Many years ago, I came to believe that strength training was detrimental to being a good martial artist, or at least for the type of self-defense oriented training I do, that relies on technique in order to overcome bigger, stronger attackers. The reasoning I had in my mind was that putting too much emphasis on improving strength meant that you would be more inclined to rely on that strength to perform techniques. Honestly speaking, that was really just an excuse, as I didn’t particularly enjoy strength training. I still don’t, but I now realize it’s an important form of exercise that should be a part of every martial artist’s training regimen.
There are many benefits to strength training for martial artists, a few of which might surprise you.
1. Injury Prevention. Strengthening the muscles surrounding your joints and spine helps support them if something goes wrong when performing a technique, or when sparring, grappling, etc. That little extra support in the right places can mean the difference between an injury that takes you out of training for weeks and being able to simply walk away with a close call. I know I’ve had that happen to me numerous times.
2. Training Longevity. This one has become increasingly important as I’ve entered my late 30s. I’ve read plenty of articles and books saying that as the body ages, it becomes more important to do resistance training in order to keep the body functioning optimally as we age. As we age, we start lose strength, mass, and bone density, and become more prone to physical issues such as arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, back pain, etc. A regular strength training regimen helps prevent all these things and helps us keep enjoying the physical activities we’ve enjoyed all our lives. And the earlier you take it up, the easier it is to maintain throughout your life.
3. Improved Body Awareness. Good technique in the martial arts involves a good understanding of body structure, postural alignment, and bio-mechanics. Good resistance training helps improve your body awareness thereby improving your understanding of all these things. When you use free weights properly, you learn to line up your structure so that your body supports you and so that you engage the correct musculature. There are also different types of dynamic movements that exercise multiple muscle groups requiring good postural alignment and the use of bio-mechanics that are similar to ones we use in the martial arts. Some examples such types of training include kettlebell, fitness ball, medicine ball, gym rings, etc. Isometric exercises, like planks, handstands, or even holding a low stance or a kick out at its extended position, are also great for learning postural alignment and excellent for improving your awareness of body structure.
4. Better Endurance. We all know that when we get tired, we are more likely to lapse in our technique and not just for physical reasons. A fatigued body usually also leads to a fatigued mind, so we also experience lapses in focus and awareness. So when we do prolonged training sessions, especially ones in which we’re pushing ourselves hard, having better endurance can help keep us performing our best. This really comes in handy for long belt tests as well.
5. Mental Fortitude. As much as I hate the feeling of physical and mental strain that it takes to get through those last few reps after I’ve increased my resistance on an exercise, I do see the benefits of overcoming it. It takes mental fortitude to push your limits at those times. Heck, it also takes mental fortitude to just get down to it and start a strength training session on a day when you really don’t feel like doing it, and to keep doing it over the long term. Mental fortitude is what keeps you fighting even when the chips are down, to keep trying to make the best of your skills, but also to accept defeats as personal challenges to keep improving. I know students can get this through their martial arts training, but for myself, it isn’t always enough. I’ve been training in the martial arts for a long time, so much so that even when I push myself outside my comfort zone in them, I don’t mentally feel uncomfortable. Not like I did when I first started anyway. Strength training is one other way I can keep myself truly “uncomfortable.”
Students often ask me what kind of strength training they should do. While I’ve given a few examples within this article, there are many ways a martial artist can do it effectively. As a general rule, I suggest forms of resistance training that give you strength gains without bulking up. Bulky muscle can inhibit movement and as martial artists we want to avoid this. Personally, I think the strength training approach Frank Medrano takes is a good one for martial artists (I use a similar approach). Check out the video below for inspiration.
Now over to you. Do you complement your martial arts training with strength training? If so, how have you found it beneficial to you as a martial artist? Please share your thoughts in the comments.