Extracurricular activities for the karateka.
October 4, 2010 10:06 AM   Subscribe

What exercises will help me be a better martial artist?

I've been studying Shotokan Karate now for about 14 months. I've discovered that some muscle groups really need to be stronger, but just going to class isn't making them stronger. In particular, I can see how important my lats, obliques, and abs are to doing Karate effectively.

What can I do on my own time to strengthen these muscle groups, with a focus on helping my martial arts practice? Extra points for exercises that don't require lots of equipment, but if there's a particular weight or machine that has no equal, I'd definitely use it.
posted by LightStruk to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Lats are really hard to work without equipment, which is part of why class isn't doing it. (In my karate classes, we occasionally do partner-assisted lat pulls, where you lay face down, grab your partner's ankles, and haul yourself across the floor. Very silly, surprisingly effective, but don't scale up appreciably.)

Pull-ups are really the gold standard - you can do jumping pull-ups, use a resistance band, stand on a box and do negatives, or if you have access, use a pull-up assist machine. If you don't have a pull-up bar, there are often some in public or school parks, and there are always monkey bars.

For abs and obliques, situps straight and twisting will get you a ways, situps hanging by your knees from that pull-up bar, various fancy variations that you can Google for, or another dojo standard, kicks from the floor.

Lie on your side with both hands flat on the floor. Pull your knee up into chamber, then, bracing with your hands and your bottom foot, pop your hips off the floor and kick. Side kicks are great, roundhouse and hook kicks are also effective. Works your whole core, ass, and hip flexors. They hurt like hell, actually.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:16 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you have no history of strength-specific training, the most productive thing for you to do would be to undertake a full-body strength regimen rather than trying to isolate muscles. When you practice martial arts, like most other athletic endeavors, your body functions as an interconnected system, not as isolated muscles, and so your strength training ought to reflect that.

That being said -- pullups are a simple and effective lat exercise that don't require much equipment. Pullup means pronated grip (palms turned away), as opposed to chinups with a supinated grip (palms toward you). The former involves less biceps, so the lats get more work. Aside from those, rows with a dumbbell or barbell will be excellent for your lats.

As for your abs, the primary function of those muscles is isometric, meaning they contract along with your low back in order to stabilize your spine so as to protect it from injury as well as efficiently transfer force through your trunk. This is the same way the abs function in the major barbell lifts, i.e. the squat, the deadlift, and the press. Although these are not typically thought of as "abdominal exercises," they are very effective for building functional abdominal strength, not to mention functional strength everywhere else.

Planks are another isometric abdominal exercise which require very little equipment. They can also be weighted to make them more difficult. You could also try ab wheel rollouts.

You can find a million different ab exercises, but I'd recommend picking something simple and sticking with it. And again, if you don't already have a decently-strong squat, deadlift, and press, I think focusing on those exercises is going to be a better use of training time than anything more specific you could be doing.
posted by JohnMarston at 10:27 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, if you end up squatting (which is definitely a great idea if you have access to a bar and a cage) you will discover that no matter how many hours a week you spend in a low stance, your quads can still get more sore.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:36 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really encourage you to ask your instructor.
posted by hermitosis at 10:38 AM on October 4, 2010

I second everything said except this: picking something simple and sticking with it.

Variety is the name of the game in functional strength training, which is what you're really talking about here. You want to do as many different movements as you can, with special emphasis on tie-in movements. That is, movements that require careful form or balance because they work several or many muscle groups in concert because this is how we move in real life. You are unlikely to curl or military press your opponent (not to say you shouldn't do curls or military presses if you have the equipment... just be aware of what your'e actually training for).

Might I recommend parkour/free running? It'll promote endurance, balance, agility, and strengthen all kinds of muscle groups you didn't know you had.
posted by cmoj at 10:47 AM on October 4, 2010

At the very least you need a pull-up bar in your home. Pull-ups combined with L-sits/L-pull-ups and planks will work what you need worked.

Otherwise, I completely agree with everything JohnMarston said.
posted by Loto at 10:48 AM on October 4, 2010

I'd recommend Pilates or yoga, which have an implicit emphasis on form and strengthening your core. I'd say that's where your best bang for the buck lies, 'cause it helps you move everything else correctly and efficiently.
posted by Zed at 11:22 AM on October 4, 2010

Your title addresses becoming a better martial artist, but your question seems focused on strength acquisition. Putting strength aside, my advice is to play as much hacky-sack or Chin Lone as possible, and most importantly in a group setting. This develops and maintains the aerobics and coordination involved, and in a group it also develops the response to others' actions you would get when sparring or competing within your chosen discipline.
posted by No Shmoobles at 11:31 AM on October 4, 2010

"What exercises will help me be a better martial artist?"

Hm. Chose a martial art instead of a sport? ;-)

Seconding the Yoga recommendation.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 11:35 AM on October 4, 2010

Variety is the name of the game in functional strength training, which is what you're really talking about here. You want to do as many different movements as you can, with special emphasis on tie-in movements.

I have to respectfully disagree, or at least add some qualification to that statement. Variety has its place, but when its misused, as it often is by those looking to "confuse their muscles" or some such idea, it's a waste of time and just leads to slow progress, no progress, or an inability to even gauge whether progress has ocurred.

For example, a lifter with many years of training experience who wants to increase his squat from 500 to 600 needs variety. If he could get stronger by simply squatting a couple of times a week and adding weight each time, he would. However, his body is already highly adapted to the demands of training, so that won't work. He'll have to implement some kind of periodization and use a bunch of assistance exercises in addition to the squat itself in order to push his squat strength up. A relative beginner, though, would be wasting his time by doing all of that stuff. He is unadapted enough that he can squat 2 or 3 times a week and get stronger each time. The OP is in the latter situation, and will probably be that way for a long time, as lifting is not his primary focus.

It should also be said that "functional training" is not to be confused with sport-specific skillwork. Just as with other types of athletes, a martial artist doesn't press a barbell overhead because he's planning on pressing his opponent overhead -- he does it because it will strengthen his shoulders, triceps, abs, and low back in a way that can be applied in his sport. The weight room is for getting strong, martial arts class is for getting better at martial arts.
posted by JohnMarston at 11:46 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm going to second what hermitosis said. As someone who has done martial arts for almost as long as I've done weight training, I can tell you casual lifters are not going to understand how weight training applies to the specific demands of what you are doing.

You may also want to look into what other coaches, like Pavel Tsatsouline or Scott Sonnon, have to say

Talk to other martial artists and check out what Mixed Martial Artists do to keep in shape

Heck, even look into how dancers stay in shape.

It's going to be few and far between that you actually find anyone talking about taking up a maximal strength weight training program.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:30 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Convict Conditioning. Pure bodyweight strength training, from circumstances where real-world strength and mobility are literal life/death/be-someone's-bitch propositions. And it's a complete baby-steps-to-beastly progression, not just a list of push-up variations. This is the nigh lost art of "Old-School" calisthenics, the kind men used to get brutally strong before the invention of barbells and machines.

Not only does it require next to no tools other than your own body and gravity, it involves moving in biomechanically proper ways so you're less likely to injure yourself AND increases your mobility and joint health while you get stronger. Perfect for a martial artist.

Best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 3:09 PM on October 4, 2010

Stretch. Every morning. Put on some music or the morning news and spend at least 15 minutes pushing your limits. I also like No Shmoobles' suggestion. There's plenty of good strength based recommendations so far. Speed and agility are also important components. Force = mass * acceleration. I highly recommend some plyometric exercises. I practiced tae kwon do years ago and plyometrics really helped me "explode" off the ground for kicks. Today it helps me react faster when I need to scramble across a tennis court :)
posted by vilandra at 8:04 AM on October 5, 2010

I don't know why this didn't pop up in my head the other day. One piece of equipment that is hugely versatile that a martial artist should own is a Medicine Ball. You'll want the 2 kilogram. Training articles and exercises at Perform Better.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:27 AM on October 6, 2010

Again, if you don't already have a decently-strong squat, deadlift, and press, I think focusing on those exercises is going to be a better use of training time than anything more specific you could be doing.

I second this statement.

I've done Judo and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for about four years now, and I can tell you that the squat, deadlift, and press have improved my performance more quickly than any other exercises I've done. They will do more for you than any exercise you can do without equipment.

But as for exercises that need no equipment, you need (really) to do bodyweight squats. Lots of them. Whether you're punching, kicking, throwing, or ****ing, you need a strong and flexible lower body with lots of endurance. The bodyweight squat is your one-stop shop for entry-level general fitness.

Doing a hundred bodyweight squats in a set is a reasonable starting goal. Once you get there, you can start working on the one-legged squat. That's about the best you can do with just bodyweight. Push-ups are good, too, but I think they're less generally useful than squats. The power of a good punch doesn't come from your arms or chest, but from your hips and legs (and/or your falling bodyweight, according to karate master Jack Dempsey).

The other equipment-light exercise I can't recommend highly enough is running.

You'll need a good pair of running shoes, or you might wreak havoc on your knees and feet. Any running shop should be able to test your feet for under-/over-pronation and fit you for a good pair.

You may feel like you get through your workouts just fine as it is, but once you take up running seriously for a few weeks, I promise you'll see a difference in the energy you can summon up moment to moment during your practice. Improved cardiovascular health makes a lot of difference.

That's all I got. Lift heavy things, squat low and often, run far, kick ass.
posted by edguardo at 7:30 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can tell you that the squat, deadlift, and press have improved my performance more quickly than any other exercises I've done.

As opposed to? I don't mean to dismiss any of those exercises because if someone was going to take up weight training than they could do worse. But I'm not sure why the Power Clean or the Snatch isn't the suggestion there, even if both of those fall outside of the purview of the question just as the aforementioned three exercises are. Especially when explosive exercises generalize over better and are more functional for dynamic sports. It seems that there's some confusion over the idea of what "strengthen a muscle" means in this context.

To make it a little clearer for you OP, there's a reason the "strongest person" doesn't always equal "best athlete". Even beyond that, and more specific to your question, there's a reason boxers don't traditionally strength train. There's another idea you could check into, that is after you ask your teacher. Who could probably solve this problem easily enough for you.
posted by P.o.B. at 6:48 PM on October 7, 2010

The power clean and the snatch are much more technical lifts. The OP specifically asked for stuff that didn't require a lot of a equipment, and I think hiring a trainer counts as equipment. (I've tried to learn the snatch from internet videos, and maybe the OP is more talented than me, but I definitely can't do it well enough to use it to build strength.)

Me, I don't squat much anymore because I find that it exhausts my legs to the point where my actual karate training suffers, and the few times I have I've discovered that I don't seem to lose ground strength-wise as long as I'm training. Same thing with abs - of course, my dojo makes a point of making us do various ab exercises under the stern eyes of our sensei, but that has seemed to be enough for me.

Doesn't mean the weightlifting standards are a bad idea, but they may be a bit more than the OP was looking to commit to.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:16 AM on October 8, 2010

but I definitely can't do it well enough to use it to build strength

I'm not nitpicking what you're saying because I agree. I would like to point out though that Cleans are more about power and explosiveness than strength. Often the word strength is translated over into a catchall term but there is a real difference.

Anyway if you can Deadlift and jump, and you're somewhat athletically inclined, it shouldn't be too hard to learn a proper Clean. I learned it when I was fifteen and that's not that uncommon. It's usually easier to learn in steps.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:20 PM on October 9, 2010

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