Styles Make Fights: Style Specific Training

Co-authored with Strength and Conditioning Coach Phil Daru

Styles Make Fights: Style Specific Training

Sport-Specific Training

In the strength and conditioning world, it is common to read about “functional” training.  In the sporting world, this translates into “sport-specific” training used to enhance performance by building aspects like strength, endurance, speed, and power. While sport-specific training is certainly required in MMA, I believe it is still not quite hitting the nail on the head.  Currently, Strength & Conditioning (S&C) coaches typically apply a more generalized approach linked to core aspects of MMA.  While required, it is my contention that it is insufficient for maximizing “carry-over” into the actual fight.

I believe there are a few reasons for this.  First, this more generalized approach is more efficient as it accommodates a greater number of fighters.  Another reason, I believe, is that S&C coaches may not have the depth of knowledge to effectively adapt a program.  This is not a knock on them.  One can’t be an expert in all aspects of MMA!   Finally, many S&C coaches work in isolation of striking and grappling coaches.  In other words, they may not know the specific needs of a fighter.

Style-Specific Training

This has been no more apparent than when it comes to striking styles.  If fighters are going to strike at their optimal level, then sport-specific training should be adapted to “style-specific” training. The most sport-specific training available is engagement in the sport itself. It is my contention that S&C coaches will have a greater impact on a fighter’s performance when they are able to deliberately condition fighters in aspects specific to a fighter’s style.  In football, players are trained specifically for the needs of their position.  For example, the center’s conditioning program would look visibility different from that of the wide-receiver’s. While some core aspects may remain the same, many drills address specific needs of the athlete so they can excel in the requirements of their position.

If fighters are going to strike at their optimal level, then sport-specific training should be adapted to “style-specific” training.

I’ve suggested, coaches should refrain from training fighters using a “one style fits all” approach.  Styles are made up of a complex interplay between genetics, physiological characteristics, historical factors, and contact with environmental factors.  As such, styles or aspects of styles, should be fitted to the fighter to best meet their needs.

In the best case scenario, S&C programs would be aligned with a fighter’s style and game plan.  This alignment will serve to accelerate striking conditioning and performance.  But what does this look like?  Fortunately, I have trained former MMA fighter and American Top Team S&C Coach Phil “Bam-Bam” Daru in striking styles.  I’ve asked Phil to co-author this article with me to provide some further insight and tips for linking S&C to styles.  His knowledge of MMA and training science paired with my style classifications creates an ideal perspective on the topic.


Phil “Bam-Bam” Daru

As a S&C coach, I recognize the importance of assessing each fighter’s strengths, weaknesses, and the imbalances a fighter may possess. Each style presented by Coach Paulie’s classification requires different physical responses.  As such, I will provide some tips for specifying strength, conditioning, and performance programs to meet stylistic needs. When a fighter has a specific style or stylistic need, it is most helpful to a fighter’s performance that their program specifically meet these needs. This will further facilitate the effectiveness of the style itself.  Moreover, it will create optimal performance to help fighters reach their ultimate goal of winning.

Short-Range Offense

In short-range styles, punches are most effectively thrown with extreme force to inflict maximum damage. As such, a fighter’s legs must be strong, powerful and possess good conditioning.  This combination allows the fighter to facilitate the explosive footwork needed for the style to be effective. In addition, core stability and transverse abdominal strength need to be worked to improve the effectiveness of short hooks and uppercuts.  Most punches are thrown with short bursts of energy, meaning fast and furious.  Consequently, anaerobic conditioning or high intensity intervals should be a huge part of the conditioning program for the short-range striker.

For the short-range striker, the goal is to create a body that is powerful and strong with the ability to explode in bursts over an extended period of time.  To improve overall strength of the fighter’s body, dead-lifts and back squats are invaluable.  For explosive power, box jumps and hurdle hops are easy to implement and highly effective.  Finally, weighted planks and windshield wipers are solid techniques for improving core both stability and strength.

Short-Range Defense

As Coach Paulie suggests, head movement and body positioning are key to this style’s defensive strategy.  Consequently, fighters must work proper trunk rotation and core stabilization. Utilizing core conditioning exercises such as Russian twists, cable wood choppers, and 45 degree abdomen wheels will help to strengthen the working muscles for the defensive side of this style.

Mid-Range Offense

Mid-range striking is the “default style” to all fighters.  Therefore, all strikers should seek to strengthen some aspect of this style depending on their given needs. Incorporating a wide variety of hand-eye coordination drills along with agility and timing exercises strengthens key aspects of this style. The punches and kicks are thrown in a wide variety so mobility and strength endurance will also be vital. Fighters seeking to improve this part of their game should work on explosive med ball throws under progressively greater lengths of time.  One to three minute intervals mixed with box jumps will initiate the conditioning needed for a high striking output.

The footwork of each style is critical.  For the mid-range style, consistent and appropriate footwork allows the fighter to immediately defend or attack.  Therefore, agility and speed must be worked in to all training sessions. Prowler or sled sprints with moderately heavy weights for 3-5 minute rounds improves full body endurance.  In addition, using super-sets with either battle ropes or Kettlebell swings will enhance optimal performance.

As MMA moves into the next phase of its evolution, I hope to see more fighters and S&C coaches incorporating blending style specific strength and conditioning with old school boxing regiments. 

Mid-Range Defense

The shoulder and trap area supported by the scapula and neck are key components to the high-guard defense required of mid-range styles. Utilizing conditioning tools such as suitcase holds or hammer isometric holds will help facilitate the conditioning of those muscles required. One of the weaknesses of this style can be susceptibility to takedowns. Thus, both leg hip and glute strength are powerful tools for defending shots. To strengthen these muscles, fighters can utilize weighted glute/hip bridges, banded kettlebell swings, or Zercher squats.

Brad Pickett Phil Daru style specific training
Pictured: Brad Pickett goes through strength and conditioning drills under the guidance of his S&C coach Phil Daru, at American Top Team’s Coconut Creek training center. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Paul Gavoni)

Long-Range Offense

For the long-range striker, commonly used by fighters with a greater striking range, micro-footwork and hand speed drills are optimal.  All punches and kicks are thrown strategically, so timing and coordination must be on point. Utilizing drills will work acceleration and speed strength will enhance a fighter’s performance.  To capitalize on reach, mobility and range of motion must be optimal.  Thus, full range of motion must be done through all lifts and exercises.

Upper back stability and strength with lower body elusiveness is another key factor.  To enhance this, fighters can use band pull aparts, face pulls, bent over rows, and bent over side laterals.  These exercises are good choices to help build stability/strength in the upper back and scapula. Reactive box jumps, hurdle hops, and sled sprints are excellent for increasing acceleration speed and power for the lower body. Linear movement drills must be done, in addition to the agility work, to facilitate the defense and stance needed for this style. Side lunges, unilateral hurdle hops, and banded side step runs will be helpful exercises to initiate performance in that aspect.

Though minimal and selective power output is needed for this striking style, it is still important to focus on so it is available when required.  Power endurance with medicine ball throws, box jumps (high and low), hammer slams, and explosive push-ups are all helpful here. Aerobic capacity must be high for this style.  Therefore, running for a longer duration at a steady pace can be beneficial.  Fighters can try utilizing tempo runs for 15-25 minutes at a steady pace. Fighters who use these fundamental movements will optimize their performance when employing this style.

Long-Range Defense

Defense for this style can mainly be attributed to the footwork and lateral movement efficiency. Though it is not always manageable, utilizing distance is a very useful tool for capitalizing on a reach advantage. These type of strikers are best served by focusing on more aerobic conditioning in a style specific fashion. This is accomplished by working lateral movement and angles in the cage using small ankle weights or a weighted vest. Fighters might use lateral movement for intervals of 3-5 minutes incorporated into shadowboxing. Linear movement drills must be done in addition to the agility work to facilitate the defense and stance needed for this style. Side lunges, unilateral hurdle hops and banded side step runs will be helpful exercises to initiate performance in that aspect.

Styles Make Fights

Styles make fights.  Coach Phil understands that mastering one’s style requires quality training that provides high repetition with deliberate practice focused on key aspects of a fighter’s game. The most effective fight camps seek to bring out the best in their fighters through an aligned approach aimed at meeting the needs of each fighter and fight.  And the most effective coaches seek to bring out the best in their fighters through approach that best meets their styles.  As I’ve suggested before, “One style fits all” approaches limit a fighter’s potential. Fighters are best served when coaches consider characteristics like height and reach to “fit” a fighter based on their genetic makeup and predispositions. It would be my recommendation this alignment include strength and conditioning coaches when possible.

Old School

Coach Phil provides some good illustrations of how a knowledgeable S&C coach can move beyond sport specific training to a highly specialized style specific approach that allows for greater deliberate practice.  If you are a fighter who is reading this and you are not fortunate enough to have a S&C coach as part of your team, don’t despair.  Some of the most effective strategies for developing striking strength, endurance, and stamina are rooted in traditional boxing training.  Specifically, shadowboxing, heavy bag work, speed bag work, and double-end bag are powerful tools for accelerating performance.  And let’s not forget the good ol’ jump rope.  It’s rare I hear the dull and rhythmic thump of the jump rope as part of a fighter’s conditioning program.

As MMA moves into the next phase of its evolution, I hope to see more fighters and S&C coaches incorporating blending style specific strength and conditioning with old school boxing regiments.  Stay tuned as we develop more MMA-specific strength and conditioning videos along with MMA-specific mental conditioning techniques provided by sports psychologist Dr. Alex Edmonds. Combining the mental and physical training is critical in optimizing a fighter’s abilities.