Athlete/Celebrity Workouts

Bellator Star Nick Newell Gets Creative With MMA Training

The MMA lightweight trains to move up the Bellator rankings despite being born with one arm.

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Nick-Newell-Bellator-Punching-MMA-FIght
Courtesy of Bellator

Training smarter, not harder has effectively become the mantra for mixed martial arts star Nick Newell since his return from retirement.

The 33-year-old fighter, who was born with congenital amputation of his left arm, took a brief hiatus from the sport in 2015, stepping away to focus on opening his own gym, as well as starting a family

Newell didn’t stay away for long, though; He came back in 2018 and won his first fight via submission. Despite an October loss to Manny Muro via decision, the New England native has been on a bit of a roll since, earning a few more big finishes, plus a spot on Bellator’s roster, all in the hopes of one day headlining a fight card live-streamed on DAZN. Newell credits a renewed focus on recovery for his recent success in the cage.

“Before, I was training and my body couldn’t make it through these camps,” Newell tells Muscle & Fitness. “I was training hard and not smart. Now I train a little bit smarter in my approach.”

These days, Newell tries to give himself ample time to recover between fights, regardless of whether he comes out of a match unscathed.  “Even if you don’t get hurt in the fight, you get hurt in the camps,” Newell says. “It’s all about balance.”

Between fatherhood, opening a gym in his hometown of Milford, CT., and keeping up with his training, balancing life with fighting can get a bit tricky for Newell, who often has to sneak in sessions after a hard night of teaching fighting classes. “For me to really get things done, I have to go the extra mile,” Newell says.

Outside of fight camps, Newell trains twice a day, six days a week, with a 90-minute morning session at 10 a.m. and a two-and-a-half-hour training session at night. His workouts range from grappling and striking practice to sparring, which he amps up when he’s in camp. “It’s the same schedule, I just work harder,” says Newell.

When a fight is on the horizon, Newell gets pickier with his sparring partners and will train extra rounds to work on his cardio and conditioning.

“If I have a three-round fight, I’ll do five five-minute rounds [of sparring] and then some kind of conditioning after,” Newell says.

Another piece of the puzzle to Newell’s training is his work with Matthew Ramos, owner of Ramos Athletic Conditioning Center in Milford, CT. Since 2013, Newell has worked with the strength coach to improve his explosiveness in the cage. The duo team up two to three times a week for workout sessions, focusing on building power instead of conditioning, which Ramos believes Newell gets plenty of from the other aspects of his training.

“All his workouts were designed around strength and power,” says Ramos. “The conditioning component was already being taken care of with regards to what he’s doing with his MMA or grappling coach.”

The main goal for Ramos was to help Newell increase his explosiveness and power without adding too much muscle or weight to his frame. He accomplished this by having Newell perform exercises for low reps of one to six for an average of three to five sets, with plenty of rest in between. Ramos also crafts two- to three-week “mini cycles,” varying regimens based on Newell’s progression and feedback and utilizing all kinds of workouts, including jump training, plyometrics, Olympic lifting, and more. 

While Ramos has worked with everyone from professional athletes to first responders, training Newell proved to be a unique challenge due to the fighter’s congenital amputation. 

“It was a little bit of a struggle at first,” Ramos says, noting how they had to alter exercises to meet Newell’s needs. “But if anything it reinforced the scientific method and the love I have for training.”

Ramos would often rely on bands to create resistance for Newell, or utilize special equipment like a safety squat yoke bar when a regular squat bar wouldn’t work. Other modifications include using levelers to keep Newell even while doing push-ups, as well as chains to add weight. For exercises like dumbbell incline bench presses, Ramos would use a towel to mimic the resistance on Newell’s side that couldn’t hold a weight.

“I had to get clever,” Ramos says. “All we did was just get a shirt or a piece of cloth and I had to hold that cloth so that he would have the same stimulation on that arm as he does on his right arm.”

Taking a page out of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book, the aim was to create tension in Newell’s muscles so he could maximize the quality of each exercise.

“I had to really instill in Nick the ability to create tension before he did any of his movements,” Ramos says. “Without it, he would just be going through the motions.” 

“At the end of the day, I’m a martial artist first, so I take my training serious,” says Newell. “It’s a lifetime commitment aside from being a fighter.” 

Train Like Newell:

The following workout is taken from one of Newell’s early weeks in camp prior to one of his fights. This workout focuses on speed and strength in which Newell will move a percentage of his max weight as fast as possible. 

Day 1 

Complete as a circuit, resting two minutes between sets.* 

1A. Single-arm DB Incline Press: 4 sets of 6 reps (each arm)1B. Tire Push: 4 sets of 10 reps1C. Inverted Row on suspension trainer: 4 sets of 6 reps1D. Band Pull-Apart: 4 sets of 25 reps*Ramos says Newell uses a towel at times to create necessary resistance when training his left arm. 

Complete as a circuit, resting 3-5 minutes between sets.

2A. Quarter Turn Box Jump: 4 sets of 4 reps (each side)2B. Banded Explosive Lateral Shuffle Step: 4 sets of 6 steps (each direction)2C. Rotational Medicine Ball Throw (from hip): 4 sets of 5 reps (each side)

Complete as a circuit, resting two minutes between sets.

3A. Isometric Bulgarian Split Squat: 10-20 second hold each leg at lowest point in squat depth.3B. Leg Curl (on sliders): 6 reps (Nick adds chains to increase difficulty)3C. Weighted Cossack Squats: 8 reps each side (Nick uses a weight vest to add weight)3D. Kneeling Banded Pallof Press: while resisting rotation Nick draws out the entire alphabet before switching to the other side.

Day 2

Complete each exercise as circuit, resting three minutes between sets.

1A. Banded KB Swing: 4 sets of 6 reps1B. Knee Jump to Broad Jump: 4 sets of 2 reps

Complete each exercise as circuit, resting three minutes between sets.

2A. Single-arm DB Snatch: 4 sets of 5 reps2B. Depth Jump into Backward Overhead Med Ball Throw: 4 sets of 3 reps

Complete each exercise as circuit, resting two minutes between sets.

3A. Dynamic Box Squat (with bands)**: 5 sets of 3 reps (using 50-60% of max)3B. Banded Face Pull: 5 sets of 12 reps**Ramos has Newell use a safety squat bar. Its design allows the bar to sit well on Newell’s shoulders so he can focus on his core and legs worry-free.  Complete each exercise as circuit, resting two minutes between sets.

4A. Pushup: 12-15 reps4B. Chinup:  8-10 reps4C. Manual-resistance Shoulder Raise (front, side, rear)***: 8-10 reps (each)4D. Hanging Knee Raise: 10-12 reps4E. Glute-Ham Raise Isometric Back Extension***: 10-20 seconds. ***While Newell holds the isometric contraction, Ramos applies resistance by pushing and trying to twist him. 

Sport-Specific Conditioning Day

This is one of Newell’s final, major workouts before a fight, mimicking as close as possible an actual fight. He’ll go through this five-minute circuit for three to five rounds.

Ramos says there will be some time lost due to transitioning from one exercise to the other but there is never a moment when he isn’t working during each circuit. First minute: Battle Rope*

  • Alternate Slam (20 seconds)
  • In and Out Wave (20 seconds)
  • Grappler Slam (20 seconds) 
    • Ramos ties a band to Newell’s arm for this move.  

Second minute: 

  • Prowler Push: 40 yards
  • Tire Flips: 8 flips 

Third Minute: (15 yards each)

  • Sled Drag (from plank position with thick rope)
  • Plank Crawls (on sliders) 
  • Knee Raises (on sliders) 
  • Pikes (on sliders) 

Fourth Minute: 

  • Tire Battle Pushes: 10 reps
  • Reactive Med Ball Throw: 6 reps (each way)
  • Ground & Pound (with punching bag): 10 seconds

5th Minute: Farmers Walk (using band with 40-pound)

  • In Front Rack position (20 seconds)
  • Over left shoulder (20 seconds)
  • Over right shoulder (20 seconds)

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