Brendan Chaplin: Strength & Conditioning Techniques for MMA
Brendan is a performance enhancement specialist and strength and conditioning coach who has worked with a wide variety of athletic populations including professional athletes, olympians, aspiring athletes and everything in between!
He is the founder and managing director for Strength and Conditioning Education, the UK’s #1 provider of education, resources and mentoring for strength and conditioning professionals. Outside of his education role Brendan is a sought after consultant, coach educator, and speaker. He works with a number of governing bodies and performance athletes including golfers, champion mixed martial artists, cyclists, snowboarders, and many others.
Previous to his current role he has worked for Leeds Beckett University, Huddersfield Giants Rugby League, British Tennis, the English Institute of Sport, Durham University and many other organisations and teams as a coach, coach educator and consultant.
A regular featured expert in Men’s Health, TRAIN, GQ and many other publications as well as a best selling fitness author Brendan has written extensively on the subjects of athletic development, strength and power, and fitness business development. He writes a blog on all things coaching and conditioning at brendanchaplin.co.uk
As the founder of Strength and Conditioning Education Brendan designs qualifications and courses for fitness professionals which are recognised by number of governing bodies and institutions as the standard in coaching and technical knowledge. You can check out Brendans videos, books and products at his website
Academically he has masters degree in Strength and Conditioning, and is accredited through the UKSCA and the NSCA.
Brendan is a keen martial artist, training in many different arts including boxing, wrestling, brazilian jiu jitsu, judo and thai boxing and is a qualified boxing, wrestling and grappling coach.
It must be a big mental process leading up to a fight and how fighters are judged on their record, do you sometimes deal with the fighters’ mental preparation while training strength and conditioning?
I think its all integral within that process. I think it’s probably easy to distance yourself from some of that and to take a line of essentially ‘I’m here to do your sets, reps and any physical stuff’ but my view has always been it is integrated and physical training is superb psychological training.
So the whole process is integrated and of course its about the outcome and how you are going to perform but there are intrinsic measures of where you’re at from a preparation perspective that if you can anchor to an athletes physical preparation its so much more powerful.
One cornerstone of my philosophy is ‘everything is testing is training, and training is testing’ and so everything that we do gives you feedback.
So if you squat 100kg you squat 100kg, if your broad jump is 2m, you’ve got that amount of power in your broad jump right now and so you base your program around giving good quality feedback and good quality measures from everything in your training program.
You therefore can anchor these milestones to an athletes performance so for example if you’ve got an 8, 10 or 12 week preparation cycle for an MMA fighter and that might get split into 3 four week blocks or 3 x 3 week blocks depending on how it works then you know that in this three week block this is what we want to be doing from a strength perspective, this is what we want to be doing from a power perspective and then that changes so they move into the next block which might be more of a power focus so your power efforts need be this and then the final block we’re working on this is what you need from an endurance perspective.
Now once an athlete has been through that cycle, say two or more times those milestones start to become ingrained in their psychology so that they know ten days out from the fight if they pass my burpie test which is 20 on 10 off burpies for five solid minutes, I know and they know more importantly that if they get 120 or more burpies in that test they are ready for that contest.
Along with a few other factors not just categorical on its own but what we’ve managed to develop is that kind of milestone approach where every single phase has these types of things anchored to it and every time we go round a new fight cycle then those milestones we just tweak them a little bit and we have that discussion about what we can expect and what we’re looking for.
The more advanced and the more well conditioned and prepared your athletes get the more finely tuned those milestones need to be in the preparation program.
What happens if the fighter doesn’t reach the milestone? Does that discourage them at all or do you pre-empt whether they’ll make it or not?
That’s a good question, that is where your coaching relationship plays a bigger part and sometimes you might withhold some of that stuff. Sometimes you might put your arm round them and say ‘right we’ll get it next week, we’ll do that again’.
Sometimes even if it’s not in the program and they just miss out, you might say ‘We’ll come back tomorrow and smash that’ and so it’s really about your coaching relationship with that individual.
Most of the time they do hit the milestones because they become anchored to them and the first time they go through the fight cycle is really more about data collection.
Its just learning what that individual is capable of from a performance perspective if you’ve not really measured too much, you’re just aiming to get more data and the next time you go around you can say ‘Right, last time you got this here, we’re going to go for this.’
You’ll also be hitting them in between fight cycles as well, not to the same extent and in slightly different ways but you’ll be giving them exposure to those methods of training so essentially it becomes a part of their minds, their general preparation as well as their specific preparation.
In the planning stages do you always set up these plans to match the athlete’s fighting style or do you have to adjust them to match the opponent that their fighting against?
We do yes, but that’s what I call game plan strength, it’s no different to any other sport in fairness, we use that in rugby league and union and its certainly applicable for most team based sports as well but quite clearly its easy to see how it would be applicable to mixed martial arts contests.
So how I tend to work that is to focus after the fight and in general focus on building athleticism so just getting people stronger, fitter, more powerful and working on general preparation and we’re not really thinking about the event as in the contest, we’re thinking about the athlete as in what they need in their movement patterns and how we can improve on that and how we can overcome injuries and niggles, just making them a better athlete alongside their skill acquisition.
And then once the fight has been confirmed we have an opponent and we can then look at what that opponent brings to the table and what the game plan is going to be from our athlete and therefore we can look at the plan and say what does that require from a physical perspective.
Is it something that they’re expecting to be pinned against the cage for fifteen minutes? If so we need to do a lot more isometric work in the upper-body.
Is it going to be a fight where my guys going to be going for the take down a lot? We’ll need to do a lot more of what I call repeated take down ability. Getting up and down with quick movement patterns on the floor.
Is it somebody trying to take our guy down? In that case we’re trying to keep the fight standing so we need to do a lot more footwork, fatigue and agility work to try and remain elusive and have the control of the cage for the fight.
Any combinations where we think that we‘re going to need to include some specific work would become a part of the program, approximately six weeks out depending on the run in and how much time you’ve got as you don’t always have a lot of time.
At the 6 to 8 week mark we give them a special conditioning program and then the last four weeks we really hammer that along with sparring and technical preparation as well because obviously it works holistically.
How do you deal with the recovery of fighters, they’re known for pretty intense training schedules do you have to them reign in a bit to get them to rest properly?
It’s definitely a challenge; it’s a really tough part. Fighters a lot of the time are like mercenaries, they just travel and train with whichever gym offers them the most in striking or whichever gym’s going to help them in wrestling whatever it may be.
There is a lot of traveling involved with the higher level guys where they might be driving a couple of hours a day between sessions and that’s not great for recovery either so essentially in rugby or in a professional sport like cricket or football there would be a team.
The team would be multi-disciplinary so you’d interact with the head coach and that would get the message fed down to other areas and members of the support team as well as obviously the athlete themselves. In mixed martial arts very often the head coach is the athlete essentially as they are in control of themselves and there may be a head coach but the athlete is responsible for their own recovery program quite a lot.
So the strength and conditioning physical preparation role is really important. It’s very much about education and developing that buy-in on the recovery side. It’s a ‘chipping-away’ tactic where you’re trying to educate them on the principle of less is more and smart training and some of the basic recovery strategies.
Its just about keeping it simple, its thinking about getting a minimum of 8 hours sleep a night, it’s getting your recovery nutritional strategies in place, its having a great warm-up and great cool down where you are restoring your patterns at the end of a session. You’re getting those things right before we start thinking about anything more advanced.
But education underpinning everything about over-training, about restoration in general and that’s why I’ve written a lot on the topic in the past, so I can actually point out to the other fighters and say ‘read through that and let me know what you think’.
Keeping it simple to what I think they are capable of handling at the time. There is no point in overloading somebody with information, which will go in one ear and out the other. Just give them a message that you think that they can respond to and don’t give them any more for the time being and let them master that one.
How has MMA strength and conditioning training developed as the sport has become bigger, have you seen more fighters looking for strength and conditioning?
I think it has definitely changed, strength and conditioning is viewed as integral to mix martial arts performance. People have different interpretations of what strength and conditioning actually means and that’s still the case now.
Ten years ago everybody was doing fitness; it might be jogging, fitness through sparring, specific drills in the gym that still have their place absolutely but then people starting realising that strength was important. That lead me and other people to have an opportunity to get athletes stronger and that was massive with the amount of difference it made very quickly to peoples performance and how they could control people in the cage and into training as well.
Off the back of that everybody wanted to start training strength in my network, the guys that I worked with, and I still do see people shying away from that and doing a lot more calisthenics to body weight stuff, but again there’s a place for that.
People have embraced strength and conditioning a lot more in MMA and everybody kind of knows that you need to do it but the structure and the buy-in is still not quite as much as you would hope for from growth in the professional sport. I think it will get there and improve but it is still very much in its infancy for me with how people approach this. Definitely improved but still a long way to go.
Is there a noticeable difference between the performance of athletes who have strength and conditioning coaches compared to those that aren’t as well educated and maybe not introduced to the process?
The first thing I would say is that when you’re learning MMA as a sport not always but very often the thing that makes the biggest difference, what I call ‘the difference that makes the difference’ is skill acquisition.
It’s not physical necessarily and as the better you get the more you are going to compete against people with equal or better skills than you and that’s when the physical side becomes so important. MMA is like any sport, you’re going up against someone who has got a very good technical training background, where as in infancy and when you’re a beginner somebody who has a great technical background could absolutely school somebody who is a physical specimen. The gyms are getting better, the training partners are all better, and you get better a lot quicker now when you first start the sport.
When I started it took me years and years to go from white belt to blue belt in Brazilian Jujitsu. Presently, in a good gym you could probably get on the mat and train three or four times a week with good training partners, you might be a blue belt in maybe three to six months in some cases depending on who it was with.
The speed of skill acquisition is massively improved now which means that people who embrace the strength and conditioning side really do have an edge and as we know as strength and conditioning coaches the stronger you are the better you will be able to execute techniques under fatigue and produce results for yourself.
That idea was one that took a long time to get through to a lot of martial artists. The idea that if you get stronger your technique is going to generally improve because you are able to execute those movement patterns much easier against resistance that you are up against.
The stronger and fitter the guys get, the more easily and effectively they train. Therefore the more they train the more skills they develop and its that spiral when they’re in the cage.
Quite clearly you are up against someone who’s pretty damn skillful a lot of the time so the defining factor very often is how well conditioned you are or how explosive or elusive or agile you are in the cage and those defining moments, the moments that require the speed and athleticism that can absolutely be prepared for and conditioned for and included within a strength and conditioning program.
You’ve got to get the balance right with skill acquisition and physical training. If you were just somebody who loves the gym and you want to get in the cage you’re probably not going to go that far, you’ve still got to be really devoted to getting better as a martial artist as well.
Getting back to how you implement your training how do you find the best way to record and communicate all of the information to fighters and to get their training plans out to multiple coaches?
It’s tough sometimes training is very random. Some days it changes and they’ll train another day and as much as we try and pin it down and get a structure in place it can be quite difficult. I align myself with the athletes first and foremost and work with them from an education perspective and then try and work with or communicate with the technical coaches.
The different gyms try an impart information about what’s going on so I can look at the volume and intensities that are likely to be experienced. I still send programs through still do all the things that you’d expect but I think more an more now I rely a on social media; messages on Facebook things like that to communicate and say ‘Have you done this? Or here is your program, here is your recovery session’ send it through.
Its still kind of primitive but I’d love to have this fancy online portal that everybody logged in and had their program but at the moment I’m kind of managing it on a very athlete individualized basis.
What works for each athlete and I monitor it and do my best to take that on and communicate that to others but ultimately I think that you can only create change when there is an understanding of what that change is going to bring.
Therefore your educational program as a coach has to work one step ahead of the change that you are trying to impart so there is no point in trying to send people loads of fancy documents on recovery when they don’t really get it.
Educate them on that first and then get a small quick win and then you create an opportunity for yourself to add more value when you’ve demonstrated that first result. It’s individualized and kind of based on what that athlete or that person can handle from an education and information perspective.
So you have to keep it fairly basic and in small pieces for them to process?
That’s it. We have recovery check sheets that give you points that you can accumulate over a day for different things. For example if you have breakfast you get a point. If you have a post work out or post session recovery drink you get another point, if you get 8-10 hours sleep you get a point etc. So we give them that and obviously record what they’re doing from a performance based perspective in our session but the goal we’re trying to go with is to tie it all in with their technical work.
So we’ve gone down the path of rated perceived exertion, where they grade the session technical and physical and we tried that a little bit and we’ve gone down the path of trying to record some volume loads and training impulse like the trip measures where we look at duration times the RPE to get training impulse and look at that through the week.
Its very difficult because I guess in its most primitive sense these people are training to jump in the cage with another human being and somebodies going to get their hand raised at the end of that contest.
So its very difficult to convey a less is more approach when there is still a culture of more is more and if I do one more round or session I’m going to be better than my opponent when it comes to that contest and its just not the case necessarily.
We’re still fighting that battle of trying to create that understanding of not doing one more round. Sometimes if you do fewer rounds than your opponent you’ll show up in better shape and better condition and ready to go.
Conor Mcgregor you mentioned earlier seems to be a well-educated fighter and appears in videos reading a lot along side his coach about fighting and philosophy do you know much about their camp or how they’ve progressed so well?
I think John Kavanagh who is Connor’s coach over in Straight Blast Gym Ireland is very much a student of the game. Many years ago I went to train with John and Connor wasn’t on the scene at the time. I went over and trained with him for a few days in Dublin and chatted to him.
We’re rolling around a little bit and he was great then and I could tell he was really very passionate about continual development, growth and education. Karl Tanswell who is the head of Straight Blast Gym in the UK is also a very studious individual, very smart guy and very much embraced strength and conditioning and was interested in the development.
I don’t know who they use or if they do it in house over there in Ireland and I’m not sure about his main camps or if he’s over in the states or if its all with John in Ireland but I know they’ve got some good sparring partners and great people there but one thing I’m pretty sure I can say to you is that they’ve got a very, very good understanding of the full preparation process and they actually are one of the closest to that classic structure of head coach, athlete relationship and that holistic management process that goes along with that. They do a good job.