Last month, FightMedicine brought you the first in a series of training advice from MMA veteran and Team Quest trainer Matt Lindland. If you missed it, check it out here. This month, legendary trainer Greg Nelson talks about his experience in MMA, the value of smart training, and how important it was that one his most successful pupils, Sean “The Muscle Shark”, Sherk worked with the right doctor. Besides Sean, Greg has trained UFC champions Brock Lesnar and Dave Menne.
FightMedicine.NET: How did you get into MMA and become one of MMA’s top trainers?
Greg Nelson: I started training and mixing different martial arts far before ‘No Holds Barred’ and MMA was known in the US. As a 9th and 10th grader in 1979-80 I was wrestling, boxing and kickboxing…and we were sparring with the goal of winning through striking, takedown and ground and pound (we did not have submission skills yet). In 1993, after graduating high school I started training in the Jun Fan Martial Arts (the art and science of Bruce Lee). That same year I started wrestling at the University of Minnesota. Shortly after, in 1984, I started training Thai Boxing. I was combining all of them, and as new arts, techniques and training methods were being introduced I started to combine them as well. In 1989, while living in California and training with Erik Paulson, Erik introduced me to Rickson Gracie and I did my first private class in Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Now the submissions were being introduced to the striking and wrestling. We now had the basic building blocks of our program; Muay Thai, Wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and . Later in 1989 we started to train with Sensei Yuri Nakamura with Shoot Wrestling, one of the first real competitive Mixed Martial Arts competitions. Having a wrestling base, compounded by Boxing, Muay Thai and Jun Fan Kickboxing, then progressively adding Gracie Jiu Jitsu (from the source) and Shoot Wrestling (a compilation of Japanese Jui Jitsu, Catch As Catch Can Wrestling, Russian Sambo, and Muay Thai) created the perfect formula of arts that became to this day our equation for success.
A competitive wrestler through college, it was not good enough to simply train, I had to test what we were doing. In 1993, I fought Thai Boxing in Chicago and Canada, then the 1st Amateur Shoot Wrestling fights in LA in 1995. After earning my Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu I competed in the Pan Ams in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Competing in every area of the Mixed Martial Arts, individually and collectively in Shooto, gave me a first hand understanding of training and fighting. Ever since I started wrestling I have had a true passion for the Competitive Combat Arts. I started my school in 1992 for the sole purpose of following that passion. Even before any competitive outlets were presented to us, we were training and preparing simply to be better fighters.
What is your philosophy when it comes to MMA training?
My philosophy is simple. Be dedicated to the disciplined and hard working individual, and to the Integrity of the Combative Martial Arts (MMA, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Submission Grappling, Judo, Wrestling…). If a fighter has discipline, works hard and has the passion to maintain the integrity of the martial arts he can be great. However, very few fighters really possess the qualities necessary to develop into good fighters, let alone great fighters. Therefore, as far as professional fighters are concerned I only train those that are serious, that really want to be the best they can be. Even then, only a few will live up to their real potential.
What mistakes do you see a lot of fighters or trainers make that should be avoided or corrected?
I feel the biggest mistake fighters and trainers make is not spending the time to master the basics of each area of Mixed Martial Arts. Collegiate wrestlers make strong fighters because they have truly mastered the clinch, takedown and top control. High level BJJ Black Belt competitors have done well because they have mastered submission grappling. Now the most successful fighters have been disciplined enough to spend the time to master the skills they need to succeed. Generally, they already have one of the key areas already mastered. I have been fortunate to have had great wrestlers to work with, who are willing to work with the great BJJ/Submission Grapplers and Strikers we have developed. Many fighters do not have the discipline, patience, persistence or passion to develop the total game. Likewise, many trainers don’t demand those same qualities from their fighters, they don’t demand them of themselves.
What are some of the common training or fighting injuries that can be easily avoided or treated?
Injuries to the knees and shoulders. They are the same injuries that many wrestlers have and most likely for the same reason: over training. In MMA a competitor has to develop and maintain high level striking, wrestling and ground work, in addition a fighter has to be in great condition. Therefore, they do their fight specific training and then conditioning, or worse yet, fatigue themselves doing their supplemental conditioning and then try to push themselves in wrestling, live grappling or sparring and get injured. If a fighter is over trained his muscles are not as strong, yet they keep pushing and then, not wanting to give up or lose, end up getting injured. It is not just about simply training hard, it is about training right. Fighters have to listen to their bodies and trainers have to listen to their fighters. If a fighter has all the ingredients to be a champion, he probably will also not want to appear weak, and always want to push hard. It is up to the trainer to design program that will allow the fighter to progressively develop their conditioning and skill level so that they peak on competition day. Then they need to rest, recover and reevaluate their performance. The fighter can then spend extra time to develop speed, strength, explosiveness, stamina, power. Also, the fighter can now spend extra time technically expanding their game.
What are some of the injuries you and your bigger fighters have had to deal with and how were they treated?
One major injury that could have been a key reason for a loss was with Sean Sherk and his fight with Kenny Florian. Sean had a great training camp leading up to that fight. We were coming up with new and creative drills to improve his guard passing and top control, while at the same time continuing to ever improve his lightening fast shot. 10 days before the fight Sean shot in for a double on one of our bigger fighters (Mistake #1: working with a bigger fighter with a great sprawl). Sean shot and his teammate sprawled and dropped his weight perfectly on Sean’s shoulder. In a split second, Sean went from 100% healthy to having a torn labrum and a Grade II separation. He continued to train, but could not use that arm with any real strength. Considering he was fighting for the 155 lbs Lightweight UFC Title, not fighting was not an option. We hid the injury up until the pre-fight medical check at the weigh-ins. Despite having limited motion and decreased strength, Sean dominated the fight, beating Kenny Florian by Unanimous Decision to win the UFC Lightweight Title Belt.
How did you work with the doctor during that process?
Sean met with a doctor and told him he wanted to fight, so what could he do to decrease the pain and give him a better range of motion. The doctor gave him a cortisone injection to relieve the inflammation, giving him increased range of motion and decrease the pain. The doctor at the UFC asked Sean in front of Kenny which shoulder did he get an injection in. Sean immediately said, “it was my knee”, the doctor says, “No, this said you had a cortisone injection in your shoulder.” Up until that point we had kept the shoulder injury away from everyone. Prior to the doctor saying that in front of Kenny, and who knows who else heard, Sean was a 3 to 1 favorite to win. Within an hour after the medical exam, the odds in Las Vegas went to even. Regardless, Sean ran through Kenny’s guard and dominated the fight.
What can the medical community do to help fighters get treatment and get back into fighting shape?
It is very important that fighters go to a good sports doctor. Many regular orthopedic doctors work with the everyday people that wince at even the slightest pain. A driven athlete is willing to rehab and build their body, doing whatever it takes. I personally went to a ‘regular’ Orthopedic Surgeon with an MRI on my knee. I had a full bucket tear with my meniscus and was going to have 98% of it taken out. The Orthopedic doctor told me that I should get a new job. I got my MRI and went to an athletic Orthopedic Doctor that Brock Lesnar had used. He said, “OK, we will get you in, clean that up and get you on the mat drilling in a couple of weeks” What a difference, and I was back on the mat teaching class and drilling in two weeks. That was my fourth (4th) knee surgery and my knees feel great. I can do more now than I could for years. You have to find the right doctor that understands your sport and the high level athlete in general.
What do fighters and trainers need to focus on when rehabbing from an injury?
I believe in active recovery. Even when rehabbing an injury you can drill and continue to develop technique. Personally, I have had four knee scopes. My first knee injury while wrestling the U of MN in 1986 I partially tore my anterior cruciate ligament and my medial collateral ligament, had a scope and then went into rehab. I was in the wrestling room as soon as I could work safely on the bike, slowly increasing my range of motion, until I could start to pummel and work upper body. And then I started to work Greco Roman, kept my knee out of the action, working the upper body. When I could, I started to shoot and work leg attacks. I was shadow boxing, then started to add knees and finally worked the kicks in. Soon enough I was doing Thai Pads, sparring and training full out. The other 3 surgeries I had scopes to repair cartilage tears. The last one, as stated above, it was important to have a top level sports orthopedic surgeon. I can honestly say that I am living proof of active recover. I even trained while going through Chemo and used Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to build my legs ups, when I had to relearn how to walk. As soon as I could begin kicking and punching, I did.
What is a safe plan for a training camp?
A training Camp should be 8-10 weeks max. If a fighter is training daily, he should be at about 60% of his optimum fight shape. The training camp is going to be a very directed training camp that is shaped by the opponent that we are preparing to meet. A game plan is devised: where the fighter wants fight, do they want to keep it standing or pressed up against the cage. Are we fighting a better striker and want to get the fight on the ground or against the cage. Are we better on the ground and we are fighting a very good counter wrestler or strong wrestler. There are many factors that come into play. Where are we weak, need to improve or stifle our opponents attacks. I am a big believer in training as many fight specific training methods as possible during fight camp. I have recently seen many fighters stress outside conditioning (throwing tires, doing weight training circuits, sprints, etc…) and they come in tired for the actual fight training. If a fighter cannot hit the mitts or Thai Pads like they should, as close to fight pace as possible, or they are fatiguing too fast in live grappling or sparring, they are most likely spending too much of their energy with supplemental training. I cut the outside training quite a bit and focus on hard increasingly fight paced Thai Pads and Focus Mitts with varied responses, including shooting for takedowns and defending them. On the ground the goal, and where many of the injuries occur, is to mimic the fight, yet keep the fighter from getting cut and/or injured. Due to the nature of the sport, the fighter will have tweaks, and muscle pain and strains, but you have to push the limit of your fighter. In a higher end pro fighters career, he will always have time to heal after the fight, therefore you can push them beyond what they are comfortable with, while at the same developing specific and necessary technique and skills that will be directly used in a fight. When you consider all of the conditioning (strength, speed, stamina, reactio/reflex…) methods there are in Boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu/Grappling, Judo, Wrestling and MMA it is easy to come up with very intense conditioning session during or after the primary training session.
How do you avoid overtraining?
The most important way to avoid overtraining is to create a training schedule, what you are going to do, when and why you are doing it. many fighters feel they have to do more and more, keep pushing and not know why they are doing it. You should have your training sessions broke apart and set up throughout the week. For example, Monday: Wake up and run before eating to increase your metabolism and build over all stamina. Eat (know what you are eating and why), rest and mentally prepare for first training session. Monday morning training focuses on Takedowns and Grappling (Warm Up and stretch-15 minutes , Strike to Takedown-5 minute round, Strike to Takedown to Submission-5 minute round, 6 x 5 minute Live MMA Grappling Rounds, starting with Striking to Takedown and once your partner hits the ground it is Live, strikes are controlled, but are placed with enough force to register their potency. At the same time you are battling for position and submission.
Having solid and technically sound training partners that are in shape is absolutely necessary. A tired and sloppy training partner will do unorthodox and unexpected reactions, that will often put him and his training partner in jeopardy of injury. After the 35 minutes of hard goes, Round 7 will be a Striking-Takedown-Submission Round to build technically sound movements during a fatigued state. After a short water break a short, sprint style conditioning session can follow.
In the afternoon fighters can do a Strength and Conditioning Circuit. The Circuit should be 20-30 minutes, but very intense and push the fighters, building what is most needed (Muscular Endurance, Power & Speed, Agility, Speed…or all of the above). Again, making sure the fighter is hydrated, has eaten the proper fuel to allow them to push past their perceived limits, and then what to eat after the session to rebuild. Again the fighter should now rest and recover. At this point, having done two hard sessions it is important to have a serious drilling session where the fighter focuses 100% on the submission and striking skills he wants to build. This has to be part of a fighters training, if not they will not be complete and will have holes in their skill level. This type of day should happen 3 X a week.
On two days a week the fighter should focus on sparring, leg and arm conditioning. Again, starting the day with a run, the fighter needs to establish that as a habit. Once the fighter eats and recovers, he then is ready for his sparring session. The fighter should jump rope 10-15 minutes, followed by shadow boxing for 10-15 minutes. Once the body is warmed up, the fighter is partnered up with a solid well skilled partner. They then throw combination back and forth with control, but solid, this prepares the body and eyes for the sparring to come. We do a variety of striking drills to warm up the fighter, physically and mentally. We will do combo for combo, shadow boxing with your partner, All offense to All defense, and more.
After the fighters are wholly ready we will initiate sparring. Our rounds start with Timing Sparring (live but controlled attempting to build timing over speed), they gradually build up to full sparring. On the outside the coach and others should monitor the action, making sure no one is getting hit too much, getting fatigued and losing focus, or any two fighters are allowing their emotions to rule their reason. Again, it is important that the fighter being fully prepared for a hard fight, but the coach and other trainers should closely monitor the fighters.
Lastly, there should be a day off for full recovery. It is necessary that the fighter have a game plan, that increases in intensity as his conditioning grows. They should always be monitored and the coach should be aware of all of the supplemental conditioning that is being done. The fighters must be hydrated, fueled with a proper diet and get the necessary sleep. It is important that the fighter is as disciplined with his recovery and rest as he is with training.
What are your views on weight-cutting and how to avoid going to extremes?
Weight cutting is part of the sport. As a wrestler I have cut weight for years, and in an era where everything was done wrong. Now, the fighter has many alternatives for diet, and weight cutting. In fact, weight cutting has become a science and those that choose to learn how their body works and the different ways the most successful are cutting weight will be able to safely and successfully cut weight. All of my fighters cut weight, some more than others, and none of them cut exactly the same. One thing is constant, the best weight cutters have a disciplined diet and they stick to it. With a clean diet and maintaining proper hydration throughout the camp, and familiarity with cutting weight, a fighter can easily cut 10-20 pounds and be healthy.