Strength Development 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 relative strength.
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
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
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 suffers.
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 muscles.
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.
Note: 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, in 1994.
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.