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BradderzH's picture
Fitness and Strength Training From a Traditional/Self Defence Perspective

To put it plain and simple: what is the best way for a traditional martial artist to train?

What I mean by this is excluding actual training in the dojo (obviously by far the best way to improve), what could a traditional martial artist do (in the gym, for example) that would improve his/her martial arts, from a traditional, self defence point of view as opposed to someone who competes?

Some aspects are more clear than others, such as lifting heavy weights to build more power, focusing on compound exercises. Heavy bag training would be another obvious one.

Does anyone else have any suggestions of exercises? For example, would boxing footwork drills be of any use in this context? How important is cardio? I’m looking for ways to train smarter in the gym to indirectly improve my karate, if that makes sense! I generally go to the gym twice a week, do a weightlifting session and then go home. Any other ideas would be appreciated! 


Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

It's difficult to give advice without doing a full assessment of someone's current fitness and training goals. However, the general rule is that you can never be fit enough and the overriding principle is training specificity: the closer the training is to the real thing, the more effective it will be. For example, thinking about strength training, what is closer to a self-defence situation - lifting weights in a machine, or heaving something like a heavy tackle-dummy around the gym (or field)? Probably the latter. What's kind of CV training is closer to self-defence: short sharp sprints, or long slow distance running? Probably the former. Of course this doesn't mean all your training needs to be structured like this, but it's a good way of thinking about it in the absence of having a coaching professional to help you. 

Anf's picture

In a self defence context, when formulating our individual training plan, we must ask ourselves when we might want to be able to defend ourselves from attack. Is it when we're in our prime and feeling good? What about when we're old? What about when we're choked up with a bad cold, or struggling along with an injury?

If self defence is focused on strength and fitness then we have a problem. Strength and fitness are of course important elements, and for some, very easy to make good gains in. But there's always going to be someone bigger and stronger and fitter.

This is why I like to work on techniques in such a way that I ask, what is the least I can do for the most benefit? I kick low and in slow motion. That develops strength and balance. But it also enables me to think about all the subtle ways my muscles are firing and my joints are moving and my weight is shifting. I also like to play with basic techniques to see how they might work in different ways. For example, can I use the chamber position of a roundhouse as a strike in its own right, or to create a gap, or to block? Can I use a stance change as a sweep or to take an opponents balance? Can I use blocks as grappling techniques? Some of my ideas are probably useless, others I believe can be effective and have been tested with friends of comparable size and strength, albeit in the safe environment of nobody genuinely trying to hurt anyone.

Forms / kata are good to. I like to do them slowly so I can feel the dynamics and develop balance, while looking for possible applications. I like to try to work out what's going on. Other times I like to do them at full speed and intent. That's good cardio. But I also like to mess with them. Can I do them in a straight line for example? Like, what happens during a, particular turn, what do the hips do? What do the shoulders and arms do? What do I have to do to keep the same movement but without changing direction? Does it then highlight another technique?

I think there's plenty in actual karate (or other styles) that we can practice solo for strength and fitness and self defence, but I do think we have to get a bit creative with it.

Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

All very good points. One observation on karate itself as a fitness mechanism is that while I agree it can improve fitness (and has the advantage of specificity), in its original origins it probably implicitly assumed a certain degree of strength and fitness that we can't assume today. It's very easy to underestimate the fitness and strength of someone who is engaged in manual labour all day, every day. And while it is a different subject, professional warriors were another step fitter and stronger (e.g., look at the analysis of the draw weight of an English longbow in the middle ages of at least 360 Newtons and perhaps nearly 500 Newtons that they could repeat 5 / 6 times a minute for 10 minutes or more v's the draw weight of a modern bow where an Olympic athlete will draw probably half of this). Therefore, it is probable (in my opinion) that karate was not designed to be a balanced system of exercise and that we'd need to do more than just practice karate in order to get the right musculature and CV system development for self-defence. 

deltabluesman's picture

Good topic.  I'll throw out a few ideas.  This is a subject I have been struggling with for a while (in terms of fitness training for martial arts in general).  I'm in a bit of a rush this morning so apologies if these thoughts are a bit undercooked:

There are different ways to look at fitness training for self-protection.  For example, maybe you have a job that puts you in contact with violent people (e.g. doorman, security guard, etc.).  In that case, you are going to want to get as strong, quick, and fit as possible, as safely as you can, in as short a time as you can.  That would be much different from someone who has a fairly safe lifestyle and who is training in traditional karate as a lifelong pursuit.  Even though both are training for self-protection, the second person doesn't expect violence on the horizon and therefore has the luxury of focusing mainly on long-term goals.  For this second person, fitness training might be more about "wellness" training--promoting longevity and quality of life, etc.

 The best program will vary greatly depending on the individual.  You have to take into account budget, time, access to facilities, prior injuries, strengths and weaknesses, personal preferences, recovery capacity, and many other factors.  I'll throw out a few ideas.

On a Budget:  farmer's walks, hill sprints, bodyweight workouts at local parks, etc.  

Access to a Gym:  I recall that you said you've been weightlifting for a while.  I probably have very little to say that you don't already know.  There are some good templates out there you can start with.  I tend to like Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 programs.  

The trick with weightlifting is that you have to find that ideal spot where you're lifting heavy enough to spur progress, but still keeping the volume controlled enough so it doesn't affect your training.  I'm not particularly strong or anything, but I've found that when I go heavy on my lifts (deadlift and squat, mainly), it will affect my training for the next several days.  I think this might be the source of the myth that weight training slows you down.  It's not because you are musclebound and moving slower, its just because the impact to your system takes time to recover.  

So what I do now is look for slow, continuous improvement on a handful of core barbell lifts, with an emphasis on technique and safety (because I've been knocked off track in the past by injuries).  Because I'm focusing mostly on martial arts, I know I'll never be the strongest guy in the gym, but I accept that drawback and just focus on being stronger than I was in the past.  If I notice my lifting affecting my martial arts training, I scale it back and adjust the program (or just take a few days off). 

Kettlebells:  I like certain kettlebell exercises and think they have a lot of value (kettlebell snatch, for instance).  But I have found that barbell lifts tend to work better for me.  Plus, it's tough to find gyms with a wide selection of kettlebells.  (Sometimes people will just buy one 20-pound kettlebell for use at home and try to make that the centerpiece of their fitness routine.  I think this approach won't get you very far and will just be a waste of money.  Speaking from personal experience here.)

Cardio:  I agree with what Neil said about sprinting.  Personally, I don't do cardio separate from martial arts training.  I use BJJ and sparring sessions as my primary sources of cardio.  I usually find that this carries over to my striking training.  Admittedly, I do frequently get winded during hard wrestling sessions, but that's a flaw I'm willing to accept.  I don't do this myself, but in boxing circles, roadwork (i.e. long, frequent, regular runs) is considered essential by many people. 

Footwork Drills:  I do boxing-style footwork drills once a week.  I honestly am not sure whether they carry over much to self-protection.  

Olympic Lifting:  You'll often see this mentioned in programs for athletes.  Barbell lifts such as the snatch or clean & jerk.  (Maybe this is what you were referring to when you said weightlifting.)  I wouldn't recommend this for the average athlete.  The core lifts are extremely technical and can be dangerous for someone who doesn't have proper training.  Plus, even if you have good training, it will take a while for the benefits to materialize (because you'll need to develop the mobility and confidence to lift heavy weights in the core lifts).  And even more importantly, most of the benefits of O-lifting can be gained with other exercises.  So I don't think it offers a major return on investment for the average person.  But if someone is already interested in these lifts, and has the resources and skill to explore them, I would recommend Everett's Olympic Weightlifting.  He has a lot of information on nutrition, programming, stretching, injury prevention, supplements, etc.  

Yoga:  Yoga is often touted for offering major benefits in terms of longevity and quality of life.  I don't know whether any of those purported benefits have been scientifically validated by a rigorous, peer-reviewed study.  Nevertheless, I have found Yoga to be a good way to "prehab" injuries from weightlifting or grappling.  Also good for people who have never do any kind of fitness training or physical activity before and who want to get started with something low-impact.  Lots of different types of yoga out there, some good, some bad.  I tend to avoid anything that involves extreme bending of the spine. 

Other Sports:  Lastly, I think there are a lot of benefits that can be gained from casually exploring other sports.  It just mixes it up a bit and gets you out of your comfort zone.  Basketball, tennis, whatever.  

Just some food for thought.  You're probably familiar with a lot of it, but maybe some of it will be helpful.

Josh Pittman
Josh Pittman's picture

In defense of cardio for self-defense situations: if the ultimate goal is to escape, you will benefit from having the cardio-pulmonary capacity to run. You are probably more likely to need to sprint than to run a long distance, but you should probably have the capacity to run long distances, too, if necessary. Also, Rory Miller points out in Meditations on Violence that cardio-pulmonary fitness helps your body to distribute stress hormones during a violent encounter. I like to cycle my strength training between weightlifting, for which I focus on the Big Three, and functional training such as heaving tackle dummies. My amateur theory is that trying to max out my weight capacity while doing explosive throwing movements is risky, so I'm conservative on the movements I use to build strength, and then I make sure my functional training utilizes the muscles in a pragmatic way. Here's a problem I've encountered and don't know how to fix: the best functional exercise for muscle burn and endurance testing has been a simulation double-leg takedown performed on a heavy bag. However, that's obviously not the best takedown for self-defense purposes; I have yet to find a solo exercise that creates quite the same anaerobic burn but mimics a pragmatic movement.

deltabluesman's picture

A quick response to Josh's question about simulation double-leg takedowns.  For what it's worth, here's my opinion.  I may be biased, but I think that is a fantastic exercise for developing attributes.  Power, endurance, mobility, mindset, technique, etc.  If you are doing a full shot to double leg (that is, dropping one knee to the floor as you enter), there's an argument that this is a bad habit for self-protection because you don't want to injure your knee on a hard surface.  And that's true, of course.  But I think that dropping to one knee is good for training because it gets you moving through a full range of motion and it indirectly trains the "level change" skill itself.  So, in my opinion, a full range of motion double leg is an excellent training exercise and I would keep it as-is.  (I know there's a whole separate topic on the subject of takedowns for self-protection, but I'll skim over that since we're only talking about fitness.  Also a lot that could be said about the double leg itself and its variations, but I'll skip that as well.)

Ian H
Ian H's picture

BradderzH wrote:

How important is cardio? I’m looking for ways to train smarter in the gym to indirectly improve my karate, if that makes sense! I generally go to the gym twice a week, do a weightlifting session and then go home. Any other ideas would be appreciated! 

I think cardio is very important.  Not that you have to expect a karate self defence situation to involve running a mile, but still you don't want to run out of steam at a crucial moment.  Kind of similar to practicing high kicks not to DO high kicks in self-defence, but to make your lower kicks better.  And it doesn't have to be long-distance running, but ~something~ that gets your heart pumping and lungs going!  

Check out "high intensity interval training".  I'm not enough of a training expert to tell you specifically what to do for HIIT, but ... it's really good.  And gets some cardio too. 

... can you do 100 burpees in 10 minutes?