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Essentials for Martial Arts Conditioning

By: Rev. William Wong, ND, Ph.D., Member World Sports Medicine Hall of Fame and World Martial Arts Hall of Fame.

Hard Combat Conditioning, Real Fitness For Real Fighting.

What type of physical fitness readies us best for hand to hand combat? Long, slow distance running? Short fast sprints? Body weight calisthenics? Weight training? And if so which type? Body building, power lifting, Olympic lifting, strongman?

Before we can develop a conditioning program for the martial arts we need to know the law governing fitness. A physiological law is an incontrovertible truth, proven beyond the point of argument, and in the science of Exercise Physiology there is something called the Law of Specificity. Specificity says that the needs of a particular endeavor need to be met in an exercise program meant to increase conditioning in that activity, or that program will fail to convey any benefit. What are the fitness components of fighting? These stressors need to be specifically prepared for by the conditioning program. The major components of combat conditioning are:

  • Wind
  • Power (strength over time)
  • Shock absorption

Let’s look at each component and see how they fit into a combative art.

Wind. There is no doubt in my mind that the best conditioned athletes of all are college and Olympic wrestlers. If you doubt that try to last through their conditioning drills or do 3, 3 minute rounds with them. If you’re not up to snuff you’ll be a puddle of mush and vomiting up on the mat. At the beginning of college wrestling season you’ll see highly conditioned football players near the end of that season, pucking into buckets at the edge of the wrestling mat as the coaches ready their wrestlers for their season. The footballer’s don’t have the wind, the anaerobic capacity for wrestling. A fight is not an aerobic event, it is an anaerobic event! While freestyle wrestlers do have good aerobic capacity, what makes them great in hand to hand combat fitness is their anaerobic endurance. Anaerobic means with out oxygen. The long slow endurance events like distance running give very good aerobic endurance, this type of work uses oxygen as the primary fuel for the long slow work done by the muscles. This type of fitness is neither strong, or fast and provides for no absorption of shock (either physiological or physical). Look at your average marathoner; he looks like he just stepped out of a Siberian concentration camp; so slight, a good wind can knock him over and as medicine has discovered from so many distance runners falling over dead in the last decade, their hearts can’t take the sudden shock of fast effort against difficult resistance.

It is the short super fast sprint type of work done over and over again in intervals that provides the body with the ability to utilize glycogen (blood sugar) as a primary source of energy. It is anaerobic training that builds the billions of mitochondria in the skeletal muscles needed to turn glycogen into ATP, the sugar everything in our body runs on. The lower the number of muscle mitochondria the lower the ability to fight intensely against resistance and remain muscularly strong and cardiovascularly strong. The mitochondria in our voluntary muscles provide more than 80% of the ATP our bodies needs to run itself. 33% of that ATP is used to run the brain, 33% is used to run the eyes and the remaining 33% is used to keep everything else in the body running!

So in combatives, the most essential form of energy production and energy fitness is anaerobic. Anaerobic fitness gives us one extra protection: Having it shields our hearts from physiological shock. Sudden scares, sudden action, suddenly having to fight is a oxygen depriving shock to the body and especially to the heart. It’s just this type of sudden action and lack of full tissue oxygenation, that causes aerobically well conditioned distance runners to have heart attacks and die. Long slow training causes muscle loss, cardiac and vascular inflammation (the primary cause of heart attacks and ischemic or dry strokes), does not build large numbers of mitochondria in the remaining voluntary muscles and does not build a reserve of ATP to provide for cellular respiration during times of sudden and extreme work. Anaerobic training builds muscle instead of wearing it down. It creates millions and millions of mitochondria and builds a pool of ready ATP to meet a sudden emergency. Most importantly, if done no more than 3 to 4 times a week for 8 to 24 min. this type of training will not significantly increase the inflammation levels found in the heart and blood vessels as aerobic training over 30 min. can cause. (See my article on avoiding a heart attack by doing less aerobic training in the health articles archives of In covering anaerobic work we also somewhat cover shock.

Next we deal with power. The equation for power is: Power = Strength over Time. In other words power involves strong but fast moves. The explosive power clean of Olympic lifting instead of the slow perfect form upright row of bodybuilding. Punching fast and heavy enough to break bones, bricks or blow up internal organs instead of the isometricly strong but slow punches of San Chin kata. For movements with power we need strong muscles that have been trained to move fast against increasing levels of resistance. For these ends the usual (but not exclusive) training formula is: Low reps, low sets, high resistance, expositive movement. Just as the Olympic lifters train. The low reps high weight, slow movement of power lifting won’t generate enough power to impart a crushing blow to an opponent and the medium to high reps with medium to light resistance of bodybuilding might build good looking beach bodies but provides no cross over into the power needed for physical combat (although it might make you look good for movies or kata).

Now before you gym owners out there tell me it can cause injury to train explosively, I’ll answer: Yes, unless you know what you’re doing and how to do it? Olympic lifters don’t clean and jerk using slow perfect form! You don’t get several hundred pounds off the ground and shoved over your head moving like they teach in commercial gyms to avoid injury liability. The entire slow movement with perfect form gig was invented in the late 70’s mostly to lower the rate of injury among the “Joe Average” morons who people most “health” clubs. Serious athletes don’t pay those rules no mind, as long as they’ve had good coaching on proper power techniques.

Now the cross over between Olympic style barbell lifting and fighting is close but not perfect. What is the perfect form of strength training for serious martial artists with a one to one ratio of practical conversion is Kettlebell training. A kettlebell is a cannon ball with a handle welded to it. They come in various sizes and weights and these days the “health” clubs have bastardized the kettlebell craze in the form of group aerobic work outs as useless to martial artists as habitual masturbation would be. Real kettlebell training is not done to music, in synchronized groups, with light weights, many reps or while wearing butt floss. Real kettlebell training is ass kicking, joint wrenching, shock promoting, power building stuff. Real kettlebell training builds aerobic capacity at the same time it builds physical strength and most importantly – POWER.

In the 1970’s or 80’s the Soviet Army did a study where they trained 3 groups of Spetsnaz (Soviet Special Forces) troopers. One group was trained using conventional army physical training consisting of running and calisthenics. Another group added barbell weight lifting to their PT. Group 3 did kettlebell training with no running, no calisthenics and no barbell lifting. After some months on these training routines the researchers did two things: First they administered the standard Soviet Army physical fitness test to all 3 groups. In these tests the kettlebell group did best even though they had not done any of the standard calisthenics or running involved in the test for months. Afterward the researchers sent the troops out for field exercises for months to simulate combat conditions and the effects of same on the fitness levels of the troops. After some months of this simulated war training they were brought back and retested. The calisthenics only group suffered the highest drop in fitness and strength levels, the barbell strength and army PT group was right behind the calisthenics group in their loses. In sharp contrast the kettlebell group had only slight losses in fitness and strength after 3 months away from exercise! They were almost as strong and able after not working out for that time as they had been when first tested!

One other aspect where kettlebells have a direct crossover to fighting, shock absorption. The sudden explosive movement, the stabilization of the bell, flipping the bell round on its handle and then stopping that movement, then at times throwing and recatching the kettelbell all teaches the body to absorb structural shock. So, between training to have the ATP reserves for physiologic shock and training with the kettlebells to absorb structural shock the body is ready to absorb abuse and maintain its energy and ability to continue fighting.

Look at the training workouts of those who take fighting for a living seriously like the:

US Secret Service CAT teams, US Mashals Service, SWAT cops and elite troops here and abroad and you’ll notice their PT programs involve a lot of heavy fast kettlebell work. There are kettlebells that routinely travel with the Secret Service members on Air Force One.

Kettlebell training principles, exercise program DVD’s and seminars for serious martial artists and fitness enthusiasts can be had from strength coach Mike Mahler at: At present Mike has an excellent new e-book “The Aggressive Strength Solution for Size and Strength” and I also recommend his DVD “Kettlebell Solutions For Speed and Explosive Strength”. See the products page of his on line magazine.

Be well and God bless,
Dr. Will Wong


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