For most people, the words “train like a fighter” bring to mind something like a high-intensity strength-and-power circuit. One minute you’re pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks up a hill, the next you’re flipping a giant truck tire, and then you’re slinging a kettlebell. The whole time, you’re panting like a dog and moving violently, like every rep is a battle for your life.
For fighters, that style of training was born of necessity. “That kind of circuit training is used to simulate a fight,” says Jamie Varner, a legendary retired UFC fighter and the owner of Impact MMA in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he trains both elite fighters and everyday people. “Fights happen in all different shapes and sizes. They take place standing up, on the ground, and against the fence in a cage. When those guys go from lunge walks to battle ropes to sprints to a rower, that’s what they’re preparing for.”
For guys just looking to get strong and lean, however, those kinds of workouts can be a fun way to break out of recycled routines and play fighter for a day. They’re also the kind of workouts that Varner used to do in camps to prepare for the serious business of combat sports. But not anymore.
In retirement, Varner has broken through to new levels of strength using a training method that might seem like heresy to a nation that has come to embrace CrossFit and worships at the altar of HIIT. What’s Varner’s secret weapon? The classic bodybuilding split.
Building a fighter’s body
A body-part split? How could this be? Everybody knows that training like a bodybuilder—even and old-school one—makes you big and slow, not fast and full-body strong like a fighter needs to be. Varner insists you forget your preconceptions.
“I went from walking around at 196 pounds doing three days per week of strength-based circuit training to focusing on one muscle group a day, six days per week,” he says. “Now I’m walking around at 192, and I’m stronger and more explosive than I ever was when I was fighting.”
That’s coming from a guy who turned pro as a mixed martial artist at 18 and relied on his strength to put bread on the table for the duration of his 12-year mixed martial arts career. Varner spent nine years fighting at the very highest level of the sport, so when he says working on a split has made him stronger and more athletic, you’d better believe he’s not blowing smoke up your octagon.
“I do quads one day, chest one day, hamstrings one day, shoulders one day, arms one day, and back one day. That’s six days a week of lifting,” he says. On top of that, Varner still does skill work and teaches a wide variety of classes at Impact, in addition to working with the gym’s elite fighting team. “I’ll do a boxing workout once or twice a week, plus a grappling workout two or three times per week, because they’re different energy systems and they benefit from each other.”
That’s a huge volume of training that most won’t be able to match. But following just Varner’s strength workouts takes about an hour and change six days per week, putting the routine within reach for anyone who wants to get fighter strong, build thick, dense, ripped muscles, and burn calories like a brush fire in August. Add a couple of those fighter-style conditioning sessions when you can, and you’re set.
What’s Old is New Again
Ready to ignite? Follow Varner’s workout and supplement routine to build badass strength and a physique that will scare your opponents—real or imaginary—into submission and have them waving the white flag before the fight even starts!
How heavy should you go? Varner doesn’t base his workouts on a percentage of his max, but relies instead on a more flexible system that demands he gauge his exertion level at certain rep schemes.
“If you want to get results, you have to work to know your body inside out and push yourself as hard as possible when you’re training,” he says. “Some days are good days, some days are bad days. Use your judgment and feel to figure out what weight works best for you.”
For all lifts, Varner recommends using a weight that will have you pushing yourself to the limit for the last rep in each set. “I pick the weight to where I reach absolute failure on every set,” he says. “When I tell you I’m doing 4 reps, I may need help on that last rep, but I can’t do another one because I’ve absolutely hit my threshold. Everything I do is to failure.”
It goes without saying that having a competent lifting partner is a must to train like Varner. If you must train alone, dial it back a notch, use good judgment, and selecte weights you know you can manage safely.
As for rest, use the shortest rest periods you can handle to keep the overall intensity of the workouts very high. During rests between sets or movements, Varner will hit the foam roller or stretch, so there’s not a wasted moment in the workout.
2-3 times a week, Boxing, grappling practice, or fighter-style metcon work.
Note: Varner devotes more volume to biceps than triceps because, he says, "I'm shaped disproportionately from fighting. My triceps are a lot stronger and bigger than my biceps." If the opposite is true for you, balance your volume differently.