Strength Training in Martial Arts
A friend of mine recently started training in Aikido and has been emailing me for advice and being the all-around decent chap that I am, I have been. I’ve given advice on things like how to spot a good dojo/good instructor (one of these days I must do an article on that…) and fielded the occasional technical question as well. Aikido, Taijutsu and Jujutsu all being largely the same thing I don’t feel too bad about that as the techniques and principles are pretty consistent (I’ve only dipped in and out of Aikido but I’m quite experienced with the other two), but I’ve not gone into it too much for fear of contradicting his instructor.
One thing I did feel the need to answer quite fully was his question about weight training. He asked me whether he ought to stop training with weights if he was taking up Aikido because the art was about flow over muscle. Once again, this is as applicable to Taijutsu and Jujutsu as it is to Aikodo and I felt I could give him a pretty good answer, the gist of which I thought I might share here.
Now I’m going to make one important point first. You do not need great muscular strength to perform your techniques well. Just in case you didn’t get that:
YOU DO NOT NEED GREAT MUSCULAR STRENGTH TO PERFORM YOUR TECHNIQUES WELL!
And for all you karateka out there; this applies to striking as much as it does to locking or throwing. Strikes should be delivered using the power of the legs and hips, not just the arms and shoulders, and your accuracy and timing should be what make your strikes devastating. Locks are about precise technique and throws are about understanding balance and momentum. At no point should you rely upon superior strength to make a technique work because if your technique only works on a weaker opponent then it doesn’t work. Full stop.
Right, now that’s out of the way I’m going to tell you why weight training is in fact beneficial to martial artists – just keep the above point in mind!
Strength might not be vital for performing technique but it is incredibly useful all the same. Here’s why:
- For all the technique you may have, having some brute power to fall back on is very useful when actually fighting someone. This may not be the MA ideal of the little guy taking on a gang of thugs but the fact is that the old saying ‘a good big man will always beat a good little man’ is pretty accurate. Train your technique – make it your priority and get as good as you possibly can – but if you can have some muscle power as a backup plan then do it, it comes in handy (trust me)!
- Strength and fitness are always good for that first line of self-defence; running! This may be more a cardio thing than a weight training thing but remember that most of the world’s best sprinters use weights as part of their training regimen. I don’t train as much cardio as I probably should but when I run races my legs don’t give out because I’ve spent time training them (my lungs are another story but let’s not look too hard at my cardio training…). Building strong legs helps you to run and all-over body conditioning is vital for any athlete. Don’t skip leg day!
- One perfect strike may well be enough to win you a fight on its own (Ikken Histasu) and you should strive for accuracy and timing to make the chances of that working as great as possible. But odds are you’re not going to get the chance for a perfect strike and will likely have to hit someone several times to get the result. You will also in all likelihood have to do so from a position that makes setting up good strikes with full body dynamics difficult (try hitting hard when you’re stuck flat on your back when you haven’t trained your triceps and core – you will see what I mean soon enough!). Training your pushing muscles will maximise your efficiency for striking at close range and in non-ideal positions and trust me, that is where you’ll end up.
- When throwing somebody you should always rely on their momentum more than dragging them around, but this said few people will throw themselves for you and a little persuasion goes a long way – so work your pulling muscles just as hard. I’m not advocating that you ‘muscle on’ your throws and thus become reliant on it, but if you lack the strength to draw your opponent correctly when they’ve given only a little momentum (and few Judoka will offer up any more than they can help) and your legs aren’t strong enough to squat into position, your throwing better be as good as Kano himself if you want to chuck a bigger guy to the floor. I don’t know about you but mine isn’t. A little power on the draw comes in handy.
- Without a strong core your groundwork will suffer. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Ideally you’ll never end up on the ground but far too many fights end up that way for a serious martial artist to ignore this in their training. Setting aside how useful strong arms and legs are in that situation, a strong core is vital for moving with speed and control on the ground. Core strength is important for your standing work as well, providing stability and helping your power when you strike or draw your opponent. Handily enough, I have before now beaten a man on the ground who was both heavier than me and had much stronger arms and legs – I won only because he didn’t train his core and so was slow to recover and stay on me when we rolled and I managed to outmanoeuvre him because of it (annoyingly he has since learned from his mistake and is now really hard to grapple with!). Do your sit-ups, and not just B/W either but with resistance, ie; cables, hand weights, medicine balls etc and your groundwork will improve. Those abs aren’t just for the beach!
- People who say that if you have big muscles you’ll be slower are wrong. Again, not opinion; fact. I’ve trained with too many big guys who were fast as hell to think anything else. The truth is that big guys who do not train in martial arts, can be slow in some cases. Big does not mean slow and if you think it does you’re kidding yourself. We all like to think that if we’re little we can out-speed someone but that is simply not true 90% of the time. I’m no giant but at most of 15 stone I’m not small either, and I’ve seen the dismay in ‘speedy’ little guy’s faces when they realise I’m still faster than they are. That’s nothing to do with me being special and everything to do with my having had sensible advice on training for technique, speed and power (if it makes you feel better, I’ve also been the smaller guy facing a big guy who I thought would be slow and then found out the hard way that he really wasn’t!).
- Weight training, like cardio, helps develop mental toughness and discipline, something every martial artist should strive for. Getting out that extra rep when you really don’t want to and sticking to the hard work when you feel you’re getting nowhere are exactly what you need to help your mindset for martial arts. Most of us, if we’re lucky, won’t have to actually fight people too many times in our lives. Some very lucky people may avoid violent confrontation altogether, as indeed we should as citizens of a society governed by law (perhaps I’m an idealist but that is how things should be after all). We will however all have to cope with adversity and setbacks and if we take nothing else from martial training it should be the attitude to never give up. Of course this comes best from training our techniques under pressure, when we’re exhausted and want to give in, or when an opponent in the dojo outclasses us and we want to throw in the towel rather than do the best we can, but any other training that helps that is a definite bonus.
- The stronger you are, the fitter you are; the longer you can train for. Again, this is both a weights and cardio thing. When I began training in Shotokan I started at the same time as a friend of mine. We started on the same day, with roughly the same amount of previous experience in karate training, and yet he progressed in his technique slower than I did. This had nothing to do with me being better at martial arts (I have no natural aptitude for MA at all, all I’ve gained I’ve gained through repetitive training and lots and lots of getting punched!). The only difference was that I was fitter and stronger and so could train for much longer before I tired. It meant that when his technique became sloppy halfway through the class because he was too tired to keep it up, I was able to keep going. This meant my technique improved because it was the equivalent of his getting half a lesson for every full lesson I got. I repeat; nothing to do with me being special – everything to do with sensible training with resistance/cardio.
There are no doubt many other good reasons for training with weights in addition to your Budo but these are ones based on my own personal experience. There are arguments that weight training is good for the heart and it improves bone density and all that jazz but I’m no expert at that so I won’t pretend to be able to comment intelligently.
Now I’m going to repeat my initial statement because it really is important:
YOU DO NOT NEED GREAT MUSCULAR STRENGTH TO PERFORM YOUR TECHNIQUES WELL!
This fact has not changed and technical proficiency, flow, precision and (most importantly) spirit and attitude should take priority over training for strength. But strength training can be incredibly useful in your martial arts and in my view everybody should be doing it. There is everything to gain and nothing to lose; you will not get slower, your technique will suffer only as much as you let it, your stronger muscles will not suddenly make you more susceptible to kyusho (no idea where that myth came from but trust me it is a myth) and ladies – you will not, repeat, not bulk up like a bodybuilder if you train with weights. You need to do some serious lifting and supplementing to gain real mass the way bodybuilders do and YOU WILL NOT DO IT BY ACCIDENT (you may have guessed that this particular myth is one of my bigger pet peeves!).
I think I’ve now rambled on long enough on this subject so here’s the sum up: Attention all Budoka – train with weights, it’s good for you!