Working Class Fitness: Why Are So Many Fighters Getting Hurt?

October 15, 2012
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Working Class Fitness LogoIt’s no secret that injuries are playing a bigger and bigger role in the sport of mixed martial arts. Event the UFC had to finally cancel an event after the injury bug took a bite.

The number of fighters getting hurt (and subsequently negatively affecting the cards these guys are due to fight on, including some shows being cancelled) has gone up by leaps and bounds.  This is especially true in recent months.

Thing is, we’re not talking about just a few lower-level or mid-card fighters. Or of a certain weight class. Or from a certain camp. Or fighters that specialize in a particular style.

Injuries seem to be at an all-time high, plaguing fighters from all over the map.

So that begs the question: why?

There are several different theories as to why injuries have caused so many problems in MMA.  These thoughts come from people of all walks of life, be it from fighters themselves, former fighters, trainers, MMA personalities, and, of course, the legions of keyboard warriors out there.  (UGers, I’m looking at you here.)

I don’t think any of them are all “right” or all “wrong.” I’m sure all of them are contributing to the situation in some fashion or another.

For instance, some feel that the fighter insurance is a main contributing factor and that fighters are bailing on fights more easily now because they simply have the option to, that they’re trying to preserve their career (especially knowing that all it can take is one or two losses or bad performances to get cut).

Along those same lines, some feel that we’re not really seeing anything new, and that fighters have always been sustaining this level of injury.  The difference is that now they’re not forced to fight hurt, and the MMA public is finally getting a glimpse of what a pro fighter’s training landscape is really like.

One former TUF contestant and UFC fighter told me that he felt in addition to the above, one of the reasons we’re seeing so many injuries is that fighters don’t have defined competitive seasons (unlike most other sports, particularly team sports).  As a result, a fighter’s off-season very well could be much shorter than he really needs to completely heal up his body from a prior fight and training camp.

Again, I think all of these ideas play a role.  However, I think there is something else going on here that many aren’t recognizing, and that’s the idea that many fighters aren’t doing their strength and conditioning (S&C) training correctly.  Or rather, not doing the right type of training at the right time.

Let’s look at the concept of having an off-season again, and dig into what that means for your S&C training.  And for a minute, let’s look at a more “standard” (for lack of a better term) sports example; one that has a defined competitive season.

At the time of the original publishing of this article, we’re just over a month deep into the American football season.  When discussing pro football (the NFL), the competitive season starts roughly at the beginning of September and lasts through the end of the year (depending on how far a team goes into the playoffs).  However, the beginning of September isn’t when the season starts for the players.

This is when the competitive season starts, as this is when games start.  The season actually starts back in mid-July, as this is when training camps open.  Players report to camp, go through twice daily practices, then preseason games, and so on.

It’s during this time (from mid-July through the end of the year) that an NFL player would be considered in-season. The rest of the time would be considered off-season.

This is a critical factor to take into consideration when discussing S&C training, as workouts vary massively from off-season to in-season.

During off-season workouts is when a player actually gets in better overall shape.  Add muscle.  Drop bodyfat.  Get stronger.  Develop speed.  Build work capacity.  In the waning weeks of the off-season, conditioning should be implemented.

In reality, an NFL player should be showing up to camp in as good of general shape (overall S&C) as they’ll be all season.  This should almost be their general physical peak.

Once in-season training takes over, the goals of S&C workouts dramatically change.  No longer should a player be trying to get stronger or develop speed.  That time is long past; this should have been done in the spring and early summer.  If you’re not strong and fast when you show up to training camp, then it’s too damn late; you missed the bus.

Instead, in-season workouts should focus on alternate goals: injury prevention, prehab for any existing conditions, help accelerate recovery, and that sort of thing.

At the same time, the strength, speed, capacity, etc. built during the off-season needs to be maintained during the season.  So it’s the goal of in-season workouts to mesh with all the sports skills work (practices, drills, games, etc.) and do just enough to maintain all that; nothing more.  If a player spends too much time during the season doing S&C work, he runs the risk of injury or overtraining.

This happens because he now has the most stress on his body.  He’s going through the most amount of work; the most amount of punishment.  In a physical game like football, the cumulative hits take their toll and the body gets banged up.  Injury can happen easier, simply because more is being asked of the body.  The same goes for physical overtraining.

Overtraining can also happen because of all the demands being placed upon the CNS (central nervous system) due to total amount of intense activity being done (everything mentioned thus far: practices, drills, games, workouts, the whole nine yards).

As a result, in-season and off-season workout programs for most sports take drastically different approaches.

Now let’s get back to fighting.

MMA is a different kind of sport in that it doesn’t have a defined competitive season.  A fighter can fight at any point during the year, multiple times per year.  At the same time, while other sports have competitive seasons that last months (in that games or competitions are done several times), a fighter’s competitive “season” is actually only one night.

So while an NFL player’s season might last from mid-July to the end of the year or later, a fighter’s season might only last 8-12 weeks prior to a fight and then fight night itself.

The issue we run into is that because fighters are always fighting on different schedules (meaning no fighter fights at the same times each year), he may not be as diligent during his off-season, and not dedicate himself to being in proper shape and condition between fights.

Why is this important?  Because (and this is just my opinion; I can’t say I have any hard data or studies to necessarily back this up) too many fighters are doing the wrong kind of workouts while they’re in training camp.

Remember what we said about football players? When they showed up to camp in mid-July, they’re now technically in-season as far as their workouts go.  All the hardcore S&C work should have been done during the off-season. In this case, the spring and early summer.

A fighter should be doing the same thing.  Workouts during camp should be taking on an in-season approach. The focus should be on injury prevention, rehab, maintenance, etc.  As camp progresses, S&C work should take more of a back seat to skills work, and intense skills work should be the main form of S&C maintenance.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that fighters are doing off-season S&C work while they’re technically in-season (i.e. in training camp).  Now they’re compounding the stress on their bodies, because not only are they ramping up the physical (and CNS) toll being taken on them from the skills work, pads, sparring, etc., but they’re also doing the hardcore S&C workouts.

At some point, it’s just going to end up being too much.

And given now that fighters are pushing themselves to be in better and better shape, and do more and more skills work, wouldn’t it be logical to consider that the coupling of the two can result in (or at least contribute to) a greater number of fighter injuries?

It’s not uncommon to hear about a fighter getting in-shape during camp.  This shouldn’t be happening.  The fighter should be showing up to camp in great shape.

We also hear about fighters peaking for their fight.  When it comes to general physical qualities (strength, speed, cardio, etc.), it could be argued they should actually come into camp at peak shape.  They then spend camp taking those physical qualities and adapting them to their MMA skills and abilities.

So a fighter shows up to camp stronger and faster in the weight room than he’s ever been.  He can squat more, jump over higher boxes, bench more, etc.  He then spends camp learning how to apply that strength and speed: making his shots faster, sprawls quicker, kicks harder, and learn to mesh great technique with better S&C.

Instead of getting into better cardio shape during camp, you should show up with great cardio.  Now, just learn how to apply it better: be able to roll for longer, hit the bag harder for longer, spar more effectively, manage fatigue better, and that sort of thing.

Again, this is just my opinion, and I in no way think that this is the only contributing factor to all the injuries we’re seeing in MMA now.  However, I feel if more fighters kept in better shape all year, and saved their super-intense S&C work for between fights only, the number of injuries we’re seeing is only going to go down.

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Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins designs MMA workouts for pro mixed martial artists, boxers, and kickboxers, the recreational fighter, as well as just the “regular guy” who wants to be in shape like their favorite fighter.  To find out how you can get into ultimate fighting shape, hit him up at or on Facebook at

(Physical exercise can sometimes lead to injury. and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or fitness advice. Please consult a physician before starting any exercise program, and never substitute the information on this site for any professional medical advice or treatment you may receive or the assistance of a fitness professional.)


    Totally on the money.

    • Matt Wiggins

      Thanks man!

  • PhranktheTank

    I’ve missed these working class fitness posts.

    • Thanks. Wiggy should be back pretty much on a weekly basis now. We’re super stoked to have him back as well.

      • Matt Wiggins

        Not nearly as stoked as I am to be back! Glad to be contributing again and can’t wait to help out MMA Weekly readers as much as I can!

        • PhranktheTank

          Glad to have you brother!

          • Matt Wiggins

            Thanks man!

  • This is exactly what I’ve been thinking for some time now – gyms’ fitness programs are terrible. Example: I went to check out a local “MMA gym” that focuses on regional fighters. Everybody, regardless of fitness level or skill does the same grueling conditioning workout followed by boxing and BJJ. On my first day and after 2 1/2 hours of training, as I got up from the mat to go get water and the 19-yr old instructor said: “get back here, I didn’t say you could get water”. This is the mentality in a lot of places; if you aren’t miserable throughout a training camp, you will lose your fight. Bad practice is rewarded with injury

    • Matt Wiggins

      What you’re describing isn’t just in the MMA world, unfortunately – it’s a characteristic pervading the fitness industry (esp many group classes and one particular fitness method I won’t mention publicly, but you can figure out on your own easily enough).

      Getting people up off the couch and working is great. Working hard is better. But when the main effect (whether it’s intentional or not) of a workout is to beat the hell out of the person doing it, then it’s just stupid.

      Surviving a workout or program shouldn’t be some badge of honor or whatever. I’ve learned and adopted the idea/mantra that I want my workouts to augment my life and the activities in it – I don’t want my life augmenting my workouts.

      Joe DeFranco once said (and I’m paraphrasing) that any trainer can beat the crap out of their clients. It takes a real coach to make them better.

    • Agreed. I’ve seen this from my own experiences as well. One that will forever stand out with me was going to a new gym and starting the warm-up and about 10 mins in they’re telling us to do handsprings across the floor… without any instruction on how to do it properly. LOL. I pretty much knew right away that wasn’t the place for me.

  • disqus_1vlWNfdPOM

    HGH and testosterone boosting aren’t factors? Right….

  • Milosc

    This, along with the recent Jon Fitch article make me think UFC should reconsider how they pay their fighters

    I feel they should be made term contracts, including appropriate clauses and incentives, with a determined downtime window that fighters can bank on to organize their health as this piece points out. The matchmaking algorithms would be a little more complicated, but I think the result will be a better product

    They made sure to maintain exclusivity and essentially have a League anyway, I think it’s time the way they operate like one has to grow up- along with their global expansion

  • Rich

    Asking a fighter to stay in fight shape in between fights is completely ludicrous. An average training camp ranges from 2-3 months. You can not expect a fighter to spend weeks getting into physical shape before fight camp, and then spend 3 months focusing on technique while maintaining peak physical condition. The fighter will peak early and not be as affective on fight night. Remember, a fighter’s season only lasts one night, the timing has to be perfect. The S&C training is part of the training camp. All you are doing in this article is making the S&C part of training not part of the camp, which doesn’t make much sense to me. .

    Although, I do agree that most injuries are due to improper training.

    • Matt Wiggins

      Actually, it’s not ludicrous – it’s their job.

      Nobody is saying they should be maintaining peak physical condition between fights, as that would be impossible. However, any general adaptations that need to be made (increases in strength, speed, endurance, work capacity, etc) should be made between fights – not during camp.

      Take a look at any professional athlete who takes his sport performance seriously – these adaptations are made during the off-season. Not whilst in-season. Then, during the season (i.e. – pre-competition) is when these general adaptations should be meshed with sport skills practice in order that they can be adapted specifically to the sport itself.

      Using your logic, an NFL football player wouldn’t do any working out until he gets to camp in July. A baseball player wouldn’t do any working out until he gets to Spring Training in April. And this isn’t the case – at least not for anyone who takes their sport seriously.

      • Rich

        It is there job to be in shape for the fight, not to be in shape before the fight camp begins. That is up to a fighter and their teams discretion.

        Any fighter who takes their job seriously will stay in general shape in between fights, but they are not in fight shape. You are suggesting a fighter be in fight shape before the training camp even begins, and that is what I am saying is completely unreasonable, and here is why: 1. There is only a window of opportunity for a fighter to reach maximum physical condition. Once that window closes, any extra training ends up becoming more harmful than good. 2. A training camp lasts on average from 2-3 months. If you do your hardest conditioning training first, and then mainly focus on technique/strategy for the next few months, you will lose your peak condition by the time the fight comes due to lack of S&C training. 3. Comparing how NFL players handle their S&C to MMA fighters is nonsensical because the sports time frames are completely different. Just because something works well with the NFL doesn’t mean it will work well with MMA.

        My logic has nothing to do with the NFL, or MLB so that point is meaningless.

        S&C is equally important as technique and strategy, they go hand in hand. And because an NFL and MLB player’s season last significantly longer than the one night for a fighter, an NFL/MLB player is not in the same peak condition as a fighter on fight night is throughout their season, it would be impossible.

        Either way, I think this issue is irrelevant when it comes to injury prevention.

  • Darragh Creamer

    Nice article Wiggy, right on the money IMO.