5 Essential Strength Training Principles for Fighters

Keeping these five principles in mind before you begin a strength program will only help you in the long run.

So you are a budding martial artist or sport fighter. Or maybe you’re training for reality-based self-defense and want to get stronger but don’t know where to start. Here are some principles you probably want to take on board before you start your strength program. Follow these principles and you will become stronger without affecting your sport-specific skill set, and stay injury free in the process.

Principle #1 – Focus on the Sport

Strength training is supplementary. While having big numbers in the gym is good for your ego, no one cares about your bench press, squat, deadlift, or whatever numbers you get in the gym if you suck at your art or sport. Strength is just one facet of your training and one athletic attribute. It should never be developed at the expense of other attributes and their sport-specific skill base.

If you get stronger in the gym but your movement, reaction time, flexibility, coordination, motor control, and technique go backwards then you are barking up the wrong tree. If you can’t convert that strength into great technique and movement such as a powerful punch, a quick kick, an explosive jumping knee, a crushing take down, smooth submission, or speedy counter attack, then it doesn’t matter. You aren’t going to get that championship belt around your waist just because you have a big bench press.

Principle #2 – Understand the Point of Strength Training

Train to address your weaknesses while keeping your strengths your strengths. If you are strong but lack endurance then that is the weak link you must address. If you have great endurance but lack adequate strength in comparison, then you need to work for strength.

“While having big numbers in the gym is good for your ego, no one cares about your bench press, squat, deadlift, or whatever numbers you get in the gym if you suck at your art or sport.” 

And don’t miss the point of correct strength training programming. Getting strong is also about being more resilient and injury-proofing the body. Call it prehab if you will. Who cares how strong you get if you are always broken and can never compete? Strength training is about balancing the body after the dysfunction and compensations that arrive from thousands of repetitions moving the same way all the time. Removing asymmetries to an acceptable level, improving weaknesses in particular areas, re-establishing neuromuscular balance and control, and becoming more resilient should also be the goal of a good strength program.

Principle #3 – Quality Over Quantity and Fatigue Management

Never sacrifice quality for quantity. Dan John put it best (quoting the great Mel Siff, author of Supertraining):

“To me the sign of an excellent routine is one which places great demands on the athlete, yet produces long term improvement without soreness, injuries or without the athlete feeling thoroughly depleted. Any fool can create a program so demanding it would kill the toughest Marines or the hardest of elite athletes, but not any fool can create a tough program that produces progress without unnecessary pain.”

Time is a precious commodity for most athletes, and fatigue is the enemy. Manage your fatigue. Rather than adding to programs, look at what you can strip away so you can focus on the sport.

Schedule in your strength work after your sport. Unpredictable activities (e.g., sparring) cannot be easily modified on the spot when necessary, whereas strength training can. For example, if you are more fatigued than expected following a strength training session, you won’t be able to modify the subsequent free sparring session in order to protect yourself. On the other hand, if you incur an injury during sparring, the subsequent strength training workout can be easily modified to accommodate the injury.

Principle #4 – Don’t Mimic Your Sport with Strength Exercises

Mimicking the movement or technique you are doing and loading it up will not necessarily make you better. A lot of strength work in martial arts and mixed martial arts training appears to be done by mimicking the movements performed and then putting that pattern under heavy load. A great example is having a fighter using heavy dumbbells (like in Rocky) while practicing upper-cut punches. The theory of specific adaptation to imposed demands (SAID) is an important reminder of how specifically our bodies adapt to stimulus in training.

When discussing specificity in training Dr. Siff mentions:

“While simulation of a sporting movement with small added resistance over the full range of movement or with larger resistance over a restricted part of the movement range may be appropriate at certain stages of training, simulation of any movement with significant resistance is inadvisable since it can confuse the neuromuscular programs which determine the specificity of the above factors. (In relation to: type of muscle contraction, movement pattern, fatigue, flexibility, muscle fibre recruitment, velocity of movement, force of contraction, and region of movement and so on).”

There have been a number of studies on baseball pitching and batting done in the United States. While there are many proponents who suggest using a heavier ball isn’t productive at all, there are at least two studies in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning that show the velocity of a pitch can be improved by using both a lighter (4oz) and a heavier (6oz) baseball to train with. In fact, the studies showed a bigger improvement in those pitchers who used the light and heavier balls than those who just used the 5oz regulation ball.

But here is the clincher and the most important point. One additional ounce (6oz total) adds twenty percent more weight to the baseball. This is perfect for the development of arm strength because the biomechanics of the throwing motion remain unchanged. Any more weight than this and the proper throwing biomechanics of the arm will start to break down because the body is forced to implement its larger muscles (like the lattissimus dorsi) to throw the ball instead of the rotator cuff and shoulder.

“Too much weights not enough speed work. Useless prick.”- Jake “The Muss” Heke, Once Were Warriors 

Principle #5- Strength Doesn’t Equal Power

There is a big misconception that you must focus on strength first through high-tension, heavy, and slow lifting and by doing so you automatically develop power. This could not be farther from the truth, and the idea reflects a lack of understanding of the physics of physiology and specificity. While I agree it is important to improve overall maximal or absolute strength, after a certain level there is a tradeoff – especially with beginners.

We have all heard it before:

Force equals mass x acceleration or: F = Mass x Acceleration

This concept is still used to promote the idea of strength training and to explain generating force in striking in the martial arts. The concept is that you will develop more force if you lift heavier (increase the mass) or accelerate the mass more. This is correct, but equating this with power is not correct. But this is the concept that most proponents of developing strength advocate.

Just because you develop a high amount of force does not mean that you will develop a high amount of power. Power is actually an expression of the amount of force you can affect your surroundings or an object with, when moving at a certain velocity. The definition of power is:

Power = Force x Velocity

You can increase weight on the bar to increase the force production, but this comes hand-in-hand with a decrease in velocity and thereby a decrease in acceleration. So once you generate too much force, because the velocity and acceleration decreases, your power also diminishes significantly.

The mass you lift matters little compared to the velocity you are lifting at, if you want power. For example, you will see this in an athlete whose back squat numbers may improve while their vertical leap stays the same or goes backwards.

The actual velocity and real time acceleration of the implement you are lifting is what matters most. Doing high tension lifts all the time (the maximal effort method) can make practitioners sluggish and slow. Being relaxed and loose is the premise to generating speed and power. Follow in Jake “The Muss” Heke’s footsteps and make sure you don’t lift too many slow and heavy weights, or you may end up with same poor fate of his mate at the juke box.

The Final Word

There are number of potential pitfalls you can avoid by adhering to these principles when programing for the fight game. Strength training done the wrong way can affect other athletic attributes and change motor control and coordination. It’s probably why a lot of old-school coaches didn’t like their fighters doing much strength training.

Take a closer look at the world’s most dynamic and explosive athletes like Floyd Mayweather, Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Manny Pacquiao, the Red Bull Kick-It competitors, or even world champion sprinter Usain Bolt. Examine the way they train. You will not see incredulous feats of strength, gym busting numbers on big lifts, or lots of hypertrophy like a body builder. Instead, you will see is the development of strength as just one part of the puzzle in making a complete fighter, martial artist, or professional athlete.

More like this:


1. DeRenne, C., Hetzler, RK., and Ho. KW., “Effects of Under- and Overweighted Implement Training on Pitching Velocity.” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 247–250. 

2. DeRenne, C., Blitzblau, A. and o. KW., “Effects of Weighted Implement Training on Throwing VelocityThe Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 16–19.

Photo courtesy of Baltimore BJJ.

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