The Metabolic Demands of MMA

Myths and misconceptions about the science of training can end a fighter’s career before it starts. The main objective of this series of articles is to set the record straight in one area in particular: the metabolic demands of mixed martial arts (MMA). This article will explore how your body powers the repeated high intensity efforts that characterize the sport. When you understand this, not only will you appreciate why you fatigue or gas-out in the cage, but you will know how to bring about specific physiological and biochemical adaptations that will optimize your performance on fight day.

Before we go on, I’d like you to first consider whether or not you hold any misconceptions about the metabolic demands of MMA. I’ve listed a few statements below to test your knowledge. See if you can separate the true statements from the false statements:

True or False: MMA is dominated by the anaerobic energy systems, which support powerful takedowns, grappling and powerful combinations. For this reason I should spend most of my time training the powerful anaerobic energy systems.

True or False: In a typical bout of MMA, aerobic energy systems don’t contribute much to my performance, especially compared to the anaerobic energy systems, so I don’t need to train the aerobic energy systems as much.

True or False: I shouldn’t train the aerobic energy systems very much because it will impair my strength and power development.


Ok, that’s it; how do you think you did? Are you 100 % confident in all of your answers? Here are the results: all of the above statements are false. If you’re not exactly sure why this is so, or if you disagree with me, then this series of articles on the metabolic demands of MMA is for you. We will be covering this topic from a scientific perspective, providing evidence for every claim we make and every myth we bust. This material is not ‘easy’, that’s why there are so many myths and misconceptions on the topic. When reading these articles, you will probably become confused and frustrated at some point. Send me your questions and I will help you as best I can. Remember, if you can master this material, you will have the key to unlocking your full potential in the cage.

 

What you will learn

If you’re going to understand how your body powers the repeated high intensity efforts that characterize a typical bout of MMA, you first need to understand how energy is created and transferred in the human body. For this reason, we’re going to review the basics of energy transfer in Part 1 of this article. This will serve as the foundation for everything else we talk about, so don’t skip it! In Part 2 we’ll focus on the energy system that is responsible for powering those short explosive efforts in the cage, like takedown attempts or powerful combinations. In Part 3 you’ll learn about the energy system that supports prolonged efforts, like extended grappling. Part 4 and 5 of this article will examine the energy systems that are responsible for supporting repeated high intensity efforts over a whole round, and over a whole fight.

You will learn how each energy systems works, I’ll show you how to target each system with exercise by manipulating the work-to-rest ratio, the work interval length and the rest intervals, and I’ll list the physiological and biochemical adaptations that you can expect when you target these energy system.

Mastering this material is critical for your success in MMA. From an educational perspective, knowing this information can help you separate good training advice from bad training advice. You may also save time and money on training plans that don’t work. From a performance perspective, you will improve your ability to perform repeated high intensity efforts over the course of a whole round, and over an entire fight. From a physiological and biochemical point of view, you’ll improve your aerobic and anaerobic fitness while avoiding reductions in strength and power that can follow certain types of aerobic training. Ok, let’s introduce the topic for Part 1: the basics of energy transfer.

 


Part 1: Energy Transfer

The basics of energy transfer

The energy that powers muscle contract comes from the food we eat. Macronutrients like carbohydrates, fat and protein are broken down into substrates like glucose and glycogen (from carbs), free fatty acids and glycerol (from fat), and amino acids (from protein). These substrates are used to generate energy with oxygen (aerobic metabolism) and without oxygen (anaerobic metabolism). Carbs, fats and protein can all broken down aerobically to produce energy, this reaction also produces carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. Anaerobic metabolism on the other hand, can only generate energy from carbs, but this chemical reaction produces hydrogen ions (H+) in addition to CO2. This increase in H+ is important because it can cause an increase the acidity of your muscle, which may impair muscle contraction and hurt your performance in the cage.

So you might be asking the question ‘why don’t our bodies just rely on aerobic metabolism; that would prevent the build-up of H+ right’? Well, aerobic metabolism can’t produce energy very quickly, and when you perform a take-down or a powerful combination, it cannot produce all of the energy that you need. Anaerobic metabolism produces energy much faster than aerobic metabolism. That’s why it’s so important in high intensity-short duration activities like take-down attempts, grappling and short striking combinations. But remember, anaerobic metabolism cannot produce energy for very long and it produces by-products that may impair your performance. Aerobic metabolism is probably more import in longer-duration lower intensity activities, but it is also critical in topping up your energy supply between repeated high intensity efforts. This is why the aerobic energy systems are so important in MMA.

Think of anaerobic energy metabolism as having a high power output and a low capacity. Think of aerobic energy metabolism as having a low power output and a high capacity.


In the human body energy is stored in chemical form, in a molecule called adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). ATP is made up of one adenosine molecule and three phosphates. Most of the energy is actually stored in the third phosphate bond. When this third bond is broken, energy is released and muscles contract. Importantly, one H+ is released when the third phosphate bond is broken, and both the phosphate and the H+ can build up around the muscle and possibly impair muscle contraction and your performance (3, 4).

 

atp

Fig 1. When the third phosphate bond is broken, ATP is converted to ADP. Energy is released, which powers muscle contraction, but a hydrogen ion and phosphate are also released, both of which can build up around the muscle and impair muscle contraction and possibly performance.

 

After the third phosphate bond has been broken, there are only two phosphates remaining. This leaves one molecule of adenosine di phosphate (ADP). This is a problem because we need ATP for muscle contraction. Of course, ATP is always present in the muscle, but in very low concentrations; approximately 100 grams, or just enough to power a few seconds of normal physiological functioning (1). If our muscles are to continue contracting, ATP must be continuously re-synthesized.

The average human can turn-over about 40 kg of ATP per day, but athletes turn over as much as 70 kg because they perform more ATP-dependent muscular contractions (2).


As you have probably guess by now, ATP resynthesis is achieved using aerobic metabolism and anaerobic metabolism. On the anaerobic side, there are two energy systems responsible for generating ATP. One is called the ATP-PCr system and the other is called anaerobic glycolysis. There are also two energy systems responsible for generating ATP aerobically. One is called aerobic glycolysis and the other is called aerobic oxidation. Each of these energy systems are shown below in Fig 2.

atp-resynthesis

Fig 2. ATP can be resynthesized aerobically (aerobic glycolysis and aerobic oxidation) and anaerobically (anaerobic glycolysis and the ATP-PCr system).

 

In the upcoming sections (Parts 2 through 5), you will learn how each energy systems works, I’ll show you how to target each system with exercise by manipulating the work-to-rest ratio, the work interval length and the rest intervals, and I’ll list the physiological and biochemical adaptations that you can expect when you target these energy system.

Take home message from Part 1

  • The energy that powers muscle contract comes from the food we eat. Carbs, fats and proteins are broken down aerobically, but only carbs can be broken down anaerobically. Anaerobic metabolism is a high power, low capacity system that produces energy, CO2 and H+. Aerobic metabolism is a low power, high capacity system that produces energy CO2 and water.
  • The body stores energy in ATP (one adenosine molecule and three phosphates).
  • When the third phosphate bond is broken, ATP is converted to ADP. Energy is released, which powers muscle contraction, but a hydrogen ion and phosphate are also released, both of which can build up around the muscle and impair muscle contraction and possibly hurt your performance.
  • ATP must be available for muscle contraction to occur, so it must be generated. There are four ways of regenerating ATP
    • The ATP-PCr system (anaerobic energy system)
    • Anaerobic glycolysis (anaerobic energy system)
    • Aerobic glycolysis (aerobic energy system)
    • Aerobic oxidation (aerobic energy system)


Part 1 References

  1. Mougios Exercise Biochemistry. Champaign ILL, Human Kinetics (2006)
  2. Plowman SA, Smith DL. (2011). Exercise Physiology: For Health, Fitness, And Performance (3rd). China: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  3. Spriet et al., J Appl Physiol 66:8-13 (1989)
  4. Westerbalad et al., News Physiol Sci 17:17-21 (2002)


Part 2: The ATP-PCr System

Understanding the metabolic demands of mixed martial arts (MMA) is the first step in designing a scientific training plan. If you don’t know which energy systems support your activity in the cage, or why you fatigue and gas-out, you may be targeting the wrong energy systems in training. This could lead to overtraining or undertraining, inappropriate development of the aerobic or anaerobic energy systems, or poor development of muscular strength and power. With an understanding of the metabolic demands of MMA, you will be able to stimulate specific physiological and biochemical adaptations that will optimize your performance on fight day. What better motivation do you need to read this series of articles than this?

In Part 1 of this article examining the metabolic demands of MMA, you learned about the basics of energy transfer. These concepts will serve as the foundation on which the remainder of the article is built, so I advise you to go back and re-read it if you are a bit confused. Part 2 will focus on the ATP-PCr energy system, which is responsible for supporting short explosive efforts in the cage, like take-down attempts or powerful combinations. The main objectives of this section are to, 1) teach you how this system works; 2) show you how to target it with exercise; 3) list the physiological and biochemical adaptations that may occur when you train it. Let’s jump right into the first objective.

 

How the system works

The ATP-PCr system supports short explosive efforts lasting 0 s to 30 s, like take-downs, powerful combinations, or other explosive grappling movements; this is shown below in Fig 3.

 

energy-systems-fig-atp-pc

Fig 3. The ATP-PCr system supports maximal activity in the 0 s to 30 s rang, like take-downs, powerful combinations, or other explosive grappling movements.

 

The ATP-PCr system is sometimes called the phosphagen system, or the anaerobic alactic system, but I’m going to refer to it as the ATP-PCr system, because I think that name best describes how it works. The first part of the name i.e. ATP, stands for Adenosine Tri Phosphate, which is a high energy molecule made up of adenosine and three phosphates. The second part of the name i.e. PCr, stands for PhosphoCreatine, which is a molecule made up of phosphate and creatine.

As a side note, you may have heard of creatine before. When you supplement your diet with it, you can increase the amount of PCr in the muscle. Although this may improve an athletes’ performance in short explosive sports like the 200 m sprint; its usefulness in MMA, a weight-class sport characterized by repeated high intensity efforts, is not entirely clear, but that’s a topic for another article.


So how does the ATP-PCr system support maximal efforts in the 0 s to 30 s range? First, recall from the energy transfer article that when ATP loses its third phosphate, energy is released and this energy is used to power muscle contraction. The important thing to remember is that during this process of energy release, ATP (which has three phosphates) is converted into Adenosine Di Phosphate (ADP) (which only has two phosphates). Recall that ATP is required for muscle contraction, so ADP must find and join with a third phosphate so that it can be converted back into the high energy ATP molecule. ADP receives this third phosphate from phosphocreatine. Specifically, the PCr molecule splits in two, leaving one creatine and one free phosphate. This free phosphate then joins ADP and creates a new high energy ATP molecule which is used to power your high intensity efforts in the cage. This whole process is shown below in Fig 4.

 

atp-pcr-resynthesis

Fig 4. Inside your muscle, the pool of phosphocreatine (PCr) is the immediate source for the regeneration of ATP during short explosive movements in MMA. PCr splits into creatine and phosphate and this ‘free’ phosphate is used to convert ADP back to ATP. This allows your muscles to continue contracting at a high intensity during your fight.

 

There is about three to five times as much PCr in your muscle as there is ATP (3, 7). Despite this, your entire pool of PCr can be depleted in 15 s to 30 s of maximal effort (7) and it can take more than five minutes of rest to restore it (1, 9). As recovery time between actions in a bout of MMA does not normally exceed 60 s, even between rounds, it seems likely that the PCr stores in your muscle will only be partially restored before the next effort. This will probably result in a reduction in your power output over repeated efforts, and a drop in your performance as the fight goes on. Separate from the depletion of the PCr pool, there are other factors that may contribute to your fatigue in the cage. Recall from the first article in this series that when ATP is broken down, hydrogen ions and phosphates build up inside the muscle. When you work very hard, ATP is broken down very quickly. This causes a large build-up of hydrogen ions and phosphate inside the muscle. This build-up of hydrogen ions and phosphates will probably impair muscle contraction (8, 10) and hurt your performance in the cage.

As a side note, the aerobic energy systems are essential for resupplying the pool of PCr after it has been deplete, and if you have a high level of aerobic fitness, you should be able to more rapidly replace PCr between repeated efforts (4, 5). A high level of aerobic fitness also means that you will become less reliant on the anaerobic energy systems to produce ATP during high intensity efforts in the cage (6, 7). These are just a few reasons why The MMA Training Bible places so much importance on the aerobic energy systems.


Targeting the ATP-PCr system with exercise

The ability to perform short explosive movements offers a distinct advantage in MMA, so fighters and coaches should dedicate a proportion of their training time to targeting the ATP-PCr system.

To target a specific energy system, you can manipulate the work-to-rest ratios, the work interval length, and the rest period. This form of training is commonly referred to as interval training and it can be used to target both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Interval training should be contrasted with longer duration lower intensity training, which can be used to effectively target the aerobic energy systems, but it is not very useful when targeting the anaerobic energy systems.


Targeting the ATP-PCr system will improve the power of short explosive movements in the cage. To target this system, use work intervals in the 0 s to 30 s range, combined with work-to-rest ratios of 1:10 or greater (6, 7). Typical workouts that target the ATP-PCr system might look something like this: 15 x (5 s on, 70 s off, with 30 s of build-up). There are a lot of variations, so if you’re looking for a full explanation, consider enrolling in our training courses. You’ll be taken through a step-by-step process for building your very own training plan. In any case, engaging in these workouts will result in very fast metabolic and physiological gains, but you cannot train at such a high intensity for very long because it takes a long time to recover from each session, and it can result in overtraining. Further, you must have a solid base of aerobic endurance before you progress to high intensity anaerobic interval training. This means that your endurance must be developed in different phases across your fight plan. The organization of your training plan across weeks, months and even years falls in the area of periodization, of course, all this is covered in our online video training courses.

 

Training adaptations

 There is large variation in training adaptations between individuals. Said alternatively, even though everyone on your team is doing the same type of training, not everyone will see the same physiological and biochemical adaptations. This is because training adaptations are influenced by your age, gender, training history, training status, and by your genetics.

Although the ATP-PCr system does not respond as much to training as the other energy systems, a number of adaptations may present (6, 7). For example, you may experience an increase in ATPase activity; that’s the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of ATP to ADP, and the regeneration of ATP from ADP. You may also see an increase in creatine kinase activity; that’s the enzyme which splits apart PCr. These adaptations will increase the rate of ATP turnover and improve your power output during short explosive efforts. The amount of ATP and PCr in your muscle may also increase, especially if your muscle mass is increases, but it’s not clear whether anaerobic performance will improve as a result.

 

Myths and misconceptions

It is a common misconception that energy systems work in isolation; for example, as one energy system ‘turns on’, another ‘turns off’. This is not true, all of your energy systems are always working together to power your efforts in the cage. Even the aerobic energy systems contribute to ATP production during short explosive efforts. For example, during a single 6 s maximal effort, like a take-down attempt or a powerful combination, about 50 % of the ATP comes from the ATP-PCr system, 44 % comes from anaerobic glycolysis, with the remainder coming from aerobic energy systems (2). As the duration of your maximal effort approaches 30 s, only 17 % of the ATP is provided by the ATP-PCr system, 45 % comes from anaerobic glycolysis, and 38 % comes from aerobic energy systems (6). This is shown below in Fig 5.

energy-systems-work-togethe

Fig 5. All of the energy systems work together to produce ATP, even during short explosive movements.

 

One interesting thing to note about this figure is that during a single 6 s maximal effort, the aerobic systems contribute very little to the total ATP supply, but as you extend your effort to 30 s, the aerobic energy systems produce about 40 % of the total ATP. To put this in perspective, you’re not even 1 minute into the first round of your fight, but your aerobic energy systems are beginning to dominate. Given a typical MMA bout is scheduled to last 15 to 20 minutes, this research supports the notion that MMA is dominated by the aerobic energy systems.

 

Take-home messages from Part 2

  • Understanding the metabolic demands of MMA is the first step in designing a scientific training plan.
  • The ATP-PCr system supports short explosive efforts lasting 0 s to 30 s, like take-downs, powerful combinations, or other explosive grappling movements.
  • Inside your muscle, the pool of phosphocreatine (PCr) is the immediate source for the regeneration of ATP during short explosive movements in MMA. PCr splits into creatine and phosphate and this ‘free’ phosphate is used to convert ADP back to ATP. This allows your muscles to continue contracting at a high intensity during your fight.
  • The aerobic energy systems are essential for resupplying the pool of PCr, and if you have a high level of aerobic fitness, you should be able to more rapidly replace PCr between repeated efforts. This will improve your performance on fight day.
  • The ability to perform short and explosive movements offers a distinct advantage. For this reason, fighters and coaches in MMA should dedicate some training time to targeting the ATP-PCr system.
  • To target this system, use work intervals in the 0 s to 30 s range, combined with work-to-rest ratios of 1:10 or greater. Be sure to use the appropriate periodization principles when incorporating these workouts into your overall fight plan.
  • ATP-PCr training adaptations relate to improving the power of single efforts, like take-down attempts, powerful combinations and explosive grappling.
  • All energy systems work together to power your efforts in the cage, although the aerobic energy system probably dominates energy production.

 

Part 2 References

  1. Bogdanis et al., J Physiol 482:467-80 (1995)
  2. Gaitanos et al., J Appl Physiol 75:712-9 (1993)
  3. Gollnick & King Med Sci in Sports 1(1):23-31 (1969)
  4. Harris et al., Pflugers Arch 367:137-142 (1976).
  5. Haseler et al., J Appl Physiol 86:2013-8 (1999)
  6. Kreamer WJ, Fleck SJ, Deschenes MR. (2012). Exercise Physiology: Integrating Theory and Application. Lippincott Williams & Wilkin: China.
  7. Plowman SA, Smith DL. (2011). Exercise Physiology: For Health, Fitness, and Performance (3rd). China: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  8. Spriet et al., J Appl Physiol 66:8-13 (1989)
  9. Tomlin & Wenger Sports Med 31:1-11 (2001)
  10. Westerbalad et al., News Physiol Sci 17:17-21 (2002)


 


Part 3: Anaerobic Glycolysis

We’ve been exploring the metabolic demands of mixed martial arts in this article. Understanding this is critical because it influences how you design and carry out your training plan. Get it right and you’ll optimize your endurance, strength and power on fight day. Get it wrong and you risk gassing-out in front of your opponent.

In Part 1 you learned about the basics of energy transfer. These concepts will serve as the foundation on which the remainder of the article is built. Part 2 focused on the ATP-PCr system, which supports maximal effort in the 0 s to 30 s range. Part 2 also showed you how to target the ATP-PCr system by manipulating the work interval length, rest interval length and the work-to-rest ratio of your training sessions. Part 3 will focus on anaerobic glycolysis, which is responsible for supporting prolonged high intensity efforts in the cage like prolonged take-downs, and extended combinations and grappling. Many fighters and coaches spend a lot of training time training this system; I’ll teach you why it’s important, but not as important as you might think. The main objectives of this article are to, 1) teach you how this system works; 2) show you how to target it with exercise; 3) list the physiological and biochemical adaptations that may occur when you train it. Let’s get on with it.

 

How the system works

Anaerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity effort lasting 30 s to 90 s, like the take-down attempts that you need to keep fighting for, or prolonged wrestling and dirty boxing. Remember, all of your energy systems work together to power your activity in the cage. To illustrate this, Fig 6 shows the % contribution to the total ATP supply coming from the energy systems you’ve learned about so far.

 

energy-systems-fig-anaerobi

Fig 6. The ATP-PCr system supports maximal activity in the 0 s to 30 s rang. Anaerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity efforts lasting 30 s to 90 s.

 

Note how the contribution from each energy system shown in Fig 6 changes over just 5 minutes, and imagine what would happen if we plotted this figure over 15 minutes, or the length of a typical MMA bout. This figure emphasises that your anaerobic energy systems are not the dominant energy systems that support your effort in the cage.

Anaerobic glycolysis is sometimes called the lactic acid system or fast glycolysis. Glycolysis is just the process of converting carbohydrates, like glucose or glycogen, into potential energy i.e. adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). This is achieved by 10 chemical reactions that do not require oxygen; that’s why it’s called ‘anaerobic’. Glycolysis produces some energy and a few electron carriers, but for the purpose of this article, the most important thing it produces is an intermediary called pyruvate. When there is no oxygen present at the end of the 10 chemical reactions that we call glycolysis, pyruvate is converted into lactic acid. This is why anaerobic glycolysis is sometimes called the lactic acid system.

The important thing to remember about anaerobic glycolysis is that it really supports your ability to perform single prolonged efforts in the cage, but it doesn’t really help out much during repeated efforts. This is really important to remember, because MMA is all about performing high intensity efforts, over and over again.  Let’s look at an example. You’ve already see part of this example in the second part of this article. In it, you learned that a single 6 s maximal effort, like a take-down attempt, receives about 44 % of its ATP from anaerobic glycolysis. What do you think would happen to this percentage if you were to repeat this maximal 6 s effort ten times over, taking 30 s of rest between each maximal effort? This example is shown below in Fig 7.

 

anaerobic-glycolysis-repeat

Fig. 7. The amount of energy coming from anaerobic glycolysis falls 8 fold over 10 repeated efforts, from around 44 % during the first effort, to about 5.5 % during the last effort. For this reason, targeting anaerobic glycolysis with exercise will not improve your ability to perform repeated efforts in the cage.

 

In this example, scientists showed that over 10 efforts, the contribution to total ATP coming from anaerobic glycolysis falls about eight-fold, from 44 % to around 5.5 % on the 10th effort (1). You should take two important points from this. First, workouts targeting anaerobic glycolysis will likely improve your ability to perform prolonged efforts in the cage (which is important if you want to be powerful), but they will not improve your ability to repeatedly perform at a high intensity over and over again. Second, the aerobic energy systems are largely responsible for picking up the slack in energy supply during repeated high intensity efforts (1). This means that you should spend the bulk of your training time targeting the aerobic energy systems because they support your ability to perform repeated high intensity efforts.

 

Targeting anaerobic glycolysis with exercise

The ability to perform single, but prolonged high intensity efforts in the cage offers a distinct advantage in MMA, so fighters and coaches should dedicate a small amount of their training time to targeting anaerobic glycolysis.

When your goal is to target this system, a typical workout might use work-to-rest ratios of 1:5 to 1:6, and work intervals in the 30 s to 90 s range (3, 5). Note that lactic acid is produced in large amounts during this type exercise and it will take about 15 to 25 minutes to clear half of this lactate, and almost an hour to clear all of it, so it’s not practical to wait until it is cleared to do the next interval (3, 5). Instead, the rest periods are used to replace the oxygen in the muscle (called myoglobin) and resupply the pool of PCr, both of which enable you to perform at a high intensity during the next interval. A typical workout that targets anaerobic glycolysis might look like this: 6 x (60 s on, 4 min off, 1 min build-up). Remember, this is just one example of many possible workouts that can be used to target the anaerobic glycolytic system, so if you’re looking for support designing a fully periodized training plan, consider enrolling in our training courses.

 

Training adaptations

Typical adaptations that result from training anaerobic glycolysis include increasing the availability of muscle glycogen and increasing the activity of glycolytic enzymes (3, 5). Both of these adaptations have the effect of increasing ATP production and your power output during short high intensity efforts in the cage in the 30 s to 90 s range. Your body’s ability to buffer hydrogen ions and lactate from your muscles may also improve (3, 5).

 

Myths and misconceptions

A lot of people believe that lactic acid impairs your performance because it increases the acidity of your blood and muscles, but it is not clear whether the lactic acid is responsible for this. Whenever ATP is converted to ADP, hydrogen ions are released and increase the acidity of the muscle and blood. Anaerobic glycolysis produces ATP very fast. This means that you will use a lot of ATP and build up a lot of hydrogen ions in your muscles, which makes your muscles and blood very acidic. Some researchers have suggested that your performance is impaired in this way (6); but there is some debate, because other scientists have shown that you can generate high power outputs even when your blood is very acidic. Also, when you ingest sodium bicarbonate, which can lower blood acidity, it has little effect on your performance (2, 4). Your muscles inability to contract during intense exercise is probably more related to a build-up of phosphate (7), but increases in hydrogen ions and lactic acid probably contribute to the reduction in your performance in some way.

Take-home messages from Part 3

  • Anaerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity efforts lasting 30 s to 90 s, like prolonged take-downs and extended combinations and grappling.
  • Anaerobic glycolysis results in the production of lactic acid.
  • When your goal is to target this system a typical workout might use work-to-rest ratios of 1:5 to 1:6, and intervals in the 30 s to 90 s range; see specific examples in Fig 2.
  • Workouts targeting anaerobic glycolysis will likely improve your prolonged efforts in the cage (which is important if you want to be powerful), but it will not improve your ability to repeatedly perform at a high intensity over the whole fight.
  • Typical adaptations that result from training anaerobic glycolysis have the effect of increasing ATP production and your power output in the 30 s to 90 s range.
  • Myths & misconceptions: Lactic acid is not entirely responsible for your fatigue; rather, fatigue is more likely due to a build-up of hydrogen ions and phosphate inside the muscle.

 

Part 3 References

  1. Gaitanos et al., J Appl Physiol 75:712-9 (1993)
  2. Gaitanos et al., J Sports Sci 9:355-70 (1991)
  3. Kreamer WJ, Fleck SJ, Deschenes MR. (2012). Exercise Physiology: Integrating Theory and Application. Lippincott Williams & Wilkin: China.
  4. Matsuura et al., Eur J Appl Physiol 101:409-17 (2007)
  5. Plowman SA, Smith DL. (2011). Exercise Physiology: For Health, Fitness, and Performance (3rd). China: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  6. Spriet et al., J Appl Physiol 66:8-13 (1989)
  7. Westerbalad et al., News Physiol Sci 17:17-21 (2002)


 


Part 4: Aerobic Glycolysis


Not all cardio workouts are created equal and subtle changes in the work-to-rest ratio or work interval length of a training session can bring about very different adaptations that may or may not be useful to you on fight day. The purpose of this five-part article is to examine the metabolic demands of mixed martial arts and teach you how to bring about specific physiological and biochemical training adaptations that will improve your performance in the cage.

In Part 1 you learned about the basics of energy transfer. Part 2 focused on the ATP-PCr system, which supports maximal effort in the 0 s to 30 s range. Part 2 also showed you how to target the ATP-PCr system by manipulating the work interval length, rest interval length and the work-to-rest ratio of your training sessions. Part 3 focused on anaerobic glycolysis, which supports maximal effort in the 30 s to 90 s range. You also learned how to target anaerobic glycolysis in your training sessions.

The present section represents a turning point. Up to now you have been learning about the anaerobic energy systems. These systems support powerful movements like take-downs and high intensity combinations, but they do not support your ability to perform these powerful movements over and over again. The ability to perform repeated efforts at a high intensity over a whole fight is supported by the aerobic energy systems.

Part 4 will focus on aerobic glycolysis, which aids recovery between high intensity efforts and powers repeated high intensity movement in the cage. The main objectives of this article are to, 1) teach you how this system works; 2) show you how to target it with exercise; 3) list the physiological and biochemical adaptations that may occur when you train it. Let’s get on with it.

 

How the system works

Aerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity effort in the 90 s to 3 minute range. The contribution this energy system makes towards your maximal effort over a typical five minute round is shown below in Fig 8.

energy-systems-fig-aerobic

Fig 8. The ATP-PCr system supports maximal activity in the 0 s to 30 s rang. Anaerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity efforts lasting 30 s to 90 s. Aerobic glycolysis supports activity in the 90 s to 3 minute range.

 

There are a few interesting things to point out in Fig 8. First, high intensity efforts supported by the ATP-PCr system and anaerobic glycolysis cannot be sustained for much longer than around 75 s, as this represents the cross-over point when aerobic energy systems begin to dominate ATP production (6). Also notice that aerobic glycolysis generates ATP at a slower rate than the anaerobic energy systems, but it can sustain it for much long periods.

Aerobic glycolysis is very similar to anaerobic glycolysis in that it uses 10 chemical reactions to produce some energy, a few electron carriers, and pyruvate. As you learned in Part 3 of this series, when there is no oxygen around after these 10 chemical reactions have taken place, pyruvate is converted into lactic acid. But when there is oxygen available after these 10 chemical reactions, pyruvate is converted into something called acetyl-Coenzyme-A, which is used to produce more energy (We’ll cover this in Part 5). For our purpose, that is all you need to know about how aerobic glycolysis works.

 

Targeting aerobic glycolysis

The aerobic energy systems are essential for PCr resynthesis, and if you have a high level of aerobic fitness, you should be able to more rapidly resynthesize PCr between high intensity repeated efforts (3, 4). For this reason, training interventions that target aerobic glycolysis may increase the rate of PCr resynthesis and improve your performance in the cage.

When your goal is to target the capacity of aerobic glycolysis, a typical workout might use work-to-rest ratios of 1:3 to 1:4, and have a work interval of around 90 s to 3 minutes (5, 6). But by reducing the amount of rest between work intervals in the 2 minute range, scientists have found that you may be able to target other metabolic processes that are important in MMA. For example, because the accumulation of hydrogen ions in the muscles and blood may impair your performance in the cage, it seems probable that increasing their removal during exercise (called buffering) may enhance your performance. It appears that 2 minute work intervals separated by short rest periods of 1 to 3 minutes may improve buffering (2). Also, the rate at which your body can resynthesize PCr will probably improve your ability to perform repeated high intensity efforts. PCr resynthesis also appears to improve when shorter rest intervals are taken (i.e. 2 min on, 1 min off) (1). Typical workouts that target aerobic glycolysis might look like this: 4 x (2 min on, 7 min off, 1 min build-up). As I’ve said before, many possible workouts can target the aerobic glycolytic system, so if you’re looking for support designing a fully periodized training plan, consider enrolling in our training courses.

 

Training adaptations

Training adaptations that result from targeting aerobic glycolysis are very similar to those resulting from targeting anaerobic glycolysis in that you may observe an increase in the availability of muscle glycogen and an increase in the activity of glycolytic enzymes (5, 6). Both of these adaptations have the effect of increasing ATP production and your power output in the cage. Your body’s ability to buffer hydrogen ions and lactate from your muscles may also improve (5, 6). Your body’s ability to take in oxygen and deliver it to working muscles may also improve.

 

Take-home messages from Part 4

  • Aerobic glycolysis supports activity in the 90 s to 3 minute range. It also aids recovery between high intensity efforts and powers high intensity movement in the cage.
  • Target aerobic glycolysis using work-to-rest ratios of 1:3 to 1:4 and a work interval of around 90 s to 3 minutes. But by reducing the amount of rest between work intervals in the 2 minute range, you can improve PCr resynthesis and improve hydrogen ion buffering.
  • Typical adaptations that result from training anaerobic have the effect of increasing ATP production and your power output in the 90 s to 3 minute range, and also feature an improved ability to perform repeated high intensity efforts.


Part 4 References

  1. Bishop et al., Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 295:R1991-R1998 (2008)
  2. Edge & Bishop Eur J Appl Physiol 96:97-105 (2006)
  3. Harris et al., Pflugers Arch 367:137-142 (1976).
  4. Haseler et al., J Appl Physiol 86:2013-8 (1999)
  5. Kreamer WJ, Fleck SJ, Deschenes MR. (2012). Exercise Physiology: Integrating Theory and Application. Lippincott Williams & Wilkin: China.
  6. Plowman SA, Smith DL. (2011). Exercise Physiology: For Health, Fitness, and Performance (3rd). China: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.



Part 5: Aerobic Oxidation

This five-part article has explored the metabolic demands of mixed martial arts. When you understand this, not only will you appreciate why you fatigue or gas-out in the cage, but you will know how to bring about specific physiological and biochemical adaptations that will optimize your performance on fight day.

In Part 1 you learned about the basics of energy transfer. Part 2 and Part 3 focused in on the anaerobic energy systems. These systems support powerful movements, like take-downs and high intensity combinations but they do not support your ability to perform powerful movements over and over again. The ability to perform repeated efforts at a high intensity over a whole round and over a whole fight is supported by the aerobic energy systems. Part 4 focused on aerobic glycolysis, which supports activity in the 90 s to 3-minute range. It also aids recovery between high intensity efforts and powers high intensity movement in the cage.

Part 5 will focus on aerobic oxidation, which supports activity that lasts longer than 3 minutes, but it is also aids recovery between high intensity efforts and allows you to maintain a high pace throughout your entire fight. The main objectives of this article are to, 1) teach you how this system works; 2) show you how to target it with exercise; 3) list the physiological and biochemical adaptations that may occur when you train it. Let’s address the first point.

 

How the systems work

Aerobic oxidation supports activities lasting longer than 3 minutes. The contribution this energy system makes towards your energy over a typical five minute round is shown below in Fig 9.

energy-systems-fig-aerobi

Fig 9. The ATP-PCr system supports maximal activity in the 0 s to 30 s rang. Anaerobic glycolysis supports prolonged high intensity efforts lasting 30 s to 90 s. Aerobic glycolysis supports activity in the 90 s to 3 minute range. Aerobic oxidation supports activity beyond 3 minutes.

 

Aerobic oxidation can generate a lot of energy, but at a much slower rate than the anaerobic energy systems. This energy is generated in two big enzymatic reactions that require oxygen; the first is reaction is called the Krebs cycle and the second is the called the electron transport chain. Don’t worry; the details of these reactions are beyond the scope of this article.

 

Targeting aerobic oxidation

In the previous parts, the work intervals that we used to target the energy systems were fairly short. For example, you can target the ATP-PCr system using intervals less than 30 s, anaerobic glycolysis could be influenced using intervals in the 30 s to 90 s range, and aerobic glycolysis could be targeted using work intervals of 90 s to 3 minutes. Aerobic oxidation can be targeted using work intervals that are 3 minutes or longer.

There are two classifications of training that can be used to target the aerobic oxidative energy system. One is called low intensity endurance training, which features low power output activities that must be undertaken for a long period of time, like marathon running. The other way to target aerobic oxidation is by using high intensity endurance training. This consists of working at a much higher intensity, but for a shorter period of time. High intensity endurance training is also called interval training, and it’s what we’ve been using in the workout examples up to now.

Numerous research studies have shown that low intensity, long duration endurance training will impede strength and power gains compared with high intensity interval training (1, 5). This is probably because low intensity endurance training causes your intermediate muscle fibres to become more oxidative (i.e. slow twitch), which can impeded muscular growth and your capacity to perform the strong and powerful movements that are required in MMA.

Several studies have shown that high intensity interval training in the region of four to five minutes consistently improves aerobic fitness (VO2max), probably by increasing stroke volume and cardiac output (2-4, 7). This suggests that an interval length of five minutes is probably the upper limit of what fighters in MMA should be using. Fighters wanting to burn more body fat may engage in lower intensity endurance training, as this may be an effective method to achieve their goals, but high intensity endurance training combined with dietary control may also prove effect, and has the added benefit of preserving muscular strength and power.

 

 Targeting aerobic energy systems

When your goal is to improve aerobic metabolism (which is the use of oxygen by your muscles) you also target the systems that deliver oxygen to the muscle. To accomplish these goals, you need to make sure that your muscles are not impaired by metabolite accumulation or depletion of PCr, as these factors will impair your performance. To achieve this, you need to work at a lower intensity compared to when you are targeting the other energy systems, and you should be using work-to-rest ratios of 1:0.5 to 1:1.5 (6, 8). Typical workouts that target aerobic metabolism would look like this: 4 x 5 min on, 2.5 min off). I don’t mean to be redundant, but many possible workouts can target aerobic energy systems, so if you’re looking for support designing a fully periodized training plan, consider enrolling in our online training courses.

Training adaptations

Endurance trained individuals metabolize more triglycerides or fatty acids and less glycogen or glucose at the same absolute workload or pace, resulting in a glycogen sparing effect and postponing fatigue (6, 8). This type of training will also result in an increase mitochondrial enzymes, increase size and number of mitochondria, increased red blood cell count, increased capillary density, and elevate cardiac output (from an increase in stroke volume) (6, 8).

Take-home messages from Part 5

  • Aerobic oxidation supports activity last lasts longer than 3 minutes, but it is also aids recovery between high intensity efforts and allows you to maintain a high pace throughout the entire fight.
  • Aerobic oxidation can generate a lot of energy, but at a much slower rate than the anaerobic energy systems. This energy is generated in two big enzymatic reactions that require oxygen.
  • Target this system using work-to-rest ratios of 1:0.5 to 1:1.5 and work intervals that last 3 minutes to 5 minutes. Longer intervals may have a negative effect on strength and power development.
  • Endurance trained individuals use substrates more efficiently, have an improved oxygen update, delivery and use, and are able to perform at a higher intensity than non-endurance trained individuals.


Part 5 References

  1. Hakkinen et al., Eur J Appl Physiol 89:42-52 (2003)
  2. Helgerud et al., Med Sci Sports Exerc 33:1925-1931 (2001)
  3. Helgerud et al., Med Sci Sports Exerc 39:665-671 (2007)
  4. Hoff et al., Br J Sports Med 36:218-221 (2002)
  5. Kraemer et al., J Appl Physiol 78:976-989 (1995)
  6. Kreamer WJ, Fleck SJ, Deschenes MR. (2012). Exercise Physiology: Integrating Theory and Application. Lippincott Williams & Wilkin: China.
  7. McMillan et al., Br J Sports Med 39:273-277 (2005)
  8. Plowman SA, Smith DL. (2011). Exercise Physiology: For Health, Fitness, and Performance (3rd). China: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

 

 

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