Fighter-Style Bodybuilding: Jamie Varner's Workout Plan!

Elite fighters can't train like old-school bodybuilders—or can they? UFC legend Jamie Varner embraced the split and never looked back. Here's how he trains!

Fighter-Style Bodybuilding: Jamie Varner's Workout Plan!

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.

A video posted by Jamie Varner (@jamievarner) on

“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.”

A video posted by Jamie Varner (@jamievarner) on

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.”

A video posted by Jamie Varner (@jamievarner) on

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.

Fighter-style bodybuilding
2-3 times a week, Boxing, grappling practice, or fighter-style metcon work

Day 1: Quads

Low-bar back squat

3 sets of 4-6 reps, ass to grass
Low-bar back squat Low-bar back squat


Front squat

3 sets of 6-10 reps
Front squat Front squat


Leg extension

3 sets of 10-15 reps
Leg extension Leg extension

Sissy squat

3 sets of 20-25 reps
Sissy squat Sissy squat


Hack squat

(alt. leg press) 3 sets to failure, 3-sec eccentric, dropset to empty sled on last set
Hack squat Hack squat

Day 2: Chest

Bench Press

3 warm-up sets, then 3 sets to failure using controlled tempo, no bouncing
Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip


Incline Dumbbell Press

3 sets of 8-10 reps
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press


Machine or dumbbell fly

3 sets of 8-12 reps, then a burnout set of 15-25 reps to failure
Machine or dumbbell fly Machine or dumbbell fly


Dumbbell Bench Press

3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
Dumbbell Bench Press Dumbbell Bench Press


3-4 sets to failure
Pushups Pushups


Single-arm Hammer strength incline or decline press

3-4 sets to failure, alternating arms
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Day 3: Back


4 warm-up sets, then 4 sets of 10 reps
Barbell Deadlift Barbell Deadlift



3 sets of 8-12 reps weighted, followed by 1 bodyweight set to failure
Pullups Pullups


Narrow-grip cable row

3 sets of 8-12 reps
Narrow-grip cable row Narrow-grip cable row


Dumbbell bent-over row

3 sets of 10 reps
Dumbbell bent-over row Dumbbell bent-over row


Inverted row (feet on box)

3 sets of 15-20 reps, add weight to chest as needed to hit failure
Inverted row (feet on box) Inverted row (feet on box)

Day 4: Arms

Preacher curl or EZ-bar curl

3 sets of 10-15 reps
Preacher curl or EZ-bar curl Preacher curl or EZ-bar curl


Dumbbell concentration curl

3 sets of 10-15 reps
Dumbbell concentration curl Dumbbell concentration curl


Machine Biceps Curl

3 sets of 10-15 reps, alternating hand positions
Machine Bicep Curl Machine Bicep Curl

TRX bodyweight curl or cable curl TRX bodyweight curl or cable curl


Dumbbell overhead triceps extension (using two dumbbells)

3 sets of 10-15 reps
Dumbbell overhead triceps extension (using two dumbbells) Dumbbell overhead triceps extension (using two dumbbells)


3 sets of 10-15 reps
Skull-crusher Skull-crusher


Rope triceps push-down

3 sets of 10-15 reps
Rope triceps push-down Rope triceps push-down



3 sets to failure
Dips - Triceps Version Dips - Triceps Version

Day 5: Hamstrings

Stiff-Legged Deadlift

3 sets of 10-15 reps
Stiff-Legged Barbell Deadlift Stiff-Legged Barbell Deadlift


Walking Lunge

3 sets of 6 reps per leg with heavy weight
Barbell Walking Lunge Barbell Walking Lunge


Glute-Ham Raise

3 sets of 12 reps, 3-sec. eccentric
Glute Ham Raise Glute Ham Raise


Single-leg machine hamstring curl

3 sets of 15 reps per leg
Single-leg machine hamstring curl Single-leg machine hamstring curl

Day 6: Shoulders

Seated Barbell Military Press

4 sets of 10 reps
Seated Barbell Military Press Seated Barbell Military Press


Cable lateral raise

3 sets of 15 reps
Cable lateral raise Cable lateral raise


Front Cable Raise

3 sets of 15 reps
Front Cable Raise Front Cable Raise


Machine Military Press

3 sets of 15 reps
Machine Shoulder (Military) Press Machine Shoulder (Military) Press


Reverse Machine Fly

3 sets of 15 reps
Reverse Machine Flyes Reverse Machine Flyes