The Ten Most Common Mistakes Made By Martial Artists by Charles Staley

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Noted sports scientist Dr. Paul Ward uses the following formula to predict success in athletic competition:

Productivity = Potential — Losses Due to Faulty Process

While your potential was determined at birth, there’s still much that can be done to minimize the mistakes you make along the way.

After years of training and consulting to competitive martial artists, I’ve compiled a list of the ten most common errors (all of which I’ve made myself at one time or another) that martial artists make when embarking upon strength training programs:


1) Not training for strength:

Many martial artists feel that strength training is counter-productive, causing one to become too large and slow, despite the fact that in every other sport known to man, it makes athletes faster. Training like a bodybuilder (see mistake number 3) can certainly produce these undesirable effects, but properly designed strength training programs improve strength, speed, agility, endurance, and technical performance. Strength training should be viewed as a tool, the utility of which depends upon the context it’s used in.


2) Training for the wrong kind of strength:

Strength as a bio-motor ability has many expressions. All human movement requires strength, and for this reason, all athletes must concern themselves with developing their strength levels to the utmost. What many don’t know, however, is that there more types of strength than there are bogus ab-training gadgets on late-night info-mercials!

Here’s a partial list:

Maximal Strength: The amount of musculoskeletal force you can generate for one all-out effort. Maximal strength is your athletic “foundation,” but it can only be expressed in the weight room during the performance of a maximal lift. While only powerlifters demonstrate this type of strength in competition, martial artists need to develop high levels of maximal strength in every muscle group.

Relative Strength: This term is used to denote an athlete's strength per unit of bodyweight. Thus if two athletes of different bodyweights can squat 275 pounds, they have equal maximal strength for that lift, but the lighter athlete has greater relative strength.

Competitive events which have weight classes depend heavily on relative strength, as do sports where the athlete must overcome his or her bodyweight to accomplish a motor task (such as a jump kick). Further, events which have aesthetic requirements (kata competition, for example) rely heavily upon the development of strength without a commensurate gain in bodyweight.

Strength can be developed through two very different means— by applying stress to the muscle cells themselves, or by targeting the nervous system. The former method is accomplished through the use of bodybuilding methods (repetitions between 6 and 12), and results in strength gains through an increase in muscle cross-section. The latter is accomplished through higher intensity loads (repetitions between 1 and 4), and increases in strength are the result of the body's improved ability to recruit more of its existing motor unit pool.

For martial artists and other athletes who depend upon relative strength, bodybuilding methods should be used sparingly, unless a higher weight class is desired. Most strength training sessions should consist of high intensity, low repetition sets, which improve strength through neural adaptations rather than increases in muscle cross section.


3) Training like a bodybuilder:

My consultations with competitive martial artists reveal that bodybuilding is the predominant paradigm in today’s strength training world, at least in this country. But bodybuilding methods are designed to produce muscle mass, not strength. And while bodybuilders are strong, their relative strength is poor compared to other explosive strength athletes. These methods have some degree of utility for beginning martial artists as a means of attaining basic fitness, but after a year or so, they should be used sparingly, if at all.


4) Using insufficient intensity:

Most martial artists can relate to doing hundreds of pushups, sit-ups, and leg lifts in class, but as soon as you go beyond approximately 12 repetitions, the stimulus is too weak to favorably improve strength values. Think about it: as a martial artist, would you rather have the ability to perform weak techniques for hours on end, or the ability to deliver explosive, powerful techniques when it really counts? In training, you reap what you sow.


5) Lack of variation:

While many people realize that the training load must be progressively increased, few understand that the training stimulus must also be periodically be varied in order to prevent stagnation. Elite sprint coach Charlie Francis recommends changing the training program whenever there is a one week plateau in strength gains. Internationally acclaimed strength coach Charles Poliquin utilizes alternating phases of high volume with phases of high intensity in order to keep his athletes progressing.


6) Lack of periodization:

Periodization refers to planning the training process. For most, the idea of planning is intuitively obvious with regards to business, family, and finances, but when it comes to training, most people don’t make the connection. While many people attribute the success of Eastern-bloc athletes to illegal steroid use, periodization deserves the real credit. The martial arts seem to be the last sport on earth to take advantage of this important tool!


7) Excessive use of machines:

“Machines” according to exercise specialist Paul Chek, “are like sleeping pills for the muscles.” Chek is referring to the fact that machines tend to rob the stabilizer muscles of adaptive stress. Stabilizers are muscles which anchor or immobilize one part of the body, allowing another part (usually the limbs) to exert force. The most important stabilizers are those of the trunk— the abdominals and trunk extensors. If the motor cortex detects that it can't stabilize the force provided by the prime movers, it simply won't allow the prime mover to contract with full force.


8) Ignoring the principle of specificity:

The body's adaptation to training is very specific to the type of training that has been endured. This is sometimes referred to as the "S.A.I.D." principle— Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. So, as an obvious example, if you want to develop strength in your legs, you have to do strength training exercises for the legs.

Less obvious than the previous example is the fact that exercises must be done at specific volume and intensity ranges in order to elicit the desired result. For example, if you're trying to grow muscle, you must perform exercises in sets of five to ten repetitions— roughly corresponding to 70 to 85% of your maximum capability for a single repetition. It's not enough to simply make sure you're training the right muscles!

Commonly, instructors make the mistake of thinking that if an exercise "mimics" the desired skill, it is specific. A common practice involves trying to improve punching speed by rapidly "punching" with light dumbbells as fast as possible.

But this method is flawed, because the angle of resistance is incorrect, assuming that this exercise is done while standing erect. A better approach would to be to perform dumbbell bench presses, which correctly align the muscle fibers against the resistance being used.

The specificity principle is abused in other aspects of martial arts training, as well. Most instructors train their students aerobically, despite the fact that nearly all forms of martial art, including self-defense scenarios, are predominately anaerobic. Another common example is the practice of slowly extending a kick, and then holding the leg in mid-air until the instructor gives the signal to return it to the floor. While this method may work if you intend to find employment as a human mannequin, for the purpose of improving kickingpower, it borders on useless.


9) Ignoring rate of force development:

Being strong won’t help you if you don’t have enough time to display it! In the martial arts (as in most athletic endeavors), the problem is that the amount of time to develop maximum muscular force is extremely limited— usually only a fraction of a second. While high levels of maximal strength are a necessary prerequisite for the development of speed strength (power), too much time in the weight room grinding out heavy weights at slow speeds, without switching to speed strength methods later in the training cycle, results in slow athletes.

The ability to apply muscular force rapidly is called rate of force development, or RFD. While bodybuilding methods slightly improve maximal strength, it has a negligible effect on RFD. Training with heavy weights significantly improves maximal strength, but again, the RFD remains largely unchanged. Only when speed strength methods (plyometrics, ballistic training, etc.) are used, is the RFD significantly improved.


10) Ignoring the antagonists:

Muscles work in pairs— for every muscle in the body, there is another muscle that is capable of opposing its force. This "pairing" mechanism is how we are able to move with precision of movement and speed. However, when one part of this pair becomes too strong in relation to the other, force output capability suffers.

Unfortunately, many athletes unknowingly reinforce this imbalance every time they train, thinking they are respecting the principle of specificity by training only the prime movers (or "agonists"). An example would be a martial artist who reasons that since the quadriceps muscle extends the leg during kicking, the quadriceps should receive the brunt of the training focus.

Before long, the hamstrings (which are the antagonists in kicking movements) are weak in proportion to the quads, and power output declines. At this point, the martial artist may conclude that weight training "slows you down," because for him, it did.

Here's the problem in the above example: the weaker the antagonists are, the sooner they will contract and oppose the prime movers (to prevent joint hyperextension), resulting in a slower movement. But stronger antagonists are less sensitive to this protective response— the body "knows" that they are strong enough to decelerate the limb at the last possible moment. The next time you watch elite boxers on TV, notice the development of the lats and biceps. Great punchers always have well developed antagonists.


(Bonus Mistake!)

Mistaking strength training as the ends rather than the means: While it might seem ironic, the objective of strength training is NOT increased strength per se, but improved athletic performance. I would suggest that sports conditioning coaches keep this in mind as they design conditioning programs for their athletes.


Submitted by DMorgan on Sun, 01/25/2009 - 10:00pm.

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