Sequence of Conditioning Exercises for Fighters and Martial Artists in Long-Term Training and in a Single Workout
by Thomas Kurz
In this article you will learn about the sequence of strength and endurance exercises in long-term training and in a single workout.
A rationally designed strength training program begins with developing the core of the body and the stabilizing muscles (see the 5th and 6th principles of conditioning in the article “Principles of Conditioning for Sports and Martial Arts.” People with a weak core of the body (trunk muscles) can strain their backs, hip flexors, and abdomens while doing sets of kicks and punches.
A strong trunk is the basis for strengthening arms and legs so their joints can withstand punching and kicking. As a bonus, having strong legs makes it possible to safely and quickly develop the ability to do splits with isometric stretching.
You can start work on aerobic fitness at the same time you begin work on strengthening the trunk, so by the time you are ready for intensive strength exercises your aerobic fitness is good. Aerobic fitness makes you healthier and speeds up your recovery after speed, strength, and muscular endurance exercises. It thus allows for a high volume and intensity of other conditioning and sport-specific exercises (see the 2nd principle of conditioning in the article “Principles of Conditioning for Sports and Martial Arts.” Even sprinters and weightlifters develop aerobic fitness (Kurz 2001).
Aerobic fitness is a foundation of overall conditioning and fighting shape. Fatigue kills tactics and technique. Asked what is more important, technical skills or the endurance to use them, former UFC welterweight champion Pat Miletich answered “It’s a mixture. No matter what stage of your career you’re at, endurance always pays off. There’s a saying, `I’d rather fight a great fighter in mediocre shape than a mediocre fighter in great shape’” (Gerbasi 2001).
You can develop aerobic fitness by various exercises, provided they raise the heart rate up to the aerobic maximum for 20 minutes or more and you do them at least twice per week (Maffetone 2000; McArdle, Katch, and Katch 1996; Sharkey 1990). So running, cross-country skiing, swimming, shadow boxing, light bag work, and rope jumping—all can be used separately or together. The maximum aerobic heart rate is the maximum heart rate below the anaerobic threshold (blood lactate threshold). This heart-rate value is arrived at by subtracting an athlete’s age from 180. If you are returning to training after an injury, or you get colds or other infections often, or your performance decreases, then you should subtract 5 from the resulting value. If you have not had any colds or flu, have exercised for two years without any injuries, and your performance is improving, then you should add 5 to the result. For 16-year-olds and younger a heart rate should not exceed 165 beats per minute (Maffetone 2000).
The best time for aerobic fitness exercises is at the end of a typical martial arts workout in which technique or speed are developed. It is also good to do these exercises in a separate aerobic workout. Doing aerobic exercises soon after intensive strength or muscular endurance training reduces the pace and duration of aerobic efforts. For example, after heavy squats or deadlifts, it is hard to run lightly for even a couple of miles. Instead of running you may end up jogging and damaging the knees more than increasing your aerobic fitness.
Rebuilding and strengthening the muscles after strength exercises is impaired if the same muscle groups are prime movers in both the strength and in the aerobic fitness exercises. If you do aerobic endurance after heavy strength work, then your aerobic exercise should stress other muscle groups than the strength exercises. So, it is okay to run after doing crunches and back extensions—the beginning exercises for strengthening the trunk—but after squats or deadlifts it is better to shadowbox, swim, or practice with weapons.
Some information on how long it takes after a strength workout to recover enough to do aerobic exercises for the same muscles, and how long after aerobic exercises until you can do a strength workout is in the article “Weekly Schedule of Workouts.” More specific information is in chapters 6, “Strength” and 8, “Endurance” of the book Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance (Kurz 2001).
Long-term sequence of strength exercises in preparation for combat sports and martial arts
In your long-term training first gradually strengthen your trunk, starting with strengthening the muscles of the abdomen by crunches, then progressing to sit-ups, and eventually doing both these exercises with weights. Eventually you should be doing several hundred crunches or sit-ups per workout. If you are in good shape you can do them every other day. In concert with strengthening your abdomen you can start strengthening your back with extensions on the floor and then, as your strength improves, on the bench—both exercises without weights. Back exercises are done in sets of 30 repetitions at the most.
When your abdomen and hip flexors have good endurance (when you can do a set of 500 sit-ups without extra resistance), then you can start using weights in your back extensions on a bench, and add more functional back strengthening lifts: good mornings, and eventually deadlifts.
If your abdomen does not feel weak during 10–15 repetitions of bench extensions with extra weight of 1/3 of your body weight (50 lb. in the case of a 150 lb. athlete), then it should be strong enough for more intense hip flexor exercises—lying leg raises without weights. The abdomen is strong enough if it does not bother you and its fatigue does not interfere with completing your lower back or hip flexor exercises.
Right from the beginning of your strength training you can do squats without weights. The time to start using a bar is when you start doing good mornings. Initially squat with only as much weight as you can safely handle in the good morning. When the weight of the bar reaches 2/3 of your body weight, it will become risky to do good mornings. From that point on, the further strengthening of your lower back will be done mainly with deadlifts, and the progression of weights lifted in squats will depend on the strength of your back and legs.
When, without much psyching up and teeth grinding, you can deadlift once or twice a barbell weighing twice as much as you and squat six or more times with a barbell weighing at least as much as you do, you can safely progress to hip flexor exercises more intensive than lying leg raises without weights. These more intensive hip flexor exercises are leg raises with weights and leg raises while hanging on a bar. The back is strong enough for hip flexor exercises when it can hold the spine flat during lying leg raises and keep normal lower back lordosis during hanging leg raises, without getting tired. As you strengthen your back and lift more in lower back exercises, you should be able to use gradually heavier weights in lying leg raises.
When you can do 10 hanging leg raises (hang on the high bar, raise both legs up to touch the bar), you can start doing adductor flys and other exercises for your inner thigh muscles. Muscles of the inner thigh are often strained during kicking. Strengthening them with such a full range of motion exercises as adductor flys is good insurance against those strains.
Before you attempt to do any number of adductor flys you must be able to do, without any discomfort, the same number of lying leg raises with the same amount of resistance. At the beginning you use no resistance (besides the weight of your legs), then use ankle weights, and eventually—if you want serious strength in the adductors—the iron boots.
If in doing adductor flys you have difficulty keeping your legs in a transverse plane (in relation to the vertical axis of your body), it means that your hip flexors are too weak. If your lower back comes off the floor while you do adductor flys—it is too weak. If your lower back tenses uncomfortably while you do isometric stretches for the legs, or any other exercises—it is too weak.
Sequence of strength exercises in a workout
The above is the sequence of exercises in a long-term strength training plan. In a single workout this sequence is to be reversed. This means that during a workout, when you do these weightlifting exercises, first you should do leg exercises (ending them with isometric stretches for splits when you are strong enough), then hip flexors, then lower back, and at the very end the exercises such as crunches for your abdomen. If you do sit-ups with weights, do them before lower back exercises because for this exercise you will need the full strength of your back. Sit-ups exercise both the abdomen and hip flexors so they should be done together with other hip flexor exercises.
In addition to strengthening the trunk stabilizers and the primary movers for punching, kicking, and grappling moves, you should also strengthen your hands and wrists, and feet and ankles. This work starts at the beginning of your long-term strength preparation for the martial arts practice, long before you start hitting bags and focus mitts.
Strengthen your hands and wrists by crumpling papers, kneading silly putty, rolling up a weight on a string using overhand and underhand grips, twisting the forearm (pronating and supinating) with one-sided dumbbells, bending the wrist while holding a one-sided dumbbell in a hammer grip and in an ice-pick grip. To strengthen your feet crumple papers or rugs with the toes, move across the floor by curling your feet, do heel raises (straight, on the outside toes, and on the inside of the big toe), and toe raises against resistance (straight, and rotated in and out). These exercises prepare hands and feet so they do not buckle on impact.
Training Tip of the Article
- In the long-term training program for martial arts or combat sports first strengthen the core of the body and the stabilizing muscles to build the foundation for developing power of kicks, punches, takedowns and throws.
- In a single workout work on power of kicks, punches, and grappling techniques first, and on the strength of the stabilizing muscles last.
In the next article you will learn about the beginning strength exercises for abdomen and lower back.
Gerbasi, T. 2001. Pat “The Croatian Sensation” Miletich. Ultimate Athlete vol. 1, no. 1 (October), pp. 53–58.
Kurz, T. 2001. Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Co., Inc.
Maffetone, P. 2000. Training for Endurance: Guide for Endurance Athletes of All Levels. Stamford, NY: David Barmore Productions.
McArdle, W. D., F. I. Katch, and V. L. Katch. 1996. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins.
Sharkey, B. J. 1990. Physiology of Fitness. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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