By  Charles Staley

Twenty years ago, strength training was considered taboo for martial artists.

Today, it is gaining in popularity, despite the fact that it is rarely carried out in a rational manner. Due to strong influences from the world of bodybuilding, most martial artists are only getting half the potential benefit that strength training has to offer.

Specificity and Strength Training

Virtually all martial arts depend upon the ability to develop force very rapidly. Technically, the rapid execution of a technique results in more damage to the target. Tactically, rapidly executed techniques have a greater chance of landing, since they are more difficult to defend against than slower movements. From a defensive point of view, rapidly performed blocks and parries, as well as defensive footwork, are made more effective if executed rapidly.

Strength training for sports normally progresses through three phases: hypertrophy (muscle mass), absolute strength (the most force that can be produced irregardless of time required), and finally, speed strength (the ability to develop force rapidly). In the case of the martial arts, most athletes spend most or all of their time developing hypertrophy. A few progress to methods designed to develop absolute strength. Fewer still venture into speed-strength territory.

Critical to this article is the concept that the ability to develop high levels of force (such as displayed during a 400 pound bench press) is not as important as the ability to develop a high level of force within a very short (less than a second) period of time. The development of muscle mass and absolute strength are important because they form the foundation for speed-strength, but by themselves, they are next to worthless.

Hypertrophy Training

Sometimes called “the bodybuilding method,” hypertrophy training involves the use of moderate (between 70 and 85 percent of maximum) loads for sets of between 5 and 10 repetitions. Such loads provoke an increase in protein synthesis within the muscle cells, leading to an enlargement of the existing muscle tissue.

This enlargement is the first step in developing speedstrength, since increases in muscle cross-section are highly correlated to increases in absolute strength. An athlete stays in the hypertrophy phase for as long as is necessary and/or appropriate— while hypertrophy is a necessary first step, too much of it can be counter-productive (i.e., growing out of your weight class, or developing flexibility deficits, etc.). When the desired level of hypertrophy is developed, the athlete moves on to absolute strength training methods. Note: Athletes should increase protein intake while in this phase to help the body resynthesize muscle tissue.

Training for Absolute Strength

Absolute strength is developed through the use of high (85+ percent of maximum) loads. Repetitions range from 1 to 4. Such training improves neurological efficiency, or the ability to recruit higher percentages of existing muscle fibers. Fast twitch muscle is preferentially recruited over slow twitch fibers at this intensity range. The development of absolute strength is considered to be a prerequisite to speed-strength, but this training method should only be attempted by mature, experienced athletes, due to the high loads involved.

Developing Speed-strength: Moving the Time-force Curve to the Left

Once absolute strength is brought to a high level, the next task is to move the force time curve over to the left. Several methods can be used for this purpose: plyometrics, the use of modified Olympic lifts, and the lifting of submaximal (70 to 80 percent of maximum) weights at a high rate of speed. The emphasis is on improving the rate of force development (R.O.F.D.).

During the period of time devoted to speed-strength work, one can expect gains in hypertrophy and absolute strength to degrade to a certain degree. For this reason, a rationally designed training program will constantly alternate between phases devoted to hypertrophy, absolute strength, and speedstrength, in that order.

For mature athletes who already have sufficient muscle mass, the hypertrophy phase will be greatly abbreviated, however. For competitive martial artists, training cycles are planned so that the speedstrength phase coincides with the competitive season. In this way, sport-specific strength is brought to a peak when it is needed most.

Strength as a Means to an End

I caution the reader to remember that strength, as a component of physical preparation, is not an end but a means to an end. It simply allows the martial artist to achieve high results on the technical and tactical levels of preparation, and thus, to a high level of psychological preparedness.

Get Strong! Stay Strong!

Chris

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