A Fighter’s Workout Part Three

Muscle Development

Written by Travis “the Gorilla” Thompson

Travis Thompson

Now we can dive into the topic of building muscles. As a grappler, kick boxer, or MMA athlete we want functional muscle strength. We do not want over-sized biceps limiting our range of motion. To do this we need cardio mixed into our anaerobic exercise routine. This is an example of metabolic conditioning or metcon for short. Consider metcon to be HIIT at its most difficult. The goal of metcon is to condition your heart. Conditioning your heart will allow yourself to continually pump fresh oxygen throughout your body and minimize your recovery time. Searching high and low with references I started to do the famous P90X, so let me explain its pros and cons.

For those unfamiliar with the workout “P90X”, it prides itself on the principle of muscle confusion and incorporates plyometric training as well as yoga into its workout. It also includes lots of bodyweight movements for legs, chest, back, arms and shoulders. I enjoyed P90X and my muscles gained significant endurance but I immediately noticed what it lacked. I finished the program but it lacked explosive, powerful exercises. I would catch people in submissions but not have the power to rip through their defensive grips. I began to write out my own program but then fell upon crossfit.com.

I had been told crossfit was intense and not to be taken lightly. Seeing it as a challenge and learning they post the workout for free on the internet, I began researching. Crossfit reviews are a love/hate relationship. The most common complaint on the internet is that crossfit builds too much muscle too fast. So I thought, “Sweet”. Then I heard that Crossfit can cause rhabdo (skeletal muscle tissue breaks down, enters the blood stream and can result in death). Nevertheless, I was excited.

Sample workouts include:

  • For 20 minutes continuously sprint a ¼ mile followed by a max rep of pull-ups. Repeat with minimal rest for 20 consecutive minutes.
  • 7 Max weight reps of power clean.
  • Fran- 21 95lbs. thrusters, 21 pull-ups, 15 95lbs. thrusters, 15 pull-ups, 9 95lbs. thrusters, 9 pull-ups.

We are seeing the mix of muscles being incorporated here. These workouts are done at max intensity with as little rest as possible. As I stated with Tabata style cardio earlier, you do not conserve your energy for the end. The above workout is done by the best in less than three minutes. Those workouts are all the strength training that is done for the day. The secret is true muscle confusion and diversity. You use your muscles in different ways everyday instead of the traditional exercises like bench press. All of these exercises, even the 7 power cleans use several muscles and force the practitioner to explode through the movement. In three months, I built a ridiculous amount of power that was noticeable to training partners when it came time to grapple. The only problem, muscle weighs more than fat. I weighed 195 pounds and needed to weigh 170 in exactly 30 days. I have already explained cardio here and how to cut weight in a previous article. Dropping the weight was no problem. However, in order to do so, I had to quit lifting completely and went on the diet I described. Thankfully, muscle is easy to maintain through light exercise. As soon as I started lifting my weight jumped back to the 190’s.

Travis Thompson

To maintain a more consistent weight so I can fight at 170 without having to lose a crazy amount of weight right before the fight, I have come across another workout. From what I was told, this is the program a trainer prescribed for Tito Ortiz and other fighters. It is a fair mix of sprints and weight training. The goal is to tire out your muscles and then run, forcing you to fight through the lactic acid that has built up. By the end of the second round, you should be getting close to exhausted and the third round is brutal. The program is three days a week and is three rounds long. It takes about 45 minutes which is perfect because testosterone levels drop at roughly 60 minutes of anaerobic training. The workout is as follows: 2 exercises for each major muscle group being in the order I prefer, Chest-Back-Legs (1 quad, 1 hamstring per round)-Shoulders-Arms (1 bicep, 1 triceps per round) followed immediately by a 3-5 minute sprint. Resting one minute between rounds. I was told to do the legs first, however I have found that putting them in the middle of the upper body lifts allows me to sustain higher reps on the upper body exercises. This sport is heavily based on your body, your opponent’s body, and body control. I try to do as much body weight exercises as possible but am not ignorant to benefits of other exercises. I aim for high reps and less weight, although reversing them is by no means wrong. We want muscle endurance over a high single rep output, as mentioned before. I also try not to do the same exercises in any of the rounds so essentially I do 6 different exercises for each muscle group. Variations are very good as is substituting. Variations being round 1, doing regular push-ups, round 2 wide-grip push-ups, round 3 diamond push-ups. Here are samples for each muscle group.

Note: I prefer dumbbells and resistance bands over barbells to isolate muscles. Again mixing those up is never discouraged. I suggest using a weight so that you can do 15-20 reps on each exercise. Push-ups (variations included) can always be done in much higher numbers and pull-ups should be done to failure (as many as possible).

  • Chest: Traditional push-ups, wide push-ups, narrow push-ups, plange push-ups, bench press, bench press alternating arms, butterflies, dumbbell incline, and dumbbell decline.
  • Back: Pull-ups, wide pull-ups, narrow pull-ups, chin-ups, narrow rows, wide rows, supermans, cobras, back extensions, hip extensions, and lat pull-downs.
  • Legs: Leg extensions, leg curls, box jumps, lunges, squats, jumping squats, pistol squats(difficult, see photo below), sieber squats, leg press, straight-leg deadlift.
  • Shoulder: Handstand push-ups, pike press, lateral raises (alternating front and side), vertical raises, hang cleans, power cleans, military press, clean and press, up and outs (raise weight as in vertical raise to chin level then push outwards like a bench press and reverse movement).
  • Arms: Traditional curls, hammer curls, preacher curls, 21’s, chin-ups, tricep push-downs, side-tricep rises (my favorite), narrow push-ups, skull crushers.

Again variation is key and substitute when necessary. Below is a table of Monday-Sunday. I have also seen great benefits as well from doing yoga and recommend Sundays to doing yoga or prolonged stretching. Go out and buy a 30-40 minute long DVD on stretching, if possible power yoga. There are several that come with 5-6 different 20 minute yoga workouts. Put your video in and once a week do one or two different yoga workouts. I always promote tailoring and using different variations every week to keep from boredom. Using your muscles in differing ways promotes the most growth. Feel free to change the order of any of the exercises on the prescribed Monday, Wednesday, Friday. For example doing back-shoulders-legs-chest-arms is ok. However, do not do 2 sets of 1 for each exercise. What I mean is not to do this: 1 chest-1 back-1 leg-etc. and then do the second set of each. Do both exercises for each muscle group back to back before going onto the next muscle group.

Many are going to quickly notice that I have not once mentioned abs. Everything you do following this workout and MMA related training is going to engage your core one way or another. Muay Thai kicks rotate and engage the core, grappling builds strong stomach muscles, push-ups, pull-ups, etc. all engage your core. The most common mistake is people over work their abs for results. Bodybuilders do not work their arms seven days a week and abs should not be done every day either. Some will insist on doing abs, keep it limited to 3 times a week, and with a day of rest in between, your abs need rest like any other muscle group. I do not do ab workouts very often. If ab exercises are something you are committed to then make sure you are equally working your obliques, lower back, upper abs, lower abs, and inner abs. People often think a six-pack is achieved by doing extensive ab exercises however that is wrong. Every person on the planet has a six-pack; most are just covered in a layer of fat which means you need to diet. Ab exercises will not get rid of the fat hiding them nor burn extra fat in that region. One of the biggest exercise myths is the belief that doing sit-ups will compensate for having eaten a poor meal. Fast food followed by 50 sit-ups will only make the stomach region bigger as its building both muscle and fat in that region. Fat and muscle are different tissue and cannot be converted from one to the other.

Don’t forget that what you do after your workout is as important if not more important than the workout itself. A workout at moderate intensity followed by proper nutrition will net better gains than an intense workout completed by a run through the McDonald’s drive-thru. Windows close fast. Immediately following a workout, your depleted muscles are going to absorb anything and everything they are given. You want to give them protein (protein shakes or protein-rich foods). Protein is the basic building block of life and the core of what muscles are made of. The most important windows for eating to my knowledge are as follows: within 30 minutes of completing a workout, 90 minutes after a workout and three hours after your workout. Essentially, these are the worst times to cheat. However, your reps and strength can go up on a horrible diet, it just won’t show so much physically.

Below is a rough weekly guide following my suggested program. Remember Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is for three rounds.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
2 Chest Tabata 2 Chest Tabata 2 Chest Tabata Yoga
2 Back   2 Back   2 Back   Or
2 Legs   2 Legs   2 Legs   Stretching
2 Shoulders   2 Shoulders   2 Shoulders   30-45 mins.
2 Arms   2 Arms   2 Arms    
Sprint   Sprint   Sprint