MMA is a supremely physically and mentally demanding sport,it’s almost impossible to train at a really high level without having a very high level of fitness let alone compete. The physical demands are such that the most common reaction to someone doing their first lesson is “I need to get fitter!”. There is no question that physical fitness is a huge asset and a requirement if you are training or competing in MMA but how should this be reflected in your classes?
Because of the intense physical nature of MMA it is incredibly common to see drills performed at high intensity by default, following the conventional wisdom that the harder you train the easier life will be in the cage. However, for almost any given drill there is a broad spectrum of intensity levels that can be applied to it, is it wise to go 100% all the time? I would argue absolutley not. The important thing to understand is the effect going all out will have on your technique. Regradless of whether you’re Jon Jones or GSP it’s inevitable that as you raise intensity technique will drop – the harder you go the harder it is to do the technique and the harder it is to improve the technique. Let’s use an exterme example to prove this theory – if you had been shown an Elbow Extension Submission / Arm Bar for the first time what would be the chances that you could then go into some free sparring and successfully apply it against a skilled and experienced opponent? Almost zero. If instead your opponent laid still and gave you their arm without resistance you would have a pretty good chance of successfully applying the technique.
As a guide a drills intensity is inversely proportional to its technical focus. If I do a really intense drill I won’t expect to make huge progress on my individual techniques but I may greatly improve my conditioning and ability to deal with stress and pressure. If I do a really soft, relaxed drill I will expect that my technical level can be kept much higher throughout and so greater technical progress can be made but it won’t do much for preparing me for a highly competitive situation.
Training intensely doesn’t reduce your technical progression to zero, any time you spend training is time you will be progressing, but it’s good to understand that your technique won’t progress as quickly at this end of the spectrum. When my students are learning a new skill, whether it be an individual technique, combination of moves or a whole tactical piece I always explain that you need to get the technique correct and then add then speed and intensity – don’t expect to be able to go fast and hard and then add the technique later.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t train intensely, we absolutely must and we must do it often. There’s no use being able to do a technique perfectly under ideal circumstances if you can’t perform it in a realistic competitive scenario. The very definition of a practical combat technique must include the fact that it can be done in a stressful, demanding and intense situation against a non compliant opponent. And you will improve technically when you are drilling or sparring at full pace, especially if you are an experienced student doing techniques that are familiar.
Of course the skill level of each student and the compotency level they have for each technique varies greatly. If you’re an experienced student then you’ll be able to do basic techniques at a high intensity and still keep good form and get technical progression (there’s never a time when your technique can’t improve!) so this spectrum changes continuously depending on your experience and your skill set. These rules don’t just apply to single techniques either, if you’re learning a new tactical skill or advanced set up / combination then you still need to operate at the correct part of the spectrum in order to get the effect that you desire.
The ultimate aim of this is to select an intensity that will allow you to get the maximum benefit from your training time. As an instructor I’m always very specific about what I expect in terms of intensity from any drill. The big mistake that many students / instructors make is to ramp up the intensity too quickly. Many inexperienced MMA instructors don’t have the confidence to slow things down and focus on detail, either they’re not clear on the complexities of a technique so they mask it with hard work or they get apprehensive that if the students aren’t sweating then the class isn’t a ‘good’ one.
Of course we all want to progress fast and feel like we’re training hard but if you really want to progress then you have to train smart. You need to have the discipline and the understanding to move away from the high intensity workouts when it’s necessary.