Weightlifting for martial arts, and strength and conditioning as a whole, is a massive subject, and one that can be clouded by traditional views of training. You often hear similar arguments in all disciplines. They’re typically along the lines of ‘body weight works better than weights‘, “I can’t gain any weight because I need to fight as light as possible” or “fighters from years ago never did it”. However, I think that weightlifting is a powerful tool for any martial artist.
Let’s start with the idea that previous champions might not have done it. This is common in Muay Thai because Thai’s rarely use weights or other training techniques. I fully respect this, they’re the best at what they do, and it’s rare for westerners to truly compete. But look at how they train. Classes include running, skipping, pad work, bag work, sparring, clinch work and some body weight training and sit-ups. They last 2-3 hours, and they do them two times a day, 5 days a week. They also start training when they’re 6-7, and go on to have a few hundred fights in a career. I’ll admit that adding weightlifitng on top of that may push you into overtraining. But if you’re not then for overall conditioning weightlifting can play a huge role.
We would obviously recommend making your martial arts training your number one priority. Technical ability is probably the greatest asset a fighter can gain. However after technique, and if your cardio is up to scratch, strength is a big factor in a fight. If you can hit or kick harder than your opponent then you’re going to do more damage with every shot. There’s a reason people talk about knockout power and the best way to improve yours is weightlifting.
By far the most common response is that a fighter is too concerned with gaining weight to utilise weightlifting. What’s the benefit of being stronger if you get heavier then struggle to cut weight for a fight? What you need to do is stay light, but get stronger. Try not to let images of 150kg powerlifters come to mind, getting stronger does not mean getting bigger. The emphasis when weightlifting for martial arts is to improve your power to weight ratio, which can be achieved without increasing bodyweight.
For a simple example, a 65kg fighter who can deadlift 100kg for a single rep has a higher power to weight ratio than an 80kg fighter who can deadlift the same weight for one rep. Pound for pound the 65kg fighter is stronger than the 80kg one. So how to achieve this beautiful balance? It comes down to what you’re lifting, how you’re lifting it, and how many times you do it. We’ll be posting training articles in the future that cover strength programs, but this article is to explain how and why it works.
Let’s start with the basics, your body adapts to different stimulus in different ways, so your rep ranges are key. The adaptions can be divided into two sorts – neural and metabolic. Metabolic adaptions are what makes muscles grow, whereas neural adaptions change the speed your body’s nervous system can contract the muscle. The best analogy I’ve heard for it was that your neural system is an Internet connection. Neural training is like upgrading your wired connection to a fibre optic one. The messages get to the muscles faster and give them a stronger message.
In terms of rep ranges generally 1-3 reps is believed to promote neural changes, while 8 reps which prompt metabolic changes. The 4-7 range is seen as offering benefits from both sides, offering strength and size gains. So therefore someone weightlifting for martial arts should stick to a 1-3 rep range, lifting as heavy as possible in those ranges, to maximise neural changes.
So we know we can train to focus on gaining strength rather than muscle by picking the right rep ranges, but there’s another issue. Hypertrophy (building muscle) tends to kick in at around the 25-30 total reps mark. Common bodybuilding plans offer variations of 4×10-12 reps per exercise, so they build as much muscle as possible. The fighters aim is almost the opposite. We should aim to avoid reaching the hypertrophy level when we’re weight training. A solid strength program would contain a low number of exercises, sets and reps. A great example of a weightlifting for martial arts program would be 3 exercises, all split into 3 sets of 3 reps, giving us a total rep count of 27.
The exercises themselves become even more important when training like this. If you can only do three exercises in a session, make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. You want to elicit the most muscle activity in order to gain the most response from your nervous system. In simple terms thismeans big lifts with big weights. Sticking to multi-joint, compound lifts is the way forward. A squat is activating nearly every muscle in your body, whereas a bicep curl is only activating a small group of muscles in your arm. Building a program based around squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses and bent over rows is going to work your whole body and develop full body strength.
Another important factor is how often you train. Typically strength programs recommend 3 sessions a week. This may seem low compared to a bodybuilder hitting the gym everyday, but fight training needs to be the priority. You need to supplement this training with strength training, not hinder it by over working yourself. Keeping gym sessions targetted and giving yourself adequate rest is essential.
The final element to consider is your diet. To build muscle you have to be in a calorie surplus – taking more in than you’re burning off. If you’re concerned about gaining weight when you start weightlifting you need to carefully plan your program and watch your nutrition.
Trying to find a place to start? Check out the basic program we put together . If you’re already using strength training to boost your martial arts training we’d love to hear from you in the comments!