3 Training Lessons You Can Learn from MMA

About the Author: Eric Cressey

Today, we have a guest post from physical therapist, strength coach, and all-around great guy Martin Rooney. I think you'll really like it. -EC

You might be surprised to know the moment I began training mixed martial artists both started and almost ended my fitness career.  In 1998, I was a physical therapist in need of a new challenge.  The “sports performance” industry was in its infancy and MMA was a misunderstood and relatively underground sport.  Banned in most of the world and forbidden on cable TV, MMA met with almost as much opposition as I did when I explained to my parents I would be leaving my physical therapy career for fitness.

In the best professional move I have made, I chose to follow my passion.  I devoured information and as my skills as a trainer and coach improved, so did my client list and opportunities.  I have trained first rounders in many professional sports, consulted for professional teams, and written numerous articles and books, but when it comes to the lessons I learned along the way, many more came from MMA than from the NFL, NBA and MLB. 

Over the last five years, I have presented my Training For Warriors System in over 20 different countries.  At the beginning of my speaking career, however, my only requests were to discuss speed and strength training for traditional sports like football and baseball.  When I would explain that I was producing fantastic results with my fighters, no one wanted to listen.  In fact, due to the increased time I was spending with my martial athletes, I put my career in jeopardy.  As luck would have it, MMA exploded world-wide and people became open to the idea that lessons from my TFW System could be used for anyone.


The Lessons

You have clients that would like to look like a UFC warrior.  They also DON’T want to get punched in the face.  The good news?  You can use training concepts from MMA with your clients and athletes to make them feel like warriors.  The bad news?   Many trainers and clients think they have to practically destroy themselves in the process.  Today hardcore circuit style workouts are popular.  That doesn’t mean they are being used correctly.  In today’s article, I’m going to outline three lessons from MMA that you can use to improve your training immediately.

Lesson 1:  “Don’t Put On Your Tie Before You Put On Your Shirt”

Would you build a house in a swamp or fire a cannon from a canoe? Of course not! Why, then, are your clients allowed to progress to exercises and workouts for which they are unprepared?

Yes, it may be more fun to jump into the “sexy” stuff, but every client must first build a solid foundation of general physical qualities before the specific work is done.  These qualities include speed, strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and endurance.  The more solid the foundation that is developed, the more solid the client can eventually become.  Just like the martial artist had to earn his or her first few belts with the basics, your students must “earn” his or her exercises.  This progression is something that your clients must understand and strive to complete.  So, although a client may want to try a more “fancy” or “creative” exercise, they must build the appropriate skills first.  Although this may seem like taking a step backward, remember that you don’t get paid for creativity; rather, you make money for delivering consistent progress. Your clients will actually take more forward with the proper base in place.

In TFW, a trainer must remember to first do no harm.  Before ever concerning yourself with the coolness of an exercise, make sure you can support that exercise as both effective and safe.  An injured client cannot train.  A person that can’t train doesn’t pay for training.  Build a safe and effective base and you’ll also build your book of business. 

Lesson 2:  “If You Think You Are Doing Too Much, You Already Are.”

I constantly tell my fighters:

“Don’t confuse fatigue or soreness with being productive.”

The goal of your training is not complete exhaustion or the search of fatigue.  Yes, the sessions you deliver may produce soreness and fatigue, but that is not the goal.  Just like the martial artist trying to improve his or her skills, the goal of the session is improvement.  In other words, results.  And results, contrary to common thought, are not so commonly achieved.  Results paradoxically happen during your recovery, not training.

Recovery is the first thing to add into a training week, not the last.

I am not just talking about monitoring the work/rest ratio during the session, but you must also make sure to recover in between sessions.  Yes, there will be moments where the students are tired.  This is a fact of training and some levels of fatigue must be created in order to deliver physical and mental gains.  Many of the workouts of TFW and other systems today are both physically and mentally demanding.  Although this can also become fun for some, that is not an excuse to do them too often.  As a trainer, you must find the amount of recovery your student needs and stick to it.

When I train fighters, one of the hardest things to get them to do is rest.  I must remind them during rest, you are not doing “nothing;” you are doing the most important thing: recovering.  No pain, no gain?  No, I say, “No pain, no brain.”

As the intensity of training is starting to advance, your clients are being brainwashed to believe MORE exercise always means BETTER.  The student must always adhere to the proper amount of rest and recovery in order for the body to supercompensate to the stimuli.  One must remember that real progress does not occur when you are working out, it occurs when you are recovering after that training. 


Lesson 3:  “You can’t manage if you don’t measure.”

The martial artist is constantly testing his or her techniques and skills in order to determine if progress is being made.  In fact, belts are given out as progress is verified.  What about your clients?  Are you constantly testing them for progress in the gym?  How is their hard work being rewarded?

Before you worry about consistently measuring someone else, I challenge you to first start with yourself.  When was the last time you stepped on a scale?  Did you measure your body fat percentage this week?  If not, then you have no idea how your diet is working.  Do you do circuit workouts?  Are you able to measure your own progress there?  If not, then I am sure you will not be able to show your client how to do the same.


If there is a major idea to pull from this article, it is that the most important reason to train is in the pursuit of a result.  Why, then, would you not monitor some training variable during the workout?  Strength, speed, reps, sets and more can all be assessed to determine progress.  Body fat, weight, heart rate, and girth can keep a client motivated as much as a martial arts belt.  Make sure to check something every session and never forget to reward progress.


Over the years, I battled with what style is “best.”  I have come to realize that there is and may never be a best way to get the job done.  Instead of getting “bitter,” we must always be on the search to deliver “better.”  I found that instead of tying Training for Warriors to individual exercise philosophies or pieces of equipment, I decided to uncover the principles that were essential to follow regardless of the exercise tool or methodology used.  With over 90 facilities worldwide and 1,300 coaches trained, I am now sharing my system with you. If you are interested in learning more about TFW and how you can benefit from the our system, you can now work your way through the certification online for the first time. You can learn more about the course here.

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