By: Brian Sutton MS, MA, CES, PES, NASM-CPT
The combative sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has gained a great deal of popularity on both a national and international scale, particularly with the emergence of the Ultimate Fighting Championship®. MMA is a full-contact combat sport that allows athletes to incorporate various fighting styles and techniques including, but not limited to, grappling techniques such as freestyle wrestling and Jiu jitsu, and striking techniques involving the upper and lower body as in boxing, Muay Thai, and karate.
The fast-paced sport of MMA requires repetitive bouts of explosive activity from the anaerobic energy systems, followed by shorter rest/recovery periods in which the aerobic system is taxed (1-7). To gain a competitive advantage in strength, size, and power, elite-level martial artists possess high levels of fat-free body mass (e.g. muscle) compared to fat mass (1-4). Changes in the MMA athlete’s body composition (decreasing body fat) may also be required to help an athlete make a certain weight class.
How Do MMA Fighters Gain Muscle?
MMA athletes who desire to gain muscle mass must have a twofold adjustment: (1) kilocalories must be increased, and (2) an appropriate exercise program must be in place.
An athlete can gain weight by incorporating additional energy into the diet (approximately 500 to 1,000 kcal per day depending on total activity) while increasing strength training to promote muscle growth (8). How quickly an athlete gains weight will depend on the individual’s age, gender, training experience, genetic makeup, degree of positive energy balance, diet composition, timing of meals, number of rest and recovery days per week, and type of training program (8).
To build lean muscle, more total calories are needed when compared to less active individuals. Strategies for ensuring adequate energy for weight gain include:
- Adding energy-dense foods - Choosing higher calorie nutritious foods will help MMA athletes take in adequate energy. This can include an increase in foods containing fat, if the fat is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (plant-derived). The acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) for fats can be as high as 35% of total calories.
- Regular meals - Athletes who are trying to gain weight should make regular meals and snacks a priority. They should eat at least three healthy meals per day and several snacks to help them achieve their desired energy intake.
- Larger portions - This is the inverse recommendation for those trying to lose weight; those trying to gain weight should increase their portion sizes whenever possible.
- Beverages - Beverages are an excellent way to add healthy calories. Juice, dairy, and healthy smoothies, made with or without supplement products, can be grabbed on the run.
- Exercise - Resistance training, supported by the dietary strategies listed above, can effectively increase muscle mass and strength, within genetic limitations.
See more nutrition tips for fighters by following the link.
There is unequivocal evidence that a limited number of natural substances, prepared and ingested properly, can safely improve training-induced size or performance for athletes (9, 10). Historically, however, certain athletes have had a tendency not to follow directions.
Many subscribe to the old adage, “If a little works, more is better.” The practice of overconsumption of anything such as foods, dietary compounds, and drugs can lead to problems. On the other hand, proper supplementation for performance has often been shown to generate truly remarkable benefits, and this in itself can save many individuals from turning to illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Pre and Post Exercise Meal Replacements
Generally, nutritionists prefer athletes to eat whole foods which contain not only macronutrients and kilocalories, but micronutrients and phytochemicals (plant compounds known to protect against disease). For some, however, taking in enough energy and nutrients from whole foods, especially for those with exceptionally high levels of physical activity, may not be realistic and can cause gastrointestinal distress. For those clients, a meal supplement (combination of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fat) might be recommended.
Eating whole foods following exercise may not deliver nutrients within a time frame that allows maximum results when compared to the proper use of quick digesting specialized formulas (11-15). This is due to the length of time it takes to digest and absorb the nutrients from traditional meals. Immediately following exercise, muscle cell nutrient uptake is at its highest point and therefore this “window of opportunity” requires a well-designed, fast-acting formula (15).
The use of pre- and post-meal replacement formulas can stimulate muscle growth and repair to a greater extent than whole foods (11-15). In other words, clients who consume pre- and post-meal replacement formulas before and after their workouts recover faster and build more muscle (14, 15). The post-exercise feeding activates the muscle-building that takes place during this period, and without it, there is little to no protein synthesis during this time frame. Although the post-training metabolic window is active for as long as 60-90 minutes, its maximum activity (greatest nutrient uptake and protein synthesis capabilities) takes place immediately following the training session (15).
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- Koopman R, Wagenmakers AJ, Manders RJ, et al. Combined ingestion of protein and free leucine with carbohydrate increases postexercise muscle protein synthesis in vivo in male subjects. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. Apr 2005;288(4):E645-53. Epub 2004 Nov 23.
- Esmarck B, Andersen JL, Olsen S, et al. Timing of postexercise protein intake is important for muscle hypertrophy with resistance training in elderly humans. J Physiol. Aug 2001; 15;535(Pt 1):301-11.
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About the Author
Brian Sutton, MS, MA, PES, CES, NASM CPT
Brian Sutton is the Fitness Education Program Manager for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), a global leader in providing evidence-based certifications and advanced credentials to health and fitness professionals. Brian is instrumental in the development of NASM education courses from initiation to launch, working alongside some of the brightest minds in sports medicine to create the most comprehensive courses in the industry.
In addition, Brian works as an adjunct faculty member for California University of Pennsylvania in the Exercise Science & Sports Studies department. He holds Master’s degrees in both Exercise Science with a concentration in performance enhancement and Sport and Fitness Management.
He is a regular contributor to several health and fitness textbooks, publications, and has been featured as an expert in the fields of health, wellness, and fitness.
Brian resides in Gilbert, Arizona with his wife Leslie and daughter Hannah and enjoys a variety of outdoor and sporting activities including golf, basketball, and hiking.