SPORTS SCIENCE: Exploring types of natural ability that change strengths of particular fighters from Diaz to Velasquez to Anthony Johnson

By Adam Tindal, MMATorch contributor

Anthony "Rumble" Johnson KO'ing Glover Teixeira (photo credit Joshua Dahl © USA Today Sports)

It should be pretty clear to all of us sports fans that some of the most gifted athletes in the world happen to be MMA fighters. Speaking in reference to genetics, some fighters are more powerful and athletic than others. Then there are guys that might lack a natural abundance of fast twitch fibers and make up for it with a more sustained and conditioned approach thanks to their high level of endurance.

Our natural athleticism comes from our DNA and what we are born with. So how do we identify our strongest attributes and train to maximize them? What approaches should be taken in training and during the fight to ensure we are utilizing these unique advantages?

Pin-pointing your athletic qualities is something that will become clear to you at an early stage of training or sport participation. Whether you were the fastest kid on the soccer team or the basketball player who always had the highest vertical jump growing up, your natural rate of force production is most likely higher than the next guy thanks in part to a surplus of type 2 muscle fibers.

Now for the speedy soccer player, he is likely to exhibit a higher ratio of type 2A (Cain Velasquez: a heavy hitter that can last five rounds without losing too much power) muscle fibers, or moderate fast twitch, because during a game he is going through frequent bursts of rapid acceleration and deceleration over a very long time. These moderate fast twitch fibers are thicker and more explosive than their more aerobic, type 1 (Nate Diaz: lacks real big explosiveness but never fatigues) counterparts which are easier and quicker to fatigue.

Then there is the purely explosive basketball player, who in a split second can leap off the ground 30 plus inches into the air and snag the loose ball. He will largely have more type 2B fibers (Anthony Johnson: can generate massive power but fatigues almost instantly) which are the thickest of all and fastest to exhaust and recover. 

You’re probably asking yourself how this relates to MMA. Let’s take Anthony Johnson for example.

In my opinion, he is the most explosive and powerful athlete in all of MMA. He utilizes a very simple game plan every time he fights: Knock the other guy out of our atmosphere and into a black hole, sending him hurdling through space and time never to be seen again. When he’s successful, it can be awesome and intensely violent to watch. When he’s not successful, usually outside of the first round, the outcome is almost always the same. Tank is empty, back is taken, rear naked choke applied.

How can he train to improve upon this “weakness” so to speak, without losing his abnormal abundance of power? Keep in mind if he were to totally devote himself to building his gas tank up, then he’d be sacrificing certain qualities elsewhere. The body will relinquish what it feels it has enough of and compensate where it feels weak. For our friend Rumble, that happens to be his explosiveness.

With that being said, improving his body’s recovery time will drastically improve his stamina if the fight were to go into later rounds. Using high-intensity interval training is something I’m sure he does on a regular basis. However, changing the muscle stimulus to something he doesn’t see on a regular basis will accelerate the hormonal response necessary to improve. Couple this with his systematic approach to picking the right shots in the fight and his muscles will be able to immediately fire like they always have and now recover faster in between exchanges. This allows him to sustain the same power output for a longer duration.

When training guys who are naturally less athletic, the process of building power can sometimes be easier than the position Anthony Johnson is in. Physiologically, there is no real evidence that slow twitch fibers can be converted to fast twitch or vice versa. However, moderate fast twitch fibers can be transformed into full fast twitch fibers so athletes looking to improve upon their power production can do so through modified resistance training.

A great way to contribute to your overall growth in power production is through the use of isometric exercises. It may come as a surprise to some, but an isometric muscle contraction causes all three types of fibers to fire on all cylinders, thus stimulating an increase in tensile strength (ligaments and tendons). This aides in a faster and smoother transition through the stretch shortening cycle (powerful lengthening and shortening of muscles).

Ultimately, it would make sense for a fighter with a higher power output to use that “God-given talent” effectively and go for the kill. Although we know some guys are near impossible to finish, through training to speed up their muscle recovery time they can aggressively overwhelm their opponent until the perfect shot is landed.

On the other end of the spectrum, a fighter who lacks that natural athleticism can continue to use their endurance as a weapon while training to increase their power. The desired result being a sustainable pace that the opponent cannot maintain while the accumulation of strikes leads to an eventual and inevitable finish.

NEXT CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S ARTICLE IF YOU MISSED IT: SPORTS SCIENCE: Resistance training programming for the professional MMA fighter, how to prepare to fight rather than just “look good”

(Adam Tindal of Orlando, Fla. is new MMATorch Specialist columnist focused on the sports science of exercise. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Performance Enhancing Specialist, and has USA Weightlifting certification . He studied exercise science at UCF and current works for a sports performance company in Orlando. He has practiced Muay Thai for nearly ten years and is a passionate follower of MMA.)

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