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Powerlifting: Is It The Optimal Supplementary Training Activity For Martial Artists?

April 24, 2003 09:47 AM

If you're a martial artist or combat athlete who has experienced the unpleasant symptoms of chronic "paralysis by analysis" when it comes to trying to figure out the best types of supplementary training for your sport, let me suggest something that you may not have considered: powerlifting.

For clarification, powerlifting doesn't mean lifting weights quickly, nor does it mean Olympic weightlifting. Powerlifting is the classical strength sport consisting of three events: the deadlift, the bench press, and the squat. In competition, athletes are permitted three attempts for each lift, and at the end of the day, the lifter with the biggest "total" in each weight class wins the contest.

Now, in this age of Pilates, "functional training," and various other fitness trends, you might puzzle over my choice of adjunct training, but give me a moment to make my case and I think I might be able to convert you.

The Efficiency-Based Training Paradigm

Combat athletes must, first and foremost, think "efficiency." More isn't better, BETTER is better. Don't try to cover all the bases. Instead, try to the most with the least. After all, isn't that the philosophical premise of all martial arts disciplines?

We need to maximize efficiency on two fronts: motor qualities and muscle groups. First, motor qualities?

The Most Functional Motor Quality: Maximal Strength

If I had to pinpoint the most common mistake made by martial artists with regards to their choices of supplementary training activities, it is redundancy. A few years back I was supervising the training of one of the World's most highly regarded NHB fighters. I remember asking him to describe his typical training for a given week. He described practicing grappling drills for a few hours, and then, later in the day, going out on his bike for three hours for endurance training. What this athlete failed to consider is that his mat time was more than sufficient to develop the required level of endurance capacity!

In my practice with professional and Olympic athletes, I have a formula that I use to help prioritize training tasks:

"Focus on elements which are 1) needed, 2) poorly developed, 3) highly trainable, and 4) foundational to other elements, given available resources."

Using this formula as a guide, more times than not, I usually arrive at maximal strength development as being the best use of time and energy. Maximal strength is defined as the most amount of force you can develop in a single maximum effort, irrespective of time or bodyweight. In the gym, it basically boils down to your "1RM," or the most weight you can lift for one rep, but not two. Maximal strength is best developed through the use of heavy weights (between 85 and 100 percent of your 1RM), moved as rapidly as possible.

Why maximal strength? Because for the majority of athletes, it tends to be 1) needed, 2) poorly developed, 3) easily trainable/improvable, and 4) foundational to a host of other motor qualities, including power, agility, anaerobic endurance, and stabilization.

Efficiency and Muscle Group Training

If efficiency is your objective, there is a simple formula to use when considering exercise selection for developing maximal strength: Use the fewest number of exercises that challenge the largest number of muscle groups with minimal redundancy. The three powerlifting events fulfill this premise quite nicely. In fact, the deadlift alone leaves almost no stone unturned? it trains nearly every muscle in the body, save for perhaps the pectorals (which are targeted with the bench press anyway).

Wide-Stance Squatting: Get Strong, Flexible, and FUNCTIONAL

There are a number of squatting styles used by competitive powerlifters, but I'd like to make a case for the ultra-wide stance squat. This is the type of squatting used by members of Louie Simmons' Westside Barbell Club in powerlifting competition. Louie refers to this type of squat as a "wide stance good morning to parallel." Another way for traditional martial artists to visualize this lift is as a weighted horse stance.

For those unfamiliar with this exercise, here's a brief description: Take a super-wide stance (at least double your own shoulder width, and initiate the squat by cracking your hips and sitting back rather than bending the knees. Try to lower yourself to the point where the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor when viewed from the side, without allowing your knees to travel forward at all. This will be difficult at first, but as your adductor length improves you'll eventually be able to do it. Focus on sitting back and pushing the knees out to the sides as you descend, keeping a neutral spine throughout.

Screw "Functional Training" and Just Squat!

The wide stance squat is a great lesson in true functionality: while it does not outwardly resemble anything you'd normally do in sport or life such as jumping, kicking, or running, in truth, it can improve your functioning in all of these skills far better than more traditional squatting methods that emphasize a narrower stance and increased knee flexion. That's because the wide stance squat promotes obscene levels of strength in what kinesiologists call the "posterior chain" meaning, the low back, glute, and hamstring muscles? the same ones that propel you in the activities just mentioned.

How Much Ya Bench?

OK, OK, this lift takes a lot of flak because it's so widely abused by otherwise talentless dudes at your local fitness center, but let's not be short sighted. The bench press is like an ivy-league education for almost every upper body muscle you've got, and I don't see any of you volunteering to get punched by a 500-pound bencher either. Powerlifters use a super wide grip to maximize leverage, but combat athletes are better served by taking a shoulder-width grip, which is both safer and more specific to punching and striking skills.

Pulling Your Weight

The deadlift really is the least performed, least understood, most maligned barbell exercise in the lifting game. Too bad for those who can't see through the fog of exercise mythology perpetrated by so-called experts and "fitness celebrities" who advise against this lift. To me though, it doesn't get any better: there's a loaded barbell on the floor, and the challenge is to see if you can grab that bar and stand up with it. You can't hide behind supersuits, and you can't shorten your range of motion to brag about how much you can lift. While we're on the subject, what's the deal with the leg press? This device seems to entice every ego-impaired guy who ever lived to load every friggin' plate they can find, wrap their knees with quadruple-ply titanium/nylon radial tire material, ask their training partner to jump on top of the press for extra shock value, and then proceed to rep out over a 2 inch range of motion. Funny though, anyone who can pull 405 from the floor will out-kick, outrun, out-jump, and out-punch any 1600 pound leg presser, hands-down.

If You're Too Fat, Lift Big Weights, and Leave the Wrist Curls to the Bodybuilders

Body composition is an important consideration for all athletes. With few exceptions, fat athletes will improve all aspects of performance more efficiently by dropping excess body fat. And despite what you've been told by Suzanne Somers on the QVC channel, the way you lose fat is by expending more calories than you consume. This is accomplished by eating less, exercising more, or (ideally) both. I'll leave the nutritional aspect of this for another article, but from the exercise angle, let me assure you that squats, deadlifts and bench presses burn FAR more calories than concentration curls and the seated adductor machine.

First Empty Your Cup...

Get out of the more is better, what doesn't kill me makes me stronger mindset. Don't make the strongest link in your chain stronger? make the weakest link stronger. Think more in terms of simplicity and efficiency, and you'll be a better (and healthier) martial artist as a result. And who knows, if you take the advice in this article you may decide to enter a few power meets and become a more diverse athlete. Fighters can learn a lot from lifters, and vice versa.

Charles Staley is known as the "Secret Weapon" by his Olympic and Professional athletes for his ability to see what other coaches miss. When the elite of the sports world want innovative, "out-of-the-box" solutions in their quest to reach World-class levels of performance, they come to Charles.

Coach Staley also publishes a free online newsletter featuring the latest in advanced training techniques as well as a private coaching group of physicians, sport coaches, personal trainers, athletes, and everyday people seeking enhanced physical performance and physique transformation. For more information, please visit or call 800.519.2492.