The question of whether or not a mixed martial arts fighter should be using barbell squats as part of their training regimen isn’t one that is asked very often. You desire strength in your core and lower body. There’s no doubt that you need explosive power and desire the ability to use your legs effectively against an opponent. The very useful exercise known as barbell squats – placing a barbell on your shoulder, keeping back upright, and slowly lowering the weight until your knees are parallel to the floor, then raising it back up – has been used for many years by fighters – and with good reason! Let’s check out a few of these reasons. Then, let’s analyze a few situations when squats are less than ideal for helping you to reach your fighting preparation goals.
Squats rock for the MMA athlete. Let’s examine a few reasons why you should already be using them in your strength & stamina training routine.
MMA athletes that use squats are able to develop maximum strength in two lower body movements that are essential to ground fighters: Knee extension and hip extension. Growing your strength in these areas will result in more effective ground game. You’ll also be able to use your legs more effectively in a number of moves. Fighters with stronger legs perform at a higher level as matches grind on. Squat, and get stronger, period!
Overall muscle growth
Obviously, squats will help your leg muscles to grow bigger. Possessing a bit more leg muscle is never a bad thing for athletes with any propensity for being taken off their feet. Making your opponent pick up a fighter with a heavier lower body makes him work harder, and keeps you lower to the ground, thanks to a lowered center of gravity. You’ll notice the top heavy-fighters… they’re usually the ones on their backs very quickly! Build up your leg size to a respectable level and this will not happen to you (as often)!
There’s an old formula which reads “Strength X Speed = Power”. If you wish to be a powerful fighter that can explode into any move, and punch, you need strength to go along with all the speed you’ve developed through running and drills. Squats will help to build up that strength, which in turn leads to greater explosive power function. When two fighters explode at each other, it is usually the one with more explosive force that ends up on the better end of things – and squatting will help you develop this explosiveness.
Growth hormone release
Many studies have shown that the use of squats leads to release of very small amounts of growth hormone. This is responsible for increases in muscle mass and density all over the body. In other words, if you want ALL of your muscle groups to develop at a higher level, then you should be using barbell squats.
Of course, no discussion of the benefits of squatting for the MMA athlete would be complete without a mention of the stamina gains seen by those who employ squats. Throughout the course of a standard 12-repetition squat set, your legs & legs endure almost a minute of strain and capability output at the highest level. By the final repetitions, your legs are puffing at their maximum, and your legs have just moved the weight of two competitors on your shoulders a total of 30+ feet. Getting into the ring to fight is going to be easy after this! Lung expansion, increased blood flow, and the recruitment of slow-twitch leg muscle fibers mean this movement will give you stamina when you need it – just as the other guy runs out!
While squats are beloved by many MMA athletes, there are some who have to pass on their use. Let’s examine a few circumstances when squats might just not be right for you.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is a very common occurrence for those who employ the use of squats. DOMS is usually characterized by very painful soreness, stiffness, and tenderness in the muscle group trained. The worst pain of DOMS will take place about 48 hours after lifting. This can certainly slow down the MMA athlete who wishes to run and practice drills in the date or two or even three after a tough squatting workout. The body adapts, and soreness will lessen, but it will never quite go away. If being able to use the leg muscles in the days after a leg workout is required for your MMA preparation, then squats might not be the right movement for you. Stick with leg extensions or leg presses for less effectiveness, but quicker recovery time.
Increased risk of knee injury
If you have ever suffered from a devastating knee injury or undergone a knee operation, then squatting may be playing with fire. For some lifters, the exercise is just off the table due to having their knee scoped at some point in the past. Likewise, if you’re suffering from an impact injury, soreness from other exercises, or just feeling a tweak or nagging ache, you should skip squats that day. Better safe than sorry!
Can cause weight gain
The use of squats is very popular among hardgainer trainers who cannot seem to gain weight. If you squat, your legs grow – but so do your arms, your chest, your back, and every other muscle group. This might be ideal for skinny kids getting shoved around at the beach. But if you’re an MMA fighter who is very concerned about maintaining your weight to remain within reach of a certain weight class, then you may want to skip the squats. Or at the very least, squat light and watch your caloric intake very carefully!
Difficulty for tall lifters.
Some tall lifters are never able to quite grow comfortable with barbell squatting. Their long limbs just make full extension on this movement a little too awkward. The great Arnold Schwarzenegger used to squat with a wooden block beneath his bare feet to make up for this. You might try the same trick. Or you might opt for other exercises which don’t discriminate so much against taller athletes!
The winner is…
As with many things in life, it depends! For some, or even most, MMA athletes, the squat is a highly useful tool for building up the legs and overall body strength, control, and explosiveness. However, for some aging lifters who have been around the block a few times, the squat isn’t an ideal choice. There are plenty of alternative leg exercises which can be used to deliver great strength and power for the MMA athlete, including lunges, leg press, leg extensions, hack squats, and leg curls. However, for most people, the squat is and always will be the KING of leg exercises.
As always, there are variations which can be used to make the squat more useful for some athletes. The use of heavy barbell squats is popular, but free weights aren’t necessary. Sure, they recruit stabilizer muscles and improve core strength, but you can enjoy a great deal of success with the use of a Smith machine. Its brackets hold the barbell in place. You just have to move the weight up and down – no balance or control is needed!
Additionally, you can vary just how LOW you wish to go when using squats. Most powerlifters will aim to break parallel – when their quadriceps/upper legs are parallel with the floor. Many bodybuilders aim to reach a point BELOW parallel when lifting. You don’t need to put so much stress on your knees. You can see great results by taking the weight down to a point just before breaking parallel. You’ll stimulate leg strength gains without transferring the tension of the weight from your quadriceps (upper leg muscles) to your knee tendon.
Check out the list above, and see which possibilities apply to you. Give squats a chance if at all possible. Use a safe weight for a moderate number of repetitions (10 to 15 reps per set) for 4 sets. You’ll certainly notice a gain in muscle size & strength. Change things up as needed, but keep in mind that most MMA fighters you encounter on the mat will have a long love/hate affair with squats – and you probably should too!