How Fighters Should Address Flexibility for MMA [+ Examples]

To stretch or not to stretch. That is the question. 

It is undeniable that individual sports, say MMA (or gymnastics), require greater degrees of flexibility than others. Fighters especially need a minimum level of flexibility to accomplish head kicks, sweeps, guard passes, and many other grappling scenarios and submissions. 


What if I were to tell you that flexibility isn’t necessarily what fighters need to enhance either their stand-up or ground game performance? 


Instead, what fighters need to focus on is improving mobility and increasing their dynamic range of motion at joints. While flexibility is a significant factor for MMA fighters, stretching alone, in the traditional sense, isn’t enough to achieve the desired results. So, let’s take a closer look at flexibility- what it means and how it relates to other qualities like mobility and stability- and why strikers and grapplers don’t necessarily need to stretch to become better, more well-rounded fighters.

Flexibility vs. Mobility- What’s the Difference?

Before we delve into the needs of fighters and what they should be doing to improve flexibility, let’s look at some key concepts:

1. Flexibility

Simply put, flexibility is the range of motion (ROM) at a joint. Short and sweet, right? But what is important to remember is that flexibility is often a passive measurement of ROM and refers to the static stretching (and assessment) of the muscles, ligaments, and tendons around a joint (Boyle, 2016).

2. Mobility

Where flexibility concerns the muscles and inevitably requires a degree of static holding, mobility targets the joints and is all about motion (Boyle, 2016). Enhancing mobility, then, refers to increasing ROM while controlling movement patterns.

Still shot of female fighter performing a high kick to a heavy bag

Flexibility, Mobility, & the MMA Fighter

Mixed martial arts is a beautiful and technical combination of striking and grappling disciplines, which means that fighting is all about multidirectional movement patterns and passing through (and sometimes being held in) various uncomfortable positions (Daru, 2020). This is why having sufficient flexibility and mobility are vital.

Phil Daru (2020) published an excellent article discussing the difference between flexibility and mobility training related to mixed martial arts. Below are salient points about flexibility, mobility, and the MMA fighter:

  • Flexibility involves getting into a fixed position. Having higher degrees of flexibility enables fighters to be passively held in a position without experiencing tremendous amounts of discomfort or risking injury.
  • Mobility refers to the control to move into a position, and having mobility gives fighters the ability to be strong and remain in control during those unorthodox situations.
  • Increasing flexibility enhances a fighter’s ability to create pliability within the connective tissue. When combined with enhanced mobility, athletes are afforded more opportunities to gain strength and control during more movement patterns, creating “strength at length.”

Joint-by-Joint Approach to Training

Michael Boyle and Gray Cook, two leading experts in the fields of strength and conditioning and human movement, believe that the body is a stack of joints, with each having a specific function and thus requiring specific training needs:

Table of joint-by-joint approach to training

Using this approach, stability joints should be addressed during strength workouts while mobile joints need to be addressed during a warm-up sequence with rolling, stretching, and activation exercises (Boyle, 2016). In the words of physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann, the goal is to get the right muscles moving the right joint at the right time.

So, just what does this mean for fighters?

Incorporating Flexibility & Mobility Training for Fighters

MMA fighters are a unique brand of athlete. The high demands of the sport place high amounts of forces and loads throughout various joints, which can unquestionably lead to injuries or at the very least, poor performance if the body is not capable of handling it. Of particular importance are the hamstrings, hip flexors, adductors, ankles, and shoulders (which is practically the whole body, if you think about it). Having tight and short muscles not only puts fighters at greater risk of injury but also severely restricts the ability to throw technical strikes, defend against submissions, move through various grappling positions, and shoot explosively for takedowns.

1. Foam Rolling

Using foam rollers is a form of self-myofascial release, or self-massage, and serves several purposes for fighters. Rolling before warming up is essential as it helps make tissue more pliable and extensible, and sets the stage for a better warm-up. Finding tender areas (or trigger points) and rolling them out also helps decrease tissue density and overactivity (Boyle, 2016). Rolling after a workout aids in recovery and can help alleviate the feeling of sore muscles.

2. Static Stretching

Stretching does have its place in a fighter’s training program; it’s just not the only way to help improve flexibility and mobility. Here are a couple of tips when it comes to stretching:

  • Position is everything. Be specific about how you stretch.
  • Know the difference between pain and discomfort. Good stretching should be uncomfortable, but not painful.
  • Use body weight to assist.
  • Remember to breathe during static stretches because holding your breath creates more tension. Breathing matters. A lot. So strive for a 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale- a 3-count inhale through the nose and a 6-count exhale out the mouth.

3. Dynamic Warm-Up

A systematic and progressive warm-up that includes series of exercises that mimic the demands of MMA is a must! The initial warm-up is so much more than just increasing the heart rate and core body temperature; a structured, dynamic warm-up helps fighters develop the necessary biomotor abilities to succeed in combat sports, including speed, strength, agility, flexibility, mobility, balance, coordination, and conditioning (Landow, 2016).

Examples of Mobility & Dynamic Warm-Up Exercises

1. T-Spine Foam Rolling: use a foam roller on the upper back, remembering to touch the elbows together to protract the shoulder blades and expose the thoracic vertebraeFemale athlete demonstrating thoracic spine foam rolling2. T-Spine Mobility Drill: while on all fours, sit back on the heels and place one hand behind the head. The action is elbow to elbow as you rotate the spine

Beginning position for thoracic spine mobilization drillEnding position for thoracic spine mobilization drill

3. Ankle Mobility Drill:  using a wall, kneel with one leg in front and rock the front ankle back and forth, making sure the heel stays in contact with the floor the whole time

Ankle mobility demonstration

4. Hip Mobility Drill: lateral squats are a precursor to lateral lunges, which not only serve to increase mobility in the hip joint but also can be included in a dynamic warm-up to prepare the lower body for training

Female athlete performing a lateral lunge

5. Single Leg Deadlift: this movement is another multi-purpose drill that acts as an activation exercise for hip mobility while also strengthening the hamstrings

Female athlete performing a single leg deadlift

6. Floor Slides: this exercise offers multiple mobility and stability benefits for the upper body because they activate the lower traps, rhomboids, and external rotators while stretching the pecs and internal rotators. While laying on the floor on the back, keep the back of the hands and wrists flat against the floor as you slide your arms in an overhead pressing motion

Male athlete demonstrating floor slides

Additional Examples:

  • Cat/Cow
  • Quadruped Hip Circles
  • Bird Dog
  • Hip Bridges
  • Knee Hugs/High Knee Walks
  • Leg Cradles
  • Heel to Butt Walks
  • Lunge Walks with Hamstring Stretch
  • High Knee Skips
  • Straight Leg Skips
  • Toe Touches
  • Inchworms
  • Elbow to Instep
  • Carioca
  • Side Shuffles

The Flexibility Paradox

Flexibility is crucial for fighters, but flexibility is only as good as one’s muscular stability through the entire range of motion (Landow, 2016).

Fighters need to look at incorporating foam rolling, stretching, activation exercises, and dynamic warm-ups into their overall training to see true improvement in fight performance.

So, to stretch or not to stretch? It comes down to the type of stretching, what’s being stretched, and the combination of exercises to support long-term adaptations in the muscles and other surrounding tissues.


What are your thoughts about flexibility for MMA fighters? Leave your comments below!



Boyle, M. (2016). New functional training for sports (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 

Daru, P. (2020, January 22). The difference between flexibility and mobility training. Daru Strong Training.

Landow, L. (2016). Ultimate conditioning for martial arts. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

2 thoughts on “How Fighters Should Address Flexibility for MMA [+ Examples]

  1. I like how flexibility was addressed in relation to stability. I’ve witnessed a lot of people in this sport get injured (in submissions especially) because they are very flexible but do not have the strength to support their max range of motion. An example would be when they feel they are not in danger because of their flexibility and then the pop or tear occurs because they are at their limit and unable to maintain that position under stress. Great read.

    • Thanks, Larry! I see that a lot with athletes- they have impressive ROM but lack the strength to control it, leading to injuries or other types of movement compensation patterns & dysfunctions.

      I appreciate your thoughts.

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