Fundamentals for Martial Artists
by Charles I. Staley, B.Sc., MSS
On January 11, 1994, a well known boxing commentator
stated to his television audience that he felt weight
training was deleterious to fighters, adding "muscle
weighs more than fat." This statement is interesting
in two regards. First, boxing coaches have been expressing
the same opinion for years- it's just incredulous
to hear such an assertion in 1994! Second, muscle
does weigh more than fat, but does this mean that
boxers should strive to accumulate as much fat as
possible in order to become a better fighter!?
Of course, getting stronger will not in and of itself
make anyone a better fighter. But it does create the
potential for enhanced athletic performance, and therefore,
better fighting skills. In fact, strength is a determining
factor in how much speed, power, agility, cardiovascular
endurance, and technical ability a fighter can attain.
Of all the bio-motor abilities, strength is by far
the easiest to develop, and as such, pays fantastic
dividends to any athlete who pursues it diligently.
If your conception of strength is more along the lines
of a 500 pound clean and jerk, or a 1000 pound squat,
you're in good company. But as you'll see, strength
is just as important for the martial artist as it
is for the competitive weightlifter. In fact, for
most martial artists, strength training could be the
very key that unlocks vast quantities of unimagined
athletic potential! Strength can be loosely defined
as the ability to apply musculo-skeletal force. But
for a more precise definition, we must first consider
the various types of strength expression available
The Many Faces of Strength
Strength as a bio-motor ability has many expressions.
All human movement requires strength of one type or
another, and for this reason, all athletes must concern
themselves with developing their strength levels to
the utmost. The following list categorizes the various
types of strength needed by athletes in all sports.
The amount of musculoskeletal force you can generate
for one all-out effort. Limit strength is your athletic
"foundation." Limit strength can only be demonstrated
or tested in the weight room during the performance
of a maximal lift. While only powerlifters need to
maximize and demonstrate this type of strength, martial
artists need to develop high levels of limit strength
in every muscle group.
Absolute strength is the same as limit strength with
one important distinction. Limit strength is achieved
while "under the influence" of some work producing
aid (supplements, hypnosis, therapeutic techniques,
etc.), while absolute strength is achieved through
training alone- "au natural." That makes limit strength
more important for your purposes.
Whereas absolute strength refers to strength irrespective
of bodyweight, relative strength is a term used to
denote an athlete's strength per unit of bodyweight.
It can be used as a modifier for other categories
of strength, such as speed strength or strength endurance.
Thus if two athletes of different bodyweights can
squat 275 pounds, they have equal absolute strength
for that lift, but the lighter athlete has greater
All sports which have weight classes depend heavily
on relative strength, as do sports where the athlete
must overcome his or her bodyweight to accomplish
a motor task (i.e., martial arts, long jump, sprinting,
etc.). Further, sports which have aesthetic requirements
(figure skating, gymnastics, etc.) rely heavily upon
the development of strength without a commensurate
gain in bodyweight.
It is well known that strength can be developed through
two very different means- by applying stress to the
muscle cells themselves, or by targeting the nervous
system. The former method is accomplished through
the application of bodybuilding methods (repetitions
between 6 and 12), and results in strength gains through
an increase in muscle cross-section. The latter is
accomplished through higher intensity training (repetitions
between 1 and 4), and increases in strength are the
result of the body's improved ability to recruit more
of its existing motor unit pool.
For athletes who need absolute strength (throwers
in track and field, football linemen, etc.), both
methods are used extensively. First, bodybuilding
methods are used, followed by nervous system training.
The result is an increase in bodyweight and absolute
strength. As the athlete becomes larger, however,
relative strength decreases. For martial artists and
other athletes who depend upon relative strength,
bodybuilding methods should be used sparingly, unless
a higher weight class is desired. Most strength training
is characterized by high intensity, low repetition
sets, which improve strength through neural adaptations
rather than increases in muscle cross section.
The Stretch-shortening Cycle (SSC)
Most human movement is characterized by an eccentric
phase immediately followed by a concentric phase.
This muscular action is called the stretch-shortening
cycle, or SSC. Examples include throwing, jumping,
and even walking. During the eccentric phase, the
tendons develop and stores potential kinetic energy,
similar to a stretched elastic band. Then, during
the concentric phase, this potential kinetic energy
is returned, resulting in greater force output than
if the movement had begun concentrically. During many
movements (jumping rope, for example), the muscle
maintains static contraction, with movement being
provided by the storing and release of elastic energy
through the tendons. Since static muscular activity
uses up less energy than concentric activity, making
the SSC an extremely energy-efficient way of moving.
The efficiency of the SSC is easy to test: Try performing
a vertical jump in a normal manner, where you first
crouch, and then jump upwards as explosively as possible.
Next, crouch, but pause for five seconds, and then
jump upward. Measure each attempt. You'll see that
the jump where the crouch (or eccentric phase) was
IMMEDIATELY followed by the jump was more successful.
The key to preserving as much potential kinetic energy
as possible is to switch from eccentric to concentric
as rapidly as possible. This switch is termed "reactive
strength" by some authors.
Further evidence of the SSC can be seen in any videotaped
sparring match. View the match in slow motion, and
you'll see that almost all fighters "cock" their punches,
be it ever so slightly. The best fighters manage to
minimize this preparatory movement, because observant
opponents can pick up on it.
In order to respect the principle of specificity,
strength training methods should reflect the SSC nature
of athletic skills. The best form of resistance training
technologies to accomplish this task are constant
resistance, or "free weights," and variable resistance,
which utilize either cams or levers, in an attempt
to "match" the resistance values to the strength curve
of the muscle being trained. Of these two technologies,
the former is preferred, at least in the case of advanced
athletes, because machines tend to rob the synergists
and stabilizers of adaptive stress.
Rate of Force Development
Many martial artists work hard to improve their absolute
(or maximum) strength, without realizing that absolute
strength is not the most sport specific type of strength
for them. In the martial arts (as in most athletic
endeavors), the problem is that the amount of time
to develop maximum muscular force is extremely limited-
usually only a fraction of a second. While high levels
of absolute strength are a necessary prerequisite
for the development of speed strength, too much time
in the weight room grinding out heavy weights at slow
speeds, without making the conversion to speed strength
later in the training cycle, results in slow athletes.
The ability to apply muscular force rapidly is called
rate of force development, or RFD. While hypertrophy
training slightly improves absolute strength, it has
a negligible effect on RFD. Training with heavy weights
significantly improves absolute strength, but again,
the RFD remains largely unchanged. Only when speed
strength methods (plyometrics, ballistic training,
etc.) are used, is the RFD significantly improved.
Absolute strength declines during this period, however.
This is considered an acceptable (and temporary) trade
off, since the athlete will never have enough time
to reach this level of strength. However, if absolute
strength is allowed to degrade too much, RFD will
suffer. For this reason, many coaches alternate between
maximum strength and speed strength phases during
the competitive period.
Overcoming the Decelerative and Inhibitory Aspects
of Traditional Weight Training
While constant resistance is the most conventional
form of resistance training used by athletes, it has
one distinct disadvantage: deceleration. Let's use
the bench press as an example: you lower the bar to
your chest, and then ram it to arms length. You're
being explosive, right? Well, not quite. As your arms
reach extension, the antagonists (lats, biceps, rhomboids,
and medial traps) begin to contract in an effort to
decelerate the bar before it leaves your hands. It's
simply a protective mechanism. Contrast this with
your objective, which is to accelerate your arm, and
you begin to see the problem. There are at least two
ways to address this inherent disadvantage of constant
and variable resistance training: strengthen the antagonists
and stabilizers, and use ballistic training.
Strengthening the Antagonists and Stabilizers
Muscles work in pairs- for every muscle in the body,
there is another muscle that is capable of opposing
its force. This "pairing" mechanism is how we are
able to move with precision of movement and speed.
However, when one part of this pair becomes too strong
in relation to the other, force output capability
Unfortunately, many athletes unknowingly reinforce
this imbalance every time they train, thinking they
are respecting the principle of specificity by training
only the prime movers (or "agonists"). An example
would be a martial artist who reasons that since the
quadriceps muscle extends the leg during kicking,
the quadriceps should receive the brunt of the training
focus. Before long, the hamstrings (which are the
antagonists in kicking movements) are weak in proportion
to the quads, and power output declines. At this point,
the student may conclude that weight training "slows
you down," because for him, it did.
Here's the problem in the above example: the weaker
the antagonists are, the sooner they will contract
and oppose the prime movers (to prevent joint hyperextension),
resulting in a slower movement. But stronger antagonists
are less sensitive to this protective response- the
body "knows" that they are strong enough to decelerate
the limb at the last possible moment. The next time
you watch elite boxers on TV, notice the development
of the lats and biceps. Great punchers always have
well developed antagonists.
Insufficient stabilizer strength also limits power
output, for very similar reasons. Stabilizers are
muscles which anchor or immobilize one part of the
body, allowing another part (usually the limbs) to
exert force. The most important stabilizers are those
of the trunk- the abdominals and trunk extensors.
If the motor cortex detects that it can't stabilize
the force provided by the prime movers, it simply
won't allow the prime mover to contract with full
force. In other words, the force output of the prime
movers is limited by the strength of the stabilizer
In a recent magazine article, William Kraemer, a professor
at Penn State, used the term "ballistic training"
to describe movements that are "acellerative, of high
velocity, and with projection into free space." Ballistic
training involves plyometrics, modified Olympic lifting,
jumping, throwing, and striking movements (such as
punching a heavy bag or kicking a shield).The obvious
advantage of ballistic training is that it lacks a
deceleration phase, making it much more coordination-specific
for most athletes. Ballistic training is initiated
during the conversion phase, as it requires significant
preparatory training with lighter resistances to strengthen
tendons and ligaments. Without such preparation, ballistic
training would result in too much risk.
This article was adapted from Charles Staley's book
Special Topics in Martial Arts Conditioning. Reprinted
with permission of the author.
About the Author
Charles Staley began his exploration of strength and
athletic performance as a martial arts instructor
and competitor in New York state during the 1980's.
Charles subsequently studied and coached the sport
of Olympic weightlifting, eventually producing several
state and national level competitors in that sport.
Along the way, Charles has also coached track & field,
and has competed as a Master's level discus competitor,
placing 3rd. in the Master's Nationals in Provo, Utah,
Since 1992, Charles has developed policies and course
content for the International Sports Sciences Association,
and currently teaches several certification seminars
per year for the ISSA.
Charles has written over 100 published articles for
such magazines as Muscle Media 2000, Inside Kung Fu,
Muscle & Fitness, Martial Arts Training, Ms. Fitnes,
and several others. He is also author of Special Topics
in Martial Arts Conditioning, a training textbook
for combat sport coaches.
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