Episode #19: Interview with MMA Strength Coach Jake Bonacci from the Blackzillians

In this episode of FCC Radio, we talk with Jake Bonacci, strength coach for the Blackzillians.

Jake has worked with Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Gray Maynard, Martin Kampmann, John Alessio and many others.

Needless to say, this guy has some great experience working with top MMA athletes.

Check out the full interview here:



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In this episode, we discuss:

  • Training volume
  • Intensities
  • Peaking for a fight
  • Monitoring recovery
  • Communication between coaches
  • and much more

If you’d like to learn more about Jake and his training methods, check out his website (jakebonacci.com) or stay in touch with him on Twitter @jake_bonacci


Full Transcription of Our Podcast with Jake Bonacci

Strength Coach Jake Bonacci Discusses How He Physically Prepares MMA Fighters for Competition


COREY:         Hey guys this is Corey Beasley with Fight Camp Conditioning and I’m on the phone with Strength Coach, Jake Bonacci. Jake, how’re you doing bud?

JAKE:            Great, how’re you doing?

COREY:         Very good. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us this morning. I appreciate it.

JAKE:            Thanks for having me.

COREY:         Of course. For those of you guys who don’t know, Jake is a strength coach down at the Jaco Training Center in Florida and he works with some of the best fighters in MMA and has quite a history in this sport. Jake, do us a favor and just kind of give everybody an idea of who you are and what you’re doing.

JAKE:            Well, I’ve been involved in MMA as a Strength Coach since 2007. I started off with Xtreme Couture, worked for Randy Couture for almost six years there and the guys at the gym and the other guys in Vegas. And after that, I came down to South Florida here and I’ve been working with the Jaco Training CenterBlackzillians for the past almost — coming up on two years here, so pretty much been into MMA the whole time, worked with athletes in other sports of course but primarily MMA.


COREY:         Right on. So you got your start over with Randy Couture at his place in Vegas. How’d you get tied up with those guys?

JAKE:            When I was in graduate school, I had to do work study assistantship type of thing. Not really I wouldn’t call it an internship but for some credits and Xtreme Couture which was just opening and I was calling them because I was big fight fan, so I was online, I knew it was opening so I called the day they opened and I was in contact with them for a couple of months. Finally got the OKAY to come out there and they said I could basically donate my time, teach classes to the members for free, I wouldn’t make any money, yada yada yada and then after about a month, I started working with some of the fighters on the roster and one day Randy came to me and he asked me to put him through a session, I did, and we spoke and he asked me to run the strength conditioning for his upcoming fight. And yeah, it kind of took off from there.

COREY:         That’s quite a first opportunity, huh?

JAKE:            Yeah, yeah, that was kind of winning the lottery, I must say.

COREY:         Yeah. Now, you were going to school at [incomprehensible]?

JAKE:            No, I was in Minnesota. I was going to graduate school at St. Scholastica, getting my Master’s in Exercise Phys., and I didn’t have any connections or anything. I just passed and they gave me an opportunity and it was kind of mine to screw up I guess.


COREY:         That’s great man, that’s really cool. So Jake, with your experience over the last seven years working with some of the best athletes in the world, what are some of the common mistakes that you see a lot of coaches, athletes, trainers, just different people that you’re aware of, what are some of the mistakes that you see people making?

JAKE:            Over-training athletes; and I was as guilty of that as anyone else when I first got involved in the sport. Just the volume and the intensity of the training is kind of out of control and I didn’t help that my first two years into it and I finally realized that quality over quantity is a smart type of deal and I just really pulled back on the volume, and I think that coming to Florida — I’m going to jump ahead here like coming to Florida, the best thing I think I’ve helped to do is pull back the volume and the intensity really, aside from the training and all that stuff. Just these guys, I mean, there’s so many dimensions to the sport, you know, to stand up, the ground game and there’s so much to do. There’s so much to improve on at all times and then you get these strength coaches and they’re too wanna-be the hero and do everything on their own as far as conditioning the athlete and it’s just too much oftentimes.


COREY:         Yeah. Now when people are doing that and overtraining — and you’re talking about volume for the guys that maybe aren’t so familiar with that, are you having guys train once a day, twice a day? How are you kind of scheduling that one?

JAKE:            Well typically, like down here for instance, they do their MMA training in the morning. And then if I work with them, it’s at least seven hours later, at least; typically eight at night. And so they get a lot of recovery time in between. And ideally, Wednesday evening is off, kind of like a reset day, I’ll train in the morning and then take off Wednesday evening all together right in the middle of the week, and just trying to not have every training session 100 miles an hour because you just increases the risk of injuries; overtrading these injuries and a flat athlete; and a flat athlete is no good.

COREY:         Yeah absolutely. Now, when you’re coordinating with skill coaches, so many guys I think you have kind of a unique situation. And I guess I’m assuming that the guys primarily train at the Jaco Training Center, correct?

JAKE:            Yes, they all do. They do everything under one roof and that helps a lot.

COREY:         Everything’s under one roof. So you have a pretty unique situation coordinating with the skill coaches to make sure everybody’s on the same page, right?

JAKE:            Yes, I do. And it’s way better. My last set up there in Vegas, a lot of guys went to different places for different things and not everything was done at Xtreme Couture so guys were bouncing all over different places for boxing, different places for jiu-jitsu, wrestling etc. And as a strength coach when you’re trying to monitor everything and periodize the training properly and peak an athlete, it’s damn near impossible to do that when you don’t know exactly what’s going on when they’re at these other places. So here I think a lot of the guys that have been successful on my program or whatever, it’s definitely due to that because I’ve got a relationship with all the coaches, we are all on the same page and that’s a huge advantage.


COREY:         That is a huge advantage. I think [inaudible] and you see guys doing the same thing. They’re going here for wrestling, then they’ll hit for jiu-jitsu, and other places for stand up and they’re constantly bouncing around from gym to gym and you’re dead on I mean, if you’re not communicating like crazy, a lot of things can slip through the cracks.

JAKE:            Yeah, and if you’re the strength coach and you’re training 10 plus guys or whatever it may be, it’s pretty difficult to keep tabs on everybody and what’s going on. And the big thing is having all the coaches on the same page and being open minded as to what you provide. So that’s a whole another topic.

COREY:         Exactly, it’s a full time job to say the least.

JAKE:            Yeah, for sure.


COREY:         So Jake, when you’re working with your guys or have in the past, what are some ways that you monitor how they are recovering, how much intensity they need to be doing, volume, so and so forth just to make sure that they aren’t overtraining? Is there anything specific that you use?

JAKE:            Yeah. First off, my eyes, body language. That’s the free one, the free piece of equipment. Heart rate monitor; all the time, it’s easy to see if the heart rate returns aren’t where they need to be it’s a red flag and obviously it’s definitely due to them not resting properly or we need to dial it back a little bit. And we got some other stuff too that we’ve been using down here called an Omega Wave. And I’ve been working with Vitor Belfort for his upcoming fight, and I’ve been using it with him and that is a game changing piece of equipment. I’m working with the physiologist too; guy has got a doctorate, his name’s Corey Peacock, smart dude. He’s the one actually monitoring the data 24/7. So like, when Vitor wakes up, we know exactly what’s going on. We know exactly how he slept, exactly how hard we should push him intensity wise the next day. It’s pretty cool and it just makes my job easier really.

COREY:         Yeah, now is that some kind of armband or mini-computer or something that’s monitoring his vitals or how does that work?

JAKE:            Yeah, it’s a watch actually.


COREY:         Cool. Technology on that stuff has changed so much over the last few years, han?

JAKE:            Yeah, it has, and it’s common I guess in the NFL, a lot of adults and stuff are using it, but it’s pretty cool. Again, not everyone can afford that and it’s something that’s not cheap. But if you have it, it’s an advantage for sure.


COREY:         Right on. So for people that can’t maybe afford the Omega Wave or the big systems monitoring vitals and stuff when you’re using heart rate monitor and your eyeballs, what are some things you’re looking for?

JAKE:            Well as far as conditioning workouts with the heart rate monitor, and depending on who it is, and based off of their VO2 Test that we probably did, we find out what thresholds that we should be working at during that given workout and what the returns should be. As far as the heart rate drops, they have given a guy a minute break, I want to see him dropping X amount of beats depending upon who it is. And if we’re not dialed in there, that’s not happening, we need to make an adjustment right away. But I’ve been using the heart rate monitors for a long time and I got a pretty good system, it always progresses properly. Now that I’ve gotten good at it, I’ve had a lot of time of trial and error but like the conditioning programs, I’ve got it pretty dialed in like, Anthony Johnson going in with his last fight, I mean, it was like the perfect peak for that fight against Gustafsson.

COREY:         Yeah, congratulations by the way.

JAKE:            Thanks. He didn’t get to show it but it was there, believe me, his conditioning was there.

COREY:         Yeah, that dude is a one scary powerful athlete, that’s for sure.

JAKE:            Yes sir, you’re right on that.


COREY:         So transitioning away from the recovery piece, a lot of times these days on the internet you see barbell stuff, you see bodybuilding stuff, power lifting stuff, Olympic lifts, kettlebells, there’s so many different tools and stuff that are out there, at your guys gym, what are some of the staples that you’re using with your guys?

JAKE:            Well, fortunately at this job here I have everything. I have everything I could want. It depends on who the guy is. I’m a fan of Olympic lifting, always have been, always will be. If the guy is healthy enough to do it, if he doesn’t have any limitations that prevent doing it, and typically guys have limitations, so I don’t do a lot of Olympic lifts like a lot of people but the guys that can, we do.

It depends too, it’s such a hard question to answer because guys that I have year round that I’m working with 24/7, those are the guys that you get more advanced with, those are the guys that I’m going to spend time Olympic lifting with; or I got a guy like, I don’t know, a guy that’s just coming in for a six week training camp, I’m not going to waste time teaching him how to do a hang clean. So it really depends. But I’m still a big believer in the meat and potatoes for getting strong, how you squat bench and deadlift, I still think that’s important stuff. But I also like a lot of the functional stuff, single leg, unilateral work, single arm stuff, incorporating balance and stability whenever you can. Obviously your footwork is so important, the sport agility plyometric work. So it just really depends on who it is and how long I have him and injury limitations.


COREY:         Yeah absolutely, kind of depends what are guy’s current strength levels or his conditioning levels or whatever it is, kind of how you approach is going to be individualized.

JAKE:            That’s true, exactly. Like you get a guy like Anthony Johnson and you get a guy like a — I’ll say a skinny guy that doesn’t have a lot of raw power, well I’m going to train him  opposite, completely different.


COREY:         Yeah. When you’re kind of assessing these guys, when they first come in, let’s say you got that guy that comes in for a six week training camp. What are some ways that you measure his current ability levels, like his strength and conditioning and stuff like that?

JAKE:            Yeah, I have basic programs that I’ve designed that I’ve used over the years, pretty similar in structure that I’ve used over the years, off tweaking here and there, but where I’m looking at strength, power, I’m looking at flexibility, range of motion, balance, stability, and of course, their footwork, their agility and things like that, the overall conditioning. I have different programs I will use and I’m kind of making my — I’ll observe what I see and design a program based off what I see from them going through the training. Basically, I see a guy that oh well, you know what, his shoulders are shut, he can’t raise his arms above his head. Well, guess what, we’re not going to be doing dumbbell snatches. We’re going to try and we’re going to do different things on opening up the shoulders and improving the range of motion up top, along while we’re doing the regular training. So yeah, I like the FMS stuff, I like all that. It’s just basically like I said, I use the programs that I’ve designed and I take what I see from that, and then design their program based off of that.


COREY:         Good. Now when you’re coordinating with let’s say you got a guy that’s fighting six weeks out, you coordinate with his strength coach, the skill coaches. How much of your piece of the puzzle is strength, balance, mobility versus conditioning because I know a lot of the skill coaches include a lot of conditioning type work. And I have heard mixed things from different strength coaches on how much they should be doing conditioning in their workouts versus the skill coaches as well. How do you kind of work that with those guys?

JAKE:            Well again, I think it goes back to who it is, who the athlete is. If the guy is that I know does not to have a very good gas tank, I’m going to definitely be more conscious about the conditioning work than I am over the strength training portion. But as far as correlating with the specialty coach like the boxing coach or jiu-jitsu, wrestling, whatever, team practice is always pretty tough. So I can always pretty much account for them that being like a pretty hard push for that day, each day. And if they’re doing say like I work with a guy Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I am going to understand that on Monday at our gym, it’s more of a technical day. So it’s okay for me to push them a little harder at night. And it’s just small conversations. And that goes back to having the advantage of all the coaches under one roof. It’s small conversations that I’ll have with Henri Hooft or Jorge Santiago or Greg Jones, just the small conversation like, how was it this morning? It was so and so? How hard did you work? And how did you [incomprehensible]? Okay, cool. I’m going to — this is what I’m doing. So it’s that. That’s all it takes.

COREY:         Yeah.

JAKE:            As far as like, I think you’re kind of asking like, how I prioritize the strength work or the conditioning? And again, it depends who it is really. It’s hard to say.


COREY:         But I mean, again, it comes back to a huge advantage of having everybody under one roof and having that open communication between all your guys and everybody being on the same page, and seeing everything that that guy is doing throughout the week and being able to communicate is humongous.

JAKE:            And I’m usually at practice too in the morning. So I see it myself, I don’t really even need to ask a lot of times, I see what the person is doing. So I know what’s going to be walking in the door later that night.

COREY:         So as guys are getting ready for a fight, I know there are quite a few guys that are missing weight, maybe they’re performing things so hard, they’re losing the gas tank during a fight. When you guys are dealing with weight cuts, do you guys have a separate person monitoring that stuff? Is there a nutritionist, different people that you guys are utilizing that are on your team?

JAKE:            Yeah, we have a nutritionist and again, we have the physiologist with our team too. And fortunately at this level, most of the guys that I work with, they’ve been doing this so long. It’s not like a mystery anymore. They’ve had a lot of trial and error themselves. And they usually typically have it dialed in themselves. But having the nutritionist and the physiologist, their health that definitely is a factor but like I said, most of them have been doing it so long time, they’ve wrestled whatever, they’ve got it down. We haven’t had any of those problems on this team, thankfully.


COREY:         Yeah, it’s good. Well, it sounds like you guys are pretty damn organized?

JAKE:            Yeah really, yeah.


COREY:         The majority of people I would imagine that are listening probably don’t have all of the coaches under one roof. They don’t have that open communication. Maybe they don’t have a nutritionist. Do you have any tips for the guys that are kind of bouncing around from gym to gym as far as like coordinating that effort, maybe reaching out, maybe some resources that they can use for cutting weight, getting down, tips or tricks, things that you’ve noticed, seen over the years that have worked.

JAKE:            Well, the weight cutting, it’s not my area really at all. I mean, it’s not — I didn’t grow up the wrestler or anything like that. I think the best thing for a guy starting off or whatever that is in that position is find a veteran guy in the gym and fire away with questions, and listen to your own body too as far as the training goes. If you got to drag yourself into the gym, each and every workout, something isn’t right. I’m happy when the guys show up and they’re joking and laughing and there’s good energy. When they’re like oh shit, we got to do this again, that’s a problem day after day, that’s a problem. So well, I think the big thing is yeah, listen to yourself, your body, it’s going to let you know.


COREY:         Right, absolutely. Well, and that goes back to you talking about just using your eyeballs and being aware, watching guys, watching the personality, are they laughing, are they joking or are they dragging ass when they’re coming in.

JAKE:            Right, exactly.

COREY:         That’s pretty simple but wise advice. It’s good stuff.

JAKE:            Well, it’s just like most people think like if they’re not dead, they didn’t do anything right. That’s like the wrestler mentality within this sport like, well, if you walk out of the gym here, you’re not dragging yourself through the door to get to your car, you didn’t work hard enough. It’s just not true. It’s quality over quantity.


COREY:         Very true, very true.

JAKE:            I think like, going back to Anthony Johnson for instance. I think a big part of him, a big part of his success is that since I’ve known him anyway we’ve done four fights, in every one, he’s gone into perfectly healthy and that’s a huge advantage because there’s so many times like in the past when I’ve been working with guys and it’s like oh my goodness like this and they’re going in under these circumstances. I mean, things are going to happen it’s a rough sport obviously, things are going to happen but a lot of that stuff can be avoided.


COREY:         Yeah, a lot of those little nagging injuries and sicknesses and things like that at least from my experiences come from guys doing too much. They’re just getting ground down. They get a little beat up, and maybe they’re sore or tired or they did too much the day before and they go in and simple wrestling or something could tweak a knee or whatever.

JAKE:            Yep, exactly. And Mike Dolce and I have talked about this since I met him seven, eight years ago, like the same conversation. Like we saw the same thing back then, like, it’s just out of control, what’s the volume and intensity?

COREY:         Yeah absolutely. Well, very cool, man. Jake, what are you guys working on right now? Who you got coming up?

JAKE:            Well, the big one. Well first, the 22nd we’ve got Michael Johnson fighting Edson Barboza and Cezar Ferreira is also on that card and then we got Vitor the following week fighting Weidman. And then after that Gilbert Durinho is fighting Josh Thomson and also Ryan LaFlare is going to be on that card, so we got a lot of guys coming up, like always.

COREY:         You got baby three, four weeks ahead of you.

JAKE:            Yeah, yeah. I’m just still jet lag from Sweden I think but —


COREY:         Yeah, I saw a funny post that Joe Rogan put up talking about he’s at the airport and hadn’t had any sleep and is on his way back like the next morning.

JAKE             Yeah, well, they fought at three in the morning Swedish time. So we didn’t even go to bed. I was up all day and then had to get on plane, it was a 10am. So there was no sleep. Yeah, it was worth [inaudible].

COREY:         Heck yeah, that was a great card and Anthony looked great. That dude is like I said, that’s one powerful, scary dude. Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it right.

JAKE:            We’re trying.

COREY:         Well Jake, thank you so much for talking with us, we appreciate all your insight and we wish you nothing but the best man.

JAKE:            Alright, well, thanks for having me.