Strength & Conditioning for Martial Arts | Part 1: The Basics

Strength & Conditioning for Martial Arts | Part 1: The Basics

One of the most common questions I get asked at Masters Academy Plymouth is “Do I need to train at the gym as well as my martial arts classes?”

The answer to this will depend on your goals for martial arts training and your ability.

For most new students just starting martial arts training I would say no.

The classes at Masters Academy Plymouth are a great way to develop your fitness, and they are designed to gradually increase it over time. Over-training for most new students will only lead to burn out and ultimately not achieving your goals.

Extra strength and conditioning sessions for some people can be of great benefit.

However, strength and conditioning should only be used to supplement your training, not replace it.

The type of people that can benefit from supplementary session are athletes, competitors, or students that need to improve a specific areas.

If I do recommend strength and condition to someone, normally there will be a second question;”What can I do at the gym to help me with my martial arts training?”

Enter Will Badenoch, owner of Plymouth Performance Gym, author of the Grapple Strength Programme, and my Strength and Conditioning coach.

Over the next three articles Will is going to break down the basics of strength and conditioning. He will also give you an insight of what you should be doing at the gym to supplement you martial arts sessions.

If you are serious about getting in the best shape for martial arts training I would highly recommend getting Will’s Grapple Strength Programme.

This was designed and tested on me and has massively improved my strength, power, and conditioning.

In the first article of this series Will dicusses the basic principles of strength and conditioning for combat sports.



Programme design is one of the most important aspects to consider for a successful strength and conditioning plan. It can also be one of the most confusing.

For most martial artists adding two strength and conditioning sessions a week should be plenty.

GS 1Anymore may not give your body time to recover and will negatively affect your overall performance.

I would also suggest following a basic linear periodisation model that includes different three phases.

Periodization is basically planning your training so you’re in the best condition possible at the time of a competition or event. It involves progressive cycling of different aspects of a training to achieve the best result.

With any plan it is important to start with a general preparation and strength development phases. We will then follow this with a Power development phase and conclude our cycle with a conditioning phase.

Each phases will normally last for 4-6 weeks depending on the athletes needs.

The cycle is then repeated. Throughout the year.

It is also possible to only have two phases strength followed by power. This would heavily depend on the competition schedule and conditioning of an athlete.

Let’s look at each phase in a little more depth.



[su_quote cite=”Mark Rippetoe”]Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.[/su_quote]

It should go without saying that improving technique should be your number one goal, no matter what your level.

However, the existence of weight and age categories in the martial arts competitions testament to the importance of strength in the sports.GS4

A weak fighter with great technique fighting a strong opponent with good technique runs the risk of being out-muscled and defeated.

Simply put, a stronger muscle will find it easier to move an object (in this case your own body or that of an opponent), it will be able to do so faster, and will expend less energy doing so.

This last point is important because the effects of a strength increase on your body’s conditioning levels should not be underestimated.

For example, a man fighting in the 70 kilo weight category, who is only capable of deadlifting 60 kilos, will be working very close to his maximum strength capacity, expending huge amounts of effort and energy to complete a takedown.

If that same person increased his deadlift to 160 kilos he would require only a fraction of his total strength to perform the same movement, saving himself a huge amount of precious energy.

A strong muscle can also act as ‘armour’ protecting the joints from damage and prolonging the career of the athlete.



[su_quote cite=”Cus D’Amato”]Speed Kills[/su_quote]

A ‘strong’ man who lacks power, is like a car jack, capable of moving incredibly heavy objects, but only at slow speeds.

On the flip side, an extremely ‘fast’ or powerful athlete who is weak can be likened to a bow and arrow, capable of moving light objects like the arrow at extremely high speeds, but without the strength to shoot anything heavier.GS2

The most dangerous fighters will be able to combine both these qualities, allowing them to summon great strength in a fraction of a second.

The training methods used to become both strong and powerful are by no means mutually exclusive.

On the contrary, simply getting stronger will lead to rapid gains in power as we train the muscle to work more efficiently and ‘turn on’ quicker, especially in a person who is new to training with heavy weights.

It is, however, important to understand the difference between the two so that you can understand the reasons behind the training techniques we will employ to improve your ability in these areas.

The aim of our strength and conditioning training will not be to produce huge energy sapping muscles, but rather to maximise the efficiency of those you already have (although an improvement in muscle tone and size is almost inevitable!).

To do this we will be training the muscle to work more efficiently. To help you to understand how this is possible, here is a basic description of the mechanics involved.

Each muscle is made up of hundreds of muscle fibres. When you perform an action, such as shooting for a takedown, a signal is sent from your brain to the muscles required to perform that action, telling them to ‘switch on’ and contract.

The speed and force of that movement will depend on the number of muscle fibres that are recruited by the signal sent from your brain.

No one can voluntarily recruit or ‘switch on’ all of the fibres in a muscle at once under normal circumstances. This is a protective mechanism designed to prevent muscle damage.

Many of you will have heard stories of people thrown across rooms by electric shocks, or mothers who have lifted cars off their children after accidents.

In the case of an accidental electric shock the electricity has not ‘thrown’ the person but has acted in a similar way to the electric signals which travel from your brain to your muscles when you want to move.

With an electric shock, however, the safety mechanisms are effectively overridden. When the shock is received the leg muscles suddenly tense up and every muscle fibre is switched on, contracting rapidly and forcefully, effectively causing the recipient to ‘jump’ distances they would otherwise not be able to cover.

In the case of the mother lifting a car off her child, adrenaline has essentially acted in the same way, overriding the muscles defences and unleashing their maximum potential.

In both cases there is likely to be extreme muscle damage after the event.

Both these examples illustrate the massive strength and power potential contained within the muscles of even an untrained mother, and should help you to understand how we are able to increase a fighter’s strength without necessarily increasing his size or weight.

An untrained person will be able to recruit no more than around 60% of their muscle’s potential strength voluntarily.

By training with heavy loads at relatively slow speeds we are able to train the muscle to ‘switch’ on more of its fibres without damaging them, tapping into strength reserves which were previously unavailable to us.

By also training with relatively lighter loads at very high speed we are able to teach these stronger muscles to contract extremely quickly, giving us the strength of the car jack with the speed of the bow and arrow!



[su_quote cite=”Karl Gotch”]Conditioning is your greatest hold.[/su_quote]

Technique, strength and power are all valuable tools in the fighter’s arsenal, but without sufficient conditioning or ‘sport specific fitness’ they can all, very quickly, be rendered useless.

You may be the strongest, fastest and most technically proficient fighter in the world, but if you’re exhausted after 3 minutes your potentially less talented opponent only has to avoid your early attacks before capitalising on your fatigue to win the fight.GS3

As we saw with strength, a poorly conditioned fighter with great technique, fighting an opponent with good technique and great conditioning runs the risk of being dominated in the later stages of the fight.

Conditioning is probably the most misunderstood and potentially problematic area of a fighters training.

Much of what has become common practice in fighters training has been lifted from the circuit style training videos popularised by MMA fighters in YouTube videos.

Don’t forget that the sessions which make it onto YouTube are generally the most interesting NOT the most sensible, and will only make up a fraction (if any!) of a fighters training programme.

I am a firm believer that the best way to condition for any sport is by doing the sport. Every time you step onto the mat you are conditioning yourself, and all of your training sessions should be factored in when you plan your training week.

That said we can complement your on-mat conditioning in the gym.

In the next article in the series we’ll get into the nitty gritty of actually planning and implementing the first phase of your cycle; Strength Development.


About Will Badenoch

Will Badenoch is the Director and head Strength and Conditioning coach at Plymouth Performance Gym.

He has worked with athletes at regional, National and International level in a variety of sports, including professional boxing, MMA, Jiu Jitsu, Basketball, Rugby, Athletics, Bob sled, Powerlifting, Strongman and Taekwondo.

He has also trained athletes for ultra-endurance expeditions, as well as tailored training for members of elite branches of the British Armed Forces, including Royal Marine Commandos and Special Forces.

To learn more about the Grapple Strength Programme please visit http://www.grapplingstrength.com/