Based out of Torrance, California, professional trainer and bodybuilder Mike Saffaie employs his unique brand of physical and mental conditioning in working with some of the top fighters and athletes in MMA today. As a jiu-jitsu brown belt under Rener and Ryron Gracie as well as being dubbed Mr. California in 2013, Mike’s training methodologies and fitness acumen has led him to create highly effective and customized training protocols for professional athletes (including UFC stars Brian Ortega, Carla Esparza, Anderson Silva, and Fabricio Werdum) and weekend warriors alike. The Jiu-Jitsu Times had the opportunity to gain more insight into what has led to his success.
I’ve always been a personal trainer, even as I did jiu-jitsu. I’ve been training people for twenty years. I started body-building in 2011, I decided to go for it and I just loved the idea of training for something. It was fun. Jiu-jitsu, it basically changed my life for many reasons. One specifically was camaraderie, especially meeting Ryron and Rener. They were two people that I truly admired for their lifestyle views more than the art. That’s essentially what kept me coming back. It wasn’t so much the art, it was more so the way these two guys lived their life; straight, clean-cut, honest people.
When I started training jiu-jitsu, I really loved the idea of training for the reason to better my performance. From that I naturally set myself into positions where I’m learning more of a performance type based training system versus how to simply make your muscles bigger.
Mike discusses how he began working with UFC fighters.
I found I had a connection with Anderson Silva and he asked me to train with him after he had broken his leg. We worked together, it wasn’t for any fight camp, it was just to kind of get him strong again. From that, it kind of forced me to look into different sources of training. It was enough that he asked me to be his strength and conditioning coach for his fight against Michael Bisping and I think he performed excellent in that fight.
Carla Esparza, I’ve known her since before she was a fighter. We were actually employees together at Gold’s Gym as trainers. I’ve known her since she used to hang out at the local teen center at the park when she was in high school. At that point I didn’t really have an understanding as to how awesome she was. When we started working together in the gym, you could actually see how this person could perform, at least moving inanimate objects. From that, I just saw how frickin’ bad-*** this girl was. I knew she was different. She was fighting when girl fighters were not allowed to fight on the biggest stage. She was doing it not knowing that she would end up a world champion one day for the UFC. Not that she believed she couldn’t get there on her own, it’s just the way the politics were working out at that time. But she did so, and I believe she can be there again.
Brian [Ortega] and I are actually close friends. Before I would call myself his strength and conditioning coach, I could call Brian a friend. Brian has always been a fighter. He’s been fighting his whole life, whether it be on the street or a sanctioned event. What happened was I introduced him to his boxing coach. From there, together they created what they have now where he is the number one ranked 145-er in the world. It kind of all fell together naturally because the boxing coach has been family friends with myself and my wife since I was 13 years old, so I’ve known them for over 25 years. James Luhrsen, the whole Luhrsen family. They’re a great family. I grew up surfing with them at the same spot. I brought Brian over and Brian and James clicked together and in that little garage created what they have today. That just happened naturally. We’re all friends in this little group, we work together and they like my style.
Fabricio Werdum; I actually met him in Anderson’s gym. We started seeing each other because he was working with a local boxing coach that was training him in that gym as well. Just like any gym, you start seeing people, you say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’, they start seeing your work, and he gave me a shot. He respected my work but even more so my patience as well as the adaptibility to who he is. I didn’t try to show off how good of a trainer I was by making him throw up or breaking him. It was purely about helping him with his performance. The guy is a legend. He like other legends can smell bullshit from a mile away. From that we just kind of organically liked each other on a person to person level. It fell together nicely and we work great together. I look forward to doing more with him in the future.
While there are similarities in how he trains people from professional athletes to average joe’s, there is a clear distinction he makes in his expectations.
My training style is the same in that I adjust to people’s needs. The tools that we might use to fulfill the needs might overlap because you only have so many tools. The expectation of a professional athlete versus somebody just coming in is more so the mindset. The mindset of somebody coming in, you might have to teach them to be a little aggressive at times, versus the athlete that’s already at the highest level where you can skip that part and go straight to the source. I’m not talking about how to explain doing an exercise. Some people do not have the ability to access the truest power within them. That’s very separate from muscle conditioning. It’s a mindset. It’s mental preparation prior to performing a certain activity or circuit or whatever it might be.
I feel like pro athletes, especially in a combative situation, have this sense of aggression within them. The power to me isn’t determined necessarily by what you can move or how fast you can move. It’s the intention behind your movement. It’s this aggressiveness that they have. Coming in as somebody fairly new is different than coming in as somebody already well-versed. That aside, the idea is that you specify your training for that person’s goals but more importantly, their personality. You want to be successful in so many ways but how I determine success is if someone feels confident and wants to continue to come back.
When evaluating new clients, Saffaie has a unique way of gauging their threshold.
In my life I’ve developed this intuitive compass, I call it the bullshit compass, and it’s been fairly accurate in my life. It transcends to so many different aspects of my life. I use it as a tool to train. I’m not necessarily assessing people to look for failure. I’m assessing people to see what they have potential for accomplishing. Some people go well beyond what I even think they can do. When I do train people I tend to run them through an assessment phase, not to so much see what they can accomplish. One of them, for example, is a pull-up test, I want to see how many pull-ups they can do non-stop. In this case, I’m looking obviously to see their form, the physical strengths and weaknesses.
When I explain to them ‘I want you to perform as many pull-ups as you possibly can,’ some people will stop early and say ‘man I think I could’ve done two more.’ Some people are on the bar fighting for two inches more and they don’t stop even though they’re not moving. They’re spitting, they’re grunting, they are relentless to get those last couple inches. That’s the mental assessment. It lets me know the drive and the discomfort tolerance that one has. I tend to believe that people have higher discomfort tolerances than they understand. There are some athletes that are more dynamic than others. There are some athletes that are taller or shorter. There are some athletes that are weaker that need to be stronger or that desire to be stronger. There are athletes that are strong but have different cardiovascular levels. It’s different in the sense that when someone comes in, it just depends on who.
Mike Saffaie currently trains clients out of his private studio at the Gracie University in Torrance. Feel free to contact Mike if you are based out of Southern California and looking to take your training to the next level.
EDITORS NOTE: Mike was stated as a brown belt at press time. In December 2018, he received his black belt from the Gracie Family, three months after the printing of this interview.