On the eve of my 40th birthday, I have developed myself physically into the strongest and most flexible I have been in my life. Although my goals are different now, I will share with you my fitness routine for what I believe to be a healthy martial arts lifestyle. This includes weight training, cardio, recovery, and pretty much everything relating to physical preparation.
I’m going to go deep into all the reasoning, pros and cons, and objections people might have to my routine. I think many people will find my reasoning and logic useful for combating deep seated fears or objections, as when I tell people what I do they often use one of the objections listed below.
This one is fairly obvious right?
However, in recent years, my training output has gone down significantly. As of now, I’m getting about 2-3 training sessions a week. My focus is more on developing technique, testing things out, and getting timing down. To that end, I don’t spar every time I train. Lately, I’m only sparring once a week, where I just drill or practice techniques the other days. These helps minimize wear and tear on the body for me.
When I was younger, I would train twice a day, sparring or doing some live drilling every session. So the amount of training volume depends on your body and the mileage you have. Although I’m fairly young, I have a lot of mileage. I have changed out some parts, restored others, and working around some limitations. Being honest with yourself and understanding where you are at in life will help make keeping a regular training schedule easier.
If you are always going to train 100% regardless of your circumstance, you will probably find yourself on the sidelines more often than not. There is a time to be tough, but that is in competition or at a young age in the beginning of your career. Once you prove your toughness, there is no need to prove it every day. That is just being foolish in my opinion.
When I was competing, I could count the amount of times I tapped in a year, which was probably less than a handful. That is not to brag about how great I was, but rather how foolish. I have sustained more injuries in training that I ever did competing – many of them easily avoidable. When I train now, I am much more conservative. When in doubt, I tap out. I don’t chance anything like I used to. My goal now is to be able to train martial arts until the day I pass. So that means I’m going to have to tap sooner if I get caught, rather than take a chance in escaping a tight submission.
I know some people think that weight training is not necessary, that it will tighten you up, or that the strength doesn’t translate into martial arts. These can be true, but they can also be dead wrong – depending on how you structure your weight training program.
In my humble opinion, weight training is a must.
You can develop a strong physique with calisthenics and just by training a lot of martial arts, but you will eventually hit a limit and plateau, because your opponent’s will usually be around your bodyweight. For example, I’m 206lbs right now, and the people I train with are usually between 170-220lbs. After a few months of training with them, my body will have adapted to working with that load, and will not make any significant muscle growth afterwards.
You have to understand that your body wants to be as efficient as possible. It does not want to pack on more muscle than it needs to, because more muscle means more energy – and getting energy historically is not easy. That meant hunting or gathering in the wild, which is filled with peril. Even in today’s world, getting energy is expensive in time and money. Why would your body want to pack on 50lbs of muscle that will cost it more resources for no reason?
What your body doesn’t understand is that you want to be as strong as possible to fight and crush your opponent’s. The body doesn’t care for words – it only listens to actions. So to get the body to understand you want to grow more muscle, you need to hit it with the trigger for muscle growth – peak load. That means exerting maximum force in a short interval.
Now there are different strategies for achieving this, and much like diets, everyone has their own idea of what is best. But what most experts can agree on for certain is that weight training with heavy weights is a must for those that want to increase strength to significant proportions.
If you take a look at our current generation of MMA fighters and grapplers, they all look like body builders. The skeptics will quickly dismiss them as steroid and HGH users, which unfortunately in many cases is true, especially in grappling. However, steroids and other performance enhancers don’t add muscle to your frame just by sitting on the couch – you still have to trigger muscle growth. One of the main benefits of these drugs is they boost recovery, meaning users can workout longer, harder, and more often. That is how some of these athletes can add 40lbs to their frame in a years time, which by normal standards would be practically impossible.
Point being, weight lifting is still the key to developing massive strength. You might object, saying weight lifting is boring. It can be, especially compared to martial arts. But you know what else is boring? Being crushed by a stronger guy repeatedly because you lack the strength to move them. Or sitting on the couch because you got injured.
Yes, having strong muscles, ligaments, and tendons will help prevent injuries. When you are lifting weights, not only do your muscles grow and strengthen, but so does the connective tissue. For injury prevention, having strong ligaments and tendons will give you more support that can help avoid injury. This is one area where being all natural is better, as performance enhancers will not develop the connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) as quickly as muscles, and as a result create undue stress on them. When you read about people tearing out pecs and biceps that look like Mr. Olympia, chances are they used some gear to facilitate that.
Another common objection is people being worried about getting injured while weight training. This is a real concern, especially if you are lifting like a spaz. Think of a white belt rolling for their first time with another white belt. They start spazzing around, throwing elbows, head butts, and knees like a bag of wrenches in drying machine. If you rolled like that all the time, chances are you would be injured constantly.
Now imagine you had that attitude when you lifted weights. You took no time to learn proper technique behind weight lifting, don’t do any warm ups, and put too much weight on and go all out. You lift like that 3 times a week and eventually something bad is going to happen.
When I was introduced to weight training at 15, there was no instruction on how to lift weights whatsoever. You just mimicked what you saw everyone else do. I would also try to lift the maximum amount of weight every time, and was very careless.
A bench press, a squat, or a dead lift look fairly simple to the untrained eye to replicate. However, there are a lot of details behind each lift. Much like Jiu Jitsu, all the small details can make huge impacts on the performance and safety of the lift. When I started lifting again after my knee surgery, I approached it completely differently. This time, I approached weight lifting like martial arts and treated every lift like a new technique. I watched videos, read blogs, invested in various weight lifting programs, and consulted with trainers for advice.
The result? I was able to achieve much greater benefits from lifting, without nearly as much wear and tear, and also appreciate it far more as a discipline. I now enjoy weight lifting, although a tough workout still scares me beforehand, lol.
In my opinion, weight training done right is much safer than martial arts. Many times over to the point comparing the two is not even close. Why? Because in weight training, you are working with one person (yourself), and doing an orchestrated motion. There is no zigging when the other guy is zagging. You also can have many safety protocols in place (spotter, spotter bars, padding, etc.) in case a lift goes wrong.
In martial arts, we are fighting against an opponent with a mind of their own. One of the main strategies for victory is to deceive you and hit you where you don’t expect to be hit. Incidentally, most injuries take place at that precise moment. You rarely see injuries in warm ups, or drilling. It’s almost always sparring. The X factor is the unpredictability of the opponent and where they will exert a third party force.
In weight training, there is no X factor. So as long as you use proper form, appropriate weight, and have proper safety protocols in place, the chances for injury are really low.
Most people who are getting injured weight lifting are either the white belt spaz, or a highly competitive lifter going for a max. As martial artists, these are two extremes we are avoiding. Keep in mind that they are more white belts in weight lifting rooms than their are color belts. These people can look jacked, and lift heavy weight, but they are still the equivalent of an athletic white belt.
Our goal for weight lifting as martial artists is to ultimately become better martial artists by improved strength and resilience. If you are getting hurt lifting weights, you are doing the opposite of our goal! So you will find that in my routine, I never do max lifts. I also tend to steer clear of Olympic lifts like clean and jerks. These are great motions, but they are more complicated and as a result leave more room for error.
I have been lifting now for over 2 years consistently, and I feel like a blue belt with technique execution. My focus when lifting weights is working with heavy weight with “perfect” technique. If the weight is too heavy for me to execute good technique with, then I lower the weight. Using good technique reduces likelihood of injury, and also increase efficiency. You will also find that proper mechanics for weight lifting translates into martial arts. Certain motions will become much easier in martial arts (particularly grappling) when you understand proper lifting mechanics.
Another objection is that it takes too much time, or that you don’t have the energy left in the day to tackle a weight training regimen. Depending on the type of routine you are doing, you can expect a weight training session to take anywhere from 1-2 hours. Doing that 2-3 times a week means you have to budget 2-6 hours a week towards weight training. While I’m sure some people have such a crazy schedule that they cannot fit even 2 hours into their week, the vast majority of people do. If you have Netflix, Hulu, or any of these online streaming platforms I can bet with certainty that you have a few hours you are using to watch TV. Let alone the time used browsing social media on the phone.
So in my opinion, not having time is not the issue, especially for a martial artist. It is more a question of priorities. Spending 2 hours watching Netflix is a lot easier than 2 hours lifting weights. However, the benefit of Netflix is perhaps some relaxation, but perhaps the most unconstructive form of relaxation possible. Don’t get me wrong, we all need some down time, but there are productive relaxation exercises like meditation, massage therapy, sauna, etc.
If having enough energy is the problem, then you definitely should be weight lifting. One of the major benefits of strength and conditioning will be an increased metabolism. The mere virtue of possessing more muscle increases your bodies caloric demands (one of the reasons why the body doesn’t want to put on muscle needlessly). The more you use those muscles, the more energy they can burn. And the more you exercise and condition your body, the better your metabolism will operate. So it’s attacking from multiple angles.
I know my appetite has sky rocketed since I implemented a weight training program. It is very rare when I find myself full, and can down a large pizza on my own without issue, where in the past eating half a pizza would leave me stuffed. I’m not saying you should be slamming pies all the time, but just to point out that when you build up your body with a proper strength and conditioning routine, your energy demands will increase. And if you enjoy food like I do, this is great news. 🙂
What isn’t measured isn’t improved. You need to record the results of every weight training session. What exercises you did, how many sets, how many reps, what weights, etc. Back in the day, this was tedious, as doing this with pen and paper was a choir. Nowadays, you have free apps like Fitnotes that can easily be customized to pop out your workouts quickly on your phone. I particularly like Fitnotes because it allows you track data over graphs, pie charts, and do lots of great reporting – all for free.
Finally, a good weight training regimen should be constantly changing. If you do the same exact program for months on end, you will plateau. Your body will adapt and not make significant improvements. This is another area where different lifters will vary opinions on how to structure your program, but the consensus is that the program needs to change over time. There are a lot of parameters that can be changed, such as rest periods, amount of reps, amount of sets, weight lifted, exercises used, muscle groups targeted, super sets, drop sets, and all sorts of other protocols.
You might be thinking, “David, I’m not a physical trainer. This is way over my head!” and you would be right. It was over my head too. That is why I invested in weight training programs done be professionals. I’m currently following Chad Wesley Smith’s Juggernaut Training Systems BJJ AI. Chad is a competitive power lifter that turned has attention to BJJ. He is a blue belt under world champion Romulo Barral, who is one of his clients.
Chad’s philosophy is exactly what I described (not a coincidence), so he structures the weight training to fit into a martial artist schedule. Typically people are lifting 2-3 times a week under his program. As an added benefit, he also includes conditioning work outs, which I’ll talk about next. These workout programs are designed based on your weight, strength levels, age, and volume of exercise. I have done other programs before, but Chad’s program seems to have been the best fit for me. It is also very affordable (only $14.99 monthly), so anyone training martial arts should be able to afford this.
I wouldn’t want to give away what the workouts entail since it would be fair to him, but basically they are focused on the main lifts of back squat, bench press, and dead lifts. You will also do accessory work like shoulder raises, dips, rows, split squats, hip thrusts, and more. The workouts even include warm ups, so it eliminates any guess work. You just follow instructions. It also has a feature to plan a competition, and will taper your workouts as your competition date gets closer.
Honestly, if you are considering lifting for martial arts, this is a great starting point. There are no contracts or anything like that. You can try to YouTube your way into finding a good routine and waste countless hours, or just spend what 1 meal would cost on a month of training programs. And I don’t make any commission of this, lol, it’s just how strongly I feel about this program.
From my understanding, there are 3 energy systems that we must master for athletic performance: cardiovascular, alactic, and lactic. A simple analogy is that a short 10-15 second sprint would utilize the alactic energy system, whereas a 15 second to a minute or so would be lactic, and above a few minutes would be cardiovascular.
Mixed martial arts is a complicated sport, not just because of the staggering amount of techniques that can be utilized, but also because of the energy demands of the sport. It requires the ability to be explode quickly, put out continuous effort, and also to be able to put out this effort for up to 25 minutes.
Most sports usually only require one, maybe 2 energy systems, but martial arts requires all three. This makes conditioning difficult, as these systems are all trained differently. You can’t work cardio and alactic capacity at the same time. Once again, there are many different ideas on how to handle this.
I have been following Chad Smith’s Juggernaut Training System BJJ AI for this as well. Every day you have a scheduled workout, you will also have a conditioning workout as well. These workouts are relatively short, from 15 to up to 45 minutes. Depending on what part of the routine you are in, the workout may be focused on cardio, alactic, or lactic.
Cardio workouts tend to be the easiest in my opinion, but by virtue of being cardio they will also be easier than the other two since you are not outputting as much effort. Cardio workouts consist of tempos where you will do some form of cyclical exercise for 40 seconds, and then do a set of callisthenic exercises (like push ups or crunches) and repeat for sets. Cardio workouts tend to last around 30 minutes or so. Being good at cardio means you can stay light on your feet, and usually means you can recover faster from rest periods.
Alactic capacity workouts are the shortest of the trio, but the most intense. You will do a series of exercises at maximum effort for about 10 seconds, then rest for a minute, and repeat for sets. It can be easy to cheat these and have an easy workout, but the goal is to go hard for the work portion. Alactic capacity translates into your ability to explode. Being able to shoot quickly, escape out of a bad position, or deliver a devastating strike will come from this energy system.
Lactic capacity are the most miserable of the bunch. You are essentially stretching out the effort you put in alactic capacity over 30-50 seconds, with rest times from 10-30 seconds. I feel these translate the best for martial artists, particularly grapplers, as the 30-50 second work period mimics a long scramble. You get good at this, and your scramble cardio is bound to improve drastically.
So regardless of what conditioning routine you follow, you want to make sure it incorporates exercises that utilize these three energy systems.
When I was a kid, I did not consider walking exercise. It’s too easy. We all walk everyday. We walk inside our house when going to the bathroom. It’s hard to imagine that walking can be significantly beneficial, but it definitely can be when done right.
When of the first things I started to do after knee surgery was walking. What I once took for granted become something I saw with a new level of appreciation. I started walking around my neighborhood for 30 minutes at a time. Then an hour, and sometimes more.
It turns out that walking is one of the best fat burning activities you can do. If you walk 1 mile versus running 1 mile, you will burn just about the same amount of calories. However, the difference being that more of the calories burned will be fat in walking versus running.
Walking is also pretty easy on the body, whereas running can take it’s toll on your knees and ankles. You can pretty much walk everyday with no issue. Running everyday is rough, especially as you get older if you haven’t taken care of yourself.
So I walk a few times a week for about 30-60 minutes at a time. I don’t have this structured like other parts of my workout routine. I just walk when I feel like it. I rarely just walk in silence. I am either doing a walking meditation of sorts, where I’m thinking about a problem and how to solve it, listening to an audiobook or podcast, or talking to someone on the phone. This allows me to maximize my use of time to handle tasks that are normally regulated to sitting (reading, or speaking to someone).
A twist to walking is rucking, or walking with a weighted backpack. Since I started getting into hunting, I added a weights to a back pack (35-40lbs) and do the same walk. The added weight increases the effort, and makes for more calorie burn. This is a great way to make walking more of a fat burner, but you just need to make sure you have a properly fitted backpack. Otherwise, you are going to end up with a sore back, shoulders or neck. The idea being that you want the weight as close to your body as possible and centered, with the weight being supported by your hips more than your back. I’m not an expert though, so I would just google rucking tips and you will find some good info about rucking.
Stretching and Mobility
For as long as I can remember, I never enjoyed stretching. I found it boring, somewhat unproductive, and time consuming. I got into wrestling at around age 14, and our team didn’t really do any serious stretching besides the usual warming up. I wasn’t particularly flexible, but as I transitioned into mixed martial arts, my style never required additional flexibility. So whenever we would do stretches, they were not particularly useful.
Again, this is another issue born of ignorance. Obviously, flexibility has many great benefits. Usually, when people think flexible, they think doing full splits, but there is more to it than that. I only recently started incorporating a stretching and mobility routine in the past 3 months. Like many of the things I start doing, I heard about @KneesOverToesGuy on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast. I trust Joe’s opinion, is he doesn’t do anything without researching the hell out of it. So I started following that IG account and paid for his training program.
After about 2 years, my right knee was still having some mobility issues. Particularly when doing knees over toes motions – like performing a double leg shot. I could do it, but there was some discomfort. So I decided that if I could gain some improved mobility from my knees that was measurable, I would commit to the program.
After a month, I was committed.
I made significant progress over the course of a few weeks, and the structure of the program fit right into my weight training routine. At this moment, I’m on week 11 of the ATG Zero program. The programs are 12 weeks long, and he has 4 or 5 different routines that increase in difficulty. The routines take about 30 minutes to do, and are not really strenuous. They incorporate a mix of calisthenics and stretching (with weighted resistance in the other programs). I am doing them 5 days a week after weight training.
Right now, my legs feel better than ever. So I’m going to start working in upper body and core mobility exercises now, as my shoulders can use some love. 🙂
When I first started lifting weights, I would get ridiculously sore. I was doing a high amount of volume off the get go, and it was like jumping in the deep end of a pool. While listening to another Joe Rogan podcast, I heard about some of the benefits of a dry sauna. At the time I was working out a gym that had a sauna, and figured it was worth trying if it could help alleviate the soreness.
I would spend 20-30 minutes at a time in there post workout, and started to notice improved recovery. After a few weeks, it became yet another part of my routine. Pretty much after every weight training session, I spend 30 minutes in the sauna.
I’m not an expert, so I can only give you the basics that I understand of why it helps. First, the high heat increase blood flow throughout your body. The increased blood flow will help bring in the good stuff to afflicted areas that you just damaged through the workout, and also make your heart work harder – essentially getting a passive fat burning workout. There are also heat shock proteins that get released, which are supposed to aid in recovery. Finally, as your body gets repeatedly exposed to extreme temperatures, it gets better at regulating them. All in all, a lot of positive benefits.
At first, I was not keen on jumping into a sauna. My only experiences with saunas were all related to cutting weight. I was starving, dehydrated, and exhausted before getting into a sauna. I was then trying to workout in the sauna in this state of being, which is pretty much self torture.
So if you have the same images coming to your mind, let me put you at ease. When you have a full stomach (or at least not starving), well hydrated, and just finishing a hard workout, sitting in a sauna is relaxing. I usually have just finished off my protein shake post workout, drank a bunch of water, and will carry some water with me into the sauna to drink during my 30 minutes. As I’m not concerned with cutting weight, the result is much more pleasant.
At first, 30 minutes will be daunting. You might struggle to even complete 10 minutes. But over the course of weeks and months, you will get the hang of it. Much like walking, I’m usually listening to an audio book, podcast, or on a phone call. I will say that having someone to talk to makes the experience much easier. Usually, the last 5-10 minutes can be a mental challenge, as at that point your body wants out of the sauna. If you can distract yourself, it becomes really easy to overcome.
Massage, Physical Therapy
Chalk up massage to another activity I had negative experience with early on that turned me off to the idea. Only in my last year of career did I start using it and realized I probably missed out on a lot of recover in the 15 years of competing I engaged in.
Since then, I get about 1 deep-tissue massage on a weekly basis. A good therapist can get rid of a lot of inflammation, tightness, knots, and help undo a lot of damage. Sometimes the benefits are more subtle, but they are still effective.
Likewise, I have a massage chair that is surprisingly effective, although not a replacement for a real person. I then have a massage gun, that is great for taking on tight spots or knots. And finally, I have a Normatec Compression Sleeve, which can be used for arms, legs, and hips to help mimic massage as well.
I generally use these tools a few times a week to keep my body in a good place.
One of the more underrated activities, especially to the young, is sleep. I have done plenty of all nighters back in college when I was studying for finals. I was up for 36 hours at one point, and had gotten very good at achieving 30+ hours by drinking plenty of water, and eating a lot of chocolate and gummy bears.
From experience, I can tell you that my likelihood to catch a cold, or at least get the sniffles after these sessions was very high. Not only was my immune system compromised, but I was hanging out with 5-10 college kids in the same condition.
Sleep is crucial to recovery. Without proper sleep, all the stuff we are doing above goes to crap. The amount of sleep varies per person, but you definitely want to ensure you are getting quality sleep. I have several things working in unison to make sure I get the best sleep possible.
The first thing is the bed. I used to wake up with a sore back every freaking day, as early as my 20’s. I would typically wake up with 7 hours because my back would start hurting and not allow me to sleep anymore. It wasn’t until 2 years ago until I got myself a Sleep Number bed with an adjustable base that I realized what great sleep was. I’m a back sleeper, so I have my feet up high with my head just slightly up, and the result is much better sleep with no pain whatsoever. It was a really game changer for me.
Second is the temperature. I run hot, and I would sweat like a pig in bed. Sometimes I would have to put a towel on the bed because it was soaking wet. Definitely not fun or hygienic. I have tried gel pads and all sorts of bed types that wick heat away, and none of them worked. Not until I used a BedJet did my sweating problems go away. It is basically an air conditioner for your bed. It has a small fan unit that goes under your bed that shoots cool air into your bed through a special bed sheet. It doesn’t take much, but it works like a charm.
Third is waking up. If you are trained to wake up to an alarm, chances are you waking up abruptly and the experience is jarring. Waking up at the proper time naturally increases the restfulness of your sleep. Because of what I do, I don’t have to wake up at a particular time, so I’m fortunate in that regard. But nevertheless, I wake up around 8am pretty much everyday because of sunlight. Our body is conditioned to start waking us up naturally when sunlight starts to hit our eyelids. This is the best way to wake up. So if you can position yourself to have light wake you up at the proper time, great. Otherwise, I have my backup, which is my Fitbit alarm. It works with vibration, which tends to gently wake you up, versus an alarm blasting away causing you to freak out. As a plus, the Fitbit also measures your sleep quality, giving you some measurable data to work with.
I typically get about 7 hours of sleep a day.
So what does my workout routine actually look like? Depends on the day. I will give a few examples:
High Volume Day (1-2 times a week):
- 10:30am -12:00pm: Martial Arts
- 3:00pm – 4:30pm: Weight Training
- 4:30pm – 5:15pm: Conditioning
- 5:15pm – 5:45pm: Stretching and Mobility
- 5:45pm – 6:15pm: Sauna Session
- Total time: 4 hours and 45 minutes
Medium Volume Day (1-3 times a week):
- 12:00pm – 1:30pm: Weight Training
- 1:30pm – 2:00pm: Stretching and Mobility
- 2:00pm – 2:30pm: Sauna Session
- 5:30pm – 6:30pm: Martial Arts Drilling Only Session
- 7:00pm – 7:20pm: Massage Chair
- Total time: 3 hours and 50 minutes
Light Volume Day (2-3 times a week):
- 12:00pm – 1:00pm: Walk/Ruck
- 1:30pm – 2:00pm: Accessory lifts (gripping, forearms, curls, calfs)
- 2:00pm – 2:30pm: Stretching and Mobility
- 2:30pm – 3:00pm: Normatec Compression
- Total time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Looking at those times, you might think, “Holy crap! I don’t have 4 hours to give.” Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. It’s a good exercise to write down what times you have blocked out on a daily basis. Work and sleep will probably take up at least half your day. So that will likely leave you with anywhere between 10-12 hours if you are working an 8 hour shift. There is time for you to get a good amount of physical activity in, if you make it a priority.
If you are doing overtime or double shifts, then I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be rough. Then again, if you are working that hard, chances are your priorities are focused on achieving financial or status goals. Perhaps you are digging yourself out of hole, or are trying to set yourself up for life. Either way, you are likely on a mission that is taking all of your focus. I would still say get at least 30 minutes of physical activity in (if your work is not physical in nature), as if you are working in an office full time, you need some physical stress to balance all the mental stress.
I’m by no means a know-it-all. I’m learning everyday like everyone else. But I hope that my experience can be a benefit to you.
If you are curious about how I fuel all of this physical activity, check out my diet outline below:
Very very instructive post David. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I’m myself into bjj and over 40. I’ve been doing something similar, but there are very nice details here that will help me, I would actually check the juggernaut program. I’ve been training lately 4 times a week bjj ( I’m blue belt so there is too much for me to still learn, can’t do less ) 2 days weights strength work out, 3 days flexibility/mobility and one day a cardio/HIIT session. the days I do the weights are my heavy load days and usually I prefer to do the weights before the bjj, can’t really lift a 80% of my best after rolling bjj at my bjj level. 😅 .