Where I came from, back in the day (over 30 years ago),
weight training and fight sports – especially boxing – went together like hand
and glove. Boxers lifted, and most of the guys in the gym also worked out on
the heavy bag. The link between traditional martial arts and weight training
was similarly strong; I recall that martial arts classes were typically held on
aerobics floors in the gyms in which I trained, and martial artists – men and
women – frequently worked out alongside us bodybuilders before or after their
Granted, it was a different era, and we were inclined not to
over-intellectualise quite as much back then. Weight training worked, so we did
it. And that was that.
I transitioned from punching to boxing a few years into my
training, when I was fortunate enough to befriend a highly ranked former
amateur boxer who coached me for a couple of years. I recall that I was a
competitive bodybuilder at the time I met my coach and good friend. I’d already
been lifting – lifting heavy - for several hours a day for a number of years,
and, as you’d expect, I was strong. I’d been hitting the bag for a few years,
too, and believed that I knew how to punch. The very first time I met my friend
– who was comparatively slight in build – he demonstrated the power that could
be generated from technically correct punching… pretty much knocking my heavy
bag clean off its mount. That brief lesson was definitive proof to me that
technique trumped brute strength. Hooked, I set about learning everything I
could about good boxing technique, and I’ve been boxing – alongside my lifting
- ever since.
I never came to the conclusion, however, that weight
training wasn’t an asset to the development of punching power, and my coach
never felt that way either – indeed, he and I lifted weights together alongside
our technical and sparring sessions.
As my career in fitness developed, I trained with, and
programmed for, athletes from a wide range of disciplines, from track-and-field
to dance. And many of these sportspeople threw some big weights around, at
least at calculated periods in their training calendar. I’ve never seen any
evidence to suggest that the inclusion of weight training in a well-designed
training regime is anything other than beneficial to any sport in which power plays
a role – which, of course, is almost all of them.
Golfers lift. Tennis players and cricketers lift. Runners and
jumpers lift. And, of course, swimmers, footballers – and boxers, MMA fighters
and martial artists - lift. Serious athletes do so not because they’re misinformed. They weight train because they know first-hand
that lifting weights – correctly - improves their sports performance, and also
I suspect because many of their coaches have at least sufficient training in
strength and conditioning nowadays to have dispelled many of the myths and
misconceptions that - apparently still - surround resistance training in some circles. In fact,
weight training has supported sports performance for long enough now that I wouldn’t
be surprised if at least a couple of generations of sports coaches had implemented
sports-specific strength and conditioning training throughout their own
This is all personal opinion and anecdote, of course (this
post is intended as an opinion piece, not a scholarly paper), but there’s
plenty of science to back up my experience. Spend a few moments online and you’ll
find well-researched articles by qualified sports scientists, coaches and
trainers, and sporting and sports medicine associations that dispel the myths
and support what I’ve personally observed throughout my 30+ years in the field.
As far as I’m concerned, the consensus view and weight of evidence strongly
supports my experience that, as I believe to be the case with sports-people from
a wide range of disciplines, correct weights-based conditioning programmes can
be expected to improve a fighter’s performance.
Not that I’m all about the science – I’m not a scientist
myself and I’ve been known to reflect upon our tendency to elevate scientific
methodologies and manners of thinking to the status of absolute truth, when it
seems clear that such status generally isn’t warranted. I digress, of course,
but my point is that a scientific consensus doesn’t necessarily make a position
correct and, as I see things, there’s often great value in dissention,
diversity of opinion and in deriving truth from one’s personal lived reality,
except, of course, where such personal truths spring from explainable failures
of cognition or misinterpretation of the accumulated evidence that life
presents to us.
So I’m comfortable with the fact that not everyone will
agree with my belief that weight training can be a worthwhile component in a
fighter’s training regime, and I hope that I’m flexible and open-minded enough
to take their dissenting opinions on board.
Some time ago I came across an article by a young online boxing
authority advising against weight training for boxers, suggesting that weight
training was not only not a help, but that it was, in fact, detrimental. As I
read this young man’s arguments against weight training for boxers, I found
myself disagreeing strongly on almost all points – in my opinion, most of which were based upon long-standing weight-training misconceptions that those of us
with experience in sports-specific resistance training dismissed decades
ago. I won’t identify the author or article – which, unless I’m mistaken,
appears to me to have been subsequently rewritten, in any event. Neither am I
criticising this particular author, who has no doubt come to his conclusions
based upon his own observations and experience in the field. I do, however,
disagree with him, and welcome the opportunity to offer my support for the
notion that most fighters would benefit from a supplemental, sports-specific
strength and conditioning programme.
I should clarify that I tend to use the terms weight-training and resistance training interchangeably, although there are clearly non-weights
based methods of resistance training. Curious, I feel, that this particular
commentator denigrated weight-training for boxers while recommending
body-weight exercises such as push-ups as a substitute. I’ve noticed that many
martial artists lean towards body-weight exercises over weights, too, and I can
think of a couple of possible reasons why. For one, traditional martial arts
tend to be, well… traditional, and weight training is generally not considered
to be so. As an aside, I was, however, intrigued to recently read about something called
ishi-sashi, a very kettlebell-like strength
training tool apparently developed in China and used by karate masters of old.
The other reason is a practical one – it’s very difficult to integrate a
respectable range of weight training equipment into a typical martial arts
training hall and class structure.
Your body, of course, couldn’t care squat where the
resistance comes from. Personally, I like weight-based gym equipment. I’ve
trained with weights for my entire adult life, and I find them extremely versatile and
efficient. With the range of equipment found in a typical commercial gym, there
is tremendous scope to tailor a resistance programme to the specifics of a
particular sport. When I encounter the argument that weight training can’t
replicate the dynamics of boxing or martial arts – I’m inclined to feel that
the critic lacks gym experience, or is simply being unimaginative. But, as I said,
the source of resistance isn’t the issue – it’s how effectively you can use it
to tailor a programme to your precise training needs and goals. If you feel that you can
achieve that better with bodyweight exercises than with weights and gym
equipment, kudos to you.
Most critics of supplemental weight training believe that
weight training makes you slow, inflexible, and bulky, hurts your joints and hinders
your ability to relax your muscles. In my experience, none of this is true – or
at least doesn’t have to be. Indeed, there’s a ton of research supporting the
exact opposite (
please, spend a little
time and do the research yourself, but, for example, see
(Verkhoshansky and Verkhoshansky, 2011), (Santos et
al., 2010)). Approached correctly, weight training can improve
speed and explosive power, coordination and neuromuscular responsiveness,
muscular endurance… and flexibility. Weight training can improve joint health
and the strength of your bones and connective tissues. And weight training
certainly doesn’t have to make you bulky.
Remember that your resistance programme is chock-full of
variables, and therefore choices. You get to choose, for example…
- the particular exercises that you perform and
the way in which they are structured into workouts;
- the amount of weight that you lift and the
number of sets and repetitions performed;
- the range of motion;
- the pace of each repetition during each phase of
- rest between sets;
- level of intensity;
- length of workout;
- frequency of training;
- periodicity – how you structure your training
goals and programmes over different length time cycles;
- nutrition, rest, supplements, and your other supplementary
and, of course, primary fight training.
So, when you envisage the stereotypically slow, massive, bulky, inflexible bodybuilder, for
example, you need to remember that this athlete has – for years and likely
decades - structured everything about his or her training, and activities
outside of the gym (including some that he or she is unlikely to talk about) to
achieving that precise physical condition. It has little or no relationship to
the outcome that a boxer or martial artist – or any other athlete – can expect
from sports specific weight training, unless, of course, you train, eat,
supplement etc. the same way. But this is, in my opinion, the type of
correlation vs causation error (slow, bulky, inflexible bodybuilders – in
itself a stereotype that’s not necessarily true – lift weights and therefore
weight training must make you that way) that fuels the misconceptions that, in
turn, drive mistaken conclusions such as those reached by critics of sports-specific
weight-training for fighters.
But please, don’t take my word for it. Do your research and,
if, like me, you feel that weight training is likely to be a beneficial
supplement to your boxing or martial arts, give it a go. But don’t train like a
bodybuilder/ powerlifter/ cross fitter or gymnast. Spend some time with a
professional with experience in programming for fighters, or at least in sports
specific programming and who understands the particular demands of fight sports,
and learn how to weight train like a fighter.
Written by Ben Hoole (MBA, MPET, B.Comm)
Ben is General Manager of FITSTORE and a long-time former fitness industry
professional with over 30 years bodybuilding/ fight sports experience. Read
more about Ben at
Santos, E., Rhea, M., Simão, R.,
Dias, I., de Salles, B., Novaes, J., Leite, T., Blair, J. and Bunker, D.
(2010). Influence of Moderately Intense Strength Training on Flexibility in
Sedentary Young Women.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,
Verkhoshansky, Y. and Verkhoshansky, N. (2011). Special
Strength Training – Manual For Coaches. 2nd ed. Rome: Verkhoshansky, SSTM.
This opinion piece is intended to stimulate discussion and personal reflection/ personal research on the topic. It is not intended as professional advice, and you should seek out the services of a suitably qualified and
experienced professional who understands your personal situation before attempting to implement anything suggested here.
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