Why Are MMA Fighters So Skinny? (UFC Tactics Explained)

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If you’ve been a sports fan all of your life but have recently gotten into watching UFC fights, you may be wondering, “why are MMA fighters so skinny?”

A lot of fans think that strength is based on size. After all, football players train to get big so they can dominate on the gridiron, right?

But MMA fighters can deal heavy blows, so strength has little to do with size and muscle mass. I break down why MMA fighters are skinny in this post.

Why Are MMA Fighters So Skinny?

A skinny guy trying to look tough

MMA is not about being big and bulky. Fighters have to be agile and have excellent endurance to deal damage over five rounds. The bigger the fighters are, the easier they gas out, and the lesser their flexibility. In MMA, muscle is more of an armor than a weapon.

Many fans, including myself, think that a bigger fighter can deal more damage than a skinny fighter. It’s easy to associate bulk and muscle mass with strength; however, being big as an MMA fighter is counter-productive in reality.

Think of an MMA fight as an intense marathon: the fighter’s body needs to be prepared for five fast-paced rounds of intense fighting. For this reason, fighters condition their bodies for endurance rather than train to achieve a bulky physique.

MMA fighters are skinny because their training primarily involves repetitive workouts. For example, a mixed martial arts fighter will do 100 pushups rather than bench press 400 lbs. 

High repetition workouts tone the muscles up and prepare them for strain over long periods. These workouts don’t lead to big growth in muscle; rather, they make the muscles more and more resistant to fatigue.

Professional fighters aim to keep their body fat low, typically between 6% and 13%. Furthermore, every fighter aims to keep their muscle mass low since it helps the fighter last longer in a fight.

Don’t get me wrong: there are advantages to being big. For example, powerlifters and football players train to get big because it gives them explosive strength. These athletes need that explosive burst of strength to lift a heavy object or sprint 100m as fast as possible. 

In an MMA fight, though, explosive strength without endurance means nothing. Fighters need to exert themselves for longer and keep up with the fast pace of the fight. So, they do a lot of muscle endurance training, giving them that lean, shredded look. 

A leaner body allows the fighter to perform well without getting fatigued too soon.

Why Are Fighters Not Buff?

A fighter with a buff and muscular physique

Bigger muscles require a higher blood flow and more oxygen than leaner muscles. So if MMA fighters were buff, their bulky muscles would tire their cardiovascular system a lot faster in a fight. Furthermore, bigger muscles also make fighters slower and less flexible – disadvantages that can lead to a loss.

On the other hand, skinny fighters are more flexible, move faster, and have much better endurance. In other words, being lean means staying in the fight longer and having an advantage in most exchanges on the ground or the feet.

A lean fighter with a good plan can outperform any other fighter without much trouble. If we go back to Nate Diaz Vs. Donald Cerrone (UFC 141, 2011), it’s not hard to see that Diaz’s pace is a lot quicker than Cerrone’s. As a result, Nate Diaz won the fight by unanimous decision – he outperformed Cerrone in every round.

Though both fighters look like the average person, they strike the perfect balance between strength and endurance. 

It’s also not hard to see that most champions in the UFC have been skinny. Regardless of the weight class, UFC fighters don’t have much body fat and tend to be relatively lean. 

Israel Adesanya, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anderson Silva, and Jose Aldo are some of the greatest champions in the history of the UFC, and they’re all lean.

Why Do UFC Fighters Weigh So Little?

A man with a towel over his head trying to cut weight for a fight

UFC fighters weigh less because they cut weight before fights to fit into a certain weight class. Cutting weight refers to losing the body’s “water weight” by reducing food and water intake, doing more cardio, spending time in saunas, and sleeping wrapped in duvets.

UFC fighters typically cut between 15 to 30 pounds in the 48 hours before a fight. The weight they lose is mostly water that they dehydrate. After the weigh-in, the fighters are allowed 24 hours to rehydrate their bodies. 

As one of the best light heavyweights in UFC history, Anthony Johnson cut between 50 and 60 pounds before fights.

It’s important to note that a fighter’s weight class doesn’t indicate their actual weight. The fighters rehydrate after the weigh-in, and many of them are back to their normal weights on fight night.

While the weigh-ins may lead you to believe that MMA fighters are lean, they’re very heavy for their size. For example, someone the size of Anderson Silva without much body fat would weigh 180 – 185 lbs. However, Anderson Silva weighs 205 lbs. 

This may be because he has denser bones or muscle fibers, giving him better speed and power but also making him heavier. 

Do MMA Fighters Gain Weight?

A thick muscular man training at the gym for gaining mass

An MMA fighter may choose to gain weight to move up a weight class. That said, gaining weight quickly to fight up a class isn’t very common. Gaining weight quickly puts the fighter at a disadvantage – the hands are heavier, movement is more challenging, and takedowns are harder to execute.

If a fighter chooses to gain weight, they eat carb-heavy food, have salt, and drink a lot of fluids before the weigh-in after months of eating clean. The carbs and the salt help the fighter’s body hold onto water, making them heavier in the weigh-in.

In MMA, fighting in higher weight classes pays more. Fighting up a weight class is lucrative; however, most fighters avoid moving up weight classes quickly since they are at a disadvantage.

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