Bodybuilding for the Martial Artist

So, let me begin by saying that this article isn’t just for the martial artist. I just happen to be a martial artist and thus picked this sport to write about. However, if you play any type of sport where speed and strength are important, or if you want to be as strong as you look, then this article is for you.
Weight Training

   Development of fast twitch muscle fibers is essential to improving relative strength. These muscle fibers are recruited and primarily developed during relatively short and intense exercise, as opposed to the slow twitch muscle fibers, which are responsible for sustained endurance.

   Martial artists that want quick, powerful kicks and punches should be lifting in a manner that develops the fast twitch muscle fibers. One way to target these muscle fibers is through low volume, high intensity lifting. That is roughly 1-5 reps at 85-100% of 1RM. When training at such high intensity, you need ample rest between sets. Three to five minutes is recommended.

   The number of sets that should be done is inversely related to the number of reps chosen. A lower rep range will require more sets than a higher rep range. Five to 12 sets are recommended, depending on the number of reps you choose.

   The speed of contraction used depends on where you are in your training cycle, in other words, how close you are to your fight. Slow speed training with high intensities eliminates momentum thus increasing the tension imposed on the muscle, leading to faster development of strength. However, if too much time is spent with slow speed training, the rate of force development (the ability to apply muscular force quickly) is diminished. Therefore it is best to vary the speed of contractions, beginning with slow speed training to develop a strength base and progressing to explosive training.

   This type of low volume weight training brings about an increase in maximal strength with a minimal increase in muscle mass. This is great for the competitive martial artist that must qualify for specific weight classes. Delayed onset muscles soreness is also reduced with this type of training, which means your weight training should not interfere too much with your martial arts practice.

   The term speed strength refers to explosive power. When you throw a roundhouse kick or a cross punch, you want it to be powerful enough to hurt and fast enough that it won’t be caught. There are two components of speed strength: Starting strength and Explosive strength. Starting strength is the ability to instantly activate as many muscle fibers as possible. Explosive strength is the ability to keep the muscles activated for a measurable duration. When working on speed training, the emphasis should be on acceleration of the weight. An explosive concentric should be used with a total set duration of 20 seconds or less.

   As a competition nears, training will become increasingly specific. Martial artists should reduce maximal weight training and increase power training and sport specific interval training.

   Of course, there is a time for high volume, low intensity weight training in martial arts. Moving up to the next weight class will require an increase in bodyweight through gains in muscle mass. Also, if a martial artist (or anybody for that matter) is relatively new to weight training, lifting with a lower intensity will establish a strength base and ensure proper form is learned. Ideally, weight training would be periodized according to fight dates and specific strength goals.

   Obviously, the martial artist will need to have a well-developed cardiovascular system. Most competitions are of a relatively short duration, when compared to some sports. A tournament fight may consist of two 3-6 minute rounds or a No Holds Barred fight may consist of one 10 minute round. Even non-competitive martial artists will only spar or grapple for a short duration during practice. Therefore, your cardio training should reflect your sport. There’s no need to go on long slow runs if your fight will last 10 minutes.

   Interval training is one of the best methods for martial artists to prepare for competition. Try to keep your training as specific to your competition as possible. If your fight consists of two 5-minute rounds, then you should work up to 5-minute intervals. Again, trying to be specific, if it is a boxing match, hit the heavy bag; if it is a No-Holds-Barred fight, then practice full-contact striking & grappling for 5-minute intervals.

   Plyometric training, also called fast eccentric training, is invaluable for the martial artist. If you haven’t incorporated it into your training program yet, you’re missing a valuable tool for increasing speed and strength. Plyometrics take full advantage of the power of eccentric contractions, the stretch-shortening cycle and the elasticity of muscle to produce the highest force and power capacity in skeletal muscle.

   Complete instruction on Plyometrics is beyond the scope of this article; however, there are general points that should be brought up. Always keep ground contact to a minimum. That is, as soon as your feet land you should be taking off again. In the case of upper body medicine ball training, keep contact w/ the MB to a minimum. For example, in a MB chest pass, as soon as you catch the ball, you toss it back to your partner. The longer you wait before contracting again, the more stored elastic energy will dissipate, thus decreasing eccentric efficiency.

   When performing lower body Plyometrics, stay on the balls of your feet. When landing, the best optimal foot position is w/ a dorsiflexed foot and 2/3 foot contact with an emphasis of weight on the front of the foot. Rolling the foot or moving the ankle joint slows the response.

   It is important to consider the landing surface, including the type of shoe worn. Too much cushioning will defeat the purpose of reactive landings. Grass is often the optimal surface for training. Thin-soled shoes or even bare feet may provide the safest option in terms of minimizing excessive heel contact and pronation.


   A martial artist training for a competition does not need to eat like a bodybuilder. Protein is still important, but complex carbohydrates are even more so. Often the training that goes into a fight is upwards of 25 hours per week. Without enough carbohydrates in the diet, the martial artist would never make it through such a high volume of training. A diet consisting of 50% carbs, 30% protein and 20% fat is ideal to begin with. Be sure to monitor your energy levels and adjust your split accordingly. When training so intensely it’s easy to lose track of your calorie intake and not eat enough. It too should be monitored closely. If you begin losing weight unintentionally, increase your calories slowly (200-300) until you’re able to maintain your weight.

   Keep track of your weight throughout your training. If you are at the top of your weight class, you’ll need to watch that you don’t spill over into the next weight class. If you are at the bottom of your weight class, you’ll likely want to gain muscle mass/bodyweight to move up a class or drop weight to go in at the top of the next class down. How much time you have and where you fit in your class will determine which way to go.

   Whatever your goals in martial arts and bodybuilding, I suggest you maintain a training and nutritional log. It is the easiest way to track progress and overcome plateaus. Without a log, you can’t remember where you’ve been, and if you don’t know where you’ve been you can’t possibly know where you’re going.