Strength Training

For some strange reason, strength training is a controversial issue in many martial arts. This seems particularly true with many Chinese martial arts, and even more so with internal martial arts. There are several arguments both for the pro and con sides of the debate. Which side is right? Well, let's take a look at the reasons for being for or against strength training as part of martial arts development.

Anti-Strength Training Arguments:

  1. Lifting weights bulks you up with non-functional muscle.  This can be problematic for body-building type training, where there tends to be more single-joint isolation exercises and emphasis on muscular hypertrophy over actual strength.  The larger muscles may not do as much for functional movements as you might guess from the person's size.
  2. Lifting weights builds up your body the wrong way so that you can't take the body shape or do the body movements required by a martial art style.  Again, this tends to be more true for body-building type training, where the emphasis is more on aesthetically pleasing body and muscle appearance.  If a style requires certain types of movements, then the weight-lifting exercises may develop the muscles out of balance for a style's movement and postural requirements.
  3. Weight lifting tightens up your muscles so you can't move properly.  Big muscly weight lifters have a reputation for not being very flexible.  Heavy resistance training causes soft tissue [micro-]trauma (the rebuilding of the muscles is what makes you stronger).  The injuring and rebuilding of the soft tissue can result in myofascial tissue which is bound and knotted up; if not dealt with, the soft tissue constrictions cause poor movement patterns.
  4. Strength training only makes you stronger at lifting weights; it doesn't directly translate to gains in your martial development.  This is usually more true with single-joint isolation type exercises.  Real-world movements usually involve multiple joints, so isolation-type strength training often has limited carry over to other activities.
  5. Lifting weights only increases your muscular strength without helping you develop your gong li (physical ability to manifest the art).  Strength training doesn't teach the body alignments and joint coordination needed to perform martial movements.  It doesn't include aspects of martial conditioning like tendon strength, impact conditioning, etc.  Getting stronger muscles doesn't directly translate to improved martial ability.
  6. You should improve your strength through your martial arts training, not from lifting weights.  The reality of modern life is that people either have limited time for their training.  They may as well get their strength training in as part of their martial arts practice, so that they can improve their physical conditioning while improving their skills.

Arguments for Strength Training:

  1. GPP, as in General Physical Preparedness.  Strength development is an important part of general physical conditioning.  Being strong helps out with any physical activity, and having baseline strength will definitely help your training.
  2. Proper strength training will have good functional strength carryover.  Compound multi-joint exercises closely mimic movement patterns that happen in athletic and real-world movements.  These types of movements usually have good carryover to other activities.
  3. You develop a strength reserve.  It's often better to be over-prepared for a situation.  Not having to worry about being overwhelmed by force allows you to focus more on the development and use of the actual skill elements.
  4. Strength training develops concentration and focus.  Serious strength training cannot be mindless.  If you're working against a heavy load, your focus has to be completely in the moment to properly perform the resisted movement.  A wandering mind will result in ineffective force against the load.
  5. Strength training develops body control and body awareness.  In order to do a resisted movement properly, you have to coordinate the joints.  That means you need to pay attention to the proprioceptive information at each joint, and learn to feel and control the muscles around each joint.  This is especially true for complex multi-joint movements (squats, deadlifts, get-ups, muscle-ups, etc).  Failure to pay attention to joint coordination results in improper execution of the movement and unnecessary stress on the body.
  6. Resistance training is the most effective way to train speed and explosive power.  Training speed and explosive power can only go so far against empty air.  Once resistance is added (in the form of bodyweight, iron, bands, etc), gains can be made in speed and explosive power much more effectively.
  7. Weight training can help bring up your weak links.  Most functional movements are multi-joint.  The weakest link in the chain is what limits overall efficiency of the movement.  Sometimes isolation work is warranted to strengthen the weak parts of the body.

So, is strength training a necessary part of martial development?  While some may claim it isn't, I'm personally of the opinion that strength training should be part of one's martial arts training.  Being strong helps out in any physical activity, including martial arts.  I will qualify my opinion though: the strength training needs to be done smartly.

A strength training program which centers on multi-joint exercises will have the best carryover to other activities and have the added bonus of increasing mental focus and body awareness.  Most of the arguments against strength training can be readily addressed in a properly designed training regimen.  The stereotype of the muscle bound, poorly moving strongman is just that: a stereotype.  Resistance training itself doesn't not inherently produce poor movement patterns.  It's the failure of the typical weight lifter to pay attention to their soft tissue health that causes myofascial constrictions and subsequent movement problems.  Regular stretching, mobility work, and myofascial release (foam rolling, rolling a tennis ball, massage, visit to your local body worker, etc.) will keep your soft tissue healthy and ensure proper range of motion at each joint.  Serious strength trainers also know that real strength comes from strong tendons, not just strong muscles.  The development of the tendons is a necessity before certain strength feats can be attempted.  While the typical gym-goer may ignore tendon development, tendon strength is not exclusive to the realm of martial artists attempting to develop their gong fu.

In my opinion, the benefits of strength training far outweigh any potential downsides.  Sure, strength training can be done wrong and detrimental to your martial arts training, but that can be true of any activity done poorly.  If you decide to eat poorly, booze up constantly, and have atrocious sleeping habits, your training will also suffer.  Paying attention to implementing a smart strength training regimen will pay dividends for any physical endeavor, both martial and non-martial.