Taking Your MMA Skills to the Next Level

MMA is an individual sport like none other. Even hobbyists train 5 or more times a week and gain skills in diverse backgrounds like BJJ, striking, and wrestling. On top of that regime, almost all MMA practitioners—professional or not—engage in some kind of strength and conditioning routine. With all the effort you already put into training, it can be hard to know how you can take your skills to the next level, particularly if you’re already doing so much to improve as a fighter. However, there are a few things you may not have considered just yet which will give you a competitive edge.

Practice More

We’re just covering the bases here: if you can practice more, and you want to practice more, then you should. The skills required of MMA athletes take years to learn correctly, and if you don’t practice them often enough, they will lose their effectiveness. As a reference, consider the habits of the Daisy Fresh BJJ team: at Daisy Fresh, students routinely practice twice or more a day, sometimes 7 days a week. While that might not be sustainable for most of us, it does give you some indication of how much there is to learn and how little time we have to learn it.

If you do add supplemental practice to your current routine, make sure it is low-intensity. Research suggests that MMA athletes should engage in more low-intensity practice, as extended high-intensity practice can lead to fatigue and injury. So, instead of adding hard rounds of wrestling to your Wednesday night session, consider moderate bag work or touch sparring rounds with a focus on technique and timing. 

Find a Better School

The best way to improve your skills as a fighter is to move to an elite school. Finding better coaches, partners, and facilities increases the amount of quality feedback you will receive and will help you refine your skills (you know: “iron sharpens iron” and all that good stuff). When you feel like you’ve exhausted your current school’s offering, don’t feel bad about making a switch—moving to a city with a great academy could be the best thing for you. Bigger cities offer lots of perks like more entertainment and cultural diversity, and this includes more gyms and martial arts schools.

If you’re not sure of where to look, here’s a quick rundown of the major cities for MMA in North America:

  • Sacramento: Team Alpha Male is now fighting out of Uriah Faber’s UltimateFitness in Sacramento. The academy which produced Faber also boasts champions like T.J. Dillashaw and Chris Holdsworth. You can actually see who teaches the classes before you sign up, so if you want to take a no-gi class from Faber himself you can.
  • Albuquerque: The Jackson Wink gym in Albuquerque has the most impressive former champions of any MMA academy. Jon Jones, George St. Pierre, Holly Holm, Carlos Condit, and Rashard Evans have all trained at the school. If you’re judging by championship credentials alone, then there isn’t a better place on the planet.
  • San Jose: if you’re a wrestler looking to transition to MMA, you should train at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. Previous grapplers-turned-champs are Daniel Cormier, B.J. Penn, and Khabib Nurmagomedov. The coaches will take your bad habits from grappling and turn you into a fighter with very few weaknesses to exploit.
  • Montreal: Firas Zahabi has built a school in Quebec that can rival any MMA gym in the world. His gym, Tristar, routinely hosts world-renowned instructors, and George St Pierre coaches at the gym.

If you do make the move, know that you won’t be alone—prospective fighters from around the globe travel to great gyms with the hope of achieving their dreams.

Practice Smarter

It doesn’t matter if you’ve trained for 5 months or 5 years, you’ve likely been in a sparring scrap that got out of hand. It can be tempting to meet fire with fire, and sometimes you might have to. Generally, though, you should communicate with your training partners if they are pushing the limits of smart sparring and try to de-escalate before someone starts throwing full-power head kicks.

You also need to think of recovery as part of your practice regime, rather than something reserved for professionals. Good recovery is simpler than you think: fine-tuning your diet to include more low-carb meals, getting 8-10 hours of sleep, and adequate hydration really makes all the difference. By living the fighter’s lifestyle, you can ensure that you give your body the best chance to recover, and will be able to maintain a higher performance through all phases of MMA.

Reassess Your Goals

What is the “next level” for you? If you’re part of the chosen few who fight professionally, then championship belts and sponsorship deals might be realistic next steps in your MMA career. For most of us, though, the “next level” of MMA has nothing to do with glory and bright lights. Instead, that next level might be developing a question mark kick of envy or learning to shoot a double leg that no one in your gym can sprawl from.

When reassessing your goals, try to remember what got you into MMA. Did you join your local club because MMA workouts can help with self-image and confidence? Maybe you joined your club to gain life skills in self-defense and conflict resolution? Whatever your original motivation was, try to recapture that and assess the “big picture” before you decide upon what the next level of MMA looks like for yourself.

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