Join our list
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.
by Thomas Kurz
This article and a few following ones will deal with conditioning for martial arts. In the course of these articles you will learn about conditioning exercises and their place in a workout, in a weekly schedule of workouts, and in longer cycles of training.
Strength and Endurance in Martial Arts
It is incredible how many people in martial arts are weak. Most of the people showing up at my seminars and people I see when visiting some dojos and dojangs never bother to do any endurance work or strength training. Many people who call me or write seem to think that just showing up and paying the dues in a place calling itself a martial arts school makes them fit—even more, makes them fighters!
Often, when I ask some of my callers how many pushups they do, they say “Twenty.” When I ask how much they lift in a squat, it turns out they do not do any weightlifting and then they wonder why their weak legs fail them when they try to do splits.
In respectable martial arts schools students do hundreds of pushups, often more than 200 in one set, hundreds of squats and sit-ups. Such strength and muscular endurance are what allow doing as many correct repetitions of techniques as it takes to make them effective and reliable. There are more benefits of such muscular endurance: staying relaxed during sparring or fighting (people with poor muscular endurance tense more and expend more energy than those with high endurance), the ability to take hard shots on the muscles with less bruising than poorly conditioned people, and self-confidence—bullies find it hard to intimidate someone who knows that he or she can outdo and outlast the bully.
In the striking arts, such as taekwondo or karate, long sets of punches, kicks, and combinations are necessary, both for working all the kinks out of the techniques and for ensuring that these techniques will work when fighters are tired or stressed. People who can’t do a few hundred sit-ups can strain trunk muscles such as their hip flexors, or even abdominal muscles, while doing hundreds of powerful punches or kicks. A weak abdomen also predisposes one to lower back strains. Those with weak lower back muscles and weak hip flexors (muscles that raise a thigh for every kick) kick neither strongly nor for a long time. These are the reasons serious instructors require students to get in shape before teaching them techniques other than stances, steps, and fist positions.
In the following articles, you will learn about selecting strength and endurance exercises, their place in a conditioning program for martial arts and combat sports, and the progression of resistance and repetitions or duration in those exercises. Before dealing with those particulars, however, you need to know the universal principles of conditioning.
Principles of Conditioning
1. Match exercises to your weaknesses and needs. Any posture defects such as protruding shoulder blades, round back, hyperlordosis, scoliosis, flat feet, knock-knees, or bowlegs may become worse with strength and endurance training. Well designed strength training may help, but it must be designed to specifically address these problems. Get your physician’s approval for strength and endurance training.
2. Develop aerobic fitness before attempting intensive strength training. For example, judoka must run more than 3000 meters in 12 minutes (Cooper test) before attempting maximal strength training (Lammi 1982). According to Lammi (1982) the average distance top judoka can cover within 12 minutes is 3200 meters (2 miles). Weight class affects performance: in the heavyweight class only some top judoka can make 3200 meters in 12 minutes. For heavyweights, with their lower relative strength, it is a greater effort than for lighter fighters.
Weightlifters with insufficient aerobic fitness recover slower than the well-prepared ones. The level of lactate after a workout is higher and stays high longer for those with insufficient aerobic fitness (Hübner-Wozniak et al. 1995). Implications of high levels of lactate are explained in chapter 1, “Basic Concepts in Sports Training” of the book Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance (Kurz 2001).
3. Build a strong muscular and skeletal structure before attempting sport-specific strength and endurance exercises.
4. Develop flexibility before increasing resistance. In general strength exercises initially use light loads that permit full range of motion.
5. Develop the core of your body before extremities because your limbs can generate only as much force as your trunk can transfer. No matter how strong your legs are, if your back is weak, the forces generated by your legs (for instance, when you kick) will eventually damage your lower back if it is not strong enough to stay in proper alignment.
6. Develop stabilizers before the prime movers because the amount of force your prime movers can develop is limited by what your stabilizers can withstand. When you punch and the muscles of your wrist, or elbow, or shoulder are too weak to stabilize these joints, you lose force because of poor alignment. What is worse, with repetitions you gradually damage those joints. If the muscles of your rib cage are too weak to make it rigid, your punch is weak too because the punching muscles that attach to the rib cage do not have a solid base for their action.
7. Balance the exercises around any joint, so the tension of all the muscles that control this joint is in balance. When the strength of muscles around a joint is balanced, no muscle group pulls the joint out of its natural alignment.
8. Start with general conditioning exercises and progress to sport-specific exercises.
General strength exercises lay a foundation for sport-specific exercises by strengthening all major groups of muscles around each joint in a balanced way. General strength exercises thus prevent injuries.
All strength exercises cause both structural changes (increased number of mitochondria, capillaries, amount of muscle glycogen, size of muscle fibers, structure of connective tissue, and density of bones associated with the exercised muscles) and functional changes in the nervous system. The changes caused by strength exercises in the neuromuscular system are specific for each type of exercise, which is why you need to progress from general to sport-specific exercises. Only in the case of beginners can one type of exercise cause improvement in all forms of strength (general and sport-specific).
9. Use natural movements for both the general as well as sport-specific strength exercises—do not isolate muscle groups with artificial, bodybuilding-like exercises. There is no isolation in any natural movement, be it lifting, jumping, pushing, or pulling and there is no isolation in any of your techniques. Isolation is a concept of bodybuilding (which is looks-oriented) and has little or no application in strength training for action.
If possible, you should do even your general strength exercises in the same movement pattern as your technique. For example, in a general hip flexor exercise for kickers, lying down on a bench, let your left leg hang below the bench (to put it through the same range of motion as when kicking with the rear leg in a fighting stance), and as you raise your left leg simultaneously press your right leg to the back and extend your left arm to the back while moving your bent right arm forward into a guard position. This is the pattern of limb movements synchronization in the front, side, and roundhouse kicks. Thanks to spinal cord reflexes, these additional movements of the arms and the other leg increase the tension of muscles lifting the left leg.
10. Beginners should use the smallest resistance that still increases strength. With beginners (either young athletes or adults who never did serious strength training), the strength increase does not depend on the amount of resistance as long as that resistance is more than the minimum required for the training effect (Pawluk 1985). For beginners that minimum may start at more than 20% of their personal best (Zatsiorsky 1995). McArdle, Katch, and Katch (1996) recommend resistance that permits completing 12–15 repetitions. (Such resistance can be used by children as young as 7 or 8 years [Drabik 1996].) In isometric exercises that minimum is 35% of your isometric 1RM, according to Wathen (1994).
The strength of a muscle’s contraction depends on nervous activation, energy supplies in the muscle, the cross-section of the muscle, and on its ability to recover after work. All these factors are interdependent, but they do not develop at the same pace in the course of strength training. This is another reason not to jump in and use the maximal loads at any given stage of training. It is safer to use the minimum resistance that gives a desired effect—exercise at the lower end of the training zone.
11. The pace of exercises determines the result. In strength exercises a slow pace “increases” the resistance by eliminating the momentum of the weight and thus develops hypertrophy. A fast pace “reduces” the resistance (taking advantage of momentum) but improves mobilization and synchronization of motor units (Pawluk 1985) and so develops the type of functional strength needed in martial arts and combat sports.
In endurance exercises the pace determines the energy system stressed and thus developed. A pace of exercise that keeps the heart rate at the 180-less-age number constitutes aerobic effort and does not reach the anaerobic threshold. It develops aerobic fitness, which is the foundation for both aerobic endurance and anaerobic endurance. A pace that brings the heart rate above the 180-less-age level constitutes a mixed aerobic and anaerobic effort, and the higher the heart rate the greater is the share of anaerobic processes.While in martial arts it is necessary to develop anaerobic endurance the amount of exercise at and above the anaerobic threshold should be in the right balance with the aerobic efforts (efforts below the anaerobic threshold). Lack of balance between these types of efforts leads to overtraining. The issues of all types of endurance training and of preventing overtraining are covered in depth in chapter 8, “Endurance” and 17, “Control of the Training Process” of the book Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance.
12. Do not work on anaerobic endurance with children below puberty. Do not develop maximal strength and do not apply periodization with children and youth younger than 15 (Jagiello 1993; Lammi 1982; Pawluk 1970). The reasons for not doing strenuous training for anaerobic endurance and strength with children, and what types of strength and endurance exercises to do before puberty, are explained in Józef Drabik’s book Children and Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Healthy, Fit, and Happy. Why periodization is not done with children I have explained in chapter 16, “Long-Term Planning” of the book Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance.
13. Increase the load (resistance, distance, pace) gradually so your whole body has time to adapt to it.
The pace at which training loads are increased must be correlated to the pace at which the body adapts. The body adapts itself to each new load with a certain delay. The delay depends on the volume and intensity of the load, and on the individual’s ability to adapt to the load. This ability depends on age and other factors. An abrupt increase of the load may surpass the body’s ability to adapt. The resulting loss of physiological, and especially psychological balance, may lead to overtraining or injuries.
14. Get enough rest between workouts so your body can recover and be able to work harder and better in the next workout.
Recovery time after exercises depends on the mass of exercised muscles. Small muscle groups such as those of the forearm or the calf can recover in less than 12 hours. After exercises such as squats, which fatigue a large mass of muscles, the recovery may take more than 48 hours. But to be a competitive fighter you need to work out every day for technical skills, for endurance, and for other conditioning abilities. This is possible because fatigue from strength exercises is exercise specific, so if you rotate exercises of different movement patterns, and thus muscle group involvement, you can work out every day (Zatsiorsky 1995). Also your body’s various systems (nervous, muscular, cardiovascular) recover after different lengths of time after the same exercise. This lets you work out every day or even several times per day, as long as each consecutive workout stresses the system that has sufficiently recovered. The right choice of subsequent workouts even speeds up recovery (Jagiello and Matwiejew 1997). I have dealt with this issue extensively in chapter 3, “Cycles in Sports Training” of the book Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance.
15. Change exercise routines knowledgeably. All exercises lose their effectiveness in the course of long-term training because as you adapt to them they have less and less effect on you. As years of training go by, the number of exercises that improve performance gets smaller. It is possible to temporarily make an exercise effective again by changing its form, intensity, volume, and its place in the sequence of other exercises, but its effectiveness will be steadily diminishing anyway (Wazny et al. 1992). In Zatsiorsky’s (former strength consultant for the Soviet Olympic teams) words, there are limits to increasing the training load (intensity or volume of exercise) because of the possibility of overtraining. Diversifying the exercises is another way to keep you progressing (Zatsiorsky 1995). Zatsiorsky gives the example of Russian hammer throwers, who for 30 years have dominated world and Olympic competitions. Their nearly 120 sport-specific exercises were divided into 12 complexes of 10 exercises each. Each such complex was used for 2–4 months before being replaced by another, and it was not used again in the 2–4 year period. Every time the exercise complex was changed, the athlete’s performance (in this example, results of hammer throws) deteriorated somewhat but soon after was improving and reaching levels higher than before. The most effective exercises for a given thrower were planned to be used in the year of the most important competitions (Zatsiorsky 1995).
This is another good reason to start your training with general strength exercises so you can squeeze every bit of effectiveness out of them before moving on to sport-specific strength exercises. If you would start your long-term training with sport-specific exercises, by the time you reach the age of top achievements in your sport, these exercises would be of little help in getting you into top fighting shape.
16. Plan your training so you can peak when needed. You do not want to be in top shape long before or long after the most important contest. You want to be your best when it matters most.
Training Tip of the Article
No drill: No skill. Poor drill: Poor skill. Poor condition: Poor drill.
In the forthcoming article you will learn about the proper sequence of strength and endurance exercises in long-term training and in a single workout.
Drabik, J. 1996. Children and Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Healthy, Fit, and Happy. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
Hübner-Wozniak, E., G. Chrusciewicz, and A. Piotrowski. 1995. Zastosowanie oznaczen stezenia kwasu mlekowego we krwi w treningu ciezarowcow. Trening no. 1/25, pp. 50–4.
Jagiello, W. 1993. Dlugofalowy trening judokow. Trening no. 1/17, pp. 86–98.
Kurz, T. 2001. Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Co., Inc.
Lammi, E. 1982. Judo Training. Helsinki: The General Staff of the Finnish Defense Forces.
Matwiejew, S. F. [Matveev, S. F.] and W. Jagiello. 1997. Judo Trening Sportowy. Warsaw: RCMSKFiS.
McArdle, W. D., F. I. Katch, and V. L. Katch. 1996. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins.
Pawluk, J. 1970. Judo sportowe. Warsaw: Sport i Turystyka.
Pawluk, J. 1985. Materialy Szkoleniowe no. 2. Warsaw: Polski Zwiazek Judo.
Wathen, D. 1994. Load Assignment. In Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, ed. T. R. Baechle, pp. 435–446. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Wazny, Z., J. Franecki, J. Kosinski, J. Kuban, J. Posnik, and J. Wolf. 1992. System kontroli procesu treningu. Sport Wyczynowy no. 7–8/331–332, pp. 11–23.
Zatsiorsky, V. M. 1995. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
This article shows how to apply principles of training explained in the books Children and Sports Training and Science of Sports Training. Other books quoted in this article are available at the links from the References above. Get them now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs!
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Martial Arts Training Discussion Forum