Partner Training Workouts for Improved Fight Performance

By Doug Balzarini

Over the years I’ve worked with clients in a number of different scenarios ‡ 1-on-1, 2-on-1, small group, large group, even groups of 100+. Each situation has their own set of pros and cons and I really think it depends on the individual client as to which scenario I prefer. Understandably, someone with an injury or who is new to training, I prefer a 1-on-1 set-up and someone who’s been training for a while and is more advanced, I’m usually fine with them in a group setting.

With the MMA athletes I work with, I train them in both a 1-on-1 and group setting.

Injuries and schedules usually dictate what the set-up will be for the camp. Not too long ago, there was an athlete I had been working with for several weeks in 1-on-1 sessions.

During one week in particular, I began to notice that his strength, energy levels, and overall intensity were down. I could sense early on in our mobility work that he was just going through the motions. Perhaps my teaching cues and motivational lingo were not hitting home with him, or maybe he just had a fight with his girlfriend earlier that day.

Whatever the reason, the session started out poorly. Sensing that I was not connecting with him, I decided to join in the session and train with him. I definitely would not do this with every client; however, he is an experienced fighter, with excellent lifting technique, so I didn’t give it a second thought. As soon as we started the dynamic warmup, I sensed a change in mood and effort. He was more attentive to my instructions, was working much harder, and he even started in with some friendly competitive banter.

After what turned out to be one of his best sessions to date, we got to talking about his week. I found out that he had been dealing with some family issues earlier in the day.  As soon as I heard that I immediately realized why his session had started out so poorly.  His thoughts had become his actions and he just wasn’t there mentally. Your mind is a powerful thing and it influences everything you do. What’s going on “upstairs” allows you to utilize your physical skills to the best of your ability.

So what triggered this reaction with this particular athlete? Why did having me join in the session elicit such a positive response? And why partner train with someone who competes in an individual sport? Generally speaking, I think it was due to something I like to call “competitive fire”. Having someone to train alongside sparked his endorphins and put him in the right frame of mind. In both partner and small group training sessions more cooperation and communication is required from both the coach and the athlete(s) involved. These characteristics drive the competitive fire inside all of us…something you obviously need plenty of for a MMA fight or tournament.

Olympian Bruce Jenner said, “You have to train your mind like you train your body”.

This statement is particularly accurate when it comes to combat athletes. Think about this: an athlete may train for a specific fight anywhere from 8-12 weeks. This fight that and training for ¼ of a minute!! How do you prepare for this intense pressure? From a physical standpoint – you have a well-designed periodized program so you can feel quick, powerful, strong, and have plenty of gas in the tank. Your physical preparation could not have gone any better. What about from a mental standpoint? Are you unwavering, mentally focused, and is your mind right for battle?

We as coaches must not only get them stronger physically, but mentally as well. We must enhance their mental toughness while controlling anxiety at the same time. We need to understand what motivates these athletes and push them to improve and succeed. I think partner and small group training is one small strategy that will help the process.

Over the years, I have consistently incorporated this partner and small group training into my program design for fighters. A brief list of some of the positive benefits this type of training provides:

  • Develops camaraderie and a strong support system
  • Positive reinforcement and motivation, especially if your having an “off” day
  • Instills friendly competition
  • Improves confidence and self-esteem
  • Prompts you to push yourself even more to “keep up” with the team
  • If you don’t want to get up for that 6am strength session and you have a partner waiting for you; you are going to get up

I believe that anything that contributes to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual state has EVERYTHING to do with your focus in the ring or octagon. An athlete must be in peak condition mentally or they will not be at their best physically.

I consistently do informal “assessments” of athletes (and general population clients as well) to evaluate psychological balance…consistently checking in with them and seeing how other aspects of their lives are going. We must frequently communicate with all of our clientele in order to adapt accordingly.

As the athletes I work with continue to improve and become faster, stronger, and more explosive from training, I see their self-esteem and confidence being positively impacted. Is this more of a psychological response or a physical response? It’s probably a bit of both but regardless, it’s good stuff. I’m not saying partner training should be the “be all end all”; I’m simply saying it may be good to incorporate into your program design to shake things up and train your athlete in a new way both physically but more importantly, mentally as well.


Here’s a video I filmed a few years back showing a partner circuit in action:

Training WorkoutsDoug owns and operates DB Strength and provides fitness and wellness education and resources to help you achieve your goals. In addition to the day-to-day operations of DB Strength, he is also the strength coach for the Alliance MMA Fight Team at the Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista, CA. For over 6 years, Doug was the Operations Director, personal trainer, and strength coach at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego. He was also an assistant coach for ‘Team Cruz’ on the TV show, “The Ultimate Fighter Live” on the FX network.  He has trained Travis Browne, Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Brandon Vera, Michael Chandler and more.