This article was one I originally wrote for Fight Quality, a website which provides in-depth reviews of fight gear. I’ve edited it slightly before publishing it here, but you can find the original Fight Quality post here.
There are several schools of thought when it comes to cross training martial arts and weightlifting, the vast majority negative. I train in Muay Thai, so what I generally hear is “well the Thai’s don’t use weights when they train and they’re the best in the world” but you get similar arguments in all disciplines ranging from ‘body weight works better than weights’ to the most common “I can’t gain any weight because I need to fight as light as possible”. However, I started weight training well before I started Muay Thai, and I’m a big proponent of it, so I’m going to try and explain my opinions on using weight training to try and disperse some of the myths around lifting and martial arts, and potentially give you a powerful new tool in your fight game.
Let’s start with the classic Nak Muay response about traditionally trained Thais not utilising weight lifting as part of their training. I fully respect this, they’re the best at what they do, and it’s rare for westerners to truly compete. But look at how they train – classes include running, skipping, pad work, bag work, sparring, clinch work and some body weight training and sit-ups. They last 2-3 hours, and they do them two times a day, 5 days a week. Oh and generally Thais start training when they’re 6-7, and go on to have a few hundred fights in a career. I’ll admit that a western Nak Muay, or farang, would probably be able to get away without weight training if they’re following that kind of program, it’s more than likely going to do more harm than good, because they don’t have time to recover between training sessions, and weightlifting will take away from their skill training.
Obviously you should be making your martial arts training your number one priority, technical ability is the greatest asset a fighter can gain.
Obviously you should be making your martial arts training your number one priority, technical ability is the greatest asset a fighter can gain. However when you ignore technical ability, and assume your cardio is up to scratch, strength is the next most important factor in a fight. If you can hit or kick harder than your opponent then you’re going to do more damage with every shot that connects. There’s a reason people talk about knockout power. It’s not a genetic factor, anyone can build knockout power with the right kind of weight training.
By far the most common response is that a fighter is too concerned with gaining weight to utilise weightlifting. What’s the benefit of being stronger if you get heavier, and then struggle to cut weight to meet the agreed weight for a fight? What you need to do is stay light, but get stronger. Try not to let images of 150kg powerlifters come to mind, getting stronger does not mean getting bigger. You need to increase your power to weight ratio, which can be achieved without increasing weight. For a simple example, a 65kg fighter who can deadlift 100kg for a single rep has a higher power to weight ratio than an 80kg fighter who can deadlift the same weight for one rep. Pound for pound the 65kg fighter is stronger than the 80kg one. So how to achieve this beautiful balance? It comes down to what you’re lifting, how you’re lifting it, and how many times you do it. I’m going to post an article in the future explaining my approach to weightlifting, as I’ve recently changed up what I’m doing and got more scientific with my approach.
Let’s start with the basics, your body adapts to different stimulus in different ways, so your rep ranges are key. The adaptations can be divided into two sorts – neural and metabolic. Metabolic adaptations are what makes muscles grow, whereas neural adaptations change the speed your body’s nervous system can contract the muscle. The best analogy I’ve heard for it was in a powerlifting article that described your neural system as an Internet connection. Neural training is like upgrading your wired connection to a fibre optic one. The messages get to the muscles faster and give them a stronger message.
In terms of rep ranges generally 1-3 reps is believed to promote neural changes, while 8 reps is seen as the standard for metabolic changes. The 4-7 range is seen as offering benefits from both sides, offering strength and size gains. So therefore a fighter should stick to a 1-3 rep range, lifting as heavy as possible in those ranges, to maximise neural changes, and avoid packing on muscle mass.
So we know we can train to focus on gaining strength rather than muscle by picking the right rep ranges, but there’s another issue. Hypertrophy (building muscle) tends to kick in at around the 25-30 total reps mark. This is why common bodybuilding plans offer variations of 4×10-12 reps per exercise, so they can maximise metabolic adaptation and hypertrophy and so build as much muscle as possible. The fighters aim is almost the opposite, so we should aim to avoid reaching the hypertrophy level when we’re weight training – a solid strength program would contain a low number of exercises, performed with small sets for a total number of reps of around 30. A great example would be 3 exercises, all split into 3 sets of 3 reps, giving us a total rep count of 27.
The exercises themselves become even more important when training like this, if you can only do 3 exercises in a session, you have to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. You want to elicit the most muscle activity in order to gain the most response from your nervous system, which means big lifts with big weights. Sticking to multi-joint, compound lifts is the way forward, a squat is activating nearly every muscle in your body, whereas a bicep curl is only activating a small group of muscles in your arm – building a program based around squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses and bent over rows is going to work your whole body and develop full body strength.
Another important factor is how often you train. Typically strength programs recommend 3 sessions a week. This may seem low compared to the bodybuilder who’s hitting the gym 6 days a week but if you’re training as a fighter then your martial arts training needs to take priority. You need to supplement this training with strength training, not hinder it but overworking yourself. If you’re in the ring 4 times a week then you should only be training in the gym 3 times, otherwise you’re going to be holding yourself back.
The final element to consider is your diet, to build muscle you have to be in a calorie surplus – taking more in than you’re burning off. If you’re concerned about gaining weight when you start weight training you need to make sure you avoid hypertrophy, avoid promoting metabolic changes and avoid eating a calorie surplus.
I’m going to be following up with another article about my new strength training program, which is working well for me. Whilst it may not work for everyone, it’s working great for me – since I started Muay Thai I’ve dropped from 92kg to 80kg, but my totals on the big lifts are heavier that they were at 92kg.
Do you lift and train martial arts? Do you think it’s better to just stick to skill training? Let me know your opinion in the comments.