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Why Martial Artists Should Weight Train

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

In the 1950s, Jack LaLane was a huge advocate for health and fitness on TV. ‘The Jack LaLane Show’ would feature LaLane as he talked about proper nutrition, exercise and how you could do it yourself at home.

The irony was that at the time, LaLane’s advice of ‘exercise regular, eat lots of vegetables and cut out processed food’ was actually controversial. Doctors, who at the time were promoting cigarettes, were saying that LaLane’s advice was bad for your health. LaLane would advise women to lift weights, while the notion at the time was that lifting weights would make women look masculine, as though it were so easy. When LaLane opened the first chain of gyms in the USA, Doctors said that training like LaLane would just leave you ‘muscle bound’.

While today, the phrase muscle bound is a compliment, at the time, the idea was that becoming muscular would actually cause health problems, making you slow and reducing your joint mobility.- something that martial artists still warn about today, despite it evidently being untrue.

Why Do Martial Artists Avoid Weights? This is largely a problem in the US, as opposed to Europe and Asia, but the main reason simply comes down to laziness. In America when you step into a martial arts school, you’re going to see a lot of people with high-ranking belts that are seriously overweight.

It’s not just the issue of McDojo’s but also the misconception that the US has about martial arts. In Asia, martial arts and fitness come hand in hand together. You must be working out in order to succeed in martial arts, a strong body leads to good martial arts. In the US it’s instead thought that ‘martial arts helps the weak beat the strong’ which isn’t really true in any meaningful way.

This difference between ‘martial arts making you strong’ and ‘making you beat the strong’ is key here. It’s very easy to lazy people who don’t want to work out and become fitter and stronger to hide behind the illusion that they do not need to do it, and that their martial arts skills will carry them.

We then have outdated beliefs, that training with weight will ‘slow you down’. There really aren’t two sides to this discussion, it simply isn’t true. When people watch bodybuilders slowly fail to fight, this gets attributed to them being ‘too big’, when in actuality it’s because the bodybuilder simply isn’t a trained fighter and it slower by default. Heavyweights like Alistair Overeem and Brock Lesnar were known for their huge size, and they were by no means slow.

Why Martial Artists Should Weight Train? LaLane was known for his impressive lean muscle, in an era before steroids, and for his impressive feats of strength while swimming. Given the sort of life he led, it’s somewhat unusual that he wasn’t a martial artist. If he had been one, I can only imagine he would have been a success.

LaLane spent time around professional wrestlers, as in the early 1900s there was a large crossover between bodybuilding, strongman lifting, and pro wrestling. Wrestlers were some of the only martial artists that were aware that lifting weights brought clear benefits.

Weight training improved strength and joint health, which leads to more strength and power to move through different movements, whether its grappling or striking. There are direct cross overs between the three key lifts of bench press, squat and deadlift and any serious grappling art like judo, Greco, or Sambo.

When it comes to striking, pulling exercises like deadlifts and rows train the lats which are key in delivering powerful punches, assuming you’re punching with correct technique. Squats will do the same, training strength and mobility in the hips to improve kick and knee strikes.

The raw truth is that the most successful martial artists are not the ones who live in the world of hypothetical ‘self defence’ from the comfort of a gym. They are the ones that go out and actually compete, from Judo competition to Kyokushin knock down tournaments. All of these martial arts athletes use some sort of weight training, because the benefits are objective.

If you want to be the best martial artist you can possibly be, that includes pushing the limits of what your body is capable of doing.

Why you aren’t going to become ‘too big’

Another common excuse given for not lifting is the fear of becoming ‘too big’. This excuse has no place in reality. The process of building muscle and size takes months to years and even then, you will only see real changes when you’re training each muscle group twice a week and getting about 0.8g protein per pound of bodyweight.

Most people simply will not lift enough to develop real muscle size and definition, but you don’t have to be bodybuilding in order to see results in your strength and fitness. If you want to body build, then you have to put in the conscious effort to actually do it, and if that makes you happy, you should do it – but for martial artists just lifting regular to improve strength and maintain fitness is more than enough.

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