Strength Training For Fighters

Imagine going up against a vicious opponent in an octagon who is set on destroying you as quick as they can. Now imagine you have to go at maximum effort against this opponent for 5 rounds of 5 minutes each, if you both last that long.

In order to survive in the octagon, fighters today need a combination of muscular endurance, strength, speed and agility no matter what weight class they compete in.

Fighter’s Goals

Each fighter needs to train for a demanding physical contest, but they may need to move up or down a weight class to compete.

So how do you increase strength without gaining weight (unless that’s your goal.)

How do you gain weight without becoming slow and losing explosiveness? Or lose weight without losing strength?

The answer varies depending on the fighter.

Strength training for fighters should incorporate the following:

1. Improving power-to-weight ratio

2. Power training for speed

3. Heavy lifts with low reps.

Improving your power-to-weight ratio.

Heavier athletes need greater power to move their weight effectively. Athletes trying to drop a weight class need to maintain power while losing that weight.

Training Theory

Believe it or not, strength programs for fighters has a lot in common with power lifting training. Two of the three elements in a power lifting program are useful for fight training.

1. The ‘power’ part of power lifting training is really speed training. Explosiveness. While this can be accomplished with plyometrics, the explosiveness needed to move greater and greater weight starts with speed training.

2. Low rep, heavy lifting. These sets are done for only 1-3 repetitions and not to failure.

Powerlifters also do a maxing out day, which is something fighters don’t need to do. The goal is to get stronger and still be able to train the next day.

If a fighter needs to gain weight for a fight, they can incorporate higher repetition sets along with dietary modifications to maximize their gains.

For example, a strength training for fighters program may have the athlete doing deadlifts and squats one day a week, for 5 sets of 3 repetitions each.

These sets would be done with a weight that is 80-90% of their maximum lift. After a 2-day rest they may follow this up with a lighter weight, speed day. Reps in these sets are done with a weight that is only 40-50% of their one-rep maximum.

When to Start Training for Strength

Physiological changes do not take place overnight. When combined with a full-time training program that includes grappling and striking practice, strength gains may be slower to come than if they were the only goal.

However, a trainee can see strength increases on a weekly basis with the right diet and recovery program. The ideal program will have the athlete gaining enough strength to rise to their opponent, peaking just in time for the fight.

How soon an athlete needs to start incorporating this training depends on:

-How strong do they need to be?
-Where is their strength level now?
-How much time before the fight?

This could be from several weeks to several months. A good trainer and coach will be able to develop a program that cycles in sufficient strength training in time for a fight, but not so close to the fight that their nervous system is exhausted.


How often strength training is incorporated into a fighter’s training program also depends on the athlete. A team has to prioritize the fighter’s weaknesses.

So if the athlete is strong enough but their grappling skills aren’t a match for their opponent, their strength-training program will be focused on maintaining strength while they spend more time on the mats.

If an athlete is a great striker and grappler, but is facing a much stronger opponent, the training program should reflect the need to increase strength, and possibly gain muscle.

Strength Training Exercises

Is strength training for fighters different than strength training for powerlifters, or sprinters, or football players? Yes, and no.

Certain exercises are great strength builders across a wide spectrum of sports, including combat sports.

These exercises are the classics, things like:

-Overhead Presses
-Bench Press
-Pullups/Weighted Pullups
-Dips/Weighted Dips

When translated into linear motion, these movements are useful to many athletes. Additional exercises that include an element of explosiveness include:

  • Barbell Clean&Jerk
  • Barbell or Kettlebell Snatch
  • Power Cleans
  • Prowler Sprints
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Tire Flipping
  • Medicine Ball Exercises
  • Hang Cleans

Multiple Planes of Movement

While fighters need to be incorporating some of these movements into their training, there are a variety of multi-plane movements that are especially beneficial to their sport.

In the octagon, all types of movement patterns take place, and the body can be put under tension from any direction.

It’s important to have a training program that incorporates the use of bands, kettlebells, and multi-directional body weight strength training in order to prepare the athlete for their battle in the ring.

Training for strength complements martial arts training, helps prevent injuries during training, and gives the athlete a greater fitness base to last through a potentially grueling match.