Foundation Conditioning Part 1: The Four Pillars of Strength

*This is the first part of a series of articles on basic conditioning for martial arts. For the introduction to the series click here


"I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds"

Henry Rollins.

I was a teenager waiting to fight at a taekwondo tournament when I heard a fellow student grumble, “This isn’t right, having to face some of these monsters. The whole point of learning martial arts is so that lightweights can overcome bigger enemies. These people shouldn’t be learning this stuff”. I often scratched my head at self-defence seminars seeing hulking giants scraping their knuckles along the ground and wondered what on Earth they needed to learn to feel safer. For a long time now, since the martial arts have become more readily available to the general public, students have been sold on the idea that small can overcome big by having access to superior fighting knowledge. It’s an attractive idea and not without truth. I have seen much smaller and lighter fighters defeat much heavier and stronger adversaries enough times to validate the importance we place on intelligence, skill, experience and attitude. However, when all the odds are even the old adage that good and big will always defeat good and small often crushes many of our romantic notions about David and Goliath. Like it or not genetics do play a huge role in our entire athletic performance and strength is a massive decider when it comes to combat sports. To put it simply, there is a reason why there are weight categories.

Physical strength comes down to the cross-sectional area of muscle fibres employed to exert force on an object and the intensity needed for the recruitment of those fibres. Individuals with an inherently higher proportion of type II fast twitch fibres will have a relatively higher success rate at moving the object than those with the type I slow twitch fibres. However,, individuals with more type I muscle fibres have inherently more physical endurance. Ultimately genetics will provide you with certain limitations, but few people will come anywhere near training up to those parameters. However, in short, when it comes to discussing strength we are talking about the development of type II muscle fibres. The martial artist needs these in order to deliver power in his strikes, execute throws or to physically control an adversary for short periods. Strength conditioning goes back a long way in the military and sporting worlds, which often overlapped. There is substantial evidence provided by ancient Greece, Rome, India and China of resistance-based training. Many methods have survived to this day. Some are practiced because they have a traditional or nostalgic cultural value. Others have been “rediscovered” and are enjoying novelty value. However, there are also those that have stayed because they have yet to be bested. Professional coaches keep going back to them when they know they need to develop honest strength.

These four exercises are the foundation for effective raw strength development. The majority of other functional exercises – although not necessarily all – are extensions of these two pushing/pressing and two pulling exercises. Two of them target the lower body and two of them focus on the upper body. They are compound movements that, between them, employ all the major muscle groups. From the many places I have trained, the many coaches I have learnt from and the large amount of material I have consulted I have formed the opinion that the correct execution of these four basic exercises is required for the overall development of strength.


Overview: One of the three canonical powerlifting exercises, the deadlift utilizes virtually all the major muscle groups. This is perhaps the most natural lifting exercise known to man or woman. The exercise primarily develops all the muscles of the hamstrings and quadriceps plus all the muscles of the back, especially the latissimus dorsi and the trapezius. The exercise also places a considerable amount of pressure on the abdominal muscles and the forearm muscles for stability. The gluteus muscle group is recruited during the initial stage of the lift and even the pectoral, deltoid and triceps have strong supporting roles to play.

Application: Whether a fighter needs to fight his way up from the top position on the ground or throw his opponent, he needs the raw power developed by the deadlift. The exercise pits the fighter directly against gravity in its purest form. Suplexes and many slams involve the deadlift form. For a literal example of how a deadlift can be applied have a look at “Rampage” Jackson’s now legendary defensive knockout against Ricardo Arona’s triangle leg choke. Only the medicine ball slam – where you squat, lift and raise the ball above your head before reversing the whilst throwing the ball hard on the ground – comes close to the deadlift’s replication of this action.

Form: The exercise, in its most basic and orthodox form, involves the lifter squatting in a bent over position to pick up a loaded bar until he reaches an upright stance. Beginning from a “dead weight” position, there is no inertia, no elastic force to aid the lifter between each repetition. Injuries – lower back injuries in particular – never seem to be too far away from the deadlift. Evolution did not give humans particularly good backs when compared to our fellow apes. Back problems are a very common complaint without undergoing training exercises that put a lot of pressure on this area. Don’t get me wrong, deadlifts are excellent for developing very strong back muscles that will help prevent back problems. It is important to ensure that the exercise is not performed in a jerking motion, which typically causes lower back injuries. The lifter should start with both feet flat on the ground and under the bar, knees bent in a squatting position and the back should be as straight as possible as the lifter grips the bar with his arms locked out. Keep your shoulders back and your back as straight as possible as you lift. If you want to add something to the lift try performing a straight up shrug, squeezing your trapezius muscles at the top of the lift, and hold for two seconds before lowering the shoulders. Maintain the same form as you put the weight down.

Variations and Related Exercises:

One-Legged Dead Lift –  The one-legged deadlift is performed by having the lifter raise a straight leg backwards as the front knee bends into a lunging position. This can be undertaken as a bodyweight and a weighted exercise, often using a kettlebell or a dumbbell.

Tyre Flip – The tyre flip is an excellent all over body explosive exercise that has the lifter drive through the object he is lifting as he would with a lowline takedown or when performing a knee strike. Many tractor/monster truck tyre flips are performed using an “ugly” deadlift or sumo lift form. This is incorrect. You will probably get away with flipping tyres down the lower weight scale using this bad technique, but you will be unable move the heavier tyres. Besides, it places unnecessary pressure on the biceps tendon . It also works a different plain of motion and will not get you the full benefits a tractor tyre flip can give you.

Farmer’s Walk – The farmer’s walk takes the deadlift and, well, walks with it. You lift the load using the trap-bar technique and then walk to a designated place. Being derived directly from a natural workplace action, there is a wide variety of different types of weight equipment you can use, from dumbbells to filled Jerry cans to bags full of rocks. Likewise, the exercise can be varied with step-ups, footwork drills around agility markers and, with considerably lighter weights, box jumps. This is a very large deviation from the deadlift, but the motion is there at the beginning and end of the exercise. This variation really engages the core muscles and is excellent for developing all-round stability.

Trap-Bar Lift – The trap-bar, as the name indicates is designed to focus on the trapezius muscles. This might be the best way you can perform a deadlift, as the load is not biased to the front. In fact, if you lift a heavy tyre from the inside using this form you get a well-rounded (no pun intended) lift. The lift hits all the major muscle groups from various different angles.

Romanian “Deadlift” – So-named after Romanian power lifter multiple world record holder Nicu Vlad performed this action back in 1990, this is not, technically speaking, a “dead” lift. Quite simply the lift is performed using elastic energy. The lifter resumes the lift without letting go of the bar. The bar does not touch the ground.

Hack Squat – Named after the great wrestler, George Hackenschmidt, this variation is arguably a type of deadlift. The barbell is positioned behind the lifter’s legs.

Making it Specific: The sprawl/deadlift combination is my favourite specific variation on this exercise. It should not be attempted before both exercises are down pat. The transitional period requires a lot of stability around the lower back and abdominals, and lifters should be mindful of this when performing the exercise. I would advise using a much lower weight than what you would use for normal variations of the deadlift and to aim for higher repetitions. This exercise is excellent for training takedown defences. Because the deadlift is such a natural lifting motion, there is an almost limitless supply of objects you can lift. Filled beer-kegs, heavy bags (which you can slam) and other cylindrical objects are perfect for performing bear-hug deadlifts. This exercise has a partial application to waist-lock takedowns and supplexes .


Overview: When it comes to developing dragging actions you cannot equal the pull-up. Leave those lat pull-down machines alone and get your sorry carcass over to nearest heavy weight supporting overhead beam. This exercise is favoured by just about anyone who is honest about developing their back muscles. The largest muscles of the back, the latisimus dorsi, are hit first and foremost, but the action also works all the muscles of the arms hard, right down to the grip in the hands. The deltoids, trapezius and pectorals are engaged to a lesser extent, but the real surprise muscle group that gets targeted are the abdominals. A lot of people want what pull-ups can give you, but fewer people are willing to take them on. Along with the squat-rack the pull-up bar is often one of the most under-used pieces of training equipment in most gyms.

Application: If you grapple or want to defend against a grappler you need to do pull-ups. It’s that simple. The pull-up may not have a direct application, but working this exercise will strengthen any action that requires you draw, drag or resist an antagonist that has you in the clinch range.

Form: The pull-up is a fairly safe exercise. The body must be kept rigid as the arms are engaged in the pulling action. Avoid using the lower body to get the momentum. If you cannot pull yourself up then have a spot give you support. This will keep your form and stop you from creating bad habits. A pull-up should be performed at full-range; that means lowering your body down at full arm’s length and then pulling yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Watch out for jerky motions often performed by those who don’t do the full exercise and can put the biceps at risk of tearing. To take your legs out of the pull-up, cross your ankles. Try crossing them at the front to engage the abdominal muscles more. A stage further than this is to lock the legs out in front of you at 90 degrees. If you feel you are doing too many repetitions of this exercise to develop strength then just add weights. This can be done in a variety of ways, all worth trying out, to hit the muscles in different ways. Wearing ankle weights or a weights vest is perhaps the easiest way to add to the load, so make sure you also try hanging plates from your belt or wearing a weighted bag to work stability more during the pull-up.

Variations: There are a huge number of different ways to perform a pull-up, mainly defined by the way the bar is gripped. Chin-ups – First of all, we have its more popular (and far easier) relative, the chin-up. This exercise uses the underhand grip, which has the palms facing towards you when you perform the action and is best for developing the biceps.

Inverted Rows – Not a pull-up, as such, but this to the pull-up what the press-up is the chest-dip. You position a bar above you and pull the top part of your body off the ground, keeping the backs of your heels planted on the ground. Raise the bar as you increase the number of repetitions. This is an execellent exercise to either build yourself up to performing pull-ups or as a burnout when you cannot perform anymore pull-up repetitions.

Pull-up/Chin-up Hybrid – There is also the overhand/underhand staggered grip, which is a type of pull-up/chin-up hybrid.

Vertical/Neautral Hand Grip – Then we have the vertical hand grip, which can be performed on a piece of equipment that favours this action. Roman rings, two parallel bars or a piece of flexible material like a towel or gi top are ideal for this type of pull-up. It targets the chest and muscles in addition to the lats and biceps. 

Commando Pull-ups – This is an advanced version of the neutral grip pull-up. You use a staggered grip in this instance.

Thumb-in Grip (Bear's Paw/Monkey Grip) – You can also grip the bar with your thumb on the same side as your fingers to work your grip more. I often found I had to use this grip when the only piece of equipment I had available was a thick overhead wooden beam in a barn.

Kipping Pull-up  –  This gymnastics inspired exercise is not a favourite of mine. It was made famous through the "Cross Fit" franchise and is supposedly to the pull-up what the box jump is to the squat. The object is to use the legs and trunk together with the arms to create enough momentum to get the chin over a pull-up bar. Advocates of this exercise argue that it should not be viewed as a type of pull-up, but rather as a cardiovascular exercise, designed for creating explosiveness and aerobic endurance. However, it is often performed by people who cannot do pull-ups or any reasonable number of repetitions. I do not feel this is a good training strategy. Not only can it harm muscles and joints that are better strengthened through doing inverted rows, pull-ups, knee lifts and other hanging exercises, but it promotes bad form for pull-ups that might not be easily overcome by a beginner. There are far better exercises that can be performed to gain the benefits promoted by the kipping pull-up.

Explosive Pull-up – Not for the beginner!This has to rank alongside the one-arm variations and the levers at the harder end of the pull-up scale. It involves pulling up, leaving the bar at the top of the exercise, clapping your hands and then catching it to repeat. If you want cardio in your pull-up routine then look no futher.

Other Pieces of Equipment – I learnt how to do pull-ups when I was about 12 or 13 on an old trapeze bar set up in one of our sheds. Not being the most stable of structures I learnt the exercise the hard way. Subsequently when I first did a pull-up on a normal bar I was shocked to discover how many I could do. Since then I have seen many different pieces of equipment used for pull-ups. This includes martial arts keikogi jackets, towels and car inner tubes to promote gripping strength as well as straps, which are commonly used in circus aerial acts. One of the most difficult ways to perform a pull-up exercise has to be the Roman rings. These require a completley unassisted grip and really work the arms independently, putting greater strain on the stabilizing muscles.

Climbs – Climbing a rope, without the using the legs, engages the same muscles and is a close relative of the pull-up. It is executed using a very narrow grip and with each arm working independently.

One Arm Pull-ups – All exercises can be performed using one arm. These are highly advanced variations that begin with one-handed assisted chin-ups. You can then work your way up to one-handed unassisted pull-ups.

Levers – Levers (confusinglly known in the circus world as "planches", which is term gymnastics use to describe an exercise where the whole body is held paralel to the ground) are close relatives of the pull-up derived from gymnastics. They are an excellent way to  take your pull-ups further. They strengthen stablizing muscles, aiding posture. They can work virtually all the major muscle groups and are also good for increasing upper body flexibility. Essentially there are two types of lever – the front lever and the back lever – and everything else is a variation on these two exercises with the exception of the flag pole, which is a type of side lever, and the dragon flag, which involves gripping a vertical surface behind the head and lowering the body fixed in a rigid position. Levers can be performed as a static pose, which is excellent for developing strong stabilizing muscles, required for both striking and grappling, or as an active exercise. In its purest form, the front lever has the body held in a horizontal position with the face looking up. A back lever rotates the body through 180 degrees and has the face looking down. You can vary grips with both levers. They can can performed on any of the equipment used for pull-ups with the exception of the flag pole, which requires a vertical bar or substitute.

Making it Specific: Those who practice martial arts which involve the use of jackets, such as judo, might want to consider using the aforementioned keikogi to perform pull-ups. A really specific type of pull-up of this nature involves gripping the gi lapels in a crossover hold, as you would perform a choke or strangle, and try to stay stable as you haul your chin over the bar. This is a particularly difficult variation that takes a lot of control to stop spinning as you go up. Another variation for grapplers is to hook your wrists over the bar and hold a ball in each hand. If we take rope climbing as a type of pull-up, then I also strongly recommend heavy bag climbing. Obviously the bag needs to be strong enough to support your weight and if you can hang it from a sturdy beam with a ton-weight strap then so much the better. Put a soft mat underneath too in case of accidents.

(This picture with suggested routine supplied by martial arts conditioning coach, Benjamin Myers)


Overview: If you have little time to work out, go to the legs. And if there is one legs exercise to do it is the squat, which can be done as a bodyweight exercise too. The classic weighted back squat, it is said, works everything below the bar. Squats primarily engage all the muscles of the legs in a big way, but the gluteus, quadriceps and hamstring muscles get the lion’s share. In addition to them the back and abdominal muscles are also actively engaged, and the even the arms and shoulders play a minor stabilizing role.

Application: The squat is at the root of so much that is done in both striking and grappling. The squat is a part of many fighting techniques. Martial arts fitness and flexibility expert Thomas Kurz has this to say about the squat’s direct application: “You squat to evade a punch or a high kick and to hit the opponent's knee or groin, to do a leg takedown, a shoulder throw, or a hip throw. When jumping, you squat (albeit not fully) on both legs or on one leg prior to take-off. In the thrust front kick with the ball of the foot, the pattern of joint movements of the kicking leg is similar to that of the squat—simultaneous hip and knee extension, with ankle plantar flexion.”

In addition to all this, the squat pretty much forms what Olympic wrestlers refer to as the Japanese stance. This is the stabile posture used to fend off takedowns. To train takedown defence you need to train squats.

Form: The squat involves the lifter lowering their body into a seated position and then returning to an upright position. As with any standard lift it is important to keep the back straight and the core firm throughout the exercise. The classical back squat is performed by placing the barbell across the deltoids and trapezius muscles first before the squat motion commences. The arms are bent and the barbell is balanced in the hands either side. Next the lifter typically bends their knees to at least a 90 degree angle before returning to the upright position.

The squat is not without its critics and this point of the exercise – the depth of the knee bend – that gets most of the flack. Some have argued it places too much stress on the ligaments and tendons in the knees, and studies dating back to the 1950s convinced the US military to ban them. Controversy rages today about how much the squat can potentially damage the knee joint by over-stretching the ligaments. Supporters of the exercise argue that keeping the toes pointing in the same direction as the knees when squatting helps to eliminate possible problems. The toes should point slightly out rather than straight forward. The knee should always track the toes. It is also important to keep the weight evenly distributed and with a firm core, as over-flexing the torso can lead to the herniation of spinal disks. It is also argued that the lower back comes under unnecessary pressure when performing the box squat variation – an exercise designed to cause a great overload on the lift by having the lifter sit down on a box as they squat.

When using weights it is important not to descend too rapidly. However, it should be performed as an explosive movement upwards and I also like to add a calm raise at the end to make those particular muscles more. This is like a weighted version of the Hindu squat (see below).


Goblet Squat – So-named because of the hand positioning. The lifter holds a small weighted object – like a dumbbell or kettlebell – in their hands. They then squat down until their elbows touch their thighs. This exercise is taught as a good starting exercise for squats to ensure correct form.

Box Squat – As mentioned earlier, this squat is performed by sitting down in the middle of the squat. It eliminates the inertia in the exercise. A lot of lifters use it to refine their whole squatting form. From a martial arts perspective we can use it to increase explosiveness from different positions by setting the seats at different heights.

Zercher Squat – Not to be confused with the front squat, this variation has the barbell carried in the crook of the elbows. It works the deltoids, biceps, forearms, trapezius and pectoral muscles more. Martin Rooney, of “Training for Warriors” fame, favours it as part of his takedown defence training routine. Todd Bumgardner of “Beyond Strength Performance” says this about the Zercher squat: “…this is one of the most practical variations for mixed martial arts and the grappling sports. By placing the weight in the crease of your arms you are carrying the weight lower, more realistic to scooping your opponent for a take down or throw.”

Front Squat – The front squat has the barbell held in front of the lifter, resting on the shoulders with the arms crossed to hold it in position. This variation aims to put more load onto the quadriceps.

.  Strength and fitness trainer Dean Somerset of argues that the front squat is a safer, more effective and more functional exercise than the conventional back squat:

“For dudes like me with low back injuries, using a front squat variation makes sense as it reduces the horizontal force arm distance from the axis of rotation in the L3-5 region and the resistance point at the shoulders. The axis of rotation at the hip joint and the centre of gravity are closer together, which limits the amount of torque being applied to the spine and reduces any kind of shear force it will feel, and requires the exerciser to stand more upright than leaning forward, again reducing stress on the lower back.

"Add to that the fact that most of the real-world things we’ll have to push with our legs will be in front of us instead of behind us, and it makes front squats a more “functional” exercise for developing strength. Most people can find a way to cheat a back squat to use their hips more than their quads, which means it won’t be as complete of a leg developer as a front squat, and since most people out there tend to have weaker quads it makes sense to train them if you want them to get stronger.”


This particular article prompted Dave Hedges of Wild Geese Fitness Training in Dublin, Ireland to offer an argument against Somerset’s one that also praised front squats for a different reason. Like many coaches who really does teach functional training methods – as in methods of training tailored to improving a person’s attributes in their given physical activity – he has come to loathe the term “functional” being bandied about as a simple answer. Most genuine functional fitness coaches will first ask the question of any exercise being promoted as functional, “functional for what?” In his refreshingly honest blog post Dave had this to say about the front squat:


“The most functional version is the one that best suits the athletes wants and needs.


“ Personally I prefer the front squat. Here’s why:


“1 – I learned it first.

In fact the first lift I was ever taught was the power clean, so the squat was a natural progression. For years after I never had access to a squat rack, so if I wanted to do a barbell squat I’d power clean the bar into position.


“2 – I have low back and hip injuries from other activities which are aggravated by the back squat.

The front squat keeps me more upright so I feel less stress in the low back. Back squats are good for me right up until a point where they go from nice to evil, and that transition point is at a very low weight, around 100kg’s and the next day I can’t walk and have to call my physio. And that’s with good technique!


“3 – I have a very strong upper back.

I guess this goes back to the power clean.


“As a coach I prefer the front squat for the simple reason that it is relatively self coaching and also far easier to bail if it goes wrong.


“If you lean forwards during a Front Squat, the bar simply falls off you. If you need to bail, the bar simply falls off you.

The Back Squat is a different animal in this respect, you really need a good spotter and/or a rack to perform these safely.


“That said I have several guys who simply cannot front squat.

Usually this is down to existing postural issues, often shoulder problems (rampant in the martial arts community) or lack of spinal mobility.


“The guys with spinal issues are forced into extension by the back squat, but are held in flexion on the front squat.

I find some of the martial arts guys, particularly in the striking community have shortened chest muscles. Place a bar on their front and you exacerbate this issue and they instantly go into kyphosis. This is bad.


“On the other hand, open them up with some band pulls, band overhead squats etc, then stick a bar on their back and they are forced into extension, they MUST keep their chest held open and high.

Yes, the weight must be kept a little lighter, until their body opens up, but so what? The back squat, for these guys, is fixing their posture, opening their spine and rib cage and generally making them more awesome.

If we need extra leg strength we can go to split squats and other single leg variations with weights held at their sides.”

Freehand Squat – These bodyweight squats can be performed in a wide variety of ways. Typically the arms are either cross or stretched out in front. However, some exercisers like to move the arms to generate momentum.

Hindu Squat – This is a variation of a bodyweight squat where the heels are raised off the floor.

One-Legged Squat – Also known as the pistol squat, this exercise can be performed with or without weights. As the name describes, one leg is raised off the ground as the other leg performs the squatting action. This is great for developing balance and greater stability. To increase flexibility try stretching your arm to an outstretched leg as you squat.

Overhead Squat – The lifter holds his barbell over his head in a locked snatch position and then performs the squat motion.

Jumping Squat – This plyometric variation has the exerciser leave the floor with a jump as they reach the upright position. This exercise has received some criticism due to the amount of impact placed on the knees.

Face the Wall Squat – This exercise is designed to strengthen the vertebrae tissue. The exerciser faces the wall almost touching it with his nose, knees and toes.

Sissy Squat – Here the lifter rises up on the balls of their feet and performs the squatting action whilst leaning back with their torso flat. Dumbbells are held behind the legs or a plate is held at the front. This is often done with one hand used to balance the squatter.

Drop Squat – Another plyometric exercise. This time the exerciser jumps from a normal erect posture to a squatting stance and drops their hands to the ground. This is ideally performed on an agility ladder and is a safer alternative to the jump squat.

Sumo Squat – Like the drop squats, the sumo squat drops the hands between the legs. However, in this instance the lifter has a small weight in their hand and is standing with his feet on two boxes. The exercise is designed for hitting the gluteus muscles.

Lunges – Lunges are often no more than variations of squats. The split squat consists of the exerciser stepping out with a bent leg and the rear leg dipping to the floor. The Bulgarian squat is performed in a similar fashion, but places the back foot on a raised platform. The locked back leg variation can be performed as a stretching exercise with variations of its own.

Making it Specific: Try performing freehand/bodyweight squats in a way that pushes the body forward. Begin in a staggered stance rather than a parallel one and drive forward. Speaking to “Fighting Fit” magazine, Institute of Human Performance CEO and UFC conditioning coach J C Santana said: “Squatting with a barbell on your back is an artificial training position made by man… As a matter of fact, all squatting, lunging and leg pressing exercises are usually performed to enhance some kind of forward thrusting or locomotive-based activity. In that sense the most functional and natural leg exercise we know is car pushing. The best kind of exercise to develop that forward thrusting or locomotion strength is truck pushing, pulling, although sleds, prowlers and smaller vehicles are also fine”. To make lunges or split squats more specific try performing the motion as a knee pin by stepping out 45 degrees and performing the guard clearing motion. It is arguable that the entry for low line takedowns like the single and double leg takedown is a type of squat, and therefore performing these motions either as a bodyweight exercise or with a resistance band is a very fight specific way to practice the squat.

Chest Dips

Overview: “What no bench press!” I hear I you cry. I am certainly not against using the bench press, but the foundation exercise for the area it works has to be the chest dip. You need to be able to lift your own bodyweight first before you start messing about with extra weights. When it comes to working your upper-body in a pushing motion there is no exercise like the chest dip. The exercise provides a full range of movement and tension is maintained throughout the set. The chest dip develops the pectoral muscles, the abdominal muscles, the triceps, the trapezius and the deltoids.

Application: Anywhere you require an upper-body pushing action you are fortified by the chest dip. In fact, most of these actions are mimicked by the chest dip in some form. A double palm shove and all straight hand strikes are enhanced by chest dips. If you are grounded and in the top position, the chest dip gives you the power to push away from the person beneath you and control them using your upper-body.

Form: The chest dip is typically performed on a dip bar. You begin by standing on a step in order to raise head and shoulders above the bar’s grip handles. Then you grip the bar and push yourself clear of the step. Keep your torso flat and your ankles crossed when you perform a chest dip. Try to make your body as close to horizontal as you can thereby making your chest work as much as possible.


Weighted – Like the pull-up, more strength can be developed by simply adding weights to the exercise. Usually the best way to do this is by hanging plates from a weights belt.

Roman Rings – Like the pull-up the chest dip can be performed on Roman rings. Again, it works each limb independently and makes the whole exercise a lot harder and more functional.

Press-ups – The press-up is the chest dip’s far more famous relative. It also has a seemingly numerous amount of variations. There are clapping press-ups, jumping press-ups and 360 spinning press-ups to develop explosiveness, press-ups on the knuckles traditionally used to condition the fighter’s hands, press-ups on the finger-tips, press-ups on the wrists, close press-ups for the triceps, arched back close press-us for even more tricep development, Hindu press-ups for more deltoid development, wide press-ups and alligator press-ups to work the outer pectoral muscles and latisimus dorsi, and fingers facing out press-ups for more pressure on the biceps. For more loading there are one arm press-ups and handstand press-ups. I have read several articles that tell you to use machines in order to get strong enough to do the dips if you are unable to lift your own bodyweight in this manner. Unfortunately this will just get into pushing weights in fixed grooves. It is much better to use press-ups and their many variations in order to work your way up to using a chest dip bar, which you should try with a spot helping to bear some of your weight.

Triceps Dips – This is the reverse action of the chest dip. You perform the dips with you back facing the dip bar. This exercise puts greater pressure on the arms, as the name indicates, and also works the deltoids too. This exercise can also be performed with your feet on the floor, using another elevated surface such as a chair to push yourself up.

Making it Specific: The press-up and strike exercise perfectly mimics making distance with one hand and striking with another. Looking at the reverse angle for press-ups – the bench-press – there is the single arm dumbbell press, which also mimics punching.

(Thanks again to Benjamin Myers for this picture and the suggested routine)

Final Thoughts

Despite the martial arts ideal of the weedy looking kid beating up the big bully, the reality is that skill alone is not always enough. Being capable lifting more weight is going to only enhance your ability to throw. Being strong enough to hold more weight is only going to improve your chances of withstanding another person’s efforts to unbalance you. Sprinters have very well developed fast twitch muscle fibres and are proportionately more muscular than long distance runners. Type II muscle fibres are clearly what is required for the explosiveness needed for well-timed strikes. Having said this, we are not training to be champion power-lifters, strongmen and certainly not bodybuilders. This isn’t to say that such sports cannot be trained in addition to your martial arts or self-defence training, but you need to decide the purpose of your workout. Do not fall prey to the “Buy-Product Myth” and think that your bodybuilding routine will automatically benefit your martial arts training. As Geoff Thompson points out in his “Weight Training for the Martial Artist”, the last thing you want to do is become a “lat spreader”. Disproportionately large latisimis dorsi forces the arms out and exposes the ribcage to attacks. Likewise overly large quadriceps inhibits footwork.

As with most physical conditioning, training should be kept short and intensive. Too much time is wasted during weight lifting sessions. See my article “Me versus Me” for my views on wasting time in the gym. To get maximum benefits out of strength training, as described in this article, your workouts want to be no more than 40 minutes and you can complete them in as little as 20 minutes. When you train, you are there to work. Your mandate is to step outside your comfort zone as quickly as possible. Once you are warm it is time to start handling the weights that will challenge you and to stay on them.

The objective of the martial arts strength trainer is to have measurably stronger techniques enhanced by an improved physicality. This is the measure we set above the weight we can shift, the amount of repetitions we can do or what our mirror image does to our sense of self-esteem. So, are you hitting harder? Are you feeling stronger when someone grapples you? Good. Then keep on lifting.

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