Top 5 Cross-training Activities for Martial Artists

As an instructor, I’m often asked what types of exercise I recommend outside of our classes for cross-training. If you’re looking for a complementary cross-training activity, it’s important to choose something that helps develop the type of body that allows for the style of movement you’re trying to develop as a martial artist. Here is my list of 5 activities that I recommend to my students:

1. Rock/Wall Climbing.
Climbing is an excellent activity for martial artists because you use the entire body to do it. It tones the body without bulking up and develops muscular endurance. It can also help develop flexibility, depending on your climbing technique. Furthermore, it involves a great deal of technique in order to be an efficient climber, a principle martial artists should become very familiar with the longer they train. It’s also great for developing a strong grip, which is important for grapplers. Whether you do it on an actual rock face or at a climbing gym, you’ll get these benefits. I like to go climbing outdoors in Squamish (see below) in the summer and wall climbing in the winter.

2. Yoga. Like climbing, yoga tones the whole body. It tends to be a lower impact activity with strong emphasis on stretching, making it a good recovery exercise for the day after a particularly hard workout. It’s also great for increasing overall flexibility, which is important for injury prevention. What’s nice about yoga, is that it’s easy to fit into your daily training regimen. I have a couple of series’ of 20-minute workouts on DVD (including Am Yoga for Your Week – DVD) that I use every weekday when I get up in the morning. If you’ve never done it before, it’s a good idea to also take classes so you develop proper technique.

3. Running and/or Skipping.
As a martial artist, it’s important to have good cardio. Aerobic exercise is important when prepping for belt tests to keep you performing strong even toward the end of the test. Anaerobic exercise is important for high intensity activities over the short term, like sparring, grappling, training circles, or for the potentially high intensity situation of a real self-defense situation. Both running and skipping are great forms of cardio training. Running can be adapted in different ways too like interval running (switching between regular running and sprinting), running up hills or stairs to develop leg strength, etc. Many people don’t think they can run, believing it to be too hard on their particular body. Unless you have some sort of injury that prevents it, everyone can run. You just have to start slow and work the body up to it. Start by walking more than running. Start by walking 4.5 minutes and running half a minute, repeating this for 30 minutes. Then, every time you go to run, increase the running and reduce the walking in each interval by 30 seconds until eventually you’re running the full 30 minutes. Skipping is good for cardio training and also develops timing and coordination. You can also do interval training by adding in double skipping into your routine. See the video below for an example of double skipping.

4. Strength Training that Uses Core Muscles & Stabilizers. This includes pilates, fitness ball, kettle bell, medicine ball, and many types of isometric exercise. Many people want to do a form of strength training in addition to their martial arts training, but most people think only of weights. Weights, the way they are traditionally used, focus more on the “mover” muscles, the ones that propel you, but don’t do as much for the “stabilizer” muscles, which hold your parts in place and prevent you from being damaged while the movers are moving you. The stabilizers are very important for martial artists to protect you, especially when doing explosive movements. Developing your core usually goes hand in hand with your stabilizers because your core (abs and lower back muscles) stabilizes your centre body. A lot of important movements come from the core in the martial arts, so it’s important to develop your core strength.

5. Dancing. This may seem like a strange choice, but some of the finest martial artists I’ve trained came to it with a background in dancing. Dancing teaches coordination, timing, choreography and body awareness. Couple dancing forms like swing or salsa give you the added benefit of learning to coordinate body movements with someone else’s movements, which is a great skill to develop for things like throwing. You may laugh or have trouble seeing the relevance, but the skills you learn in dancing have a lot of cross-over into the martial arts.

These are my top recommendations but I’d love to hear what other people do or recommend though in the comments for this post. 🙂

Comments (13)

13 thoughts on “Top 5 Cross-training Activities for Martial Artists

  1. I've heard that dancing is also excellent for footwork, and it's something that I'd like to take up, partly because I can't dance…

    Gymnastics is another thing I've heard can be effective, though that might provide the same benefits as strengthening the core.

    Excellent post 🙂

  2. Endurance sports are most relevant to martial artists: running, cycling, swimming. You really should do one of these three or any combination on a regular basis. Endurance is more important than strength since there’s only so much you can improve upon given your body type, genes, age… and since the opponent will likely be bigger & stronger (or have a weapon which makes strength completely redundant) it’s technique, spirit & training that will carry you through anyway. Once you have reached a certain level of endurance you should switch to interval training since this simulates the cadence and bursts of activity in a fight. If you want to do something extra simple calisthenes are fine and won’t cost you anything but a little time: press-ups, crunches & squats will develop your core muscles and will build functional strength without blowing up the muscles and slowing you down. There’s no need to get an expensive gym subscription: just devote 15 to 20 minutes of your day to this and you’ll see results within weeks. Do rest every other day to heal up. This is a site I can highly recommend (free too): It’ll provide you with a schedule to follow that actually give you a good chance to reach the 100 mark, provided you’re willing to stick to it. There are also versions for sit-ups, squats and, hopefully soon, pull-ups. In the army physical training consists mostly of running, marching & calisthenes and since they’d have easy access to top notch equipment one can only presume these must be the best exercises to develop a well rounded athlete who’s quick, limber, strong and can endure long marches and the stress of combat. Other than that I’d recommend to train your martial art on your own: even if you just practice your punches or stances in front of a mirror it trains the muscles and it’ll greatly improve your learning curve and technique. What I like to do since I’m not very limber is to practice slow, 4 count kicks to improve flexibility: knee up as high as you can, push out and keep it there for a second or so, slowly pull the leg back in (knee up, don’t slacken off) and slowly put it back down again. 20 of these on each leg and you’ll feel the burn, usually I’ll pick two kick types (e.g roundhouse & front kick) and do 10 slow ones followed by 10 fast for each kick and each leg.

    I see why you’d include yoga since flexibility is an important attribute for this type of activity but as a man I don’t see myself enrolling in any classes anytime soon. Then again it might be a good way to meet some hot women so perhaps I should consider it. Rock climbing is great for anyone who practices grappling (judo, jujutsu, mma, sambo) since it develops a very strong grip. Skipping makes you light on your feet and will build explosiveness, no wonder it’s a staple exercise in boxing training. Highly recommended. I’m not much of a dancer and I’ll only dance when I’m fairly drunk but I have been told it looks like I’m shadowboxing only without punches & kicks. Perhaps that’s the reason why I’m not often approached by girls although I’m a fairly nice guy and I never go looking for trouble. Music is a great training aid to develop rhythm and synchronize movement: in a genuine thaiboxing match there will always be fight music to spur the fighters on and accentuate cadence, in kali we often practice with the sound of drums in the background to help with technique, especially the half beats.

    In any case I’d warn against overtraining and doing sports that are too similar since you’ll likely push the same muscle groups too hard leading to stiffness and an increased risk of injury.

  3. I read somewhere Bruce Lee was an accomplished dancer (cha cha cha if I'm not mistaken) and he's known as one of the best martial artists the world has ever seen. Don't know if dancing actually made him a better fighter but he certainly moved with great ease and grace. Another great supplement would be fencing since it teaches to close fast and deflect and counterattack at the same time, fencing was one of the main influences on JKD for this very reason. I'm surprised you didn't mention it since you're an accomplished fencer yourself.

    Personally I'm not too keen on cross training outside of the martial arts (at least not in this stage of my development since there's still so much to learn) and I'd rather spend more time training and researching other systems. I do run from time to time (not very good at it at the moment but I suppose I'll get better with time), I fixed my bike so I can get some exercise going about my daily business. I'm also planning on swimming more often: I enjoy the freedom the water offers and it doubles as both strength and endurance training. Swimmers are beautifully developped athletes and you're not likely to get injured through impact on the knee or ankle as in running. I do try to run as much as I can on soft ground but I keep getting shin splits which hurt like hell, especially when practicing lowkicks on the bag or against thai pads.

    In any case I really need to work on my endurance, last time on the mats my sensei really put me through the works (3×3 minutes of continious work on the pads, full out, and another 2×3 minutes doing ground sparring) and about halfway through I was completely beat. He wasn't very happy about that and rightly so. Man, I really need to quit drinking so much… getting hammered after training is a waste and it's killing my stamina.

    If I can find the time I'd like to do some squash once in a while since it's fun and it develops good reactions.

    Thanks for the suggestions,


  4. It's good to read here, on a reputable martial arts blog, that dancing is considered a good cross-training activity.

    I've been unsure of it ever since I signed up for a ballroom dancing course that starts in September, but this helps calm my doubts.

    Excellent post, as always. I always love reading your blog, I look forward to when a new post pops up in the RSS feed.

  5. Thanks for all the great additional suggestions everyone.

    Gymnastics is great too. It has many of the same benefits of dancing and builds strength and flexibility too.

    I really like swimming and biking too, especially for injury recovery. Swimming is low impact on the body and biking is highly recommended for knee injury recovery.

    I didn't recommend fencing because it's almost too similar as an exercise and may cause body confusion for people who are still new to the martial arts.

    I'm a big fan of circuit training doing skipping, pad work and/or bag work as a form of endurance training too, as was favoured by some of you.

    Miriam, I was once convinced by an old boyfriend who was also a Karate black belt to try ballroom dancing. I didn't think I would get into it, but surprised myself. I did it for about 1.5 years and I could definitely see the cross-over. My favourite was swing dancing. I enjoyed the acrobatic nature of it. I hope you enjoy your experience!

  6. Climbing in the outdoors must be cool but I'll bet it's a good idea to take some lessons first. You're lucky you live in such beautiful surroundings: real mountains as well as easy access to the sea. Over here we have nothing but hills and the coast is a two hour drive. It does make for some interesting cycling though. After all Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist of all times is a Belgian.

    Out of curiosity Lori: just how many hours (on average) do you spend each week on sports, MA-training and teaching? You seem to be in great shape and you do practice a lot of different sports. I wonder where you find the time.



  7. Yes, it's a good idea to take lessons first. Climbing gyms are pretty good for that. And it's a good idea to go outdoors with someone experienced for the first little while too.

    As for my physical regimen, it is as follows: I usually teach 3-4 classes a week and train 1-2 classes per week. Each class is 1.5 hours long. I also try to focus on my own training at our Sunday open training sessions every other week. I do five 20-min yoga sessions a week on weekday mornings. I usually go for a 20-min. walk/hike (with some uphill terrain) once or twice a week. Right now, I'm go out fencing once a week for two hours. And I try to get out climbing every other week or so for a few hours.

    I'm able to fit all these things in because my "job" outside of the dojo is contract based and I work from home. I don't work a typical full-time job and it's flexible enough to allow for a fairly dynamic lifestyle. 🙂

  8. Oh I forgot to mention. I also try to throw in a few skipping workouts (around 10 minutes each) between or before classes. Lately I've only been really doing it once a week though.

  9. Excellent post1 What I really love about it is that everything you recommend is outside of martial arts!

    That illustrates your openness to learn and glean knowledge from any source. I often find people are unwilling to think like this, too stuck in their box.

    Yoga, skipping, pilates are all great. I don't climb but it looks good.

    I think all the strength stuff can be gleaned from Yoga, if it's done right. And if not if you Tabata up some exercises you can cover a lot of strength and cardio in the same workout.

    great post. I really enjoy this blog, but rarely visit. I shall endeavour to pop over more often.

  10. Thanks for stopping by Jon! I only recommended stuff that wasn't martial arts because I don't really think of it as being true cross training if it's just training in a different martial art. Besides, everyone needs a break from the martial arts so they can come back at it with fresh eyes. Even me who is at a dojo or my dojo training 6-7 days a week. I sometimes wish I had more time for cross-training. I gotta work on that… 😉

  11. Lori Sensei,
    Wanted to know your thoughts on cross training for Aikido. Ballroom Dancing seems to have similarities to the art however which one would you recommend between yoga or climbing as a compliment to Aikido.
    Skipping rope is very important and great for being light on one’s feet.
    Thanks for sharing and hard work.

    1. Thank you for commenting, William. I would suggest alternating between the two different activities if you like both of them. However, if you had to choose only one, yoga is probably a bit better rounded. You could vary between doing power yoga for strength training and hatha/yin yoga for body recovery. Climbing is fun, and a great strength training workout, but isn’t as complete a form of physical training as yoga is. Maybe try doing yoga on 1-2x a week and throw in an occasional visit to a climbing wall to mix things up. Good luck! 🙂

  12. Sensei Lori,
    What do you think a wing chun practitioner could use as a supplement to cross training?
    The five choices you named are great but just wanting to know the recommendations for a striking art as wing chun.

    Will Gonzales

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