Strength Training Benefits for Martial Artists:
An Interview with Charles Staley
(Part 1 of 3)
by Tom Ross
Charles Staley is a sports conditioning specialist
and author of the book, The
Science of Martial Arts Training.
Fightingarts: Mr. Staley, I understand that
you are a martial artist yourself as well as being
a highly respected strength coach, athlete and writer.
Would you mind telling our readers a little about
Staley: Please call me Charles...I started
martial arts training at age 11 and continued my physical
practice until I was 31, at which point I felt I had
exhausted my potential as a martial artist. I wanted
to pursue other avenues, specifically the discus throw.
I am currently 40 years of age. In any event, to sum
up my story, I'm just a geek who learned a lot in
my compulsive desire to become a successful athlete
(which unfortunately, never happened!). I consider
myself a teacher specializing in physical preparation.
For the past 20 or so years I have done nothing but
train, study, eat, and sleep. And I mean that literally.
Don't try to get inside my head- you'll just get hurt!
But anyway, whether I'm writing, teaching seminars,
or working with athletes, to me, it's all teaching.
I know my craft and I'm an effective communicator.
I'm not a "trainer." You train animals,
FA: Many martial artists fear that strength
training will have a detrimental effect on their martial
abilities, for example, decreased flexibility and/or
loss of speed. Could you address these concerns?
Staley: Well, the irony is that, in all other
athletic disciplines, strength training is universally
used to enhance all of these attributes, yet, in the
martial arts, people are afraid that strength training
will impair their abilities. Of course, like anything
else, strength training is a tool: use it properly,
good results; improperly, bad results. If I try to
turn a screw with a hammer, I'm going to end up hating
hammers, when the fault resides within myself, not
in the tool itself. As it turns out, most athletes
use strength training improperly, and this fact enables
my career as a conditioning specialist.
FA: Charles, could you discuss the benefits
of strength training by weights for the martial artist
as opposed to developing strength by the use of isometric
exercises, dynamic tension and a regimen of various
Staley: Well first, let's just call strength
training the method and weight training, isometrics,
dynamic tension, and so on, would be thought of as
the specific means within the method. Many people
tend to view strength training and weight training
as one and the same, when in fact the latter is just
one way of implementing the former.But to answer your
original question, there are many, many benefits.
We can start with some of the more obvious ones, such
as the improvement of force output capabilities. A
strength trained athlete can exert greater force on
any given effort (absolute strength). He can also
apply that force more quickly (speed strength), and
he can exert greater force over a succession of intense
efforts (strength endurance). The practical benefits
of this should be fairly obvious, but for example,
if, during a jump, one can exert more force through
the ground with his feet, then he jumps higher, and
so on. Now, what happens when we enter these discussions
is that the martial arts are traditionally based on
technique, which I would define as getting more done
with less energy-- getting in the position of best
leverage, using the opponent's energy against himself,
all of that. So when I talk about strength, the knee-jerk
reaction is "We use technique, not strength."
However, if we match Steffi Graf against Michael Chang,
who will win, and why?
FA: I'd have to bet on Chang!
Staley: Exactly. Because, if you have two competitors
with equal technical and tactical ability, then the
strongest one wins. So we're not suggesting that a
martial artist forsake his or her technical training
in order to become stronger, we're just saying that
strength development has an important place in training.
FA: OK, with that in mind, this brings up
another question. As you know, martial arts training
can be extremely demanding, so how is itpossible to
balance this type of training with a quality strength
training regimen without overtraining?
Staley: As a kid in high school, I remember
that I didn't have enough time or energy to work a
full time job when school was in session. So, I'd
take a full time job in the summer, and then drop
back to part time when school was in. Incorporating
strength training into your total program works the
same way. You can't simply add it on, but rather,
you must integrate it into your existing schedule.
Let me elaborate a bit on this if I may.
In the beginning, the skills that make up a martial
artist's training will actually improve strength.
In other words, throwing side kicks makes the legs
stronger, and so on. But after a time, the body will
habituate to throwing those kicks, and you don't get
any stronger. At this point kick training is still
important for continued technical development, but
if one wishes to further increase kicking strength,
we need to engage in supplementary strength training.
This might consist of weight training, jump drills,
elastic tubing, there are many possible components,
but it doesn't have to take over your life. Three
to four weekly sessions lasting 30-45 minutes each
are usually plenty.
When you first initiate a strength training program,
you should reduce the volume (amount) of your martial
arts training for the first 3-4 weeks or so. If you've
been training in the arts for a long time, you'll
be able to maintain your skills even on a reduced
training volume. But this will make room for the inclusion
of the new training element. Once the body has adjusted,
you can increase the volume again.
On a macro view, if I'm training a competitive martial
artist for a fight, we do the bulk of the strength
training work early in the cycle. Then, as the date
approaches, the volume of strength training is reduced
to allow for more sparring, technical drills, endurance
activities, and so on. Although the volume is reduced,
intensity is not. This is what maintains the adaptation.
So, in other words, early in the cycle, if the athlete
does, say, 12 sets of 2 repetitions with 225 pounds,
later in the cycle he may use the same weight or even
heavier for perhaps 4 sets of 2 repetitions. Compared
to what he did earlier in the cycle, this is a picnic,
and leaves him fresh for the other aspects of his
training that he now needs to focus on.
FA: Since you've used an example of a particularly
low-repetition format here, could you share your thoughts
in regard to the low weight-high repetition type training
so popular with any martial artists these days?
Staley: Yes, it doesn't work. Should I elaborate?
FA: Please do!
Staley: OK. Let's consider two hypothetical
"Traditional:" 200 pounds for 3 sets of
"Skilled:" 200 pounds for 6 sets of 5 repetitions.
In both cases the training load is identical. The
weight is the same, the total number of reps of the
same, and the total volume (weight x reps) is also
identical. However, the net result of each format
can be very different. Let's have a look:
First, a significant aspect of "skill"
in most exercises is the process of setting up and
exiting the set. For example, during a bench press,
the athlete must learn and perfect how to position
him/herself under the bar properly, how to center
the grip, how to tuck the scapulae, where to place
the feet, when and how to take in the first breath,
and so on. At the completion of the set, the athlete
must learn how to safely re-rack the bar, how to sit
up from the bench without straining the back, and
During the back squat exercise, the athlete must
learn how to wedge and center the traps under the
bar, how to make the walk-back as economical as possible,
how to properly position the feet, and so forth.
In the case of machines, one must learn how to position
the seat, how to enter the machine, and on completion,
how to exit the machine.In other words, the actual
repetitions are cake compared to the "set-up"
and "break-down." The "skilled"
approach is superior to the "traditional"
format with regard to motor learning because it gives
you twice as many set-up and break-down opportunities.
In terms of strength acquisition, the "skilled"
format wins again, because the athlete is less fatigued
he can exert more force against the resistance on
each repetition. The object of strength training is
to have the most force and the least fatigue (as opposed
to vice versa, which is how most people lift).
Finally, because the "skilled" format leads
to less fatigue, it is also safer than the traditional
format. As the lifter fatigues, skilled performance
declines, and the possibility of injury increases.
For example, an athlete misses the uprights when he
attempts to rack the bar at the end of a set because
he's in a rush to escape the pain of lactic acid accumulation
in his chest, deltoids, and arms. So, on all counts,
low repetition (which may or may not be maximal effort
reps) lifting is far preferable to the bodybuilding-type
format that most people use. If I used the high rep
format as a martial artist, I'd hate it too!
By the way, don't get overly hung up on the number
five. It could be two, three, whatever. In other words,
when I point at the moon, you shouldn't be looking
at my finger!
FA: How important is supervision when first
learning to lift weights?
Staley: When I walk into a commercial gym,
more than 99% of people are lifting improperly. You
can't learn to train reading muscle magazines or from
reading books, or from watching everyone else, since
they're doing everything wrong as well! It's just
like the martial arts, you can't learn it from a book.
So it's important to find qualified supervision, at
least at the beginning to form good habits.
FA: What would you say as being the most common
mistake you've seen?
Staley: Well, they are perhaps too numerous to boil
down to a few, but essentially, improper set/rep protocols
(i.e., over-reliance on high repetition formats) and
poor biomechanics (lifting technique) tend to top
the list. Too many athletes model their weight training
after bodybuilding routines, which of course, is as
silly as bodybuilders performing kata.
FA: As there is no substitution for quality
supervision what advice could you give which would
assist in training?
Staley: Athletes should seek out an experienced,
qualified conditioning specialist in their area. Since
I have taught for and consulted to the International
Sports Sciences Association for the past 10 years,
let me suggest that readers call (800) 519-2492 for
the name and number of a ISSA-certified specialist
in their area. I have also created a specialized certification
program for martial artists called Specialist in Martial
Arts Conditioning for the ISSA. People can find out
more by going to: http://www.issaonline.com.
FA: Before we end this first section of the
interview I was wondering if you wouldn't mind telling
us a little about your company, Myo Dynamics?
Staley: Of course. Myo Dynamics is the umbrella
company under which I work with athletes, consult
to various groups and organizations, teach training
seminars, write for various magazines, and so on.
I am based in Las Vegas, Nevada, but also travel
to Los Angeles every 5 weeks to work with clients
there. Incidentally, I do not require that athletes
spend protracted periods of time with me. If someone
has a trip planned to Las Vegas, and would like me
to evaluate their training, they can call and we can
set up an appointment. I also sell specialized tracking
software for athletes, and my book, The
Science of Martial Arts Training, was
released in March, 2000. Did I leave anything out?
FA: I'm sure our readers would like to know
how to contact you?
Staley: They may call (800) 519-2492, or e-mail
me at firstname.lastname@example.org
FA: Thank you very much Charles for a most
to Part 2
A related article by Charles Staley is
Development: Fundamentals for Martial Artists.
About the Author
Charles I. Staley, B.Sc., MSS, is a sports conditioning
specialist and Vice President of Program Development
for the International Sports Sciences Association.
A former martial arts competitor and trainer, Staley
is also an Olympic weightlifting coach, as well as
a master's level track and field competitor (discus
event). He has coached elite athletes from many sports,
including martial arts, boxing, track & field,
football, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding.
Staley has written over 150 published articles, and
has lectured extensively on the topics of human performance
and sports training. He has recently authored a text
on conditioning for the martial arts, and has several
other books in the planning stages. Staley's award-winning
web site (Fundamentals of Strength Training for Sport,
located at www.myodynamics.com)
is consistently ranked among the top 50 in the world
in the health & fitness category. He may be reached
at (800) 519-2492, or through the internet at email@example.com.
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