Does powerlifting decrease performance in MMA?

Talks about Jon Jones placing blame for his lack of performance against Ovince Saint Preux on powerlifting during UFC 197 have spread like wildfire not only in the MMA world but also the strength and conditioning.

I found his thoughts on this matter interesting given his interview on Sherdog stating:

“I heard a lot of people say powerlifting is going to make Jon have a bad weight cut. I heard a lot of people say powerlifting is going to mess with Jon’s flexibility. I heard people say powerlifting is going to mess with my cardio,” he said. “Me knowing what the assumption was, I made it a point to really attack those things. Right now I’m ahead of the game in my weight cut. My cardio I believe is better than it’s ever been. My flexibility, I’m doing everything I was doing before.”

But still, Jones blames powerlifting for his poor performance.

Greg Jackson even weighed in after the fight saying, “Powerlifting’s a problem.  He gasses. I only want to do an I-told-you-so dance right now.”

Although Jones reached an impressive feat of deadlifting 585 lb, many of his fans were concerned about what it could do to his cardio.  Even after UFC 197, Sports Performance Specialist Nick Curson came out and said in an Instagram post in reference to elite level athletes, “Lift heavy and YOU WILL lose efficiency, economy of movement…guaranteed.”

Other people attribute Jones’ non-dominant performance to having the layoff from the ring.  But on Blood Elbow, Daniel Cormier felt strongly that powerlifting had a lot to do with it.

Rather than making this article a he said this and he said that, let’s look at the ultimate question and keep things simple: 

Does powerlifting decrease performance in mixed martial arts?

First, what is powerlifting? 

Powerlifting is a sport.  It consists of  squat, bench press, and deadlift.  A basic layout of a competition gives the competitor 3 attempts at each lift with a total of 9 lifts.  The goal for each powerlifter is to lift the maximum amount weight possible to break either their personal record or claim a new record of some sort.  

There are a multitude of training programs for powerlifters that are geared towards improving those lifts and help those athletes break personal records. Plus, today it seems like a trendy thing to talk about in gyms.  If you say you are powerlifting, it gives the notion that you are spending your time and energy on improving the three main lifts.

Now that we got that out of the way, we must ask the question again, “Does powerlifting decrease performance in mixed martial arts?”

It depends.

As a Strength and Conditioning Coach, our job is to assess an athlete (movement, maturity, training experience, level of athleticism, etc.), see where improvements are needed to decrease risk of injury and improve performance, plan around the competition schedule, and lastly, not fuck them up especially when dealing with professional and elite level athletes.

I disagree and agree with Coach Nick Curson when he mentioned heavy lifting will cause the loss of efficiency and economy of movement.  It can’t be that cut and dry.  When you lift heavy and get stronger, you improve Intramuscular Tension which refers to how hard a muscle can contract during a given exercise which is directly correlated with the amount of force you can produce.  The more force you can apply the more “efficient” you can become during a movement because the less effort is needed to perform that particular movement.

Let’s all agree, for MMA, if you can apply more force in the ring you become that much more lethal.  

While Jon Jones’ deadlift of 585lbs was impressive, as a Strength and Conditioning Coach I have to ask myself if it was necessary.

No.

I do believe that the deadlift, bench press, and squat are fundamental for resistance training and improving strength but are not essential for overall athleticism.  Too many strength coaches get caught up in chasing numbers and forget who they are dealing with or the purpose of the training. 

No one takes a barbell into the Octagon to see who can lift the most. But to say powerlifting is the cause of Jones’ lack of performance in the ring shows why strength coaches are always the first to blame.  Same thing goes for any sport.  If a football team has a losing season, the first person to blame is the strength and conditioning coach. In this case - maybe, but I wouldn’t go too far to say definitely. 

One must take in all factors and look at the bigger picture:
    - Jones layoff from the UFC was 15 months
    - Jones packed on a good amount of muscle mass due to the strength training and nutrition
    - Jones training emphasized powerlifting

The fact that Greg Jackson supposedly told Jon Jones powerlifting is a problem also shows the lack of cohesiveness within the training camp.  As a sport coach, in this case MMA, if you notice a decrease in performance by your athlete you first confront the athlete and then figure out what he’s doing outside of the training for their specific sport.  

If Greg Jackson felt so strongly about powerlifting being a problem he either didn’t give Jon Jones a good enough explanation that would outweigh what the strength coach said or Jon Jones didn’t want to listen.

Now of course this is all speculation from the outside looking in.  But I wanted to make it clear that a lot more factors can play into the decrease in performance.  

ABSOLUTE STRENGTH AND RELATIVE STRENGTH

Absolute Strength is the maximum amount of force you can exert regardless of body size.  Generally, this means those in higher bodyweight have a greater amount of absolute strength.  But since MMA deals with weight classes, the important strength to monitor is Relative Strength.

Relative Strength is the amount of strength that is relative to your body size.  This shows the athlete’s ability to control and move his body through space.  By keeping your weight in check, you can increase relative strength by improving absolute strength in big exercises like deadlifts, squats, presses and cleans.

If you are dealing with an athlete who needs to make a certain weight, it is essential to watch performance that relates to their sport.  Again, Greg Jackson should have seen this and Jon Jones should have noticed it as well.  This goes back to questioning what the focus of the strength and conditioning portion of the camp really was? To chase after numbers? Or improve performance.

To make sure the absolute strength you’ve built can actually transfer over to performance and helped improve relative strength, athletes should perform tests that require just their bodyweight 
like vertical jumps, broad jumps, chin ups, sprints, and MMA specific performance tests.

THE NEW VEHICLE

Jon Jones went through a complete transformation.
When an athlete goes through a transformation like this, he must make sure he can handle the new vehicle and make sure the engine can still handle the new frame.    

Again, if you look at the bigger picture with Jones being off for 15 months with no fight in the Octagon, going through a transformation packing on new slabs of muscle mass, taking part in a “new” powerlifting routine, and supposedly not listening to his sport coach, it makes sense that his performance wasn’t what he expected.

It’s like taking new car you built out onto the race tracks without ever really testing its performance and expecting their to be no problems.  If the car ran great everyone throws high fives to one another.  If the car runs poorly or breaks down, then everyone begins to point fingers.
 Jon Jones Powerlifting

TURN OF EVENTS

As I’m writing this, I learned that the USADA pulled Jon Jones from UFC 200 due to positive results from a random drug test administered on June 16.  So that just opened a whole other can of worms that he and his team have to deal with.  

Again, from a strength and conditioning coach perspective and giving the benefit of the doubt to the athlete that he wouldn’t take some sort of PED to jeopardize his career, I’d look at the supplements he takes which are not regulated and could cause positive results during a drug test.  Just saying.

Although this event just happened, it doesn’t take away from the question, Does powerlifting decrease performance in mixed martial arts?

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Yes and no.  Now before you think you just wasted your time reading this whole article, let me break it down for you.

Yes, powerlifting will decreases performance in MMA if the athlete places more emphasis on powerlifting and chase after numbers which can be exciting and cool to watch but can also take your focus away from what matters - your performance in the Octagon. At a elite level, where you focus your time and energy can determine the outcome. Remember, no one cares how much you lift in the Octagon.  

No, powerlifting will improve performance in MMA if the athlete uses powerlifting to improve absolute strength but closely monitors his relative strength through proper testing, understands that powerlifting can enhance their performance but shouldn’t be emphasized, and realizes he is building a new vehicle and should expect anything to happen.

When looking at the bigger picture with all the factors and variables, to pinpoint one aspect for the cause of poor performance is asinine.  Maybe I’m just pleading my case as a strength and conditioning coach that we shouldn’t always be the first to blame.

On behalf of the case of powerlifting being the cause of poor performance by Jon Jones in UFC 197, I say it’s not powerlifting that caused the poor performance.  It was the whole training camp who didn’t properly prepare.

Remember, when things go right - everyone gives each other high fives.  When things go wrong - the pitch forks come out.  

Mahalo and Aloha.

- Daniel Aipa is the Founder and Director of Human Performance for The Kū Project, Hawaii’s #1 resource of Fitness, Health, and the Ku Lifestyle. Aipa is also a Hawaii based Strength and Conditioning Coach of Kū Performance and trains out of Pacific Elite Sports Hawaii in Kaneohe.  He brings with him over 10 years of experience in the athletic performance industry.  Aipa comes from a background of being a multiple sport athlete and martial artist (judo, jiu jitsu, kajukenbo, and lua).  Before moving back to the islands, Aipa was the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Redlands where he trained hundreds of athletes and programmed for 21 collegiate sports.  Aipa is certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (CSCS) and USA Weightlifting (Sports Performance Coach). Visit thekuproject.com and use the coupon 'KEEPITKU' to receive 25% off apparel and strength programs!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published