Why are these lifts good for martial arts?
There should be no question that strength training profoundly benefits your martial arts training, no matter the art.
When you lift intelligently with intent, you’ll hit harder, move faster, balance better, hold stances longer, grapple with more control, and throw with more fluidity. The list goes on.
If you’re not augmenting your martial art with strength training and seriously want to grow your bushido, I encourage you to start with learning and mastering the following lifts.
If you consistently train martial arts lifting, I invite you to incorporate these lifts, give them commitment for at least 3 months, and see how your martial artistry has taken off.
These lifts have a direct correlation with the movements and purposes of most, if not all, martial arts. When you strength train for another reason, be it rehab, sports, or general fat loss or muscle building, every lift ought to complement that purpose. Otherwise, why do it?
I bring light to these lifts because I’ve experienced tremendous benefit and progress in my karate and jiujitsu training and I know they’ll help you grow your training.
These lifts in particular will grant you the broadest benefit, helping many aspects of your training in whole and simply helping you become a more effective physical being in your day-to-day life. I chose these 5 for simplicity’s and applicability’s sake.
There are plenty of excellent lifts not mentioned here that are just as beneficial and may even work better for you. I chose these as most people can start training them right away and give you the most bang for your buck.
When your arms are better at pushing and pulling, you’ll be better at punching and throwing.
When your back is stronger, you’ll be better at throwing and grappling.
When your legs are more explosive, you’ll be better at kicking and dancing.
The benefits of lifting to martial arts training are not one to one, but one to many. How cool is that?
Pushing and pulling things is a pretty common function for us human beings, and there is a particular need for it in martial arts. Whether it’s sparring, throwing, or grappling on the mat, pushing and pulling is perhaps the most common way to assert your will on your training partner or opponent.
Lifting things overhead is a very common human movement. Training overhead presses will develop you triceps, shoulders, traps, and even your back. Not only will you achieve the intimidating yoked look that commands respect like Mas Oyama or Chojun Miyagi, you’ll be an incredibly capable martial artist in and out of the dojo.
Strong triceps and shoulders make your pushing and punching ability take off.
Strong traps and back will help you pull and lift up anything or anyone you need to.
Getting pushing AND pulling benefits from a “pushing” exercise? Madness. You’d be a fool not to overhead press. There’s a reason it’s a cornerstone of every respectable, intelligent strength trainer.
The aesthetic benefit of incline pressing is that it builds your upper chest and “makes your shirt buttons pop,” undoubtedly an intimidating presentation in a gi.
Look at any of the heavyweight Kyokushin competitors. They’re all giant dudes with tectonic plates for chests. Maybe that imagery makes you a little uncomfortable but where is the lie?
Who would you rather fight: a guy with a wet towel for a chest or an armor-plated warrior? Why not BE that warrior? At least looking the part will help your self-image and give you a slight edge in sparring and competition.
It’ll also help your arms fight gravity better, making blocks and rising strikes WAY more effective. It’s one thing to get your arm up to meet a descending strike. Incline pressing will turn your blocks and rising strikes into proper weapons. After all, “every block is a strike and every strike is a block.”
It’s readily apparent that a lot of martial arts training exercises asymmetrical execution to maximize a technique’s effectiveness.
It’s got something to do with the yin-yang dynamic of pushing and pulling, punching and chambering. You retract one side of your body to strengthen the sending of the other side.
Split squats are a direct supplement to stances where you’re sending one side of your body forward and pushing or bracing with the other side. Note it’s subtly different from a lunge. While a lunging, you sink straight down. Performing a split squat, however, you’re driving your core and hips down and forward to your forward heel while keeping good, braced posture and stretching those hip flexors.
Do split squats if you want car-pushing, crime-stopping stances that bring power out of the Earth, through your body, out of your techniques, and into evildoers.
Just like there is no receiving without giving, there is no pushing without pulling. Your punch’s effectiveness is similarly generated from your chamber. Strengthening your traps, rear delts, and upper back will develop scary strong chambering technique.
Needless to say, pulling is another vital function of movement. Not only does rowing improve your martial arts practice, it helps you become a more effective person.
The Renegade Row affords you greater, full-body exercise, leveraging the idea (and reality) that all of the body’s parts work together, that no body part ever functions in isolation from the rest of the body. The Renegade Row engages the whole body in exertion, balance, and control.
The most effective judo-ka and jujitsu-ka exercise excellent kuzushi, the act of unblanacing an opponent and influencing their movement in order to setup for a throw or takedown. Given the most common hand placement for formal grabbing, training face pulls will exclusively afford you greater strength and sensitivity during randori.
The harder and faster you can pull your opponent, the more likely you can execute a throw. “Harder and faster” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” but you can’t throw what you can’t even nudge. Better face pull training directly results in greater effect for kuzushi and setting up throws. It’s science.
Perhaps the most generally beneficial exercise in the world is the deadlift. Picking something up off the ground is one the most fundamental human movements. It’s how our ancestors brought home food, after all. Becoming a better picker-upper results in becoming a more effective human being in general. (Seeing a trend here?)
It works your entire posterior chain, which is a super-mega-good thing in our society dominated by sitting.
It works your core and back tremendously, resulting in remarkably firm, resilient, and confident posture.
It works your grip, which will
probably obviously improve your throwing and groundwork practice.
There’s no better resource for deadlifting than Dave Dellanave and his “Off-The-Floor Deadlift” training guide.
There’s a reason conventional deadlifting remains a foundational exercise in general and cornerstone lift in any training program. It affords you perhaps the greatest bang for your buck of any exercise. The whole body contributes to the movement.
If you’re not deadlifting, I highly encourage to start sooner rather than later.
The Jefferson deadlift is unique and, I’d argue, as equally important as conventional deadlifting in that it’s like a conventional deadlift, but it works one side of your body at a time. Think of it like a unilateral deadlift.
It will tell you very quickly if one side of your body is stronger than the other. It’s also a great tool to “converse” with your body – if you listen to it, it may alert you to deficiencies, like a strength imbalance. Pretty cool, huh?
The deep, wide stance will also help your deep, wide stances, like kiba-dachi and shiko-dachi for you fellow karateka.
The point is, asymmetrical exercise is just as important to train as symmetrical exercise, and the Jefferson deadlift is one of the best exercises to train your whole body in an asymmetrical fashion.. Unilateral movements can be great benchmarks to see how one side of your body measures up with the other.
Your body will adapt to achieve equilibrium. I’ll probably catch flak for this but I’m confident that scoliosis is a symptom of an imbalance in the body, not necessarily always the cause. (Of course, it may well go on to cause other imbalances and exacerbate the issue.)
Not only is it a fundamental human movement of being able to climb obstacles in our environment, it’s a staple in any effective strength training program, if only on the merit of being a bodyweight exercise. Unfortunately, bodyweight exercises don’t get very much credit since few people do them right or progress them. They spend their whole year knocking out hundreds of pushups and pullups and wonder why they’re not modeling on Men’s Fitness. You gotta up the intensity! Add weight, vary the movement, hold it longer.
Bodyweight training is The Great Equalizer when it comes to achieving a fitness level of superb, balanced form and function, especially when complemented by traditional weight lifting.
After all, our ancestors were mean hunting machines with just their bodies and environment to exercise in, tracking and defeating animals for survival. No squat racks in their caves, yet they were accomplished, impressive physical specimens. You have the same deal.
Neutral grip or Rings
Neutral pullups and ring pullups will save you elbow and shoulder pain in the future.
Drop your hands to your sides. Where are your palms facing? Directly forward? Backward? Or inward, towards your body? It seems that’s the natural orientation for your wrist/arm/shoulder, so it would behoove us to train accordingly, and not stress the joints in a twisted or contorted manner. Neutral pullups allow you to lift yourself while working only your muscles and keeping your joints comfortable and safe.
Rings are even better as the flexible straps allow your arms to turn and rotate with the exercise as they naturally move. They also facilitate future pullup progressions and variations, aiding you on your journey of martial mastery and crime-fighting prowess.
* Hip Bridge
If you’re an established martial artist in your own right, your core is OBVIOUSLY the source of your power. After all, it translates power from the earth and your legs up through to your arms. Even if you’re kicking, a weak core will provide you the balance and posture of fresh spaghetti. Not very effective in practice or reality, I’m afraid. Weak techniques I mean, not spaghetti (spaghetti is HIGHLY effective).
Hip bridges exercise your core in a manner encouraging your assertion of your will through driving with your hips while keeping a strong braced core. Moving well and fast is great. Being solid and immovable is great. Controlled movement under incredible tension? Now that’s a scary weapon to go up against.
Properly training hip bridges will grow your power immensely. Stances are more strongly rooted and balanced. Your techniques are more powerfully directed into your targets and you won’t bounce away and reel back.
Hip bridges are all about generally strengthening your core and improving your ability to assert your will in practice and showtime.
A must for all martial artists interested in lifting.
All I have to offer you is my experience and everything I’ve shared with you here has taken my training to new levels of intensity, control, and capacity for even more intense training.
This isn’t to say that these are the best for you or that other lifts are less potent compared to these. Simply, I have come to find that these bring the greatest benefit for the effort and intended application and I share them with you in the hope it proves resourceful for your martial arts training and growth.
– Mac Thomas