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Train Like a Fighter—Without Being One

By James Parker

As anyone familiar with the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), knows, fighters are in awesome shape. Cut muscles, lean bodies, hard abs—they look good. But it's about a lot more than appearances (and broken noses). To be successful, even amateur fighters must maintain their strength, cardiovascular efficiency, and endurance at peak levels through a brutal but effective exercise regimen. They build a lot of lean muscle mass as they burn a ton of fat. What they do to get there isn't pretty. But if you're ready to get down and dirty, we've got a starter program that will help get you to fighting shape. Do the one-hour fighter workout outlined below a couple of times per week, in addition to your regular training regimen, and you should see results in just a few weeks.

Limbering Up
First off, you need to spend some time warming up. Gone are the days of jumping right in to your workouts. For this type of training, with its speed, intensity, and variety, prepping your muscles for what you're about to do is a necessity. Start by jogging in place, jumping rope, or using the treadmill/elliptical/bike for a minimum of five minutes. Next, work all the joints through a series of clockwise and counter clockwise circular rotations, starting with the ankles and progressing up to your neck. Give each joint about five to 10 rotations each direction. If you want to stretch, now would be a good time to do it. Refrain from ballistic stretching—focus on slow pulls and breathing.

The Conveyor Belt
A conveyor belt exists for the purpose of performing ceaseless movement. For the next part of your routine, think about becoming a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt is a program that places a number of exercises in a row, one after another, relentlessly. You perform the exercises for time (anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds), with an equal amount of time spent immediately afterwards on active recovery. The idea is to train muscle strength as you maintain an elevated heart rate. You will be building muscle mass as you burn calories—but only if you keep the conveyor belt moving.

The emphasis here is on active recovery—you never stop moving on a conveyor belt. Active recovery can be anything from jumping jacks to pacing back and forth. Basically, it's anything that doesn't include lying on your back, gasping for breath. The active recovery part of this program will actually become harder to do as time progresses—because you'll become more breathless with each cycle. And, just to make sure you stay in gear, you'll do each exercise and active recovery twice through before moving on.

A proper conveyor works the whole body, either through functional exercises such as squats that work multiple muscle groups at once, or by putting exercises for different muscle groups one after another. So, as you fatigue each muscle you move on to a new one, allowing you to stay on the conveyor, and in that elevated cardiovascular state. For instance, you might begin with 30 seconds of squats, followed by 30 seconds of active recovery. Do this twice, and then move on to something totally different—push-ups, for instance, again done twice through, each time with recovery. Next, you'd move on to sit-ups, using the same method.

Here's a handy table—do two sets of each exercise, with jumping jacks in between each set. After the second set of each exercise, do another 30 - 60 seconds of jumping jacks before moving into the next exercise. Go through the entire conveyor belt two to three times before moving on.

Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Recovery Notes
Prisoner Squats Legs 2 (30 seconds each) 30 - 60 seconds jumping jacks For extra credit, do plyometric jump squats
Push-ups Chest; Back 2 (30 seconds each) 30 - 60 seconds jumping jacks Add even more intensity with plyometric clap push-ups
Sit-ups Abdominals 2 (30 seconds each) 30 seconds jumping jacks
The Fryer
After you've completed the conveyor belt, you're ready to jump into the fryer—a series of exercises that focus on muscle endurance and lactic acid tolerance. The fryer consists of three segments, in each of which a number of exercises are performed for reps, with no rest, focusing on one specific area of the body. Whereas on the conveyor you quickly moved from one muscle group to the next, in the fryer you'll take each muscle group to true fatigue through a series of exercises targeting one part of the body in multiple ways. First up, we target the core. Next is the upper body, and finally, the legs. By the time you're done you'll not only be panting—you'll have wrung all the strength out of each part of your body, and be ready to rebuild a stronger, leaner you.

For the core fryer, you will need an 8 to 10 pound medicine ball (or dumbbell/kettlebell) for each exercise. Remember to go immediately from one exercise to the next, with no rest in between. That's going to get very hard after the first couple of exercises. Dig in deep and do this core fryer one to three times through, depending on how much you can take.

Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Reps Notes
Medicine Ball Russian Twists Abs; Obliques 1 15 - 20
Heavy Medicine Ball Chops: Center, Diagonal, Side-to-Side Abs; Obliques 1 15 - 20
Medicine Ball Situps on Stability Ball Abs 1 15 - 20 If you don't have access to a stability ball, you can do this exercise on the floor, or on a BOSU ball.
Rest for one minute following the core fryer, and then move to the next circuit—the upper body fryer. Do the upper-body fryer circuit one to two times through—try for two if you think you can hack it. Don't worry if you don't make it through all of the reps; do as many of each exercise as you can to failure, or do the prescribed number of reps, whichever comes first.

Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Reps Notes
Gravitron Speed Neutral-Grip Pull-ups Back; Arms 1 15 - 20
Push-ups Chest; Back; Arms 1 15 - 20
Dumbbell Punches—Side-to-Side, Cross Up, Cross Down, Hooks Arms 1 15 - 20 Use light weight for these punches. Start with 5 lbs.
Plyometric Clap Push-ups Upper body 1 15 - 20
You're almost done! Rest for a mere one minute after you complete the upper-body fryers, and then move on to the leg fryer. Usually, the legs can go through the fryer more than once—but be reasonable in your assessment of your strength and endurance, and modify as needed. Aim for two times through the leg fryer, but don't beat yourself up if you don't make it.

Exercise Muscles Sets Reps Notes
Prisoner Squats Legs 1 20 – 50 How many you do is determined by your endurance.
Super Legs Legs 1 20 of each type of lunge
Side-to-Side Bench Vaults Legs 1 20 If you prefer, you can do a standard box jump, jumping from a squat position up onto a stationary box or platform with both feet, and jumping (landing knees slightly bent) or stepping down.
Cool Down
After you finish the leg fryers, you'll be beat. But please don't just lie down and cry. Wrap up this routine with a cool down period of active recovery movements—walking, jacks, jogging lightly in place—and a thorough stretching of all muscles used. Make sure you are well hydrated before you start and stay hydrated throughout the routine.

After you get used to this program, you should be able to accomplish the entire workout in an hour; eventually your goal would be to perform it twice a week. Not only will you get a serious pump to the muscles, but you'll be surprised at the amount of fat loss you can achieve at this intensity. Just be sure to be safe and leave your ego at the door. Never perform an exercise you don't know how to do—instead replace it with one you know. Have fun and focus only on your honest determination to eventually achieve your goals. Remember, as all good fighters know, sometimes the mental aspects can beat you before the exercises get their chance.

About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.