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The MMA Altitude Mask…An Exercise In Futility?

The MMA Altitude Mask…An Exercise In Futility?

So lately I’ve been seeing these altitude masks floating around with some of the Crossfitters and Jiu Jitsu guys both on the internet and in the MMA school I do part of my training program out of and I’ve been getting some questions about this very strange looking device from some of my students.

I mean in the fitness industry this day and age there is always that latest and greatest thing that hits the market and bubbles up to the top of the interest charts for a certain group of people that think there is a need for it. The elevation…or altitude training mask is no different…or is it? Well let’s just take a closer look to see for ourselves! 

What Is Altitude Training All About? 

Well for starters let’s explain what the purpose of what altitude training is in the first place before moving on to examine the altitude training mask itself. Altitude training has been traditionally practiced by endurance athletes who seek to train their bodies to adapt to the relative lack of oxygen at a higher elevation versus what is found at sea level.

The idea is that their body will adapt to the relative lack of oxygen by increasing the concentration of red blood cells thus giving them a competitive advantage when it comes to performing in their sport. Training protocols vary and many of these athletes that engage in this strategy are generally found at training elevations between 5000 and 8000 ft. above sea level.

Ok, so let’s inject a little Sherlock Holmes logic and science onto this investigation shall we? When looking at this there are essentially 4 scenarios that we can examine in terms varying elevations with the respective trainees. You can have a trainee that lives high trains low, lives low trains high, lives high trains high, and lives low trains low. Ok just let those scenarios all sink in for a second.

The point is that athletes can live and perform in different locations and at different elevations. Assuming this I only want to focus on the first 2 scenarios I mentioned in this list (lives high trains low, lives low trains high) because they offer the scenarios related to opposing living and training elevations. Concerning the comparison to this device (the altitude mask) these 2 scenarios are most relevant to examine here. 

Now the interesting fact about this is that the oxygen density/concentration in these environments is what will determine the outcome of this discussion. At sea level you’re looking at an oxygen density of about 20.9%. At higher altitudes for training you will get a decrease to about 15.9% which can also be found in simulated environments such as “high altitude houses” which have been scientifically proven to increase red blood cell concentrations with certain athletes.

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Now one may think that the obvious thing to do in altitude training is to take advantage of it by training at high altitudes (which is defined as being around 5000 ft above sea level), right? I mean duh!

However it’s the opposite of what you are thinking. One principle that has been considered for optimizing this is for the athlete to live high and train low. In this scenario the athlete lives at the higher altitude to obtain the physiological adaptations of increased red blood cells, Erythropoietin (EPO), and the opportunity for an increased VO2 max. Here’s a good video to clarify this scenario a bit further.

Ah Ha! So the reason behind living at high altitudes, but training at low altitudes (sea level) is because of the oxygen difference itself in training. Because of the deficit of oxygen at a higher elevation the athlete can’t perform at the desired training intensity because of the lower density of oxygen in the air! So now we’re onto something my dear Watson!

The point is that it requires you “living” at a higher altitude in order to acquire the benefits in adaptation and then training at a lower elevation to demonstrate those benefits in a performance scenario. The mask is not mimicking “living” at a higher elevation…rather only training at higher elevation which in and of itself is restrictive in terms of your performance due to the lack of oxygen concentration at higher elevations.

So Where Does The MMA Altitude Training Mask Fit In?

Well I would say that aside from you trying to do your favorite impression of Bane the MMA mask is just an exercise in futility after all. Yes, it’s pointless unless you just enjoy being suffocated during training and you don’t need a mask to do that.

I mean look at what we know. The MMA mask doesn’t regulate the percent of oxygen concentration in the air we breathe. Even though you are breathing in with less air you are still breathing in the same percentage of oxygen concentration relative to the air you get through the restricted air flow of the MMA training mask. I know I know…Don’t pass out!

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Ok you’re still not convinced? Well how about this? Let’s look at this in terms of specificity of training. Addressing specificity alone would eliminate the use of the MMA altitude mask without all of the other considerations I’ve presented up to this point.

So what do you mean Coach? What I mean is that let’s look at the specificity of the energy systems required to perform in an MMA bout. By the way I clarify those energy systems right here!

As you can see the point of the energy systems is that up to the end of the glycolytic system which is from the 2 to 3 minute mark you are predominately more anaerobic in your  training anyways. Wait a minute what was that word again? Anaerobic? Yes, anaerobic meaning that you are WITHOUT oxygen!

Wait a minute though coach so if I’m fighting a round in the ring and out of breath then would that predominately eliminate the need for an MMA mask? My dear Watson you have caught on my friend. It’s just a simple application of science and common sense.

I know what you’re thinking though, but Coach an MMA round last up to 5 minutes and the oxidative system starts around the 3 minute mark and goes up from there! Yes, you are right. However you know as well as I do that an MMA round is NOT a steady state level bout of physical exertion.

It consists of many moments of high anaerobic intensity followed by moments of lower intensity. There is oxidative activity , but there is no way in hell I would have my students train for a fight by SOLELY going out for a jog for CARDIO. Do you see what I mean now? It’s an entirely different level of conditioning.

Also remember how I described altitude training in the beginning of this post? It has traditionally been used by ENDURANCE athletes. This is because endurance athletes are predominately aerobically trained, NOT anaerobically trained like an MMA fighter. Therefore the altitude training factor for the MMA fighter, especially with a suffocating Bane looking mask, is really better served as a Halloween mask in my opinion.

If you are wanting to get a REAL edge and outperform your competition then get a head start by getting yourself a copy of my Brandon Richey’s Unconventional Conventional Method Of Strength ebook right here!


What did you think of today’s post? I’d love to hear from you. Make sure you leave your questions and comments in the comment box below this article. Remember that most anyone can train hard, but only the best train smart my friend.

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I'm a Certified Strength And Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and author. I have had over 17 years experience in MMA fitness, strength and conditoning, and athletic performance for most every sport. As an author and specialist I've written close to a million words on fitness and strength. I'm also a Muay Thai practictioner and enjoy helping others to reach their peak potential through fitness and performance.

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