Photo: Penn State

Along with peanut butter and jelly, mixed martial arts (MMA for short) is proof positive awesome things happen when worlds collide. MMA takes different fighting disciplines — boxing, Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, you name it — and combines them into an unpredictable combat system. Contenders can mix and match elements from literally any martial art on Earth, and the result is a tough, intense sport and a kick-ass workout.

“The best shape you can be in is fighting shape,” says Fran Fontan, an MMA trainer at Body Space Fitness in New York City.

Which makes sense, considering how MMA fighters train to survive three five-minute rounds of non-stop, full-body attacks from people who want nothing more than to beat them into submission. To go the distance, they have to be in peak condition: panther-like speed, incredible stamina, and serious strength. Even for those of us with no intention of stepping into the ring, MMA-style training can be a terrific addition to any fitness regime.

Apart from the physical rewards that come from practicing MMA, training for the sport has loads of other benefits, too. According to Ryan Parsons, an MMA trainer and owner of Radius Sports Management, it’s also great for teaching humility and how to stay calm under pressure.

Here, Parsons and Fontan share some of the exercises they turn when they train fighters and non-fighters alike. Consider this the road map to a knockout body.


Don’t let the name fool you: This move’s not warm and cuddly! Punch up your workout with this grueling full-body exercise. Not only does it help build upper body strength, but it also works the core and legs and improves cardiovascular fitness.

How to: Start off on all fours. Lift your knees off the floor and raise your hips slightly, bracing your core as you do so. That’s the “bear” position! Keeping your shoulders and hips at the same height, step forward with your right foot while reaching forward with your right hand. Repeat on the left side and continue moving forward, building speed as you go. Roaring is optional.

It might look a little awkward, but moving in new and unusual ways is a great way to challenge the body and to mentally prepare yourself for the unpredictability of a fight. This exercise boosts the heart rate and works the core, shoulders, triceps and legs – particularly the hamstrings and glutes.

How to: Sit on the floor with your legs bent in front of you and feet on the floor. Place your palms on the floor by your sides. Brace your core and bring your butt a few inches off the floor and lift your chest up. Crawl forward, keeping your core tight, and build speed as you become more comfortable with the movement. Give your body a chance to adjust to this exercise — you’ll get the hang of it with some patience and practice!

Sorry, this doesn’t even resemble sprawling on the couch. This explosive move originates from old Jiu-Jitsu drills and is both a strength-training and cardio exercise. Resembling a burpee mixed with a yoga “cobra pose,” the sprawl will challenge your entire body, improve your speed, and jack up your heart rate.

How to: Begin in a standing position with feet shoulder-width apart. Lower down into a squat and place your palms on the ground so that the elbows are positioned just inside the knees. Kick your feet back into a plank, then lower the hips and arch your back, so your body resembles a more active cobra pose. Reverse the exercise, jump the feet forward, and explode back up to the starting position.

Make it harder: Fontan likes pairing a one-two combo (a jab followed by a cross) with his sprawls.

The exercise everyone loves to hate. Also known as squat thrusts, this move will condition the body from head to toe. In fact, Fontan insists that this is the best move to get in shape for a martial art.

How to: Begin in a standing position. Squat down low and place your palms on the floor directly below your shoulders. Kick your feet back behind you, landing in a push-up position. Quickly reverse the movement and jump straight up into the air. Land softly, and then repeat.

Make it harder: To add more of a challenge to a basic burpee, throw in a pushup while the body’s in the plank position.

Parsons recommends this for some serious core strength. Mixed martial artists use their abs as both built-in armor and as a power source for their attacks. (Bruce Lee called his core “the center of gravity and the source of real power.”) This exercise also targets the lower back and quads.

How to: Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip and let your body hang. Brace your core and slowly raise your legs straight out in front of you until your body forms a backwards L shape. Hold in this position for a few seconds, exhaling as you do so. Lower to the starting position.

Make it easier: For a less advanced version, perform the exercise with your knees bent and work your way up to the straight-leg version.

A classic bodyweight exercise, this move develops nearly all of the upper-body muscles, particularly the back, shoulders, and arms. It also helps you develop a strong grip — a must-have in MMA and a critical part of an effective chokehold.

How to: Grab a bar with an overhand grip a little wider than shoulder-width apart and let your body hang. Bend your knees and cross your feet behind you. Squeezing your shoulder blades together, drive down your elbows and pull your chest up to the bar. Lower back down to the starting position.

Note: If you need to work up to this super-challenging move, use this strength-training workout plan to develop the power needed for a pull-up.

This no-frills move puts your body weight to good use, working all three parts of the triceps, the chest, and even your upper back.

How to: Hold your body up on parallel bars, bend your knees and cross your ankles behind you. Lower your body slowly until your arms form a 90-degree angle. Push yourself back up to the starting position.

Make it harder: Add some weight to your dips! Buckle up in a weighted belt, hold a dumbbell between your knees, or strap on ankle weights.

This works the legs, glutes, and hips, stretches the hip flexors, and can even help improve your running game.

How to: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Step forward with one leg, slowly lowering your body until your knee is bent at a 90-degree angle. Raise your body up and straighten your knee as you bring the back leg forward and in front of you. Repeat the movement with this leg.

Make it harder: One of the great parts about this exercise — apart from being able to do it anywhere — is that you can tailor it to your fitness level. To make it tougher, hold dumbbells by your sides as you walk through the lunges. To target your core even more, try walking lunges with a medicine ball twist.

“Any way to add instability to your workout is important,” says Parsons. “It helps develop balance and an awareness of your body.” This move, due to the unstable, ironically-named stability ball, targets the upper body and works the core.

How to: Hold one dumbbell in one hand and sit down on an exercise ball. Roll yourself forward, bending your knees and keeping your back straight, until your upper back and neck rest on the ball. Hold the dumbbell close to your chest and lift your free arm straight up into the air. Press the dumbbell up into a chest press. Repeat the movement with your other arm. Continue alternating sides.

How to: They’re often performed on basketball courts, but these sprints can be done anywhere. Set up six markers, each one six yards apart. Sprint from the first line to the second and touch the line with your hand. Run back and touch the first line, then immediately sprint to the third. Back to the first, then to the fourth. Continue and repeat until you can’t.


All of these moves will fit into any regular weight-training routine. Pick the ones that are the most challenging (“It’s important to work on what we aren’t good at,” says Fontan) and perform them in between your weight-lifting sets.

Ryan Parson’s Kick-Ass MMA Workout

For a total-body routine, Parsons suggests braving this circuit. (If some of the exercises are too advanced, make appropriate substitutions, like assisted pull-ups and bent-knee leg raises.) After time, you’ll notice yourself moving through the circuit more quickly and with less assistance — proof you’re getting stronger!

Complete the following circuit, resting only at the end for 1-2 minutes, then repeat 3-4 times:

Pull-ups (6-12 reps)

Dips (10-12 reps)

Walking Lunges (10-12 reps)

One Arm Chest Press on an Exercise Ball (10-12 reps)

Hanging Leg Raises (10-12 reps)

Got something to add? Let us know in the comments below, or tweet the author @alexduron.