Fitness Cross-training in Martial Arts

First off I’d like to apologize to my 2-3 readers on the long gap between posts – between holiday travel, family, illness, and having a full-time, non-martial arts job things got away from me in May. I promise a gap like this won’t happen again in May of 2019.

With that out of the way, let’s get into today’s topic. We’re going to talk about how fitness training outside of martial arts benefits you inside the martial arts. We’ll break it down by the type of training, and why it’ll benefit you.

One thing to keep in mind is that the ultimate goal of working out is to make normal activities seem easier. If you lift weights and get stronger, carrying grocery bags feels like less of a chore. If you incorporate cardio into your workouts, stairs won’t seem like an obstacle. The point of fitness cross-training is to work your body in different ways so that the usual ways seem easier.

Cardio

First off, I hate running, a lot. Yeah it’s great exercise, burns calories like crazy, and helps your stamina, but I hate it. Even when I was running regularly, I felt like there were so many negatives: tighter hamstrings, knee pain, aches, and worst of all – afterwards I had the memory of having been running!

That being said, cardio training is important. It’s important to do, so find a way that you actually enjoy. I’m a big fan of other methods of cardio like circuit training, plyometrics, the (at this point) retro video game Dance Dance Revolution, and sometimes riding a stationary bike while playing Fire Emblem.

Whatever cardio you do, you’ll feel the difference. You’ll have more energy to blast your forms, sparring rounds will feel shorter, and bagwork won’t wipe you out as much. Make sure you train in a way that mirrors the cardio demands of martial arts though! Between kata performance and sparring rounds, the best way to cross-train for endurance in the martial arts is with intense interval training. A steady jog doesn’t prepare you for the cardio demands of martial arts.

Interval training involves brief periods of high intensity which you alternate with periods of lower intensity. For example: walk 90 seconds, sprint 30 seconds, repeat. A lot of cardio machines you’ll find in gyms have this option, I highly recommend it!

Ok, that’s cardio just to take longer to get winded in class. What if that’s not enough motivation?

Find cardio exercises that will benefit the movements you do in class! Cardio exercises like jump squats will make your jump kicks that much better! Doing ladder drills will make your footwork faster in sparring. Find cardio that’s fun, challenging, and applicable to the skillsets you need in class!

Strength

Martial artists, mostly those of us in the striking arts, tend to work the muscles involved in pushing, not pulling. Think of push ups and squats – push ups quite literally involve pushing on the ground. Squats are the same thing, using your muscles to push on the ground and straighten your legs. Just like push ups work the chest but neglect the back,  crunches and sit ups work the front half of the core, but ignore the back too. Striking martial artists get really good at the “push” half, but stay weak on the “pull.”

So why does this matter if I mostly care about punching and kicking?

Well let’s start with a basic reverse punch!

When performing a right reverse punch, often times a white belt is taught that the left hand gets pulled back to the waist. Now, the explanation is often that this is to teach coordination, and to ensure proper use of both shoulders in the punching method. Anyone who’s sparred will tell you that you need to keep your non-punching hand up to protect yourself.

So why pull back if it leaves you vulnerable?

Well the advanced answer is actually somewhat simple.

You pull your hand back because it’s not empty! In a form, anytime your hand goes back to your waist, you should assume you’re grabbing your attacker’s arm and pulling it back. This is done either to control (like an arm bar), or to injure (by pulling them into your punch).

Alright, put it all together.

Doing exercises that strengthen the “pull” motion (like lat pull downs, back rows, and biceps curls) means you can more effectively perform the application of every move in every technique or form you know that involves pulling a hand back to your waist!

So what about crunches? What am I missing there?

Well, you could do 1,000 crunches, have washboard abs, and be a swimsuit model, but if you only work the front of your core you’ll still be prone to bad posture and lower back pain. If that’s not motivation and you only care about martial arts, just think about how your forms will look if you’re bent forward the whole time! You need to do bridges, back extensions, and supermans to balance out the crunches and sit ups!

Ok, but what’s wrong with squats?

Nothing, but they only help half your kick! Squats work your glutes and your quads really well – the key muscles that power the sidekick. You need to be careful because making that your only leg exercise means you aren’t strengthening your hamstrings.

This is important for three reasons:

  1. A strong muscle is less prone to injury. If you have monster quads and weak hamstrings, the weaker muscle may not be able to keep up!
  2. Have you heard of my good friend the hook kick? The snap of that kick is 100% hamstrings.
  3. Ever have your leg grabbed because your pullback was slow? Whatever muscle extends the leg out, the opposing muscle is what pulls it back (usually the hamstrings)!

So work those leg curls! (Machines at the gym or resistance bands are your best bet)

So does this mean you should only hit the gym to work on muscles you don’t use in class?

Yes and no… yes if your goal is to be a little more well rounded, have better posture, and be less prone to injuries from muscle imbalance. If that’s your goal (and it’s a solid goal) just do some pull ups, bridges, and leg curls a few times a week.

The “no” answer is more fun though.

No, you shouldn’t aim to “catch up” your neglected muscles, you should aim to make every muscle stronger.

Doing a set of push ups at the start of every class will make your punches stronger, but after a while you’re maintaining. Unless you add increasing resistance, eventually more push ups stops equaling more punching power. You need to add resistance, and that means strength training outside of class.

If you’ve only ever done martial arts (and again a lot of this is geared towards striking arts since that’s my background – Judo and Jujitsu guys can definitely pull hard and have back strength!) I recommend doing a balanced workout of strength and cardio to start. Write down what you can do and focus on bringing your neglected muscles up to match their corresponding stronger muscles. Once you accomplish that, focus on getting everything stronger!

I did martial arts for about 3 or 4 years before I started fitness training outside of class. At that point, I could do a decent number of push ups but couldn’t do a single pull up. Naturally, when I went to the gym for the first time my chest (or bench) press numbers where a lot higher than my lat pull down or back row numbers.

After months (okay years) of lifting, not only do I use the same amount of weight on my chest press and lat pull down, but I’ve also almost doubled the amount I can do on the chest press.

If there’s a theme to this blog overall, it’s probably to train to be balanced

Getting great at one skill at the expense of another isn’t balanced, and neither is making half your body strong while neglecting the other half. It’s bad for martial arts, and more importantly, it’s bad for long term health. Cross-training outside of martial arts is a great way to make sure all your muscles are balanced, and I highly recommend it!

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