Core Training For Martial Artists

By Alwyn Cosgrove - In short, what would lie at the core of a martial arts training article? And here we are, CORE training for martial arts. Check out this awesome four-week abdominal strength training program for martial artists.

With a million and one possible topics about physical preparation for martial arts I was totally lost as to where to start. What should the first article I write for the Website be on?

I had no idea. Speed training? Flexibility? Improve your kicking? Improve your grappling? What would be of most interest to the readers?

The CORE Is The Key

In short, what would lie at the core of a martial arts training article? And here we are, CORE training for martial arts. By core, I am referring to the midsection of the body, as most of you realize, this is where all the power in kicks, punches and throws are generated. Basically if you improve core stability and strength, you will improve your martial arts ability across the board. So if you never read another article that I write, putting into practice the principles outlined here will help your performance as a martial artist no end.

A rock hard rippling stomach like Bruce Lee showed off sends out a powerful signal about not only your condition, but also that you will most probably hit hard. True, there are fighters out there who are built like the proverbial Clark Kent yet hit like Tyson, but I've met few who look like Tyson and can't hit.

In spite of the attention that "abs of steel" training devices and programs seem to get on late night infomercials—it is a relatively misunderstood body part. Most people flat out do not know how to train the abdominals!

Even the highly renowned TKD Master who was seen telling all of the benefits of a small jet plane looking plastic gadget to build his powerful abdominal wall. Trust me ladies and gentlemen, the Ab plane or whatever it was called did not work. It still doesn't. And it won't in the future. Master Abs obviously had another agenda when he decided to share this secret with the world.

To design an abdominal training workout we need to take a closer look at the underlying physiology of the abs. The rectus abdominus (to give it it's proper name) can flex the trunk forward about 30 degrees but at this point any further movement is produced by the hip flexor muscles, not the abs. However, the rectus abdominus ALSO works through 15 degrees of spinal extension. In English?—Laying on a flat floor doing crunches is a woefully inadequate method of training the abs. Also—training on a flat surface may increase the curvature at the base of the spine, putting many of the weaker structures of the lower back at risk of injury—perhaps not a problem while lying down on the floor—but obviously not what you are looking for in the midst of a highly competitive bout of free sparring!

What Is The Solution?

So what is the solution? Swiss Balls! Those inflatable giant cheesy poofs that you have probably seen lying around the gym or in the Physical Therapy office. Laying on these balls will allow a FULL range of motion during abdominal crunches - and brings the concept of instability into action. The more unstable the exercise—the more effective the transfer to a real world activity (like a fight!) will be. Think about it—which is harder—free weights or machines? And which is harder still—dumbbells or barbells? Basically you can see that the more unstable the exercise, the harder it is to perform and generally the less weight will be used. Therefore the transfer of an unstable exercise to a real life sporting activity is high.

Another myth of abdominal training is the fact that abs require daily training, thousands of reps and zero resistance. Is there something about the abdominals that the underlying muscle tissue does not respond to the laws of human physiology?

Most of you may be surprised to hear that the abdominals are in fact composed of primarily fast-twitch fibers—and therefore performing more than 15 reps per set (or around a 40 second time under tension) will probably reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. And ADD WEIGHT! Once your body weight is not enough resistance then you are going to have to use dumbbells or plates of some sort to increase the load, just like any other muscle group.

So having established the need to train the abdominals full range, with weight, low reps and as unstable as possible—what do we do now I hear you cry. Fear not, provided below is an outline of a 4-week abdominal strength training program. We will start with more traditional training methods and make an easy progression to the more effective exercises described above. Try to perform the exercises slowly and correctly and perform each routine twice a week.

Week 1

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest Period
A1: Reverse Crunch 3 15 2010 30 seconds
Superset with
A2: Crunch 3 10 2220 30 seconds
B: Oblique Crunches 2 15 l & r 2010 60 seconds

Week 2

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest Period
A1: Reverse Crunch 3 10 2120 30 seconds
Superset with
A2: Swiss Ball Crunch (full range ) 3 10 2220 30 seconds
B: Woodchop exercise (with cable) 2 15 l & r 2010 60 seconds

Week 3

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest Period
A1: Reverse Crunch (on ball) 3 6 3030 30 seconds
Superset with
A2: Swiss ball Crunch (full range—add resistance via dumbbell on upper chest) 3 10 2210 30 seconds
B: Woodchop exercise 2 15 l & r 2010 60 seconds

Week 4

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest Period
A: Reverse Twisting Crunch (on ball) 3 6 l and r 3030 30 seconds
B1: Swiss ball Twisting Crunch (full range—add resistance via dumbbell on upper chest) 3 6 left & right 2210 30 seconds
B: Reverse Woodchop 2 10 l & r 30x0 60 seconds

This routine provides only a small sample of what can form the framework for a good core-strengthening program, for a more complete treaty of the subject refer to the excellent Scientific Core Conditioning at or any of Pavel Tsatsouline's books.