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

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.)