Skip to main content

MMA for Football?

By September 16, 2010December 28th, 2013Guest Blogs

MMA for Football?
By: Michael Boyle

“MMA training for an NFL athlete does not only NOT make sense, but would simply be counterproductive. The demands of the two sports clearly could not be any more different from each other. It makes as much sense as choosing to going to chemo therapy because you are sick of shaving your head (Michael Jackson’s doctor said that line, I believe). Taking a multi-million dollar athlete and having him train in such a nonsensical way is foolish and irresponsible… and please realize I am an MMA coach.” Dewey Neilsen, Nationally Recognized MMA Strength and Conditioning Coach

A couple of NFL strength and conditioning coaches have written to ask about NFL athletes using MMA training techniques to train in the off-season. I guess my reputation as a person with an opinion is following me. I can start the controversy right off. In my mind it is foolish and short-sighted for an NFL player to train like a mixed martial arts fighter. I watched a recently released NFL quarterback on Youtube engage in a sparring session with an MMA trainer. Trust me, I don’t want to get beat up by an MMA trainer, but I don’t think this is a good idea. The only guys on the field who really can’t operate without their hands are quarterbacks and receivers. If I’m paying a guy a few million dollars, I would really prefer he doesn’t punch anything. I was really surprised that one NFL GM actually endorsed the idea. Seems crazy to me.

To further draw on the controversy, let’s ask ourselves, what is MMA training? The majority of what we see on the web as MMA training seems to be muscle endurance stuff that doesn’t appear to be good for anyone except combat athletes, and certainly does not seem appropriate for an NFL player. I’ve seen guys training with snorkels in their mouths for oxygen deprivation; I’ve watched a guy literally throw rusty barbells in a field. So I will qualify myself and say that if we view MMA training primarily as sparring with mitts or kicking, I still can’t see how it has a place in training for a football guy.

Let’s look at the basics. A football play lasts approximately five seconds. An MMA round lasts five minutes. Right away, do you see a problem? The rationalization I listened to in the Youtube interviews revolved around the mental toughness developed in pushing through fatigue. I do not doubt this type of training is difficult, however what they are describing never happens in football. Plays last five seconds and the rest lasts about 30 seconds. This in no way resembles anything in the martial arts.

Moving on from the obvious energy system issue, an MMA fighter wears almost zero equipment and is able to punch and kick his opponent. An NFL player wears pads on most exposed bodyparts, and it is basically illegal to punch and or kick an opponent. Running is a huge part of football; in MMA, running will not win many matches and too much running will damage an athlete’s reputation as a willing opponent.

To add even more complexity, the best MMA strength and conditioning coaches probably train their fighters more like NFL players than the opposite. Jon Chaimberg’s and Dewey Neilsen’s MMA programs are not typical MMA programs. Instead, they are scientific programs based on the current science of performance enhancement. If an NFL guy told me he was going to train with Jon or Dewey, I would endorse it wholeheartedly. However, what they would do is train like a football player. The best MMA strength coaches realize their athletes get plenty of work with their MMA coaches. Much like NFL strength and conditioning coaches, the good MMA strength and conditioning coaches spend lots of time on basic strength training and power work.

The truth is, training like an MMA fighter is cool and trendy and might get a player featured on ESPN. What it might not be is intelligent or effective for conditioning for football. Football players and MMA is a lot like athletes and actors. MMA training means ringside seats at fights, pretty girls, nights out in Vegas. Sorry, it still doesn’t makes sense for highly paid athletes who participate in a physically violent sport six months out of the year.

If I’m an NFL strength coach, I’m not happy if my guys are missing workouts for sparring sessions. I’m less happy if they are using this type of training instead of the football specific routines I have taken years to develop. If you are an NFL executive, you are undermining the credibility of your strength and conditioning staff, and pretty soon your off-season program will be an MMA free-for-all you’ll need to rein in. I know I’ll get some negative feedback on this, but I owe it to my NFL colleagues to state an opinion that they can’t.

Look at it this way: How would position coaches feel if a player said he wanted to skip practice to go to MMA? The position coach’s feeling is, “This is my time with you—we need this time to get better.” The strength coach feels the same way. The off season is his time to do his best work. If a player is off sparing in an MMA gym, that is time away from the important things that really need to be done.


  • TJ says:

    Finally someone much respected in the S&C community addresses this nonsense. I’m a huge fan of MMA, but it has no business in training athletes for basketball or football.. This is exactly why I drove 4 hours to hear Mike speak at Perform Better in Chicago…

  • P. J. Striet says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. I think some of the metabolic circuits, medleys, etc. MMA guys use can certainly be incorporated into a footballers S&C program as alternative conditioning, especially earlier in the offseason, but to use this stuff as a stand alone program, in addition to striking, and in the absence of more traditional programming, is an idiotic idea.

  • Jason Nunn says:

    I see Mike’s point. Training MMA(mainly sparring) with football players as a substitute for energy system specific development is irresponsible and a waste of time.

    However, I saw a youtube video with Martin Rooney training the Jets using some MMA techniques and it kind of made sense. They weren’t sparring. They were using what looked like Judo techniques for wrist/arm controll. I could see where this would have it’s place. Definatley not in the place of a strength and conditioning program, but maybe as a part of their practice.

    Also, ALL football players use their hands. Not just quaterbacks and running backs. Don’t believe me, watch a d-end pass rush or a WR running down the field on a punt.

    Like I said, it may be wrong for the S&C Coach, but it may have a place on the field, at practice. Just my opinion.

  • Daniel says:

    I agree with Martin Rooney on this one.

  • PolyisTCOandbanned says:

    It seems like the technical aspects of kicking and punching would have low transfer to football. maybe the punching a little for linemen or running backs in blocking. Wrestling does give some good body awareness…I don’t know that a huge amount of it is needed, but some exposure can be helpful.

    For an athlete who has strength endurance issues, strength endurance training could make sense. But sparring is not really needed.

    For the MMA athlete, to do more traditional weightlifting as an activity makes sense. He is getting plenty of technical and endurance benefit from mat-drills and sparring. Purist strength training is an accessory for him.

    (although I’m totally speculating…other than having been a very poor boxer and football player and a middling decent wrestler…)

  • PolyisTCOandbanned says:

    The little bit of wrestling probably more useful for a defensive athlete.

  • TJ says:

    I’d probably say its biggest benefit for athletes is for the hips… Bret would probably know more about this than I

  • Brock says:

    Hey Bret, I’m gonna play devil’s advocate just a bit on this one. While I wholeheartedly agree that MMA athletes should focus much more on strength & power training as opposed to simple muscular endurance, I don’t think it’s wrong for NFL guys to do some NFL training during their off-season. Now I will begin by saying I don’t know exactly what they mean by “MMA training.” They could mean sparring, they could mean the muscular endurance-type training, I’m not sure. But, I think it would be great GPP work, as well as mental toughness, as was stated earlier. Obviously it largely depends on where it is placed in the training calendar, but it seems that at the crux of the issue is the idea of “specificity.” True, NFL guys should be spending a lot of their time on specificity – playing their sport, and position-specific drills. But why is it so wrong for them to get out and do something completely different that, if nothing else, will raise work capacity? As I said, this is simply how I see it in the general sense, with no info as to how their training is set up exactly. Great work Bret, and I look forward to hearing your take.

    • Brock, I think it’s a good idea to do some kung-fu/karate type stuff with football players to teach them to bat opponents’ hands away, etc. I just don’t think they spar or do MMA circuit training for energy system development.

  • Brock says:

    “I don’t think it’s wrong for NFL guys to do some NFL training during their off-season.”

    Haha, I’m an idiot. Suppose to say “I don’t think it’s wrong for NFL guys to do some MMA training during their off-season.”

  • Nick Horton says:

    I think Mike’s main point is injury. One wrong punch or kick, and there goes your wrist or ankle. In an NFL player that is the difference of millions of dollars. Not worth it, just to get some variety in training. They don’t have that luxury, this is their job.

    Also, muscular endurance is overrated in a football player. Like he said, the average play takes a whopping 5 seconds. Even Usain Bolt has to run nearly twice that length.

    Most positions need explosive power and strength, and muscular endurance is very low on their priority list.

    And mental toughness? Football is HARD. It hurts. You get hit by guys that nearly double the weight (and strength) of most MMA guys, etc. They have plenty of time learning mental toughness in their own sport.

    If anything, they don’t need the type of mental toughness you get from muscular endurance training. They need the type you get from doing maximal clean and jerks. It’s a very different kind of mental toughness. But, the clean and jerk is a more honest representation of what they need on the field. A short burst of 100% maximal force production to kill the next guy.

    I’m with you Mike.

    • Brock says:

      I don’t disagree at all that muscular endurance training is overrated, and pretty much downright useless, for a football player. And the issue of possible injury is absolutely a concern. But again, my point was simply that, MMA training for these guys, particularly if we are talking about sparring and drilling, is nothing more than GPP. Something that will increase their work capacity, and recovery abilities, down the line. I’m not arguing that it should be done in-season, or pre-season, or heck even in the summer. But I think as something during the spring it wouldn’t be detrimental to them. I also agree with your idea of mental toughness, basically, if they are playing in the NFL, they probably have the requisite mental toughness, but I think that is an assumption and not necessarily a fact. I remember Jay Glazer talking about the maturation that Matt Leinart went through after training with himself and Randy Couture one off-season. Granted, that very well may have been more due to mental training and off the mat stuff that they did with him. But I think it has more benefits than it’s being given credit for.

      • Nick Horton says:

        I think we’re mostly on the same page. If it’s done simply as GPP work, and the stuff that could result in real injury is taken out, it’s fine.

        And, I’m with you that it is an assumption that NFL guys will have the requisite mental toughness – it isn’t a fact. Though I still contend that MMA work isn’t the way to build the type of toughness they would need.

        I’m still not sure that this type of training is the best use of their limited off-season time. The term off-season is really a misnomer, as you know. That’s when much of the work that makes them great on the field in the first place is done. It should be called the “training season” or something to that effect.

        In light of that, they need to do only those activities that have the greatest expected value of return. If the risks are a bit high (like with serious grappling and full on punching and kicking), but the payoff is only a GPP workout, I’m not for it.

        If all they are doing is light sparring, hitting the bag, etc. Then it’s prolly fine. I think it’s just gonna come down to what we mean when we say, “MMA Training.”

  • Lou K says:

    Hey Bret thank you for your blog and introducing us to this conversation,

    I ask: What is MMA training?

    What we’re lacking here is a clear definition of “MMA training.” Coach Boyle (who is a huge influence to me) and others mention the muscular endurance and circuit training examples seen online and referred as “MMA training.” Even though they are fairly common on youtube, they are examples of training the wrong way…even for MMA. Take a look at George St. Pierre training:

    You see things like heavy triples, strength, and power training instead of the plethora of marathon circuits. But that doesn’t mean he’s “NFL training” or “powerlifting” he’s “MMA training” (and UFC commentators wonder why he is such a dominant champ).

    MMA training the right way can benefit the athlete in another sport if placed during the appropriate time in a program (conditioning or a back-off period for example). It’s fun for the athletes, it can have great GPP benefits if the training parameters are reasonable (short explosive circuits – not the marathon stuff), and you can reinforce good general body mechanics (which has never hurt anyone in any sport).

  • Georges trains with Jon Chaimberg who I mentioned in the article. His training is very good and very atypical.

Leave a Reply


and receive my FREE Lower Body Progressions eBook!

You have Successfully Subscribed!