What Is the Best Cardio for MMA/UFC Fighters? (8 Essentials)

Are you wondering about the best cardio for MMA and UFC fighters?

In this article, we’ll look at the best specific and nonspecific cardio for MMA/UFC fighters and explain what makes them so effective.

MMA fighters need and use all three energy systems when they fight: aerobic, anaerobic (lactic), and alactic. Alactic is for maximal intense movements up to 10 seconds long, anaerobic is for prolonged intense movements up to 120 seconds long, and aerobic is for activity from 120 seconds and beyond.

Because MMA fighters are fighting for either 3 or 5 rounds of five minutes, the most important energy system in MMA is aerobic, but all three systems are needed and mustn’t be neglected. Improving them can be done with the following cardio exercises.

What Is the Best Specific Cardio for MMA/UFC Fighters?

Specific cardio is easily the best cardio for MMA because it’s designed to replicate the energy systems, movement patterns, and muscles used in MMA, and fighters can improve their cardio, technique, and martial art skills simultaneously.

It’s also the best because technique and skill efficiency is the best way MMA fighters can improve their cardiovascular endurance. If a fighter has poor technique and skill efficiency, they expend a lot more energy and tax their cardiovascular system more than necessary.

So, here are the 4 best specific cardio types for MMA/UFC fighters.

1. Bag and Pad Work

Bag and pad work is a cardio workout no MMA fighter can afford to miss, for the following reasons.

1. Firstly, it’s a great low-impact cardiovascular workout meaning it’s easy on the joints, and therefore it’s unlikely to cause a fighter an injury and keep them out of a fight. It can also improve a fighter’s flexibility which again makes them less likely to get injured.

2. Fighters can focus and work on their technique – specifically their ability to repeatedly land power strikes and a high volume of strikes when their heart rate is high.

3. It’s a form of plyometric training, which is training that uses the speed and force of different movements to build muscle power, most often at high-intensity levels. With this high-intensity training, fighters can train the alactic energy system (up to 10 seconds bursts of maximal energy output).

4. Bag work can imitate an actual fight and therefore build the necessary muscle memory and increase fluidity while improving cardiovascular endurance. Fighters can also practice controlling their breath to bring the heart rate down after bursts of high-intensity combinations – much like in a real fight.

5. As an added bonus, it improves a fighter’s anaerobic system by increasing the lactate threshold of muscles (muscular endurance) – meaning they can perform striking patterns at a higher intensity and for a longer period of time before their muscles burn out.

2. Sparring

Sparring is one of the best cardio workouts for MMA fighters for the following reasons.

1. Sparring is the king of cardio for MMA fighters as it’s the most real thing outside of an actual fight. Sparring with fighters at the same skill level and above is the best way to increase cardiovascular performance and develop the necessary breathing control and pacing.

Most importantly it allows MMA fighters to test and improve their cardio by improving technique and skill efficiency under pressure.

2. Sparring can be performed at different levels of intensity. Partners may agree upon anywhere between 50 to 100%. Lower intensity trains fighters aerobically, higher intensity trains them anaerobically, and periods of maximum effort train the alactic energy system.

3. Sparring can be performed in different ways to keep it interesting and achieve different goals. Two of the most common outside of general sparring are sharktank and touch sparring.

Sharktank sparring
MMA fighters often use sharktank sparring if they want to up the intensity and really test their cardiovascular endurance. Sharktank sparring is facing a new opponent in every round, or after every minute or two, depending on the energy systems they want to train and the length of an upcoming MMA fight.

It’s designed to push a fighter to the limit and is often used in gyms for a fighter preparing for an upcoming fight. If fighters can get through this, when it comes to a real fight and they’re used to fighting fresh opponents every round, they’ll find it easier to outlast a tiring opponent.

Touch sparring
Touch sparring is a form of light sparring where partners don’t hit each other with power, they just lightly touch. Touch sparring is great cardio because it’s fun and nonstressful, and breaks the monotony and mental drain of repeating other intense specific cardio workouts.

No one gets hurt so it’s great for priming a fighter’s nervous system in the last few weeks before a fight. As touch sparring is lower intensity, it helps fighters work on their aerobic cardiovascular systems while also focusing on technique training and efficiency, reactions, and timing.

MMA fighters often touch spar for the exact time their upcoming fight is, either 3 five-minute rounds, or 5 five-minute rounds. As the intensity is lower, some choose to extend the rounds slightly or repeat the rounds over.

3. Shadowboxing

Shadowboxing is one of the best cardio options for MMA fighters for the following reasons.

1. Shadowboxing is low impact so it helps fighters avoid injuries while working on their cardiovascular endurance; which is very useful in the months leading up to a fight. 

It’s even less impactful than punching a heavy bag and can therefore be done every day as cardiovascular exercise or as a warmup before any type of training.

2. Shadowboxing allows MMA fighters to focus on their technique because they’re not worried about being hit back like they are in sparring. They can also perfect their breathing when striking, which is highly important for achieving maximum cardiovascular efficiency in a fight.

3. Shadowboxing is very efficient as it can be performed in little space, in any location, and without equipment and partners. It can also be performed with low or high intensity, or a mix of the two to best imitate a fight.

4. While bag work is best for developing and practicing power techniques, shadowboxing is best at allowing an MMA fighter to focus on footwork and the distribution of weight on their feet when striking and moving around.

When shadowboxing, fighters can also practice head and body movements, and several evasive patterns. Overall, it’s great cardiovascular endurance while also focusing on everything movement and footwork efficiency.

Fighters shadowbox in a controlled way for 5 five-minute rounds and include 5 to 10 seconds of high-intensity combinations every 20 to 30 seconds. Here, MMA fighters can focus on the energy system they need to improve the most by changing the intensity.

4. Chain Wrestling (Drilling)

Chain wrestling is the process of two people practicing one grappling technique to the next without stopping. There isn’t a set bunch of techniques to practice or any repetition of individual techniques, it’s a freestyle to see how well a fighter can transition from one position to another.

1. Chain wrestling is a great cardiovascular workout because it trains quickly changing from one technique to the next and never staying too long in one position, whether defensively or offensively.

This is an essential skill in MMA as grappling is the most tiring aspect and always being on the move is vital to avoid being controlled on the ground. Offensively, chain wrestling drills the persistence to secure a takedown after many different techniques have been snuffed.

2. Chain wrestling is purely technique based with the aim of mixing many standing and ground grappling techniques. As it’s technique based, the risk of injury is low and MMA fighters can continue training their cardiovascular endurance and grappling efficiency this way all the way throughout fight camp.

3. Chain wrestling is the best way for MMA fighters to practice offensive and defensive wrestling and jiu-jitsu techniques and movements in flow. This builds muscle memory and trains movement efficiency so a fighter’s cardio is less taxed throughout a fight.

What Is the Best Nonspecific Cardio for MMA/UFC Fighters?

The best nonspecific (nonfighting) cardio for MMA/UFC fighters is any activity allowing them to consistently train and improve their cardiovascular endurance outside of their specific MMA cardio training.

Let’s take a look at some of the best nonspecific cardio for MMA that many of the most elite fighters use to get their cardiovascular endurance in peak condition.

5. Jogging, Running, and Sprinting (Roadwork)

Jogging, running, and sprinting have been used by the best MMA coaches and fighters for the past 3 decades because they’re tough, boring, and very effective; as well as the following reasons.

1. Jogging, running, and sprinting, are great cardio for MMA as they can be made very sport-specific. They provide weight-bearing cardio and use of the feet and lower body in a way that’s highly applicable to moving around in an MMA fight.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be used to imitate MMA rounds by alternating between light jogging and sprinting.

MMA fights have periods of fighting extremely hard and explosive and slower pace periods of resetting and catching the breath. Repeat sprint training improves a fighter’s ability to recover and maintain maximal effort throughout every round of an MMA fight.

This is done by sprinting for 4-10 seconds, resting for 15-30 seconds, and repeating this 10 times or more. Once a fighter gets extremely fit doing this, they can reduce the jogging to 15 or 20 seconds and increase the sprinting up to 20 seconds – progressively making the 25 minutes harder each time.

2. Sprinting is among the best cardio training for MMA as it builds cardiovascular endurance excellently, but more importantly it saves time. This saved time means MMA fighters can focus on their technique and skills efficiency.

3. MMA fighters jog long distances to train aerobically and to improve their overall cardiovascular endurance. MMA fights can be up to 25 minutes of fighting, so being able to jog for at least 25 minutes is a must – or five minutes at a time with a 1-minute break.

MMA fighters should build up to jogging steadily without any breaks for 45 minutes. While it’s not an intense pace, doing this once a week allows an MMA fighter to remain comfortable in either 15 or 25 minutes of fighting without cardio issues.

4. Jogging, running, and sprinting are extremely boring and repetitive. This makes them great cardiovascular workouts because they require and build mental toughness and discipline; two essential skills.

5. Roadwork can be done anywhere and anytime. It’s free to do and no one else is needed. MMA fighters can save a lot of time and money if they just get up, leave the house, and run; instead of driving miles away in traffic to get to the gym and waiting on others to arrive and help.

6. Swimming

Swimming is amazing cardio for MMA fighters for the following reasons.

1. Swimming is low impact and doesn’t cause injuries, whereas cardio such as running can cause knee, ankle, and hip issues because of its high impact nature.

As swimming is low impact, it’s often used as a lower-intensity cardiovascular training for durations up to 45 minutes. Swimming is also more commonly used in the last month or two before a fight as a way to avoid injuries and give the body a rest from intense sparring and weightlifting.

2. Swimming can rehabilitate tendon, ligament, or muscle injuries as it allows fighters to be active and avoid stiffness when coming back from an injury.

Swimming also aids recovery as it’s a form of stretching that keeps joints flexible, and because it improves blood flow throughout the body.

3. Swimming gives fighters cold exposure, which has benefits such as boosting the immune system, improving circulation, and reducing swelling and inflammation.

4. While swimming at a slower pace is great aerobic cardio, MMA fighters can also swim shorter and more intense laps (HIIT) to work on their anaerobic and alactic energy systems.

This increased swimming intensity also has the added benefit of increasing the lactic threshold in muscles (muscular endurance).

5. Swimming teaches proper breathing techniques. This gives fighters better control of their breathing and enhances how their body uses oxygen. The breathing patterns used for effective swimming can be transferred over to MMA.

7. Jumping Rope

Jumping rope is a favorite cardio exercise of boxers, muay Thai, and MMA fighters for many reasons.

1. Jumping rope is a full-body workout and is especially great for strengthening and increasing the muscular endurance of the quads, calves, and core. 

2. Jumping rope is great for time efficiency because it can be done any time a rope is handy.

3. Jumping rope is great as a low-intensity aerobic cardio workout for MMA fighters. It’s often used as a warm-up but it can also be a main cardio workout that imitates fight rounds. This is often 5 five-minute rounds with one-minute breaks between.

4. Jumping rope improves and imitates the footwork and movement used in a real fight. Footwork is essential for improving a fighter’s evasion, speed, setups, timing, coordination, rhythm, and all movement.

5. Jumping rope strengthens and prepares the ankle, foot, and knees for an upcoming fight. MMA requires a lot of movement and footwork, so having injury-free joints is essential. Jumping rope also trains explosiveness which is important for strikes and takedowns.

8. Cycling (Indoors/Outdoors)

Many top UFC fighters have used cycling as a method of cardiovascular exercise, namely Conor McGregor, the Diaz brothers, and Paul Felder. Cycling is one of the best cardio workouts for MMA/UFC fighters for the following reasons.

1. Cycling is the lowest impact cardio outside of swimming, which means fighters can train without risking injury.

2. Cycling is great for correcting posture, coordination, and balance. Cycling requires an upright back and an engaged core. These are essential for efficient movement and techniques, and for transferring power to strikes and takedowns.

3. Cycling workouts can be both low-intensity and high-intensity, or a mixture of both. This is important as MMA fighters need to train all three energy systems, aerobic, anaerobic, and alactic.

Lower-intensity cycling workouts may be up to an hour long, while high-intensity cycling workouts are no more than 30 minutes.

4. Cycling is extremely fun and good for a fighter’s mental health as it allows fighters to get outside away from the house or the gym. As added bonuses, it’s a free mode of transport for getting to and from the gym, and for some, it can be a form of meditation and relaxation while also training cardio.

5. Cycling can build great muscular endurance in the lower body. This is important in MMA as it allows a fighter to keep exploding for takedowns and defending takedowns throughout a fight, transferring power into strikes, pushing at the hips from the bottom position, and more.

The Bottom Line

So, ‘what is the best cardio for MMA/UFC fighters?’

The best cardio for MMA and UFC fighters is specific cardio. These are cardiovascular workouts that simultaneously train fighters’ technique and skills such as bag and pad work, sparring, shadowboxing, and chain wrestling.

These are the best cardiovascular workouts for MMA fighters because while nonspecific cardio workouts are great accessories, becoming as efficient with fighting techniques and movement is the best way to improve cardiovascular endurance, as much less energy is expended when fighting.

Outside of specific cardio workouts, roadwork, swimming, jumping rope, and cycling are the best nonspecific cardio workouts for MMA and UFC fighters. They’re the best because they’re fun, low impact, restorative, and offer many fight-related improvements which transfer over to the cage well.

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