Episode #27: Tony Ricci – Professor, Performance Coach and Nutritionist

Tony Ricci, professor with the Dept of Sports Sciences at Long Island University in Brooklyn NY and has over 20 years of experience with boxers and mma athletes.

Tony is a former competitive Olympic lifter, Mr. Eastern USA bodybuilding champion, and holds Black Belts in multiple combat disciplines. He has trained thousands with objectives ranging from improved fitness to Olympic competition, including professionals in ballet, figure skating, US cycling, modeling, fitness competition, swimming, football, bodybuilding, powerlifitng, baseball, boxing, kickboxing, and mixed martial arts.


In this episode, we discuss:

  • Planning a fight camp
  • Coordinating with skill coaches
  • Assessing athletes
  • Prioritizing strength and conditioning sessions
  • Linear vs non linear progressions
  • boxers vs mma athletes
  • the importance of sleep
  • How nutrition affects athletes
  • and more.

If you’d like to connect with Tony, please email him at [email protected]

Also, be sure to follow him on Instagram: @fightshape_ricci


Full Transcription of Our Podcast with MMA Strength Coach Tony Ricci

COREY:         Hey guys, this is Corey Beasley with Fight Camp Conditioning. I’m on the phone here with Tony Ricci. How are you doing Tony?

TONY:           Real good, Corey. I’m really excited and happy to finally get the opportunity to be with you.

COREY:         Yeah, absolutely man. So for everybody that’s listening Tony, just give everybody a little description of who you are and where you’re at and what you got going on over there in New York.

TONY:           Well, a background in short is, I’m an Assistant Professor of Sports Science at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New YorkNutritional Biochemistry as well. My academic background is Doctoral research in Nutrition and Neuroenergetic and my Masters degrees is in Sports Science and Nutrition, and been into fight game for quite some time now, rolled around a little bit myself and punched around a little bit but been training fighters since the early days of the UFC and way back in the days of boxing. So been at the game now for about 20, 25 years as far as fight performance goes. And we’re out in Gleason’s gym in New York Bellmore, kickboxing and even occasionally Long Island MMA and we move around a little bit depending upon what we have, what kind of work we have and who we’re working with. And right now, there’s a host of guys that I’m consulting with and that’s Liam McGeary who is Bellator champ light heavyweight, MarcusLauraGalvao, who’s also Bantamweight. I’ve worked with Lafleur Ryan when he’s up here UFC. We’ve got three time world kickboxing champ Bobby Campbellb got a couple of Golden Gloves boys and Heather Hardy, who’s a really up and coming female fighter who’s undefeated now 13-0, and that’s it. We work in and out with people coming along asking for both nutrition and sports performance side Corey, so I do both of it actually.


COREY:         Right on. So Tony, you’ve been in this game for a long time. Obviously you’ve probably seen a lot of different changes come and go. From your experience and now knowing what you know and dealing with so many different athletes and types of athletes and personalities and stuff, when someone comes to you in the beginning, you’ve never worked with them before, they’re kind of looking for some help. Where do you start with your athletes?

TONY:           Okay, that’s a good question and I think the start is vital, largely Corey because in my opinion it does have a tremendous bearing on what direction you may take your fighter or certainly what the emphasis will be as far as you’re conditioning program. So I think that the obvious is first is to get the background. Now, I have almost with my own part Q if you will and questionnaire for fight athletes but the vital components are to get their disciplines and their training background because if they’re a wrestler with 20 years of wrestling under their belt, you’re going to know how they train, you’re going to know what their likely bio-motor ability enhancing, what their best bio motor abilities are, you’re going to know what their previous lifting schedule has been like.

So the first thing I think you need to do and what I do over time is take an extensive background on their training discipline because that’ll give you a good overview from a strength conditioning perspective, from a fight performance perspective what they have been doing, how have they trained, what’s their strength, what their weaknesses are, they’ve never level change, because you’re a stand up fighter. These are all the different types of things you can look at.

So getting extensive background is vital. If I can get the fighter to the lab, there are some fun parameters and good things we can do here. We can do VO2 Test and respiratory exchange ratio, I can use an Atella metric system for body fat or the Bod Pod. So we try to get as much baseline information as we can. It’s helpful, not always easy to get the fighters to come in but that’s some information that I will try to gather.

Then our next step – my third step is to meet with the team. I feel that of course is all conditioning coaches do, that’s imperative because I never really want to make a performance enhancement program, a conditioning program and [incomprehensible] consulted the primary fight coach, whether it’s their striking coach, whether it’s jits coach, because it’s really important that they help dictate what it is that fighter needs. It could be a glaring long time weakness, it could be something that they’ve been trying to improve for a long time, or it may even be something that’s specific to their next fight. So that’s the information I’d like to take first. I’m very hesitant and this is why I don’t work with too many people at one given time to really, really scale a product. I think it’s important to determine what an individual needs and then try to dictate the conditioning program accordingly. If you’ve got somebody who’s got enough power to not punch a hole in the Hoover Dam, but no endurance, then you know what your job is or vice versa. If they can run from here to New York to Nevada and can’t knock over a milk carton, well then we’ve got to go in that direction. So that’s kind of philosophically how I approach it.


COREY:         Right on, that’s good. So initially just getting a little bit of using the par Q questionnaire just to kind of get some history on that athlete and talking with them a little bit about their past experiences, then going through some of the performance parameters and some of the physical assessment stuff with them and then just coordinating with the coaches.

TONY:           Yeah, absolutely.

COREY:         So that’s a really, really great place to start. Once you got somebody in there coordinating with those other coaches, what are some of the ways — because we have heard from top coaches and some are open, some are not so open. From your experience dealing with all these different skill coaches, what’s the best way that you found to get buy in from those coaches and athletes to coordinate with you?

TONY:           Awesome. It’s a great question, and you’re absolutely right. I think in the MMA world Corey, we see a little bit more acceptance of conditioning because it’s a newer discipline. Boxing has been difficult as you may know, because a lot of the top coaches are 30, 40 years into the game and as a result, they’ve had years of success without extensive nutrition programs or conditioning programs. I think the first thing that I do is I never go there to dictate. I’ve had a lot of coaches ask me, what can you do for me or what is it that you can do? And I always try to reverse the question and ask them what is unique? So I make sure that when I go I the way I get buy in and the way I’ve had some success is have that coach tell me where can I help? What is it that will enhance this fighter’s performance, according to what it is you see?

Sometimes I’m mesmerized that there are conditioning coaches and fight performance coaches that are running a strength and conditioning program and have had no collaboration with the coach. It’s amazing to me and I’m not saying that cannot be done successfully, I just cannot get myself to buy in if I didn’t do it. But I think the first way to go about it, ask the coach what they need, let the coach the skill coach or the head coach dictate the direction to a large extent of what it is they’re trying to get out of your program. Not to say that they need to dictate the training protocols, or how you approach the conditioning program. But a lot of times the buy in will come from coach, what do you need? What do you see? What do you want? What do you want me to work on? I do not want to work on various bio motor abilities and you feel that no, my athlete excels at that already. So that’s the way I generally get by and I put it on their plate. So you tell me what your fighter may need. What it is that you want from them, power, localized muscle endurance, do they need she systemic endurance? And once I’ve done that, I tend to get really, really good cooperation.


COREY:         Right on. That’s great. So when guys are coming in to see you, let’s say it’s — you maybe have been working them for a week, maybe you’ve been working with them for a month, when they come in for a workout, do you kind of have some kind of a template that you’re working from how that workout flows when they come in?

TONY:           Absolutely. It usually are formulated in advance without question. So as you well know Corey, it can be difficult at times because you’re going to get people that may come to you and UFC called them and you’ve got three weeks’ notice. Okay, so now what do you do then? Then you’re juggling and trying to formulate a program based upon what it is they may need and what it is you can squeeze-in in three weeks. But once I make a determination — and I’ll use Heather Hardy as a very good female fighter as an example of what I think needs the most work and collaboration where they’re striking coach, then I’ll develop the program and then the program would be set the day they come in. Now also that program is going to vary as you know as to how much of duration we have.

So I particularly tend to like more of an undulating model in my periodization, I do enjoy training all of the bio motor abilities, strength, power and maybe a little bit of metabolic work on a weekly basis if needed. So I’ll make that determination, if I have a fighter that does not have a fight for four or five months, I might use a more traditional linear periodization model with a strength phase and a power phase; most of the time I’m very hesitant to really put an emphasis on hypertrophy. I think any of the conditioning for most athletes you do will lead to enough hypertrophy in itself. But Heather is the example. Heather was an extremely strong girl. She had always a great deal of strength. Her primary method of cardio respiratory conditioning was just roadwork. As a result of that you will know it’s wonderful. It gives you good endurance, it gives you the ability to stand up in a ring for 10, 12 rounds but simultaneously, it never gets that nervous system firing at high velocities. As a matter of fact, the neurological cadence tends to be very slow. And when that’s been a primary modality of conditioning, sometimes you see that carry over into the boxing.

So in Heather’s case, what we did is we knew she had plenty of strength. We knew she had a good tank. So we worked speed and we tried to get that nervous system firing much quicker just even teach her what triple extension was from the basics. So what I will do is that program again, it won’t be really skilled, if you will. I’ll start to develop it once I’ve done a little bit of an inventory as to what I think that fighter needs.

A good example is I’m on that Team Algieri, you can take a look at Chris Algieri and you’ll know for sure right from the beginning that cardio respiratory conditioning is not a priority. So the program is going to be very much centered around what the fighter probably needs and how much time we have available in order to enhance those particular abilities.


COREY:         Right on. So just to clarify for the guys that are listening, the different types of periodization, I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on this. Depending like you said on the timeframe and the ability level of the fighters you’re dealing with, you need to do different things. So dealing between like a block or a linear style periodization, can you kind of explain for people that are listening like what that is?


TONY:           Yeah, well the linear periodization generally is based in phases, right? It’s very traditional. You will have phases that may start traditionally with NSCA, you would have a hypertrophy phase which is called the preparation phase. Then maybe your strength phase and perhaps the power phaseNASM is an example they’ll break it down into strength endurance stabilization, then a strength phase and then hypertrophy phase and then perhaps the power phase. So those linear models, what they’ll do is break those phases down. And they can be very beneficial, particularly if the fighter needs all of the aforementioned characteristics, and I think that model can work really well.

The nonlinear which I’ll use quite often; when I have a fighter that may not have a fight date but is certainly going to be an MMA guy who can get a call within three or four weeks’ notice, under those circumstances, I’ll use much more of a nonlinear in which I will work those characteristics maybe three days per week. So we will have one day of strength training, one day of strength endurance, and another day would be part of power phase. The reason why I like to do that is because if you have a fighter that might be inclined to be called on short notice, if you’re working those linear phases, you’re finding yourself where your fight may be prepared only strength wise, may be prepared only hypertrophy wise and you really don’t have the opportunity or you haven’t had the opportunity to make sure that all abilities have been kept in shape so that if you’re fighting on short notice, in particularly in the MMA world, I get this a lot, at least we’ve got an established base where all bio motor abilities are at least prepared and then we can enhance them in a very short period of time.

I don’t want to have a fighter that’s called okay, somebody got hurt, can you fight in three weeks, and all we’ve been doing is the strength phase.

COREY:         So they’re not prepared.

TONY:           Exactly, exactly because now we really got to play catch up ball. So if I have a long term definitive — in boxing you get this and you get in UFC, okay, we’ve got 10 weeks we’ve got 12 weeks I think those linear models are wonderful. Or another way I like the nonlinear or more of a block style is you have a short duration between fights. So then you can use those particular models too where you’re making sure that all different bio motor abilities are kept in good condition. If you have somebody fighting in July, and then maybe four or five weeks later, again, you’re not going to break down that periodization model in two phases, you’re going to try to make sure we keep all of those abilities in good condition.


COREY:         Alright hey guys sorry, we got cut off there for a second but we are on the phone here with Tony Ricci. So Tony, I know we were talking about periodization and your experience over the last couple years here. Just talking about dealing with different athletes and boxers and MMA guys, what’s the biggest difference that you’ve noticed between boxers and MMA?

TONY:           So regarding the training, I think that they are quite distinct when it comes to performance Corey because the key in boxing is really relative strength and power is significantly more important while you tie up of course occasionally with your opponent, the objective in boxing is the manipulation of real estate, right you have to own the ring, you have to own territory, you have to put yourself in a position in which you can immediately hit an opponent and then immediately get out of there so you’re not hit.

So the emphasis in boxing training is really on the redistribution of one’s own body weight and in very, very short durations. So in boxing we do a lot a lot of power work, a lot more speed work. I do not tend to do is much heavier lifting with the boxer. Most of the movements remain in stand up position because there are no level changes. Simultaneously, the primary objective too would be systemic cardio and localize muscle endurance. I think that strength is important to the boxer but there are other attributes that supersede it. Certainly cardio, certainly local muscle endurance, certainly speed power, if you will, and then maybe even flexibility.

With the MMA athlete because of the absolute loads and the necessity to move another opponent, to tie up another opponent, I think the conditioning programs cover a little bit more resistance training, a lot more type of static strength and conditioning, grip strength and conditioning and you train that athlete metabolically a bit different considering that there are a lot more level changes and additionally, the duration of the rounds being slightly different. So when you’re taking into consideration metabolic factors, those are the things that we look at. It is quite distinct.

So if you see an MMA fighter training exactly the same as a boxer, you really might question what the objective is in the program. They’re very, very different science. As we say boxing is like real estate, its location, location, location. So we need to get in, we need to get out, we need to be fast, we need to be light on the feet and hypertrophy in very few instances is advantageous to the boxer. It really just cost us too much more fuel.

In MMA where we’re tying up, we’re locking up, we’re trying to avoid chokes, we’re more inclined to throw, some muscle size can be an advantage and also you’re going to be in horizontal plane at various times which really makes blood flow and circulation a bit easier than it does in a stand up and vertical position at all times.


COREY:         Right, right. That’s great information Tony. I think a lot of guys struggle between all the different skill set. There’s so much to do at least for the MMA guys. They have the jiu-jitsu, they have wrestling, they have stand up, they have kickboxing, they have Muay Thai, they have strength and conditioning, they have [inaudible]. I mean, there are so many factors. When you’re dealing with those types of guys and helping them kind of organize their schedule, coordinate with those other coaches and making sure these guys aren’t just grinding themselves into the floor. What are some ways that you number one, help them set up their week, but number two, monitor them along the way to make sure they’re not just getting grinded?

TONY:           Yeah, great, great question. Well, one of the things we like to do and I force everyone to do it if they don’t, is we get a big dry erase board. And that goes up in either their office or that goes up in their house and, see you bring up another good point I will not even consider what type of strength and conditioning program we’re going to integrate Corey and too I know what the schedule is, I mean skills always takes precedent. So I have to see the skill schedule and you hit it. You’ve got an MMA particularly, you’ve got guys who are doing all the aforementioned skills, Muay Thai, wrestling coach, jits coach, boxing coach, and consequently they’re training four or five times a day in some cases.

So while the training not always very consistent, the first thing I do is make sure that I have the entire schedule. I need to have when they’re doing jitsu, I need to have when they’re doing stand up. And once I have the entire schedule, then I try to integrate the performance conditioning program into that. Because that’s another great point, I can’t use my own ideas of hey, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to develop this program. We’re going to do it on Tuesday and Friday, and that may already be their heaviest day. So the first thing I do is, let’s arrange what your skill schedule is, what particular skill you’re working on those days and then if needed, we’ll integrate more cardio respiratory training on this particular day or that particular day, and here’s where we’ll do our strength and conditioning work or our performance and conditioning. So that’s number one.

The performance program has to take a backseat because of the fact that they’re going to be skilled training over and over again and in large volume, as you stated. Now as a strength coach, we don’t really particularly like that idea. We want to put what we do — everybody wants to put what they do on the forefront, let’s be honest. If you’re the Thai coach, you want that fighter strike, if you’re jiu-jitsu coach, you’re hoping they take them to the ground. So everybody sees their particular discipline is the most important or very often the differentiating factor. Actually we got to take a backseat a lot, and we have to realize this athlete just as you said, it’s got extremely high volume and consequently we may have to taper down what may be a particular periodization or strength and training protocol.

The other thing too is I do monitor heart rate. We use the Polar h7 when I can get them to put it on. They’re not always cooperative, but I can keep heart rate is one basic measurement of how much training volume they did that particular day, what the maximum heart rates were, what the resting heart rates were for the day, and they report to me daily. Skill went good today, didn’t get any sleep, I need incessant contact, I try to tell them all the time, I need to know what’s going on. Something didn’t work, if you’re too tired, I have to know because I may have to make adjustments the next day.


COREY:         Right on. That’s killer information, Tony. So we got pretty good coverage. In that first part we’re talking about the different periodization models and how that’s going to affect their or fit into their training models and fight days and stuff like that, coordinate with the coaches, changing up different types of workouts for different types of athletes and the needs. Outside of the gym, when these guys are — when we’re talking about recovery, we’re talking about sleep, we’re talking about nutrition, lifestyle, different things like that. What kind of information or role do you play with your fighters on there?

TONY:           Yeah, great question. I think that the good thing what we’re seeing Corey great is that as fighters now progress, they realize the importance of a very comprehensive approach in every aspect that has to be attributed to. So I think independent of how many, independent of how one trains, if you don’t sleep, you obviously can throw it all out the window. That’s number one as you well know. I try to get these individuals to realize the importance of it. It is often neglected and as you well know fighters are pretty gung ho, and maybe in some cases even pride themselves with how hard they can go without.

Additionally, sleep is number one. It’s a must, it is a necessity. If we don’t get it, you don’t improve. I emphasize that over and over again. Externally in the nutrition side too, is I work on that because recovery is contingent upon two things: What do you eat and how much you rest as you well know. So I’m trying to get them to practice in nutrition at the very least in that they don’t go sustain durations without food, we know that. I want a protein intake as many hours or what is great frequency throughout the day as possible. The reason for that is so we can elicit muscle protein synthesis and recovery.

So once we get those first two variables straight, sleep, food and fluids, then we’ve got an external framework that’s going to help induce better performance in the gym. If you can’t correct those two, we’re really falling short. And again, I say to every fighter, you may be great without eating well, you may be great without resting, but no matter who you are, if you practice long term, good nutrition, and you get rest, you’re going to be better. Everyone can gain a step, no matter how good they are. Those are the first two things that have to be introduced and worked on and if we can get that well then after that, hey, you can go out, have some fun, enjoy it, find your hobbies, do what you need to do. But without those two things, I don’t want to say training is in vain, but we’ve seriously hindered the capacity for improvement.


COREY:         Yeah absolutely. So you have your guys keep a food log or weekly weigh-ins, body fat measurement, stuff like that to determine or assist with their weight cuts?


TONY:           Yeah, I try to keep on top of that, and they’re real good usually about what they’ve had and they’ll text me throughout the day, boom, boom, boom, boom, here’s what we have, I try to keep a food log, as you well know that’s not always all that easy. But I do stay on top of it with weight and body fat, because it’s really helpful. And in telemetrics it’s a nice system which works on ultrasound. And what that enables us to do of course Corey as you know, if I can dictate how many pounds of fat they have, what total body water is, the system does that quite accurately, then I know how the weight cut and go. If we know okay, there are 12% body fat that gives us a total body fat of so many pounds, can go to the weight cut and they can get to the scale at about eight, then I know exactly how many pounds of fat we can pull. I’ll know what total body water is. I know what we can pull in total body water a day or two before the weigh in to make the weight. And then I know exactly how much we got to go to rehydrate properly.

So by a combination of them keeping track with me with the food, but trying to assess body fat on a weekly basis if necessary, that helps me to know where we can stay in calories. If we’re too low well in advance of camp on body fat, because that can be an issue too as you well know. There are a lot of arguments about when to cut. There are a lot of arguments about how close you should be. And there’s a lot of individual differences with that, but if you’ve got to fight or staying too low to too long, that’s kind of difficult as well.

So I like to get my fighters to hit the scale and be at the right weight for the shortest duration possible because either way they’re pushing their body to make that particular weight. So we collaborate a lot on nutrition. And closing to that point, it’s not that I have to dictate or have complete control over performance program, if you will. But I do like to work both parameters because how an athlete eats one day, maybe contingent completely upon their training volume that day, or the intensity of that training volume. So I think they really need to be closely coordinated together.


COREY:         Right on. It’s great information, man. I appreciate it.

TONY:           Okay.

COREY:         Yeah. I mean, we talked about periodization, we talked about coordinating with the coaches. We talked about different types of workouts for different types of athletes. [Inaudible] grapplers versus first [inaudible] fighters and then just the recovery and nutrition aspect which is obviously just a huge piece of the puzzle. Tony, if people want to follow up and get more information or coordinate with you or talk with you more or learn more, what’s the best way for them to reach out?

TONY:           They can certainly do so by way of email. I’m on top of that all the time. And that’s a very simple email Corey, it’s [email protected], that is my email. It’s the name of my company. It’s called Fight Shape. I love having some folks follow me on Instagram if they wish. I put up a lot of video content and always have some nutritional discussion, I’m about to post something shortly and very simple that’s just Fight Shape once again fightshape_ricci and those are two great ways to get in contact with me and I always will respond and usually set up subsequent phone calls if anybody’s interested in talking.

COREY:         Awesome. Tony, thanks so much, man. That was an absolute killer information and we do appreciate your time.

TONY:           Happy to be here Corey and I appreciate what you’ve done for fight sports. The whole family you’ve brought together it’s wonderful and I learn constantly from everybody so I thank you actually.

COREY:         I appreciate it man, well have a good day. We’ll talk to you soon.

TONY:           Take care Corey.