Want to get better at your martial art? The fastest way to do so is to simply practice it more often. But you already knew that. The second fastest way is to get stronger in addition to practicing more often. In a fight between two equally skilled opponents, the stronger one likely wins.
No worries, the myth of strength training making you slow is long dead. Some of the fastest people in the world regularly strength train. Look at that, it’s Usain Bolt literally doing one of the exercises I’m going to recommend you do.
But what does stronger mean exactly? Who can bench press more? No, the context here implies much more than that. In a martial art or combat sport, martial strength is the combination of explosive power (raw strength x speed), conditioning (anaerobic and aerobic), mobility, agility, et al.
Plus, being stronger helps you train your martial art better. To quote he must not be named (not Voldermort), “practice put you in better shape, being in better shape puts you in better practice.”
Or if you prefer a more historical quote, Di Grassi said “that strength of body is very necessary to attain to the perfection of this Art, it being one of the two principal beginnings first laid down.”
OK, so most people aren’t doing HEMA professionally and have families, social lives, and jobs. Time management becomes an issue if you want to train your martial art more, and get stronger, and faster, and improve conditioning. How can you fit all of that in?! I hear you, the struggle is real, as when I first started HEMA back in 2016, I found myself wondering how I could manage all of these seemingly conflicting goals on top of everything else.
After some trial and error, working with a coach of my own, learning from some the works of the top minds in the field of “getting athletes stronger”, I’ve come up with a basic framework that should help you improve all of the things and get stronger in 2 days per week. Keep in mind, that focusing on many things comes at the cost of things improving slower than if you had a single focus. In martial arts, there is no “off season” so this is an acceptable trade-off.
As mentioned above, the framework is based on 2 days a week of training. It is inspired by the work of Dan John and Jim Wendler. I’d highly recommend you check out basically anything that they’ve written if you are interested in gaining more knowledge on this subject.
The framework itself boils down to 5 main components, in the order of priority that they will be done in the work outs:
- Effective warm-ups
- HEMA Transferable Speed and Power Work
- Compound Strength Paired with Mobility/Flexibility
- Targeted Assistance Work
- Conditioning (Anaerobic and Aerobic)
An effective warm-up should be something that gets the blood flowing and gets your heart rate up slightly, as well as gets you moving through multiple ranges of motion.
I’m going to borrow from the Parisi speed school and modify their warm-up routine.
Start with some planks, specifically the Russian Kettlebell Challenge version.
3 sets of 10 seconds each set, if you can, that is. You are essentially generating tension through your entire body.
From there, do a simple circuit of
Bodyweight overhead squat x 10
Jumping jacks x 10
Seal Jacks x 10
Cross Jacks x 10
HEMA Transferable Speed and Power Work
“HEMA Transferrable Speed and Power Work” includes jumps, throws, and anything that’s explosive that that is in some way transferable to movements within HEMA. For example, if I want to explosively leap offline for a longsword zwerchhau, I’d pick some movements that help with that like medicine ball throws and power cleans. More on that below.
This type of work should be done before strength work and after your warm-up as we are prioritizing the most import things first when you are freshest and thus ensuring that speed and power work doesn’t turn into conditioning work.
The Power Clean
The number one exercise for speed and power would be the power clean. Power cleans are an explosive hip extension exercise and because of their explosive nature, it is useful for increasing strength in other lifts (squat, deadlifts) as well your athletic power in general.
Find a coach for it if you can (a certified Olympic lifting coach) as due to its technical nature, there is a higher risk of injury. If you are in the US, you can look for certified Olympic lifting coaches via http://www.teamusa.org/usa-weightlifting/clubs-lwc/find-a-club. I recently found an awesome coach here in Pittsburgh and he was able to teach me power cleans with good form in an hour or so, which I’ve made a staple of my training. You can certainly teach yourself if you like (the Starting Strength book is a great resource for this) and you just may want to get some video of your form for second opinions.
After a quick warm-up, work in the area of 5 sets of 3 reps. The reasoning is that we want to work on technique, not necessarily raw power. Again, since it is such a technical exercise, getting the technique correct without getting really tired is MUCH more important on the power clean than throwing a ton of weight on the bar and seeing how many reps we can do. Increase the weight gradually with this exercise: technique is more important than weight.
The Loaded Carry
The second exercise that I’d highly recommend is some type of loaded carry. From the estimable Dan John:
“The loaded carry does more to expand athletic qualities than any other single thing I’ve attempted in my career as a coach and athlete. And I do not say that lightly.”
A loaded carry is simply picking up a weight and moving with it. You can do this with one hand, two hands, with bags/backpacks/vets, or even pushing/pulling sleds/cars, etc!
Because there is such a huge variety here, and the goal here is to fit everything into 2 days, I’d recommend going with 1 handed farmer’s walk, aka suitcase carry. I picked this one because everyone (I’m projecting my own goals here, I realize) wants to be able to carry all of their groceries into the house in 1 trip, and, it will likely have the most carry over to generating power on one side through your hips and core if you train longsword.
As far as sets and reps, keep it simple. Pick up a weight as heavy as you can manage with good form, walk for 20-30 seconds per side. Repeat for 3 times total.
If you want to read more about loaded carries, check this out: https://www.t-nation.com/training/secret-of-loaded-carries
There are lots of options for what else to include, things like agility drills, jumping movements, etc.
Rather than expand upon all of the possible options, two that I use are:
- A medicine ball wall toss. Use a medicine ball that you can comfortable toss and catch (3 to 10lbs range). Start with 3 sets of 5 reps per side, working up to 20 reps. Once you reach 20 reps, increase the weight.
- Lateral jumps. 3 sets of 8 reps (or more if you like).
Compound Strength Paired with Mobility/Flexibility
As martial artists and/or combat athletes, our goal is to have strong hips, legs, shoulders, arms, and core. The most time effective way to develop those are the 4 basic barbell lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press.
If you don’t currently have a basic familiarity with these lifts already and aren’t sure what good form looks like, I’d again recommend turning toward Starting Strength. If you are reading a Starting Strength resource that is recommended rows instead of the power clean, this is not what you want. Essentially, Starting Strength would take the place of Speed & Power Work + Compound Strength and would be 3 days a week. Yeah, it means cutting back on your martial arts some to fit it in, but in this case, I’d consider it short term, and well worth it.
If you are already familiar with the basic barbell lifts and have a good base of strength, I’d recommend going with a strength routine called Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1. His book is a fantastic resource and a great read if you want to know more https://jimwendler.com/collections/books-programs/products/5-3-1-for-powerlifting-ebook-version
It’s not required, though, as you can just use this website to set up your 4-week strength training cycle. http://blackironbeast.com/5/3/1/calculator
Since we are only using 5/3/1 for the compound strength work, you can pick the options of “I’m Not Doing Jack Shit” for the template, None for the warm-up, Main Lifts programming as fresher and leave everything else alone. It’s going to ask you to pick 3 or 4 days (pick 4 days), but for our purposes, day 1 will be squat and bench press, while day 2 is deadlift and overhead press.
If you need help with this part, please let me know and I’d be happy to do so.
The primary reason that I’ve selected this for the strength work rather than write something from scratch (aside from Jim Wendler knows what he’s doing) is that this approach allows you to offload having to think about what do, lets you make progress over time, and this setup has a built in mechanism for what to do when you want to be “fresh” going into a tournament.
What I mean is that the 5/3/1 workouts are broken down into 4-week cycles, essentially the 5 rep week, the 3 rep week, the 1 rep week, and the deload week.
On the week leading up to a tournament, regardless of where you happen to be in a cycle, simply go directly to your deload week, and then restart your cycle using the real rep maxes from the most recent week prior to the deload.
This may not be necessary and depends on your own recovery and lots of other factors, but is an option!
If you have any specific flexibility or mobility concerns, rather than resting between sets, work on those issues instead. For example, shoulder dislocates for your shoulder mobility, couch stretches for your hips, etc.
Targeted Assistance Work & Conditioning
While I mentioned these as separate aspects earlier, I’m lumping them together here as given our limited timeframe, I’d encourage you to make choices within the framework that can serve multiple purposes at once.
In the context of your average gym go-er, assistance work tends to be things like arm work, abs, and/or isolation exercises. Many of those things matter to us too, but I prefer to use assistance work to target individual weaknesses when it comes to things that transfer to HEMA specific work.
For example, HEMA specifics weaknesses can be things like calf strength and endurance (for staying on your toes), quad strength (the front of your upper leg, for lunging), shoulder endurance (for keeping your form and structure in your guards, etc), core strength and endurance (for transferring power through your hips), balance, and hand-eye coordination.
Also, this type of work can address any rehab concerns for existing injuries or any areas that are prone to reinjury (prehab).
Take a good look at your own fitness and look for weaknesses. If you aren’t sure, ask your instructor if they’ve noticed anything specific.
Some of the things that were a problem for me when I started (some of which I’m still working on) are balance, calf and shoulder endurance. Oh, and that I still move like I’m 400lbs. So I’m working on all of the things.
Do you need shoulder and calf endurance, balance, and footwork help? Jump roping fits the bill here.
Are your calves weak? Do both bodyweight and weighted calf raises. Calves respond well to high frequency and volume. That means lots of reps, done more than once a week.
Does your hand-eye coordination suck? Play old school video games, and/or take a page from boxing and bounce a tennis ball off of a wall with one hand and catch it with the opposite hand.
Does your conditioning suck? Jump roping helps, as do agility ladders. You could do your jump rope as intervals (meaning 15-30 seconds of high intensity, and then 15-30 seconds of low intensity or rest). Also, consider Indian Clubs.
Is your core easily fatigued? Core endurance can be targeted with Russian twists, crunches, medicine ball throws/twists.
Is your core weak? Try dead bugs and/or landmines.
Do your wrists and forearms hurt and feel weak? If you have a two-handed sword, rotate the sword around with a single hand. Do some of your cuts very slowly with one hand. Also, consider some Indian Club work. Or heck, do something a reverse barbell curl to cover those bases and get some bigger biceps at the same time.
Are you suffering from HEMA elbow (aka tennis/golfer’s elbow)? Work on your grip strength, but also do finger extensions. Go buy some fresh broccoli and use the rubber band that’s wrapped around it. Wrap that around your fingers just under the nails and extend your fingers
If you need help with figuring this stuff out, I’d love to help, just ask.
Putting It All Together: Example 2 Day Workout
Power cleans 5 sets of 3 superset with Lateral Jumps for 8 reps
Squat 5/3/1 sets superset with mobility work
Bench Press 5/3/1 sets superset with mobility work
Jump Rope Intervals (30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, 15 minutes total)
Medicine Ball Throws 3 sets of 10-12 reps superset with Farmer’s Walks (3 sets of walking 20-30s with as heavy weights as you can manage).
Deadlift 5/3/1 sets superset with mobility work
Press 5/3/1 sets superset with mobility work
Agility Ladders (set a timer and do them for 15 minutes)