Training for martial arts

To optimize performance and prepare for competitionstraining for martial arts, many athletes employ a combination of resistance and cardiovascular exercise. Martial arts athletes who want to improve their performance face different challenges than most other athletes. Weightlifters can focus on developing only strength for one lift and endurance athletes on increasing his oxygen uptake. People who are training for martial arts do not have this luxury of specialisation. For optimal performance, their muscles must be strong and fast yet also have good endurance and allow for flexibility. Additionally, the body of a martial arts athletes must also be able to withstand impact forces delivered by rival athletes. And while the barbell of a weight lifter will always act the same and runners generally run on the same surfaces, allowing once again specialised technique for their sports. A martial arts athlete has to decide which technique to use and when. Moreover, rival martial arts athletes also add to the variety since no opponent is the same and can be defeated in the same manner. It is clear that great training challenges awaits those who choose the road of a martial arts athlete and hope to perform. This article aims to clarify the training demands and highlight the important aspects of training for martial arts.


Muscle strength is an important aspect of performance in martial arts. It determines power of punches and kicks and is also useful during grappling. It has long been known that to increase strength, resistance exercise is very effective. For increasing strength, exercises which exercise multiple muscle groups is recommended. The force an athlete can exert during exercise is dependent on the weakest link, and by using multiple muscle groups, the weakest link is being trained most. Additionally, resistance exercise will help decrease fat mass and maintain muscle mass during weight loss for competition. The training intensity for increasing strength is 1-6 repetitions for multi-joint exercises, whereas the more basic exercises can be performed at an intensity corresponding with 1-12 repetitions.


The power muscles can generate is very important to a great number of athletes since it determines how fast a certain weight can be moved. It depends on the force one can exert and the speed at which the force is applied. So apart from increasing strength, it is vital to maintain or improve contraction speed. Strength training alone will not increase and sometimes decrease contraction speed when muscles do not have to contract at high velocities. Therefore it is necessary to perform exercises at a much higher velocity. To increase muscle power perform exercises 1-3 series at 30-60% of 1RM for 3-6 repetitions at the highest speed attainable with that resistance. Also multi-joint exercises are recommended as well. This training form can be alternated with training for strength effectively.


Since only few competitions are won within a few seconds, martial arts athletes must be able to perform at high intensities for extended duration with little rest in between. Therefore it is not only important to increase aerobic endurance, but also increase anaerobic capacity to  fuel high intensity bursts, lactate threshold to maintain those high intensity burst for longer periods and recovery speed. Although marathon runners are generally very fit, they have to exercise for extended periods at the same intensity. During martial arts competitions exercise intensities are much higher and depend to a large extend on anaerobic energy systems, increasing lactate production and causing acidosis in the muscles, resulting in exhaustion and loss of force. To improve local muscle endurance, the muscles used during fighting should be trained often to exhaustion, which can be achieved by punching bags, sparring or even resistance exercises. To increase overall endurance and strengthen the heart so recovery between rounds improves, it is recommended to perform high intensity interval training, with short rest duration between high intensity bouts. This forces the body to recover more quickly between bouts or rounds. Also higher intenisty sprints yield better results as these depend more on the anaerobic systems the body uses during martial arts. Running is the training of choice for most martial arts athletes but other cardiovascular exercises can be equally effective.


Plyometric exercises are another way to increase functional strength, power and speed and are therefore critical for martial arts performance. In addition these exercises strengthen tendons and bones more effectively than resistance exercise, but it also increases risk of injury. A low number of repetitions (generally less than 10) are performed explosively at maximum effort for 2-3 series. Rest periods between series depend on the goal of the training. When increasing maximum power, longer rest periods are necessary, but when power endurance is more important, which is more likely in martial arts, shorter rest durations are in order.


Joint range of motion can improve performance in grappling and is therefore also important for the martial arts athlete. Increasing range of motion is done by stretching the muscles dynamically or statically. Dynamic stretching uses short ballistic movements to stretch the muscles for no longer than a few seconds. When employed right, it can increase strength and can serve as a warm up prior to training. Static stretching can decrease muscle strength after stretching. It does however increase range of motion so static stretching is best performed after the training or on rest days. During static stretching the muscles are stretched and held at the point of moderate discomfort for 3-5 series with durations of up to 30-60 seconds.


-Baechle, T.R., Earle, R.W. (2008). Muscular, Neuromuscular, Cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Third Edition. USA Human Kintetics.

-Baechle, T.R., Earle, W.R. (2008). Adaptations to Anaerobic Training Programs. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Third Edition. USA. Human Kinetics.

-Ratamess, N.A., Alvar, B.A., Evetoch, T.K., Housh, T.J., Kibler, W.B., Kraemer, W.J., Triplett, N.T. Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2009, 41, 3, 687-708.

-Ratamess, N.A. Strength and Conditioning for Grappling. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 2011, 33, 6, 18-24.