Scott Mercier: Training for summer riding in the gym with mixed martial arts

Scott Mercier
Special to The Aspen Times
Scott Mercier
The Aspen Times

Working out in a gym has never been something I really enjoy. I grew up in the mountains, and my playground has always been wide open and wild. I’ve always thought that gym work was for city folk, and that most gym activities just try to replicate what we can do outside in the mountains. However, as I’ve aged, I recognize the importance of gym work for posture, bone structure and physical strength.

Last fall, my son decided that he wanted to try mixed martial arts. This came as a bit of a surprise, because it’s a sport that is foreign to me. When I think of MMA, I think of brutality and violence. I was pretty sure these workouts weren’t for me, but I wanted to do something with my son, so I gave it a try.

Aspen MMA ( is in Willits, less than a mile from our house. It’s owned and operated by Ernest Mendez. Ernest moved to the valley from Dallas 14 years ago. He trained in karate as a kid, but only took up MMA as an adult. He was in Morocco for the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 250-kilometer, ultra-endurance running race, and some of his co-competitors were doing Jiu Jitsu as cross training. He decided to give it a try, as well.

Ernest was drawn to the discipline of the sport and the combination of mindfulness and physicality. A broken back 15 years ago convinced him that he needed to get better body mechanics and core strength. That’s when he started to get serious about Jiu Jitsu and MMA. He is now a master and earned his Jiu Jitsu black belt four years ago. Not only is Ernest a black belt, he’s also an avid mountaineer and has summited Denali and Aconcagua, the highest peaks in North and South America. He’s convinced that MMA training helped him summit each of these mountains.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I took my first MMA sport conditioning class. The first thing that struck me was how nice and welcoming everyone was. People genuinely seemed to like that new people were coming to the class. I figured it would mostly involve a lot of punching and kicking. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Ernest certainly teaches kids and adults how to fight, and the sport conditioning class does involve some kicking and punching, but he starts with the core. He says that people will squat, twist and lunge in nearly every activity of their daily lives and believes that everything originates from the core. He wants his athletes to focus on technique, position and form, and designs the sports conditioning class to complement this theme.

When we got there, Ernest introduced himself and told us to grab some jump ropes. The class this day was small, with four students in total. He set a timer for three minutes. After the rope, we warmed up by running laps around the gym, doing butt kicks and slides, and a bear crawl and crab walk. We then stretched for a few minutes while he set up the stations.

He set up six stations. Each station was designed to enhance strength, agility or speed. We jumped over obstacles, did push-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, man-makers and threw medicine balls. Each station was 60 seconds with a 15 second recovery between sets. We did 10 minutes of this, took a short break, and started again.

Ernest seems like a nice guy — and he’s always smiling and encouraging his athletes, but he doesn’t suffer fools, poor form or half-hearted efforts. By the end of the workout, I was thrashed. I’d worked parts of my body that I’d neglected for years. I hated Ernest at that moment, but also couldn’t wait to come back for more.

I’ve been going for several months now, and the aches and pains follow every workout, but I can feel that I’m getting more agility and strength. Ernest changes the workouts depending on who’s in the class, so they don’t get repetitive and so that you expand your skill set. I’m hoping it leads to better outcomes on the bike this summer, but worst-case scenario, I’ll have made some new friends and gained some overall fitness.

Good riding!

Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works in Aspen and can be reached at


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