The Benefits of Strength Training

The Benefits of Strength Training

Many martial artists now use weights to supplement their martial arts training. In the past it was a commonly held belief that weight training would be detrimental to the martial artist, but today many people acknowledge the positive benefits that resistance training can bring. The use of Chisi (lever weights), Nigiri game (weighted jars), Geta (iron clogs) etc. to develop strength was a regular part of karate training in the past. The older methods are certainly effective, but today many favour to use the more scientific training methods and equipment offered by modern weight lifting.

Weight training (when done correctly) will result in greater strength, increased speed, increased power, stronger tendons, denser bones, greater confidence, increased discipline and improved mental strength. It will not make you stiff or slow you down. The myths of the negative effects of weight lifting are most often perpetuated by martial arts instructors who are not weight trainers themselves. Whilst holding a black belt infers that an individual is knowledgeable with regards to the art they practise, it does not mean that they are equally knowledgeable with regards to weight lifting techniques and methods. You would not go into a gym and ask weight lifers to teach you how to punch, so why ask a martial artist how to lift weights? As a qualified weight lifting coach and as a martial arts instructor I am often concerned by the ineffective, misleading and sometimes downright dangerous weight training advice given by martial artists to their students. This lack of understanding is what often prompts those who should know better to say that weight training has no place in the martial arts. I also feel that some instructors feel threatened by the physically strong and hence also feel the need to pass derogatory comments in the same way such instructors often do with regards to other arts. Aside from insecurity there is no reason to do this, as physical strength (although helpful) does not automatically equate into fighting skill.

In his book ‘Wado-Ryu Karate’ Hironori Otsuka (the founder of the style) states that there are three kinds of strength: Physical strength, Mental strength and Technical strength. Otsuka points out that if any of the three is too weak then that will be the downfall of the individual. Otsuka then goes onto tell us the tale of a match he witnessed in his youth between a Japanese judoka and a foreign wrestler. The judoka placed the wrestler on his back an applied an arm lock. The wrestler, using his superior strength, simply stood up and shook the judoka off. In Otsuka’s words, “It was no contest.” Although strength is no substitute for technical competence, to say that strength has no bearing on the outcome of a fight is foolish.

One of the popular misconceptions is that the martial artist should not lift heavy weights, because it will slow them down. The truth is that lifting heavy weights will actually speed them up! The muscles of the human body are made up of many fibres, not all of which are the same. For simplicity the muscle fibres can be split in to two groups: Red (slow twitch) and White (fast twitch). The red muscle fibres are mainly used for slow and repetitive movements e.g. jogging. The white muscle fibres are used for fast, explosive activities e.g. sprinting, punching, kicking etc. A muscle fibre is either on or off, it is never somewhere between the two. If your muscle is lifting half its maximum weight then half the muscle fibres are working and half are resting. A vital fact to consider is that when weight training is that the body uses the red fibres first, and only when all of them are busy will it then stimulate the white fibres. The exact percentage depends upon the individual but on average you will need to be lifting over seventy percent of your maximum lift to stimulate the white fibres and hence develop your speed and power. It would be very foolish to attempt to lift heavy weights if you are relatively new to weight lifting. To begin with you should lift relatively light weights (such that you can manage around fifteen repetitions) in order to learn how to handle the weights safely. It is very important to seek out instruction on how to lift weights correctly, as it can be every bit as technical as martial arts practise. Just as it is impossible to learn martial arts from a book alone, it is also impossible to learn how to lift weights just from reading a book or an article such as this one. You must get personal instruction so that any faults in your technique can be corrected in order to gain the most benefit and to avoid injury.

One thing to keep in mind is that as martial artists we lift weights in order to improve function and not to improve our appearance. There is a marked difference between the way a body builder will train and the way a martial artist should train. As a martial artist, weight training is a supplementary method and hence will take up a relatively small proportion or your allotted training time (in my case around 15%). A body builder will spend all their time lifting weights. A body builder will also attempt to develop each and every muscle group; where as this type of training would be unnecessary and fatiguing for the martial artist. A body builder will often train with weights twice a day, whereas a martial artist should train twice a week. I vaguely recall an interview in a magazine with a martial artist - who I won’t name in case my powers of recollection are not accurate - who said they had never lifted weights to improve their heath or appearance, but to better equip themselves to ruin other peoples’ health and other peoples’ appearance should it become necessary! I feel this ‘function vs. appearance’ is vital consideration to keep in mind.

A concern often expressed – especial by women – is the fear of becoming ‘muscle bound’. The body’s testosterone (male hormone) levels heavily influence the growth of muscles. Because women have much less of this hormone, the muscle growth is not as significant as is exhibited in males. Also, neither sex is likely to develop a body builder’s physique without the aid of steroids. The detrimental effects of steroids on both the mental and physical health on the individual are well documented. As martial artists we should have no time for drugs and should find the idea of damaging ones health for the sake of ones ego absolutely abhorrent. You will make gains, it just takes time. Steroids are not an alternative to hard work and persistence. At present, I weigh fourteen and a half stone, when I started weight lifting eleven years ago I weighed ten and a half stone. This means that on average I have gained five pounds a year. It is small and consistent gains that you should aim for as opposed to trying to gain large amounts of muscle quickly. Despite claims to the contrary, steroids are the only way to gain muscle extremely quickly and that is simply not an option for any right thinking individual.

As weight training is only going to form a small part of the training of a martial artist it is vital to get the most out of what little time we have. To ensure consistent gains it is important to train twice a week whilst leaving no more than ninety six hours between sessions. The majority of exercises used should be ‘compound exercises.’ A compound exercise is one that stimulates more than one muscle group at a time. Bench press is a compound exercise (Chest, triceps and shoulders) as are Lateral pull downs (back, rear of shoulders and biceps). Isolation exercises like curls (biceps only), kick backs (triceps only) etc. should be avoided. If sufficient weight is used on the bench press then all the muscle groups used will be adequately stimulated and hence exercises like triceps extensions are unnecessary. It is during the recovery from training that you will become stronger, not during the training itself. Working the muscle too much will result in the muscle weakening, as it will not have adequate time to repair itself. Some muscles are difficult to work with compound exercises (e.g. calves) and hence isolation exercises are appropriate in those instances. At present I include seven exercises in my weight training: Leg press, bench press, close grip pull downs, leg curls, shoulder press, seated rows and calve raises. The whole routine takes around an hour and definitely works each and every muscle group adequately.

Another common error is an excessive number of reps (repetitions) and sets (a group of repetitions). To begin with the number of reps should be around fifteen and the number of sets should be set at three. As you progress the number of reps and sets should be reduced as the weight increases. At present my training partner and myself perform two sets of between six to ten reps (depending upon the exercise). Being able to perform more repetitions or more sets would be an indication to me that I was not training intensely enough. Studies have shown that strength is more effectively developed if the rest periods between sets are longer. Reducing the rest time will undoubtedly raise the heart rate but when lifting weights our aim is to improve our strength and power not our endurance. If you wish to improve your endurance then work out on the bag, spar or run, but don’t take your eye of the ball when weight lifting. Resistance training is a great way to improve you strength; it is a poor way to improve endurance.

Be sure to warm up and cool down adequately. Because the muscle has been damaged during training it will temporally shorten in length. This temporary effect is where the ‘weight training makes you inflexible’ myth comes from. In addition to this is the fact that body builders rarely include flexibility training as part of their regime and hence it is the lack of stretching that results in them being inflexible and not he weight training itself. It is a good idea to have a gentle stretch at the end of your session to return the muscle to its normal length as soon as possible. Do not attempt to develop flexibility at this point, as the muscle is likely to be so fatigued as to effect the stretch reflex making it vary easy to over do it. After weight lifting it can be a good idea to do some aerobic training to flush out the lactic acid. The fat burning qualities of aerobic training are enhanced after weight training due to the body’s energy stores being depleted leaving only fat as the main energy source. Another useful addition to a safe routine is a training partner. A partner will allow you to work to your maximum safely, will be able to correct faults in technique and provide motivation.

One often-overlooked aspect of weight training is the mental benefits that it can bring. The weights teach you the dangers of ego. Getting above your station and attempting to lift more than you are ready for will result in injury. The importance of humility is also taught. No matter how strong you are there is always more weight to go on the bar. To make progress you have to have discipline. If you keep skipping sessions in favour of an evening on the sofa then you can’t expect to make any gains. Most importantly of all the weights teach you that the journey is more important that the destination and the things that cause us difficulties are not enemies but friends that help us to grow. The weight is not an enemy that we endeavour to defeat. The fact that a weight refuses to move is the kindest thing it can do, if it happily moved then it would be denying us the chance to better ourselves. The degree of concentration and detachment that is required to move a heavy weight is very similar to the mental state we should enter during martial practice. I recall television program where the brain activity of a power lifter moving a weight, a Kendo master during practice and a person meditating were all recorded. The brain activity (what little of it there was) was the same for all three individuals. The mental benefits of weight lifting are often overlooked.

Weight training can be a valuable supplement to martial practice if it is correctly approached. Resistance training can make you faster, stronger, and more powerful, improve health, increase confidence and enhance discipline. On final thought, be sure to get instruction in weight training techniques and methods from a qualified professional and get your health checked by your doctor before embarking on a program.