Strength Training Exercises from Martial Arts

So I’ve been watching this TV series on National Geographic called Kung Fu Quest.  It’s a fascinating show where a couple of martial artists go train in different systems of kung fu.  In this particular episode they trace the origin of karate to white crane boxing:

At the 48 minute mark, they go over traditional karate strength training exercises: stone hammers, sanchin steps, stone locks and dynamic tension.

I’ve always found traditional martial arts strength exercises to be fascinating, because martial artists use a lot of strength exercises that predate the advent of dumbbells and barbells.  Martial artists practice a wide variety of body weight exercises and partner-assisted exercises meant to build strength, mobility and flexibility.  Different disciplines, for example, have their own push-up variations:

As I mentioned in a previous post, the original purpose of exercise was martial.  Exercise originated from the martial arts and from warrior cultures.  Martial artists tended to use whatever objects that were available to them as forms of resistance, such as their body weight, weapons and farming tools.  The following are some traditional martial arts strength training exercises:


Judo Gi Pull-ups

As a judoka you must have an incredibly powerful back and grip.  One exercise to develop grip and back strength is the judo gi pull-up.  If you don’t have a gi, then simply throw a towel over the pull-up bar.


Knuckle Push-ups

Virtually every striker does knuckle push-ups.  Supposedly it develops striking power, but I see it more as a forearm exercise.


Finger Tip Push-ups

Finger tip push-ups build tendon strength in your forearms and fingers.  Since the forearm extensors are tiny muscles, I suggest you don’t go beyond 5-6 reps.  Your chest and triceps can keep going beyond 6 reps, but your forearms will fatigue much quicker.  You will risk popping a finger joint if you rep out.  If you find you can do 6 reps of fingertip push-ups fairly easily, then elevate your feet on a bench and do decline fingertip push-ups.

Masahiko Kimura

Wrestler’s Bridge

Wrestlers build some yoked out physiques just from wrestling.  Here’s an exercise wrestlers do that will not only strengthen your neck and spine, but make them flexible as well.  You can perform the wrestler’s bridge as an isometric exercise (holding the position for time). Or you can rock back and forth on your head, rolling your forehead on to the floor.


Horse Stance

Here’s an isometric exercise that will work the quads, inner thighs and glutes.  Get into the horse stance and simply hold the position for as long as you can.



Rope Climbing

Want to be a ninja or just be a contestant on Ninja Warrior?  Then take up rope climbing.  Rope climbing is a great way to build up grip strength and the biceps.


Stone Locks

Stone locks are ancient Chinese padlocks.  They are made of stone or iron and come in various sizes depending on the size of the door to be locked, from the very small (palm size) to the very big (77 pounds). Shaolin monks and soldiers used stone locks as weights for weightlifting and have been a “part of traditional kung fu regimens since at least the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).”

“The traditional stone lock workout consists of swinging and lifting routines performed in sets of several repetitions (from 5-50, depending on ability) after which the lock is transferred (often by spinning or flipping the lock in midair) to the alternate hand.

“The basic lock maneuvers for building strength consist of swinging and hoisting the lock while gripping the handle. Advanced exercises include manipulating the lock with one’s elbows/forearms, spinning the stone in midair, or heaving the weight while maintaining low stance postures.”

These stone lock exercises and drills resemble kettlebell exercises and provide the same strength, power and coordination benefits.


The Long Bag

The “long bag” is a bag half filled with sand or rice and is used to strengthen your grip.  Like the stone locks, the long bag strengthens and increases the muscular endurance of the forearms, back and rotational muscles. The long bag develops quickness and agility in ways which solid iron weights cannot by using accelerating and deceleration movements to swing and spin the bag at various angles.


Rice Bucket

Hand strength is important in grappling, so you will find a plethora of grip exercises in martial arts regimens. Using a rice bucket is one of the better exercise tools for hand strength, because it is versatile.  You can perform both gripping and finger extension movements in the rice itself.  The video shows sand instead of rice.  Sands tends to get compacted over time, whereas rice does not.


Spear and Pole Shaking

Often weapons themselves were used as a form of strength training.  In the martial art Xing Yi Quan, spear or pole shaking is done as a means to increase total body power and explosiveness.  The practitioner trains with a 10 foot long pole made of strong, flexible wood.  The flexibility of this wood allows the practitioner to transmit force through it as he shakes it.

Vibrating a heavy pole from one end is physically taxing and is like doing hundreds of punches in a short period of time, as explained at minute 13 of this episode of Kung Fu Quest:


Bagua Teacups

The “teacup exercise” is used in the martial art Bagua Zhang.  This is not a strength exercise, but a flexibility and mobility exercise for the shoulders.


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