Anthony Pettis’ Strength Coach Reveals His System for Developing Top Athletes

by Matt Gifford

NX Level Fight Crew System

My name is Matt Gifford. I am a 27 year old coach who trains athletes of all makes and models out of NX Level, a performance center in Waukesha, WI. I train the UFC Light Weight Champion of the World, his brother and many of his friends and teammates. Their accolades don’t make me an expert, rather they give me experience and a little personal validation. This is my introduction to the world of MMA and Strength Blogging. I am grateful for you to read this today. This article reflects some of my thinking on May 1st of 2014. Much of the credit of my thinking goes to a list of thinkers too long to write. If I go on to write hundreds of more articles, I hope at the very least my opinions go on to “rinse your eyes.” Learn, reject/retain, apply, share!

What’s in a system ? 

Every great business, organization, or school of thought is reliant on a well established system. The most successful of practices all have a thorough set of interacting components that integrate to make a whole. These systems have boundaries, are influenced by environmental make up, can be aptly described by its structure and purpose and can be expressed in its movement. A system of thought should represent a system of action and more importantly in the strength world its application should result in adaptation.

In a results driven business like training, a system is a must. Structure and interconnectivity are the two point blank necessities of any MMA strength and conditioning program. Structure starts with principles and leadership. I always refer back to esteemed author Stephen Covey, “correct principles are like compasses: they are always pointing the way.” Many of our  methods are ever evolving and discrepancies will always exist from one coach to the next. However, scientific or time tested principals and truths are the unchanging guides that give foundation, order and accurate direction to where we want to go.

Inter-connectivity relates to the overall mesh of your strength system with the outside world. Inter-connectivity in my system relates to my NX Level Fight Crew’s True North philosophy: “Never Stop Moving Up!” The training goal should aim at progressive improvement of the athletes physical and mental capacities resulting in an improved fighter and person. One should always look at their programs, exercises, and personal interactions and be able to connect the dots. In any situation a coach should be able to give a why to what they do. If that why doesn’t push them True North than a change should be made. Inter-connectivity is also important from a lifestyle standpoint. I spend six hours a week with my athletes and my hopes are in a transfer of habits from weight room to the mat to their personal and social lives as well.

The System Drivers 

A system is built and run by people. Never forget that. I have a quality system because of the people that represent it and because I lead from the front by example. My athletes come to me because of reputation, I keep them because of the results they achieve and also how they come to know me. This is an “R and R” business- Relationships and Results. The two are interconnected. I am blessed to always meet hungry, driven people. At NX Level, we live by a “do what it takes” attitude and a “play at Level 10” effort rule. I believe that motivating athletes starts with you as the coach. If I want my athletes to be disciplined and consistent- I must be it. If I want my athletes to be on time- I must be early. If I want my athletes to make sacrifices- I should probably make an attempt to eat clean, get up a little earlier or learn a little more on my own time. If I want them to share their lives- I must share mine. If I want my athletes to be humble and grateful- I must thank them and appreciate them. If I want my athletes to be intense and aggressive- I must show that passion and enthusiasm first. Most all athletes arrive to us with a belly full of firewood- its up to you to be the spark that ignites the fire.  Great leaders build trust and empower others to progress and become leaders. Win the heart and mind and the body will follow. Educate, inspire and always remember the line, “It is mindset that separates the best from the next best.”

Eliciting Adaptation and Results

The NX Level system is built on coaching and teaching mindset and movement. My three thousand foot fly by of my physical training philosophy is to create the most resilient, efficient, strong and explosive athletes that finish a fight with their hand raised. We operate off of a progressive training paradigm: alignment, soft tissue quality, mobility, stability, movement pattern efficiency, strength, power, speed and finally work capacity improvements will bring the athlete one step closer to a “W.” If Anderson Silva, were to walk into NX Level’s facility tomorrow he’d use that very same system. The physical system’s introduction would start with an assessment. Whether it be FMS or Structural Elements based, take a structured analysis of where your athletes are at and understand alignment is your starting point. Ankle, hip and thoracic spine immobility’s lead to injury or lack of stability and strength in the knee, lower back and shoulders/neck. If your not mobile you can’t be optimally efficient with technique in the gym or in the octagon. Once mobility and stability are in place the athlete can now hit desired movement patterns and hold positions. Once a fighter or athlete is able to hit a position or technique we want to get them stronger. Start with a general strength exercises that incorporate mastery of their body weight and progress to maximal or absolute methods later. Once the engine is built, give them the coding to change gears at a faster rate and you get an improved amount of power. Convert that power to speed and you have a fast, explosive athlete. Get that athlete to sustain that ability over a period of time through aerobic and an-aerobic means and you have a resilient athlete with great stamina who can recover over the course of a set, a match, a season and ultimately a long shelf life.

System Feedback

I monitor my systems success by intrinsic and extrinsic means. I sometimes test and always question and ponder:

  • Has the athlete improved their power?
  • Have their strength lifts increased?
  • Has their body comp changed?
  • Has their work capacity and heart rate variability improved?
  • Is their anatomical position changing ?
  • Are they recovering?
  • Are they reducing collective injury totals?
  • Do they look better?
  • Do they feel better?
  • Are they better people because of my system?
  • Have they came back camp to camp?
  • Are they referring teammates?”

Finally, my last question to myself is “Are they winning ?

Winning sometimes blinds us to what is really happening. Look at the football world- the greatest strength coach is really the best recruiting coordinator. Analyze all you want and you still have to understand you are only partly responsible at best and partly responsible at worst. I have a responsibility to do my best for them. The biggest responsibility lies in the hands of the athletes. Their dreams are all uniquely similar but what separates the good from the great and the great from the best is talent, belief, action and discipline.

Thank you for reading.

Matt Gifford is a strength coach at NX Level Athletics in Waukesha, WI.  He works with UFC standouts Anthony Pettis, Dustin Ortiz and many others.  His systematic way of developing his athletes has gained him a lot of recognition over the past few months and we are proud to have his voice on Fight Camp Conditioning.