An Introduction to Strength and Conditioning for the Martial Arts

Matt Palfrey


One of the biggest problems that I face when speaking to athletes in a variety of sports, and not just martial arts, is that there is an overwhelming misunderstanding when it comes to the concept of strength and conditioning. This is, in a large part, due to the broad nature of most programs and the fact that they are largely inappropriate for athletes. I always stress that your strength and conditioning program should be constructed around your goals – and these goals should generally be performance based.


Now it’s true that you may only do martial arts for fun and not competition. But a greater ability to perform well equals more progression and, ultimately, more enjoyment. Don’t kid yourself and think that there is no place for elite level mindsets in amateur/recreational sports. Set yourself ambitious goals – be they for intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (external) reasons

If you take one thing from this article, let it be the idea that the primary goal of strength and conditioning is to make you a martial artist, it should not be strength and conditioning for it’s own sake. Keep this in mind and you’ll always question what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and whether it is actually fulfilling the goals that you’ve set.

Goal Setting

A great program starts with a set of well defined goals. And a great goals always starts with the end in mind. Ask yourself:

“What is your ultimate goal in martial arts?”

Set yourself both short term and long term goals and be specific. Initially they should be broad e.g.


• I want to attain a particular rank

• I want to be the fastest martial artist around

• I don’t want to get tired, even after five 5 minute rounds of sparring


This should be an exercise in setting not just your goals, but also your dreams. Be ambitious and don’t worry about what others will think of these goals. You need to aim big here – you can break this down into more manageable chunks at a later stage.


Once you have defined some overall goals, it’s then time to start stripping them down into their component parts. What will you need to do to accomplish each of these broad goals? This is the stage when you’ll need to examine the strength and conditioning components inherent within these goals. For example:


“Where are the weaknesses in my strength and conditioning?”

“How do these weaknesses affect my ability to perform and improve?”

“Will turning these weaknesses into strengths actually make any difference to my fighting/practice?”


This last question is important to maintain a sense of purpose – don’t waste time with training that won’t directly help you. And, by directly help, I mean:


• Improve your ability to fight

• Improve your ability to learn how to fight (skill facilitation)

• Improve your longevity and injury resistance


Performance Based Strength and Conditioning


It is important, when looking at any sport, to analyse the required physical attributes needed for optimum performance. This will of course be dependent upon your own style of fighting but there are definite common themes across all martial arts. Martial artists generally need to be able to:


• Move with speed and agility

• Have the flexibility to both apply, and escape from, submissions

• Apply power in a variety of different ways

• Have the level of conditioning that enables them to maintain composure under pressure


Where your own strength and conditioning is concerned, I urge you to look at both strengths and weaknesses. Will improving a particular “weak” physical attribute help to improve your overall ability? Or perhaps further strengthening a “strong” physical attribute is your key to success. A word to the wise: very few will ever truly be as rounded as they want to be. Consider yourself as a specialist if you think it will improve your overall performance.


It’s also very important to be able to “test” any component of your strength and conditioning program. Do you really know whether what you’re doing is making a positive difference. Consider including standardised testing periods for all of the elements in your programme and cross-reference these with your martial arts performance.


A Return To Functional Training?


The current ‘buzz’ in strength and conditioning is functional training. Every man and his dog is talking about how we need to be following a particular set of exercises and, if you’re not involving a stability ball or wobble board you might not be engaging your core. Don’t listen to these people. Functional training is always a subjective term. Is kneeling on a stability ball functional for you? This is a question that only you can answer.


Analyse the physical demands of not only your martial art, but also how you compete. You will perform in a certain way and there will be a set of physical attributes that support this. And, this can vary dramatically between individuals.


And function works on a broad spectrum – it’s not just a yes or no answer.


Bodybuilding and MMA


While I’m not a fan of following bodybuilding principles and programs when it comes to strength and conditioning for martial arts it’s important to distinguish between the variables involved. This means that you should consider each exercise you are doing and how you are doing it. The anti-bodybuilding crowd will always frown if you include any kind of isolation work and they will practically have a heart attack if you start doing curls. But the concept of goal setting should remain a constant – if an exercise will lead to an improvement in your athletic ability then do it and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Be honest though – is it really improving your performance?




Strength and conditioning for martial arts is exactly that – it’s specific to your martial art.  Continually question why you are following a particular programme and make adjustments to ensure that your programme stays relevant to your overall goals.


• You should always be able to justify what is in your strength and conditioning programme

• You should always know whether it is working or not


This article was adapted from an article originally featured on Sherdog.


Author Bio 

Matt Palfrey is a strength and conditioning coach, author, blogger, Health and Wellbeing Advisor for BMI Healthcare and the founder of a number of health and fitness brands. He has a particular fondness for sandbag training – the low tech, high results training method.  He has kindly agreed to support Bushido Hombu with his knowledge by way of regular blog posts based upon questions that we raise, so feel free to contact Kevin Archibald if you have some specific questions.

You can find him blogging at or at

You might also be interested in checking out his book Sandbag Training For MMA & Combat Sports

Quick Links

© All Rights Reserved.