challenge your entire body for extended periods of time? After all, I've yet to see one fight where both fighters ran around the ring and never used their upper body.

Endurance training for MMA fighters should consist of exercises that are more similar in nature to real-world fights: the exercises should challenge your entire body.

The deadlift is a great exercise for fighters because it strengthens the posterior chain along with the traps, and gripping muscles. Indeed, those are important muscles that aid in overall power and force capabilities. But it's a rare day when you see one fighter squat down with his feet set to lift his opponent with both hands.

On the other hand, virtually every fight is dominated by movements where the feet aren't set in a perfect stance and rotational strength is being challenged.

So it makes sense to perform exercises that mirror the movements often portrayed in fights. Basically, you're going to see some strange, esoteric movements in this installment. In fact, it's likely that you've never seen some of the movements I'm about to depict. But when you look at the pics, and think about the movements, you'll soon realize that I've left few stones unturned.

With regard to the exercises in this workout, let me give you a few caveats.

  1. I designed these workouts to be as effective and relevant as possible to MMA fighters. Because of that, I had to prescribe exercises that use cable pulleys, medicine balls, and many throwing drills. I know that many of you don't have access to such devices, and many of you work out in gyms that don't allow you to throw medicine balls. But there's simply no way around the issue. I had to pick exercises that were most effective - without regard for anything else. Do your best to find a location that makes the following exercises a viable option for you.
  2. You'll notice that many of the movements appear to mimic an activity such as a punch. That's both true and false. Yes, some of the movements are designed similar to typical strikes and throws, but the movements should not be considered technique training. The Hammer Down program is intended to develop the fitness qualities that will enhance your technique training - not replace it.
  3. With regard to technique training (actual striking and rolling in the gym or dojo), I'm a big proponent of practicing your fighting styles while fresh. I know some trainers who work their fighters to the point of exhaustion with weight training before throwing them into a ring with an opponent. These trainers are under the assumption that teaching a fighter to fight in a fatigued state is beneficial to fighters since they'll end up in a fatigued state at some point during their bouts. I don't agree, at all. Practicing your strikes, throws, and kicks while fatigued only reinforces poor motor patterns. You should develop your techniques while fresh in order to enhance the proper motor pattern. This is where the adage, "Perfect practice makes perfect" becomes very relevant.

In other words, don't perform these workouts before your technique training. Perform these workouts at least 6 hours after, or on a different day. Keep your resistance training and technique training separated.

Perform the following circuit without resting between exercises. If you can't finish the entire circuit, pace yourself for the next workout so you can complete it - even if you must move at a moderate pace. Over time, increase the speed of execution of each movement so you end up flying through the circuit.

Rope Skipping

Duration: 3 minutes

Note: Perform the rope skipping by alternating feet with each revolution of the rope. In other words, don't hop up and down with your feet together – skip with each revolution. Focus on speed.

Cable Twist Press

Reps: 15 on each side (30 total)

Cable Twist Press
Cable Twist Press

Description: Follow the sequence of pics and perform each portion as fast as possible. The pulley should be set at forehead height while you're kneeling on one leg. Make an effort to twist your body as much as possible with each position.

Note: The following four pics depict one repetition. After the downward pressing portion, return to the starting position and perform 14 more reps. Don't rest before doing the same on the left side.

Cable Twist Pull

Reps: 15 on each side (30 total)

Cable Twist Pull

Lunging Throw

Reps: 10 on each side (20 total)

Lunging Throw

Description: From a crouching position with your left leg forward, explode up and throw the medicine ball straight forward. When you release the ball, maintain your position (don't step forward with your back leg). After throwing the medicine ball, run to it and perform the same movement with your right leg forward. Alternate legs with each rep for a total of 20 reps.

Side Throwdown

Reps: 15 on each side (30 total)

Side Throwdown

Description: From a standing position with your left leg forward and with the medicine ball held overhead, throw down the medicine ball as you twist to your right side. At the same time that you throw the ball down to the right, lift your right knee up. Grab the ball and repeat on the left side. Alternate sides with each rep for a total of 30 reps.

Backwards Overhead Throw

Reps: 10 on each leg (20 total)

Backwards Overhead Throw

Description: With your left leg forward, crouch down while holding the medicine ball in both hands. Throw the ball backwards, over your head, as explosively as possible. Your feet should elevate off the floor. Run to the ball and do the same with your right leg forward. Continue for a total of 20 reps.

Shuffle Splits

Duration: 3 minutes

Description: Perform shuffle splits by jumping up just high enough to switch your legs in the air. Continue jumping and switching legs for a total of 3 minutes.

Side Scoop Throw

Reps: 10 on each side (20 total)

Side Scoop Throw

Description: With your left leg forward, crouch down and twist to your right side with the medicine ball in your hands. Explode up and throw the ball over your left shoulder with both hands as fast as possible. Run to the ball and do the same with your right leg forward. Continue for 20 reps.

Run Sprawl

Reps: 10

Run Sprawl
Run Sprawl

Description: This drill starts by running in place for 10s as fast as possible. Then, quickly drop down into the sprawl position. Immediately after you drop into the sprawl, pull your left knee up to your chest and stand up from that position. Repeat the 10s run in place, followed by the sprawl. After you drop down into the sprawl a second time, pull your right knee up to your chest and stand up. This sequence constitutes one rep. Perform this entire sequence 10 times.

Overhead Walking Lunges with Drag

Reps: 20 on each leg (40 total)

Overhead Walking Lunges with Drag

Description: With the medicine ball held overhead, perform walking lunges continuously for 20 reps on each leg (40 total). You should not raise up with each step, stay low by dragging your back foot forward with each step.

Jumping Jack Push-up Climber

Reps: 20

Jumping Jack Push-up Climber
Jumping Jack Push-up Climber

Description: Perform one jumping jack while jumping as high as possible. Then, quickly drop down and perform one push-up. Next, perform the mountain climber by pulling your left knee up towards your chest, then switch legs by pulling your right knee up towards your chest. From there, jump both feet up towards your chest into the tuck position. Lastly, stand up and return to the jumping jack. That's one rep. Perform 20 total "reps."

180 Lunges

Reps: 10 on each leg (20 total)

180 Lunges
180 Lunges

Description: From the standing position, step back with your right leg into a reverse lunge. Return to starting position. Step back at an angle into a reverse lunge. Return to starting position. Step directly out to the side. Return to starting position. Step forward at an angle. Return to starting position. Finish by stepping straight ahead into a forward lunge. Return to starting position. Do the same sequence with the left leg. Alternate the entire 180-degree sequence with each leg until you perform 10 on each side.

Reverse Crunches on Slant

Reps: 20 to failure

Reverse Crunches on Slant
Reverse Crunches on Slant

Description: While lying on an abdominal slant board with your head at the highest position, hold your legs straight out so they're parallel to the floor. Pull your knees into your chest as you roll your hips up. Lower and repeat. Hold a dumbbell between your feet if you need to increase the resistance.

Cable Crunches

Reps: 20 to failure

Cable Crunches

Description: With the pulley set on its highest position, use a rope or v-bar attachment with your hands at forehead height. Focus on contracting your abdominals before you crunch down. Perform each crunch explosively.

Rope Skipping

Duration: 3 minutes

Now, allow me to explain some key training points for this program.

  1. Perform all movements as fast as possible. There's really no such thing as perfect form for any of these movements, so work hard and fast.
  2. Make an effort to really accentuate the twisting portion of each movement. In other words, try to make each exercise as total-body (demanding) as possible.
  3. You'll notice that JM is holding his hands up during most of the drills. I do this with all my clients who compete in striking sports. No, it won't make you a better striker, but it will train your nervous system and endurance to become very comfortable with your hands elevated. I've yet to see one fighter benefit from holding his hands low during a fight. Therefore, when training for MMA – even if it's not technique training – it's a good idea to reinforce the hands-up position.
  4. Fighters' joints take a serious beating while they're practicing their fighting techniques. So it makes little sense to keep hammering away at their joint integrity with haphazard endurance drills. Therefore, the HDE circuit is designed to build explosive endurance strength without excessively stressing the joints.

Duration of Workout: Depending on how fast you perform each movement and how quickly you can move between exercises, this circuit should take you between 20-25 minutes to complete.

The ultimate goal is to condition yourself so you can perform the entire circuit as fast as possible without resting. That's very tough to do! The drills might look simple, but they accumulate fatigue at a rapid pace.


Each exercise should be performed with the heaviest load you can handle while maintaining the fastest tempo possible. That's very important. My suggestion is to start with a load that's lighter than you think you could handle.

After the circuit is finished, if you feel you could've used more weight, or a heavier medicine ball – do it. But always remember that the goal is to keep your speed of execution as high as possible.

To establish my point regarding the importance of keeping the training load light, I'll mention a study that was referenced in Zatsiorsky's Science and Practice of Strength Training. The study demonstrated that a medicine ball with load of only 2.0 kg had the greatest carryover to sport (2).

But this was demonstrated with water polo players. MMA fighters tend to be stronger, and more highly conditioned. Nevertheless, the study supports my recommendation of keeping the load light so your speed of movement will not suffer.

The ultimate goal of HDE is to build explosive-endurance strength. If you use a load that's too heavy for any of your movements, your rate of force development will suffer. As I mentioned in the first installment, that's not good. You must be able to develop maximal force as quickly as possible.

Once you enhance your conditioning to the point where you can complete the circuit without rest, it's time to use an X-vest. This is a vest that looks like a bullet-proof vest with some lead weights in it. Start out with around 15 lbs loaded in the vest for your first 2-3 workouts. Then, increase the vest in 5 lb increments every 2-3 workouts until the vest is completely loaded (40 lbs for a typical X-vest).

Medicine Ball vs. Sandbags

I actually prefer sandbags over medicine balls for all of the drills that depict a medicine ball. But I know sandbags aren't the most common tool in training gyms. Nevertheless, if you can find one, or make one that's light enough – use it.

It goes without saying that the sandbags make this workout more difficult. Due to the larger surface area and non-static shape of the sandbags, they carry-over extremely well to sport by making each exercise more unstable and challenging - just like a fight.


Perform this circuit three times each week. Ideally, I'd like you to perform this workout in the PM hours on the days you perform the HDS program. The third HDE workout should be spaced 48 hours from the other two workouts. Here's how your weekly plan would look.


  A.M. P.M.
Day 1 HD: Strength HD: Endurance
Day 2 Off Fighting
Day 3 Fighting HD: Endurance
Day 4 Off Fighting
Day 5 HD: Strength HD: Endurance
Day 6 Off Fighting
Day 7 Off Off

Of course, the above weekly plan is just a sample. Use whichever schedule works best but try to keep it as close to the above as possible.

First and foremost, MMA fighters should focus on the HDE circuit. Once they can perform three circuits each week at a rapid pace, it's time to augment the system.

Am I saying that MMA fighters shouldn't run? Of course not! What I'm trying to stress is the importance of not running for an hour, or more, as many fighters do. That's why I designed HDE. Fighters should first focus on HDE because it builds the type of endurance that will help them most: total body, explosive-endurance strength.

Running should be a part of any advanced conditioning program, but it must be performed correctly so power isn't compromised. Considering how demanding the HDE workouts are, I recommend that you run for no more than 2 miles.

Why such a relatively short distance? Because if you limit your runs to 2 miles, you'll be able to run at a much faster pace than you could for, say, 10 miles. That's good because a shorter run will focus on building the anaerobic glycolysis energy system. You'll be able to keep your power output high, and you won't force unnecessary muscle fiber shifts that occur with 60 minute runs.

The ultimate goal of the 2-mile runs is to finish them in 11-12 minutes. This time-frame fits perfectly within the capabilities of the anaerobic glycolysis energy system.

So once you master the HDE workouts, you can incorporate one 2-mile run into your weekly plan. The next week, add another 2 mile run. The third week, add a third 2-mile run. During the fourth week I recommend you drop down to two HDE and 2 mile runs each week to give your body a break. The fifth week, return to three HDE workouts along with three 2-mile runs.

I prefer the 2-mile runs be performed after your HDE circuit. If you did the run first, it would greatly compromise your performance during HDE. So arrange your runs after the HDE is finished.

Once you complete the HDE circuit on any given day, rest for 5 minutes before performing the 2-mile run. Even if you have the capacity to move directly to the run after the HDE circuit is completed, it's not a good idea because you'll merge too far into the aerobic metabolism energy system (something we don't want).

Finally, don't run on a treadmill! When you run on a treadmill, the rotating surface pulls your leg back with each stride – not good. Your glutes should be pulling your leg back, not the rotating belt. Run on a track, in the forest, on a sidewalk... hell, run along the damn interstate if it's your only option.

To recap: complete the HDE circuit as fast as possible, rest for 5 minutes, then perform the 2 mile run as fast as possible. Focus on increasing your speed with each workout.

Once you work up to three HDE circuits and three 2-mile runs, your weekly plan should look similar to this:


  A.M. P.M. Run
Day 1 HD: Strength HD: Endurance 2 Miles
Day 2 Off Fighting  
Day 3 Fighting HD: Endurance 2 Miles
Day 4 Off Fighting  
Day 5 HD: Strength HD: Endurance 2 Miles
Day 6 Off Fighting  
Day 7 Off Off  

Three HDE circuits followed by three 2-mile runs each week will develop all the explosive endurance you'll ever need for a fight. You'll be a frightening machine of power and endurance once you get to such a level of conditioning.

As with all demanding workouts, I recommend that you use Spike® before your workouts to increase performance.

All workouts should begin with 1-2 serving of Plazma™ mixed in water. Take the first serving of Plazma™ anywhere from 30-0 minutes before your workout. Ideally, you should probably consume the first serving 30 minutes before your workout since the HDE workout can make you feel... well, nauseous. Immediately after your workout, consume one full serving of Mag-10®.

I can't overly-stress the importance of taking an anti-inflammatory supplement like Flameout®. All fighters should consume 6 capsules every day (3 in the A.M., 3 in the P.M.)

So that's it for the second installment of the Hammer Downprogram for MMA fighters. I encourage all of you fighters to incorporate this program into your regimen, in place of long-distance running. I guarantee that the carry-over to your performance in competition will be outstanding. If I'm lying, you can blindfold, hog-tie, and throw me into the ring against Chuck and Rickson!

  1. Boron, WF and Boulpaep EL. Medical Physiology. Elsevier Science USA. p: 1220. 2003.
  2. Kolata, G. Lactic Acid is Not Muscles' Foe, It's Fuel. NY Times. May 16, 2006.
  3. Zatsiorsky, V. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics. pp: 145-46. 1995.