The stronger you become the better martial artist you will be. In a weapon-oriented system like the Filipino martial arts (FMA), the importance of strength training cannot be over-emphasized. Strength is particularly important in stick fighting for unlike in blade fighting where the weapon’s edge is the one creating damage; you need power to inflict serious injury with a stick.
Strength training was not much of a concern for the early Filipinos who practiced arnis, escrima and kali. For in those days when much of the Philippines were agricultural lands, hard labor was the norm of the day. Stick fighters in that bygone era had very little need for specialized conditioning because their bodies were toughened day in and day out through gruelling farm labor. Not so for 21st century FMA practitioners which is the reason why I wrote this piece.
Throughout this article I will be mentioning specific exercises but my main focus will be on the general principle of strength training and answering the question, “How can a martial artist become stronger?”
In a nutshell, increasing your muscles’ capability to generate tension is the essence of strength training. “Because tension is the mechanism by which your muscles generate force,” says Russian strength expert Pavel Tsatsouline.
This ability to generate maximum muscular tension is the foundation of powerful hitting not only in Filipino stick fighting but in other martial arts as well. This is demonstrated when you’re delivering a hit whether with a weapon or with your limbs – you tensed up maximally at the point of impact. Your ability to inflict damage on your opponent and escape injury would be dependent on how skilled you are in generating muscular tension.
It was proven time in again that synergism produces better results than isolation as far as physical training is concerned. Synergism within the context of this discussion pertains to the collective efforts of several body parts as opposed to isolation that concentrates on just one part.
In FMA for example, it seems logical to isolate the arms and the hands then concentrate on strengthening them since at a glance, they are the ones that are mainly used in wielding sticks and other weapons. But this is only partially correct.
Tsatsouline and many strength experts believe that hard abdominal muscles plus strong hands result to a powerful body. On the importance of developing the abdominal muscles, Tsatsouline in his book Power to the People, wrote, “Maximally tensed abs and obliques also elevate your intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure which fortifies any exertion. There is a positive relationship between your inside pressure and your power, a so-called pnumo-muscular reflex. Somehow this pressure potentiates muscle excitability. In non-geek words, it amplifies your strength.”
In conjunction with developed abs, another strength expert, Dr. Ken Leistner stresses the importance of developing power in the hands and forearms, “As neuroanatomists know, the area of the brain that exerts control over the hand muscles has a much higher representation relative to actual muscle size than other muscle groups. Although it is strictly conjecture, perhaps intense forearm/hand work heightens neural stimulation for all muscles worked during a particular movement. My experience has shown that taking the time and energy to directly stimulate the forearm musculature leads to increased ability to handle heavy weights in many exercises.”
Another anatomical part that need ample amount of training if you intend to develop total body strength are the legs. For those with already strong hands, training the legs may seem optional but there is solid science backing the advice that intense leg training results to greater overall strength. John Wood, an advocate of oldtime strongman training and owner of oldtimestrongman.com, explains how the development of the lower extremities affect overall strength, “Since the musculature of the hips and legs is the largest in the body, training that area in the most intense manner possible causes your own body to start producing even more testosterone and growth hormone making further muscle growth possible. The end result is a bigger, stronger, more powerful you.” What I also find interesting about Wood’s explanation is that it offers a sound scientific rationale for the age-old practice of static stance training found in many martial arts.
After identifying the key parts to train, the next question to answer is what kind of resistance is the best for developing strength. Excluding sophisticated machines, the most practical choices available to martial artists are free weights (barbells and dumbbells), body weight calisthenics (pushups and pull-ups) and dynamic tension (fitting muscles against muscles). I personally use all three depending on the situation. When I am home and have access to equipment, I train with weights. When I was still a reporter travelling frequently locally and abroad, I rely on body weight exercises and dynamic tension because I can do them in my hotel room.
Choose exercises that are multi-joint or employ the shoulder, elbow, hip and knee (remember that the goal is synergy not isolation), “Why are these four joints so important? Because, again, these are the places where most of the movement begins. From these four joints come flexibility and movement,” wrote fitness expert Marco Borges in his book Power Moves.
Examined through this principle, the deadlift is the No.1 free weights routine while in body-weight callisthenics, pushup is the king. It is important to emphasize that you will not get stronger by doing easy exercises. If the goal is explosive power, opt for really heavy weights using low repetition when training with dumbbells and barbells. If you’re employing body weight calisthenics, increase the difficulty of an exercise to amplify the resistance. For example, you can go for one-arm pushups or handstand pushups instead of doing regular pushups.
When it comes to dynamic tension training, Tsatsouline offers some very interesting findings, “Maximally tensing the muscles in the absence of resistance or with light weight is only possible when the subject ignores the feedback offered by his muscles and tendons, namely, that there is no resistance to contract against. The opposite of a normal feedback operation, the feed-forward tension technique of maximally contracting the muscles regardless of the weight, should build superhuman strength! Once the muscles are subjected to a very heavy load, they will be able to successfully ignore the reality and lift the damn thing! Keep in mind that you must lift real heavy weights at least some of the time.”
In ending, I want to make clear that strength training should be regarded as a means to an end and not the end itself. In sports science there is what you call “principle of specificity,” which simply means you will become good at what you practice. Someone said that if you want to become a good cyclist; ride a bike. I would say that if you want to become a good escrimador then swing those sticks.