Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Basic Strength Training for Martial Artists

Martial arts training alone will help you get stronger (more in some areas than in others), and the calisthenics that are part of most martial arts classes will provide some basic strength.  But to maximize your potential for performance and to make yourself as injury resistant as possible some time devoted to strength training is very important.

Notice I said some time.  If you are a strength athlete (powerlifter, weightlifter, bodybuilder, whether competitive or recreational) then strength training should form the bulk of your workouts.  If you are a martial artist, however, you can't afford to devote as much time to strength training.  Unless you're a professional martial artist (MMA fighter, dojo owner, something like that), you just don't have time and energy to spend 1-2 hours in the gym 4-6 times a week focused on strength training.  Even if you have the time, for whatever reason (you lucky people without kids or full time jobs), that much strength training would put too much strain on your muscles and your nervous system to allow you to continue to make good progress in your art.  All of which means that you have to make your strength training as efficient as possible and as targeted as possible.

The first thing you should do is pick up a copy of a popular muscle magazine from your local bookstore and try out some of the routines inside.  No, I'm kidding!  That's what many of us do and it's probably the wrong approach.  Most of those routines are aimed at helping someone look good, rather than perform well, and many are only effective for drug using athletes or athletes preparing for a contest (this depends on which magazine we're discussing - Men's Fitness will give very different advice than Flex, being aimed at a different audiences, and I'm not going to spend any more time discussing this here).

How do we make our strength training efficient?  There are a few steps to this:
  • Focus on movements, not on muscles or bodyparts.  You can develop good strength (at a basic/intermediate level) by working your biceps, triceps, pecs, lats, quads, etc. all in isolation, but there are two problems with this approach.  First, it's time consuming, and extra time spent strength training is time taken away from training in your art or spending time with your family (or reading blogs).  Second, it's easy to "miss" some links in the chain - this is why core training is so popular, for example.  Bodypart routines tend to skip over some critical area like the core, making your "strength" less than useful.  Another reason is that using your body as a unit using compound exercises (think pushup instead of tricep extensions, pec dec flyes, and planks performed separately) helps you get better at using your body as a unit, which will have crossover benefit to your art.
  • Work hard.  Get two guys of equal strength to do curls.  Tell one he's going to do 2 sets and tell the other he's going to do 9.  See which one works harder for the first two sets.  I pretty much guarantee the guy told he's going to do 9 sets isn't putting nearly as much effort into the first couple.  He's saving energy, both muscular energy and neurological energy, for his later sets.  Solution?  Do just a couple of sets, but work really hard - use a lot of weight or choose exercises that are really challenging.  Don't fart around in the gym for an hour doing things that don't make you breath hard and sweat. 
  • Work infrequently.  You don't need four sessions a week to get strong - at least not to intermediate levels.  I do two sessions most weeks (each at or less than 30 minutes total time), and drop to a single session if I'm tired or not recovering quickly.  That's all you need - remember, you're not a strength athlete, you're a martial artist. 
  • Once you've gotten the basic movements done, focus any extra work very carefully - make it brief and very specific.  There are probably thousands of different productive exercises you can do.  Focus on things that will improve performance in your art.  I have a couple of examples of this I'll explain below.
Short, hard workouts done twice a week won't make you a successful Olympic lifter, but I'm not writing this blog for aspiring olympic lifters.  Your goal should be to get as strong as is reasonable with a reasonable amount of training - the gains in strength you'd make by strength training more often would be more than offset by the decrease in skiill from martial arts training time.  You could make a case for periodization here - do more advanced programs for brief periods, like 4-8 weeks, a couple of times a year to bump up your strength, and focus on a more well rounded training program the rest of the year.  That's a good plan, but I wanted to start with a more basic program here and move on to that sort of plan in a later post.

The movements:

There are lots of ways to break up the movements in which you get strong, but my favorite is this system (which is taken from similar ones I've seen in lots of places, most recently Dan John's book):

Horizontal push:  pushing in front of you.  Pushups (most variations), bench press (free weights or machines), that sort of thing.
Horizontal pull:  pulling things toward you from the front.  Rows - bent rows, barbell rows, one arm rows, that sort of thing.
Vertical push:  pushing things overhead.  Military press, kettlebell press, jerks, handstand pushup (think about it).
Vertical pull:  pulling things down toward you.  Pullups, chinups, lat pulldowns on a pulley.
Squat (knee dominant):  Squatting motion where a lot of the stress is around the knee joint.  Regular squats, front squats, one legged squats, pistols, thrusters.
Squat (hip dominant):  Squatting motion where the stress is around the hips.  Deadlift, kettlebell swing, good morning, glute/ham raise.

Depending on your body (what you're most comfortable doing) and your equipment, pick one exercise from each category.  If you want, spread the movements over two workouts - either do both types of squat each workout or do knee dominant one day and hip dominant the next day.  The important thing is to regularly cover all of these movement patterns and not to over-emphasize one over the others.  For example, if you do a lot of horizontal pushing and very little horizontal pulling (like, lots of pushups but no rowing) you'll create a strength imbalance that could lead to injury in the shoulder area. 

To this list I would add exercises to address these areas of specific concern to martial artists:

Core:  See my post on core training.  Do some anti-rotation work and anti-extension work every week.  If you use pushups for your horizontal push you might be fine, but if you're bench pressing there, add in planks or ab wheel rollouts to your routine.  Also train anti-rotation; medicine ball throws, one arm planks, something like that to remind your core how to keep you from twisting.  This is especially important for martial artists.
Hip abduction and adduction:  Not to be crass, this means spreading (abduction) and closing (adduction) your legs.  Why is this important?  Two reasons.  First of all, hip abduction and adduction allow you to move side to side (lateral movement).  Now in most sports you just don't see athletes move laterally most of the time - even in, say, tennis, when a player has to cross the court he or she will turn and run straight to get there, which is hip extension.  In football you'll see the same thing.  In martial arts, however, we often want to sidestep an attacker (as quickly as possible) but not turn our hips so we can stay in position to counterattack.  So we need to emphasize this movement pattern more.  The other reason to work adduction is to increase range of motion.  One key to getting good high kicks is to be strong with our hips adducted.  The stronger you are in that position the less of a threat your body will sense when you raise your leg to the side, and the less it will tense up to prevent that adduction.  How do we work this?  Isometrically, in a very wide horse stance, squeezing the ground, or by putting one foot into a pulley machine and pulling down to raise the weight stack, or doing splits from two chairs or rings.  I work abduction (spreading forcefully) by doing slow, high side kicks and roundhouse kicks with weights on my ankles (don't do these fast - you're asking for a knee injury) or wrapping a heavy band around my ankles and practicing footwork - rapidly stepping from side to side, using the band to load the movement.

How does all this work out?  I can give you my sample workout - this is what I do, on average, twice a week, at home, in about half an hour:
  1. One arm pushup partials (I can't do a full range of motion yet)
  2. One legged squats
  3. TRX rows (lie on the floor, grab two handles suspended from an overhead bar, row yourself up).
  4. Kettlebell swings (two handed, usually).
  5. One arm kettlebell press.
  6. Splits done from rings (put feet into rings, raise/ lower self from split position)
  7. Pullups/chinups
  8. Abduction work - alternate slow kicks w/ ankle weight and stepping side to side with band around my ankles.
  9. Ab wheel rollouts or moving planks on a stability ball.
  10. forearm work - I mix in 4 sets of forearm exercises for a reason I'll explain later.
I do these as a circuit - moving from one exercise to the other.  I do the first four movements as a warmup/ first set, then do the entire group two times.  I try to alternate upper/ lower body movements - I wouldn't do squats then swings, I'd do squats, then forearms, then rows, then swings, to give myself a chance to recover.  For all the single arm/ single leg movements I do each leg/arm every time I do the exercise and always back to back - I won't even put the weight down between arms.  By doing this as a circuit I get a pretty nice cardiovascular benefit as well, which just makes things more efficient.

Now I'm not fantastically strong, but I'm doing pretty well for a guy my age, and I get progressively stronger with this routine while working out 25-30 minutes at a time no more than twice a week (and often less).  That leaves plenty of time for karate practice and my family.

Could one get stronger, faster, on a more thorough routine?  Sure.  And mixing that into your yearly plan would probably be a good idea.  But this kind of program will help you get stronger in a simple and sustainable way.


  1. Hellow!

    I love your site, It is a pleasure to visit.

    I have added your site to my site.

    Please link my site to your site.

    Thank you!

    Takeshi Arai

  2. Thanks! Sorry it took a couple of days but I added you to my blog roll. I wish I could read Japanese (not the first time I've thought that)! Google Translate helps, but not as much as I'd like!

  3. Just found your site, starting martial arts at 42, soon to be 43 and I have been looking for something like this to work out in between going to karate,
    Thanks for this !

  4. Hello , i liked this post a lot and i want to ask you a question .
    I am doing a 5x5 program 3 times a week for some months now , im going to start doing karate and im thinking of doing my 5x5 in the morning and then in the evening go to my karate lessons .
    Do you think that something like that would work or should i do it some other way ?

    Thanks for your time i appreciate it a lot

  5. Hey Guy. Excellent question. A lot depends on how strong you are. If you're really, really strong it's going to be harder to recover from those 5x5 workouts. You might have to cut back to twice a week and do karate on different days. If you find that you can do karate in the evening after a 5x5 in the morning I still suspect that your strength progress will slow down. I personally would consider backing off to twice a week for a while, doing the strength training the morning after a karate class (so night class Monday, 5x5 Tuesday morning, then nothing until maybe a Wednesday or Thursday night karate lesson, all depending on the schedule at the dojo), then add back the 3rd strength workout after 8 weeks only if you feel you're up to it (not overly tired, gaining strength, etc.). Pursuing both goals is really tough on your system, and a drained nervous system is going to hold back progress everywhere. Good luck!