Strength and Conditioning
If you go around running your mouth that you’re a fighter or a martial artist, you better be able to back up your words with some form of athleticism. You may do well in class with your ki belly doing kata but as soon as you are required to do any sort of athletic challenge, like for example sparring or defending yourself, you may find you are quickly winded and unable to use the technical attributes that you have acquired. It does not matter how much technical training you have if you do not have the stamina or strength and conditioning to pull off said technique effectively – where you are actually able to do some damage and keep yourself out of harm in the heat of the battle. I’ve seen some boxing schools focus mostly on strength and conditioning as they say that a lot of times the more conditioned boxer will outmatch the more skilled and gifted fighter.
Personally I have always preferred a good balance in life, and that goes with martial arts and strength and conditioning; it keeps things fresh learning both the technical ability and the physical conditioning even if they are to be done separately. If you are part of a dojo that does not focus on fitness but rather uses its class time for technical training, the responsibility is on you to go out and supplement your physical conditioning to progress further.
Far too often you hear people saying their techniques are too deadly to need much physical conditioning, when in reality you are showing that you are inexperienced and unprepared.
You may be better off than the average Joe on the street unless he has also taken some classes. Or he may just be simply stronger, in that case you run the risk of getting your ego knocked in. Most people who want to fight are usually big and pretty confident in their abilities; they have something to prove and they don’t usually go out starting fights they think they will lose. The wimps you can beat usually do not want to fight in the first place; your training should protect you against a trained killer. You want to train smart and combine your conditioning to create a strong body ready for war.
How to Hit Harder and Faster
Besides talking from a technical perspective, there are two ways of looking at increasing the power of your strike. These methods are
- Developing the speed of your strike
- Developing the strength of your body behind the strike
Newtonian kinetic energy of rigid bodies states that Ek=(1/2)mv^2
Or (Mass x Velocity Squared) Divided by two
This basically translates the mass of the object in motion is doubled when it hits with twice the amount of power, thus if you strike twice as fast your output will be four times the amount of force. A rough example of this can be seen in a little bullet vs a baseball pitch, speed will be the victor. Having speed can be very beneficial and wise to acknowledge if you are smaller framed or female. I find this formula gives good insight into understanding how legendary Bruce Lee was so powerful in his movements and able to be so fast and able to blow his opponents back with his strikes.
Looking at physics we clearly want to develop more speed to get the most impact; speed definitely has its advantages whether it is being the first to make contact, sneaking in the K.O shot, or simply just getting more shots in. So in order to increase our speed we must add different methods of stress to our body. You are an adaptive organism, and must constantly challenge yourself to produce growth and to gain increased results.
Before we move ahead it is very important that we first talk about technique as you will need a good foundation before pounding in hours of forming new muscle memory. So to go fast you must first go slow. That can sound counterproductive but let me tell you why. In the beginning when you are learning how to punch, you must first learn the proper way to strike and use your body weight before raising the speed. Using that Newtonian formula, being able to put your body weight behind your punch rather than just hitting with the strength of your arm alone will increase the mass behind your projectile.
Double the mass, double the output force, this can all be found within proper form which is what makes it so essential. Learning the proper method you will have to first learn all the little details. For example learning a punch you will first have to dig your foot into the ground, engage your legs, torso, and shoulders before delivering out the arm and clenching your fist upon impact. Of course all depending on which style and tradition you subscribe to, a simple punch can be taught in different ways. With incorrect movement comes unwanted movement which can be inefficient as it can create tells for your opponent, reduce your power, and slow you down with non-essential positioning.
So now let’s say you have been practicing slowly and diligently and have your footwork down. Your upper body form is present and you are consistently hitting your heavy bag or target with the right spot on your knuckles or hand. All while presenting proper penetrating force, not simply just slapping the bag and retracting. You can also add intent into your strike, for example imagining you are going to punch through the spine of the opponent.
Now that you have engrained proper muscle memory and able to give out good force while moving slowly, you can now start increasing your speed. Go about it at a faster tempo for a while, as you feel better with it keep on increasing, as weeks go by that you are continually pushing yourself your speed will gradually increase. You will want to pause and take a break if you start getting fatigued and if it’s ruining your form, take a break then go back when your form is replenished. Speed can create sloppiness, so consistent quality checks as you practice is best, having a mirror nearby is very useful.
Okay so let’s say you have been practicing this diligently and striking this bag as fast as you can while still having good form and power. At some point you will hit a plateau as your body has adapted to your training methods and it will need even further stress to grow.
One may think it’s a good idea to start holding weights as you punch as it adds more resistance to your training so your body can’t cope comfortably with the load you are forcing upon it. Although this method seems to make perfect sense it’s not the most effective as you will be fighting against mass and density to hold up your arm, yes this is strengthening you but those muscles holding up the weight are not the same used as punching, therefore not all the muscles required for your strike are being properly engaged.
Using weights while striking can cause some problems down the road as it causes a lot of repetitive stress and impact to your shoulders and upper arms which could potentially lead to an injury. While it may work with increasing your punching speed, it is only developing part of the muscle required for punching while standing upright and with risk of injury, it’s just not worth it long term.
Instead use small weights like around 1kg while you practice shadow boxing, with no impact and light weight you don’t run the high risk of injury. Shadow boxing gives you the stage to sacrifice power for speed and practice your combinations and form against an invisible opponent. Don’t fret with those weights being too small, as you return to normal practice without the weights you will notice a difference.
Resistance bands are another useful training tool but a balance must be used with them. Using bands all the time can creates issues but using them for conditioning practices, followed by your technical practice ensuring you’re keeping your form from degrading. Many people will swear by its effectiveness for training fast snappy punches and kicks, while others may not agree so much as they say it may decrease your technical ability.
Depending on your style and what you are trying to acquire, you may run into some problems while training with resistance bands. For example, gaining bad habits such as getting lazy on pulling your punch back – your extended fist will be under stress with the bands, your return may get lazy and lose its quickness. This can be solved by slowing down your movement, practicing form and slowly extending and retracting your arm under the resistance give both directions a workout. Another problem that may occur for some traditional martial artists is being too tense as you throw a punch with the bands and may not be as whip like as you require. To avoid diminishing your whip like practice you will just have to practice without the resistance bands afterwards to be sure you are not degrading your form.
Weight Lifting and Martial Arts
If resistance bands aren’t your thing or just looking for something with a bit more oomph then this is where the gym and weight lifting comes in; by strategically using angles you will do much better lying on your back and adding a barbell or dumbbells and creating strength in a pushing out motion from the chest. I prefer the incline bench press for increased strength striking in an upwards direction (i.e. face). This is something you may want to consider if you are shorter than majority of people. You could also use a decline bench pressing motion for helping your downwards strikes. With this method you are forcing your body to make the muscle change in a precise and controlled manner, so you may be able to inflict more force later.
Now before jumping in and reading all you can about weight lifting to add it to your martial arts training take these into perspective which kinds of weight training you can do. Strength is mandatory for martial arts especially the higher you climb within it. Be mindful and responsible with your tendencies to rely on brute force rather than spending focusing on technique.
- Weightlifting is focused on improving your abilities to produce a strong amount of force quickly. Some examples of weightlifting are snatches, jerks, and cleans. These movements will greatly improve your force but are technical movements to learn and do take some practice at a lower weight first before you start pushing yourself.
- Powerlifting is focused on gaining raw strength. Usually consists of using big compound movements like deadlifts, squats, use of bench press etc. Powerlifting can be very versatile in supplementing your practice.
- Bodybuilding is focused on more vanity gains, for gaining size and appearance. Usually used methods are isolation movements and machines which are not as effective for a martial artist having to use functional strength from the entire body.
So now that it is established we need a good solid technical understanding of the strike, you have your muscle memory engraved in and are working the bench presses to increase strength, what else can you do to increase your punching speed? One method is what Bruce Lee did with a barbell: he was not only training for how many reps he could do with the weight, but also how fast he could do the reps. He would time himself how fast he could do the set and aim to improve his speed doing is repetitions as he progresses.
What weight lifting and martial arts share in common is that they require good technique in order to stay away from injury. Along with good form comes having full range of motion allowing you to fully workout the targeted muscle groups.
If done properly, you should not be acquiring injuries and should notice a difference in your speed as you hit your bag over the months. If you are experiencing frequent injuries or no improvement, take those as signs to adjust your workout and to either dial up the training or dial down. Within several weeks you can make a solid change in your speed to deliver that devastating strike.
Relax and Breathe
You will find that many pro fighters breathe out to the same rhythm as their strikes. This done for several reasons: breathing out while you strike encourages to breath in in-between strikes; all too often it’s easy to hold your breath while fighting and quickly find yourself without breath and thus out of endurance. Another reason is much like power lifting in the gym, when pushing the weight out, you breathe out to force out the power.
A helpful tip if you need to relax before performing a technique is learning how to relax your body while striking and tensing your fist on moment of impact. As your muscles tense up it tends to make you more rigid and slow instead of being soft and fast like whipping a wet towel. True speed comes from repetition. As a martial artist you will learn possibly dozens of techniques that will build fast accurate strikes which really is the key component as physical conditioning isn’t the end all be all.
If you find you need to relax your muscles during class. Try tensing up your whole body, do a good tight squeeze of everything for just a few seconds and then release, you will be able to easily establish the relaxed muscles from the tense in a matter of seconds.
Anaerobic and Aerobic
There are two kinds of Endurance we will be discussing, muscle stamina and cardiovascular.
- Muscle Stamina or anaerobic training is the amount of endurance we are able to get out of our muscles during the length of time that is demanded. For example like grappling or an arm wrestle.
- Cardio or aerobic training is usually classified as any activity that gets your heart rate up to about 50-75% of your max for a prolonged period of time. For example marathon running or jogging is a form of aerobic training.
So you could be doing any activity whether it’s running, swimming, biking, or fighting for building stamina. No matter what you choose you will progress in efficiency. So if you run slowly for long periods of time you will get better at that, if you lift weights then take a minute break in between you will improve there as well.
So If you are looking to improve your fighting endurance, spar! No use building stamina with biking when you need your entire body to be efficient and to have your set skills available to you. Unless of course it is your aim to primarily focus on your legs for the session. Long slow jogs will do you little benefit in the ring where you are expected to be explosive and quick for the round or duration it takes to get yourself to safety. With that being said jogging, street running, or forest running are all very helpful practices that can be used alongside your self defense.
Here is some training motivation – watch these guys from Israel train in the Jerusalem Mountains for twenty four hours straight, only pausing each hour for five minutes for stretching, food and water.
Now even though sparring is the best method in training for stamina for the real fight, it is not really realistic to spar every day, you need to allow your body to recover. This is where pad work, water training, or jump rope comes in.
A lot of people dread the idea of jumping rope or just never learned how. Truth is, it may be one of the more versatile tools you can use that’s cheap and effective. You can practice your high jump (double under), lunges, changing direction, squats, sprinting, and jogging; you can also mimic so many activities while jumping between to keep it interesting. This will limber you up, making you lighter on your toes, have better footwork and increasing your mobility and endurance for quick little movements around the ring.
Jumping rope works because it trains in you a technical manner forcing you to do many repetitive movements learning good rhythm and coordination, doing a hundred jumps within a minuet will train you to do that hop as efficiently as possible. Even 10 minutes a day of jump rope will give allow you to out move someone who only weight lifts every time, with more bounce and agility you will be that much harder to catch and you will not be winded.
Developed by Dr. Izumi Tabata in 1997 with his colleagues at the Japanese Institute of Fitness and Sport, they found the Tabata protocol which seems to cross the boundaries and to increase both aerobic and anaerobic at the same time. It is fairly simple to understand Tabata training yet it is very exhausting to perform.
- For twenty seconds do as many repetitions of punching, squats, or any other exercise as many times as you can.
- Take a ten second break and catch your breath.
- Now do this seven more times for a total of eight sets. This will be about four minutes of intense training.
This reads easy but is very savage in practice, but of course the hardest things in life offer the most reward. I recommend trying to mix burpee’s into your Tabata training as that will work a more full body and increase your punching power. You will find best results using big muscle groups for this exercise like your arms, torso and legs, combining squats with push ups then burpee’s is a good way to mix it up while creating an ass kicking workout that works out your main essential muscles. Bigger the compound movements the better but you can experiment with any as long as you are explosive while you do it.
Its important to keep in mind that original Tabata protocol was never intended for strength training but rather a focus on cardiovascular activities. Dr. Tabata put people through a series of different sprinting-type protocols to see how different energy systems within the body were used. It was found that ATP, a key molecule used for energy production is synthesized by both anaerobic and aerobic processes. It was Tabata’s goal to find a training program that would be the most efficient in improving this synthesis. You can read more found below on an article by Craig Marker on How Tabata Really Works: What the Research Says.
Intuition and Reflexes
As with everything it all starts with the mind. The first and most crucial factor is being relaxed with a clear head; this will allow your body to just automatically react whether you are in a sparring match or driving a car. The faster you are able to register an opening made by your opponent the faster you can sneak that counter in or throw an attack he may not expect.
An age old boxing method of speeding yourself up is training your reactions and reflexes is by training with a double end bag or a speed bag. Contrary to popular belief, the speed bag was not designed to improve your speed, instead it promotes good hand eye coordination so you will be able to register the target in your mind quicker therefore being able to strike just as fast. Training with a double end bag will further increase the difficulty, so starting with a few punch combos and working yourself up is the best method to go, after a while like everything it will just become second nature when you start stringing on longer combinations.
For improving the striking speed for your martial art training you really cannot beat the straightforward and effectiveness of mitt or reactive pad work. Along with having a partner throwing jabs and combinations towards you while you counter, block, and avoid. The unpredictable nature of your opponent’s movements with the odd angles of attacks will prep your reaction time and the faster you go, the more at ease you will feel while going at slower paces. Practicing to defend against the same chain of attacks will also help you create proficiencies defending them with increased speed through the development of muscle memory through repetition.
One of the methods I have found that greatly increased my hand eye coordination, when I started training in traditional martial arts, was practicing and spinning a heavy 6’ staff. Having to get used to changing hand positions quickly while feeling the burn of the weight of this fast moving chunk of wood, and keep a good feel on knowing where the staff is at all times really gave me a boost to my reaction in my hands. I was finding myself catching fallen objects left and right as a passive side effect.
Another great simple cost effective method in increasing your reaction time and reflexes is by going out for forest runs. Charging through the forest as fast as you can, hopping over logs and fallen trees, ducking and weaving around bushes and placing your step effectively on uneven ground and roots. The faster you go the more challenging it will be; you could add handicaps like sunglasses in a shady area to restrict your distant sight. Add an eye patch to get rid of your depth perception or even ankle weights to slow down your reaction speed in your feet. You will want to start off slow just to be safe and cautious and slowly work yourself up in speed as you gain experience, no need to break your ankle.
I am not endorsed by Glitch Sportswear or receive any financial benefits from this video. Purpose of this video is solely for example.
A method used by many is practicing with a tennis ball or a reaction ball against a wall trying to bounce and catch. Even better is to also have a partner throw the ball at you while your back is against the wall, all while trying to avoid getting hit while you move out of the way. You can increase the difficulty more by trying to remain close to the ball to practice precision in your movements but still maintaining not being hit.
The colour ball training method is even more challenging yet better at quickening the mind and reflexes. You basically have several colours of balls, and each colour represents a different action you must do such as, catch with left hand, catch with right, punch, cross punch, dodge, kick etc. Have your training partner go about ten to fifteen feet away from you when he starts all while your back is against a wall. As you progress add more colours and a faster pace to this method making it more complicated.
Even with all these methods and tools we can use the best way by far in my opinion is just some good ole slow sparring. Having the freedom to move how you want against your opponent and to defend against his creative mind allows you to improve your reaction time on your feet or on your back grappling. It is the most effective way to feel out your opponent and allow you to be calm and relaxed to allow the creative process of defending and attacking commence. As you progress increase the speed and also eventually add another opponent attacking you to really get your mind prepared for being attacked at all angles.
How to Take a Hit
Now if your aim is to learn how to take a hit better, like everything else you have to practice taking a hit. This does not mean going out and getting yourself demolished and beaten to a pulp every day. Sure you may learn a lot but it is not very feasible if you want to be doing this for long term.
Sparring should be the main and most essential tool to prepare you to take a hit and is very important and as you will naturally take hits to the face and body many, many times.
Getting hit while sparring will prepare you to get rid of any fear you may have when starting out – this is important because reducing your fear and not flinching will enable you to keep your eyes on your opponent. Being able to watch your opponent and keep your eyes on him will give you options like being able to roll with the punch, do a block, or simply breathe out and anticipate the hit. The hits you do not see will always be the ones that will rock you the hardest. So go out and spar with your partner and go get hit, use boxing gloves and some pads and try to mimic reality. Your partner doesn’t even have to hit you that hard in the beginning.
Impact and repetition
As you progress, increasing the force you receive you can make use of drills get a more powerful hits in with a more controlled environment. Using a medicine ball with a partner throwing it at your abdomen is a popular practice but remember not to go too hard at first as it may be a shock to your system. Taking hard body shots with a weak abdomen is a great way to injure yourself and rupture your internal organs.
The body is remarkable in its ability to adapt, so getting hit repeatedly in most areas (not all) will cause you to get stronger in that area and you will slowly adapt to the pain and desensitize much like how muay thai boxers condition there shins. Today the best method of doing is by using a heavy bag, just repetitive kicks slowly desensitizing the nerves and causing micro fractures in the bones to harden. This is something that will take months and months to develop and so you will need to keep practicing to develop this asset. This method will not be killing the nerves in your shin rather your brain will just be getting used to the pain signals being sent from your shins to your brain and will disregard it as usual or common.
The stronger and more muscle mass you have the better you will be at shock absorption. Conditioning different aspects of your body, like strengthening your legs, will help against the wobbly leg syndrome you get when taking a big hit. You can also practice various forms of leg raises which will help aid you in developing your mid-section and build a thicker abdominal wall. You can strengthen the neck as well to help not get knocked around like a bobble-head when receiving a blow to the face but I can’t urge enough how cautious you have to be when working out your neck. Read up on it, ask your sensei or a professional, don’t go in stupid and without a clue.
Skills for Personal Safety
Now it is not all about just strengthening your body, but using little skills to better take a hit like being able to prep for the impact by breathing out with a short quick burst of breath which will tense you up hard like a shell and will not allow the wind to be knocked out of you while taking a body shot. Sometimes when you block or receive a good hit you can do a little hop backwards to try and go with the energy from the attack. It can be mesmerizing watching boxers to bob, weave and roll with the punches, working hard not to allow the full force of the incoming impact to shake the body by going with the flow. You should not go on planning to go take on hits as a strategy; to have a strong chin is mostly due to good genetics.
I recommend staying on the outside of the strikes while having good positioning of your feet, and being mindful on your balance so you don’t find yourself colliding forwards into the oncoming attack. Moving about will save you more in the long term than acting like a meat shield.
Stretching is a very important factor if it is your aim to avoid injury as best as possible while in an altercation. Although the benefits of stretching pour over into your everyday life as it helps in recovery following a hard intense workout. Your muscles can be shortened after intense contractions during your workout and stretching immediately afterwards will limit the amount of metabolic damage done to the muscle cells which speeds up the recovery of the muscle. When you injure yourself due to improper flexibility your muscles tend to heal shorter than they were previously, creating tightness that is prone to another injury so you can think of stretching as a preventive practice to having off time from your training.
Many techniques demand at least basic levels of flexibility and the more advanced martial arts techniques and kicks will require much more and failing to do so can leave your body prone to fatigue and injury. With not being able to maintain your form while executing your technique due to lack of flexibility could leave you to practicing bad habits and risk of pulling other muscles. Having proper flexibility gives more access to your strength, to more speed and improved coordination.
Genetics do have a role to play in your flexibility and the elasticity of your ligaments and tendons but with dedication you can gain high levels of suppleness, you can perform the full split at any age with proper dedication. Females tend to have more limberness in their hips because of anatomical differences in the bone structure. Although age is probably the biggest factor and starting to stretch the younger you are and to keep it up will serve you better than starting to stretch later in life as you stiffen over time.
Agonist and Antagonist Muscles
To dive into these topics we should have a simple understanding what Antagonist and Agonists Muscles are and that they often occur in pairs as one contracts and the other relaxes.
- Agonist muscles cause movement to happen through their contraction. Agonists can also interchangeably be known as “prime movers” since they are responsible for the generating specific movement.
- Antagonist is like the brakes of the muscle. They act to oppose the agonists muscle by slowing it down and returning the limb to its initial position.If the motion is reversed the roles of the agonist and antagonist muscles are reversed as well.
An example of antagonist and agonist muscles are the bicep and triceps, one must relax and the other must contract in order to lift the arm.
Flexibility is the ability to bend easily without breaking; it is one of the most important features a martial artist can possess.
The Three Types of Flexibility
- Static-Active Flexibility
- Static-Passive Flexibility
- Dynamic Flexibility
This is the type of flexibility that permits you to extend a limb and hold it out only using the tension of your agonist muscles while simultaneously stretching the antagonist muscles. This form of stretching is not very popular with many combat orientated martial arts as dynamic stretching is usually used, but is very useful for developing endurance and strength and practiced in some forms of traditional martial arts through holding a position for long periods of time. You will find this static-passive flexibility used in chi kung and other asain internal masteries.
This is the common stretch we all know and love. Leaning over for a stretch and holding it there breathing into it for a few seconds until the tension dissipates then stretch a little bit more until you hit your maximum position, hold it for thirty seconds then release. This is the best and most comfortable way to return your muscles to their pre-trained length. It is also great for augmenting the other stretching methods. Dynamic and Static-Passive flexibility have a relationship with each other and each have an indirect effect on the other. The range of motion in your static-passive stretches is dependent on your dynamic stretching range of motion. This type of stretching is beneficial if you do it daily, more will not hurt your progress and as many sets you feel necessary.
Dynamic stretching movements through the full range of motion that your joints permit while keeping your antagonist muscles relaxed while contracting your moving agonist muscles. This involves increasing the range of movement and velocity gradually. It should be very smoothed and controlled not bouncing or jerking your movements to get a little farther. An example of dynamic stretching would be standing upright and swinging one leg forwards and back using your legs weight as momentum. Dynamic stretching is usually top dog for your warm ups and only takes about 10mins of your day to increase your flexibility long term. Dynamic flexibility is where you want to focus if you want to create those really high and powerful kicks and many other martial art techniques. It is recommended to do dynamic stretches twice a day and for twelve reps, usually best within fifteen minutes of waking.
Foundations and Martial Art Conditioning
The beginning of your martial art path is more crucial than what most people consider. When you start training you are laying down all the foundations and habits for your future. This can create a big problem if you are not training with a teacher. An instructor will look at you objectively, something that is a must when learning how to defend yourself. People tend to avoid doing the things they don’t like to do, even if it is required; it causes them to not develop proper foundations and strengths needed, and they tend to stagnate very fast. This is why having someone with experience to keep you on track is so essential.
This does not go for those who train at home who are in isolation and really have no other options other than what the internet can provide. For everyone else, if you live within distance of a dojo you really should find a suitable teacher if you wish to improve properly.
Think of it this way; if you don’t have the humility to begin as a white belt (or the equivalent on any other system) and the perseverance to reach adequate training, then how could you expect people in a martial art circle to take your art or style seriously? Sadly it is rare to see those that have bought their belts from online courses to remain humble, which seriously bites them back in a lot of ways and causes a lot of frustration within the community.
By having a teacher point out the parasites in your movements it will encourage you to develop a strong foundation in your abilities; persevere long enough and you will be forged into a link of the lineage in your tradition as people may start to seek you out for your clean, executed techniques. By first learning the proper movements, foundations and refining them at class in front of your mentor, you are then able to take what you have learned and are able to correct yourself in front of a mirror and fix the parasites in your movements yourself. Those finer points you get from your instructor observing your movement is something you can never fully get from online training solely. Keep in mind a lot can be missed from being observed from a webcam.
A risk you run with online training or even just from a poor teacher is that you may ruin your foundation by training bad habits and poor form; thus creating a weak foundation for all your future endeavors. Do not rush the basics, as all your movements will end up looking and feeling cheap and they are not as effective or efficient.
Only a skilled sensei is able to guide you through what is essential and as you progress they may help you peel off layers of certain techniques to get to the core of what they really are. In some instances you can only learn a certain amount of understandings within the current teachings for the next lesson to open up and blossom to you, without experience these things will remain hidden.