How two UFC fighters use technology to gain an edge in the octagon

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Wednesday June 28th, 2017

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NEW YORK — In an unassuming white house sandwiched between a row of strip malls in Staten Island, a 2,000-foot state-of-the-art facility is churning elite athletes into powerhouse pros.  

Four weeks after flattening Diego Sanchez in 98 seconds, professional UFC fighter Al Iaquinta is back to his regular regimen at the NY Sports Science Lab, training for his next fight.

The fighter, who has become known for publicly calling out his rivals in enraging posts on Twitter, travels more than an hour three days a week from Long Island to work with top-notch trainers, doctors, engineers and scientists at NY Sports Science Lab who are all considered experts in the field of using technology to enhance human performance.

This isn’t any old training facility. None of the trainers here are giving him tips on technique. Instead, they’re working out his brain in an effort to improve his reaction time in the UFC Octagon to give him an edge over competitors. There aren’t many other places right now that have all of these cognitive machines under one roof, according to Dr. John Piazza, the lab’s founder.

Iaquinta attributes much of his success in flattening Sanchez in the first round on April 23 to his 40 days of training at the lab prior to the fight.

“It’s the future of training,” Iaquinta said in an interview with SportTechie. “The technology that they’re using here is giving me such a great advantage. I feel like I’m ahead of the curve and ahead of everybody else in the sport.”

The Lab

Iaquinta’s success at the lab has started to lure other fighters and pro athletes. Former UFC middleweight champ Chris Weidman recently started training there as well.

When SportTechie visited the NY Sports Science Lab at the end of May, both athletes were there training on various high-tech machines that are designed to improve their reaction times and zero-in on certain muscle groups that are key to their success during fights.

The lab’s owners—Dr. John Piazza and his wife, Susan Piazza, who also own the NY Chiropractic & Physical Therapy office in another white unassuming house next door—treat them like family. Mr. Piazza orders a healthy grilled chicken meal from a nearby restaurant to feed them and their trainers near the end of the session. He even offers assistance by taking Iaquinta’s shattered iPhone screen to a nearby vendor to get a quote on how much it would cost to fix.

The owners’ hospitality is just a perk, though. The real reason Iaquinta, Weidman and a number of other pro-level track stars, basketball players, football players and baseball players come to the facility is for its all-star team of sports scientists and equipment. 

The team is led by sports physiotherapist and lab manager Rushi Shahiwala, biomechanics specialists and sports scientists Juan Delgado and Michael Greene, and athletic trainer Matt Reicher, who formally trained athletes as the New York Red Bulls and Brooklyn Nets. Strength and conditioning coach Richard James represented Jamaica in the 4×4 relay for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece and trained alongside 11-time world champion Usain Bolt.

On any given day, athletes that visit the NY Sports Science Lab are taken through a personalized regimen that includes visual stimulation and biomechanical testing.

Electrodes and sensors may be strapped to their heads, chests and arms, reading and tracking even the most subtle twitches of their muscles and providing a 3D rendering of their bodies to get a more exact understanding of their movements.

A neuropriming device, manufactured by a company called Halo Neuroscience, may be placed on their heads like a pair of Beats headphones, poking at their skulls with prods to excite the motor cortex, helping to ensure neurons are firing at full capacity.

A day with Iaquinta and Weidman

When Iaquinta and Weidman first get started, they strap on a Halo Sport headset and roll out their leg muscles on a Hyperice vibrating roller.

They then hop on over to an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill, which has a large plastic bubble that they wrap around their waist like a skirt. It then fills with air to ease the pressure on their legs during impact to help prevent injury.  

While running, they breathe through a mask around their face that shoots out oxygen at reduced levels to mimic high-altitude conditions, as if they’re running at 8,400 feet. On the screen in front of them, real-time data displays things such as stride length and how much weight they’ve placed on the ground as they push off with each foot.

Afterward, both Iaquinta and Weidman undergo isoinertial training, which is a type of strength training and endurance workout using a flywheel attached to long cables that helps to isolate muscles by using the athlete’s own force to create resistance.

Since the workouts are customized to each athlete’s specialization, both of the UFC fighters pull on the machines as though they’re throwing slow-motion punches, flexing their biceps for blocks, or side-stepping around the Octagon. They then kick and punch a board, chasing disappearing and reappearing targets that have sensors inside them that are able to provide immediate feedback about their accuracy. 

Later, on the second-story of the center, they stand in front of a large flat screen in a dimly-lit room and work on expediting their reaction times. In this activity, a bunch of green and red lights light up and disappear in rapid succession, and the athletes must quickly tap the green ones while avoiding the red ones—Whack-A-Mole style.

This exercise, whispers Delgado to me as Weidman is practicing, creates auditory, visual and kinetic stimulus.

“They have to be aware of where they are in the octagon,” Delgado explained. “Blocking and attacking are two multi-tasking movements—and they have to have faster reaction times.”

In some more advanced levels, the men wear special eyewear that either blink or block out one of their eyes to disrupt their concentration while they’re chasing the blinking lights.

In yet another layer of complexity, Delgado adds headphones, which prompt them to tap their side with their right hand as a beep in their ear goes off sporadically, while still chasing down the blinking lights with blocked sight.

“When in the Octagon, there are a lot of lights, so this stimulates different situations,” he said. “What if they get hit in the eyes? They might not be open, so this stimulates twitching of the eyes.”

It’s all about downloading their information and reprogramming their bodies to make them better, faster and more aware athletes, said Shahiwala, who helped create the lab alongside the Piazzas.

At end the day, both athletes are taken next door to the NY Chiropractic & Physical Therapy office to get massages. Afterward, Iaquinta steps into a cryotherapy machine, where dry air temperatures dip to as low as minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit and his body temperature dips as low as 30 degrees. The machine helps to rebuild muscle tissue torn during workouts, making for faster recoveries and less sore muscles.

“It’s like steroids for athletes,” one trainer said of the lab later, with a laugh. “But legal.”

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