Strength and Conditioning for Martial Arts Practitioners

Contributor: Chaim Grafstein 

So you’re a Martial Artist, and you want to take your training to the next level. 

Whether you want to increase your balance and flexibility to throw a higher kick, increase your cardiovascular endurance to start competing in grappling, or any other goal you might have in mind, there is no question that proper strength and conditioning will support you in achieving those goals.

 With this starting point there are two probable issues which tend to arise when a Martial Artist begins to enter the world of improving their fitness: 

1.     Copy and pasting your Martial Arts (MA) in your Strength and Conditioning (S&C).

2.     Over focusing on your S&C and working out too much.

 My very first Martial Arts instructor has the best line for overly eager students who push themselves to injury in their training: “Your warrior spirit is writing cheques your body can’t cash.” This idea really resonates with me, and it is a good phrase to keep in mind when thinking about these two issues.


Copy and pasting your Martial Arts in your Strength and Conditioning

Let’s say you’re a boxer, you could end up battering your shoulders with strength training if you do too much pushing. Likely you’ll incorporate push-ups, bench press, overhead pressing, etc. in your Strength training on top of whatever pushing movements you’re already doing in your Martial Arts training (think of every punch you throw as a push movement).

Sure, one or two push exercises in the gym (3-4 sets of overhead pressing for example) once a week is going to support you in your Martial Arts, but too much more than that is going to lead to overuse injuries. If that happens it’ll set you back farther than if you hadn’t even been to the gym at all!


Over Focusing on your Strength and Conditioning

If you follow a cookie-cutter “fitness program”, a marathon runner’s training schedule, or an Olympic weightlifter’s programming, I can almost guarantee you won’t be optimizing your training. You’ll probably end up taking away from the quality of your Martial Arts training, and before you know it you’ll give up on your added workouts.

Take the example of a marathon style program. If you’re a wrestler and spend 3-4 days/week training, between your warm up, drilling, sparring and every other aspect of your classes adding 5 days of jogging per week might be a bit too much to handle. You’re going to end up trying to cash a cheque your body can’t handle, and one of the two programs will have to go. Why not start off with something more manageable? Try jogging 2 times a week tops. Keep it short and don’t try breaking any land speed records.

The majority of the mentioned above is about what you shouldn’t do. What can you do? How can you build a Strength and Conditioning program that supports your Martial Arts training? A good place to start is with a minimal and effective Strength and Conditioning program.

Like I said above, light cardio once or twice a week is certainly a good beginner Conditioning regimen. But be cautious! If you want to do more than that, especially if you find you train Martial Arts more than 2 times a week, make sure you have adequate time to recover or you might give up before you benefit from it.

In terms of Strength training a basic and minimalist “primal pattern” style program is going to support most Martial Artists. The only precaution is avoid overworking yourself and working to failure. Everything you do should be challenging but not difficult. There are so many ways that this sort of program can end up looking, so consider this an introductory blueprint:


Day 1:

Light Static Stretching (don’t overthink this! If it feels tight, or restricts you from performing movements, then stretch it!)

Dynamic Warm-up (This can be anything from jumping jacks, or throwing in a few warm-up sets before each movement below, whichever one feels best for you!)

Movements for the day:

Barbell Back Squats: 3 sets of 5 reps

Lat Pull-downs or Weighted Pull-ups: 4-5 sets of 6-10 reps

Weighted Walking Lunges: 2 sets of 12 reps


Day 2:

Light Static Stretching

Dynamic Warm-up

Movements for the day:

Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 6-8 reps

Dumbbell Rows: 4-5 sets of 6-10 reps

Plank: 2 sets of 30+ seconds


Nothing in this workout is total dogma (okay, maybe the squat my 4 years of personal training, especially working with fellow Martial Artists, I have yet to meet someone who wouldn’t benefit from more squatting). Following this sort of general guideline will translate to improved performance in the dojo, on the mat - whatever and wherever your Martial Art practice is!


Alright, if you’ve made it to the end of this article you deserve a few take home points:

1.     Don’t overdo your training! Too much S&C will take over your training and throw your MA out of balance...

2.     Pick the right movements for you! If you’re a boxer, maybe pass on doing 5 variations of the bench press twice a week...

3.     Last but not least - keep learning! Look for credible sources. Learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Get online and watch a video or read an article. There is so much free information available online; if you are serious about your training you will take advantage of it!