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The Mixed Martial Arts Athlete: A Physiological Profile

Impact Factor: 0.77 DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182389f00






Seth Lenetsky

Nigel Kent Harris

Auckland University of Technology

Auckland University of Technology





Available from: Seth Lenetsky

Retrieved on: 22 June 2015

The Mixed Martial Arts

Athlete: A Physiological
Seth Lenetsky and Nigel Harris, PhD
Sport Performance Research Institute New Zealand, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand



ixed martial arts (MMA) is

a combat sport that has
gained much popularity in
recent years (11). Although rule sets
vary, currently the dominant sport seen
worldwide came into existence in April
2001, when the American state of New
Jersey created the Unified Rules for
NAC/NAC-467.html). It is important
to recognize that although MMA in its
current form is a new sport, combat
using similar elements has been practiced and competed in since (at the
very least) the classical period of
ancient Greece (32). MMAs key characteristic as a combat sport is the
freedom given to the competitors to

fight in almost any way they see fit.

Initially, this freedom in the current
form of MMA attracted a variety of
athletes skilled in single disciplines of
combat, using their specific styles
against others using different styles
(9,22). As the sport has matured,
a specific and discernible combat sport
has emerged, taking aspects from other
combat sports and blending them into
a unique multielement combat sport.
But, despite its growing popularity,
MMA appears to have generated little
scientific research.
Specifically lacking is an exploration of
the possibly unique physiological profile of MMA athletes. This review will
attempt to provide insight into such
a physiological profile by examining
current peer-reviewed research in
MMA and breaking the sport into
easily categorized parts and analyzing
sports that use similar components of
fitness. It is hoped that such information will provide some underpinning
for evidence-based assessment and
conditioning practices.

SportDiscus, Google Scholar, Pro

Quest, and Medline databases were
searched with the keywords and
phrases: Martial Arts, Mixed Martial
Arts, MMA, No Holds Barred, UFC,
and Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Of the limited studies found, the
majority were associated with 1 of 2
general foci. The first is the sociological and psychological research and

Copyright National Strength and Conditioning Association

commentary on the violence of MMA.

The articles cover a wide spectrum
that includes outright condemnation
of the sport (16,55), to more impartial
commentaries (22,51), and even articles that can be seen to take
a celebratory view of the sport (26).
The second major focus of the MMA
research found was on the injuries
related to competition in the sport.
These articles either trended toward
longitudinal studies on injury rates
(7,14,42) or looked at MMA-specific
movements and techniques for the
potential to injury (6,24,37).
Only 6 peer-reviewed works were
found that examined MMA from the
perspective of performance-related exercise science. The most recent peerreviewed article on MMA was from
Bounty et al (11) published in the
Strength and Conditioning Journal. Titled
Strength and Conditioning Considerations for Mixed Martial Arts, the
article aimed to provide training recommendations for strength and conditioning coaches of MMA athletes.
The authors developed these recommendations by examining some of the
current research into MMA, specifically the work of Amtmann examined
later in this article, and current studies
into other combat sports.
Amtmann et al (4) provided an analysis
of the current understanding of the


combat sports; grappling; Ultimate

Fighting Championship; reality fighting

Strength and Conditioning Journal |

Physiological Profile of MMA Athletes

bioenergetics systems in MMA through research on blood lactate response

to MMA training and fighting, as well
as other research into various combat
sports. This analysis produced general
recommendations by the authors to
use high-intensity intervals for training
of MMA athletes based around either
the fitness of the athlete or the
specificity of MMA rounds and rest
periods. Not included in the considerations for bioenergetic training is any
recommendation for aerobic training, a
necessary, if perhaps, secondary system
to the anaerobic systems in MMA.
Other considerations for MMA discussed within Bounty et al (11) are the
importance of cervical spine stability,
as addressed specifically in both MMA
literature and research into other
combat sports, specifically wrestling
and a need for isometric strength in the
various holds found in MMA. Additionally, the article provides recommendations for strength, power, speed,
and recovery for MMA athletes. These
sections of the article provide guidance
using appropriate data from current
strength and conditioning research. A
limitation in this guidance is that the
sources used only one article that has
any connection to combat sports.
Although the other references in these
sections are valid and the general
physiology does not change drastically
between the rugby players in the cited
study by Kilduff et al (36) and an MMA
athlete, with so little specific information on any combat sports, specific
research into the demands and best
practice of training an MMA athlete is
needed before these training recommendations can be considered sport
Another recent conference poster on
MMA was published in Medicine &
Science in Sport & Exercise (28). A
physiological profile of 8 MMA fighters
of undisclosed experience was examined. The authors looked to compare
the profile of MMA fighters to that of
elite judo, kung fu, and wrestling
athletes. The poster did not include
information about where the data on
the other athletes was gathered from


and only contained data about the

sports in relation to MMA. Included
in the poster was some of the methodology used and results found for the
MMA athletes. The athletes were tested
for body composition, mean total body
fat (13.29 6 4.22%), vertical jump height
(58.42 6 5.84 cm), flexibility (29.91 6
9.04 cm), grip strength (91.5 6 6.51 kg),
V_ O2max (53.44 6 5.77 mL/kg/min),
and 1repetition maximum (RM) squat
and bench press, relative strength for
squat (1.45 6 0.2%) and bench press
(1.25 6 0.14%). It is important to note
that no protocols were included for any
of the above tests. Results of the study
found that MMA fighters were the most
physiologically similar to judo players
and least similar to kung fu athletes.
This work appears to provide valuable
insights into the physiological profile of
MMA athletes even with its limitations.
Also published in 2010 was a pilot study
comparing the physiological profiles
of MMA athletes with those of a group
of traditional martial artists practicing
karate. The study by Braswell et al (13)
examined 6 professional and amateur
MMA fighters for their body composition via bioelectrical impedance, flexibility with the sit and reach test, leg
power by vertical jump, muscular
endurance testing 1-minute push-up
and sit-up repetitions (reps), grip
strength with 1-kg plate hold, upperbody muscular strength via 1-repetition
bench press, and V_ O2max. The results of
the study found that except for a leaner
body composition and a trend of greater
aerobic fitness in MMA fighters, the
profile of the martial artists was similar.
Unfortunately, in its published form, the
study produced only an abstract. As
a published abstract, no results of the
tests performed on the athletes were
listed, and although the conclusions of
the study were covered in the publication, for the purpose of this review, the
information available does not appear to
provide sufficiently detailed insight into
the physiological profile of the MMA
The other 3 articles found were all
written in part by the same author,
Amtmann. Amtmanns first study, Self-

reported training methods of mixed

martial artists at a regional reality
fighting event (3), examined 28 athletes
using a survey at a regional event in
Montana. Amtmann was a competitor
in the event and knew the majority of
the fighters coaching staff personally.
This was cited as a strength of the study,
increasing the trust of the subjects and
a possible reason for the 100% completion rate of the survey. The survey was
given to the majority of the fighters
immediately after the rules meeting,
before their bouts. Four fighters did
complete their surveys via mail, as they
did not attend the rules meeting.
The results showed a wide variety of
resistance training protocols and
MMA training plans, including several
athletes who did not participate in
resistance training at all and others
who participated in resistance training
7 times a week. Competitors were
likewise found to have a wide variance
in MMA-based training, running from
3 sessions per week to a maximum of
12 sessions per week. Half of the
athletes surveyed did not report
neck-specific exercises. Amtmann contends that this is an issue and cites
studies claiming that neck exercises are
important to reduce injury. Additionally, 5 of the fighters reported that they
had used or were using anabolic
steroids; this fact combined with the
lack of neck exercises identifies not
only performance-affecting issues in
the potential training styles in MMA
but also a serious lack of safety
knowledge. Although the sample size
for this study was small, it could be
contented that it does serve as an
appropriate representation of the wide
variety of training currently used by
MMA athletes. This variety could in
part be due to a lack of definitive
research on the physiological demands
of the sport.
The second study by Amtmann et al (4)
focused on the rate of perceived
exertion (RPE) on Borgs category
scale and blood lactate levels in
response to training and competition
in MMA. The research attempted to
develop a training protocol that would

produce a similar lactate and RPE

response to that found in athletes
competing in MMA. Four athletes were
initially tested using interval training
mimicking MMA-specific actions,
two 4-minute sparring sessions, and
cycling sessions based off of the Tabata
cycle ergometer protocol (53). After
the interval training sessions, a total of
6 subjects (2 additional athletes were
added to the initial 4 test subjects) were
tested for lactate and RPE after competition in a national-level MMA
bout. Consideration must be taken at
the mention of a national-level event in
the research, as the fragmented nature
of competitive MMA can result in
entry-level amateur competition comprised of many first-time competitors.
The majority of the fighters tested were
first-time fighters and amateurs, yet
fought at a national event. This could
indicate that the true fitness and skill of
the fighters tested may not be reflective
of that seen in the upper echelons of the
sport. Results of the study showed that
lactate and RPE produced in training
(8.19.7 mmoL and 1519, respectively)
were similar to those found after
competition (10.220.7 mmoL and
1319, respectively). Any variation seen
in the postbout lactate testing can be in
part explained by the diversity in bout
stoppage times, with some fights completing regulation time and others
ending quickly in the opening rounds.
Perhaps as important as the ending
times of the bouts, the fighters assorted
ages, from 21 to 41 years, and training
age, undisclosed in the study, could also
account for the range of lactate levels
found. The limitations of the research
are obvious: only 4 total subjects in both
the training and the postbout testing,
the variety in bout ending times and
outcomes, and age issues. Despite the
limitations, as one of the only true
works of research into the physiological
demands of MMA and the physiological profile of MMA athletes, it could be
contended that this article provides key
insights for those involved with the
conditioning of MMA competitors.
The final article written by Amtmann
and Berry (2) was a guide for strength

and conditioners of MMA athletes very

similar to that of Bounty et al (11). The
foci of the article were metabolic
conditioning and strength training for
injury prevention. When examining
injury prevention, Amtmann and Berry
point to the anterior dominant nature of
the upper body when engaged in
MMA. They suggest that the recommendation found in Essentials of Strength
Training and Conditioning (57) should be
followed for exercise prescription with
a ratio of 2 movements for shoulder
flexion for every 3 movements of
shoulder extension prescribed, the goal
being to prevent muscle imbalances that
can predispose athletes to injury.
Amtmann and Berry also strongly
suggest that trainers integrate a strength
training program for the neck to protect
against cervical injuries that appear to
be a risk in MMA bouts (37).
When prescribing training protocols,
Amtmann and Berry attempt to take
into account both the unique bout
lengths, multiple 5-minute rounds
found in MMAs Unified Rules
( and the often short preparation time that has become synonymous
with MMA. A 10-minute sportspecific circuit was designed to mimic
the demands found in a MMA bout.
The circuit focused on body weight
resistance movements, such as free
squats and pull-ups, as well as skillrelated drills, such as shadow boxing.
Issues can be raised with the recommendations made in the circuit and
the term sport specific. The majority
of exercises and drills found in the
prescribed circuit were not power or
speed-strength movements that are
likely to be found in MMA bouts.
Although the article does make mention of the importance of training for
power, with Olympic-style lifts specifically suggested, there are no comments on any type of training for the
repeated applications of power over
extended periods, the training component known as power endurance. It
may be conjectured that, of all the
facets of training, power endurance
may be the most important for

a MMA fighter. Unfortunately, at this

junction, any arguments for or against
any general scientifically accepted
training method is simply conjecture,
given the paucity of research in this

Because of the lack of research into the

physiological demands of MMA, if
a strength and conditioning coach is
to train with any scientific basis for the
MMA athlete, one must look into the
component sports for direction. One
aspect of MMA that differentiates it
from other sports is that, in each bout,
competitors can, and frequently do,
mix major aspects of other wellestablished combat sports, explaining
the term mixed in mixed martial arts.
For this review, they will be subsequently referred to as the component
sports of MMA.
The component sports can best be
grouped into 3 ranges of combat:
standing strikes, clinch, and grappling.
It is important to acknowledge that
within the framework of the 3 ranges of
combat, there is no set order or
finishing point. A bouts begins standing
but may go to the ground via strikes or
the clinch, and then move dynamically
between standing, clinching and grappling. It is also important to note that
a bout can reach its ending in any range
with strikes and submission holds
applicable at almost all times (29).
Standing strikes, the range of combat in
which the bout begins, is composed of
punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. This
range is commonly seen in the Olympic
sports of boxing and taekwondo (TKD)
and the popular martial arts of Thai
boxing and kickboxing. There are no
rules currently requiring the fighters
from ever leaving this range, and many
fights have had their entire duration in
the standing striking range. If strategically viable for a fighter and within their
ability, the striking range can transition
into the clinch range via various
techniques for closing distance between
the fighters and grabbing the opponent.
The clinch can best be described as
a standing grappling range of combat

Strength and Conditioning Journal |

Physiological Profile of MMA Athletes

where competitors are in close contact

while attempting body control of the
opposing fighter and engaging in short
strikes, such as punches, elbows, and
knees. If a fighter chooses and is able,
the fight can be brought to the ground
via trips, throws, or takedowns. The
most common striking style used in the
clinch is Thai boxing, which uses
powerful elbow and knee strikes from
within the clinch (44). Boxing style
techniques are used in the clinch
as well although commonly termed
dirty boxing because of the fact that
current Olympic and professional boxing regulation forbids holding and
striking in the clinch in both amateur
( and professional bouts (
Trips, throws, and takedowns used in
the MMA clinch come primarily from
the Olympic combat sports of judo and
freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.
The techniques in the MMA clinch do
vary from the clinch found in other
combat sports because of the changes
in athletic apparel, such as the lack of
the Gi, which is required as per the
rules of the International Judo Federation (,
which plays a major role in judo and
the obvious addition of strikes.
If a fight reaches the ground, the third
range of combat, grappling, begins.
When grappling, the competitors
engage in holds, pins, and other
controlling measures. Simultaneously,
in Unified Rules bouts, the athletes are
allowed to punch and elbow each
other to the head and body as well as
knee and kick to the body. These
added striking aspects allow grappling
in MMA to vary widely from grappling
in its related component sports, much
more than that seen in striking and the
clinch. Despite the divergence from the
original combat sports, MMA grappling still draws heavily from the
Olympic sports of freestyle and
Greco-Roman wrestling and to a lesser
extent current Olympic judo. Other
stylistic influences come heavily from
Brazilian jiu jitsu, as well as the Russian
art of sambo, submission wrestling,
traditional judo, and the protoforms of


wrestling known as Catch as

Catch Can wrestling. The difference
between traditional and Olympic judo
occurring in international rules focused
on less time on the ground and more
on high-amplitude throws (17).
By breaking down MMA into 3
distinct but interchangeable ranges of
combat and then breaking those ranges
into the component sports, we are now
able to search a far greater library of
information for insights into the physiological profile of the MMA athlete.
Although not the perfect answer for
questions regarding the optimum profile, current academic research into the
component sports will serve to inform
the analyses and conclusions found in
this review.

Greco-Roman wrestling. Wrestling is

perhaps the oldest combat sport
known to man. Evidence found in an
Egyptian tomb shows the existence of
the sport at the very least as far back as
2300 BCE (18). In its modern form,
wrestling is represented in the international sporting arena by 2 similar, but
distinct, sports, Greco-Roman and
freestyle wrestling. Comparative physiological testing between the 2 sports
has found that although similar in
many aspects, there are significant
differences (5,27,60). Because of these
differences, this review will examine
the physiological profile of athletes for
each sport separately and compare and
contrast them.
When examining the research on
Greco-Roman wrestling, variances, as
expected, were found in the testing
batteries performed by the various
researchers. The greatest difference
was found in the tests used by the
Eastern European researchers when
compared with others from around
the world. Baic et al (5) included
gymnastic movement tests, such as
a maximal jump with turn for degrees
of rotation, 808.39 6 137.94 for GrecoRoman wrestlers, and backward handsprings, 2.99 6 0.61 handsprings.

Gierczuk (27) investigated gymnastic

movements, passes on a balance beam,
as well as rhythmic cycling, skipping
tests, reaction tests, and grabbing a dropped Ditrich stick, forgoing tests found in
the other articles. Comparatively,
Rahmani-Nia et al (45) and studies
explored by Yoon (60) choose to forgo
gymnastic tests, instead focusing on
characteristics such as maximal strength, muscular endurance, V_ O2max, and
body composition. Yoons investigations also included testing for quickness
and reaction time of the athletes. The
articles reviewed produce the following
comparative physiological chart of
Greco-Roman wrestlers viewed below
in Table 1.
With only body fat percentage tests
being common among the 3 reviewed
Greco-Roman wrestling studies, it is
difficult to establish a profile of the
sport. When viewed with the other
grappling sports, the data found on
Greco-Roman wrestling does serve to
establish a greater profile.
Freestyle wrestling. In many ways,
freestyle wrestling can be considered
the more dynamic of the 2 wrestling
sports. Results from Gierczuk (27)
indicate that the freestyle wrestlers have
greater dynamic balance when compared with Greco-Roman wrestlers,
performing a greater number of passes
on a balance beam than that performed
by the Greco-Roman wrestlers. Additionally, a study by Baic et al (5) showed
greater muscular endurance in the
upper body of freestyle wrestlers than
their Greco-Roman counterparts. This
may be of importance in the context of
MMA because the dynamic nature of
MMA may require the athletes to have
a physiologic profile more representing
a freestyle wrestler than a Greco-Roman
There is also a variant of freestyle
wrestling known as collegiate wrestling
or in some regional areas as scholastic
or folkstyle wrestling. Collegiate wrestling is currently practiced in North
America, particularly the United States.
As the name implies, collegiate wrestling is primarily performed by school-

Brozek et al (1963).

*Near-infrared interactance instrument (Futrex 6100/XL).

Age = years old; anaerobic test = watts per kilogram of body mass; body fat = percentage of total body mass; lower-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; mean body mass =
kilograms of body mass; pull-ups = repetitions performed; training experience = years of reported training; upper-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; vertical jump =
centimeters jumped vertically; V_ O2max = milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute, 30 seconds.

50.0 6 4.7
10.8 6 4.1
Male 77.4 6 19.5 19.7 6 0.8
et al (45)
(n = 71)

7.0 6 0.6
W/kg (30-s
arm crank)
16.3 6 4.4* 11.1 6 4.2
Male 84.4 6 13.2 24.5 6 3.9
et al (31)
(n = 11)

6.84 6 1.72
Baic et al
Male 74.7 6 14.8 18.3 6 0.91
(5) (n = 61)

Age (y)

31.4 6 11.0

53.9 6 5.6
111.7 6 21.5 kg 92.6 6 18.7 14.8 6 8.8
kg (bench

V_ O2max
jump (cm) (mL/kg/min)
experience (y)
fat (%)

Table 1

Physiological characteristics of Greco-Roman wrestlers

aged athletes. The physiological profile

of collegiate wrestling has been found
to be similar to that of freestyle
wrestlers. There exists substantial anecdotal evidence of collegiate wrestlers
transitioning to freestyle with great
success, as well as a general consensus
found in the literature reviewed that
the physiological demands of both
sports are similar (35,39,60). In this
review, testing data from both freestyle
and collegiate athletes will be considered together in a single category and
can be viewed in Table 2.
The profile of freestyle wrestlers that
the data found establishes one of low
body fat and strong strength levels that
trend toward greater upper-body than
lower-body strength. There is no
consensus among the data concerning
energy systems as both anaerobic and
aerobic tests show variation. There is
also variation in the total number of
pull-ups performed but the high numbers found do point to a high level of
relative strength to body weight. In the
grappling results section, freestyle
wrestlers are viewed in the greater
context of the grappling and clinch
Judo. Judo is a combat sport originating
from Japan created by Kano in 1882
(33). Drawing on the traditional martial
arts of Japan, Kano created a competitive
sport that has been part of the Olympic
games since 1964 (33). Additionally,
with such innovations as the colored
belt ranking system developed by Kano
(17) now ubiquitous across martial arts
and combat sports, judos impact on
MMA cannot be overstated.
One point of difference that immediately stands out from the research
found regarding judo is the focus on
testing members of both genders. This
can in part be explained by judos long
history of female involvement at elite
levels and the inclusion of womens
judo as an Olympic sport since the
1992 Barcelona games (46). This differs
greatly from the majority of combat
sports, where female involvement at an
international level has been a more
recent occurrence (46). This is

Strength and Conditioning Journal |


Sex (n)


Age (y)

fat (%)



et al (40)

77.5 6 19.8 19.8 6 0.9 10.6 6 3.8*
(n = 70)

et al (36)

75.5 6 13.3 22.7 6 3.3 13.5 6 3.3 10.8 6 3.6 660 6 133 W
(n = 10)
cycle test)





31.6 6 9.7

455.0 6
87.6 W
cycle test)

V_ O2max

50.5 6 4.7

516 6 108 W
arm crank)
61.7 6 7
(n = 12)

21.1 6 2.8 23.7 6 3.2

7.4 6 3.4 420 6 87 W

cycle test)
284 6 51 W
arm crank)

Baic et al (5)

74.5 6 14
(n = 46)

et al (39)

(n = 8)

et al (72)

(n = 8)

(n = 8)

78 6 4.2

18.4 6 1.1

20 6 0.4

73.2 6 17.7 17.3 6 0.9

55 6 6.5

6.3 6 2

107.6 6 23.2 117.4 6 30.1 22.1 6 8.2 57.4 6 7.6

kg (squat)
kg (bench
105 6 19
129 6 19
kg (squat)
kg (bench

9.7 6 6.3

8.6 6 1.4 458.2 6

91.6 W
cycle test)

16.2 6 1.1 18.5 6 2.8

4.1 6 2.2 279.9 6

47.8 W
cycle test)

45 6 4

(continued on next page)

Physiological Profile of MMA Athletes

Table 2
Physiological characteristics of freestyle wrestlers

Bioelectrical body impedance analysis (Tanita TBF300, Japan).

*Brozek et al.

Near-infrared interactance instrument (Futrex 6100/XL).

Yoon and Jun
(n = 21)
(1990), as cited
by Yoon (60)

Horswill et al
(n = 12)
(1989), as cited
by Yoon (60)

Age = years old; anaerobic test = mean watts; body fat = percentage of total body mass; lower-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; mean body mass = kilograms of body
mass; pull-ups = repetitions performed; training experience = years of reported training; upper-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; vertical jump = centimeters jumped
vertically; V_ O2max = milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute, 30 seconds.

60.24 6 5.1

51.5 6 1.4

Table 2
(continued )

especially true of MMA, where women

have only begun major participation in
the last decade. Table 3 displays the
found physiological information on
judo athletes.
Judo athletes showed similar strength
trends to freestyle wrestlers when
performing the Portico hack machine
and bench press but trend the opposite
displaying greater lower-body strength
when tested on the leg press. Because of
this fact, it is difficult to state categorically that judo athletes have greater
upper-body strength than lower-body
strength. A trend that does appear is the
relatively high V_ O2max levels found
across the studies reviewed. This trend
will be compared below with the other
component sports.

Analysis of the results from the grappling and clinch component sports
show several domains of similarity
across the sports. The greatest similarities lie in the lower-body strength and
power of the athletes. Vertical jump
testing by Baic et al (5) of Freestyle and
Greco-Roman wrestlers and Sertic et al
(50) testing of judo competitors
showed differences of scores that fell
within each others standard deviations. Jumps of 53.99 6 5.63 cm were
recorded for Greco-Roman wrestlers,
57.41 6 7.68 cm for freestyle wrestlers,
and 58.3 6 5.4 cm for judo competitors. Both studies excluded the protocols of the jumps performed. A
contrast in the research found in the
grappling component sports was the
study by McGuigan et al (39) on
collegiate wrestlers, which found
a mean jump height of 45 6 4 cm,
following the Bosco jump protocol. A
potential explanation for this difference
in scores may be due to the fact that
the wrestlers tested by McGuigan et al
(39) were in the NCAA Division III,
a lower division in American collegiate
athletics, whereas the athletes in the
other studies were members of the
Polish National Team (5) and elite
Croatian judo fighters (50). Other
reasons for the variance in results could
be due to a lower level of demands for

Strength and Conditioning Journal |




Age (y)

fat (%)

experience (y)



Pull- Vertical
V_ O2max
ups jump (cm) (mL/kg/min)

Franchini et al (28)

81.6 6 18.7 22.8 6 3.4
(n = 34)

5.7 6
0.7 W/kg
arm crank)


70.4 6 14.7 19.2 6 4.5
(n = 56)

7.6 6
0.9 W/kg
arm crank)

Franchini et al (25)
90.6 6 23.8 25.6 6 4.0 11.4 6 8.4*

110 6
104 6 27 kg
25 kg
(Portico hack

48.3 6 8.1
et al

110 6
104 6 18 kg
23 kg
(Portico hack

49.6 6 5.5
et al

Test group A

(n = 7)

Test group
B and C

86.5 6 16.3 25.5 6 4.6 10.1 6 5.7*
(n = 15)

et al (50)

(n = 6)

20.7 6 3.2 12 6 1.2

58.3 6 5.4 58.7 6 2.6

(n = 8)

18.1 6 3.8 16.6 6 4.3

40.8 6 4.3 47.7 6 5.3


et al (52)

82.8 6 16.3 22.8 6 3.9 13.7 6 3.37
(n = 15)

724.5 6
147.16 W
cycle test)

et al (49)

(n = 6)

396.7 6 8.2
557.5 6
kg (Leg
85.9 W
cycle test)

109 6 29.3 26 6 3.8

50.1 6 6.4

160.0 6
29.8 kg

47.3 6 10.9

(continued on next page)

Physiological Profile of MMA Athletes

Table 3
Physiological characteristics of judo athletes

{Bioelectrical impedance (device not included).

Slaughter (1988).

Two athletes abstained.

Four athletes abstained.

63.8 6 10.5 17.8 6 3.0 19.5 6 1.8{

(n = 4)

*Jackson and Pollock (1978).

63.8 6 10.5 19.1 6 5.4 12.9 6 5.8{

Pocecco and
Burtscher (56)
(n = 6)

Age = years old; anaerobic test = mean watts or watts per kilogram of body mass; body fat = percentage of total body mass; lower-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted;
mean body mass = kilograms of body mass; pull-ups = repetitions performed; training experience = years of reported training; upper-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted;
vertical jump = centimeters jumped vertically; V_ O2max = milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute, 30 seconds.

29.5 6 0.94
44 6 7.2

30 6 3.5
50.2 6 6.4

52.9 6 4.4
73.8 6
13.1 kg
305 6 19.1
285 6
kg (leg
10.9 W
cycle test)
63.8 6 10.5 28.1 6 0.8
(n = 5)

Table 3
(continued )

lower-body power in collegiate wrestling in general or it could be a miscalculation due to the possible variety
of testing methods. In the context of
MMA, it could be contended that the
differences in McGuigan et al (39) are
similar enough to the other studies in
the review that when viewed as a whole
provide insights into the lower-body
power of grapplers. Likewise, lowerbody maximal strength appears similar
between the sports in the studies. Of
those choosing to test lower-body
strength with a maximal squat, Baic
et al (5) found Greco-Roman wrestlers
to have a slightly stronger squat than
freestyle wrestlers, with reported
squats of 111.71 6 21.58 kg and
107.68 6 23.27 kg, respectively, at
mean body weights of 74.7 6 14.8 kg
and 74.5 6 14 kg. McGuigan et al (39)
found similar squat results in collegiate
wrestlers with 105 6 19 kg reported at
a similar weight (78 6 4.2 kg), whereas
in judo, a squatting-like movement on
the Portico hack machine provided
similar indicators of lower-body
strength with 104 6 27 kg reported
but at a much higher mean body
weight of 90.6 6 23.8 kg (25).
The greatest variation between the
grappling and clinch component sports
appeared in the upper-body maximal
strength measurements. Greco-Roman
wrestlers were found to have a bench
press of 92.66 6 18.71 kg (5), where in
the same study, freestyle wrestlers had
a bench press of 117.44 6 230.15 kg,
and in the study by McGuigan et al
(39), a mean total of 129 19 kg was
observed for freestyle wrestlers bench
press, all performed by athletes of
similar weight. In the study that
documented the highest level of upper-body strength, Sbriccoli et al (49)
found judo fighters to have a bench
press of 160 6 29.8 kg, although the
athletes tested by Sbriccoli et al (49)
were the largest of the grapplers tested
with a mean weight of 109 6 29.3 kg.
This wide range of results does not
provide the potential refinement of the
MMA physiological profile in the ways
that the lower-body strength and
power findings may provide.

Strength and Conditioning Journal |

Physiological Profile of MMA Athletes

Notably absent from this analysis of the

grappling/clinch component sports are
the sports of Brazilian jiu jitsu, sambo,
and submission wrestling. The authors
were able to find only 1 piece of research
examining the physiology of these
athletes. Costa et al (20) examined the
1RM bench press of a group of 20 male
Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners and the
acute effects of static stretching. At their
peak, before stretching, the subjects
averaged 85.8 6 17.8 kg lifted, the lowest
of all the grappling/clinch component
sports. With only one study found, it is
not possible to understand the potential
impacts that Brazilian jiu jitsu, sambo,
and submission wrestling may have on
the MMA athletes physiological profile.
When performing these comparisons
for grappling, the results of only the
male athletes were included, as of the
time of writing, there was no information found on any female GrecoRoman wrestlers, making comparison
between the 3 sports impossible.

Taekwondo. The combat sport of TKD

arguably originated in Korea in the year
1955 (1). With a history dating as far
back as the late 11th century (1), the
martial arts of Korea and the surrounding regions served as the building blocks
for the modern sport. After the sports
creation in 1955, it slowly evolved over
several decades, eventually becoming
the combat sport seen today, and as of
the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics,
modern TKD has become an officially
represented Olympic sport (34).
Of the striking styles investigated in
this review, TKD is in many ways the
least similar to that seen in MMA. The
rule set of the World Taekwondo
Federation limits strikes to specific
areas (
are only allowed to the body and head,
whereas punches are only allowed to
the body. This differs from virtually all
areas being legal to strike in MMA
( Protective gear is required
when competing in TKD, covering
the head, trunk, arms, hands, shins,



and groin. In MMA, the only allowed

protective gear is a mouthpiece,
groin protector and 4-oz gloves.
Finally, in TKD, there is a greater
focus on landing strikes for scoring
rather than landing a strike to
damage an opponent. This differs
greatly from MMA in that while
scoring is still a viable tactic, the
majority of strikes thrown have the
intent to damage.
TKD is still important as a striking art
in the context of MMA because of the
unique nature of TKD style kicks,
which may place different physiological demands on an athlete than those
from other styles of kicking. As well,
the extremely dynamic nature of
TKD and advanced footwork used
may provide insights into the demands of MMA, specifically when
compared with the relative static
nature of striking sports like boxing.
Data found concerning the physiology of TKD athletes can be found in
Table 4.
The key aspect of the physiological
profile of TKD athletes that stands out
is the similarity found in the mean watts
produced by the 30-second anaerobic
test, both of which show relatively high
scores. As a primarily kicking sport with
a focus on scoring strikes rather than
damaging strikes (59), the results found
in anaerobic testing appear appropriate.
The rapid quick kicks require different
energetics than that seen in more static
component sports.
Kickboxing and Thai boxing. Kickboxing and Thai boxing are striking-based
combat sports that are defined by their
use of punches and kicks. Although
currently there is no clear origin of the
sports (15), they have developed popularity throughout the world. Many of
the same issues that face MMA also
face kickboxing and Thai boxing, regarding the lack of research into the
physiology of the fighters. There was
a lack of research found despite the fact
that although very similar, kickboxing
and Thai boxing can be considered 2
separate sports that individually could
demand examination.

Of the striking styles explored in this

review, kickboxing and Thai boxing are
arguably the most relevant to MMA.
All 3 of these sports use similar striking
options, and when these options are
viewed from a constraints-led perspective, the development of similar strategic motor learning can be seen (47).
These constraints include the need to
adjust the combat stance to block kicks
to the lower extremities, a nonissue in
TKD due to the rules of that sport, and
the lack of ducking and other head
movements that is seen in classic
boxing, which can be dangerous due
to the knees and kicks allowed in
kickboxing, Thai boxing, and MMA. A
comparative physiological chart of
kickboxers and Thai boxers can be
viewed below in Table 5.
Although the literature is very limited
in this area, conclusions on kickboxing
and Thai boxing display one important similarity, V_ O2max results. These
V_ O2max results may be different from
those found in MMA athletes because
kickboxing and Thai boxing have
relatively short bout times (15) that
generally differ from the bout times
found in MMA and both striking
sports lack a grappling phase, which
is a key component of MMA.
Boxing. The research found investigating boxing is primarily focused on the
potential injuries from participation in
the sport (8). Particularly, there is
a large body of study into traumatic
injuries to the brain (23,56,61). This
focus can in part be attributed to the
very public health problems faced by
prominent former boxers (54) and the
general reluctance of those in the
boxing world to accept innovation
from those in the sports science
community (12). Of the articles analyzing the physiology of the modern
boxer, we found fewer concerning
boxing than what was found for the
other Olympic combat sports. There
were 3 studies for boxing compared
with 9, 6, and 5 studies included in the
review for wrestling, judo, and TKD,
respectively. Information for the 3
studies can be found in Table 6.

Table 4
Physiological characteristics of TKD athletes


Pieter and
Bercades (43)
(n = 9)

Mean body

Age (y)

81.4 6 21.9 19 6 1.5

Body fat (%)


26.8 6 7.47*




jump (cm)

65 6 16.2 kg 95.3 6 30.8

(leg press)
kg (bench

41.3 6 10.1

33.1 6 6 kg
(leg press)

33.6 6 5.4

49.2 6 6.2
(n = 10)

18.5 6 1.78 28.7 6 1.54*

(n = 10)

23.6 6 3.8

527 6 87 W
cycle test)

46.5 6 4
fitness test)

58.6 6 8.3
(n = 10)

24.1 6 3.8

356.9 6
62.2 W
cycle test)

35.6 6 3.9
fitness test)

62.2 6 1.2
(n = 52)

16.2 6 0.1

11 6 0.3

4.6 6 0.3

513.1 6
14.1 W
cycle test)

53.2 6 1
(n = 44)

15.4 6 0.1

19.4 6 0.5

4.3 6 0.3

346.3 6 7.5 W
cycle test)

et al (38)

60.1 6 9.0
(n = 13)

21.5 6 4.1

16.5 6 2.7


et al (10)

(n = 8)

20 6 1

11.8 6 3

Chan and
Pieter (19)

et al (7)

71.6 6 9

Strength and Conditioning Journal |

70.8 6 6

79.0 6
18.8 kg

40.8 6 6 kg

V_ O2max

51.2 6 11 kg

34.9 6 3.0

56.2 6 2.5
fitness test)

*Deurenberg-Yap et al (2000).
Slaughter 1988.
Durini and Rahaman (1967).
Durnin and Womersly (1974).


Age = years old; anaerobic test = mean watts; body fat = percentage of total body mass; lower-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; mean body mass = kilograms of body
mass; pull-ups = repetitions performed; training experience = years of reported training; upper-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; vertical jump = centimeters jumped
vertically; V_ O2max = milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute, 30 seconds.

Age = years old; anaerobic test = watts per kilogram of body mass; body fat = percentage of total body mass; lower-body maximal strength = percentage of body weight; mean body mass
= kilograms of body mass; pull-ups = repetitions performed; training experience = years of reported training; upper-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; vertical jump =
centimeters jumped vertically; V_ O2max = milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute, 30 seconds.

*Siri (1956).

65.1 6 1.2 23.7 6 15
(n = 10)



Crisafulli et al (21)

16.5 6 0.5 8.6 6 0.6*

Zabukovec and Tiidus
(1995), as cited by
Lin et al (47)

Saengsirisuwan et al (48) Male

40 6 2.1
(n = 20)

Age (y)


48.52 6 1.7

47.8 6 0.9
347.5 6 26.7
% of BW (leg
18.8 W/kg

fat (%)

Table 5

Physiological characteristics of kickboxers and Thai boxers

Pull- jump
V_ O2max

Physiological Profile of MMA Athletes

Included in the research reviewed is

a case study by Morton et al (41) of
a 25-year-old professional featherweight champion boxer. Potential limitations of the study include: a sole
athlete was the focus of the article and
the fact that the athlete was coming
off a 3-month lay-off from training.
Despite these limiting factors the case
study was included in this review
because the athlete in the study was
a standing champion at the time of
physiological testing and that the layoff from training is common occurrence in the upper echelons of boxing.
Similar lay-offs exist in the upper
echelons of MMA as well.
Contrasting the results of the kickboxing and Thai boxing studies, boxers
were found to have very high V_ O2max
levels in multiple studies. This, as in
kickboxing and Thai boxing, is in part
due to the bout length which is far
longer in boxing (58) but could also be
due to the folklore-style training prominent in boxing, which places an
extreme emphasis on aerobic training
(12). The general impact from boxing
to striking as a whole can be seen in the
Striking Results below.

When examining maximal oxygen consumption across the striking sports,

direct comparison is difficult to make
because the testing protocols used
varied from study to study. These
variations in protocol and testing equipment result in differences that may not
be solely attributed to variance between
sports. With such limitations acknowledged, there are several trends that can
be observed from the collected data.
Chan and Pieter (19) and Bouhlel
et al (10) tested TKD athletes using
the Multistage Fitness Test. Their
results, however, were markedly different because Chan and Pieter (19) tested
skilled colored belts who participated
in TKD recreationally, whereas Bouhlel
et al (10) examined members of the
Tunisian national team. Testing showed
that the subjects in the study by Chan
and Pieter (19) had a V_ O2max of 46.5 6
4 mg/kg/min, whereas the athletes in
the study by Bouhlel et al (10) had

Durnin and Womersley (1974).

Near-infrared interactance instrument (Futrex 6100/XL).

*Dexa (QDR Series Discovery A; Hologic, Inc, Bedford, MA).

22.3 6 1.5 14.5 6 1.5

77.4 6 1.4
Guidetti et al (30) Male
(n = 8)

71.8 6 15.1 22.8 6 2.1 9.4 6 5.2
(n = 13)
et al (31)

8.5 6 2.5

6.2 6
0.6 W/kg (30-s
arm crank)

60 kg (8 RM) 55 kg (8 RM
bench press)


(n = 1)
Morton et al (41)

Age (y)

Age = years old; anaerobic test = watts per kilogram of body mass; body fat = percentage of total body mass; lower-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; mean body mass =
kilograms of body mass; pull-ups = repetitions performed; training experience = years of reported training; upper-body maximal strength = kilograms of weight lifted; vertical jump =
centimeters jumped vertically; V_ O2max = milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute, 30 seconds.

57.5 6 4.7

61.4 (not

V_ O2max
fat (%)
Mean body

Table 6

Physiological characteristics of boxers

a significantly higher V_ O2max of

56.22 6 2.57 mg/kg/min. Although
using protocols other than the Multistage Fitness Test, a treadmill, and
cycling test, the results of the 2 groups
of Thai boxers showed lower results
than the elite Tunisian TKD fighters.
Saengsirisuwan et al (48) found young
professional fighters to have a V_ O2max
of 47.8 6 0.9 mg/kg/min in cycling
tests, and Crisafulli et al (21) found
competitive Thai boxers to have
a V_ O2max of 48.52 6 1.7 mg/kg/min
when tested on treadmills. Of all the
striking sports, boxers appear to have
maximal oxygen consumption equal to
or greater than that of the highest scores
found in TKD athletes in this review.
The results of Morton et al (41) show
their champion boxer to have a V_ O2max
of 61.4 mg/kg/min in an unspecified
test. Guidetti et al (30) showed similar
results of 57.5 6 4.7 mg/kg/min on
treadmill tests.
In relation to MMA, these last studies
may provide the most relevant information, as of the striking sports
explored boxings bout length is
similar, 11 minutes in an amateur
Olympic style bout (30) to that of 15
minutes in an MMA bout. If an
estimation of the V_ O2max of MMA
athletes is to be made, one would
assume, with similar work rates, that it
would be closer to that of a boxer than
that of a Thai boxer or kickboxer. As
with the comparison of grappling,
there were limited data found on
female participants and as such we
were unable to synthesize any comparison between female athletes in the
striking sports.

When looking at the examined component sports as a whole, the age of

the athletes was found to be less than
30 years, with the majority of athletes
being younger than 25 years. This
differs from MMA because the top
athletes tend to be older than 30 years.
For example, 4 of the last 6 light-heavy
weight champions of the Ultimate
Fighting Championship have been
30 years of age or older. This age

Strength and Conditioning Journal |


Physiological Profile of MMA Athletes

distinction may influence the physiological profile of MMA fighters from

those of the examined component
sports, but research is needed to substantiate such a claim. The training
experience of the athletes in these
studies was in general more than 5
years, and the athletes were identified
as being of a high level of skill, which
may or may not be comparable with
that of professional MMA fighters.
Across all the athletes examined in the
studies, there are several commonalities
of interest. The body composition of the
athletes fell in a similar range with mean
body fat percentage between 8.6 6 0.6%
(48) and 16.3 6 4.4% (31) for men and
16.5 6 2.7% (38) and 28.7 6 1.5% (43)
for women. The exception was the
study by Pieter and Bercades (43); male
subjects averaged 26.8 6 7.4% mean
body fat. Also of note, there was
a multitude of equations used to
calculate body fat in the studies found,
and any direct comparison between
findings is inappropriate. Still, a general
understanding of the low endomorphy
of combat sport athletes can be gathered from the results found. Vertical
jump testing, although less common
among the literature reviewed, was
found to contain notable similarities
because of the 5 tests performed, 3 were
above 50 cm and were within the
standard deviations of each other.
These results show general trends that
could be expected to be seen in the
profile of MMA fighters. Although
further research is needed, the data
found could provide a greater understanding of the MMA athlete.
Some of the researched results showed
less apparent consistency between
component sports. Maximal strength
testing found that the strength levels in
the upper body tended to be greater
than lower body in several studies,
including the study by Pieter and
Bercades (43) on female TKD athletes,
McGuigan et al (39) on freestyle
wrestlers, and Franchini et al (25) on
judo athletes. Several studies showed
greater lower-body strength in the
involved athletes, including the study



by Markovic et al (38) on female TKD

fighters, the case study by Sbriccoli
et al (49) on judo fighters, and the study
by Baic et al (5) on Greco-Roman
wrestlers. Except for studies of wrestling, no other researchers chose to test
their subject for maximum pull-up reps,
and as such, this measurement must be
left out of any comparison. These
inconsistencies do little to build an
understanding of the relationships
between the component sports
let alone help form views on an
MMA physiological profile.
The majority of results found in the
comparison of the component sports
vary widely from sport to sport. The
greatest of these fluctuations occurred in
energy system data. The testing found
for mean anaerobic power showed
a large amount of variation, with the
lowest of the cycle tests showing results
of 455.0 6 87.6 W (40) and the highest
showing a score of 724.53 6 147.16 W
(52). Looking at the scores of other
component sports, wrestling was on the
lower end, whereas judo and TKD
tended to show the highest scores.
Maximal oxygen consumption was
found to be varied across the majority
of the component sports, with wrestling and boxing showing the highest
levels, 60.24 6 5.13 mg/kg/min (60)
and 61.4 mg/kg/min (41), respectively.
The lowest V_ O2max of the elite athletes
was that of judo fighters (47.3 6 10.9
mg/kg/min) (49). But again, it is
important to note that data in all these
studies were generated with differing
equations and protocols.
These results raise interesting questions when related to the physiological
profile of MMA athletes because the
levels of anaerobic and aerobic fitness
may be similar to one of the component sports or could be a mixture of
multiple sports. An estimated profile of
MMA athletes could be argued to
contain the strongest aspects of all the
component sports, because an elite
MMA fight would face similar challenges. In this regard, discovery is
limited by an analysis of the component sports and to obtain any true

understanding, again, further research

is needed into the physiological profile
of MMA athletes and the demands
faced by them.

At this point, any attempt to develop

a complete validated physiological
profile of the average professional
MMA fighter based on the available
data is not possible. Current sport
science research has not explored
MMA at any detailed level, and even
with the large amounts of research
into the component combat sports,
shared data patterns may not transfer
to MMA. There are a few qualities
that appear to be relevant to all
combat sports, for example, similar
somatotypes, but of the explored data
no clear pattern develops. This review
although unsuccessful in developing
an in-depth understanding of MMA
does help to provide a greater understanding of the component sports
and solidifies an argument for
the need for quality research into the
sport and the athletes who compete in
it. This will be of special importance as
the sport moves into the future and
MMA develops into what it indicates
it will be, the premier combat sport of
the 21st century. If sports science fails
to effectively study and provide guidance in MMA, the sport could fall into
the folklore-style training methods
that have historically dominated other
combat sports.

The authors thank Luigi Bercades and

Willy Pieter for their guidance and help
in the early stages of the writing of this

Seth Lenetsky
is a post graduate
student of sport and
exercise science with
Auckland University of Technologys
School of Sport and
Recreation and
a strength and conditioning coach.

Nigel Harris is
a senior lecturer in
Sport and Exercise
Science at AUT
University and
a strength and
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