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Boris B
Boris B's picture
Fit to fight - the strength part

Hello everybody,

this is my first post on this board (although being a long-time reader here) and I am interested in your view of the role of strength training in a holistic training regime.

I have coined my entry "fight to fight - the strength part" because it ties in with what Lee Richardson has started a thread ago.

Mr Rosenbaum already mentioned some interesting and "old-school" exercises.

For the hobby karateka who has ambitions to survive self-defense situations

- what exercises would you recommend?

- what kind of benchmarks do you think have to be reached in certain exercises so you can say "this strength is acceptable/ not a weakness anymore"

- speaking of "bench"marks: what is your opinion on the role of the bench press?

( I have read that Ian is a certified strength trainer, and judging from the looks of him, he seems to have smuggled in a bench press or two :-) )

I am looking forward to your replies

Boris B

michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture


I think that any strength/conditioning training program you embark on is good but I’m also a firm believer in distinguishing between aesthetical and functional strength. Aesthetical strength is what you find in bodybuilding and while body builders may be strong where certain areas of the human anatomy may be concerned their conditioning/strength may not be the best where fighting is involved.  For instance if you have a body builder who curls 100lbs dumbbells and bench presses 400lbs but who can’t go five minuets in the ring, on the heavy bag, or grappling with a partner then their strength isn’t functional where fighting is concerned.  This is often the case where one part of the anatomy is overdeveloped at the expense of other parts and it can lead to serious health problems too. Case and point is if you spend all your time developing the chest without an equal amount of time spent on the back, legs and shoulders then your body has to over compensate to support the extra muscle weight in the chest not to mention the strain placed on other parts of the body (back, shoulders, even legs) when doing heavy bench presses.

Functional strength on the other hand involves developing the body as a whole unit with no body part overlooked or sacrificed in favor of another. This type of training can and often does involve explosive floor to ceiling lifts that utilize the whole body and work almost every muscle simultaneously. Hence you get a balanced development where one body part is capable of supporting the other. This in turn helps to develop explosive power since you’re lifting from the floor to the ceiling as well as building anaerobic strength/endurance. Exercises such as the clean-overhead press (my favorite), hanging clean press, one arm snatch, squat, clean and squat, push press, dips and pull ups require a tremendous amount of explosive power and stamina to execute. Plus they enhance/stimulate the actions of fighting/striking more so than what is found in body building. The power for a punch starts at the balls of your feet then travels upward through your fist, same thing with the floor to ceiling exercises. Also these are old style lifts but they’ve can be, and often are, used with dumbbells and the ever popular kettlebells today. So it’s like we’re recycling the best of yesterday for today. Though thanks in part to the popularity of MMA we’re seeing a resurgence of old style lifting.

Dynamic lifts: cleans, one arm jerks, squats, hang clean etc, are considered by some to be dangerous and they can be if you’ve never done them before. It’s always best to start out slow, with a small amount of weight, and to focus on proper form. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The beauty of these lifts, aside from a conditioning/strength aspect, is that they require a small amount of time yet tax you to the limit. 3 sets of clean presses done in conjunction with dips (supersetted in weight lifting parlance) can be performed in under ten minuets time but will work you to the max. Add in some one arm snatches and pull ups and presto you’ve got a full body workout all in under 30 minuets.

What exercises would I recommend? If you had to choose just one it would be clean presses. Then there are hanging clean presses, one arm snatches, dips, pull ups and the bench press.

What personal maximum would I use? With clean presses I’d say be able to do at least three reps with half your body weight. With the other’s it depends on your own goals. However its best not to lift heavy (one or two rep max) more than once a week. I usually go one day heavy, one day 50-70 percent and then a third day of say 80-90.

What role does weight/strength training play? I’d say the older you get the more important it should become in your training, in fact conditioning/strength training might even overshadow your karate training after 20 years in a gi and once you get over the age of 40. Why? Well because the older you get the harder it becomes to stay in shape, fight off fat and retain muscle. However with karate if you haven’t got the basic kihon down in your first 20 years or practice then it’s likely you won’t in the second 20 years.

How important is the bench press? It develops upper body strength, muscle mass and some power. It’s fun to do, one of my favorites, but highly overrated. Dips and Military presses will do more to develop punching power than bench presses.

Hope this helps!

Mike R

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Boris,

Good to have you “out of the shadows”! There is an old article on the website that I wrote on weight training: http://iainabernethy.co.uk/article/benefits-strength-training

It’s around 7 years old, but my views on weight training as still pretty much in accordance with everything in there. I also did a podcast on weights (based on the article) that you may also enjoy: http://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/benefits-strength-training

All that has really changed with my own weight training since the above was produced is that I now also include weights in my circuit training. In that instance it’s all about 10 to 15 reps with a moderate weight before immediately moving onto another exercise. The “core weights” remain pretty constant though as I’ve not found any alterative that works as well for me.

At the moment I go for compound exercises, around 8 reps, with a heavy weight. The upper body is divided into a vertical push, a vertical pull, a horizontal push, and a horizontal pull. I change the exercises around but at the moment it is:

Vertical push = Shoulder press

Vertical pull = Bent over barbell rows

Horizontal push = Bench press

Horizontal pull = Chin ups

Since busting my knee up a few years ago (a throw that went wrong) I’m a little more careful with my leg exercises than I was (i.e. no more 200kg squats or 400kg incline leg presses). I like to vary things with my legs and use squats, lunges or leg extensions with leg curls and calf raises. I find this works well for me and fits well with the karate.

Michel’s point on aesthetic vs. functional strength is very important. A training pattern of mine used to decry training programs to develop “t-shirt muscles” i.e. chest, shoulders and biceps with no emphasis on balance or functional strength. I recall one well known martial artist saying that that he never lifted weights to improve his health or looks, but to ensure he was better equipped to ruin other people’s health and looks when necessary. A key distinction I feel.

Boris B wrote:
what exercises would you recommend?

Just like with the martial arts, the best thing you can do is seek some instruction at a gym. Weights done wrong can be injurious and you really need a personal assessment in order to provide a solid routine that fits with your needs and attributes. As a general rule though you want compound exercises that cover the whole body in a balanced way. You also need to keep in mind that weights are a supporting form of training for the martial artist and hence you want a program that is not too time consuming.

Boris B wrote:
what kind of benchmarks do you think have to be reached in certain exercises so you can say "this strength is acceptable/ not a weakness anymore"

Again, that’s something that needs to be judged by someone who knows you and is totally aware of all your issues. For me personally, I think I’ve long since passed the point were a lack of strength is an issue (it was originally and that’s why my sensei at the time put me on a weights program). The main reason I train with the weights now is injury prevention (for now and as I get older and older (#)) and because I really enjoy it. I love the weights as there is something pure and “animalistic” about them. Turn up the music, get psyched up, throw some weights around, enjoy the cathartic process and emerge from the gym a new man :-)

Boris B wrote:
speaking of "bench" marks: what is your opinion on the role of the bench press?

It develops the strength of the chest, shoulders and triceps. Combat wise it helps make punches more explosive, and is good for any method that involves creating a gap between you and the enemy i.e. all pushing techniques.

The other important, but often overlooked thing, is that being built like a brick out-house makes you a far less attractive target. It also helps you win the “war of words” in certain situations too.

Raw strength is no substitute for solid technique and the right mindset, but it definitely has a bearing on things and hence can’t be ignored.

I hope that helps?

All the best,


(#) – All the martial artists I know that are still fit and able and training hard in their 60s and over are great believers in the weights. Indeed, now that I think about it, every single one of my teachers has used weightlifting as part of their personal training.

Boris B
Boris B's picture


thank you very much for your elaborate answers!

Two aspects of your replies I find very interesting:

focus on compound movements and the fact that strength training seems to be an essential indigrient should one aim to pursue the martial arts long-term.

With regards to the bench press - I used to not do it because I thought it wasn't "functional" - now I like it, and the strength gains are not to be dismissed. And one thing is clear: while I do not training first and foremost for aestethics, no one including me wants to not look better through means of strength training. As Mr Rosenbaum put it: the bench press - useful but overrated. Sums it up for me.

At the beginning of this year I started the Starting Strength programme of Mark Rippetoe, albeit with cutted volume.  2 times a week I do bench/squat/pull-ups in the gym, then supplement with chins, shoulder presses and power cleans at home. If time and energy permits I do one dealift session in the gym per week.

Ian, regarding your advice on getting proper instruction:

hard to find in the gmys these days, I learned my stuff frome Rippetoes material primarily. For instance, in my gym I am the only one who does parallel squats with more than bodyweight (I do 130*5*3 at the moment) - the few guys who do squats use low weights, quarter squat and questionable form.

The reason I asked for some kind of strength standards is this:

there exist one strength standard sheet on the internet Rippetoe used to recommend but now doesn't anymore. On this standards, I score in the intermediate region - which is a joke for serious strength/powerlifting trainees but eye-bulging for the standard fitness guy. Therefore I wanted some guidance from experienced teachers and trainees.

My impressions about the effects of weight training so far:

squats - I really think everybody should learn/do them, the constant focus on proper form here will reap dividends, explosivity will go up, and stability will be enhanced.

deadlift - very taxing lift but the best to feel and learn whole body tension - you have no choice but to! Since power in a puch is generated starting at the feet and you are basically in a quarter squat (somewhat) in most sparring situations I think the transfer to punching should be there.

pull-ups/chin-ups: really good for all things grappling&clinch related (esp. chin-ups) with a narrow grip and an explosive start you can mimic pulling down the head quit well imo (with chins)

In generall, I would recommend a period of focused strength training to anybody. The strength and confidence you aquire compared to "regular, only doing martial arts and push-ups" guys is incredible.

Again, thank you for your elaborate replies!


michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture


Here's some links you might find usefull. This one: http://www.t-nation.com/archives.do;jsessionid=363DD73C40348197BA185E199598FADF-he.hydra?y=2010

has articles for both body building and overall strenght development.

This one is more fighter specific: http://www.rosstraining.com/articles.html Ross has some neat stuff and usefull too.

Then there's Dan John: http://danjohn.net/category/articles/

Also don't forget to get plenty of rest and there's other means of developing strenght besides gym based weights. Just get a sand bag and throw it from one end of your yard to the other then follow that up by hitting an old tire with a sledge hammer.

Other options to consider are one legged squats. Support yourself with one hand against the wall, stand on one leg and squat down as far as you can.

Your only limited by your creativity.

Mike R

Boris B
Boris B's picture

Thanks Mr Rosenbaum,

I am aware of these resources and have read them for months -even years!

I didn't want to refer to them because I wanted real life info from martial artists - "from the trenches reports" so to speak. Also it would come across as being very knowledgeable about this topic - but having read a lot on strength training has nothing to do with real personal experience. There is so much solid info out there - but you have to stick to some kind of programme in the first place and observe the results & effects on your body (recovery time!) to get a grip what the experts are talking about.

I realize now that most things are universal for all athletes - for example your favorite exercise clean and press - I think this is a Dan John "if I could do only one exercise" - exercise.

Ross is amazing and I have followed one of his templates in 2007 a bit (slightly modified :-)) - I was never fitter in my life I think.

One good resource I have discovered recently is Kelly Starret's mobility WOD (workout of the day). http://mobilitywod.blogspot.com/

It is obviously not about strength training per se but about mobility drills to enhance and maintain hip&shoulder mobility and other places of the body that need improvement. Looks like drills to complement any kind of training regime. 

Again, thanks for pointing me to these great resources. Every martial artist should know about Ross and Dan John imho.