Martial Arts and Strength Training – is there Common Ground?

Bodybuilders want to pump their muscles, while martial artists need speed, stability, and flexibility. Professional trainers from both worlds say that they have a hard time convincing the other to embark in their program, due to martial artists’ bad experiences with prior strength training. Bodybuilders really don’t know how learning fight moves can benefit their training goals.

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However, there is a common ground for martial arts and strength training, because strength as well as flexibility, mobility, stability, and speed are beneficial to all aspects of fitness. Bodybuilders who can achieve full range of motion are more likely to avoid injury, and will be able to execute their exercises with more efficiency and power. On the other hand, a weak body can’t sustain high-level martial arts practice for long. This doesn’t mean that one should follow a standard martial arts/bodybuilding program, but simply take what one needs from both.

What Kind of Strength Do Martial Artist Need?

Weight training is aimed towards an anaerobic metabolism, with emphasis on joint, bone, and muscle strength. Martial artists shouldn’t follow a standard bodybuilding program, because they need functional strength to improve their martial arts performance. A full bodybuilding program can make your martial arts techniques worse, because it leads to a decrease in activation of motor units. It can only provide a minimal boost in speed-strength (the ability of the neuromuscular system to produce the biggest possible impulse in the shortest amount of time).

Martial artists always try to use their bodies in the most efficient way, so they need to pick strength training exercises that challenge the whole body as a unit. However, when it comes to physical training, it’s about optimizing one’s performance for any activity, and it’s more than just lifting heavy weights.

Strength Training and Lack of Mobility and Flexibility

Lack of mobility in bodybuilders usually manifests itself in large compound movements. Take squats for example – weight lifters often lack mobility in their hips and ankles, at the bottom of the squat, which forces their knees and toes outward and forward to create enough space for their hips to drop down, while shifting weight onto the toes at the same time. There’s a plethora of problems caused by this lack of mobility, because the body tries to compensate for the lack of strength due to the poorly leveraged squat position. Mobility is your body’s ability to move without restriction.

Flexibility, on the other hand, is the range of motion in a system of joints and the length of muscle(s) that crosses the joints involved. Range of motion (ROM) is the direction and distance the joint can move, and flexibility directly correlates with mobility and ROM, while indirectly with coordination, balance, and strength. If bodybuilders perform only strength exercises and don’t supplement their training routine with flexibility and mobility exercises, their ROM gets decreased.

Martial arts include exercises for improving flexibility and mobility, because the nature of the sport requires it, and weight lifters can benefit from it by “becoming a fighter” at least on one day per week. I was never a martial arts enthusiast, but when I was visiting a friend, he dragged me to a martial arts training in Sydney and when I got to try it for myself and realized all of its potential, I started incorporating that type of training into my own routines.

How to Practice Both and Achieve Maximum Effects

There are 3 specific planes of motion that divide the human body into right and left, top and bottom, and front and back halves – transverse (rotational movements), frontal (side to side movements), and sagittal (forward and backward movements). Why do you need to know this? For example, stability in the frontal plane is important in activities in which we try to create power forwards. When performing the stepping punch, hips often fall out because of weak hip abductors. This requires strength training exercises for strengthening this particular body part. The body thinks in terms of movement patterns, and doesn’t care about muscle groups, so you should base your training program on functional movements and perform core demanding exercises.

Suitable strength exercises for creating your own training program are:

Knee dominant – front squat, split squat, back squat, reverse lunge;
Hip dominant – deadlift, hip thrust, leg curl on a Swiss ball, stiff legged deadlift;
Horizontal pulling – dumbbell row, seated row, barbell row, face pull;
Vertical pulling – lat pull-down, pull-up/chin-up, reverse pull-up/chin-up;
Horizontal pushing – bench press, dumbbell incline bench press, weighted or regular pushup;
Vertical pushing – standing military press, half-kneeling overhead press, push press;
Anti-lateral/Anti-rotation – Russian twist, side plank, pallof press, full contact twist;
Anti-extension – body saw, ab wheel rollout, plank (with variations).

In order to become stronger, more flexible, and faster, both mentally and physically, you need a good strength training plan. The feeling of getting stronger can truly be a lifesaver in challenging martial arts, while improved functional strength, flexibility and mobility can reduce the risk of various injuries.

Mathews McGarry is passionate about many forms of strength training, and spent years lifting, dragging and flipping all manner of heavy objects. After graduating from the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney, he started writing about his experiences, and sharing tips for better life. Follow him on Twitter.

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