| Iron Sharpens Everyone | Martial Artists Need Strength Training

Author / John Durrett

8 - 10 Min Read

In my last article for Power Athlete, I highlighted the optimal Power Athlete program [Dragon Slayer] for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners’. I received consistent feedback from that article that sounded like “that’s all well and good, but why do martial artists even need strength and conditioning in the way other athletes do?”.

This isn’t a new question for me. It’s something I answer almost daily working as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at my martial arts academy. With over a decade as a strength coach and over two and a half decades in the martial arts, I get this question everywhere I go. I decided it was time to definitively answer this question.

Same Old Song and Dance

I’ll start with the most obvious benefits of a quality strength and conditioning program for any athlete, including martial artists. Athletes see an increase in speed, power and strength with a committed and disciplined strength and conditioning program.  Improving conditioning increases performance on the mats and in the cage, and also helps with recovery between rounds and between training sessions. Athletes with higher aerobic thresholds have better vascular support systems, which means the body does a better job transporting blood and the metabolic waste products created from exercise. Athletes engaging in regular strength training exhibit enhanced muscle fiber recruitment and nervous system efficiency. Being the stronger, more conditioned athlete will allow you to create gaps in your opponent’s game in a way that skill doesn’t, giving you more tools at your disposal to dominate the opposition.

If you’re here on Power Athlete, however, you’re probably already aware of these simple truths. Let’s take a deeper dive into other reasons why martial artists, from strikers to grapplers and everything in between, can benefit from strength and conditioning work.

Body Armor

Athletes who engage in resistance training end up having denser, thicker bones than those that don’t. This means fewer injuries, without even considering the amount of injuries we can prevent by building up specific problem areas where athletes fall apart. A fully developed strength training protocol will also allow us to re-balance an athlete.

Martial artists tend to end up a little imbalanced or “crooked”, with one side often quite a bit more developed than the other. This can lead to overuse injuries as well as nagging aches and pains and can cause postural dysfunction. Grapplers especially spend an unbelievable amount of time working in their anterior chain, hunching over and risking atrophy of the muscles along the posterior chain which will eventually lead to an injury. 

By developing a strong posterior chain and engaging in unilateral work, we can correct some of those deficiencies. In addition, putting on some muscle mass (especially on the trunk of the body) can serve to create actual “body armor.” This additional musculature makes you more resistant to incoming body shots and pressure. Lifting weights also creates more robust ligaments, tendons, and tendon attachments, which will mean fewer of the contact and non-contact injuries that plague combat sport athletes. Lifts such as the kettlebell swing and power clean (staples of many Power Athlete program’s) even teach the nervous system how to receive, absorb and then redirect force to help your body do a better job of taking and giving a hit.

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A Sharper Blade and Better Aim

Purposeful strength training allows us to slow things down and better understand how an athlete moves. Lifting gives us a better understanding of how the body operates, how the anatomical functions of our skeletal and muscular structures organize to create movement. In the high-stress environment of sport training, it is challenging to take a step back and really focus on quality of movement. Strength and conditioning gives you an opportunity to analyze complex movement patterns and fine-tune them for optimal performance. Athletes who engage in strength and conditioning have a unique opportunity to improve body awareness, muscular control, and coordination.

After cultivating these benefits in the weight room, we can bring them to bear on the mats or in the ring or cage where they boost our training and competition level. An athlete with greater body control is significantly more precise and formidable.

Longevity In The Sport

The beautiful thing about martial arts is that they can become a lifelong pursuit. Depending on how you choose to train, you can tie on a gi or strap on some gloves well into old age. There are a few tricks to this, including proper diet and sleep, but one big component is limiting the wear and tear on your body through overtraining. Being on the mats four to seven days a week for one to three hours a day will wear on a body as it ages. Smart strength and conditioning can allow you to stay in shape without succumbing to the injuries that plague many martial artists as they enter their 30s and 40s.

Martial arts can be brutal, and training days can often feel like game days. If you are dedicated to developing your strength and conditioning off the mats, you can dedicate more martial arts training time to developing the skills that win fights and less of your time staying in shape. Getting a good workout on the mats is often highly reliant on the experience and skill of your training partners; if you incorporate strength and conditioning into your weekly routine, you can work on your skillset any day.

Overall Health

Maybe you’re currently engaging in combat sports to be competitive, but at some point you may end up like me: someone who’s still involved purely due to a love and passion for the martial arts. Strength and conditioning creates a level of health and wellness that we cannot achieve on the mats alone. I’ll let you in on a little secret: for many of my early years as a martial artist, I was very obese. I always told myself that because I was bigger I could hit harder and absorb blows better; being fat didn’t matter. The competitions I was in weren’t weight-class based but rather based largely on age. As I got older and entered more serious competitions, I had to start making weight, and honestly was just sick of being fat. Getting into strength and conditioning was my solution to both problems.

My overall health improved tremendously and I managed to turn strength training and martial arts into a career. I can tell you from experience, being in the weight class you’re supposed to be in, not the one you happen to be in, feels way better. Plus, no one wants to be the slow, pudgy guy who can hit hard when they can be a lean, mean fighting machine who packs a wallop and moves quickly to boot.

So, what do you think? Are you a martial artist already taking care of business in the cage and the weight room? Good, hopefully you learned a thing or two here that can give you even more of a reason to commit to that side of your training. Maybe you have a friend or coach/teacher/instructor that thinks that martial artists shouldn’t lift or don’t need to train conditioning. Be sure to send this article their way. As always, if you have any more questions about the best ways for a martial artist to empower their performance, we’d love to hear from you. Head down to the comments and let’s start a discussion so that we can all continue to improve!

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Podcast: PA Radio Episode 107 – Rob MacDonald

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John Durrett

John is a Coach at Underdog Mixed Martial Arts in West Hartford, CT, where he teaches both martial arts and strength & conditioning. For over a decade, Underdog has built several professional fighters, even sending some to the UFC and Bellator. John began training martial arts at a traditional Karate dojo at the age of 6 years old. This was the start of a lifelong journey which has seen him log countless hours in a myriad of styles, including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Kali, Eskrima, and Jeet Kune Do. In addition, John has spent over a decade working as a professional strength and conditioning coach, coaching at the High School and D-III Collegiate Level. Along with over a dozen other certifications, he holds the distinction of being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA and is honored to be counted as a Power Athlete Block One Coach. He is intensely passionate about empowering athletes to find their max potential and explore their body’s unique capacity for the martial arts.


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