Shane Carwin Weighs In on Strength Training for MMA Fighters

TAGS: Shane Carwin, Scott Shetler, MMA, strength training

Shane Carwin is arguably one of the strongest, most powerful heavyweight fighters in the UFC. Over the course of his 12-2 professional MMA career, he has definitely shown he can throw a devastating punch. Prior to his interim heavyweight title victory over Frank Mir at UFC 111, Shane had knocked out or submitted each of his opponents in under two minutes and had never seen the second round of a fight until his first career losses to Brock Lesnar, a fight Shane nearly ended in the first round, and Junior Dos Santos.

Shortly after his 3:48 first round knockout of Frank Mir, I had the opportunity to speak with Shane about his strength training and conditioning program and why it is important for fighters to spend some of their time in the weight room. Here’s what he had to say...

Author’s note: Keep in mind, this interview was conducted on April 7, 2010. It was originally submitted to a magazine for publishing prior to his July 3, 2010, heavyweight title fight against Brock Lesnar but went unpublished. Since then, Shane underwent back surgery to relieve pressure on compressed and pinched nerves near the end of 2010, and his training and nutrition strategies have changed somewhat to accommodate his return to professional MMA competition. However, I feel that the information he shared with me is too good to remain unpublished.


SS: Shane, first of all, I’d like to say congratulations on your awesome performance at UFC 111. You were certainly prepared both physically and mentally for that fight and it definitely showed in the octagon. It seems that more fighters are placing a greater emphasis on strength training and conditioning as a means to supplement their fight training. This is definitely a shift from the idea that technique mastery is all a fighter needs to be at the top his game. What is your opinion on strength and conditioning as a supplement to specific fight training for the mixed martial arts athlete?

SC: I think it’s absolutely necessary. Everyone talks about technique now, but everyone is working on technique. People spend a lot of time studying all these different martial arts and what can really separate you is a good strength and conditioning program. It’s just like any other sport. I think MMA is going to evolve much faster because all these other sports had to go through all these growing pains already. Strength and conditioning coaches already know how to get these athletes to perform at a higher level. That science is already out there for these fighters to take advantage of.

SS: In an interview from March 2009, you said that you trained with weights three times per week and ran two times per week in addition to four weekly sessions of jiu-jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA training. That’s an insane schedule, particularly when you consider that fact that you work a full-time job and have responsibilities as a father and a husband. Has your strength training and conditioning changed any since then, and how important is your strength and conditioning training to your career in the mixed martial arts?

SC: It has changed. I still do three times per week as far as the strength goes and conditioning is still part of that with the strength, but I get some of the conditioning during sparring and my one-on-one sessions, which we try to vary up a little bit. Now I have eight practices a week on top of the strength—three are sparring, some are wrestling, and some are one-on-one with jiu-jitsu or boxing.

SS: So by the nature of the sport practice itself, you're finding that there is a benefit in terms of conditioning?

SC: When you're going to live, you're definitely getting some of the conditioning in that is more appropriate for the sport, such as the pushing and pulling of the body and other things you aren't going to feel just by running. Running is still good and definitely helps build endurance in the legs, so I get some of that in there, too. Much of it comes from practice and some of it comes from me. I feel what my body needs.

SS: In my experience, I've found that my athletes always make the greatest gains in size and strength by following a steady diet of the basic, heavy barbell lifts such as the squat, deadlift, row, pull-ups, bench, and military press. Do these or any other lifts make up the foundation of your strength training program?

SC: Yeah, absolutely. You aren't going to get bigger or stronger without doing those core lifts. There are some other lifts that you can add for explosiveness. I think the explosive training, along with the core lifts that you said, is the way to go for fighting. It’s basically a takeoff on other sports.

SS: I've found things like kettlebell training, weighted sled work, battling ropes, sledgehammer drills, and medicine ball exercises to be highly effective methods of preparation and conditioning for my athletes. It seems many fighters are beginning to utilize similar exercises in their conditioning programs. Have you used any of these forms of training in your strength and conditioning program?

SC: Absolutely. I would say that is a good portion of my conditioning. I got away from running a little bit because of the pounding and the shin splints. For conditioning, we've had to do more circuit training that involves pushing the sled, burpees, medicine ball slams, plyometric push-ups, and things of that nature.

SS: Can you give us an idea of what a typical training week looks like for you?

SC: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are lifting days consisting of plyometrics, Olympic lifts, and strength lifts as well as some agility work. My strength and conditioning coach also puts some general physical preparation (GPP) work in there and some core exercises. This is typically done around lunchtime. At night, I’ll do some one-on-one in boxing and maybe jiu-jitsu or whatever practice I feel I might need. It might be some wrestling as well.

Tuesday and Thursday mornings are sparring, and at night, it's usually wrestling or jiu-jitsu. Saturdays are another sparring day and Sundays are my off days. I think one of the main problems with the sport and why there are so many of the injuries is that there probably isn't enough off time because everyone is trying to get all these disciplines in. It isn't like going out and training football where you train the same position five to six days per week. When you’re training in boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, or jiu-jitsu and then doing your strength and conditioning work, it’s tough to get all that in and be where you need to be. I definitely think that people can very easily overtrain in this sport.

SS: Are there any specific recovery methods you find beneficial, particularly during periods of extreme training?

SC: Yeah, I get some muscle activation technique work done by a guy named Matt Bernier. That seems to help me the most. I think everybody has different things that work for them. I also do contrast baths. At my house, I have an ice bath and a hot tub right next to each other. I’ll go five in one and five in the other and go back and forth like that a number of times. I learned that down in Louisiana when I was training for the NFL in 1998 with strength and conditioning coach Kurt Hester. He was helping out me, Chuck Wiley, and Alan Fanaca.

SS: Some people might not realize that you went as far as you did. You were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and was projected fifth round pick but didn't make it due to previous injuries. Do you ever miss playing football?

SC: Absolutely. I love the sport. Unfortunately, what happened to me was I bulged three discs and ruptured a disc so at that point I was damaged goods. You know, it is what it is. I loved the game. I still love the game, and just driving in the fall, I can smell that grass and get those feelings, you know.

SS: There isn't any question that you have built an insanely strong and powerful physique. I'm guessing that wasn't done by weight training alone. Is nutrition and supplementation important to your preparation and ability to recover between training sessions?

SC: Yeah, absolutely. As far as nutrition and supplementation goes, if you aren't fueling your body when you're weight training and conditioning, you're missing out. To me, it isn't any good without good, wholesome, whole foods and high quality sports supplements. Without the fuel, your body isn't going to grow.

SS: Is there anything you would like to add pertaining to your strength and conditioning or fight training program that people reading this may be interested in?

SC: It amazes me that some of these fighters are just now saying that they’re hiring strength and conditioning coaches. That’s crazy to me. I can’t understand how they haven’t been doing strength work the whole time.

SS: It amazes me, too. I’ve always maintained that if you had two athletes with identical skill levels, regardless of the sport, and one spent time building strength, power, and speed while the other only worked on technique, the stronger more powerful guy would win every time.

SC: Not only is he going to win, he’s going to destroy the other guy.

SS: Unfortunately, I think when some fighters think of strength, they picture a huge, super heavyweight powerlifter who lacks mobility and some of the other skills necessary for fighters. That isn't the case.

SC: No, not at all.

SS: I feel it’s highly beneficial to get as strong and powerful as possible to the point where it doesn't interfere with your fighting skills.

SC: Another thing those people won't want to hear is that it takes a long time to develop that strength and power. It isn't done over a period of months. It’s done over a period of years. You have to stay committed and dedicated to getting stronger and not expect it to happen overnight.

SS: Shane, thank you sincerely for your time. I appreciate it and wish you the absolute best with your MMA career.

SC: Thank you.

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