Five Basic Exercises for Martial Artists to Build Strength

There are several components essential for fitness in general and self-defense specifically. Those are:

  • Strength
  • Flexibility/Mobility
  • Speed
  • Knowledge/Understanding

This article, like our classes recently, will focus on Strength. As we move through the year, our focus will shift, and I’ll post articles on the other components.

In the Classroom

For those of you who aren’t currently students, here’s a brief overview of the way our school runs. Class begins with a formal bowing-in ceremony wherein we give respect to our country, our martial art association, and all of our instructors. After that, we warm-up.

The length and composition of the warm-up phase depend on the class and the weather. During very cold weather, I never skip the group warm-up. In the summer, if I have an advanced class, I might have them skip the formal warm-up and just begin training slowly until they break a light sweat. The warm-up isn’t about stretching, it’s about moving the body, and raising the temperature to make injury less likely.

Next, we work on a fundamental skill: likely one of the components listed above. I won’t go into it too deeply in this article, but we don’t do flexibility work at this point unless that’s the subject of the entire class. So, it will either be strength, speed, or fundamental martial art technique like kicking, punching or falling.

After that, we work on material specific to the student’s rank. It could be forms, techniques, or more fundamentals (we don’t teach every kick or hand technique at the same level.)

The end of the class is the time when we might focus on flexibility, but we could just as easily work on strength. And, you know, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. At any rate, the point of this part of the class is to cool down a little, reinforce what we’ve been working on, and answer questions.

So, all of this is to say that the exercises we’re talking about could be part of your warm-up, or they could be part of your skill-building or even your cool-down. However you use them, the important thing is to work on the exercises as if they were a martial art technique. Pay attention to geometry (the shape your joints and limbs make, arms relative to spine, spine relative to floor, etc.) Pay attention to the tension that you’re holding, whether you’re relaxed or tense where appropriate. Can you do the exercise slowly, or are you forced to finish quickly to avoid losing balance?

Strength

For martial artists, building strength is not about building muscle mass. I mean, if you want to, I can show you how, but strictly speaking about martial art activities, extra muscle mass just gets in the way. And, it turns out, it’s not necessary unless you’re very out of shape. If that’s you, then yeah, you’ll build some muscle, but mostly they’ll change shape, get rounder and be more noticeable. What we’re looking for when it comes to strength is the way our brain and muscles work together, and believe it or not, that changes with practice. Strength is a skill that you need to practice as sure as a spin kick is.

So, how do we practice to improve strength without inducing hypertrophy (the overgrowth of muscle tissue)? Work really hard, but keep your repetitions low. That’s basically it. Work hard, but don’t kill yourself. Sets of three to five are enough to enhance neuro-muscular coordination, but not enough to trigger hypertrophy. If you do three sets of these exercises and in each set do them three to five times, you’ll be set. And the sets don’t have to be consecutive. You can do one set with breakfast, another with lunch and the last before dinner, and you’ll get just as much benefit as if you did them back to back. More probably, because the more you allow your nervous system to recover between sets, the better. You don’t want to start your next set if you’re out of breath or shaky from the previous set.

The Exercises

The exercises themselves are pretty simple. There are three basic chains that we, as humans, need to exercise regularly to be healthy: a push, a pull, and a squat. We’re using Dancer Push-Ups, Slo-Mo Squats, and Let-Me-Ups.

Dancer Push-Ups

These are done very slowly on the hands and feet, but the feet may be separated by a foot or two, if you wish, for stability. After completing the push part of the push-up, raise your left hand and gently turn and point to the

Dancer Push-Ups
Dancer Push-Ups

ceiling, keeping your eyes on your hand. Hold for a moment, then slowly bring your hand back down to the floor. Do a push-up and then do the same with your right hand, again, keeping your eyes on your hand all the way. That’s one repetition.

If doing three of these (that’s six slow-motion push-ups) is too much for you, then skip the push-up between the two hand raises so that you’re only doing one push-up, left hand, right hand, etc.

If your push-ups from the floor aren’t up to speed, don’t worry about it. Elevate your hands rather than dropping to your knees. Use a countertop or the back of a sofa if you need to (or even a wall). If you have a stairway in your house, that’s a good place to practice push-ups. Pick the step that is high enough that you can do three solid push-ups, then practice there until you can do five with no problem, then move down a step, etc.

Slo-Mo Squats

These are pretty easy unless you have knee problems or ankle restrictions. Knee issues aren’t uncommon, while ankle restrictions are rampant in our culture (due to wearing shoes all of the time, I’m sure.) If your hips aren’t free,

Slo-Mo Squat
Slo-Mo Squat

you’ll also have trouble. That’s why we’re doing them. Feel free to use support in the beginning.

Start with your feet about shoulder width, reach your hands out in front of you for balance, then drop your hips straight toward the floor. Your knees may move forward, but don’t let them move past your toes. Speaking of your toes, they may want to splay out to the sides. You can let them, but eventually, you’ll want to work on keeping them pointing straight forward (practice). Your shoulders will drift forward. Don’t let them. Think about keeping your spine vertical throughout the exercise (it won’t happen at first, but practice). Try to drop so deep that your hips sit down between your ankles, but don’t be surprised if they won’t even make it to knee-high.

Take about three seconds on the way down, pause for a beat or two, and then three seconds on the way up. You’re only starting with three repetitions. Take long enough that you can enjoy them.

Let-Me-Ups

These might be a little harder for you if you’re playing along at home. This is a pull-up variation that we do in the school with two partners. Your partners will hold a hardwood staff about waist high. You bend your knees and grasp the staff and pull your chest to it. There are a lot of ways to cheat on this, which is good because most people can’t do regular pull-ups. Having your knees bent allows you to use your legs as much as you need to allow the exercise to succeed. The trick is in not using too much help from your legs.

Let-Me-Up
Let-Me-Up

If your partners are strong, you can begin to raise the staff higher, changing the angle of the exercise to that of a more traditional pull-up, but don’t do this until you can do the exercise with your knees extended and your feet elevated.
At home, you might be able to use a broom handle supported between two chairs, or at the corner of the kitchen counter. Use your imagination. Pull-up bars are widely available and you could begin with one of those and a tall chair or step ladder. If you have a good idea to modify this so that you don’t need partners or other equipment, feel free to share it in the comment section.

Martial Artists

The two strength exercises that martial artists need to add are Kicho Cha Ki and Slo-Mo Side Kicks.

Kicho Cha Ki

Hand strength, in my opinion, is the single quality that could have the most impact on surviving a self-defense situation. Doing Kicho Cha Ki slowly will help condition the muscles of the hand and forearm to work properly throughout their full range of motion. It also balances the strength between

Kicho Cha Ki
Kicho Cha Ki

the flexors and extensors, rendering the wrist more stable and the fingers less vulnerable.

Doing the exercise quickly isn’t so much about strength as speed, but I do it for five seconds anyway because it makes them feel better after the Slo-Mo crunches and extensions. (When I’m talking about Kicho Cha Ki here, it’s just the clenching of fists and extension of fingers to the splayed position, not the six stances.)

Slo-Mo Side Kick

We work on the side kick for a couple of reasons. Most people who come to me have tight hips and groin muscles. Tightness is your body’s way of protecting joints whose muscles are weak. If you strengthen the muscles, you can work out the tightness. Trying to banish tightness without increasing strength is a losing battle.

Slo-Mo Side Kick
Slo-Mo Side Kick

On the Slo-Mo Side Kick, start in horse stance and chamber one leg, extend as high as possible, then rechamber, and rebalance, and then work the other side. If you alternate sides each time, like with the Dancer Push-Ups, it allows the muscles on that side to recover a bit. Recovery is good. You want to practice perfect repetitions, not mindless number games.

Only kick as high as you can control. Keep your eyes on your kick, not the opposite wall. Blade your kick properly, position the opposite foot so that the heel is pointing to the target. When you chamber and re-chamber the kick, think of touching your knee to the opposite shoulder (it probably won’t, but that will get it moving in the right direction.) If you need to use support in the beginning, that’s fine. Touch a wall, a chair, whatever. Just don’t clutch it, and wean yourself away quickly.

In all of these exercises, quality is vastly more important than quantity. Master Suh sometimes talks about how 1>1000: this is what he’s talking about. Be conscious of every repetition so that each one is worth more than a thousand mindless kicks or push-ups.

Routine

Kicho Cha Ki  3-5x slow closing then opening followed by 5 seconds opening and closing as fast and as big as possible

Dancer Push-Ups 3-5x – alternate sides

Slo-Mo Squats 3-5x

Let-Me-Ups 3-5x

Slo-Mo Side Kicks 3-5x – alternate sides

I like to do two sets for a warm-up, and then one set for a cool-down at the end of class.


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