Nonlinear Periodization for MMA

Nonlinear Periodization for MMA

David Bellomo, PES


Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a complex sport that combines the punching and footwork of Western boxing, the elbow and knee strikes of Muy Tai, and the grappling of Greco Roman wrestling and Jui Jitsu.  In recent years, the popularity of MMA has increased exponentially largely due to televised sporting events such as the Ultimate Fighting Championships and has more men and women training for the sport than ever before. Thus, a demand for solid, scientifically based training information has been created.  

Currently, very little research has been performed specifically for the sport of MMA.  As a result, athletes and exercises science professionals have been forced to rely upon strength and conditioning programs for sports such as wrestling, boxing, and kickboxing (3). 

Due to the broad scope of physical demands, including technical training, MMA athletes may be exposed to an increased risk of overtraining when compared to other athletes (3).  In addition, MMA fighters are required to maintain high levels multiple training attributes including, but not limited to, strength, power, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular endurance (3).  Thus, it is important to utilize a periodized approach for the organization of training intensity, volume, density, and exercise selection.  

Re-thinking Periodization

Periodization is a method of strength and conditioning program design that involves the planned manipulation of program variables and has been shown to be more effective in eliciting gains in strength and lean body mass than non-periodized programs.   With periodized programs, training variables are manipulated by changing the intensity, volume, density, and/or exercises selection over time in a pre-planned fashion.  Due to the large number of potential program variations, many forms of periodization exist. The most common of these variations is linear, or traditional, periodization (6).

The linear model of periodization advocates organizing the training program by simultaneously decreasing volume and increasing intensity.  Linear periodization divides training into different phases, or cycles.  These programs typically include macrocycles of 9-12 months, mesocylces of 3-4 months, and microcycles of 1-4 weeks.  Terminology may vary between eastern and western sources, specifically between the terms “cycle” and “macrocycle”, though the organization of these programs into annual plans is essentially the same (5,6).

Nonlinear, or undulating, periodization is a newer model of periodization that has emerged, in part, to address the needs of athletes where multiple training attributes are required simultaneously or for sports with no defined peaks (6).   Unlike the linear model, the nonlinear model of periodization is characterized by more frequent alterations of training variables.  Such training alterations may occur monthly, weekly, or even daily.  The purpose of such frequent adjustments is to more efficiently stimulate the neuromuscular system and improve recovery, thus maximizing training outcomes (1, 2).   Both the linear and non-linear models of periodization divide the training program into phases, where planned adjustments are made to training variables.

Why Nonlinear Periodization?

For the sport of MMA, the nonlinear model of periodization is more appropriate than the linear model because it allows the simultaneous development of multiple fitness attributes such as power, power-endurance, speed, and strength.  Nonlinear periodization is also a more practical choice for MMA program design because the sport of MMA has no clearly defined season.  In addition, many MMA fights are scheduled on short notice.  All of these factors make it necessary for the MMA athlete to maintain high levels of fitness throughout the year.  This is inconsistent with the more commonly used linear periodization model, in which the “peaking” of only one training variable is allowed at any given time (4).

Considerations for Program Design

Due to the dynamic nature of MMA, strength and conditioning programs should be comprehensive and should include sport specific training.  Effective programming should include training stimuli that is explosive for throws and striking, high in resistance for grappling and ground fighting, and highly dense to meet aerobic demands and combat lactate accumulation (3).

Typical MMA bouts consist of three, 5-minute rounds, though title bouts may have up to five, 5-minute rounds.  Although fights lasting 15-25 minutes involve the aerobic energy system, the majority of that time is spent performing brief, explosive movements.  Thus, the ATC-PC and lactic acid energy systems are taxed as well (3).  Although maximal strength for lifting, pushing, pulling, as well as cardiovascular endurance are important attributes for MMA, a better predictor of competitive success is power-endurance. Power-endurance can be defined as the ability to repeatedly perform explosive movements without excess fatigue.  Development of power-endurance through intense bouts of interval training may help in buffering high blood acidity levels that may be encountered in an MMA bout by conditioning the body to reduce and/or clear blood lactate at a higher rate, thus delaying the onset of muscular fatigue (3).

Strength and conditioning programs for MMA may include workouts that focus on the development of basic strength, power, and power-endurance.  This training program would likely schedule sessions for each of these training capacities on a weekly basis.  Though fluctuations of training variables may occur on a daily basis, it is important to note that nonlinear programming is not random.  As with any periodized training model, nonlinear periodization requires long-term planning to achieve optimal training outcomes. 

Though a long-range example of this type of programming is beyond the scope of this article, an example (Table 1) is provided to illustrate what an MMA athlete’s weekly strength and conditioning program might look like.  All workouts should be loaded vertically.  On Day 1 (Basic strength), the intensity should be 80-100% and rest periods 3-5 minutes.  Day 1 “heavy lifts” are included to develop strength necessary for grappling and pick-ups.  Day 2 (Power-endurance) intensity should be 50-70%.  Rest for Day 2 should gradually be eliminated between exercises, and kept to 2-3 minutes between circuits, to improve buffering of high blood lactate levels that are likely to be encountered in an MMA bout (2).  Last, Day 3 (Power) intensity ranges from 30-45%, or bodyweight when applicable to assist the athlete in the development of explosive, powerful movements.  As with Day 1, rest will be 3-5 minutes between exercises.  On all resistance-training days, 3-5 circuits are to be performed to simulate MMA rounds. 

Table 1. 

Day 1                                                Sets             Reps           Intensity

Basic Strength                                3-5              1-5              80-100%

Power clean                                    3-5              1-5              80-100%

Standing barbell press                  3-5              1-5              80-100%

Weighted chin-ups                        3-5              1-5              80-100%

Bench press                                    3-5              1-5              80-100%

Deadlift                                           3-5              1-5              80-100%

Day 2                                               Sets             Reps           Intensity

Kettlebell Snatch                            3-5              12-15          50-70%

Kettlebell shoulder press              3-5              12-15          50-70%

Bentover kettlebell row                3-5              12-15          50-70%      

Kettlebell high pull                         3-5              12-15          50-70%

Kettlebell clean                               3-5              12-15          50-70%

Lateral kettlebell shuffle               3-5              12-15          50-70%

Day 3                                                Sets             Reps           Intensity

Box jumps                                        3-5              5-10            BW

Tire flip                                             3-5              5-10            low

Day 3          (Cont.)                          Sets             Reps           Intensity

Med ball press                                 3-5              5-10            low

Lateral bench jumps                       3-5              5-10            BW

Med ball soccer throw                    3-5              5-10            low            

Lateral push-up shuffle                  3-5              5-10            BW

Lunge jumps                                    3-5              5-10            BW


Designing strength and conditioning programs for the MMA athlete can be a difficult and complex endeavor due to the broad scope of attributes that are required for the sport of MMA.   High levels of strength, power, muscular endurance, aerobic endurance, and various combinations of the traits are all necessary for competitive success in mixed martial arts.  It is therefore prudent for the exercise science professional to design programs that optimize training outcomes by utilizing a nonlinear periodized program.  Nonlinear periodization allows the athlete the freedom to schedule a bout at a moment’s notice and maintain high levels of all of the attributes that the sport of MMA requires and is certainly the most practical choice of program model. 


  1. Baker, D., Wilson, G., Carlyon, R. (1994). Periodization: The effect on strength of manipulating volume and intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research8 (4), 235-242.
  2. Buford, t., Rossi, S., Smith, D., and Wallace, A. (2007). A comparison of periodization models during nine weeks with equated volume and intensity for strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21(4), 1245-1250.
  3. La Bounty, P., Campbell, B., Glavan, E., Cooke, M.,  and Antonio, J. (2011). Strength and conditioning considerations for mixed martial arts. Strength and Conditioning Journal 33(1), 57-67.

4.  Peterson, M., Dodd, D., Alvar, B., Rhea, M., and Favre, M. (2008). Undulation training for development of hierarchal fitness and improved firefighter job performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22(5), 1683-1695. 

5.  Prestes, J., Frollini, A., de Lima, C., Donato, F., Foshini, D., Marqueti, R., Figueira, A., and Fleck, S. (2009). Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23(9), 2437-2442.

6.  Rhea, M., Philips, W., Stone, W., Ball, S., Alvar, B., and Thomas, A. (2003). A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for local muscular endurance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research17 (1), 82-87.

About Dave Bellomo

Dave Bellomo has worked in a variety of positions in the fitness management field including: corporate wellness, personal training, and program design for amateur and professional athletes. Bellomo has written numerous articles on fitness and strength training and has produced several videos as well as the book, Kettlebell Training for Athletes (McGraw-Hill, 2010). He continues to consult with high-level athletes such as mixed martial artists, strongman competitors, and elite military and law enforcement professionals such as members of Homeland Security and US Special Operations. Bellomo is available for seminars and can be contacted through his website,
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