I had been working with an athlete for several weeks in a traditional one-on-one setting and recently began to notice that his strength, energy levels, and overall intensity were down. In a recent session, I could sense early on in our mobility work that he was just going through the motions. Perhaps my teaching cues and motivational lingo were not hitting home with him, or maybe he just had a fight with his girlfriend earlier that day about some Facebook photos his buddy posted of him from Friday night. Whatever the reason, the session started out poorly. Sensing that I was not connecting with him, I decided to join in the session and train alongside him. I definitely would not try this with every client and athlete; however, he is an experienced fighter, with excellent lifting technique, so I didn’t give this decision a second thought.

As soon as we both started in on our jumping jacks during the dynamic warm-up, I immediately sensed a change in mood and effort. He was more attentive to my instructions, was working much harder, and he even started in with some friendly competitive banter. After what turned out to be one of his best strength and conditioning sessions to date, we got to talking about his morning. I found out that he had been dealing with some family issues earlier in the day. As soon as I heard that I immediately realized why his session had started out so poorly. His thoughts had become his actions and he just wasn’t there mentally. Your mind is a powerful thing and it influences everything you do. What’s going on “upstairs” allows you to utilize your physical skills to the best of your ability.

So what triggered this reaction with this particular athlete? Why did having me join in the session elicit such a positive response? And why partner train with someone who competes in an individual sport? Generally speaking, I think it was due to something I like to call “competitive fire”. Having someone to train alongside sparked his endorphins and put him in the right frame of mind. In both partner and small group training sessions more cooperation and communication is required from both the coach and the athlete(s) involved. These characteristics drive the competitive fire inside us all which you obviously need in surplus for a MMA match or tournament.

Olympian Bruce Jenner once said, “You have to train your mind like you train your body”. This statement is particularly accurate when it comes to combat athletes. Think about this: an athlete may train for a specific fight anywhere from 8-12 weeks. This fight that could last a mere 15 seconds….conservatively that’s 9,600 minutes of blood, sweat, and training for ¼ of a minute!! How do you prepare for this intense pressure? From a physical standpoint – you have a well designed periodized program so you can feel quick, powerful, strong, and have plenty of gas in the tank. Your physical preparation could not have gone any better. What about from a mental standpoint? Are you unwavering, mentally focused, and is your mind right for battle?

We as coaches must not only get them stronger physically, but mentally as well. We must enhance their mental toughness while controlling anxiety at the same time. We need to understand what motivates these athletes and push them to improve and succeed. I think partner and small group training helps us get there.

Since completing the partner session that I discussed earlier, I have consistently incorporated this training (and small group training as well) into my program design for fighters. A brief list of just some of the positive benefits this type of training provides includes:

  • Develops camaraderie and a strong support system
  • Positive reinforcement and motivation, especially if your having an “off” day
  • Instills friendly competition
  • Improves confidence and self-esteem
  • Prompts you to push yourself even more to “keep up” with the team
  • If you don’t want to get up for that 6am strength session and you have a partner waiting for you; you are going to get up

I try to incorporate full-body movements that include everything from pushing, pulling, rotating, changing levels, and jumping. For metabolic circuits, I will typically set up five stations that are each 60 seconds long. You and your partner will complete all five stations consecutively and then rest for 1 minute before repeating the 5 station circuit again. A sample partner training metabolic circuit routine might look something like this:

  1. Alternating ‘Tire Flips’ with a 15 second “battle” at the end
  2. Horizontal ‘Rope Pulls’ – aim for 2 times each
  3. ‘Band Jumps’ – 20 yards with partner resistance
  4. ‘Prowler Pushes’ (w/burpees) – 20 yard push
  5. ‘DB Grip Walks’ – 20 yard walk with 10-20lb dumbbells

Take a look at this sample routine in action
[flv:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6D_q_MW5jI 640 390]


I believe that anything that contributes to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual state has EVERYTHING to do with your focus on the mat. An athlete must be in peak condition mentally or they will not be at their best physically. I consistently do informal assessments of athletes (and “everyday” clients for that matter) to evaluate psychological balance…constantly checking in with them and seeing how other aspects of their lives are going. We must frequently communicate with all of our clientele in order to adapt accordingly.

As the athletes I work with continue to improve and become faster, stronger, and more explosive from training, I see their self-esteem and confidence being positively impacted. Is this more of a psychological response or a physical response? It’s probably a bit of both but regardless, it’s good stuff. Now I’m not saying partner training should be the “be all end all”; I’m simply saying it may be good to incorporate into your program design to shake things up and train your athlete in a new way both physically but more importantly, mentally as well.


About Doug Balzarini

Doug BalzariniDoug currently works at Fitness Quest 10 as a personal trainer, strength coach, and Operations Director for Todd Durkin Enterprises (TDE). He also serves as the strength coach for a number of professional and amateur fighters for the Alliance Fight Team in Chula Vista, CA. A Massachusetts native, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science with a minor in Business Management from Westfield State College. Since moving to San Diego he has completed some graduate work in Biomechanics at SDSU, obtained an ACE Personal Trainer certification, the NSCA-CSCS certification, a Spinning certification, TRX instructor training, EFI Gravity instructor training, FMS training, and received his CPR/AED instructor status. He has also appeared in 8 fitness videos, written numerous fitness articles, completed a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Conditioning Coach certification program and has competed in multiple grappling tournaments.

Prior to working at Fitness Quest 10, Doug worked for the American Council on Exercise as the Continuing Education Coordinator where he was responsible for managing over 400 continuing education providers.

For more information on strength & conditioning for combat athletes (mixed martial arts) please visit www.ToddDurkin.com, www.FQ10.com and www.DBStrength.com.