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MMA Explosive Strength Cardio Training

By Antonio Graceffo


From zero to 100 in seven days: The shelves of bookstores and video retailers are full of exercise programs such as 30 minute abs and Schwarzeneger body in 19 days. Obviously, most of these programs are scams, designed to make money. They play off of man’s instinctive laziness and impatience. We want results NOW. And we want them without investing the work first.

This article is not about a quick fix or a gimmick. Instead, I want talk about completely overhauling your training, and most importantly changing your perception of what strength and cardio training are.

Since age twelve I have lifted weights and boxed. To me, weight lifting meant going in the gym and doing a bodybuilding routine which lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and twenty minutes. I continued this program for over thirty years, believing this is how I needed to build strength for fighting. Cardio training for me had always been running long, slow distance, and doing pad work with my coaches.

This year, I decided to fight in my first MMA cage fight, to be held a few days after my 44th birthday. I made this decision only six weeks before the fight. I was ten kilos over-weight and hadn’t trained in over a year. The first two weeks of training, I tried to do what I had always done. I flew back to Thailand, and did a bodybuilder weight workout every day, followed by professional Muay Thai training. I didn’t worry about building cardio, because it always just occurs naturally from working the pads and working the bag.

After two weeks, I was moving slightly better, but my weight hadn’t dropped at all. Looking at the calendar, I realized I only had a month left. It didn’t seem possible that I would be in shape by fight day. So, that’s when I called in the professionals. I left Thailand and traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to be trained by Team Minetti, at K-1 Fight Factory.

From the moment the training started, I realized fighting sport had evolved to a new pinnacle of scientific evolution. So many of the things I had always believed in turned out not be true. First off, I would have thought that I needed heavy sparring. But the coaches warned that at my age and with only a month to go, I couldn’t afford to get injured. I thought I needed to run long slow distance. Once again, the coaches corrected me. I didn’t need distance, I needed sprints. And as for my bodybuilder workout, they threw that out the window and set me up with the Randy Couture weight-lifting program. They alternated days, sometimes doing circuit training, Couture, intensive squats, and shadow boxing with hand weights.

Shots of my Couture Weight Training program using a light barebell.

By constantly changing up the conditioning part of my training, they helped me to avoid muscle fatigue and injury. In fact, just because we weren’t doing any of the exercises I had been doing for 30 years, none of my old injuries flared up.

Much has been written about the Couture workout, and you can find videos by the man himself, Randy Couture, on youtube. Basically, the routine is composed of 8 exercises, done with a very light barbell. I do this routine with only 10 kgs of weight. In my case, each exercise is done for 8 reps. The whole routine is timed, and you don’t set the bar down until you are done with the whole routine. The exercises are done in this order: 1. standing row, 2. tricep lift, 3. chest press, 4. good morning, 5. split squat left leg, 6. split squat right leg, 7. squats (Randy does leaping squats. I do simple squats), and 8. lower back.

You should time yourself on each set. Rest one minute between sets, and then continue. One of the reasons for timing all of your exercises is because you are going into a fight which has rounds. In my case, the MMA fight in Malaysia is only a two minute round. So, psychologically, if I know that I can suffer through two hard minutes of training, pushing myself to complete exhaustion in a period of two minutes, then I know I can last through two minutes of fighting. From a physical standpoint, you need to develop explosive power, not static power. Being able to bench press 500 lbs is not as important as being able to bench press the weight of your opponent 30 times per minute for two minutes.

Grappling practice. Escaping an opponent's grasp can be exhausting. You need explosive power and stamina as well as technique.

This all became clear to me when we started the actual MMA grappling training. Having a 107 kg instructor sitting on my chest, punching me in the face was exhausting. The strength you need to extricate yourself from this position is explosive power. And it probably won’t work on the first or fifth escape attempt. So, you need the strength to escape, and escape, and escape again. I often found myself nearly escaping, but then running out of gas. At which point, the coach would just readjust his position, and I was back at square one. Only now, I was tired.

On day one of the Couture program it took me 2 minutes and 30 seconds to get through the routine. On day six, I did it in 50 seconds. On day one, I did four sets, and had to stop because I was about to vomit or pass out. On day six, I did 10.

Ten sets of Couture, with one minute break in between each set, only takes twenty minutes. Twenty minutes and I had pushed my body way beyond my hour and twenty minutes of bodybuilding workout. Unlike bodybuilding which only builds mirror muscles, the Couture program built strength, and cardio. More importantly, it built the specific strength and cardio I would need for an MMA fight.

Bicycle Sprint Training.  I started with a slow warm up. Then I alternated between 30 second sprints and a slower rate of peddling for a minute. As I built up stamina the sprints were extended while the relative slower cruse times were reduced. Workouts ended with periods of slower distance work.

The Couture days are alternated with sprint days. Because of my age and the potential risk of knee injuries, I do my sprints on a stationary bicycle, rather than on a track. The bike sessions started with a 15 minute warm up, long slow distance. Next, the sprints began. The coach was timing me and monitoring my cadence. When he shouted “Aller vite!” (The K-1 trainers are all French), I would have to bring the rpms up to 40 and keep them there for thirty seconds. At the end of the sprint, I would bring the rpms back down to 32, and cruise for one minute. Then we did the next sprint. This went on for 15 minutes. After the sprints, I would do 15 more minutes of long slow distance. By day seven, I was doing the sprints for one full minute with thirty seconds of rest in between.

Working the abdominal muscles hard just after bicycle sprint training
Sprint days were also ab days. So, after getting off the bike, I would stagger over to the incline sit-up board for 100 crunches. This was followed by 150 seated crunches. Once again, the whole workout took just under an hour.

These two routines were done on alternating mornings, as a base for my training. In the afternoon or evening, I would return to the gym for boxing and MMA training.

In the first week of training I lost 2kgs. But the weight-loss is not the most important goal. And this is a point that athletes need to remember. It’s not a bodybuilding contest. It’s not a beauty contest. It’s a fight. You don’t have to have a build like Rampage Jackson to win. You can be built like some of the better Russian fighters who are unmistakably big, strong, tough guys, but who don’t have an aesthetic looking physique. You are training for strength and cardio to carry you through an MMA fight. The proof that it is working is whether or not you can make it through your sparring sessions.

At the end of training I could hardly stand up.

For me, my sparring was always done at the end of a very long training day. By the time we started sparring I was already so tired I could barely stand. But then, the coaches would push me through rounds of boxing sparring and rounds of grappling. As much as I am a striker and not a grappler, I see the grappling as the true test of fitness. Do you have the strength, the will, the wind, the courage to keep trying, to keep fighting, although you are breathing heavy, and your heart feels like it will pop out of your chest?

The cardio and explosive strength will carry you through.

And we did all of this in just seven days of training. I still have about two and a half weeks till my fight. But I have confidence in my coaches and in the routine.

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About The Author:

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. Graceffo is a regular contributor to

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