Pulling Strength For Mixed Martial Arts Athletes: Importance & Exercises!

This month, we look into the importance of pulling strength for MMA with top trainer and Bodybuilding.com regular interviewee, Martin Rooney. Here's what he believes is critical in back training for MMA.

It's one thing to go in the gym and do some cookie cutter training program regardless of what sport you participate in. That's what the athletes who never fulfill their ultimate potential. The ones that do maximize their abilities are smart enough to fine tune their training protocols to allow them to perform at the highest possible level.

Mixed martial arts is no exception. This month, we look into the importance of pulling strength for MMA with one of the top trainers in the business, Bodybuilding.com regular interviewee, Martin Rooney.

[ Q ] Martin, glad to have you in for another interview. In your book, I noticed that there is a lot of focus on the muscles of the back for pulling strength. Can you comment on that?

    That's as easy as looking at a simple rule of fighting: You cannot control your opponent if you are pushing him away. Although most warriors love to perform "pushing" movements in the gym, this article is going to examine pulling strength for combat sports.

I define a "pulling" exercise as any exercise that is bringing the weight or device closer to the body with a concentric contraction. There are virtually an endless amount of variations of pulling exercises, but most warriors in training rarely use anything aside from the occasional chin-up or lat pulldown.

    What we must remember is that these exercises only pull things closer to the body in one direction using most of the muscles in the same way. To really develop your pulling strength for combat, there has to be variety in not only the exercises, but also the directions of the movements.

[ Q ] Now I know people often like to see a list of exercises, so do you have a top 5 list for these pulling movements?

    Sure Larry. To develop a list of exercises is easy, but to have the discipline and knowledge of how to use them is another. Before I put out the list, let me tell you a little story that is both humorous, but very insightful about this topic.

When I was 18 years old, I had a job as a personal trainer in a gym, and a new client of mine said he wanted the "most hardcore back session ever" to get ready for an upcoming date (I guess he wanted to have a nice wide-shouldered shape for the outing).

We started with chin-up and pullup variations, and then moved into isometric and eccentric exercises that worked every angle of pulling I could imagine. He left beaten up, but he was happy to have had such a tough workout.

      We set the next workout for a few days later as the final pump up before this date. This date, however, came and he never showed up. He missed the next week's appointments as well. Finally, after another week, he came into the gym with an angry look on his face.

I excitedly asked how the date went and he quieted me quickly with the answer. He said that he had front row seats for a game with his favorite professional sports team and that he really wanted to impress his girl. He also said that since the killer back workout, this was the first time he could put his arms down at his sides without pain. He also went on to say that he had cold sweats and such savage pain that the date was ruined and the girl didn't call back.

He finished with the description of how he suffered in his bed motionless to stop the soreness for days, and that he seriously thought of hiring a hit man to kill me. This dude was not kidding.

[ Q ] That's freaking hilarious! I had a client who fell out of his car after a leg workout who might have been looking for the same hit man. Now as funny as it is, how does this relate back to pulling strength and discipline in training?

    Now 20 years since that story, I have trained thousands of people and traveled the globe training many top martial artists and professional athletes. Even though my knowledge and training has grown incredibly over that time, there are a number of morals that I pulled from that story that I still use today with my martial athletes:
  • Be Consistent. Training is an all year process and you cannot just whip yourself into shape in a workout or two for an upcoming event or fight.
  • Be Gradual. Simply put, begin everything gradually, see how you feel afterward, and progress the training accordingly. Anything new is going to make you sore whether you thought it was easy or not.
  • Be Realistic. If you are not ready for a world class warrior workout, don't attempt it until you are.
  • Be Humble. No matter what we think we know, we can always get better. The day you think you know everything is the day you have left the warrior's path that you were once on.
  • Beware. If you think a guy might hire someone to kill you if you hurt him, believe it and make the workout easy. Let someone else get killed!

[ Q ] Great stuff, Martin, and without a doubt important lessons for athletes and trainers out there to learn. Now getting back to that top 5 list...

    Ok, I get it, enough philosophy, let's get to the exercises. Now although there are hundreds of great exercises to choose from, I do have a few favorite exercises to develop pulling strength that vary in the all important direction of pull.

[ Q ] Before you list them, please elaborate on the different directions of pull and why that is important for mixed martial artists.

    When people often think of "back" or pulling exercises, they commonly think of the

lat pulldown



    . Those are vertical pulling motions, but to be honest, that pulling direction is rarely used in mixed martial arts (unless maybe you are mounted and trying to pull the guy reigning punches on your face down to you, but that is a bad situation that doesn't usually last for long).
    As I said earlier, to control your opponent, you must keep him close by pulling him in. So, horizontal pulling movements become very important here. In the clinch, like trying to body lock an opponent for a takedown, you have to pull the opponent to your chest to control him. This strength will not be adequately developed from vertical movements, so you must train on the right directions or angles of movement.

[ Q ] So now we have vertical and horizontal pulling movements, are there any others that you can identify that are important?

      Yes, in addition to these two, there are also upward pulling movements and rotational pulling movements. Both of these remaining types are also critical to develop for both performance and

injury prevention


[ Q ] So how do they work?

    Upward pulling motions are critical in takedown defense which has become essential in a mixed martial artists game. I almost put this ability up there now as the decisive skill to have.

[ Q ] What do you mean?

      Well, let's say you have a striker against a ground expert. If he can stop the takedown, he is in his game. Also, let's say the


    with great takedown defense can stop everything. A guy will also wear himself out trying and make himself susceptible for the rest of the match. So, takedown defense can decide where the fight goes and energy expenditure for your opponent. As a result, I now see it as very important.

[ Q ] I like that. Ok, what about rotational pulls?

    These pulls are also very important. Rarely does a movement in MMA take place without rotation. Fighters are not just robots that move on direct planes of motion, there is always some form of rotation in there. Just look at takedown attempts and submission attempts and the shoulder and you will see what I mean.

[ Q ] Got it, Martin. Now that we have the angles of pull covered, how about covering one great exercise to develop each angle for the readers?

    No problem. So I guess instead of a top 5, here is a top 4 list.

Horizontal Pull:

Knee On Chest Bent-Over Row:

    I like to use this exercise by using a decline bench to simulate the "knee on chest" position. This allows the athlete to combine a pulling motion with the driving downward motion of the knee and hips. This combination will help to pin any opponent to the mat while you rain down powerful blows.

To perform it, start with the knee low on the decline and the supporting hand higher up. From here, the athlete retracts the scapula and then brings the weight to the chest by bringing the elbow back. Rotation of the spine at the end of the movement is to be kept minimal. Perform 8 reps on one side and repeat on the other.

Vertical Pull:

Decline Dumbbell Pullovers:

    This is the traditional pullover exercise with a twist. By performing this exercise on a decline bench, the athlete actually travels through a fuller range of motion with resistance on the muscles.

Here the athlete begins on the back and reaches all the way back with the elbows slightly bent. Then the athlete returns the weights to the original position. The key here is to work for a big stretch and pull through a large range of movement.

Upward Pull:

Power Curl:

    This exercise has quickly become one of the favorites among my fighters not only because it can build explosive pulling power, but it can also add an inch to your arms as well!

Begin this exercise on the knees with the hands on the bar in a curl grip. From here, the athlete pops the feet up explosively under the bar keeping the hips low. Then, using the legs and hips, the athlete stands up and curls the bar up with power. To finish, the athlete lowers the heavy weight for a 5 count and returns to the start position. Perform for sets of 5 reps.

Rotational Pull:

Incline Dumbbell Cleans:

    This is one of the most complete upper back exercises I know. The athlete begins lying face down on an incline. The athlete holds the dumbbells with the palms facing backward. The first movement is a retraction of the shoulder blades and a shrug of the shoulders. This is immediately followed with an external rotation of the shoulders.

Because of the angle of the incline, there is constant tension kept on the rotator cuff and muscles of the back. A good rule of thumb is to work to perform 33% as much weight on this as you can press. Perform for sets of 8 reps.

[ Q ] Great exercises, Martin. I am sure that adding these to training will help any fighter looking to get to the next level. Any last advice?

    I would just say good luck adding pulling strength to your training arsenal. I hope that this has you looking at back training from a different angle (pun intended), and I challenge all the readers to examine the importance this type of strength in combat sports and how they can better work it into their own training.