Combat Sports Injury Prevention


Within the last year, countless fights in the UFC have had to be canceled due to injuries to one, or even both, of the fighters. Not long ago, an entire show even had to be canceled because of injuries and the problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better…

Not only do such events rob fans of some of the potential to see some big time fights, they can be disastrous for the fighters themselves. They are often forced to miss out on the paycheck most of them so often need to pay their bills and then they  have to go through the pain and time consuming process of rehabbing these injuries before they can step back in the cage.

Many fighters choose to fight through the injuries, whether because of pride and/or they can’t afford miss a fight, and the results often speak for themselves and end in a loss.

Even once an injury has fully healed, they can still end up haunting a fighter for the rest of his or her career, flaring up at various times, forcing valuable training time to be missed during a training camp, etc.

Even worse, once the chain of injuries begins, it can often be only a matter of time before one injury leads to another and pretty soon, a fighter can go from having one nagging injury to having several.

While it might be easy to just chalk up all these injuries to the unavoidable facts of the often brutal nature of the sport of fighting, the truth is that a lot of combat sports related injuries can be prevented with the right approach to training.

There’s no doubt that injuries can and do happen in every sport, but the difference in having to withdraw from a fight and simply missing a day or two of training can be huge.

Avoiding injuries is most often a matter of training smarter, not harder, and listening to your body rather than fighting against it. To be successful in combat sports these days, fighters have to be well rounded athletic machines with a diverse skill set and that means they can’t afford to spend time dealing with one injury after another.

The future of the sport depends on tomorrow’s future stars staying healthy to train today.

To do everything you can to avoid injuries and stay in the gym training rather than at home resting, follow these seven simple keys to avoiding combat sports injuries.

#1: Choose the Right Training Partners

In a grueling sport like MMA, where most combat athletes train five to six days a week for hours on end, having the right training partners can make all the difference in the world. Good training partners can help you hone your skills, prepare you ready for an upcoming fight, and help you become a more complete fighter, but the wrong ones can just as easily hurt your career and leave you injured.

This is because without question, the vast majority of injuries in MMA occur not in an actual fight, but in the gym training. Far too often, contact injuries happen during high intensity drills or sparring because of poor technique and/or a lack of control.

When those with bad technique or control are the ones you’re sparring or drilling with, this can be a recipe for disaster.

Every gym has at least one guy that always throws everything harder than necessary and treats every training session like it’s a world championship fight. If you value your health and want a long career in the sport, these are the training partners that should generally be avoided.

Instead, look for the athletes that are focused on getting better, have good control and technique and understand that you get better by training smart, not just by throwing every punch, kick and knee as hard as you can.

#2 Improve Your Conditioning

Even though most fighters tend to only consider the importance of conditioning when getting ready for a fight, conditioning is an important component of injury prevention. When you consider just how many more injuries happen when you’re fatigued than when you’re fresh, it’s pretty obvious why being in good shape matters.

Not only does having a good level of conditioning mean that you can train more because being in better shape will allow you to recover from your training faster, but it will also help you avoid the injuries that can often accompany fatigue.

While you don’t need to be in fight shape year round, it pays to maintain a solid level of conditioning even when you might not have a fight coming up.

When working to improve conditioning when you’re not getting ready for a fight, the best way to do it while staying injury free is to use general conditioning exercises that are low impact.

Exercises like riding the bike, swimming, jumping rope, rowing, etc., are all great ways to get in some extra conditioning work without putting too much additional stress on your body.

When you start getting ready for a fight, then you’ll need to switch into more fight specific conditioning exercises, but outside of that, keep your conditioning general and low impact to help avoid injuries.

Also, be sure to not confuse fatigue with conditioning. Just because doing something makes you tired does not mean that it’s improving your conditioning. If all conditioning came down to was hard work, you’d never see any top level fighters gas out because they all generally train hard.

Anyone can train hard, not everyone knows how to train smart…
To learn more on conditioning for combat sports, check out Ultimate MMA Conditioning or Register for a FREE 5 day video course on the Truth About Energy Systems

#3 Monitor & Manage Your Training

If there’s one simple thing that you can do that make a huge difference in keeping you healthy and injury free, it’s monitoring your training. This can be as simple as wearing a heart rate monitoring during your training to see how your training heart rates compare to normal, to as cutting-edge as using Heart Rate Variability technology such as BioForce HRV to monitor your fatigue and fitness levels over time – Click Here to Learn More About HRV

At the very minimum, it’s important to keep a training log to track your training volume and keep notes on your performance, fitness and nutrition. This will allow you to see the warning signs that pop up if you’re headed towards overtraining as well as make sure your fitness and skill levels are improving.

Tracking things like morning resting heart rate, heart rate recovery, strength levels in various exercises, bodyweight, etc., can provide extremely valuable information that you can use to fine-tune your training to get more out of it.

If you’re getting ready for a fight, monitoring your training is also hugely important because it allows you to compare progress from one fight camp to the next and helps you make sure you’re on track.

Depending on your weight class, you’ll also want to keep close track of your weight throughout camp and fight week so that over time you can improve your weight cutting strategy and get it completely dialed in. Without any form of monitoring, it’s too easy to repeat the same mistakes over and over again and end up overtrained and injured.

#4 Move Better

In recent years, there’s been a huge emphasis on improvement fundamental movement patterns, often using specific exercises derived out of physical therapy methods. While there’s no doubt this approach can have some benefits when utilized properly, it’s important to understand that moving better extends well beyond the realm of low loads, low intensity and low levels of fatigue.

Moving better is something that takes time and dedicated training, but it can also have a huge impact on your performance. It’s much more than including some sort of “corrective” exercise before a workout or trying to get a certain score on a test of general movement.

For combat athletes in particular, moving better requires spending time developing fundamentally sound technique in all skills and areas of the sport and then constantly drilling it over and over again.

All too often, combat athletes lose focus on attention to the details of technique as soon as the intensity is turned up and/or fatigue sets in.

This is a huge mistake and just leads to the body learning sloppy movement and biomechanically poor technique during periods of fatigue. Part of improving movement means you need to always emphasize good technique and reinforce good movement patterns at all times, not just during warm-up exercises.

Again, don’t confuse simple fatigue with good training. Fatigue is a natural result of training, but it’s not the goal and it’s not an excuse to move poorly.

Another important area for developing good movement is to make sure that you have the necessary joint mobility necessary to get into the many positions and postures of combat sports.

Dr. Gerry Ramogida’s video series does an excellent job of covering this in more detail.

#5 Minimize Stress

Making sure to minimize stress outside the gym may be one of the least obvious ways to avoid injuries in the gym, but without question it’s also one of the most important. The simple explanation for this is that in many ways, the body treats all stress in a very similar fashion. Whether it’s the physical stress of training, or the mental stress of life, both have a very similar impact on the body.

This means that when you’re experiencing a lot of stress outside the gym, whether it’s due to work, family, finances, or whatever else life may throw at you, it only adds to the stress of training and can set you up for injury because it can change how the body functions.

Imagine if you lived next to an annoying neighbor that always blasted loud music at all hours of the day or night. Sooner or later, you’d make sure all your windows were closed and you may even consider building a fence to block the noise out.

In the body’s case, it does something very similar when faced with too much stress and it goes into a protective mode to try to avoid even more stress. The problem is that when it does this, it becomes less responsive to the demands of training – the muscles can’t produce as much force, hormone levels aren’t where they should be, the nervous system doesn’t function as well, etc.

These changes can end up leaving you much more vulnerable for injury because the body won’t be able to respond the way that it should to the high intensity demands of training and next thing you know, you’re left with a serious muscle injury that will keep you out of training.

The bottom line is that everything you do outside the gym can have a serious impact on what happens inside the gym and your chances of injury, so it’s important to minimize stress as much as possible and take some extra time to relax.

#6: Eat the Right Foods

Most people understand that nutrition is important, but when it comes to injuries, it’s one of the most overlooked areas that can have a huge impact on your training and injuries. In high training volume sports like MMA, Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Kickboxing, etc., nutrition is key because not only is it vital that your body gets all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that it needs to recover from the daily grind of training, but chronically depleted glycogen levels are likely one of the triggers that can send the body into an overtrained state.

This means that if you don’t take in enough calories and make sure that your muscles stores of glycogen are consistently restocked after workouts, you can quickly become fatigued and pushed into an overtrained state where the chances of injury often skyrocket.

If you’re training twice a day, this takes on even more importance as your performance in the second workout of the day depends on your ability to refuel and replenish glycogen stores.

For most combat athletes, a well-balanced diet that provides enough total calories, grams of proteins, carbs and essential fats is the best way to go. If any of these macronutrients are lacking, it can slow down recovery, increase fatigue, and even leave muscles and joints more susceptible to injury.

#7: Take the Right Supplements

Although supplements should never be used in the place of having a solid nutrition plan to begin with, there are a few key supplements that can help keep the body running well during periods of intense training.

First, it’s important to use a high quality multivitamin to help make sure you’re not missing any vital nutrients that can slow down the processes involved in recovery.

My personal recommendation and the multi that I use is the ThorneFX AM/PM Complex as Thorne is known for their rigorous standards of potency and purity and I’ve toured their manufacturing plant myself. After seeing their process, I can guarantee that is listed on the label is exactly what you’ll find in the bottle and all their products are well worth the money.

This simple ThorneFX stack can go a long way towards helping the body recover and repair itself, manage inflammation and maintain performance during periods of hard training.

Aside from the ThorneFX stack, I also recommend B12 in the form of Methylcobalamin, preferably sublingual (I particularly like the Designs for Health B12 Lozenges), Lypo-shperic Vitamin C by LivOn Labs and Wobenzyme enzymes.

All three of these supplements can help mitigate some of the stress of training and help support the immune system, one of the most vital systems to training and performance.

Read More about how the Immune System is Related to Performance

Although there are certainly more supplements that can be used at various times, if you need to use more than these basics, chances are that you’re not doing a good job at managing your program effectively to begin with.

The ThorneFX stack can be used year round, while the rest should be used as necessary during periods where training volumes and intensities are at their highest.

#8: Avoid the Middle Ground

Although the High/Low training system was originally developed for sprinters by the late Charlie Francis, it’s applicable and effective for training for combat sports as well. At the heart of the High/Low training system is the principle that the best results come from training either at the highest intensities or at the lowest ones and avoid too much time spend training in the middle ground.

Along these lines, people can generally not recover from more than 3 days of truly high intensity training per week so the rest of the days the goal lower intensities that promote recovery rather than delay it should be used.

The high training days are where you’ll want to do high intensity drills and sparring and on the low days, this is where you can work on improving technique and skill development.

The reason that taking this simple approach is an effective injury prevention strategy is because it ensures that your body is really ready to be pushed to its limits on the hardest training days so you’re less likely to get injured.

Conventional training strategies often lead to fatigue across the training week because there is not enough time to recover when you try to push yourself to the max each and every day.

Because you’ll get more out of your hard training days and have a chance to work on skills and technique on the low days, this makes the High/Low training system extremely effective for avoiding injuries and for becoming a better fighter in general.

Read more about High/Low for combat sports


  1. #9: Get Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) Sessions Regularly
    #10: Don’t go it alone-get a knowledgeable Strength and Conditioning Coach…..preferably one that is a Resistance Training Specialist (RTS)!

    1. MAT is effective for certain types of soft tissue needs and not so effective for others. I’d urge fining a good therapist that is well versed in a variety of treatment techniques, not someone that’s just going to do MAT over and over again

  2. It’s Interesting that you say that, because I don’t use MAT as therapy. I use it as strength training and have achieved higher performance goals because of it. Have you not used MAT for anything other than rehab?

    1. Not quite sure what you mean by using “MAT as strength training” exactly. If you’re talking about doing positional isometric type work then I couldn’t call that MAT, I’d just call that isometric training.

  3. The whole goal of Muscle Activation Technique to get muscles stronger. That is how I’ve always used it for myself and that is how it was explained to me from day one. I know physical therapist use it as part of their rehab. I know chiropractors use it as part of their therapy. And I know strength coaches that use it as part of their strength training regiment. The MAT Specialist that I work with also follows something called RTS. It’s all strength training customized to your weaknesses–whether isometric or putting force into tissue with your fingers.

    1. Getting muscles “stronger” in the context of performance requires high levels of force and power production within the motor patterns related to a given sport. Seeing as how there has been literally zero research done on MAT showing that the techniques will improve force production in high force, dynamic movements, it’s all subjective and speculative that either cross frictional massage or positional isometrics will have much of an impact. For injuries, the techniques of MAT may very well provide some sensory feedback to CNS that provides benefit, along with several other techniques that do the same thing. As for healthy tissues, I’ve seen nothing that leads me to believe that MAT, AK, or any other techniques all in the same vain of manual muscle testing/retesting in isolated positions has that much impact in the grand scheme of things. I’m not saying that MAT isn’t useful or doesn’t provide some benefit, but I am saying that it’s simply one technique among many, each with their own sets of applications and potential usefulness and nothing more.

  4. I don’t disagree, though, in the context of this article, and by the fact that staying injury free and strong in the ways that keep you injury free are important to achieving high levels of performance, would you not agree that MAT or any modality of similar nature are important for performance? Take #4 and #5 on your list–Move Better and Minimize Stress. Whether research specific to MAT is available or not, there is research available to the effect that strength training appropriately makes you less prone to injury. Getting stronger appropriately allows you to move better and minimize stress to your joints (I get that in your #5 you mainly address environmental stresses, but if you tie it to your #8, it makes sense).

    To tell you what I mean, I’ll relay my experience. What I’ve found to be the most valuable thing from MAT is its role in prevention. Through MAT, I’ve been able to identify weaknesses and imbalances (i.e. unhealthy tissue) that I can’t feel or even perceive. I then have MAT applied to those weak muscles and they become stronger over time (like any strength training regimen). And aside from something acute, like getting hit by a car, I’ve made myself more resilient to injury by addressing weakness before it spreads or becomes noticeable.

    I’ve also been able to identify exercises that weaken my muscles (too stressful for my structure) or work to make me stronger without causing an imbalance–all based on my own individual structure. After a bad back injury that left me absolutely immobile (to which MAT was the only thing that helped me recover after having spent of A LOT of money trying other things that did not work), I returned to exercise and martial arts training pain-free but could not deadlift any longer or move well on the mat. I went back to MAT to identify the muscular weaknesses that I had in terms of movement (relating to improving movement, not in terms of addressing any sort of pain) and then worked with RTS trainers to design exercises regiments (based on the MAT work) suited for my structure that could take the place of the exercises that I could no longer do without risking injury. I was able to create a program that greatly improved my performance! I also found that I no longer had those nagging aches and pains that I normally had and my recovery dramatically increased. My rolling partners were greatly surprised!

    So, my point was never that doing MAT as strength training would make your squat go from 150 to 300 or increase your sprint times. But that it is something, for me anyway (especially in conjunction with RTS inspired strength training), that has kept me strong and as a result, relatively injury free. All of these aspects in turn have GREATLY improved my performance.

    In terms of why I posted in this article, MAT and RTS greatly improve your #3,#4,#5 and I would also say #8. I am exploring HRV and have bought your HRV package and will be exploring that more in 2015. However, up until this point, MAT has been my ‘HRV’ and has worked very effectively. I’m hoping the combination of both will make for a strong and injury free 2015.

    I also put up my #9 and #10 because I’ve had a great journey and was hoping that I could show another option for those out there who have tried a lot of things to either overcome or avoid injury with no results. My #9 and #10 could easily be replaced with other modalities or forms of strength training similar to or different than MAT or RTS, but I added what worked the best for me of the 4 or so modalities I tried.

    Sorry for the book of a reply! Anyone else had a similar experience or have anything else to add?

    Also, wanted to say that I have much respect for you, Joel, and that I love your programs! I enjoy your blend of research and experience, and have really appreciated your responses.

    1. As I said, there’s no doubt that MAT can provide some benefits and just like any other modality/method, it’s better at some things than others. Again, my point is simply that manual muscle testing, isometrics, cross frictional massage, etc. is certainly not unique or novel, all are utilized by many other therapists, trainers, etc. and have been long before Roskopf ever trademarked “MAT” and started teaching it.

      I have no doubt you saw benefits from MAT, but I also have no doubt there’s many different techniques and approaches to training that would have also produced comparable changes. As a whole, MAT is just one of a million different ways to approach treatment and training, nothing more, nothing less.

      There are some local MAT therapists that have been doing it 15 years that were some of the very first students to go through the program and they are very good at the techniques. Some of the athletes I sent to them saw improvements from MAT, some didn’t. That doesn’t mean MAT doesn’t have uses, it just means it’s like any other technique, it can be effective for certain things and not so effective for others.

      My primary issue with it is that going through the full training program is something like 10-12k so by the time a lot of people have invested that much time and money into it, they are often quick to present it as the end all be all of treatment techniques capable of doing far more than it actually can. Then they start doing nothing but MAT on anyone and everyone for everything and neglect to look at the bigger picture or learn other techniques that are often equally or even more beneficial depending on the issue and goal.

      After many years of doing this, I will tell you one thing I know without question and that is whether it’s MAT, ART, Graston, Strain-Counterstrain, PRI, LDOA, DNS, PNF, etc., there is NO holy grail of treatment techniques that will always be the right approach for anyone, everyone and everything. The best therapists, coaches, trainers, etc. are the ones that understand this and approach each person with an individual approach and several different potential modalities and interventions from which to work. No doubt some therapists that use MAT fall into this category, but in my experience a lot of them simply learn MAT and then that’s all they do and that’s where I see the problem.

      1. I ABSOLUTELY agree! My #9 could be anything, MAT or otherwise. I simply was putting up what worked for me when nothing else did. And since this was an article on injury prevention, I’ve used MAT as strength training to address at least three things on your list and have become a better performing, less injury prone athlete.

        It does seem that a lot of them I have met do mainly do MAT only. And then the money is in rehab, so most concentrate there.

        In my case, I work with an MAT Specialist who also does RTS (hence my #10). Have you heard of RTS (Resistance Training Specialist)?

        These MAT Specialist seem to be very different and progress the strength training from working on the table to working in the weight room. This is what I have used and I have been injury free and training more ‘intelligently’ because my exercise regiment has been customized to my structure and my sports’ needs. It’s also helped me customize my conditioning programs, based on your book, to improve my conditioning.

        Your book is about customizing conditioning, not boilerplating a regimen, MAT and RTS are about customizing strength training, not follow fighter X’s strength training because it worked for him/her –it has been the perfect combination for me. I was hoping to help others out by relaying my experience, especially since I see a lot of people trying to “go it alone” (also my #10).

        Like you said, a lot of things can work, and I have had a great journey in finding what worked for me. I guess I was lucky have found an MAT trainer who also does RTS in conjunction, which seems to have made all the difference in my training even after recovering from the initial injury that brought me to MAT.

        Thanks again, Joel, for your replies and quality content. Much respect!

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