Knowing that I have authored a soon to be released book on conditioning principles and methods for martial arts and combat sports (The Science of Martial Arts Training), a colleague recently sent me anfrom a new book calledWeight Training for Martial Artistsby Jennifer Lawler. Lawler’s credentials include a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a graduate degree in English.
I was appalled by some of the absolute nonsense expressed in this excerpt. If the rest of the book is any reflection of the excerpt, Ms. Lawler has managed to set the martial arts world back at least a few decades.
Having spent my entire adult life trying to dispel some of the very notions that Lawler perpetuates in her book, I decided to write a critique for Mesomorphosis. What follows are Lawler’s recommendations and my comments. Not a martial artist? No worries- there’s plenty of humor here for everyone, regardless of athletic discipline.
Note:Lawler’s comments are in red text.
How Weight Training Works
Whenever you lift weights, you are actually tearing down the muscle fibers in the targeted area.
Not always. This depends on what type of lifting is performed. Optimal lifting technique for martial artists should emphasize the neural contribution to strength increases, so as to minimize muscle breakdown, and subsequent soreness and stiffness.
As those muscle fibers heal, they become thicker and stronger. Therefore, the more weight you lift, the more you stimulate your muscles to grow thicker and stronger.
Actually, extremely heavy weights do not tend to make muscles thicker at all, but only stronger. Powerlifters and weightlifters, who must get as strong as possible without gaining weight (otherwise they would move into the next higher weight class) tend to average between 1-3 repetitions per set. This way, the total volume, and hence mechanical workload, remains small, and the hypertrophy response is minimized.
If you lift less weight, you will still stimulate muscle teardown and regrowth, but it won’t be as obvious.That’s why many people choose this last option: lifting less weight equals toned but not bulky muscles.
As stated above, this is incorrect. For most people, sets of between 8-12 repetitions have the most potential for increasing hypertrophy. If you’re an athlete, here’s a tip: every time you look at your hand, remember that the reason God gave you five fingers is to remind you that five is the most reps you should ever do in any single set. If you want more work, do more sets, not more reps.
Your goal on every set of exercises is to work your muscle or muscle group so that the last repetition is difficult to do.
Incorrect. For the development of speed strength, which is a core motor quality for martial artists, the weight must be moved in an acellerative manner. This can’t be accomplished in the presence of fatigue. The protocol described above is more appropriate for hypertrophy, not strength.
For people looking to build a lot of bulk, the general rule of thumb is to work the muscle to failure, which means it simply cannot move any more weight without a rest. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should do twenty-five repetitions of an exercise until you get tired. This is unlikely to stimulate muscle growth. It is generally accepted that toning and defining muscles requires between eight and fifteen repetitions of each exercise. Ten to twelve is usually thought of as ideal.
The author likes to use words like “tone” and “bulk,” which have no real meaning. Muscle can only get bigger or smaller, and using the methods described immediately above, they will probably get bigger. Most martial artists (in fact, mostathletes) need to get stronger, not bigger.
This means that you should lift enough weight so that it is very challenging to complete that last repetition. As you grow stronger, you will add additional weight so that the last repetition always remains a challenge to complete. A program that follows these guidelines is excellent for muscle endurance,which means your muscles can perform difficult tasks for longer periods of time. For a martial artist, muscle endurance is as important as stamina or cardiovascular endurance.
For most martial artists, speed strength and short term, anaerobic endurance are the key motor qualities.
To produce a stronger, more muscular look, you want to limit your repetitions to between five and nine, with about six being ideal.
I recently went on a hike in the Valley of Fire National Park, about an hour north of Las Vegas. During a break for lunch, a female friend of mine mentioned that she had just benched pressed 135 pounds for the first time ever. Another member of our party, a successful artist with an advanced academic degree, asked what the World record was for the bench press. When I replied that it was something over 400 pounds for women, he replied “Jeez, why would you want to take it that far?” I quickly jumped in and responded “”Why would you climb Mt. Everest, or try to earn your first million by age 30?” He then said “What I mean is, why would you want to get so big?”
I was just dumbfounded that this man had no ability to distinguish between being strong and looking like a “brick shithouse.” Apparently, Ms. Lawler has not yet made that distinction, either. Perhaps she might be enlightened to take a peek at my client, Canadian Jr. Champion powerlifter who benches 240 and squats over 400 at a bodyweight of 155.
Again, your last repetition should be very difficult to do.This means that you’re lifting a much heavier weight than if you were doing ten or twelve repetitions. This stimulates your muscles to grow bigger and thicker. However, lifting heavier weights fewer times doesn’t increase your muscle endurance, so unless a really powerful body is your goal, most martial artists should aim for the ten-to-twelve rep range.
For athletes, a “really powerful body” IS the goal. The protocol that Lawler recommends will mostly encourage hypertrophy at the expense of flexibility and speed strength.
If you really want to add some bulk, you can train like body builders and power lifters do, and that is to lift as much weight as possible for only one or two repetitions.
Again, the author has her facts wrong: powerlifters tend to train like this, but bodybuilders typically train with sets of between 8-12 repetitions (the same protocol Lawler recommends for martial artists).
Although this is not recommended for martial artists, as too much bulk can indeed slow you down and impair your flexibility, it can be a good strength test to try every now and then.
It is common to see competitive bodybuilders perform splits onstage these days. So, hypertrophy does not necessarily decrease flexibility- good thing, since anyone who follows the author’s advice is likely to gain weight.
Lifting Weights Correctly
Each repetition of an exercise should be done smoothly and evenly without bouncing or jerking movements. It should take about the same amount of time to lift the weight as to lower it.
For speed strength objectives, the weight should be accelerated during the concentric phase. The above advice is more appropriate for bodybuilding, which appears to be the author’s primary influence.
There should be no pause between lifting and lowering the weight. Doing so can be very stressful on your joints. Most experts believe that each exercise should take about four or five seconds to perform. At first, you might count as you perform each lift until you find a good pace.
As my colleague Pavel Tsatsouline points out in his excellent book , our joints have specialized receptors which respond to heavy loading. “If you freak at the thought of putting some weight on your joints” Pavel explains, “expect your joints to remain weak.” People often forget that it is not stress per se that is damaging, butexcessivestress that is the problem.
This reminds me of another very common misconception- the idea that one should never allow the shins to move past a vertical position while squatting or lunging. Doing so does put more pressure on the patellar ligament, but you can’t put stress on a muscle without also stressing the corresponding joint(s). I have often wondered if I could get rich quick by inventing an inclinometer which the exerciser straps to the shins- when the shin goes past vertical, it beeps to warn the user of impending doom.
You also need to breathe correctly when you perform a repetition.
As it turns out, people tend to breathe very efficiently by instinct unless they have been corrected by a so-called “fitness expert” who teaches them how to do it incorrectly.
I once attended a seminar by International karate master Fumio Demura (The sensei in the Karate Kid movies was actually based on the life of Mr. Demura). Toward the end of the seminar, Demura held a question and answer period. One student stood up and asked “Master Demura, how should we breathe during karate practice?” Demura immediately replied “Usual way: in…out…in…out…”
Everyone got a good laugh out of Demura’s humorous response, but what he meant was that people often tend to make a career out of something that God intended the brain-stem to take care of.
In any event, the usual advice goes something like this: “Breathe out during the exertion- never hold your breath!” While it’s not harmful for healthy people to breath-hold during lifting, the use of the “Valsalva maneuver” (a forced expiration through a constricted glottis) provides the same spine-protection benefits (through increased intra-abdominal pressure) as breath-holding, without an extreme rise in blood pressure.
In a 1995 study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (76(5), May 1995, 457-462.), Narloch and Brandstater examined the influence of breathing technique on arterial blood pressure generated during heavy dynamic weight lifting. BP was recorded in 10 male athletes by radial artery catheterization. Each subject then performed double-leg press sets at 85 percent and 100 percent of maximum. Each exercise was performed twice, once with closed glottis Valsalva, and then with slow exhalation during concentric contraction. The mean BP at 100 percent maximum with Valsalva was 311/284. The highest pressure recorded in an individual was 370/360. With slow exhalation, the mean BP was 198/175 when the same 100 percent maximum was lifted. A reduced pressor response was also noted at 85 percent maximal lifting with slow exhalation. These results have been conformed by other follow-up studies.
Although body builders use special breathing exercises…
Actually, they don’t.
…most lifters simply need to remember to breathe while lifting.
Breathing is an autonomic response: when you need to breathe, you will.
It isn’t uncommon to see untrained lifters holding their breath as they perform their exercises. This is very dangerous, since it can actually cause a spike in blood pressure, which is hard on the heart.
Momentary high blood pressure is not damaging to healthy hearts, and in fact, can be a useful form of adaptive stress.
Also, physicians say that they sometimes see collapsed lungs in weight lifters who don’t breathe correctly when they work out.
I’d just LOVE to see a reference for this statement! I performed an exhaustive MEDLINE search on this topic but came up with nothing. It would take much, much more than incorrect breathing while lifting to collapse a lung. In fact, I have a colleague who was involved in a bench pressing accident where a bar loaded to over 300 pounds fell onto his chest from arm’s length, and he did not suffer a collapsed lung. Are we really so delicate that we risk a collapsed lung from improper breathing?
A good rule of thumb is to exhale during the part of the exercise the requires the most exertion. This prevents you from holding your breath as you lift.
See my above comments regarding the Valsalva maneuver.
During the lowering or less difficult part of the exercise, concentrate on inhaling. By concentrating on your breathing, you can avoid some risks of lifting and you can find a good, even rhythm for your exercises.
Tips for Lifting Weights Correctly
1. Each rep should be done smoothly.
Great, but what does “smoothly” mean? If you one perform 1-2 sets per exercise/per session as the author recommends, how will you ever develop the motor skills necessary for “smooth” lifting?
2. Do not bounce or jerk the weight.
3. Take about the same amount of time to lift and lower the weight.
Although this comment could use a bit of clarification, it bears mentioning that bouncing or jerking weights is not always a bad strategy. In fact, Dr. Fred Hatfield, co-founder of the International Sports Sciences Association and the first man to officially squat 1000 pounds, recommends a specialized bouncing technique in his book as a way to desensitize the Golgi tendon organs, which are one of the primary constraining factors for the expression of maximal strength.
4. Do not pause between lifting and lowering the weight.
See my above comments regarding joint stress…
5. Take about 4 to 5 seconds to perform each rep.
Deliberately lifting weights more slowly than what is necessary simply accelerates fatigue and reduces tension on the muscles. Lifting in an brisk manner reduces fatigue (and post exercise muscle soreness), and facilitates the acquisition of absolute and speed strength.
6. Breath with each exercise: exhale during exertion, inhale during the less demanding portion of the exercise.
Please see my above comments regarding the difficult skill of breathing.
7. Start with lighter weights and work up to your capacity.
Yes, a warm-up is a good idea. This comment is innocuous enough, but needs further explanation.
8. Keep a training log to track your progress.
The only good advice presented in Lawler’s excerpt. I fully agree. In fact, why not take it a step further and have a look at (if you’ll excuse the shameless plug).
9. Start with one set of (I assume a specific number was intended here- perhaps it is a typo) reps for each exercise. As you progress add a second set.
Whenever I speak with professional fitness trainers, a common theme is how their beginning clients have such poor motor control. Once, during a seminar, a trainer remarked to me “You can’t believe some of these people- for example, I have a woman who literally can’t curl a bar without performing all sorts of extraneous movements like shrugging her shoulders, flexing her neck, and so forth.”
Of course, I’ve seen examples of this in gyms everywhere, but I also think that these same trainers aren’t helping any by the set/rep schemes they prescribe, particularly the traditional practice of employing the time-worn “three sets of ten” format with beginning exercisers.
I realize that I’m challenging a sacred cow here, but follow me here for a moment:
Let’s consider two hypothetical set/rep formats:
“Traditional:” 3 sets of 10 repetitions
“Skilled:” 6 sets of 5 repetitions.
In both cases the training load is identical. The weight is the same, the total number of reps of the same, and the total volume (weight x reps) is also identical. However, the net result of each format can be very different- let’s have a look:
Set-up and Break-down
A significant aspect of “skill” in many exercises is the process of setting up and exiting the set. For example, during a bench press, the beginning client must learn and perfect how to position him/herself under the bar properly, how to center the grip, how to tuck the scapulae, where to place the feet, when and how to take in the first breath, and so on. At the completion of the set, the novice must learn how to safely re-rack the bar, how to sit up from the bench without straining the back, and so on.
During the back squat exercise, the exerciser must learn how to wedge and center the traps under the bar, how to make the walk-back as economical as possible, how to properly position the feet, and so forth.
In the case of machines, one must learn how to position the seat, how to enter the machine, and on completion, how to exit the machine.
In other words, the actual repetitions are cake compared to the “set-up” and “break-down.” The “skilled” approach is superior to the “traditional” format with regard to motor learning because it gives youtwiceas many set-up and break-down opportunities,
Keep in mind that when programs advocate low reps, most trainers assume that these are maximum effort reps- not necessarily the case here.
The skilled” approach will also develop superior strength as compared to the “traditional” method because it develops far less fatigue- all repetitions are performed in a much fresher state, which allows better acceleration of the weightload.
Because the “skilled” format leads to less fatigue, it is also safer than the traditional format. As the lifter fatigues, skilled performance declines, and the possibility of injury increases (for example, a client misses the uprights when he attempts to rack the bar at the end of a set, because he’s in a rush to escape the pain of lactic acid accumulation in his chest, deltoids, and arms).
10. Use a spotter when necessary.
Good advice for beginners, but I’d add that it must be a competent spotter, not just a carbon-based life form with a measurable pulse. Advanced lifters training properly will not need a spotter for the most part, except for testing for a new max on the bench press exercise. Why? Because if they are lifting acceleratively, and not going to momentary muscular failure, the worst thing that will happen is that the last rep will be slower than what is really wanted.
11. Do not work the same set of muscles two days in a row.
This only applies when one uses traditional bodybuilding schemes (i.e, multiple high rep sets to failure and beyond). In real life, muscles are (yikes!) often called upon to contract forcefully over a period of consecutive days- why not respect that reality through your training?
As I read through Lawler’s advice, it occurred to me…no wonder martial artists are afraid to train with weights! The moral of the story is that, like everything, resistance training is a tool. If used incorrectly, it leads to a poor outcome. If employed expertly, the results exceed all expectations.