Strength Training for Martial Arts

Strength Training for Martial ArtsThis is something that isn’t really discussed in your traditional Dojo, but strength and conditioning is definitely more frequently practiced in mixed martial arts. In fact, in traditional martial arts, strength training is highly discouraged. I find this pretty interesting, considering that the most famous martial artist of all time, Bruce Lee, was an avid fan of lifting. One of the major arguments against it is that lifting weights makes you slow. And there’s no argument that it can. But strength training in martial arts can also make you faster, more explosive, and more agile if you know what you’re doing. In this article I’ll address the most common myth and misconception about strength training for martial arts. Given my background in striking from Kickboxing and Taekwondo, I’ll address training from the angle of explosive power, as opposed to the sustained strength required for grappling.

The big objection that most people have to strength training in martial arts is that weights make you slow – Ok, so this is kinda true… If you’re lifting like a bodybuilder 5 days a week. If you are doing a typical split of Chest and shoulders day, Back and Bi’s, Leg day, etc. where you pick one muscle group and just hammer it with 8-10 sets of high volume, then yes, your body is going to build up a lot of lactic acid, creating a hypertrophy response that will inflate your muscles, and leave you sore for days. But there’s a difference between training for size and training for strength. There was a mantra going around for a while that higher weights builds size, higher reps make you lean. In fact it’s the other way around. You see the slowness portion comes from two major factors: soreness, and additional mass. However, this is something that usually results in working within the 8-12 rep range, and also creating a very acidic nature in the body. However, if you train in lower rep ranges, working at 80% of your 1 rep-max, you can increase strength significantly, which will carry over to increased power and increasing the damage you can do with your strikes.

Here’s the difference between the two training modalities: When doing high reps, you are essentially tearing muscle fibers with each rep that you do. Bodybuilders do this on purpose because when you damage tissue in your body, the response is to create more of those tissues to support what you’re going through and handle the additional stress. This allows your body to endure more trauma without reaching a point of total failure. Also, when you’ve depleted the natural energy stores (Glycogen), your muscles get flooded with lactic acid, which creates the burning feeling when you really get in that zone. That contributes to the soreness, tightness, and ultimately size. The soreness phase is when your body is trying to rebuild the damaged muscle so that you can come back stronger and can handle more load.

On the opposite side, training in the 3-6 rep range, your ability to operate in this range is dependent on a different resource. This means that you can only push up 3-6 reps of the weight you’re using. Instead of using a few muscle fibers at a time until you have none left, what lifting heavy weights for low reps does, is force your body to use all available muscle fibers. This is done by actually strengthening the neural pathways between the Central Nervous System and the muscles. So you aren’t actually building more muscle, but you’re increasing your body’s ability to use the muscle you already have! It’s just dormant because your body likes efficiency, and if you don’t need it, your brain won’t activate it. Heavy strength training builds that brain/body connection and maximizes your potential.

What does this mean for you as a martial artist? Well we already work hard to build that brain/body connection, but this helps to further that. That means that in every punch, kick, and strike, we’re putting more of our body into the movement. We’re taught to do this from the start, so why not wake up every muscle fiber to maximize our power? After all, power is a factor of force x speed. A higher strength threshold means that you move the same amount of weight (your body, legs, hands) more easily, fluidly, and of course, quickly. So training for max strength will absolutely HELP your speed. Is it possible that you’ll put on muscle mass while you’re lifting? Yes, absolutely, but that’s really a bi-product of the strength training. And if you DON’T want to gain muscle, want to stay in a weight class, etc. you can control muscle gain through nutrition.

So does this mean that you should ONLY operate within the 3-6 rep range? No, of course not. After all, endurance is vital for any martial artist. Pushups are a perfect example of higher rep strength training that we do ALL the time. Isometric training, AKA holding a position of resistance falls into this category as well. Whether you’re doing wall sits or holding horseback stance, you’re operating within a lactic threshold that is conducive to hypertrophy (muscle mass) and soreness. Of course we get benefits from this in terms of both physical and mental endurance. High levels of lactic (endurance) training will BURN and really be a test of your discipline, perseverance, and indomitable spirit. It also has a higher METABOLIC effect, and increases the level of Growth Hormone, which is necessary for fat loss. So if you’re in martial arts to lose weight, then this style of training will absolutely benefit you in a number of ways. Again, if you don’t want to get bulky through higher reps and hypertrophy, then you will likely want to monitor your nutrition. That’s another post for another time. For now, take this and see how you can apply it, and if you want to learn more, you can meet with me and my coach Eric in his Inner Circle at the powerDOJO. Look out for the next post busting another myth: strength vs. flexibility, and why you can’t have both (Or so they tell you).