MMA Meets OPT™: A Powerful Way to Serve Your Tribe

Add some extra punch to your programming with a highly effective, motivating and exhilarating MMA-style drill, grounded in the scientific principles of Phase 5 of the NASM Optimum Performance Training™ model. Members are sure to get a kick out of it, and so are you.

by Marty Miller


Members report a variety of benefits from MMA-style conditioning, including better balance, flexibility and performance in other sports like tennis and golf.

With the rise in popularity of mixed martial arts, the fitness industry has seen a simultaneous increase in MMA conditioning techniques being used by fitness professionals. While most of your clients won't be in a cage fight anytime soon, that doesn't mean you can't condition them with techniques similar to those used by combat athletes.

First, though the movements will be new, the format will be familiar to them: The high-intensity interval training workouts used by MMA fighters closely parallel the Power Level workouts from NASM's Optimum Performance Training™ model. Second, as is true of other Power Level HIIT workouts, MMA-based HIIT programs provide a range of health benefits for participants beyond the cardiovascular (more on that later).

Also, exercisers who have tried "striking conditioning" (punching and kicking air drills) find it challenging, fun and productive (see "Member Reactions" at the end of this article).

Having the ability to create workouts that include OPT power training as well as striking conditioning will add tremendous value to any fitness professional's business. Clientele interested in this type of training will benefit from working with a fitness professional who progresses them through the different levels of the OPT model to prepare them for the demands of MMA-style power training.

"Click here to jump to the Get Moving MMA Style Workout."

In this article, we will explore how to combine the principles and practices of NASM's OPT model with striking training—and how this one-two punch can provide unique benefits to a wide range of clients.

OPT Phase 5 and MMA-Style Training
To review, the Power Level is the summit of NASM's OPT model, and it consists of only one phase—Phase 5: Power. As always, clients should first be progressed through the first two levels of the OPT model—Stabilization and Strength—which are made up of 4 phases total (see figure). The gains made in these levels provide a solid foundation on which to begin the Power Level, Phase 5.

The systematic and integrative OPT™ model progresses clients safely and effectively.

The Power Phase of training focuses on producing movements with higher levels of force at a higher velocity. This is accomplished by recruiting more motor units and doing so more quickly (each motor unit being one neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates). The ability to move quickly and explosively is essential for most sports, including MMA fighting. But power also plays an important role in everyday life. For example, in the course of someone's daily activities, they may have to sprint to make it somewhere on time, or they may make a misstep on an uneven sidewalk and have to quickly regain their balance. Another reason it's essential to add power training into a client's fitness program: A decrease in power translates into a loss of performance. Once individuals stop training, they can see their overall power decrease almost as quickly as they had gained it (Gregory 2012).

Specific Benefits of HIIT-MMA-Power Workouts
HIIT workouts provide unique health benefits, especially once the participant has properly progressed through the Stabilization and Strength Levels of the OPT model. HIIT workouts are correlated to an increase in cardiovascular performance and higher caloric expenditure since the participant will reach higher heart rate training zones during the workout. In addition, Power Level HIIT workouts will make the participant more explosive and powerful (Mangine 2015). These combined effects have made this type of training extremely popular, as expending high amounts of calories, increasing cardiovascular fitness and improving power output are goals common to all types of fitness participants.

For the striking athlete at any level, though, these cardiovascular and power enhancements are absolutely essential. Professional striking athletes, such as elite boxers or mixed martial artists, must train explosively to address a crucial component of the sport. The ability of a striker to produce high levels of rotational power of the hips and trunk will translate into an increase in extremity speed of their upper- and lower-body strikes. Further, increasing the speed at which their arms and legs can move will give them the ability to execute a strike at a much higher speed, while delivering a more forceful blow. In mixed martial arts, proper technique is important, but if a strike is delivered too late or too weakly, it will be ineffective.

Two other important benefits that are seen from striking drills can be an increase in flexibility and improvements in balance—both of which are also necessary in the ring and in everyday life. Flexibility of the thoracic spine, hips, groin and hamstrings (regions of the body that tend to become restricted, leading to an increased chance of injury), will reflect dramatic improvements in range of motion (ROM) when strikes are thrown with proper form and technique. Striking requires rapid rotation of the thoracic spine and hips in multiple planes of motion, which is advantageous to those who work out using primarily exercises based in the sagittal plane.

In addition, dynamic balance is greatly challenged as participants throw strikes with increased speed. During the different strikes, a high level of balance will be required to deliver higher levels of force. This is especially true when kicking and driving the knee upward (see workout) because one foot will be off the ground for a period of time. There can also be an increase in coordination and cognitive ability as striking will require the participant to react to the instructor's cues while remembering the particular strike combinations.

Striking requires rapid rotation of the thoracic spine and hips in multiple planes of motion, which is advantageous to those who work out using primarily exercises based in the sagittal plane.

Striking Conditioning and Other Sports
The benefits derived from MMA-style training within the Power Level of the OPT model have tremendous carryover to other sports. When ROM is limited in the hips, thoracic spine, and/or shoulders, the muscles that athletes use in throwing, swinging and kicking will not be able to load maximally, thus limiting their ability to produce power. When this occurs, there will be a decreased ability to accelerate a limb and/or an implement, such as a club, racquet, bat or ball.

However, when an individual participates in striking conditioning and power training, they will gain the ability to produce more force simply because they have learned to properly rotate their hips and spine, producing more potential rotational power in the opposite direction. This can be linked to the stretch shortening cycle, which is when a muscle is rapidly loaded, or put into a stretched position, it will be able to produce more force in the opposite direction during the release. (It may help to think of the muscle group as a rubber band being stretched and let go.)

Because proper striking form absolutely requires engaging the hips, spine and shoulders, athletes who use striking conditioning will increase their ROM in these areas, which can benefit them during the throws, swings and other movements required in their sport.

A Primer on MMA-Style Workout Moves
The information provided below is intended to clarify the workout moves so the reader can best understand what this workout might look like. It is important for fitness professionals to gain proper training in striking before teaching these moves to clients. Here are some key terms to know.

Stance: In striking drills, knees should be slightly bent, weight should be resting lightly (feet should not be planted). Step forward with one foot so the feet are at a 45-degree angle to the "front" of the exerciser. The front/lead arm is used for jabs and the rear arm for cross punches.

Combinations: This is when several striking moves are done in a sequence. In combinations, the side of the body that is used generally alternates, except with respect to a jab (which is always done with the front arm) and cross (which is always done with the back arm). So, if the combination is jab-cross-uppercut, the jab and uppercut would be done with the same arm.

Jab: Straight punch with lead arm.

Cross: Straight punch with rear arm.

Hook: Lateral punch with elbow bent to roughly 90 degrees. (Aim your punch at chin level as if striking an imaginary opponent's jaw.)

Uppercut: Punch that comes up from side at waist level, aiming for underside of imaginary opponent's chin.

Front Kick: Kick that would be used to kick directly straight in front of you. Begin in Single-Leg Balance position (see Step 3 below), then snap the lower leg out and back quickly.

Knee: Used to deliver an upwards strike to the opponent's body. Knee should be pointed (bent to an angle smaller than 45 degrees).

Switch Steps: This is switching your stance while bouncing on the balls of both feet. Keeping both feet about shoulder-width apart, start with the left foot leading. Then bounce up and turn your torso (without changing your leg positions) so that you land with your right foot forward. You'll be quickly switching your stance with every bounce.

Seal Jacks: These are like jumping jacks, but your arms will move horizontally to the front of you (like a seal clapping its fins), rather than over your head.

Why Do Fitness Professionals Need to Learn Proper Form?
As with any other fitness technique, the success of each individual and the program as a whole is dependent upon the ability and knowledge of the instructor. As individuals participate in power training, there is an increased risk of injury due to the explosiveness of the moves and the advanced techniques needed to properly execute the exercises and combinations. For this reason, it is imperative that every fitness professional search out the proper training for themselves prior to introducing new techniques to their clients. In the case of striking conditioning, fitness professionals who do not have a traditional background in striking must first learn how to properly throw (and later teach) the most common punches, kicks, knees and elbows. They must also learn the proper methods of holding pads, calling out combinations and correcting participants' form. To assist instructors in their education, Everlast has designed the F.I.T. 360 program, which is an NASM-approved CEU course ( In addition to learning striking techniques, participants of the F.I.T. 360 program learn proper coaching techniques for different class sizes, as well how to put together appropriate striking combinations. You may also want to consider looking into the NASM MMA Conditioning Specialization (MMACS), which offers a downloadable programming and course manual, as well as an online exercise library. Learn more at

Member Reactions to Striking Conditioning
As a martial arts enthusiast, I love using striking drills in the gym for cardio, dynamic flexibility, coordination training, stress management, calorie burning and simply just for fun. They also allow me to introduce my love of the martial arts to people who may never choose to enter a karate studio.

As mentioned before, perhaps one of the most compelling reasons for a fitness professional to learn how to teach striking conditioning is this: Members love it! In February 2017, I initiated the Everlast F.I.T. 360 striking program at Mizner Country Club, in Delray Beach, Florida, and it has been a huge success. The F.I.T. 360 workout has been a great addition to our regular programming and has added a new sense of excitement for our members. Every class is full, and members continue to ask for additional classes. Fortunately, we will be doing a fitness center expansion in the very near future, and space has been dedicated to accommodate additional striking conditioning classes!

The most interesting thing about the program is how diverse the attendees are. We have men and women of all ages participating in and thoroughly enjoying this type of training. The members who have taken these classes are telling other clients (and instructors) how fun the workout is and how effective it has been in improving their cardiovascular fitness as well as their golf and tennis games. Some members have also begun asking about scheduling private one-on-one striking conditioning lessons with an instructor. The workout continues to rise in popularity. So, to say it has been a "hit" would be an understatement.

Sample Striking and Power Hybrid Workout
The following program is an example of a workout created using the NASM OPT Power Level of training and the Everlast F.I.T. 360 program. Please note that the warm-up involves some stabilization activities to ensure that the stabilization mechanisms are activated prior to placing high levels of explosive and dynamic power throughout the body.

If done one time, this workout allows for 15 minutes of high-intensity work. More rounds may easily be added if time allows or the client can handle higher levels of work. It is recommended that this workout be done 2 times per week for beginners and 3–4 times a week for more-advanced exercise enthusiasts. These workouts should not occur on back-to-back days, and the individual should feel fully recovered before repeating the workout.

Step 1: Self-Myofacsial Release

Calves (Gastrocnemius/Soleus)

Iliotibial (IT) Band

Thoracic Spine

Latissimus Dorsi


Active Gastrocnemius Stretch With Pronation and Supination

Active Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Active Latissimus Dorsi Stretch


Single-Leg Balance and Reach
10 reps/leg, holding each reach for 1 second.

Prisoner Squats
12 reps (quicker tempo)
Maintain control at all times.

Speed Pushups
12 reps (quick tempo)
Maintain proper form at all times.


This is a sample MMA-themed HIIT drill. To avoid injury and maximize effectiveness, these moves should be done using proper form at all times. If participants' form is suffering, they should be instructed to slow their striking to the speed at which they are able to maintain proper form. The exception here is the "speed" drills, in which the moves should be done as quickly as possible, while maintaining form that is as decent as possible. (See "A Primer" for explanations of the moves listed below.)

Body-Weight Speed Squats
Jab-Cross Speed Combination
Jumping Jacks

Jab-Cross-Knee-Front Kick
Speed Pushups
Jump Squats

Switch Steps
Jab-Front Kick-Knee
Seal Jacks

Keys to Evaluating a New Workout Trend
When a new exercise mode comes into vogue, it can be an exciting! Who doesn't want to inject some fun and variety into their workout program? But as a fitness professional, it's crucial for you to make sure that a new trend is both safe and effective before introducing it to clients. The NASM Certified Personal Trainer program presents fitness professionals with the tools and knowledge needed to evaluate popular new workouts using science, not just popular opinion.

According to the NASM-CPT text NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training (2017): "In order for a result to be scientifically sound it must be valid, reliable, and repeatable. A new form of exercise may allegedly produce significant results, but if it is not supported by scientific research, it becomes a questionable trend."

The NASM-CPT program familiarizes fitness professionals with NASM's Optimum Performance Training™ model (see figure), which enables clients to be progressed safely through three levels of training—Stabilization, Strength and Power—in any type of workout format. It's important to take the time to do this, no matter how excited someone is about a new workout craze. "Sometimes trainers and clients want to rush into power training. This may lead to burnout and injury due to the client's lack of strength and stability. Therefore, the trainer should use appropriate caution and communication to ensure that the client is fully prepared for the demands of the Power Level (2017)." In short, clients should not be going full-out at a boot camp or kickboxing class without being properly assessed and, if needed, progressed.

Criteria for Participation in the Power Level
NASM lists these as the criteria for participation in the Power Level:

  • Core and joint stability
  • A good strength base
  • Optimal range of motion around key joints, such as the hips and ankles
  • Good neuromuscular control

Assessing Readiness for Power Level Training
Trainers can use an overhead squat assessment or wall-facing squat to screen participants. Presence of any compensations means corrective exercise must be done prior to transitioning that person to the Power Level:

  • Excessive forward trunk lean
  • Knees falling inward (valgus)
  • Heels coming up
  • A lean to one side
  • Inability to get the thighs parallel to the ground

In the NASM-CPT program, fitness professionals will learn more about all three levels of the OPT model and the five phases they include. Because everyone has different learning styles, information is delivered in a variety of ways online, such as through reading, learning activities, concise videos, lectures, case studies, quizzes and practice exams. To learn more about the NASM-CPT program options, go to


Gregory C. 2012. Effects of physical activity and inactivity on muscle fatigue. Frontiers in Physiology, 3, 142.

NASM (NationalAcademy of Sports Medicine). 2017. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training (5th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Mangine, G.T., et al. 2015. The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiological Reports, 3, (8) e12472.

Meet our experts

NASMMA15_BACK_06_156x172 Marty Miller, ATC, DHSC, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, Master Instructor, is director of fitness at Mizner Country Club in Delray Beach, Fla.

The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more