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This may sound like a bit of a daft question, but I have heard and read different sides. On the one side, people say weight training will increase your strength and power and therefore will be beneficial within a martial arts application.

However, I have also heard that weight training focuses more on physical size, as opposed to strength; and that it is possible to increase your muscular strength without gaining the size. Similar arguments also suggest weight training to be less beneficial in martial arts, given that the extra mass would result in slower movements.

Does weight training benefit martial arts in terms of power, or does it actually not really introduce much benefit and instead result in slower moves?

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it is, but remember a strong fighter and a strong person is not the same thing, fighters generally do not get down to as lean as bodybuilders would, I think 15-20% body fat is ideal ratio for a fighter –  pythonian29033 May 14 '14 at 9:35

10 Answers 10

up vote 23 down vote accepted

What you have heard is at least partly wrong. Heavy weight lifting can be about increasing size, but it is more often about directly increasing strength (it's part of the distinction between a bodybuilder and a powerlifter). The expression is that "no one gets bulky by accident." I also have never seen any reliable evidence that it makes you slower at reasonable level, and one of the big proponents of weight lifting in the martial arts world was Bruce Lee.

You can see what the Stronglifts people say about some general weightlifting myths, and their answer is basically the same as many other sources on the subject.

You'll also see it with other sports: those that require speed still emphasize some form of strength training. That's not always weightlifting (e.g., gymnastics, and they look better built than many weightlifters I've come across) but it is still strength training. Frequently emphasizing compound motions.

Personally, I've found that strength training (again, weights are not necessary for strength training) a tremendous advantage in martial arts, helping with speed, flexibility, body awareness, and power.

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To add to this, in my experience, weight lifting (StrongLifts, specifically) has helped me if for no other reason than learning my limits and forms for certain things. For example, learning to deadlift has helped me learn how to do a particular body slam that we do for practising/testing rear breakfalls, if for no other reason than teaching good lifting form. –  Shauna May 1 '12 at 19:38
While not a fan of the StrongLifts promoter, the program is a good solid beginners program. NOTE: Deadlifts help improve your knockout resistance. –  Berin Loritsch May 9 '12 at 18:13
There is some horrible misinformation on this page. I'm glad this is the top answer. –  Ross Drew Jul 18 '14 at 7:31

Tom Kurz notes:

Taekwondo master Hee Il Cho, famous for his powerful and precise jumping kicks, says, “Weight lifting can help athletes in any sport, including the martial arts. The more strength and size you have, the better you will perform. If two people weigh the same, the one with more muscle can hit harder."

You should listen to Hee Il Cho. He knows what he's talking about. (Kurz gives the source as: Jeffrey, D. 1994. The Master of Devastating Kicks: Hee Il Cho's Routine for Fast, Powerful Kicks. Martial Arts Training March 1994, pp. 20–25, 62.)

What Kind of Weight Training?

Weight training only focuses on muscle size, if that's what you're focusing on. Weights are a tool. You can use them to get bigger, or to develop strength or power or endurance.

It's important to distinguish the basic forms of training with weights:

  • Bodybuilding — lifting for size and appearance; the goal is to look like, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jay Cutler. This is the least productive form of weight training for martial arts: one is primarily trying to get bigger, using methods such as machines and isolation work that are generally sub-optimal for functional or sportive purposes.
  • Powerlifting — lifting for strength; the goal is to improve one's ability to produce force. It is hard for me to conceive of a situation where, independent of other factors, strength is anything but a boon to martial arts practice. (The only possibility I've heard is that exceptionally strong individuals must make a conscious effort to rely on technique instead of physicality. This is akin to the curse of being naturally agile: cry me a river.) The basics include the slow lifts: squats, deadlifts, bench and overhead presses, pull-ups.
  • Weightlifting — lifting for power; the goal is to improve one's ability to produce force quickly. The primary tools are the fast Olympic lifts: cleans, jerks, and snatches. Power is a derivative of strength, and everything I said about strength's applicability to martial arts counts triple for power. Exerting force quickly is a fundamental aspect of nearly all sports, particularly for striking and throwing techniques.

There are many programs for strength and power training that focus on developing those qualities without adding mass. (Some of them are martial-arts specific.) A certain amount of mass, however, is often a boon anyway for undernourished martial artists.

Benefits of Strength

Achieving a significant level of strength and power is one of the most straightforward ways to increase the effectiveness of your techniques. However, getting bigger for the purpose of getting bigger is not directly productive for martial arts. (Getting bigger will probably mean you'll get stronger, which would be good.)

But martial arts is about physicality combined with technique. Strength and power are essential components of the physicality necessary to execute any technique properly. Lifting weights is arguably the most efficient method for developing those qualities. People who say differently are either already athletic (either naturally or through prior training), or are inexperienced with weight training and shun the unknown.

Minimum Strength Necessary to Practice Fighting

Weak people have no business training martial arts. They are liable to get hurt, and will find themselves too weak to properly execute basic movements and techniques. Martial arts are about optimizing the use of strength. This is not the same as obviating the need for a baseline level of strength.

If you've been around a popular martial arts dojo long enough, I'm sure you can remember a new person signing up who is physically incapable of performing even the most basic techniques. Often they find themselves injured and re-injured, toughing out muscle spasms and sore joints in order to continue doing the activity they love. This is not healthy. Students should be required to achieve a basic level of physicality before joining regular class. Strength and mobility are of primary concern in this period, with conditioning a distant third since it can quickly be developed through regular class activities.

Take well the advice of Kurz (ibid):

People who can't put a barbell or a partner weighing at least as much as them on their shoulders and easily do a few squats are too weak to learn fighting techniques.

Test this hypothesis yourself: take six months to work up to a bodyweight barbell squat. (I'd add a 1.5x bodyweight deadlift, plus a dozen chin-ups and some heavy power cleans and presses.) Then, ask yourself whether it helped you hit harder, spar longer, pin people better, and keep a better grip on your opponent. If so, great. If not, go back to doing nothing, and with scant attention to the "problem" of excess strength, you will be smaller and weaker again.

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Many martial arts schools incorporate bodyweight exercise prior to class as a warmup. Things like pushups, situps, etc. This is a form of strength training that many people miss. Another way of gaining strength is performing katas isometrically. But the bottom line is: strength helps both striking power and your ability to block or even absorb a strike. –  Berin Loritsch May 9 '12 at 18:17
Weight training can focus on strength or size, or both. Heck even endurance. All depends on the weight used and the scheme (reps and sets). –  Wayne In Yak Jun 18 '12 at 22:22
Jay Cutler's a better example than Arnold or Coleman. Both of those guys are also incredibly strong, Arnold was a powerlifting champ before he became a bodybuilder and Coleman can deadlift over 800lbs. Some body builders are just big, but others are both big and strong. –  Robin Ashe Jul 5 '12 at 4:11
@RobinAshe Excellent point. I edited my answer to use Cutler and focus more on the "looking like" part of the statement. –  Dave Liepmann Jul 17 '12 at 15:30
I like this answer, except for "Weak people have no business training martial arts". I was extremely weak when I started BJJ, I started lifting because of that. The lifting definitely helps, but I wouldn't be lifting if I wasn't doing BJJ. Perhaps the much weaker statement of "You need to become reasonably strong before you actively start sparring against fully resisting opponents." is more appropriate. –  TimothyAWiseman Apr 24 '14 at 17:59

First off I wouldn't worry about accidentally turning in to Arnold. Body builder forums are littered with people struggling to gain mass. It's much tougher than you think and you'd have to be REALLY focused on gaining mass and not just strength to even have much of a chance of that happening.

While strength is not always paramount in many martial arts, it sure doesn't hurt either. There is a reason competitions are divided by weight class. Weight (especially muscle mass vs fat) offers a large advantage - you can hit harder and you can take harder blows. I think the evidence is fairly obvious if you watch any professional fighters - none of those guys got to that size or build without some sort of weight training regimen - whether it's free weight, body weight, or machine weight exercise.

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Absolutely it does! When I was training judo seriously, I was in the gym lifting weights 3x a week. In most martial arts, you don't want to get huge and bulky like THelper mentioned.

But it's easy to train explosive power and balance and endurance, all of which will help your martial arts training.

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Bud Jeffries has a great article on this; http://www.strongerman.com/articles/martial-arts-and-strength/

He's a strongman, not a bodybuilder, so is much more in line with what martial artists should be interested in. He addresses the pros and cons, particularly noteworthy is that with his focus on strength training he doesn't train as much for skill, so from that a reasonable conclusion is up to a certain point strength training is absolutely beneficial, but after that point you make a decision as to whether you want to primarily be a martial artist or primarily a strength athlete, and dedicate your time appropriately.

I have deep interest in the martial arts, have studied several, and fought some. However, because of my heavy commitment to strength training in and of itself, competitively and my outlook toward being an all-around-athlete, I have decent, but not excessive technical skills. Nothing close to the greats as far as technical ability, but I generally do understand enough to take care of myself on a mat. Infact I have grappled some tough, very tough fighters and made quite a competitive match. Not because I had the technical ability that they had, but because their techniques are much harder to make work on a stronger opponent.

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In the past weight training was almost synonymous with body building, but nowadays there is a huge difference between the two. Doing training with heavy weights will make you slower, but you can counter this by switching between heavy weights and explosive power exercises regularly. Also, there are many weight training exercises (with low weights) that can you do to increase your strength and power while keeping your speed.

Most people I know who are rather serious about their sport and are keen on improving speed and power do at least one weight training a week (unless they are in a period with many matches).

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Heavy weights does NOT make you slower. In fact many professional sprinters trains a lot with heavy weights to improve their speed. –  Imbrondir May 5 '12 at 11:56
@Imbrondir Sprinters train with heavy weights to become stronger and more powerful. But this is not the same as speed. To improve speed, sprinters do plyometric excersises with light weights. –  THelper May 5 '12 at 19:49
Doing exercises with light weights is more likely to impact speed than doing it with heavy weights. Doing training with heavy weights will give you the strength foundation to build your speed, but doing it with light weights will just slow you down enough to reprogram your muscles to move at a slower speed. That's why shadowboxing should never be done with greater than 1lbs weights. –  Robin Ashe Jul 5 '12 at 4:13
The prescription for sprinters that I've seen is really, really heavy deadlifts for very few reps (1-3). Increasing maximal strength for that movement chain immediately improves power for all but elite runners, since power is a proportion of strength. I'd argue that since sprinters get plenty of power work by sprinting, the best area to hit during lifting is maximal strength, which allows their power development from sprinting to have maximal benefit. –  Dave Liepmann Jul 6 '12 at 4:12
Completely untrue. Heavy weights don't make you slower. I train at 5x5 with 80% 1RM in order to increase speed & jump height. Light weight training is actually more likely to slow you down as you train type 1 muscle which reacts slower. –  Ross Drew Jul 18 '14 at 7:27

Toning and conditioning your muscles is very important, couple that with weight lifting and building your quick twitch muscle groups can only help you improve as a martial artist. You have to realize though that depending on the scenario the added weight and bulk of muscles can hinder you.

As a larger guy some of the leg locks I can't do because of my calfs, notably a triangle choke. Also moving my weight around in a sparing session I get winded far easier then my lighter counterparts.

I've never been a fan of 'power lifting to get ripped'. I know a number of people I train with that are stronger than me and far smaller.

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Toning isn't a real thing. Muscles don't slow you down unless you've trained them wrong. –  Ross Drew Jul 18 '14 at 7:29

In general, yes.. but you have to do fairly specific exercises to have it truly be useful. If you are doing a general body workout consisting of exercises such as bench and shoulder press, tricep and bicep exercises, abdominal, several different squat, leg extension and leg bicep exercises, overall you will gain some decent strength and some extra power, but also it will help protect your muscles, tendons and bones from further injury, especially if you are practicing wrestling, grappling or ground fighting.

We use weighs in gung-fu, but they are used in a very specific non traditional manner. When I was teaching my oldest brother that was a fairly serious natural body builder that would regularly bench press 280 several times a week and did this for over 10 years, along with squatting 350lb, a hundred push ups, etc.. he was always shocked at anytime we ended up grappling, I would either toss him around with relative ease or, when he would try to use brute strength to get out of various locks, he simply could not overpower his way out of it at all.

After getting real pissed one time that I was that much stronger and struggling for all he was worth, and getting exhausted after about 40 seconds he asked "how the hell are you so much stronger than me!!?" I simply told him "Ancient Chinese secrets" ha.

Point is that while he was working out with heavy weights all those years and even doing push up, I was using NO weights at all and simply doing specific gung-fu exercises and training for punching power, including internal power, and something called discipline techniques all of which involve no weights at all.

But for those that don't know these techniques, which almost no arts do, then using light weight training up to about 30lb weights can given you some good basic strength, certainly much more than someone that does no such training.

But if you are looking to increase something like punching power, then you have to do other exercises such as high reps of said punches with light weights. This is the basic method that Bruce Lee used to get killing striking power. He would practice 2000 punches per day each arm with light weights and 1000 kicks per day. When you are working with those numbers, you don't need to do any other exercises for strength and power as you will be far stronger than anyone else and have seriously damaging power in time.

In gung-fu, the most dangerous and most powerful Masters were always those that looked the frailest and were the skinniest or smallest, because real strength and power doesn't actually come from the muscles persae, but from the tendons and chi strength. Yes the muscles are involved to a degree, but only a minimum degree to be able to move of course, but it's the tendons at the end of the muscles, supported by chi, is what gives you true power, as well as greater strength too.

Hard chi-gung exercise such as those from the Hong-gar system, of which I have a couple of videos on Youtube about this, give some good exercises and techniques to develop some true power and strength, which the Hong system is famous for.

If you supplement these types of exercises with some light weight training, especially tendon strengthening which involves static holding exercises, will help you be stronger and more powerful than most other practitioners out there.

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-1 strength does not come from tendons, nor chi. –  Dave Liepmann Jan 2 '14 at 21:14
Uh yea, it does. Electrical activity, which is a component of ones life force or chi strength is where ALL strength comes from, whether it's acknowledged or not. I know this as do tens of thousands of others over the centuries. As you get to a level where you can guide the chi with the mind alone, you can literally make yourself stronger, your arms or other parts harder, more powerful and heal injuries just by guiding the chi to those parts. When combined with breathing techniques it can be even more effective. This is what internal martial arts are all about. –  JediWitness Jan 2 '14 at 21:44

You'll want to take a look at The Four Hour Body. It's a good book that shows a lot of interesting tidbits about ways to use weight lifting. The short of it is - you can do it for size or for power, and you can even do it for speed. Now.. Tailor this to your own training.

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Weight training can help in martial arts, but sometimes only a "little."

Weight training improves your overall conditioning, and in that regard is helpful, particularly if it increases your endurance.

But most of martial arts is not about strength or mass, but rather about USAGE of different body parts in certain well-defined ways.

GENERALIZED weight training won't do much for these individual body parts. But SPECIALIZED training (of fingers, hands, biceps, legs etc.) might.

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-1 Several of your points are exactly opposite of what actual weight training involves. –  Dave Liepmann Jul 5 '12 at 12:32

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