Episode #8: MMA Strength Coach Matt Gifford Joins Us From Las Vegas

Matt Gifford has been working with Anthony Pettis and many other fighters in Wisconsin for years. Needless to say, this guy is building some of the strongest, most athletic fighters in the biz.

We tracked Matt down while he was filming for the upcoming TUF show, Anthony Pettis vs Gilbert Melendez.

In this episode, Matt gives us some insight on his training strategies, tips and tricks that have helped his athletes rise to the top.


Download the FULL Episode here:  Matt Gifford MMA Strength and Conditioning

In this episode we talk about:

  • How to lay out your week
  • When to do certain exercises
  • Prioritizing your training
  • How much is too much?
  • Developing the right kind of strength
  • Personalizing your training for your needs

Want to learn more about Matt’s Fight Crew System?

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.


Full Transcription of Our Podcast with Matt Gifford


Interviewer:   Corey Beasley                                                                                               

Interviewee/Guest:   Matt Gifford



COREY:         Hey guys, this is Corey Beasley from Fight Camp Conditioning and I’m here with Matt Gifford. Matt has been cool enough while he’s out in Vegas coaching for the tough show to take a few minutes and talk with us, Matt, how’re you doing, bud?

MATT:           I am doing really well. It’s been about three weeks here in Vegas and very excited to talk shop with you, exchange some philosophies and tell you a little bit about my program back home NX Level,back in Wisconsin.

COREY:         Yeah absolutely. So Matt, just so everybody’s familiar, give everybody an idea of how long you’ve been coaching some of the guys you work with, so on and so forth.

MATT:           Yeah, so I started my career in 2009 for a company called NX Level. We’re a pro performance gym, so we specialize in training athletes and we work with kids as young as 10, [inaudible] out of high school, college, NFL guys and then we also do adult training as well. So a lot of variety both as far as training goes, but also as far as personality goes. For me personally in 2010 while Anthony Pettiswas kind of undergoing his Shane Roller camp, we started working and we’ve had numerous camps obviously since then, had some up camps and down camps obviously with injuries here and there. But it’s been now four years with us. And because of his success, just by way of word of mouth, he’s brought in about 10 other guys and one lady as well to join the NX Level Fight Crew, as I call it.

COREY:         Nice dude, that’s pretty exciting stuff man. You got some of the most talented guys that exist in the UFC. That’s pretty exciting.

MATT:           Yeah, very, very lucky. I’m lucky in a sense that beyond what I do, there’s just a hotbed next door, Roufusport is about 15 minutes away from where our facility is located. So we’ve got a great relationship with Duke Roufus and with everybody on staff there so they keep pushing guys our way and I think we both keep benefiting from that nice partnership and nice friendship we have.


COREY:         That’s awesome. Matt, give us an idea when you first started working with Anthony Pettis, what were some of the bullet points or the things that you learned along the way or had to kind of reconstruct in order to help some of these guys get prepared for what they’re doing.

MATT:           Yeah absolutely. Well, just from a psychological perspective, we all know Anthony’s story by now. Personally, he’s a very committed person. When he is in that camp mode, he’s definitely what you’d classify as an all-in type person as well and that he’s got laser like focus. And through him, it was scene for me firsthand, back in the locker room before the Henderson fight, but he’s someone that I have yet to see anybody like him in that when he’s in the moment, it’s electric. It’s like watching Michael Jordan. And as far as what he does in terms of his day to day conditioning, what he does at Roufusport, he’s somebody that has just an unbelievable reservoir of confidence and he really believes he’s the best in every single facet and if he doesn’t think he’s the best right now, he has just got that presence in mind to know that you know what, if I keep working I think someday I’m gonna be one of the better jiu-jitsu practitioners, obviously he’s amazing striker. Just the confidence that he has just exudes from him. Sometimes it’s funny because there’s a friendship there now. It can be borderline cocky, but it’s something that I think definitely helps him whenever he steps inside the octagon.


COREY:         Absolutely. Your confidence got to be sky high, han?

MATT:           Yeah. It’s something that sets himself apart and it’s something that you wish you could see in every single athlete you have, whether or not it’s just something that they have or not, I guess time will tell. But the big thing with him in terms of training is he came to me into NX Level with very low training age. He didn’t really have any type of weight room etiquette, didn’t quite understand philosophy behind training, let alone progressionary based stuff.

So the big thing with him is working on foundational concepts that should be in place with every athlete, no matter if they’re a fighter, if they’re a female soccer player, NFL football player, whomever it may be, the big thing with them is establishing those foundational biomotor abilities and the big thing with him is just he came to understand soft tissue qualitymobility and core stability are going to be the foundation for everything he’s doing from a performance standpoint and it’s going to help him recover so he can sustain himself over a camp, but again, these guys want to fight into their 30s over a career.


COREY:         Yeah absolutely. Matt, just to give everybody an idea I know you wrote a killer article for us a few months back just talking about the concepts and your fight crew, your kind of outlook on how you’re training a lot of these guys. What are some of those foundational concepts that you got in place?

MATT:           Sure, awesome. I think the big thing when you just take a broad look at training is you obviously have to have a system and like I explained in my article, the system is going to be a three pronged approach. And as it’s developing, you got to have proper movement capabilities, a great mindset that runs everything and then also withrecovery, that’s where you dial in nutrition, but also neuromuscular efficiencywith your training.

And the big thing with fighters and with all athletes is, you’re looking at a paradigm and for us, it starts with alignment of the body, what are you doing in terms of tensegrity, where the push and pull is from your body. So, soft tissue quality, mobility and then core stability, they got to kind of match and bounce each other back and forth, have to be in place before you teach people moving patterns.

And again, the big goal of every strength and conditioning coach is to get their athletes optimally strong, optimally fast and explosive and then get them conditioned so they can do that over a 25 minute fight or they can be conditioned for a [incomprehensible] so they can recover. And I stumbled across an awesome line a couple months back byJoel Jamiesonin one of his Ultimate Conditioning books and he said:

“Forget exercise prescription, it’s going to be how these athletes adapt to what they’re doing”.

So that’s something that’s kind of I guess run its course on me and my thinking, and again, the big thing is you have to have a “why” to whatever you’re doing. And again, just what you’re doing and how you’re doing that’s going to separate yourself and separate your athletes and help them get results.


COREY:         That’s a very good point Matt. Once those foundational concepts are in place, like we talked about a little bit before we started this call, you said that there is a — what was the linethat you said that, certain parts of coaching are scientific, other pieces are artistic or something along those lines. What did you say again?

MATT:           Yeah absolutely. So I went to school at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and the one line that stuck with me and will stick with me to the day I die or the day I stop coaching is that “Exercise prescription leadership is both a science and an art”.

You can use all the research you want, obviously. But the big thing is you got to be able to kind of work back and forth. You got to be able to take an exercise and see what its use is, how is it going to apply to the actual MMA fight. So take general perspective, take a specific perspective, be able to have progressions that are going to mend the two, but also like we always talk about as coaches out in this community, the big thing is, the art is motivating athletes. It’s been able to place exercises in at the right exact time to help them get more out of what they’re doing. And the big thing is you look at research, you also have to have experience obviously which I’m still gaining and you have to then combine the two to get the most out of your athletes.


COREY:         Yeah, I think that’s a very, very good point. I think there’s a lot of very scientific approaches and strategies and concepts and stuff like that that are out there. And I know for a lot of the guys that I talk with, a lot of that stuff might go over their head and it just seems too textbook, too sterile. And I think a lot of guys, especially coaches and a lot of guys that fight, it is more of an emotional type of an approach. They’ll do the stuff that their coaches used to do because there’s that emotional tie versus a specific reason why they do it.


MATT:           Right, like you and I know, one of the biggest tools that you can have in your repertoire is to get an athlete to believe in themselves and to believe in what they’re doing. If they’ve got hesitations there, they’re not going to get the desired results. And this goes back to the physical and psychological glee that we know exists. So that’s one of the big things with our athletes is, get them to kind of buy into it. And again, it’s easier for them to buy into it if you can explain the “why”, if you can showcase a “how” and demonstrate and more importantly, teach things in a setting. And again, if they can kind of see how it’s applicable to what they’re doing, that’s going to help them out in the long run.

I think it’s a [incomprehensible] choke and he’s got the whole schematics of block periodization and we talked about general concepts transferring over to specific concepts. Well, the same thing can go in a fight camp and the way you structure your periodized schemes throughout camp. You work on generals while you’re squatting, what does that relate to punching somebody in the face? Well, it’s teaching these athletes well guess what? You got to take power from the ground, transfer it through your hips, through your core to your shoulders, and great lower body strength and power is going to help you do that. That’s where you take science, that’s where you kind of take the artwork of just being able to show them concepts live in front of their faces that’s going to help them in the long run.


COREY:         No it’s good, that’s good info I think a lot of the fitness world that’s out there right now, the bodybuilding and power lifting community has pretty much dominated the environment here for the last 30, 40 years. I mean, you’ve got guys and coaches and people that are still using just basic power lifting lifts or even Olympic lifts have become really popular in the last few years just because of CrossFit and different things that have popped up. Then you have the other side of the coin where there’s a lot of sports specific type drills that a lot of guys are using because they see it to be important in their particular sport. At next level when you’re working with these guys and somebody walks in the door, how do you kind of develop that system?  When to use what tools and when, how do you get it?

MATT:           Well, everything starts with the assessment and from our assessment standpoint we’ll kind of track some goals of the athletes, we’ll get a body comp bottom, we’ll talk about diet. But from a hands on perspective, we’ll look at them structurally we’ll put our hands on their bodies, see how bony alignment is. We’ll run through an FMStype based program. Right now, there’s conflicting evidence whether or not the FMS works but for us, we use it as a tool. It’s not an end all be all for an assessment. The best assessment you can do obviously with your athlete is just keep your eyes on them from a day to day type basis, type standpoint.

So we’ll assess them, the classic finds with all the athletes but also with our fighters, lack of ankle mobility, they’re all going to bedropped footand overpronatorswhich is the only [incomprehensible] up that connect chain, knee issues, they probably collapse with their knees when they squat or when they do a single leg pattern or especially when they land. Hip mobilityis going to be usually an issue. I think classically, which I’m seeing a lot with our athletes right now during this tough season, a lack of hip internal rotation, both because of what’s going on above and below that hip, but also because of the lack of glute strength. So we’re always working glute, we’re always working hip mobility and then as you kind of refer right up that chain, usually with everybody, you’re going to see weak external [incomprehensible], core system is going to be weak at large. And then the big thing that comes with that posture they take while they’re either rounding their back doing jitsor wrestling or striking position, they’re going to have what we call a sticky T spine, so their thoracic spinewon’t be able to move that well. And the big thing there is it’s going to affect their shoulders, it’s going to affect lower back so you got to find a way to open them up. And a lot of people are complaining right now these last couple weeks, I got fresh athletes that I’ll work with, a lower back pain. When you’re dealing with lower back pain, you’re looking at a pelvic fault issue, maybe their hemi-pelvisis rotated one way or the other, or you’re looking at a weakness or tightness above or below. So that’s one of the biggest things from the assessment.


You plug them right into the system like we talked about the paradigm like we discussed before, alignment, soft tissue quality, mobility, core stability, then you teach them how to put their body in the correct positions. The big thing is, as an athlete, whether you’re a field sport athlete, whatever it may be, you’re a fighter, you got be able to bend your knees to absorb force and again to produce force, you got to be able to extend your hips and then if you look at it, you have to have a push, pull, and then resist the key. Those are the main concepts that athletes that are basically going to transcend whatever sport, that’s the human body.

The big thing is, whether you’re coming through the doors of NX Level as a swimmer or as a fighter, again,I always tell people that human body is the human body. The more elite you get, the higher your training age, the more you can be specific with your train tools. But it’s all too often with our guys they come in, whether it’s a fighter or a young football kid, and they want to do all the bells and whistles exercises. They want to flip the tires, they want to do crazy kettlebell exercises, they want to do Olympic lifts, they want to jump on to high boxes. But as my mentor always says, the steer in reality are three different things. Again, most of our kids come in here without that solid training base and again, they’re not quite up to par in terms of movement efficiency.

So you have to basically stick them in a train the train type approach, and kind of develop them. If our guys are amateur fighters, usually I give my hands on one of amateur guys before they turn pro. I’m not going to periodize and specialize a program if I’ve got four to six weeks for them, because they’re just not up that level yet. They just need to get stronger. They need to get more mobile, they need to work on core stability. What would the point be if a kid never knew how to squat to put them on a periodized back squat program when he can’t put his body weight in the correct position as yet.


So again, early on with the guys, it’s more of a train the train type of approach. You got to teach them movement skills, you got to teach them how to recover from what they’re doing. And again, one of my big jobs too is to get them to back off of what they’re doing away from me. I usually get guys to have at least three sessions a week. But again classically, we know what people are doing. As soon as they’re done with the jits roll or sparring or striking type session, they want to jump on aversa-climber, they want to knock out a million pushups and chin ups. And again, you have to back them off and you got to teach them the “why” to why they should be backing off a little bit as well.


COREY:         Well Matt, that’s a pretty big point. I’ve written a bunch of articles on recovery from different sources and stuff. And I think it’s one of the biggest problems in the MMA world, with jujitsu wrestlers any of those combat sports they’re dealing with, when you’re working with somebody, what are some of the guidelines, how much they should train, varying intensities? When they are overtraining, what are some things that they might see or a coach may be able to see to give them kind of a red flag?

MATT:           Right. Great question. I mean, in [inaudible] it’s obviously going to depend on the athlete, on the situation. I would love to have my athletes in three days a week. So my kind of more congruent type group and Anthony hasn’t even been a part of that as much over the last six months because of this knee issue that we’re working back up. But they come in three days a week. On Monday, it’s early in the training week; I don’t want to beat them up. I progress my athletes from doing kettlebell swings now to Olympic lifting. And the catchphrase there, you guys had an article actually a couple months back talking about Olympic lifting and the benefits or should you do it, shouldn’t do it. Well, if you can do it, do it. If they’re not ready for it then don’t do it. It’s that simple. Get the most out of what you’re doing.


So the Olympic lifts now on their Monday workout we’ll get some upper body work in, we’ll do a max effort press, we’ll do a heavy type pull, whether it’s a horizontal row early on in their first progressions or maybe a vertical pull later on once they have enough scat movement and lat length. And then we’ll finish with a lot of scaps stability. I’ll flush them out with some tempoworkand some core work. I’ll keep things very light on their Monday workouts so they have a really productive Monday and Tuesday of their actual fight camp work as well.

When they come in on Wednesday, I use Wednesday for all our athletes as somewhat of a preamp, hit some exercises that I need they know from a movement standpoint, but also from an injury reduction standpoint. And then as we’ve progressed with my guys over the years, I almost treat them like basketball players in terms of movement mechanics. So if you would just imagine what you’re seeing with the paint player in the NBA, well fighters move their bodies a lot like that in the octagon. A lot of low foot pushing back and forth, changing the hips, different body position trying to keep a stable core while you’re throwing punches much like a fighter might or a basketball player might do while he’s boxing somebody out.


So I kind of developed this concept in my head about a year back when I saw a movement seminar by a guy named Todd Wrightwho works with the University of Texas basketball team. I saw some the things he was doing. It also made aware of some of the things that [distortion] our net was doing, we kind of have always done with our athletes and I said, you know what, there is going to be a some takeaway here from a general, maybe to a little more of a specific standpoint to what these guys are doing in the octagon, I’m going to start treating them as athletes and doing a little bit more deceleration training, doing a little more changed direction of movement training with them. And again, it’s helping them be competitive and it’s giving them more confidence thinking you know what, I’m doing some of the same things that elite level NFL players are doing.

We use Wednesday as again, pre-hab, we’ll do some type of deceleration or change direction work. And then I’ll finish off with metabolic work. And for me, I’ve gotten guys off of the treadmills over the past couple of years. Don’t have to get into it but we know what goes on with foot strike on a treadmill. And I’m lucky enough that in my facility where we have about 70 yards of turf space. If not, you could use grass or a track I’m sure, but we’ll do metabolic work and I progress their heart rate so that earlier on in camp, they’re probably pushing about 140 to 150. And as these weeks kind of progress, we’re bringing down the volume a bit, the intensity is kind of rising up.

We’ll do heart rate trainingwhere they’re anywhere from 165 to 180. And research shows that most people fighting about a 165 zone so I kind of use that as a decent tool, constantly check heart rate in between rounds to kind of assess where they’re at how they’re progressing.

Wednesdays are awesome, in that, it’s easier to train a group at once. They get to start for it together I guess you could say. They pull each other through. And I guess Wednesday for me is my career kind of blossoms. It’s been taking a lot of different philosophies and making it my own. And it started back with just Training for Warriorsconcepts from Martin Rooney. And I took a look at hishurricane training, I loved it, experimented with myself, and that kind of made that into my own concept. And I can almost call that if you want to call it Anthony Pettis, the Showtime storm, where we’re doing some of the same things incorporating metabolic sprint work with bodyweight exercises, and again allowing their heart rates to come down a little bit.


That’s Wednesday. Thursday, by that time, they’re kind of bringing their week down a little bit with their actual MMA work and then on Friday, I attack them with a lower body lifts. We’ll also work plyometrics, we’ll do some jump training, we’ll go through a great lower body session where again, everything’s being progressed from Goblet squatto eventually maybe back squattingthem or maximally pulling them off the floor. And we’ll usually finish that Friday workout with some types of quick conditioning sets. So whether it be prowler, isometric cord to kind of replicate wrestling isometricsor jits isometrics.

And then usually I give them the weekend to recover. I actually prefer my guys to do a long, slow distance run on Saturday. It was one of those things where earlier on in my career, I was kind of eating up all the nonsense where we got to get these guys away from doing any long, slow distance running, they’re going to end up looking like marathon runners. And we know that’s not the case. And obviously, with cardiac output, with hypertrophy of the heart, it’s a big need. And again, we walk a fine line just like you know with dealing with all your fighters. As far as training goes, you have the training bucket where as fighters they need a little bit of everything through thrilling 10 pounds or the crab sometimes and just trying to figure out what sticks. And that’s where, like, we talked about research, experience, the art and science have to kind of blend together.


COREY:         Yeah absolutely. So yeah, a lot of the concepts and stuff that you’re using, I had seen Todd Wright present at “Perform Better”. And his talk that I saw a couple years back was talk about controlling your space or controlling your sphere.

MATT:           Oh, absolutely.

COREY:         Yeah, just being able to move in all directions not only with your footwork, but also with pushing and pulling and controlling the space around you. And that really hit home with me as well just because MMA and wrestling and jiu-jitsu and all this stuff, I mean, you have to be able to move in all directions efficiently. I think that was a pretty killer presentation, something that I use on a weekly basis as well.

Yeah, Martin’s TFW stuff and his hurricane system that he has developed, we use in a variety of ways too I think it’s a real ingenious way to kind of scale different athletes to different ability levels and to be able to push them in different intensities and different ability levels can all work together.


MATT:           Oh, absolutely. I mean, him for one, he’s motivated the ever living blank out to me, his whole principles act as if it’s something I pass on to my athletes, but it’s also something I try to hold true with myself.

You hit on the head with Todd Wright. I mean, the big thing is, you look that these guys, they are rotational athletes. The way you strike, the way you hit, you can make the general transfer to a pitcher or javelin thrower to these basketball players. So you got to keep things try planner from that standpoint. Again, like we talked about earlier on with the assessment, most of these guys have the stickiest tightest, non movable T spine. So, getting them to engage their core on their feet and getting them to move with their upper back a bit more is going to help them with everything they’re doing from a performance standpoint, but also from recovery and injury reduction standpoint as well.


COREY:         Yeah, absolutely. Matt, I kind of want to finish up, the way you laid out your week, the way you’re kind of approaching, progressing different athletes in different stages of their career I think is really, really priceless information for a lot of the guys listening. One thing that I’ve kind of dealt with over the years that maybe I’d love to hear your opinion on is a lot of these guys doing training. they get hurt. And you might have the best plan of attack all written down on paper and then they come in and it’s a max effort, upper body day and they say, yo dude, I tweaked my shoulder or I broke my finger or I broke my hand or whatever. They come in with a myriad of injuries, right?

MATT:           Yes, absolutely.

COREY:         When something like that happens. I mean, guys come in and you got a group of six dudes coming over from the gym and three of them had something pop up that day or are injured or hurt or you have to adjust things. How do you kind of work with that?

MATT:           Yeah, that’s a great question. So the biggest thing right away I’m very lucky to have a facility and company where there’s a lot of synergy. We’ve got a biomechanist acupuncturist on staff. He’s one of my mentors when it comes down to thinking about posture and tensegrity. We got a great PTon staff with chiro. So I always know when to refer out, I know where my expertise is. And oftentimes, if I can, I just say, you know what, go see Matt or go see Luke. So, for all those out there listening, refer out. If it’s above your area of expertise, recommend that right away. And the big thing too which it sucks sometimes because it’s money because there’s a lot of things right on the line. You got to think about what the most important thing is, and that’s always going to be their health. It’s always going to be fighting injury and keeping these guys healthy so they can fight again.


So I think it’s always hard to say you know what, you got to sit this one out. But sometimes there is a need for that. If you want to go through a workout, let’s say it’s just a baby sprained ankle, you have to, like, switch things up and be creative for them, stick elsewhere, if there’s an ankle injury, obviously, you can’t jump, you can’t move around quite as well. Get the most out of what you’re doing. That’s the biggest thing.

So if they’re in for a great workout, switch it up, hit some more opposed to your chain, avoid the pushing, just work on some recovery things down below. Again, whatever you’re doing, whether it’s just working with that first amateur, you always have this function from the standpoint of wherever they’re at, if I just got a kettlebell to work with, that’s it like basically my gym setting here at the Ultimate Fighter, make the most out of what you got. Get the most out of what you’re doing. Find a way.


COREY:         Yeah, that’s great info man. Matt, I know you’re busy. I know you’re having a blast out there in Vegas. I truly do appreciate your time and coming in and talking with us. And if people want to get more info on what you’re doing and the programs and stuff that you’re putting out, where’s the best place for him to find you?

MATT:           Yeah, so I’ve got to get back on my blogs, when I get time you’re going to start seeing some new articles, I promise. I’ve got Twitter. On Instagram it’s coachgiffI should say, I think my Twitter handle is GiffUsStrength. I’ve got my own blog spot, gotta get back on that tits coachgiff.blogspot.com. Honestly, I’m going to keep steering people your way here. What you’re doing is unbelievable Corey. You are raising the bar for everybody. And with what you’re doing, it’s truly a – it’s that wild principle when one wins, we all win. So I really appreciate what you’re doing. You’re bringing this community in this world a long way.

COREY:         Thanks man, I appreciate it. Guys I’ll put some of the links for Matt stuff right below the podcast here and then so you guys can get connected with him. And Matt, dude, have a blast out there in Vegas. We look forward to seeing that show.

MATT:           I will, thank you so much. Really appreciate you.

COREY:         Bye bye.

MATT:           Likewise.