MMA: Tempo Muscular Strength Training

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MMA: Tempo Muscular Strength Training

Mixed Martial Arts ( MMA )

Is a sport of strength endurance. Maximizing strength endurance is always a trade-off between maximising two athletic attributes that are often opposed to each other: the rate of production of energy and long-term production of that force. In other words, you have to strike hard for a long time, then hit hard.

The emphasis of my last month’s preparation, and the coming month, has been on focusing on my stamina. It’s an attribute that has lagged far behind as I’ve tried to improve my maximum strength, my explosiveness and the size of my muscle mass. Aerobic capacity is one of the most important qualities to possess for an athlete, sometimes ignored in an era where HIIT, Tabata intervals and increasing the lactate threshold are considered crucial to success.

Efficiently increasing your ability to use your oxidative energy system (i.e. your aerobic capacity) is crucial to achieving a high rate of work throughout a three-round or five-round struggle. To that end, most of my endurance training has concentrated on long slow distance runs, for 60-90 minutes at a moderate pace. At these intensities, my body is being conditioned aerobically over that long period of time leading to a more effective cardiovascular system.

Another way to increase your oxidising potential is to increase your muscle’s ability to use oxygen as a fuel. Tempo training or continuous exercise is specifically designed to target those muscle fibres that are best suited to the use of oxygen-the Type I sluggish muscle fibres. Compared to Type II fast-twitch fibres, these muscle fibres are much more effective in using oxygen for energy, which is ideal for using ATP / Creatine-Phosphate and glycogen.

Tempo training method

I have one dedicated strength session in a six-day week training programme which includes three sessions to improve cardiac output. The strength session is focused on training at the tempo.

Tempo training focuses on time under stress (TUT) in order to obtain the desired result. The technique I am working on needs about 60 per cent of my 1-rep max (RM) lifting weights at a slow rate-2-0-2-0. It means lowering the weight for two seconds at a regulated rate, taking no break at the bottom, then raising the weight for two seconds at a controlled pace, and then repeating at the top without any delay. Throughout the session, the muscles are in constant tension no matter how many reps you make.

My emphasis is on using large multi-joint exercises for reaching the maximum number of muscles, such as the squat, bench press and shoulder press.

Joel Jamieson suggests choosing 3-4 strength exercises in his book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning, and doing 8-10 reps for about 3-5 sets. He also recommends 6-8 minutes of active rest between each exercise to allow the muscles to recover fully and to maintain the heart rate up.

In action, it turns out that doing three basic movements for my tempo strength session (squat, bench press, shoulder press) takes about 90 minutes, due to the long rest period. For this reason, I have restricted my sessions of tempo intensity to those three exercises. All the following reps/exercises are done at a rate of 2-0-2-0:

1. Squat at 60% 1RM – 8-10 reps, 5 sets, 6-8 minute rest between sets.

2. Bench press at 60% 1RM – 8-10 reps, 5 sets, 6-8 minute rest between sets.

3. Shoulder press at 60% 1RM – 8-10 reps, 5 sets, 6-8 minute rest between sets.

My active rest between each set is usually shadow boxing.

Effects of tempo training

It’s hard to tell what impact this style of strength training has had on my muscular endurance after just four weeks of tempo practice.

Slow-twitch fibres which are essential for endurance are not completely recruited during rapid explosive movements, according to the scientific literature. Only slow motion, which allows the Type I fibres to be under stress for long enough, can lead to adaptation in these fibres.

Thomas V Pipes writes one article that discusses this, called Strength Training and Fiber Forms. In it, Pipes takes an athlete’s muscle biopsies before and after pre-determined microcycles through training.

Pipes found that the fast-twitch muscle fibres of the conditioned muscle (in this case quadricep via the leg press) hypertrophied following a routine in which 8 reps (at the 8 RM) were used.

He also found, however, that the slow-twitch muscle fibres atrophied (i.e., decreased); and he also noticed that the athlete’s number of reps could perform at 80 per cent of his 1 RM decreased, and his 1 RM increased. Afterwards, the athlete was put on a routine using 12 reps (at his 12 RM). This time the muscle biopsy revealed that indeed there was hypertrophy, but this time it was in the slow-twitch muscle fibres. Not only that, but the rapid twitch fibres atrophied, and the number of possible reps increased at 80 per cent 1 RM, while his 1 RM decreased.

What this demonstrates is that slow-twitch fibres are preferentially compared to fast-twitch fibres, with increased reps, i.e. an improvement in TUT, using a lighter weight. In other words, muscle capacity increases to maximum strength in choice.

It coincides with the situation of bodybuilders in the real world. The TUT theory has long been used by bodybuilders to increase overall muscle hypertrophy. The consequence is muscles that are capable of a remarkable degree of stamina but low maximum strength compared to other athletes trained in weight.

Dr Patrick O’Shea, Professor Emeritus of Exercise and Sports Science at Oregon State University (http:/ performed another study I found similar to this.

He used electromyography (EMG) to study the order of muscle recruitment of muscle fibre forms in a trained athlete’s quadriceps during the execution of a single repetition squat with those loads.

O’Shea found that the slow-twitch fibres contributed 60 per cent to the initiative, beginning with 60 per cent of 1 RM, and fast-twitch fibres 40 per cent. The proportion of slow-twitch fibres involved was found to be only 5 per cent at a maximum effort of 100 per cent, while fast-twitch fibres contributed 95 per cent. Therefore it was shown that lighter loads hit slow-twitch fibres better than heavier loads.


At the moment that is the height of my comprehension. You can effectively target slow-twitch fibres using tempo exercise, increase their cross-sectional area and make the muscles better able to use oxygen as a fuel.

Nonetheless, I think it is still open to debate how far this leads to the body becoming a stronger aerobic “unit.” Another mechanism may exist by which TUT leads to greater muscle endurance.

Normally, however, with more muscle hypertrophy (more muscle fibre protoplasm) the lactic acid of the same workload can be distributed over a larger volume, and will not affect PH locally as much. So the drop in results should be more incremental, rising endurance. Because muscles usually have mixed fibre composition, and faster twitch is known to hypertrophy more quickly and more than slow-twitch, there’s a good chance that this has something to do with it as well. “There are articles I’ve seen that suggest hypoxia (depriving oxygen muscles) can lead to hypertrophy, so continuous exercise, i.e. sets done without breaks between attempts, can depreciate.

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