Strength and Martial Arts: You Can Do Both
By: Adam Lauritzen, SSC
Improving your physical potential while also improving your sport is not only possible, it isn’t really that complicated. This is true for even the most skill-dependent, time-consuming sports and those that demand their own intense physical practice. With smart programming, you can get stronger and improve your martial arts skills at the same time. And you should, because deep down you know you can get closer to your potential. You just have to do the work. Simple, not easy.
Strength Training and Martial Arts: You can do both
Time is a finite resource that cannot be replaced or recovered. As we understand it, time moves in one direction only. It is your responsibility to not waste time. Few people, and virtually no martial artists, think that they are ‘wasting’ time. But if you ask people if they are making the most of their time, they may disappoint themselves with their answer. Most of us would have the same answer: No. Is it possible to improve at two things at once to maximize your use of time? Short answer: Yes. So you should endeavor to do so…because you can.
This is even true in sports and strength training, where too many athletes see a zero-sum use of their time, meaning they can either get better at their sport or get stronger but not both—there isn’t time. Improving your physical potential while also improving your sport is not only possible, it isn’t really that complicated. My sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the most skill-dependant, time-consuming sports that also demands intense physical practice in order to improve. With smart programming, I’ve found that you can get stronger and improve your martial arts skills at the same time. And you should, because deep down you know you can get closer to your potential. You just have to do the work. Simple, not easy.
Strength is a general adaptation, and martial arts is the acquisition of skill. They are therefore on different ends of a spectrum, but they don’t have to conflict even though they compete for resources like time. A good argument can be made that martial arts is an expression of strength: You have to have some minimum force production ability to execute any technique or concept. Even in the case of a child attempting to throw someone in judo, for example, at a minimum the child must have the grip strength to hold on to the grip during the execution. Similarly, the necessity for skill is evident in the weight room, though to a lesser degree because we are resisting gravity which is much more predictable than a resisting human. These attributes overlap and should both be trained to the most useful extent possible. To help maximize the use of time, and thus, potential, this article will state some general rules to help guide your training and then look at four groups of people each having slightly different organizing principles for their traning.
General Rule #1 – Organize Your Activities
Organize your training in the most beneficial order possible. This would usually mean lifting before other training, an exception being if you are tapering in preparation for a competition or a test in the same week. This also assumes that one would be training both strength and skill on the same day. There should be a day of the week where you do neither, allowing you to recover and gauge how tired and sore you are. Think of it as a day to take stock of your physical status.
General Rule #2 – Organize Your Training Sessions
Organize the training session in priorities of work. Once past the novice progression, it can be helpful to have one main-effort lift per session and follow it with accessory or assistance lifts. The idea is to have a focus of the day and get the reps in to continue driving progress for the other variations. This would also apply to the martial arts side as wel—fundamentals are there for a reason. In the weight room, you need to squat, bench, pull, and press. On the mat, you need to practice concepts like controlling angle and distance against resistance. These are the base of everything else and, as such, should get attention first.
General Rule #3 – Get Work Done
Get all your work in, as consistently as possible. The load on the bar may vary, but the work still has to be done. Just like with your art, you do not get better by not doing it. Taking a day off from the gym quickly becomes two, then three; then you find yourself watching Netflix wondering what happened. If you don’t feel like training that’s fine. DO IT ANYWAY. This is where a partner can help motivate you, but ultimately you are responsible for your training.
General Rule #4 – Learn to Train Through or Around Injuries
There will be injuries. Few injuries are catastrophic enough to completely stop training. Train ranges of motion that don’t exacerbate the injury, like pin squats or rack pulls in lieu of squats or deadlifts. The goal here would be to minimize time and progress lost to the extent possible. You may go back a little, but this is better than starting over.
What Kind of Lifter Are You?
Those looking to strength train to benefit their martial arts, generally fall into one of four groups, based on previous training experience and acquired skill. Which group you belong to will help determine how you should organize your training and martial arts practice to complement each other.
Group 1 – Novice Squared
This group encompasses those who have never lifted or done martial arts. Members in this group should be executing a Linear Progression and drilling their art (with occasional sparring bouts). This a magical phase. Like Luke discovering the force, everything is new and wondrous. Ideally, I would have a lifter start their martial arts after the first week of LP to give time for any novel soreness to abate before jumping into something that requires timing and coordination. After that though, run the LP for as long as you can make progress in strength and skill. When they start to conflict, move on to the late novice type of programming having a light day in the middle of the week. Then advance to group 4.
Group 2 – Already Strength Training
These folks have already been lifting consistently for a while, have established a good strength base, saw some UFC, and decided they want to try it. If you are already strong you will have a tendency to use this attribute at every opportunity, making martial arts harder than it needs to be, even though you will have some initial success on the mat. This is a good time to calm the fuck down and drill. You don’t have to go balls out every training session. In sports like BJJ and judo, you’ll likely end up paying for it with injuries from scrambling, freaking out in a submission, or simply repetitive impacts at high velocity in striking sports like Muay Thai. Also remember that, depending on how long it takes for you to calm down, your instructor may decide you are to be mercilessly punished until you calm down or leave the school. Once you start successfully applying techniques in sparring events, move on to group 4.
Group 3 – Already An Artist:
If you’ve been training an art for a while and you’ve decided that being stronger would be useful (good job). Start with a linear progression. It may not last as long as it would have had it been an unmolested Linear Progression, that’s fine. It is understood that you don’t want to lose the skill progress you made in your art by stopping completely. You are an adult and are consciously making this trade-off. Run the Linear Progression, drill more and spar less than you did before. A caveat would be that if you have a competition or physically demanding test scheduled, you’ll probably want to taper for a week or so to ensure everything is as good as it can be on the day of competition. Once your Linear Progression is complete, move on to the Advanced Novice phase, once that has run its course, move on to group 4.
Group 4 – Training Simultaneously
You’ve progressed from one of the three previous groups and didn’t die. Now what? You just want to maintain your strength and keep doing your art. Coaches hear this quite a bit, and it disappoints us every time. Know this: the slope of the line must be positive. This doesn’t mean that you must add weight to the bar every time your train but rather that through the course of cycling hypertrophy or accumulating fatigue and periodically peaking blocks, you should be stronger at the end of the year than at the beginning. You can and should periodize your training into focusing blocks at this point. Sign up for a competition in either your art or lifting, whichever it is will become the main effort. Other training will be secondary. At this point, you can really consider competing in one or the other as a test or something to further focus your training. See how far you can go. This is also a good time to get a coach if you don’t have one already. A coach will help you not waste time through injury or inappropriate programming. Time is valuable, after all.