Training for Combat: Physical Conditioning

In my last article I discussed proper nutrition for those wanting to enhance their performance and feel better when training.  This article is about physical training to improve your physique and your overall martial arts skills.  As a general rule, the better you look, the better you feel!  The best known side benefit of working out properly and getting stronger is that you will also look better and feel better about yourself.

With all of the amazing training equipment available these days, there is really no excuse for not having excellent workouts, with or without a partner.  Not only can you get an excellent physical workout, but you can also improve your technical skills tremendously.

For physical training, there is working with free weights, cables, machines, resistance bands, bodyweight exercises, calisthenics and stretching.  Some have gone over to the crossfit approach, but I feel that the long term effects of some of the exercises can lead to some back/hip/knee problems, especially as you get older, so I prefer the other strength training methods.  I feel that a mix of free weights and machines are great for developing strength.  I combine that with a serious abdominal training routine, forearm training routine and stretching to make a fantastic total body workout for the martial artist.

Some people prefer to workout every day, while others do the six day a week routine.  The important thing is to find what works best for you and stick with it.  Regardless of how you schedule your workouts, I feel that for martial artists, it is important to do some abdominal work and forearm training every day.  Bruce Lee used to refer to the abs as the “window to health”.  In other words, if the abdominal muscles are in good shape, everything else is not far behind!  

When working the abdominal muscles, you must consider the areas of the abdominal region that have to be worked in order to get a complete abdominal workout, and the order that these areas should be worked.  We divide the abdomen into four sections.  They are (1) lower abs, (2) left chamber, (3) right chamber and (4) upper abs.

When doing a complete abdominal workout, we do the exercises in a specific order.  First you want to work the lower abdominal region.  This involves movements that pull the knees towards the torso.  The reason that we work the lower abs first is that all abdominal movements use the lower abs to a certain extent, therefore to get the most benefit for the lower abs, you need to specialize in these areas first.  In other words, isolate the lower abs.  Common lower abdominal exercises are the hanging knee raise, seated knee raise and back support knee raise.

The next area that we work is the right and left chamber.  This consists of the oblique muscles and the serratus muscles.  The exercises that best work these areas involve twisting movements and side bending movements.  Common exercises are the angular seated twist, side bends on the hyper-extension bench and the standing bar twist.

Finally, we work the upper abdominal muscles.  The exercises that best work the upper abs involve moving the torso towards the legs.  It is most important to be sure that regardless of which upper abdominal exercise you are doing, you always maintain bent knees.  Doing these exercises with straight legs is just asking for lower back trouble!    Common exercises for the upper abs are the lying crunch, ball crunch and super crunch.

An excellent piece of equipment to own for abdominal work and general overall health is the anti—gravity table, also know as the inversion table.  This device is great for the spine.  You get on the platform and anchor your feet.  Then you simply lie back and let gravity do the work, inverting your body so that you are hanging upside down.  From this position, do some gentle twisting side to side, twisting from the waist.  This is great for stretching the spine, and helping to release compacted joints.  You can also do sit ups while inverted, making sure to bend the knees slightly.  Do not get carried away and try to do too much, and do not stay inverted for an extended period of time.  Your body will let you know when it is time to return to the upright position!  

As martial artists, one of the most important muscle groups to focus on developing is the
muscles of the hands, wrists and forearms. Good forearm strength is necessary not only for grabbing and pulling, but also for powerful punches, strong finger jabs and strong defensive movements.  Some prefer to work the forearms two or three times a week.  As martial artists, I feel that we need to work them every day.

As a general rule, anything involving bending or twisting with the wrist while gripping against resistance of some kind is going to develop the forearm muscles.  Some of the more popular movements are reverse (palm down) dumbbell curls, dumbbell hammer curls, barbell reverse curls, leverage bar twists, barbell wrist curls, power grippers and Olympic plate finger curls.  One of my favorites is the device used by Bruce Lee that enables you to load weight plates on and grip with the fingers.  I have one that was custom made for me by one of my students, and I use it daily.  

The benefits of having strong wrists and large, powerful forearms are endless, and this training should be a part of every martial artist’s workout routine.  I suggest choosing three or four exercises to do daily, doing three sets of fifteen to twenty five repetitions of each movement.  Try to do at least one curling movement, one twisting movement and one gripping movement in each forearm workout.

When working out with weights, it is best to divide your workouts up according to the particular muscle groups that you will be working in that workout.  The most effective way to work out in my opinion is what is commonly known as the push/pull routine.  You group the muscles that are primarily used for pushing together, and the muscles that are primarily used for pulling together.  This means that back/biceps will be trained together, and chest/shoulders/triceps will be trained together.  All leg exercises are usually done on the same day, and about twice a week.  As already stated, forearms and abdominals are looked at as specialty areas, and are worked accordingly, usually at least six days per week.  

Next you need to know the best exercises for each particular muscle group.  Now, just because you will have a lot of exercises for each group, that doesn’t mean you will be performing all of those exercises in every workout.  Just pick two or three exercises per muscle group, and do three or four sets of 8-12 reps of each exercise.  This assures that the muscles will get enough work without being overworked.  You will want to change up the exercises every few weeks or so just to keep from getting bored with your workouts, and also to work the muscles from different angles for total development.

When you workout, the muscles need to be worked in a certain order.  Usually that is from largest muscle group to smallest muscle group.  So in other words, on push day, you will work chest first, then shoulders, then triceps.  On pull day, you will work back first, then biceps.  This assures that you don’t pre-exhaust the larger muscle groups by working the smaller muscle groups first!  For Jeet Kune Do and Wing Chun practitioners, this can also be looked at as working from the center-line out.  Core strength is extremely important to martial artists, so a strong core is an essential goal with all of your workouts.  

When planning your workout schedule, you will need to decide on a routine that you wish to follow, then stick to that routine like glue!  You can do every other day, two on/one off/two on, five in a row/two off, six in a row/one off, seven days a week or a constant on/off routine working out every other day.  The following are some examples of basic routines.

Three Days A Week – Mon/Wed/Fri or Tues/Thurs/Sat
Four Days A Week – Mon/Tues & Thurs/Fri
Five Days A Week – Monday through Friday or Tuesday through Saturday
Six Days A Week –Monday through Saturday or Tuesday through Sunday
Seven Days A Week – Self Explanatory

Everyone will respond in a slightly different way to certain routines.  Some will want to workout three days a week, while others will feel driven to do seven days a week!  That is up to you to decide, as it is only you that has to be pleased with whatever routine is chosen!  I have had the best success with the Monday through Friday routine on major body parts, with forearm and ab specialization seven days a week.  But that is just what works for me.  You have to decide where you want to start, and what works best for you!  I hope this information proves helpful to you.  Until next time, train hard, stay safe and God Bless!

About the Author:  

Sifu Lamar M. Davis II has been a practicing martial artist for forty-seven years at the time of this writing.  He is a fully certified Second Generation Senior Instructor of Bruce Lee’s fighting methods of Jun Fan Gung Fu and Jeet Kune Do

He is the Executive Director/Master Instructor of the Hardcore Jeet Kune Do Chinese Gung Fu Association, and travels the world teaching seminars and training camps. 

Sifu Davis has had nearly two hundred articles published in martial arts magazines worldwide, and has fifty-four instructional DVDs in release.  

He is the owner of DragonBlast Martial Arts Equipment, and custom builds training equipment geared for Wing Chun Gung Fu, Jun Fan Gung Fu and Jeet Kune Do practitioners.  

For more information, please visit .  You may contact Sifu Davis by emailing or by calling his office at (205) 467-9039.  

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