In combat and/or self-defense there is a need to understand how to develop a rock solid skeletal musculature to avoid the trauma, yes the trauma of being hit. When the body is hit the neuromusculature signaling to the brain becomes chaotic, disrupting response time. The body wants to temporarily shut down until equilibration of the neuromusculature signaling is regained. As an example, notice what happens to breathing when the diaphragm is punched.

The following are skill sets I favor with over 47 years in martial arts and as a professional trainer.

The neck remains one of the prime developed areas for any athlete as the strengthening of the neck will prevent cervical injury and provide stability of the head when struck by a punch. I favor isometrics for the neck muscles followed by decompression the cervical vertebra which is accomplished through traction supervised by a physical therapist, trainer and/or chiropractor.

I am a proponent for developing the neck muscles. To instruct yourself on these exercises go to this link.  Visualize these exercises using this video.

Strengthen your spine

The spine can only be strengthened by the muscles that surround it, and this thick group of muscles is called the erector spinae. From the base of your head all the way down to the bottom of your back is the erector spine. This muscle group can be strengthened by exercises such as a plank or bent-over row.

Consider the “superman” which is a bodyweight exercise accomplished by being face down on the floor with your arms extended overhead and your legs straight behind you. Engage your stomach muscles then contract your spinal and gluteal muscles to simultaneously lift your arms and legs off the floor. Hold the position for a count of two then slowly lower back to the floor.

The straight-leg deadlift is a free-weight exercise that can be performed with dumbbells or a barbell. Stabilize your abdomen and, keeping your back and arms straight, stand upright by extending your hips. Carefully lower the bar back toward the floor, keeping spine stable and only a very soft bend in the knees. (Do not lock out)

How to Do Deadlifts

Back extensions are performed by positioning your ankles under the supports on a Roman chair with the top of your hips level or above the hip support so that you can fully flex at the waist. Additionally, include bent-over dumbbell swings and bent-over rows.

Martial Arts Couple


Power, Speed, Endurance

Strength training to focus on the white, fast-twitch muscle fibers will allow those needed bursts of energy in combat. These fibers will store carbohydrates and for each gram of stored carbohydrate there are 3 grams of water that enter into this fiber. To train for strength will depend on how you manage weight and handle the accompanied fatigue.

The demand depends on the force. The heavier the weight the more recruitment of the fast twitch muscle fibers, whereas the lesser force, i.e. reduced weight, will recruit the slow twitch muscle fibers. Both are required for development in training to be a fighter. Powerlifting is needed for strength in combat, which will recruit fast twitch muscle fibers.

With powerlifting improvement occurs when the recruitment goes from slow twitch to fast twitch muscle fibers based on first causing fatigue of the slow twitch muscle fibers.

“Make this principle work for you throughout a workout by keeping your workout density high. Here’s what I mean: An athlete who takes 2 hours to perform 15 sets has low density, while an athlete who performs 15 sets in 30 minutes has extremely high density. By shortening your rest periods on traditional bodybuilding days, your slow-twitch muscle fibers will fatigue much sooner and fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment will skyrocket.” (5)

“The existing evidence strongly supports the conclusion that heavy lifting and muscle fatigue largely dictate the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers. To put these principles into action, perform a heavy training day for Bench presses, military presses, seated rows, dips, chin ups, triceps pulls, squats, and deadlifts every 2-3 workouts. A good training split for a given body part could look like this:

Workout 1: Heavy, 1-5 repetitions, 3-5 minutes rest, compound movements

Workout 2: 8-12 repetitions, 60-90 seconds rest, mainly compound movements

Workout 3: 12+ repetitions, 30-60 seconds rest, supersets, compound and isolation movements” (6, ibid.)

Next, develop explosive movements of the legs and arms, having inherent to it the rate of force development coupled with speed. For kicking I like the explosive movements that can occur by adhering to the exercises developed for sprinters and jumpers. This regimen includes 10 exercises for explosive movements. (7)

Power and Speed
Speed and power training for martial arts is best developed with the use of resistant bands. Your innate speed that is the result of triggering muscle fibers to move any part of your body needs to be quickened. Recruitment, rate of force development and increasing mitochondria all factor into power and speed.

For a continuation of punching and pulling power visit the specific drills to develop power by visiting this link. (8)

[Note: Plyometrics are intense, so only work out with them 2 times a week.]

The term endurance training generally refers to training the aerobic system as opposed to anaerobic. As a reminder this coach favors High Intensity Interval Training.

Endurance and Strength
“Most people reserve one day for strength and another day for cardio. Try combining the two instead,” says Will Torres. “Use a bench press, immediately followed by pull-ups, then run a mile as fast as you can… and repeat.” Another good example: Jump rope for a minute, followed by squats, then overhead press, and finally sit ups. Repeat. (10)
Will Torres suggests selecting a series of movements like 10 pull-ups, 10 squats, 10 push-ups, 10 sit-ups. “Do three rounds of the series back to back, taking as minimal a break as possible.”

Avoid doing an excessive amount of endurance-only training because this training causes the body to search for protein from the muscles, including the heart; and in some cases will cause a Charlie-horse of the heart, disrupting rhythm and causing cardiac death.

Increase stamina by doing compound, circuit, routines that require use of multiple joints in succession. For example, jump rope, lunges, push-ups followed by sit-ups.
Reduce complacency because the muscles need to be challenged and the mind needs to develop neuronal signals for you to sustain the challenges of the demands made by your sport.

The more muscle groups that are activated in a particular movement the more demand on the heart which in turn improves stamina. For example, explosive movements such as box-jumps at different heights, kettle bell squat/thrusts, etc.

To protect your abdomen follow the martial artist abdominal workout, read Train to Sustain.

DISCLAIMER: This educational article is for informational purposes only. Consult a physician before performing this or any exercise program. It is your responsibility to evaluate your own medical and physical condition, or that of your clients, and to independently determine whether to perform, use or adapt any of the information or content within this article. Any exercise program may result in injury. By voluntarily undertaking any training/exercise within this article, you assume the risk of any resulting injury.


David Brancato

Dr. Brancato’s cumulative experience in nutrition, alternative medicine, chemistry, toxicology, physiology directed him to holistic approaches in human physiology to correct system imbalances. He maintains his professional certifications as a Naturopath from the American Naturopathic Medical Certification and Accreditation Board; the National Federation of Professional Trainers; Black belts in Kick Boxing and Kenpo.