The reasons for not pumping iron in the martial arts community are as wide and varied as the trashy romance novels found in Kroger. My all time favorite is: “I don’t lift because it impedes the chi.” “Oh, really? And that’s why you can’t pick up a bag of cat litter, much less grapple for ten seconds?” I’ve also heard this one: “I get my strength from practicing kata.” “Hum, considering the size of your gut, I’d say not.” Then there’s: “Strength training isn’t part of traditional martial arts.” “No kidding. Try telling Mike Tyson that. Boxing is about as traditional as it gets. And while we’re on the subject, can you tell me why Shoshin Nagamine advocated exercising with “bar bells, dumbbells, chishi (an ancient form of dumbbell), sashi (iron hand-grip), etc., to develop muscles and physical power.” Nagamine p.29. Then every so often someone says in a humble tone, “I’m trying to up my deadlift from 350 to 400.” And you immediately shake their hand and shout: “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” over and over again.
Strength training has gone hand in hand with the fighting arts for thousands of years. Chinese and Okinawan martial artists have utilized it for centuries and in ancient Greece weight training was popular in all forms of athletics; wrestling, boxing and pankration included. More recently strength training was incorporated into Judo by the Kodokan during the early 1960’s while currently some of the best known proponents of strength training are MMA fighters.
There are many forms of strength training, some better than others depending upon your goals. Take for instance body-building which uses lighter weights and higher repetitions to tone and define the body’s muscles. Body building was made famous by greats like Dave Draper, Bill Pearl, Frank Zane and Arnold Schwarzenegger during the mid to late 60’s and continues to be one of the more popular forms of strength training today.
Exciting to watch, technical and very demanding, Olympic weight lifting involves the snatch, clean and jerk. And while Olympic lifters may not possess the same muscle definition as bodybuilders, their overall strength and explosive power is usually greater because Olympic lifts employ several large muscle groups (thighs, back, shoulders, etc.) simultaneously to move the weight from the floor, to an overhead position in a split second’s time. In fact during the 1972 Munich Olympics, studies performed concluded that some of the fastest moving athletes were Olympic lifters.
Last but not least is power lifting, which uses the squat, deadlift and bench-press. Power lifting requires the athlete to raise a massive amount of weight using strict movement. The sport emphasizes push-pull actions, heavy weights and single repetitions. Hence the reason power lifters usually have the highest degree of functional strength in athletics today.
Prior to the 20th century strength training differed to that found in modern health clubs. For instance, where as today one goes into an air conditioned gym and performs chest exercises on the nautilus machine the Greek pankratiast lifted a large stone off the ground, worked it up to shoulder level and threw it as far as possible. This developed not only raw strength, but also anaerobic endurance and explosive power, all through the use of one exercise.
Unlike the bodybuilder, power, or Olympic lifter, fighters must develop both strength and stamina in conjunction with martial prowess. And since fighting requires use of the entire muscular system to strike, push, pull, or grapple then the best lifts are those that work the entire body simultaneously while enhancing combative skill.
There are literally thousands of combative techniques to draw upon, but the foundation of most rest upon three principle actions. They are: extending, withdrawing and grabbing. You extend a limb to strike, push or throw. You withdraw a limb to pull and grapple and grabbing is used in all phases of combat.
These three actions are performed simultaneously with power being generated and enhanced by the abdominals, lower back, glutes, hips, thighs and spine. For instance when punching the arm extends rapidly, but the strike’s power originates in the feet then travels upwards to the hips and abdominals which act as superconductors before transferring it to the arm. This process occurs in a split second’s time and is repeated constantly during combat. Moreover it requires a high state of anaerobic conditioning to perform over extended periods.
Where fighting is concerned the deadlift, clean-overhead-press, one- armed snatch and military press are some of the most beneficial. These lifts work the major muscles simultaneously, increase anaerobic endurance, develop explosive power and enhance the extending, withdrawing and grabbing actions. They also provide an intense workout in a relatively short period and can be performed using dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, sandbags, or even heavy rocks.
The following is a brief description of each lift and its benefits.
Deadlift: An overall power exercise that works the upper and lower back, trapezious muscles, buttocks, legs, shoulders and hands. It develops maximum pulling and pushing strength, anaerobic endurance and raw body power. All of these are essential for grappling and striking. The optimum goal is to deadlift your own body weight, if not more.
Clean and press: An overall power exercise that works the legs, shoulders, chest, upper and lower back, arms, buttocks and hands. It develops maximum pulling and pushing strength, works every major muscle group plus increases explosive power and anaerobic endurance. Your optimum goal being to clean and press half, if not three quarters of your own body weight. When performed with light weights and high repetitions this exercise is excellent for cardiovascular development. [i]
One arm snatch: An explosive, power based exercise that works the legs, shoulders, back, arms and hands, plus the abdominals. It develops the pulling action, grip and explosive power. The optimum goal being to snatch half your body weight, or in layman’s terms grab a weight with one hand and swing it from the floor to an over head position in a second’s time.
Military Press: A great exercise for upper-body development that works the shoulders, arms, back and chest. The military press is also excellent for developing punching power since it isolates the pushing motion. Optimum performance is to press half your body weight (if not more) into the over head position. The military press can be performed either seated or standing, though when done standing more of the body’s muscles are worked.
Unlike professional sports which have off seasons most fighting arts practitioners train weekly and throughout much of the year. This requires rest periods to be included in one’s training program. More importantly though, is that the fighter is developing combative skills while conducting strength training, that's why a training program should devote equal time to both strength and skill.
Many people assume strength training requires several hours each day to obtain proper results. And while this might true for body builders, Olympic and power lifters, where fighting is concerned the desired effects can be gained from 30-45 minutes of training, three times a week. Below is a simplified routine for the fighting arts practitioner that develops over-all strength, speed and endurance and can be completed in 40 minutes, or less.
Monday- Deadlifts and Military Presses. Five sets with one repetition of each exercise using 80-90% of your heaviest- one repetition max.
Wednesday- Clean overhead press. Four sets of light weights, 6-10 repetitions.
Saturday- One Arm Snatch and Military Presses. Four sets each exercise, adding 3-5 pounds on each lift. For instance if you’re beginning the Snatch with a 10lb dumbbell, then the next set with be with a 15lb dumbbell, followed by a 20lb, then finally a 25lb.
Tuesday- Clean overhead press and military presses. Five sets with five repetitions using 70-75% of your one rep max.
Thursday- Deadlift. 1x5’s. Single repetitions of 90-100% of your maximum one rep weight.
Sunday- One Arm Snatch and Military Presses. Four set of light weights. 6-10 repetitions each exercise adding 3-5 lbs each set.
Wednesday- Deadlift and Military Presses. Five sets with five repetitions using 70-80% of your one rep max.
Friday- Clean Overhead Press and Military Press. Four sets of light weights. 6-10 repetitions each exercise adding 3-5 lbs each set
Sunday- Deadlift and Military Presses. Five sets with one repetition each exercise using 80-90% of your one rep max. (1x5)
Week Four: Rest
As you progress, the time it takes to complete the workout shortens, so additional exercises to include are squats, pull-ups and dips. This means where previously each workout consisted of two exercises, now it will consist of three. Or if you desire, squats, pull-ups and dips can be combined for an entire workout.
Aging causes muscle and bone mass to deteriorate which results in the loss of athletic performance and combative skill, especially during one’s 40’s and 50’s. This is why strength training plays such a vital role. It builds bones and preserves muscle, plus activates nerves that increase reflexes. Strength training not only helps you become a better fighter, but reduces the effects of aging. That's why legendary figures like Shoshin Nagamine and Donn Draeger where practicing martial arts well into their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. So go on, take the iron pill. You’ll be able to train longer, plus you’ll probably live longer and besides you’ve got nothing to loose, but some unwanted pounds.
[i] Much the same as it is with developing good technique, proper form is essential when executing the deadlift, clean and press. There should be no curvature in the spine, feet are shoulder-with; always begin with your shoulders over the bar, push with the legs first and initially start your training with light weights and increase poundage as you grow stronger. Remember, its not how much you lift, but how you lift it that matters most.