White Belts Should Train for Strength

You have 24 hours in a day.  How you use it is important. A skillful martial artist has a lot to balance. Work, social obligations, and more all compete for your valuable time. Time spent for training is at a premium. While we all have 24 hours in a day, none of use can devote all 24 to training.

A driving force which motivated me to improve my fitness was karate. I was far too overweight and out of shape to excel in karate.  At the time I trained at a school that promoted karate as a way to get in shape.  I didn’t get fit, and so I turned to conventional exercise.

These days, I still love martial arts.  I’ve developed a love for fitness, but I still want my fitness training to support my martial arts. I spend a lot of time contemplating how to prioritize training time. Should I devote more time to technique? Should I spend more time on fitness?

In fact, the amount of time I spend thinking about that is better spent practicing kata.  This article is for the novice ranks. I hope to help them avoid some of the analysis paralysis that I’ve experienced. I’ll explain why strength training is a priority during the first 6 months of martial arts training. And I’ll explain why it is reduced as one gains martial arts proficiency.

Noob Gainz

At the beginning of a well planned strength training program, strength gains are predictable, significant, and consistent.  Depending on the person, and the exercise these gains can last about 6 months.  For example, some barbell lifts may gain 5 pounds per week. This results in a total of 130 pounds of increase on that lift in six months. This is significant.  Unfortunately this rate of growth declines at about 6 months, give or take.  After a year it declines more. After 2 years of training strength gains are hard fought.

strength gains for beginners
Beginners make rapid strength gains with a well planned strength program.

Here’s the cool part. That first six months to a year of training will put most beginner martial artists squarely ahead of the general population. It will also provide strength and endurance that many of their martial arts peers don’t possess.

These gains are easily attained. About three hours per week is all that’s necessary.  But how much training is necessary for maintenance?  You’ll be glad to know that it is a fraction of what’s necessary for achieving gains.  This is why time spent training during early belts ranks will pay off dividends later. As you work towards black belt, you will not need to focus on getting more fit.

In a lecture, my exercise science professor stated that maintenance requires half of the training volume needed to make gains. Sometimes it even requires less.  Rather than dig out my old notes (yes, I keep all of my notebooks) I’ll refer instead to this excellent article by Dr. Bret Contreras.  Here, he cites his personal experience with low volume maintenance. Importantly, he also cites a study that indicates maintenance can be had with as low as 1/9 the training volume.  It is worth a read.

TL;DR: Spend time strength training early on and it’s easy to maintain little training.

Fundamental Skill Training

Ask your martial arts instructor what are the most important techniques to master.  Most teachers worth their salt will tell you it is the same techniques you learn early on.  You revisit these techniques throughout your martial arts training. It is no different with strength training.

Spend your time mastering the basics of strength training early on, and more complex movements become easier later.  For example, a barbell power clean is a classic power exercise. Learning it will come much easier to you if you have been deadlifting since day one. There are similar motor memory components. The basics are the secret sauce, so to speak.  Time spent doing regular push ups, squats, lunges, rows, presses, curls, planks, and weighted carries results in great strength. Moreover, these fundamental exercises build overall movement skill.

TL;DR: Focus on the basics of strength training.  You will come back to them again and again.

Good Movement, and Functional Carry-Over:

Humans only move in so many ways.  Strong positions are strong positions. This is true whether you are lifting a barbell, or lifting a human (with the intent to place them rapidly on the ground). Practice of fundamental strength exercises are a practice in using the body to transmit force.

For example, a push up doesn’t just develop strength and endurance for punching.  In fact, a crummy push up doesn’t do much at all, regardless of how many reps you might think you’re doing.  But a good push up, one that is well practiced, that’s a different story. A good push up will reinforce the importance of keeping the elbow down on a punch.  It will teach you how to connect your arm to your torso and abs. This is the magic of how the push up helps martial artists with their punches. It’s all about the alignment.  Good alignment is good alignment. This is an example of how the push up will reinforce that concept with carryover to your punching.

TL: DR Fundamental strength training exercises contain many of the same concepts as fundamental martial arts techniques.


At white through yellow belt you may have one or two katas to practice depending on your art. You may have a handful of kihon techniques, or ippon kumite and sparring combinations.  You may have a self defense technique or two.  Practice of these techniques doesn’t take hours per day. Here’s where you have the opportunity to invest in strength training.

As you accumulate time training in the martial arts, you will have an entire curriculum to practice. This demands more training time.  If you have already built a base of strength, you will be able to practice longer. You’ll also be more resilient against injury. Best of all, the amount of strength training needed to maintain your goals is minimal. Devote less and less time to maintaining your strength. As you need less time maintaining strength, devote to more technique training.

3 Healthy Shoulder Exercises for Martial Artists

I hadn’t even turned 30 yet, and I had already developed nagging injuries in both shoulders. It wasn’t from martial arts training, though. They both happened at work. But I had just started training in Goju Ryu Karate the same year I developed these injuries, and I was really enjoying it.

When I asked if I can continue training karate, the doctor replied, “Sure.  It will probably help strengthen your shoulders to do so.”

He was wrong.

The next year, I moved across the country with my family.  I found a new karate school teaching a different style of karate. They also had kendo and a few other martial arts on their schedule.  Karate and kendo became the mainstays of my training for a while, but those shoulders were a recurring problem.  There were classes where I’d do haya suburi, and spend the next few days with my arm in a sling. Haya suburi is to kendo what skipping rope is to boxing.  Here’s an example:

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Train. Injure. Heal. Repeat. That was my routine until I started learning about fitness and exercise.

Those original injuries were about 13 years ago now, and I’ve since learned how to keep my shoulders strong and flexible.  Here are three of my favorite exercises that martial artists should do regularly to maintain shoulder health.

  • Band Pull Aparts. These could be the least flashy and sexy exercise you’ll do, but they’re essential.  Band Pull Aparts target the rear shoulder and the upper back. There is carry-over to martial arts techniques which involve pulling the shoulder blades toward each other, such as during a double knife hand.
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  • Halos. Use a kettlebell or a weight plate for these.  This exercise develops strength in the shoulders and rotator cuff while also improving range of motion at the shoulder. Carry-over to martial arts practice includes developing strength for the common high blocks seen in karate and taekwondo. Additionally, overhead techniques such as making a sword cut from jodan stance are improved.
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  • Prone ITYW. No equipment is needed for this exercise which targets the rear delts, rotator cuff, trapezius, and rhomboids. This exercise improves posture and shoulder range of motion. Carry-over to martial arts techniques is similar to the band pull aparts. As an added bonus, focusing on deep breathing while prone can help to improve breathing in general. It is harder for the rib cage to elevate while breathing in this position, and this may encourage tight intercostals to loosen up while also encouraging good belly breathing from the diaphragm.
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These are three of my go-to exercises for shoulder health.  You’ll notice that they all focus on strength of the upper back, and encourage an open chest posture.  This is not coincidence.  One of the worst things for shoulder health is poor posture, and a tight chest.

Add these exercises into your next workout or warm up, and let me know what you think of them in the comments below.  Make sure to subscribe to my RSS feed to be notified of future training tips.

Practice is Everything!

The Greek ruler, Periander once said, “Practice is everything.  This is often misquoted as Practice makes perfect.”

Golfer Sam Snead has this to say on the subject of practice, “Practice puts brains in your muscles.”

Clearly, practice is an important part of developing any skill.  Physical skills require regular practice to both develop and to maintain.  It is said that you never forget how to ride a bike. However, not all skills are so easily retained. Martial arts skills, if not practiced regularly, degrade.

karate practice
You probably don’t have to sit in horse stance in a river for hours on end…

How much practice is necessary to maintain and improve skills? Many “old school” martial arts instructors are proponents of long and intense periods of training. If you haven’t thoroughly soaked your clothes with sweat and inflicted all manner of distress upon yourself, then you’re not really training, right?  Certainly there is value to pushing your limits on occasion.  But is this how ALL of our practice should be?  Is such an approach to practice even reasonable for many people in our modern age? Let’s look to experts in learning, martial arts, and physical training for the answers.

Ebbinghaus’ Curve of Forgetting

We forget things at an alarming rate if we don't quickly review them.
We forget things at an alarming rate if we don’t quickly review them.

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus performed an experiment which resulted in the conception of what has become known as the “Forgetting Curve.” Ebbinghaus’ experiment demonstrated that learned information is forgotten at a frightening rate, sometimes more than 50% of learned information is lost after only one hour. So if we forget what we learn so quickly after we learn it, how do we improve our skills?  How do we improve complex physical tasks? Let’s look to someone who spent their whole life dedicated to the art of learning and teaching.

Gichin Funakoshi and Distributed Practice

Shotokan Karate Gichin Funakoshi
Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate.

Far better than to “cram” as you would for an exam, science has shown that shorter, more regular reviews of learned information is better for improving retention.  This is called distributed practice, and it is in line with both Ebbinghaus’ ideas and with a suggestion on how to practice that comes directly from the father of modern karate.  In his book, “Karate-do Kyohan”, Gichin Funakoshi states:


“With respect to the length of individual training sessions, a period of about ten minutes is appropriate for most people. After acquiring skill and experience, one may at times train for an hour or longer, depending on his physical strength. He should be cautioned, however, that excessively long training sessions prompted by youthful ardor, are to be avoided. Ideally, one who has time should divide his training into morning, noon, and evening sessions. The technique exists for the man. At the very least, karate training is an endeavor in continued self-improvement, so that it would be the height of folly to impair one’s health or become ill through injudicious training. One should, therefore, keep in mind that it is better to train frequently, even for short periods, than to have long but infrequent sessions.”

Pavel and Greasing the Groove

It’s not only psychologists and martial artists who see the value in regular review and practice of information and skills. Many strength coaches are proponents of a style of training that emphasizes frequent and sub-maximal practice sessions. Russian Master of Sport, Pavel Tsatsouline, is considered responsible for the popularization of kettlebell training. He is also a proponent of this type of training, which he calls “Grease-the-Groove”. The idea behind grease-the-groove is simple. Choose an exercise and perform half or fewer the number of repetitions you normally could do.  Do not go to failure.  Make each repetition as perfect as possible. Don’t exhaust yourself, and do this frequently throughout the day. You will improve the alignment and timing necessary to express strength well, and you will actually get stronger in the process.  At my own gym I have seen middle aged women go from being unable to perform more than a few pushups from their knees to performing around 15 reps from their toes in a matter of weeks.  It is a powerful way to practice.

The Way to Practice

So, what is the best way to improve at an exercise, a martial arts form, or any other skill you want to improve? Science and the experience of experts agree on these points:

  1.       Review material within an hour after learning it.  This means that if you learn a new exercise or martial arts technique, practice it again when you get home. Do this within the hour if possible.
  2.       Rather than overdoing it with long and intense practice sessions, focus on shorter, more focused practice sessions.  Quality over quantity.
  3.       Practice frequently.  Funakoshi recommended morning, noon, and night. Some strength coaches suggest every hour or two for greasing the groove.

By creating a regular, quality focused practice you will remember your skills better. You will continually improve, rather than hitting plateaus. You will enjoy a life of finding new mysteries in even the most fundamental of exercises such as a push up or a punch.

When Gichin Funakoshi was nearing the end of his life he could do little more than practice the basic punch, which he continued to do regularly. One of his senior students spent these last days with him, and a few days before his passing this student walked in to see Funakoshi sitting upright in his bed practicing that punch. Funakoshi turned to the student and said, “I think I’ve finally got it.”
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Time With One’s Tribe

japanesesword01As I sit here writing this, I’m still feeling the high that comes with spending dedicated time working on something you enjoy. This past Friday I attended a series of martial arts seminars. That evening I watched a wonderful demonstration by some skilled teachers. For me, that was a little slice of heaven.

So, why was this such an uplifting, and necessary day for me? Was it about all the cool stuff that I learned? That’s only part of it. Continue reading Time With One’s Tribe

Reflections on Biofeedback Training

heartbeatVery recently I started using biofeedback training in my own workouts.  I’m always on the lookout for techniques that improve the mind-body connection in a strength training context.  Biofeedback training (AKA The Gym Movement Protocol) has caught my attention lately because I’ve noticed it’s used by some of the folks I follow around teh internetz who are beasty strong. Continue reading Reflections on Biofeedback Training

4 Essential Barbell Exercises for Beginners

For the novice physical culturist there are 4 basic barbell lifts that need to be mastered.  These 4 lifts are the foundation upon which strong people have built themselves up for hundreds of years.  These same 4 barbell lifts and their variations will continue to be an important part of training throughout the life of any serious strength athlete. Continue reading 4 Essential Barbell Exercises for Beginners