A number of years ago, a friend of mine in the martial arts world convinced me to try bench-pressing. He had been doing it for a while and believed that it added to his grappling skills and added more power to his punches. He was very convincing and meant well, so I decided to give it a go. My experience of barbell training prior to that was negligible to say the least, so I went down to the local gym and was instructed on correct form for the bench press. I also wanted something for the lower body, so I took instruction in the deadlift from one of the personal trainers there too. Because of my lack of prior experience, I never lifted without a spotter for the first month. My friend was lifting using a system of heavy weights for low reps. For example, he would press 50% of his body weight five times, take a brief rest and then do another five presses. He upped the weight every four weeks. He followed a similar scheme for the deadlift, though the weights lifted were much heavier. Together with a warm-up period on the stationary exercise bicycle of ten minutes, the whole session took about half an hour. Also, I trained three times a week, as the importance of giving the muscles a rest and allowing them to recover from the exertion of shifting iron was made clear to me in no uncertain terms.
How did it go ? Well, the idea of taking care of all my physical exercise needs by only training for thirty minutes three time a week was very appealing in itself. Also, I only had two exercises to learn and practice. What could be simpler or more convenient? It seemed to me to be a good use of my time, not too complicated and the social scene in the gym was appealing in its own right-a refreshing change from early morning solo training in my bedroom.
I was already fairly strong, yet my chest filled out nicely. I developed the right curves in the right places, my shirts got tight, my legs became much firmer and I got compliments from people on how well I was looking. On the mat, my strength increased, especially on the ground when getting out of locks and when applying holds. My punching power increased too-I actually cracked a makiwara once, to the accompanying sound of sharp intakes of breath and grudging appreciation from the other budoka present. My head swelled almost as much as my ego, let me tell you.
So why did I stop lifting heavy iron? Given all of the above advantages and benefits, why aren’t I doing it any more?
After a while (around six months in my case), I noticed that my range of motion was decreasing. For example, if someone on the mat was standing directly in front of me, I could push him or her very hard and (I am sorry to say) injured a number of my training partners in this manner without meaning to. In short, I was loosing the control and finesse, which is so necessary to train in a safe manner, especially when training with a beginner. I had replaced finesse with clumsiness. Note also that I said “directly in front of me”. If someone moved slightly to one side, I was as weak as a kitten. My strength at odd angles had actually decreased, as had my torso flexibility. All an opponent had to do was step to one side and I was finished. I couldn’t turn into my opponent, as fast as I used to and even if I did, the strength was just not there. My legs and lower back went the same way. This became especially obvious if I was involved in takedowns. If I made contact with my opponent’s leg, it had to be the lower calf. My erstwhile ability to throw from knee or lower thigh hooks seemed to evaporate. My legs were stronger, but they were also slower. Finally, I noticed that I was landing very hard indeed on breakfalls and shoulder rolls. From formerly having a smooth and silent roll, I now sounded like a gunnysack when I hit the mat. Friends pointed out to me (after some observation) that my lower back appeared to have stiffened to the extent that my upper and lower body appeared to be at odds with each other, rather than working as a harmonious whole with fluidity of motion. In plain English, I was getting stiffer and stiffer. An unwelcome by-product of this was that my endurance decreased. I was using up so much energy merely moving around that I had none left over for dealing with opponents. After ten minutes or so, I was out of breath, my entire body felt tired and had to keep stepping off the mat for short breaks.
Coupled with all of the above, I started getting a nagging pain in the back of my right shoulder. It was not sharp by any means. It was more of a gradually creeping numbness, which spread around the back of the shoulder. I mentioned this at the gym and was told “Sounds like an over-use injury. A lot of benchpressers are prone to these. Lay off the bench for a while and see how it goes”. I confined myself to deadlifts only for a month, but the nagging pain got worse. Further, my arm started going dead at odd moments when on the mat. Apart from the obvious danger this presented (try doing a forward roll with one arm suddenly useless and your chin tucked in under your arm and you’ll see what I mean) , it meant that martial arts gradually became out of bounds for me.
At that stage, fate intervened, as I emigrated to the UK, then got an office job and the following year got married. This all meant that I had no time for any regular form of training for a few years. My pain went away and I forgot all about weight lifting. I practiced martial arts solo and sporadically, but didn’t train regularly at a dojo for a number of years, as my life became full.
When my son was a year old, I was able to return properly to martial arts ie. Join a dojo again. As my training had only been intermittent, I found that I needed to ramp up my physical condition rapidly. Unfortunately, the old saying “Make haste slowly” never entered my head. I decided to stay away from bench pressing, but definitely do dead lifts. This time, I bought a barbell set and trained in my garage. The dead lifts worked my lower body OK, but I had nothing for the upper body. I heard about the side press and tried that, even buying a book on the Internet about how to perform the side press correctly. All went well again for a while. I lifted heavy weights for low repetitions and dropped the warm up altogether. I made good gains in a short period of time and was consequently able to strut my stuff on the mat with the best of them. I quickly got a reputation as a tough training partner-which was what I wanted, truth be told. One day, I had a hard time of it at work. I had a new boss who was a well-balanced individual-he had a chip on both shoulders and more hangups than your average art gallery. I wasn’t concentrating at all and the traffic on the way home that evening resembled a funeral procession more than anything else. My mind was most definitely not on training, yet I got changed into T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and went out to the garage anyway. I did my two sets of deadlifts, rested, then picked up the barbell for the side press. The barbell was over my head when I remembered an incident at work earlier. I relaxed my grip and my concentration and -yes, you have guessed it-I brought the barbell down at an awkward angle. Immediately, I heard a crunching noise in my shoulder, followed by searing pain. A trip to the doctor confirmed that I had damaged cartilage in my right shoulder and traumatised rotator cuff muscles. The only cure for it was complete rest to the shoulder for a number of months. No weight lifting. No martial arts. “Great” I replied,”that is fabulous news”. However, I was not smiling.
Not unsurprisingly, I swore profusely for several moments and then resolved to find an alternative means of training, if and when I was ever able to train again. There and then, I parted company with heavy iron. I thought about my experiences for a period of time and came to the conclusion that it was unsuitable for me for the following reasons (all of which are evident in the tale of woe I have inflicted on you so far) :
I got one lift wrong, I let my concentration lapse for one moment and ended up idle for several months. Do I really want to train in such a risky fashion? Do I hell! I don’t know about you, but I can’t control my thoughts all the time, nor do I want to. Spock on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise is a fictional character, isn’t he ? Everyone has off days from time to time-it is part of being human. It shouldn’t mean that I run the risk of painful physical damage. No-one can perform every repetition of every exercise perfectly, regardless of what the exercise actually is. Something more forgiving than heavy iron was required.
2. Loss of Flexibility
As a martial artist, I need to be able to move across many planes of motion and from many angles. Particularly when engaged in a close-range art such as Zen Judo or Aikido, body turning and balance shifting are all-important. The last thing I want is to tighten up to such an extent that I can’t turn into an opponent, am unable to move fluidly around the mat and can’t breakfall compactly or roll across a shoulder softly. Also, should I need to apply strength for a takedown(which isn’t technically very good but can happen), I need to be able to apply it from as many angles as possible. Having great strength from one angle is OK, if that is the only angle I ever move along. However, as anyone who has spent twenty minutes in a dojo will know, at close quarters one has to be able to move across a wide range of angles and planes of motion. The same is true of strikes-ask any boxer. Being limited is the last thing I need and any mode of training which does this should not be part of any martial artist’s reportoire.
3. Muscular Hypertrophy and Rest
If you lift heavy, you should take the next day off. This is so that your muscles can rest and also change to meet the increased workload being placed on them, either by getting firmer or larger. Fine-except that power lifting is not my primary area of interest. I am only interested if it helps my martial arts training. In addition to physical conditioning, I also want to be able to practice the elements of my art. As any martial artist knows, there is no substitute for regular and consistent practice, particularly if learning a new technique or kata. If I am tired after weight training and have to rest the next day, when I can practice martial arts? Even more importantly, I am a husband and father. I like taking my kids to the park, telling them bedtime stories, playing games with them and so on. I like spending time with my wife, going around the shops with her etc. I am also employed by a company to do a job and do at least a full day’s work every weekday plus the occasional weekend. In short, I can’t be tired and I can’t be distracted, otherwise important areas of my life will suffer. I need to be fresh and have enough energy to get through the day. I can’t rearrange my life around “rest days”, “maximum days” or gym opening times.
4. Lack of Symmetry
Deadlifts are good for the legs. Bench or side pressing is good for the shoulders and chest. They do work other muscles besides those, but these muscle groups are the main focus of these lifts. My own experience was that I was all “arms and shoulders”. I was “top heavy”, if you’ll pardon the expression and therefore my balance became increasingly easy to break.
5. Loss of Endurance
It may sound obvious, but endurance is like anything else-use it or lose it. Even ten minutes of concentrated throwing can be exhausting. Mix in a few takedowns, traps and ground holds and the end result is a lot of huffing and puffing and a torso wringing in sweat-and that is when the injuries happen. I found that devoting all my energy to strength training meant that my endurance suffered and badly. Just before my shoulder injury, I found that I was taking an average of ten breaks per training session, because I simply no longer had the stamina to keep going. Why didn’t I run a few miles on the days when I wasn’t lifting? I tried it-and found that my knees sounded like a bowl of breakfast cereal. I hadn’t enough energy. It was that simple.
This is a personal point, but I found that after four months solid lifting, I was dreading a training session. Doing two or three exercises over and over again is, in my experience and with hindsight, mind-numbingly boring. There are distractions in any gym during rest periods between sets, for example an attractive gym bunny clad in figure-hugging lycra and/or spandex doing a bent-over row, or her sister bouncing up and down on the treadmill. Just remember what I pointed out above about the need for concentration. And no, I am not being sexist-just honest. By this time, though, I am training alone in my garage, so the view isn’t as nice as it used to be.
7. Strength in Motion
The only way to improve at resistance training is to increase the resistance. This is the case whether the resistance takes the form of iron, bodyweight, cables or some combination of all three. However, a martial artist has an additional need-the need for strength in motion. Systems like Zen Judo or Aikido are characterised by constant motion and circular movements. Systems such as Shotokan Karate are primarily linear and strike-based, yet the need for moving strength is just as great. The best way to gain strength in motion is to train in motion and the best way to do that is by using whole-body movements when exercising. Lying on a bench or standing over a barbell while grunting inanely will not meet this need in particular.
8. Weak muscles and Correction of One-sided Movement
I had an injury as a teenager playing football, which resulted in me spending four months with my right leg in plaster of paris. Up until recently, the muscles in my right leg were smaller and weaker than my left. I always leaned more on my left side and on the mat, my counters and takedowns were always initiated from the left side. This is a serious handicap on the mat, as it makes you predictable. I could lead from either side, having been trained to do so, but I always instinctively led from the left. Bench or side pressing and deadlifting makes no allowance for physical irregularities of this nature. It did nothing to help my weak side and merely accentuated an existing imbalance. To finally correct this, I figured out that I needed some exercises which isolated various body parts and trained them specifically. I can’t imagine that I am unique in this. A lot of people get injuries of one type or another.
So, I had identified these eight problem areas. What to do ? The solution lay in the training methods of one of the old-time “Mail Order Musclemen” as they were known -- one Lionel Strongfort. Through participation in a number of internet message boards, I was directed to two websites devoted to the old-time strongmen , which had their entire courses freely available for download, thanks to the hard work of people such as Roger Filary, Gil Waldron, Gordon Anderson and many others. I owe these people a debt of gratitude for making this information available.
I perused both websites and tried out a number of these old-time courses, many of them dating from the early to mid twentieth century, though a few are even older than that. Many of the names on there -- Eugen Sandow, Joe Bonomo, Martin “Farmer” Burns, Sig Klein, Maxick, Otto Arco, K.Y. Iyer , to name but a few -- will be unknown to most people today. Yet, in their own era, these men were renowned far and wide for their feats of strength and endurance. I urge anyone with an interest in sound, sensible methods of physical culture which have had proven results to visit both of these websites. The addresses are :http://www.sandowplus.co.uk
The second website is devoted exclusively to the training methods of Maxick and has a number of his Muscle Control courses freely available. However, I am interested here in going to the first website, which is where you will find the Strongfort course, all ten Lessons of it. There are also a number of booklets written by Lionel Strongfort, one of which is entitled “Intelligence in Physical Culture”. I heartily recommend a reading of this. With its sensible, rational and honest approach to exercise, health and strength, it is typical of what appealed to me about Strongfortism from the start.
So what does Strongfortism consist of? It is much more than a set of exercises. It contains detailed instructions on diet, sleep, bathing and skin care as well as a number of tips on dealing with head colds, chills and psoriasis and is well worth reading for these alone, quite apart from the exercises. It is equitably suitable for males and females. Mrs. Strongfort published a book in the 1920s for women which had basically the same exercises, except that they were illustrated by her rather her husband.
However, in this article, I am concerned with the exercises. Though dumbbells are used in most of the exercises, they are very light. I have been practising Strongfortism myself for over six months consistently at this point and am only using a pair of five pounders. I find that they provide more than enough resistance. Strongfort himself states clearly in several places that , for the majority of people, heavy lifting is not advisable. Over a period of time, it can tear down the body, whereas his exercises are concerned with building the body up. He did lift heavy weights himself and had a gym in Newark, USA for a number of years. However, he was very careful about who he selected as students and was reportedly quite particular about technique. He also advocated slight moderate increases in the amount lifted. For most people, his course is more than sufficient to meet the needs of physical culture. The bulk of his own personal training (despite the fact that he was a professional strongman and held shows in several major cities) was done using his own exercises.
Strongfort did not believe in deep breathing exercises, being of the opinion that they placed an undue strain on the heart. He was also against training to failure, as this tears down the muscles and internal organs of the body and over the long term does far more harm than good. He was in favour of breathing normally while exercising and advocated exercising such that a slight local fatigue was the desired object. He did not regard his exercises as weight-training, but rather as a system of callisthenics with a little added resistance. They number over thirty in all and are a mixture of isolation-type moves, whole body movements, tensing exercises and ballistic drills. They are arranged in such a way that each part of the body is exercised then rested, in turn. Like any good system of exercise, they begin with the core and work outwards. Lesson One is mainly a set of stretching exercises to prepare the body for the coming exercises. The second and last exercises in this Lesson alone are excellent for the spine and abdomen. By the time you get to Lesson Ten, you should be able to manage a one-legged squat without much trouble and a one-armed dip with relative ease. Believe me, it takes someone fit and strong to be able to do either one.
Because of the large number and different type of exercises contained therein, the interest of the person is held throughout a training session. However, the next Lesson builds on the work of the preceding one. Muscle groups are strengthened in preparation for coming exercises. Hence, it is important that the exercises be done in the order in which they are given and that none are excluded. Overall, the exercises are gentle and could easily be done by someone over the age of fifty. This is important for those of us under fifty, as it means that we won’t be worn out by the time we reach the magic half-century, due to damaging exercise methods in our youth.
Strongfort, like a lot of the old-time “Mail Order Musclemen” , did not give repetition figures for most of his exercises. This seems to have been standard practice for the most part in those days, especially the early twentieth century. I found this difficult to cope with, brought up as I was on sets and repetitions. Through trial and error, I devised a scheme of repetitions, which I offer for your perusal. You may come up with a better one, or at least one more suited to your own needs and likes. If so, fine by me.
Each Lesson is meant to be added to the ones preceding it and there are
10 Lessons in all. A new Lesson is to be added every two weeks. I train six
mornings a week, Monday to Saturday and rest on Sunday. When I began
Lesson One, I proceeded like this:
Monday to Wednesday First Week-five reps each exercise Lesson One
Thursday to Saturday First Week-ten reps each exercise
Monday to Wednesday Second Week-fifteen reps each exercise
Thursday to Saturday Second Week-twenty reps each exercise
I then dropped the reps for Lesson One to ten from here on out and added
Lesson Two in the same manner. Thus, by the time I got to Lesson Ten, I was
doing ten reps for all of the exercises in Lessons One to Nine on the first
Monday of that fortnight, before doing the Exercises in Lesson Ten.
I hope this is clear.
I raised eight issues about training with heavy iron. I propose to relate how Strongfortism overcame these issues. Remember that this is not opinion or theory, but rather my own concrete experience.
What danger ? After six months, I have moved from 4LB dumbbells to 5LB ones. Strongfort sold his own brand of dumbbells, which were sent out with the course. The heaviest they went up to was 8LB. One’s weekly grocery shopping these days is much heavier. Strongfort admonishes in several places to avoid strain. Keep exercising consistently and regularly and “practice will make you perfect”. The lumbar region of my spine is no longer being strained by holding huge weights overhead and my knees are no longer getting supra-bodyweight shocks like they used to. My joints are getting exercised as much as my muscles, so I have no stiffness of motion. There is a lot to be said for common sense and a rational approach to exercise.
2. Loss of Flexibility
The only effect Strongfortism has had on my flexibility is to increase it markedly. Also, I now have pain-free movement, despite having a number of old injuries. A lot of the exercises, particularly in Lessons One to Five, are merely stretches with added resistance. After my morning session of Strongfortism, I feel (and look) much more limber than before.
3. Muscular Hypertrophy and Rest
My muscles were a bit sore for the first fortnight, but it was very mild indeed compared to what I had when I did heavy lifting. Also, the soreness was due to the muscles and joints loosening up, not as a result of strain. It was a “strengthening soreness” if that makes sense. Since then, I have had no soreness, yet my muscles have increased in size, plus I have a lot more definition and tone. My upper back in particular resembles an anatomy chart. I don’t consider myself overly vain, but I am human all the same. Also, my kids especially are grateful for Strongfortism, as I now have (almost) enough energy to keep up with them.
4. Lack of Symmetry
Symmetry is a must, in my opinion, for anyone engaged in any kind of grappling activity. This is because of the need to be able to move in a large number of planes of motion and across many angles. The same is true for people who train in striking arts. The power in a punch starts, not in the shoulder of the punching arm, but rather in the abdomen if not the snap of the hip. In other words, muscular arms and legs alone won’t cut the mustard. The torso and all of the stabilising muscles need to be worked on also. Strongfortism, because of its scientific and graduated approach and the means by which it takes a trip around the body, ensures symmetry of development. Also, you are only as strong as your weakest link. You may have bulging biceps, but they won’t be much good to you on the mat if your abdomen has the consistency of day-old soup. One punch there from your opponent and the only thing you will be punching is yourself, after you are lifted up from the floor. The simplest and most effective way 'round this is to have no weak links and that is possible if you train for symmetry.
5. Loss of Endurance
It certainly was not obvious to me at first glance, but subsequent experience has shown to me that Strongfortism builds endurance just as much as it does strength. An average morning session with all ten Lessons contained in it takes anywhere between forty and fifty minutes. During that time, even though the exercises are gentle, the body (either all of it or one part) is in constant motion. Oddly, I have never felt tired after a session of Strongfortism. I do feel some localised fatigue sometimes, but I have never felt weary. Rather, I feel energised and invigorated. I have enough energy left over for the rest of the day. To my mind, that is how exercise should make one feel. I am not overdoing it , but neither am I doing too little.
As regards martial arts in particular, I can hold my own without any trouble on the mat. If I am beaten these days when sparring, it is due to lack of skill on my part, not because I have run out of steam and need to take a break or because my muscles have given out. Also, my rolls are soft and fluid and my breakfalls are firm without feeling as if I have been kicked by a ploughhorse.
Despite the lack of lycra-wearing gym bunnies in my garage in the mornings, the low reps and sheer number of exercises mean that my attention is held throughout a training session. Changing exercise every ten reps, as well as avoiding overdoing it, means that I constantly have something new to think about when exercising.
7. Strength in Motion
A good number of the exercises are whole body exercises, particularly in the last three Lessons. Their similarity to martial arts moves (both striking and grappling) is readily apparent. However, the same is true of Lesson Four. Nearly every normal plane of motion and angle is covered in one or other of the exercises. On the mat, I have definitely found that my strength has increased across the board, unlike the solitary angle of power that heavy lifting gave me.
8. Weak muscles and Correction of One-sided Movement
As I mentioned earlier, I had some muscle wastage in my right leg. While it didn’t mean I had to use a walking stick, it did interfere with my martial arts practice and made me predictable. Lessons Two and Three in particular helped me to correct this, as the exercises are to be done on each side. I simply did a few more repetitions on my weak side, until it came into line with my strong side. With Strongfort, symmetry is one of the foundational principles of his system of exercise. I never appreciated how important this is to martial arts in particular until recently -- since I have become a lot less predictable on the mat than I used to be.
Ray Brennan was born in Northern Ireland and has been involved in martial arts, mostly aikido and aiki-jutsu for a number of years. He is currently studying Zen Judo and Canadian Combato. Ray has been doing strength training for almost a decade.