8 Best Cardio Workouts for MMA (Pre-Camp & Fight Camp)

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Having great stamina in a cage fight is vital for surviving a fight that could go a full three or even five rounds.

Mixed martial artists need to be simultaneously strong, conditioned, and with a deep gas tank so they don’t get burnt out too early in the fight.

Key takeaways ⛽️

👉 Fighters need to develop strength and capacity in their “gas tank” via aerobic cardio.
👉 This is done using steady-state cardio (also known as Zone 2 cardio) around the 135-150 BPM range.
👉 Exercises like jogging, cycling (air bike), and rowing can all be useful for aerobic cardio.
👉 Once the gas tank is well developed, fighters can add MMA-specific cardio challenges in what is often called the “hell circuit.”
👉 Hell circuits usually take place a couple of weeks before a fight and simulate the fight conditions by round times and breaks, involving training like takedown offense/defense, pad work, and shadow boxing.

I decided to ask a professional MMA fighter, Luke Howard, about the best cardio workouts for MMA.

In the rest of this article, that insight will clear up the process of cardio training for MMA fighting.

Fight camp preparation vs. regular training

The first thing to clarify is that the cardio workouts you’ll be doing depend on your end goal.

What exercises you can be doing can change between when you are outside of a fight camp or in one.

If you’re not preparing for a specific fight, your cardio is more likely to be maintenance focused than trying to push the most from your body.

But as you begin a fight camp, your entire physical preparation will likely change to become more targeted at producing the best results for a 15 or 25-minute fight.

What I’ll cover is the three types of energy systems in the body:

  • Aerobic system
  • Anaerobic system
  • Alactic system

And each of these systems has a different role in developing your overall cardio capacity, whether outside of the fight camp or in the buildup to a fight.

Next, I’ll cover the aerobic system often built up outside of camp.

Cardio workouts for before fight camp

While you’re not in a fight camp or at the early stages of one, you want to ensure that your aerobic capacity is healthy.

Your aerobic ability is like the gas tank of your body.

It’s essential to have a strong and large gas tank (aerobic) before you start chiseling away with other techniques to prepare for a fight.


And the route to improving that aerobic gas tank is through steady-state training.

Steady-state means exercising with a cardiovascular focus, pumping blood and oxygen through your body at a steady heart rate range.

It’s also sometimes called Zone 2 exercise.

Depending on your individual capacity, it’s usually somewhere between 135-150 BPM (Beats Per Minute) for an athlete.

Sticking in this zone for 30-60 minutes will build the size and strength of your gas tank.

You’re going to need a fitness tracker to monitor your heart rate while performing cardio, and the WHOOP 4.0 is my top recommendation:

Track BPM
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So what are the workouts you can do to build aerobic capacity? It can be almost any kind of cardio as long as it maintains a steady heart rate.

But look below for some of the best options.


This is an option if you can maintain a steady Zone 2 heart rate while running.

Personally, I’m not a massive fan of using running as an exercise tool because I believe it isn’t exactly normal for the human body to be put under this impact for sustained periods.

It can wreak havoc on your joints if utilized too much, particularly the knees and hips.

And it might be more difficult for some athletes to keep that steady heart rate.

But it’s why many will choose to use a treadmill where you can set the pace and set a timer to be specific with your work rate.

All that being said, it’s definitely going to use your aerobic cardiovascular system and train it in depth and breadth.

But I prefer the next two options.


I often find that cycling is a much better option because it’s challenging to do it wrong and causes far fewer injury issues than running.

It’s not causing any impact on your joints but is stressing your muscles in an aerobic capacity when performed steadily.

If you have a bike, you can hit the road and challenge your gas tank.

But what is usually more effective for monitoring your BPM is to use a stationary bike.

I’m particularly a fan of using air bikes.

My local gym has them, and perhaps yours does, too, so use them.

If you don’t currently have one at your disposal, then here’s the one I recommend you get:

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09/20/2023 07:30 pm GMT

What’s great about an air bike is that you set the intensity by how hard you cycle.

If you want to go steady, go slow. And if you want to push yourself, you have to push harder.

This makes the air bike an excellent tool for challenging your cardiovascular system while maintaining a steady state BPM range.


Another great option for steady-state cardio, similar to the air bike, is rowing.

Rowing machines have differences, though.

They usually have an intensity setting between 1 and 10 (sometimes higher), so you can set the base difficulty.

After that, the speed and power you use to row can make it even more challenging.

It can take a bit of experimentation at first, but you should be able to find an intensity setting and steady pace of rowing to get that Zone 2 cardio work we’re after.

If you have gym access to a rowing machine, it’s worth trying out to get the hang of it.

There’s a bit of technique to be learned with rowing so you’re not straining your back muscles unnecessarily.

Remember to row from just underneath your chest, using your arms, not overextending your back.

Rowing machines come in different kinds. Some are old school with internal wiring, while others use water or even magnets to allow for a silent rowing experience.

Here’s a solid rowing machine if you need one:

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09/21/2023 03:20 pm GMT

It’s a decent choice for the home because it’s compact and very quiet while rowing with it due to its magnetic parts.

Find your rhythm and rowing technique, and this cardio workout might be just right to keep your heart rate in a steady state for aerobic growth.

Cardio workouts during fight camp

So if you’ve now built up a strong base in aerobic capacity, your gas tank is now diverse.

Having a strong aerobic system will cause fewer problems when you start introducing shorter burst sessions to prepare for a fight.

I asked professional MMA fighter Luke Howard how this works:

“The aerobic system is the engine for the body, and the more work your body can do aerobically the less lactic [acid] you’ll build up from anaerobic and alactic system working.”

Luke Howard, Day One Martial Arts

Lactic acid has a vital role in the body as it provides energy to the mitochondria and is involved in the glucose process.

It’s also an important source of fuel for the muscles during exercise.

So we need lactic acid to help fuel our energy.

But there can be too much lactic acid built up, called lactic acidosis.

Too much acidity in the body, like inflammation, is never a good thing.

It’s often connected to the liver’s ability to clean out any excess lactic acid, like with many other molecules.

So if your liver isn’t processing efficiently, you can forget about piling on the high-intensity cardio before having both a healthy aerobic system and a healthy liver.

If you have a strong gas tank, you can start introducing shorter burst workouts that challenge your anaerobic alactic system to become fight-ready.

“Think of it like your aerobic system as the engine on the car, anaerobic as the turbo and alactic nitro. Without a big, strong engine your asking a lot of the other two.”

Luke Howard, Day One Martial Arts

Assuming that all things are working as they should, these next recommendations are excellent cardio workouts you can use in the lead-up to a fight.

Fight camp tips 👊

👉 These cardio workouts should be introduced systematically.
👉 Fight camp typically begins eight weeks before the fight, but sometimes longer is needed.
👉 Increase the intensity each week while reducing active cardio and rest time.
👉 The end goal is to simulate fight conditions, so very close to fight week you should be doing “hell rounds” that mimic the fight like five-minute rounds with one-minute breaks.


Shadowboxing is the tried and true visualization for imitating a fight using nothing but the power of your imagination.

It’s an excellent tool for challenging your brain and practicing your reactions, however a fight could develop.

So the aim is to see your opponent (who you likely know who they are already and have watched their fight tapes) and visualize their attacks and respond.

Shadowboxing is great for warming up or cooling down, but it can also be used with more intensity to prepare yourself for a fight.

Professional fighter and coach Luke Howard, who helped me to write this article, can help you to improve your shadow work and overall boxing skills in his program:

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It’s also useful to remember this option if you have an injury that’s stopping you from light sparring or even bag/pad work, as this will remove 90% of impact strain.

By bringing the duration of the shadowboxing down, but increasing the intensity, it’s pushing your body into Zone 3 cardio zones and above.

This can be added to the fight simulation rounds that will engage your anaerobic alactic system to prepare it for fighting.

Bag work and pad work

One level up from shadowboxing benefits is to get on the bag or the pads with your coach and train combinations.

This could have some level of visualization on the bag, too, like from shadowboxing.

Or your coach is directing you through the drills they want you to have perfected — ones which are often taking advantage of your upcoming opponent’s weaknesses.

Like shadowboxing, you can increase your intensity and reduce the time in one of these rounds.

You might start with a fifteen-minute round at the start of fight camp, but it could reduce down to five or even one upon fight week.

It all depends on the regime. You ideally have a conditioning coach helping you throughout this process.

Air bike

Stealing an option from the non-fight camp cardio exercises, the air bike is a favorite in fight camp preparation because it’s easy to mix into a circuit.

This is one of the non-specific cardio workout options you can still add into a fight circuit easily.

So you can use shadowboxing, pad work, and others listed here, along with jumping on an airbike and pushing your cardio as hard as you can.

These kinds of rounds are likely mixed in between the other exercises and usually are only for one to three minutes long by the end of fight camp.

The goal is pushing your cardio into deep waters to bring out the survival engine within you.

Takedown offense

It’s common to build the fight camp circuit around the variety of physical challenges a fight can bring.

As we’re focusing on MMA, taking down your opponent to the ground is a likely situation.

It is a great way to catch your opponent off guard, or even recover from taking a heavy strike yourself.

This is something that you’ll likely need a partner for, maybe even a few, to invite you to get a takedown on each of them — on repeat.

It’s likely doing burpees over and over, but harder.

You have to use your technique and your strength to takedown the opponent, get back to your feet, and go after the next one.

As with the other exercises, this would eventually reach one minute of takedown offense inside of a fight-week hell circuit.

Takedown defense

Similar to takedown offense, you can push your cardio system by being willing to receive the constant pressure of takedowns upon you.

This is a great way to challenge the consistent strength of your muscles, the the ability for your cardio to fuel those muscles with the oxygen they need.

When one transition is complete in a takedown defense, your partner gets up and another takes their place.

Once again, aiming to reduce this down to a one minute workout of a fight training circuit.

Ground and pound

To top it all off, the ground and pound can be added as another workout to train the system and prepare for fight conditions.

Whether or not you’re a grappling kind of fighter, the ground and pound round (that rhymed, right?) has great benefits for getting your max.

It’s using a lot of aggression and power to slam heavy hands, elbows, and forearms on top of the opponent.

You usually need a grappling dummy for this, so you can give it hell. Here’s a great one for ground ‘n’ pound training:

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09/20/2023 07:40 pm GMT

This kind of work is exhausting, and that’s the point of it.

This might start out as something lighter to implement in fight camp weeks one to four.

But as it’s getting closer to the fight, in weeks five to eight, this workout becomes more ferocious and shorter on time.

You want to be feeling like you’re in the fight, and giving everything you have in the tank to win.

How UFC fighters develop their cardio

UFC fighters have intense workout regimes to obtain fight-ready cardio.

Let’s take a look at a few famous fighters and how they do it.

Max Holloway

Check out this interview with Max Holloway, where he talks about how his ability to keep bringing the pressure to his opponent by just overworking them:

Max is a great example of a fighter at the top of his game and is well known for his cardio ability to take the fight for a full five rounds in an MMA fight.

Cain Velasquez

Velasquez undertakes thorough workout sessions throughout the week.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he lifts weights for one and a half hours in the morning.

He then rests and returns for a two-hour hard sparring session starting at twelve. Then he fights with his training partners.

The best part about this is that while his partners are on the offense, he barely has time to relax.

It forces him to overcome unrelenting challenges. Upon fight night, he’s prepared for deep waters.

Chris Weidman

One of the biggest highlights of Weidman’s career is dethroning Anderson Silva.

I think that his conditioning played a big part in that. He includes so many exercises to make sure he leaves no stones unturned.

From rope jumping to biking, Jiu-Jitsu, intense pad work, rope slamming, bungee-cord run, and more. His workout routine to prepare for Silva was meticulous.

Alexander Volkanovski

Alexander “The Great” is one of my favorite examples of a mixed martial artist whose conditioning is stellar.

There is many reasons why he is one of the greatest fighters of all time, and keeps himself very highly ranked on the pound-for-pound list.

The guy has gone toe to toe with the greatest strikers and wrestlers in his division and never seems to be “too tired.”

His coaching team have expertise in lactic training and are well known for pushing Alex to have the deepest gas tank possible via their hell week circuits.

MMA hell round circuit for fighting cardio

Here is a sample hell-round circuit that MMA fighters can use to get fight-ready.

It assumes that you already have your aerobic cardio (the gas tank) strengthened and broadened.

As then you can run sessions that imitate a fight scenario, like this:

Cardio “hell circuit” example

🚲 one minute on cycling on the air bike
🥊 one minute pad work with your coach
🤼‍♂️ one minute takedown offense
🥋 one minute takedown defense or sprawling
👊 one minute ground and pound with a grappling dummy

Rest for one minute, then repeat for a total of three rounds.

As you can see, this simulates the five-minute round time, with one-minute breaks in-between rounds, to complete a typical seventeen-minute MMA fight.

You might not be entirely ready for this hell-round circuit until those final weeks of fight camp.

So work with your conditioning coach to build up to this safely.

Final word on cardio for MMA

Training in mixed martial arts will elevate your cardio. There’s no doubt.

In one year of training, I went from struggling after the warmups to being able to do back-to-back sessions.

But it’s important to understand the differences between aerobic and anaerobic cardio to get the best from your body without overdoing it.

I know all too well what it feels like to have too much lactic acid built up in the body. It can cause other health issues.

Build up your aerobic cardio through (non-MMA-specific) steady-state Zone 2 training, and then develop an increasingly challenging MMA-specific cardio circuit to prepare for the fight.

What to read next

Now you should have the lay of the land about cardiovascular exercises for mixed martial arts, these next articles will probably be useful for further learning:

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