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Why Martial Artists Should Do Strength Training

Why Martial Artists Should Do Strength TrainingMany 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.

Comments (5)

5 thoughts on “Why Martial Artists Should Do Strength Training

  1. I was nodding in agreement (though I won’t be giving Frank Medrano a run for his money any time soon — wow) till your last paragraph. Bulky muscle can inhibit movement? Never seen this myself in martial artists; I’ve known big guys who move like cats. I don’t worry about bulking up myself, as women don’t gain a lot of muscle mass without steroids, but even men who have built up muscle (without chemical supplements) seem to be able to maintain speed and dexterity if they keep training those skills. COuld you explain more about the background of your statement, and your reasons? Thanks!

    1. Thank you for your question, Camilla. Just so you know, not all women have the same testosterone levels, so some can indeed bulk up more than others without the use of steroids. Not necessarily as much as guys do, and not usually so much so that it would inhibit movement. There are other reasons why the look of a little extra muscle mass might be undesirable. In the stunt industry, many women are trying to double for super skinny actors, so any noticeable muscle mass can be a detriment to their ability work.

      As for the background of my statement, I have read it in a couple of books, but here is one online reference that points to a source if you would like to check it out: http://www.sport-fitness-advisor.com/flexibility.html. Bulky muscle doesn’t necessarily affect all types of movement, and it is possible to alleviate some of the ROM issues with good stretching practices. And while some forms of strength training can actually improve ROM, it depends on the particular muscle groups. As the article states, overhead tricep stretches, for example, can be challenging for bulky athletes. I’ve seen this to be true for a lot of martial arts moves in the shoulder area, making it easier to tap out bulkier students when applying joint locks. I hope this helps.

  2. Hi Lori,
    First off let me say how impressive I think you are as a martial artist as a whole. Very much enjoyed your book on ground fighting in the self defence sense.

    I am a practitioner of both jj and bjj in Australia, and have spent a good deal of my life resistance training.

    I suppose it has taken me some twenty seven something years from a teen to an adult to learn and relearn many times over that everything is incredibly specific.

    About ten years ago whilst serving in the military I was re-introduced to kettlebell training. I say reintroduced as my father an old school karateka had shown me them when I was young but being young I never really listened and saw their true potential. After all in my young mind it was the barbell that was king and the bench, squat and deadlift were the true measure of power.
    The great training and exercise guru Pavel Tsatsouline put it best “function before form.”

    As you know our ability to perform a movement and do it well has less to do muscle size and more to do with our central nervous system and muscle memory.
    Fedor Emelianenko, a truly amazing fighter who for many years was undefeated yet sported a physique many would not say is that of a fighter.

    There are countless video on Utube and other similar sites all showing the various examples of martial artist overcoming opponents who were relying on brute strength.

    I personally believe a combination of all things is needed when dealing within the realm of fighting; strength, endurance and flexibility.

    As general rule:

    I tend to go through cycles of 6 to 8 weeks at time, on training the above aspects e.g bodyweight training with a weighted vest, kettlebells, resistance bands. However, the golden rule remains the same “function before form.

    I am mindful of what method of training is most appropriate for my body, as I am over the age of 40 and carry many injuries from the past and have what I like to call high mileage joints. My testosterone and Hgh levels are no longer that of a young man, I injure something in training it can take weeks and months, not days to recover.

    I work much more in prehab before training, foam rolling, hockey ball etc for myo fascial release.
    I do more joint mobility exercises, very beneficial when you are training in an art where the other person is trying to bend your joints in ways they are not meant to go.

    Generally, these are strategies are still paying off for me and so I will continue to use them.

    My sensei once gave me an amazing tip on training specifically of which I am yet to try. He would go to the sea and wade in to his waist and practice his various movements all the while battling against the waves and current, doing his utmost to maintain his balance and grounding. As he stated many an onlooker thought him to be a sandwiches sort of picnic but the results speak for themselves.

    1. Hello Issa, thank you for reading and for your kinds words! I really like kettlebell training too, and incorporate them regularly as well as weighted vest and resistance bands. I installed a pull up bar and gym rings which I also really enjoy. Thanks for the tip about the water training. I’ll have to give it a try! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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