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Technique Talk: Phil Daru on the intersection of injury, training and outcomes

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Phil Daru

An injury crisis has turned into an injury normalization in MMA. The sport is off its peak rate experienced in 2014, but card adjustments or fight cancellations are still all too frequent.

While limited, some progress is being made in curtailing injuries. For example, less sparring or overall intensive training practices are being adopted. More importantly, however, is not what fighters are doing less of, but what they are adding to their preparation. Training methods are modernizing or made specific largely on the back of fresh insights about the limits of the human body.

Eliminating injury is an impossible task, but a substantial reduction of it might not be. That curtailment is important not merely for its own sake, it turns out, but the ancillary benefits it seems to confer: the betterment of optimized training for competition. Advancing the cause of injury reduction, specifically, tends to improve training for performance, generally.

Phil Daru — a former fighter turned training guru now based at American Top Team — spoke to MMA Fighting about the development of modern MMA training. In this discussion, Daru examines what’s both right and wrong about modern MMA methodology, how injuries tend to happen, what can be done to combat the injury rate, why MMA training is in its infancy, and more.

Partial transcript and full audio below:

Let me just ask for edification sake, so you obviously have some background in MMA, you have a background in powerlifting, and you have a background in bodybuilding, did I get that right?

Yes, I competed in all three.

Do you have certification for being a trainer, how does that work?

I have my degree in Exercise Science from Alabama State University. I played Division I football there. Also, I'm a certified strength coach through NSCA and ACE, so American Council of Exercise, so it's just little certifications.

Also, as far as my MMA career, I was a professional for eight years. I trained under American Top Team. I was originally with Din Thomas, I don't know if you've ... obviously you know who Din Thomas is, but I trained with him and then also with powerlifting, I'm a USPA member, so that's United States Powerlifting Association. I compete in the 90-kilo and 98-kilo class. Actually, I have a meet coming up in three weeks. My best total numbers, I've had 1770 total and I've also squatted 600 in a meet, so those are the prime numbers there.

I saw something from Matt Winning a year or so ago. He was arguing if you're talking about injury prevention, cardio doesn't do much for you. Strength training does. How do you reconcile needing strength training for all its benefits plus injury prevention and yet this maximization of cardio?

Since MMA is a mix of aerobics and sport, you have to make sure that you are training all of those modalities in a single micro-cycle or macro-cycle, if you will. What I like to do when it comes down to a strength program, proper periodization, plus the progression of that development of strength, will help with better kinesthetic awareness, as well as with the safety of the body as far as higher impact through joint degradation, and also making sure that just the muscles are stronger in general, so they won't get muscle tears, they won't get muscle strains, or in general, joint tears from not having strong enough bone tissue around that muscle.

Do you agree with Wenning? That what really matters for injury prevention is strength training? That's really what will keep you ultimately safer than just about anything else.

Let's even take a step back further than that. Before you go into a full strength program, and you have to understand periodization first. The main thing you want to do is build some solid muscle tissue, so hypertrophy is gonna be the first start to a strength program. When you build muscle tissue, you increase bone density. So a lot of time, what I see, is obviously, ACL tears, bone breaks, things like that, things like Anderson Silva with the tibia fracture that he had. If he were to actually strengthen up his bones by building a little bit of solid muscle tissue, not to the effect of where you're trying to be a bodybuilder, but just getting some sort of muscle hypertrophy, you're gonna build up that bone density, have a greater calcium response, and then you will actually save a lot of those injuries from happening. That's what I think he's talking about.

Cardio is cardio. It's only good for really heart health, and as far as aerobic capacity goes, it's good for that, for performance-wise in the cage. But in order for somebody [to have] longevity, strength training is gonna help them further their career and not getting injured in those situations of practice and things like that, because they're beating their body up two or three times a day. They have to be able to withstand the volume, so their muscle and their body has to be strong enough to withstand that volume and that intensity throughout camp.

What would you say the average pro fighter understands about all this?

It depends. I think I have some guys who do understand it, but I have some guys who really just don't give a damn. Here's the thing, when it comes to barbell sports like powerlifting, weightlifting, the weight room is specific. That's SPP, so you're thinking specific physical preparation for that sport. With the weight room in MMA, that's more general physical preparedness. They don't really need ... I don't want to say they don't need the weight room, but that's not what their sport is about. Their sport is about obviously when they're talking about specific training, sparring, rolling, things like that. So, in their mind, it's extra, right? A lot of the guys. Now, some of them understand the fact that they need to actually get stronger to withstand the weight class and to make sure that they are safe in their training, but for most of the time, I don't think anybody really understand the real implication of what we can actually do for them as far as strength goes.

When you see someone like Jon Jones doing powerlifting he's deadlifting, hitching a little bit on 600 is this really beneficial for mixed martial arts?

Here's another situation. I believe that powerlifting in general can have some benefit to his sport or to his game, but you also gotta remember that it's not one aerobic system that he's working. He has to make sure that he's getting all facets of that aerobic capacity, and we're talking anaerobic, lactic conditioning. We're also talking speed, agility, power, power endurance, strength endurance. So powerlifting can help in one aspect of the fight game, but he must have all things put together.

Now, in Jon's case, this was in the off-season. He wasn't even really fighting at the time, so I think he was just trying to gain some absolute strength along with some muscle mass, which I have no problem with. But when you get into fight camp, all modalities have to be hit, otherwise you're gonna miss the boat. That's why I think that, kinda going off the side, but I think that a lot of times when you phase out or you do plot periodization, where you do different phases throughout camp, I do feel sometimes that phase one may go into phase two, but phase one will never go into phase three. That's why I prefer, for what my situation is, a conjugated style of approach to where we work all modalities in a single micro-cycle throughout the week, so they can hit each aerobic systems accordingly, so they can stay ready without having to get ready.

How much would you say injury is just the nature of the way which these guys train and how much would you say is injury from improper strength and conditioning?

I've seen a lot of crazy sh-t on the internet, but as far as from my point of view, I make sure our main focus is to keep these guys safe. I don't want to say prevention, because you can really never prevent somebody from getting injured. You can only reduce the fact of that, especially from a high impact sport like mixed martial arts. My main focus before anything is injury reduction.

As far as your question goes, I do believe more injury does come from actual training, and training under a stressful state. When they're in high-cortisol state, when they're not getting the right recovery, the right restoration, and they're training over and over again, and usually it comes at the end of fight camp, or in the beginning when they're not even in shape and they're just going through the motions and they're not paying attention to detail.

In your experience, the majority of injuries are not in that middle groove, but early or later?

Here's the thing. When you start, unless they've been training year-round and they're always ready, a lot of fighters want to go right off the gate, 100 percent, and you can't really do that. It has to be a progression.

I think that a lot of times, that people just, ‘alright, I'm gonna do ...’ and a lot of guys get overzealous in their scheduling. That's why we like to schedule all of our fighters out accordingly, but a lot of guys will do their own schedule and they'll put down four training sessions in a five-day sequence, and it's too much for them at that time. They end up either getting injured or overtrained, and then when they get overtrained, when I'm talking about overreaching, I'm talking about over-straining, they end up getting injured through their body just breaking down.

In a sense, what I see with Cain Velasquez, I think that a lot of times these guys train as if they're fighting in the cage, and I honestly think that they need to either back that down a little bit because all those guys in that camp, and I don't want to single them out, but that's basically what's been going on for the past couple years, is that I'm seeing them, you go into war in the gym.

It's just like me when I'm training, I want to hit good lifts in the gym, but I'd rather save my 100 percent for that platform. I would like to see what they do there, and then see exactly how their strength program is ran and how they're actually training on a daily basis. They gotta kinda back that down. I think if you can maximize — you know what, not even maximize, optimal training is better than maximal training and it's damn sure better than minimal. Let's try to make sure we got a middle ground there so they're not overkilling themselves and not making it to the cage.

I've seen that famous video, leg training that Cain Velasquez did. In playing devil's advocate for Cain here, a lot of these fighters just don't know the difference. You can get a trainer who comes to you and says those things. How are fighters even supposed to know the difference?

That's where I want to educate my fighters into understanding what is the right way to go. First of all, being a coach isn't just yelling at your guys and telling them to c'mon and counting reps and sets. You have to educate them, you have to lead them in certain times, and you have to back them down. They have to be willing to trust you in your approaches, and they have to understand the program. The fighters don't know any different, and when you're a fighter, all you want to do really is to be told what to do and when to do it.

Obviously, they need to be worried about the fight at hand in their camp, and how they're training, and how they're recovering, and that's our job to educate them on how to do so. So if they can't trust in the program, then that's a big problem. But you have a lot of guys that don't know what the f*ck they're doing and then they end up hurting these guys. A lot of the times, fighters just think they're getting a good workout because they're breathing heavy and they're sore, which is not always the case, obviously.

I see it more in jiu-jitsu where it’s argued you don't really have any kind of separate strength and conditioning program. These are guys who invariably break down over time. I'm wondering, A, how common is that, and B, how bad is that?

So how common is it? I think now we're getting better with this. Brazilian jiu-jitsu guys are probably worse than the MMA guys for sure, just because of the fact that jiu-jitsu has a certain rhythmic approach to what they do, and I don't think that the heavy lifting or the explosive power stuff actually intrigues them. I think more of the core stability, core rotational things, kinesthetic awareness and proprioception is more key to what they want to do, so you will see them do more things like animal workouts, whether they're doing bear crawls and spider walks and things like that.

I honestly believe that ... I don't even like to call myself a strength and conditioning coach half the time because it gets such a negative rap for a lot of people that don't know what they're doing. So being a physical preparation specialist or coach, that's more of what I want to be called, because you're preparing these guys actually, not only go into battle, but to train consistently.

How common is it and how bad is that approach for if you want to compete at the elite level?

Basically what you would be saying is you're getting a workout on top of your training. It's not getting you better performance-wise, because all things have to be assessed. What would make quality proper aerobic capacity, making sure that they're actually getting the right training in strength around their system, as far as specificity goes, but also making sure that they're also recovering as well.

If you workout and then you go ahead and roll for another hour, it might not be beneficial for you as far as programming goes.

I've seen a lot of ego-lifting too. How much of that is a problem?

As far as my guys go, I never really had that problem. A lot of the times, they always want to learn proper mechanics, proper detail to movement, and I make sure that we get the technique down before we even max load them. It's also maximal lifts until I feel like they can withstand that load.

Now, don't get me wrong, when you load somebody, that's when you'll probably see more of a mechanical breakdown, passed 85 percent of one RM (rep max). But if their body is not structurally ready for that load, you're just gonna damage them in the long run, because you'll develop bad motor recruitment and bad motor patterns. As far as my guys go, I've never had that happen, but I have seen sh*t on the internet that's just terrible that I really don't understand. Somebody sent me one of Tony Ferguson doing a trap bar deadlifts, and I was f*cking blown away with whoever put that online for anybody to see.

First of all, you cannot mess up a trap bar deadlift. I don't know how you do that, but obviously he's missing some things, hypertrophy-wise and strength development-wise, to where he's rounding his back like that, and I think that it's either a mobility issue, stability issue, or both. It needs to be stopped because, one, you're giving the fighter a negative feedback to where he thinks he's actually stronger than he is. You can lift 500 pounds, but if you lift 500 pounds with your back rounded and your knees caving in, well obviously, you're not structurally ready for that weight. So, it does need to be stopped.

How many guys like you are at elite gyms?

How many guys? You mean as far as strength and conditioning coaches?

The certification, and not merely that, guys who compete, guys who have done MMA?

That's the thing and I think that that helps me a lot with the situation I'm in. You got football guys, you have soccer guys, hockey guys, baseball guys that are strength and conditioning coaches at these schools or at these gyms, but they've never really fought. You have like Lauren Mandell, they understand the approach. Some of them are smarter than me, don't get me wrong, but when you step into a cage, and you actually physically went through training camps, and you actually went through the training camps and had to cut weight, and had to understand how it feels to be a fighter — I understand what these guys go through on a daily basis, so it helps me from an emotional standpoint, on top of the scientifical approach that I put into the program. This is why I have a unique approach to what I do, where other people are going with the norm because it is fairly new.

Mixed martial arts strength and conditioning is fairly new. I see a lot of things that are too specific in their training, where you'll see guys with dumbbells in their hands, throwing one-twos, and that's actually hurting their joints, but they think that they're using specificity towards the sport, where they're really just hurting their mechanics from their skill coaches.

My role as a coach, I can teach somebody how to do a double-leg or a single-leg or whatever, but we have Olympic wrestling coaches at American Top Team. They’re gonna teach them better than me, and that's not my job description. My job description is to get them physically prepared to go through training and to get them ready for when they go to fight. I think that a lot of times, these coaches, because they don't know the sport, or they never really competed in the sport — they may be fans — they don't understand what needs to be done as far as from a step-by-step approach for a fighter to get them prepared to go into war.

How long before you think it modernizes at a more national or international level? How many years will that take?

I think we're a good five years away. ... And it's hard, because when I got out of school, I went right into mixed martial arts. A lot of guys go into school, and then they'll go to an internship, I'm talking strength coaches. A lot of guys will go from school to an internship and never really get that real-word application or that experience of competing. They may have competed in college or in high school, but I competed on the pro level to where I was doing multiple things like as far as going and doing internships but also training full-time for myself.

I think it's an anomaly where mixed martial arts three years ago wasn't really as mainstream as it is now due to the fact that UFC is blowing up, and then Fox hopped on and all this other stuff, and obviously, the websites like yours. But I think before, strength and conditioning coaches really didn't want anything to do with it because they didn't understand the process of it, and the aerobics systems are so mixed, that there's no real one way to train. They have to understand you just can't sprint these guys, you can't just run them long distance. It's not boxing. You can't just max-effort strength train them, they're not powerlifters. But you can't just be doing functional training on a bosu ball thinking that that's gonna help them either.

Understanding modalities of the sport itself, understanding the aerobic systems, and then integrating them into a full-cycle of training, that's when you gonna get these guys who really understand what they're doing. I think that we have some out there, we some outliers, but as far as the whole industry knowing how it goes like they do with football or like they do with track and field or Olympic weightlifting, we're not there yet at all.

To what extent does caloric restriction affect performance in training and injury in training?

If you don't have proper energy throughout your caloric intake, you're not gonna have the energy to withstand a training session in general. The volume of the training will actually inhibit you from actually doing what you need to do and it helps with technique efficiency because obviously when you're tired and you're fatigued, technique is one of the things that will go. Obviously, when your technique goes down, injury may happen. That's why I believe that you must, you must have adequate amount of calories, and that's why I always say for a fighter, especially now with the weight cuts, they need to be around ... and I know people call me crazy, but 12 to 15 pounds max of your weight. You never want to cut any more than 15 pounds in a weight cut because you will never recover as adequately the next day if you do a 30-pound cut, things like that. You'll never be the person you are in training.

As far as these guys that train a lot, we're talking two or three times a day, they need to have those calories to help them withstand with recovery, and with maximizing their training efficiency. So, yeah, it's definitely important.

Where is the injury crisis and where is it gonna be in five years? Is it gonna be better?

I think it is going to get better. I think it'll decrease. I'm seeing a lot now that guys are seeing the difference between not having to spar 100 percent in the gym anymore. A lot of my guys that I have, a good case would be Dustin Poirier, we definitely drastically brought down his sparing from this last camp and he looked good [at UFC 208]. I think that we're taking more of an approach of being smarter, training more optimally, instead of maximally, and I think that will actually be better within five years, for sure.