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.
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.
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.