Personal Training for the Martial Arts

I started martial arts at the age of 14. With an obsession with samurai books and Bruce Lee films I decided that I wanted to learn how to fight. Although I grew up in a white middle class area, knives and muggings were common in my secondary school. After watching every Bruce Lee movie ever made in one weekend I rushed to the yellow pages to find a kickboxing school near to my house. After my first lesson my goal changed from simply learning to fight to reaching black belt. I achieved my goal at the age of 18 and broke the school record as the youngest black belt. Martial arts has always been a passion of mine and as I went on to learn about physiology and anatomy I began to realise a lot of what I was taught by my original instructors was incorrect. Although they knew a great deal about techniques and tactics their knowledge of weight training for improved performance was poor. Obviously I would never say this to their faces! When I studied at university I always tried to apply what I had learned about the science of sport to combat sports.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is the fastest growing sport on the planet. Fighters readily seek training methods to give them an advantage over their opponents. This has led to the rise of many “sport specific” training DVDs and systems. Let me clear this up right now. There are only two sports that can be trained in a sport specific sense in the weight room (Olympic weight lifting and Power-lifting). Sport specific training defined is the literal practice of a sport. So for Judo this means performing throws and locks, for kickboxing this means to practice kicking and punching. This is why it annoys me to see “sport specific” weight training promoted for improving martial arts performance. Standing in front of a mirror shadow boxing with 2kg weights will not make you punch harder! Let me clear up another miss conception. Weight training, done properly, will make you faster not slower. Martial arts instructors meaning well push the misconception that weights make you slow. Science has proven this not to be the case. 100m sprinters at a high level back squat 180kg + and they are fastest people on the planet!

As a martial artist there are 2 basic training factors that you can improve in the weight room, power (or rate of force development, RDF) and muscular endurance. That’s power (strength x speed = power) not speed. The only way to increase speed is via unloaded movements. For example, practicing a punch in mid air would improve speed. I will now outline 3 basic training methods that can improve these two factors.

Relative strength training

As all combat sports are divided into weight categories, it is essential to keep your body weight as low as possible whilst maintaining strength. Relative strength training involves training with a time under tension (TUT) of a maximum of 25 seconds. I suggest using a maximum of 5 repetitions each set, this means heavy weights and long rest. As with all training for sports you want to stick to mainly compound movements. This means back squats, front squats, deadlifting, pull-ups and bench pressing are all in. In the case of bench pressing, incline pressing is the most specific to throwing a punch because of the angle of the upper arm in relation to the torso. Here is a simple example of an upper body relative strength workout (Workout A):

ExerciseSetsRepsTempoRest (sec)
1A)Incline bench press5540X0120
1B)Neutral grip, pull-up5540X0120
2A)Neutral grip, flat dumbbell press2730X090
2B)Single arm dumbbell row2730X090

Workout A. Relative strength training upper body workout, X means to lift as fast as possible.

Olympic lifting

Olympic lifting is the most widely used method of training for all athletes. Whilst studying my MSc at the English Institute of Sport, I was privileged to see professional kayakers, distance runners and rugby league players regularly training. The majority of their training was based around Olympic lifting and its variations. This is because Olympic lifting is the fastest way to increase rate of force development (RFD). This means the amount of time it takes you to go from 0 to maximum force. As seasoned martial arts competitors know, going from a guard position to throwing a maximum force strike is essential to combat sport performance. The down side of using Olympic lifting is you need a very well equipped gym with a lifting platform and bumper plates. The other down side is it takes time to learn the skill of Olympic lifting first to then use it as a sports performance training tool. With this said I believe it is worth the initial effort for the gains in the arena it will produce. Below is a sample workout (Workout B):

OrderExerciseSetsRepsTempoRest (sec)
A1)Power clean6440X0180
B1)Front squat464010120
C1)Romanian deadlift310 to 12401090
D1)Barbell step up310 to 12301090

Workout B. Basic Olympic lifting routine.

Lactate Training

Muscular endurance can be the deciding factor between winning and losing a fight. Physiologically speaking this is your body’s ability to buffer lactic acid from your muscles. As lactate builds up in the muscle the PH lowers and the acidity negatively effects muscle function. This is why lactate training is useful to combat athletes especially those involved in grappling sports. Studies of American collegiate wrestlers have shown that the more successful athletes over a year had a better anaerobic threshold compared to their less successful colleagues. Lactate training is the opposite of relative strength training as it involves moderate loads and short rest intervals. The sets are long in duration as is the time under tension. The session can be full body or split into body parts. Here is an example of a upper back, posterior chain split routine:

OrderExerciseSetsRepsTempoRest (sec)
A1)Back squat310 to 12401060
A2)Towel pull ups310 to 12401060
B1)Dumbbell split squat310 to 12401060
B2)Bent-over row, barbell310 to 12301160
C1)Dumbbell step up310 to 12301160
C2)Dumbbell pullover310 to 12401060
D1)Incline dumbbell curl310 to 12301160
D2)Lying tricep extension, barbell310 to 12301160

Workout C. Lactate training, Upper back, posterior chain split.

So there you have it. Strength training for martial arts performance does not have to involve jumping around with light weights. When you perform each of these styles of training is the complicated part. Tapering your routine as your contest approaches is essential. Here at Definitive Physique we pride ourselves on our ability to periodise plans for our personal training clients. To have your own tailored martial arts strength training programme contact us and we will help you stay injury free and successful in the arena.

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