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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.

Strength Defined

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 to athletes.

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.

Limit Strength

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

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.

Relative Strength

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 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 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.

Ballistic Training

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.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

weight training, limit strength, absolute strength, relative strength, stretch-shortening Cycle, SSC


Read more articles by Charles I. Staley, B.Sc., MSS

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