Healthy Joints in Mixed Martial Arts

If you’re human, you’ll often get body aches and pains. If you’re an athlete, bad posture = good posture in sports such as mixed martial arts (MMA), boxing and other combat sports; the traps are overworked to keep the shoulders high, the pecs are tight, shoulders are rounded forward to protect the face and chin, the upper back is hunched over and the head is forward. If you’re a professional computer user, you may look the same.

There’s a decent amount of Strength and Conditioning coaches and trainers who, when it comes to MMA, train really archaic. They like heaps of old-school and masculine-type movements with lots of tyre-flipping, slamming tyres, crossfit, strongman, kegs, sandbags, sled and on it goes. This is all really fun and cool stuff, and I like cycling it in my training too, but how it’s typically executed is not always in favour of good form or in loading the body where the bones are stacked on top of each other like they should be. So your MMA athlete might already have a locked up thoracic spine, biceps tendonitis  and excessive forward head posture and then they’re told to place a 80kg sandbag over their shoulder and walk for a while! There is definitely a place for this sort of stuff, but look at the athlete and determine whether it will actually help their competitive advantage or whether it will just break down their body further.

MMA is already such a rough sport. With all the skills training that athletes complete on the mat, their bodies are getting beat up all the time, so the primary goal is to keep their joints as healthy as possible. Getting bigger and stronger is a secondary goal. This kind of stuff isn’t easy to hear for people that want to do all the primal, sexy, crossfit, strongman conditioning with a truckload of slamming and throwing and hammering. The truth is though, like any other athlete or client, these guys should be screened and assessed and care taken to respect the state of their bodies.


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Look at the thoracic spine. This is a real important area because again, bad posture = good posture in MMA. Shoulder problems tend to stem from not enough movement in the thoracic spine, which will cause the scapula to move in a funky way, and then the shoulders to not move right either. It’s common to find wrecked shoulders and necks in MMA athletes, which will terminate their fighting prematurely if they continue to push through it. So again number one is getting a more ideal posture when NOT training; get the chest up, shoulders back and necks back in line with the spine, otherwise those shear forces are stressing the joints full-time.

Look for asymmetries in the hips. Their kicking leg will probably have more internal rotation, and their hips are probably rotated away from the side of their forward stance leg.  If they train super heavy in the gym with maximal squatting and deadlifting for example, they are loading up through the body unevenly with super high forces, which will eventually trash it.

MMA athletes are in back flexion all the time (their backs are rounded out), whether they are on top or on the bottom of their opponent.  Test athletes for any lower back problems such as disc bulges if they have pain.  There’s an argument amongst Strength Coaches and Trainers as whether to train lower back flexion for MMA athletes, such as crunches, sit-ups, hanging leg raises, standing cable crunches and rounded-back submaximal lifting (such as light deadlifts allowing the back to round). They definitely need strength in this position, so some Coaches believe you should train it. Others believe they already are in flexion full-time with their other technical training, so you should avoid it at all costs with extra strength training. I wrote a post on this topic that can be read here – Core On Crunches.

This list is inconclusive, but you’re probably getting a general idea of the sport-related issues that can develop with combat sport athletes.


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Pic: Courtesy of Mark Buckley, FMA Strength Training.


Firstly, get a professional to do a screening and assessment to look at what is going on with their body. They will probably need loads of soft tissue work on the upper back and releasing muscle tightness around the front of the chest, as well as corrective mobilisations and stretches. Drill good posture when not training and mix in corrective exercise drills in warm ups to get as much of the good stuff as possible. In the gym they will probably need heaps of strength work targeting the upper and lower back/glutes/hamstrings  and their Strength and Conditioning training will be similar to how you’d get any other athlete stronger with some alterations to make it specific to their sport, especially when looking at energy systems involved in a fight.

Aim to get athletes stronger from a point of good joint integrity or they won’t be fighting too long.

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