Letters: Weight training for fighters

Weight training for fighters

29 July 2005

1) I know you have mentioned that it is not the size of the muscles but the neural impulse sent to them by the brain that can cause even smaller weaker people to perform incredible feats under certain stressful conditions. However I also read that you trained with Peter Levy(powerlifter)with weights. Could you recommend a simple program for training with weights? What movements translate well to combat? I have never found a single coach/expert/martial artist answer this question. Are you aware of the Westside powerlifting club in the USA and their use of bands and chains-www.elitefts.com? Also would you incorporate Olympic weightlifting movements? What were your personal bests in the squat, deadlift & bench? Does the bench press have any relevance to combat or is it a ‘show’ movement? (Darius Rana, Australia)

The biggest thing is the impression of what you have to do. It’s by way of the gamma efferent system that the impression formed in the brain determines the spindle thresholds in muscle fibre, which set to their reactive response. The bigger the stretch in the spindle, the greater the motor recruitment. The spindles are embedded within the muscle fibre, and they respond to the rate of change (phasic) in the muscle fibre, as well as the length of change (tonic) by determining the magnitude of motor unit recruitment. The faster you stretch the muscle fibre, and in turn the muscle spindle, the greater the motor recruitment of fast-twitch fibre. Now, the impression sets the reactive response of the spindle, so that the slightest stretch, and even no stretch at all, produces a myotatic reflex. A flash impression of what you have to do determines the reactive sensitivity of the muscle spindle, so its reactive response will be heightened or dampened depending upon what you’re going to do, whether it’s hitting a ball or catching one. Without this facility in our feedback system, we’d always be too late in responding to a cue. I think it was H.E. Mountner who said that all movement is the summation of the myotatic reflex, from the tonus that exists between agonist and antagonist in muscle fibre, to standing, walking, running, or carrying out an explosive event.

Equally important to this facilitation of movement, particuarly within a combative scenario, is the chemical cocktail in the brain of dopamine, testosterone, adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and a dash of serotonin. It is this cocktail that facilitates faster responses, allows you to deal with pain, provides concentration and a heightened sense of awareness of both your external environment and your kinesthetic sense of your own body. It reduces fear and inhibition, and makes you believe you can do anything. And, in the context of what we’re talking about here, this chemical cocktail is crucial in giving the impression of needed response a heightened clarity and strength. You set parameters higher than normal. You feel you’re invincible, that no one can stop you. And all that is part of the impression that your brain sends to the muscles.

Now, you cannot transmit that to somebody. You can only experience it. And that’s what’s usually missing in the martial arts. You might get the technique, the strategy, but you don’t get that impression, how to set it, how to use it. Because it only comes from these emergency situations and violent encounters. Athletes, in a way, enter an emergency state, but they only ever enter a life-death situation figuratively. As a martial artist, you need to be at the next level, because historically it really would have been life or death, not just the championship or the match. And that’s why the samurai, whatever they were practicing, it was based upon that battlefield experience. But their practices would have been only effective for those with similar battlefield experiences. You couldn’t give those practices to someone with no reality experience and expect the practice to substitute for the exigencies of the real situation. The kata, for example, was reflective of an experience, but it wasn’t going to give you the experience. So, in effect, the emergency state of mind I’m talking about can’t be trained. It has to be experiened first.

All I’ve done is analyzed what that might be and how I think it works. Most people who have been in these situations simply do what they have to do without thinking about it. In the classic example of the mother lifting the car off the kid, she obviously knows she’s done something supernormal, but she doesn’t take it any further than that. But with me, I’ve been looking to enhance my physical and psychological abilities all my life. I’ve blown up hot water bottles, I’ve crushed bricks with no spacers, no supports, I’ve bent six inch nails, I’ve bent penny coins, crushed walnuts between my thumb and forefinger and crushed potatoes in my hand. But there were some feats of what some might call ‘supernormal’ strength that were not trained, but were spontaneous. And these are the ones that I analyzed and put into the context of my knowledge of kinesiology, physiology and sports psychology to produce the understanding I have today.

I’m talking about times like when I got underneath a horse caught on a field gate and lifted and cleared it off; or when I hit a wooden beer crate narrow-edge-on with my forearm so that it exploded into smithereens; or in a bar in Tokyo with Gary Spiers and Brian Waites, when I was punching holes through the 3/4″ plywood under the bar. I know it sounds like exaggeration, but these are things I used to do spontaneously. It was a case of my brain behaving as if it was an emergency situation, and I’d get a flash image and would spontaneously act on it.

I first became really aware of this phenomenon of the impression when I smashed a milk bottle after burning my hand on the stove. I was in a state of high arousal because of the pain and anger, and I needed to release on something. I saw the milk bottle just standing there, flashed the impression of it exploding, and just hit it. The bottle literally explodedÑit went everywhere. The brain seemed to align itself to what I had to do (or in this case, believed I had to do) and it all went off in a flash. There was no thinking about it. And it has to be that way, because part of the inhibitory effect of the Golgi Tendon system is that it relies on a feedback mechanism. You can’t allow time for that to occur, or the muscle will hold back so as to save you from injury. And that’s the problem with people who train accuracy before explosion: they are actually encouraging this golgi tendon reflex to take place. That’s why you have to learn to fire the bullet first and work on the accuracy second.

Once you become aware of the feeling of being in an emergency situationÑthe mindset, the physicality, the focussed intentÑyou can start to get a handle on it. With practice, you can switch in and out of ’emergency mode’ very quickly. And if you watch me on the films, you’ll see me talking and then in mid-sentence, I’ll fire off an explosive series of shots, and then go back to talking mode. When you reach this point, you understand the explosive event of firing the bullet. You don’t have to make a big deal out of psyching yourself up. It’s there, on tap, as it should be. Because when you think about it, in the real world, the whole nature of an emergency is that it doesn’t give you any warning. So you have the underlying mindset of constant mindfulness, scanning, which I call the ‘carrier wave’, and as soon as a pertinent cue presents itself, you’re off. What you then understand is that you can produce that external cue, internally. You can stimulate the process internally, with an image that triggers the same response as if the cue were external.

Having fired weapons, I translated the explosive release of the weapon into my own body. That’s picking up the impression of an external physical event and translating it into a mental image, so that now I fire like a bullet. That’s what I used to mean when I’d talk about sensualizing a conception and conceptualizing a sensation. When I look at some big hitters in the MMA, both on video and in my classes, I can only say, there’s nothing there. They haven’t understood the principle.

Going back to training, the only thing you can do is bring the training as close to the reality as possible. And always have in your mind a life-and-death situation rather than a competitive one. The training will give you some of the scenarios and experiences of what a combat situation is likely to be, but it still cannot replace a life and death confrontation. You can’t force that situation to occur, but you can use your imagination and your drills to take you as far in that direction as possible, psychologically, physically and technically. And that’s why you need a training partner you can trust, because you’re bordering on the real thing. All fights, right from the outset, are potential life/death situations, and should be addressed right from the beginning as such–or never entered into in the first place. With that attitude in your mind, you’re carrying a loaded gun. That doesn’t mean you’re going pulverize the guy if, as the fight develops, it turns out not to be necessary. You can pull back off it–and that’s where morality and ethics come in. You need to have a strong sense of right and wrong if you’re going to build this weapon in yourself. (And now looking at what’s happened on the London tube last week, you can see where that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to real firearms; as a relative of the deceased man said, ‘You’ve got to use your brain.’ Not stick eight bullets in before you realise you might have made a mistake.)

But you have to start off with this killer attitude, or you might very well get creamed. The martial arts purport to have it, but they don’t. They walk on the moral high ground of their battlefield codes of behavior without ever having been on a battlefield of any kind, in the dojo or outside of it.

Now: about weightlifting. With regard to Pete Levy, I was never a powerlifter. I was working on the door for Pete up in the Angel, but I had a broken hand that hadn’t been set properly. And although I was dealing with guys, it was a liability. So Pete suggested the deadlift might be a good idea, so I started training with him. So Dickie Wu and me started doing deadlift, bench, and squat. And Pete was right; the hand got stronger. We lifted some big weights–we didn’t have any alternative considering we were training with the British champion and he wasn’t going to train with wusses! By the way, Pete was phenomenally strong, particuarly his grip. And I remember one time outside of the pub we were discussing how to break holds. He just grabbed hold of my wrists and I was completely immobilized. There was no possibility I was going to break that hold. It was like a fucking vise. So yeah, he trained me, but I didn’t keep a record book.

The problem with too much strength training is that you tend to rely on strength whenever you have a problem. Strength becomes your universal solution, and it makes you very one-dimensional. And it tends to isolate you into those areas that you’ve trained in, the planes of movement that you have used in the gym.

And so whatever strength training you do, it has to be specific to what you need to do in the fight–which, you must remember, is multidimensional. Many of the planes of motion are diagonal, and not in the vertical or perfect horizontal as most weight training is performed. You need to adapt your weights to the fight. So if you’re going to do the bench press, do it on the ground which is where you will be when you need to get him off you in a fight. But don’t do your clearance, for example, with a bar. Do it with unequal dumbells, and do it repeatedly and explosively through the range of motion you will need. You have to get creative. If you’re going to do pullups, for example, space your hands at the distance you’re going to be pulling on a head. Don’t do a wide-armed grip. And do it with a towel, not a bar, because that will improve your grip. Or do some rope climbing, no legs, so your whole body is helping you climb the rope.

Everything is specific, but you have to look at the fight to find out what that specific is. And then you devise your exercises and drills based on what’s happening. That’s why I recommend interval training: the fight ebbs and flows at various rates and intensitites. Sometimes it’s on the feet in the open or closed positions, and sometimes it’s on the ground, top and bottom. That’s why you have to mix your training, and do it for the full duration of what you anticipate the fight to be.

When you ask me for a program, I can only give you some concepts. I can’t spoonfeed you. And you have to experiment; it’s so easy to start or stop an exercise if it’s not working. There’s no big commitment. Indeed, to keep the body on its toes, it’s a good idea to have the same goal but seek to achieve that goal in different ways, because your body will adapt itself to whatever you’re doing and you’ll just get stale. So, when I say ‘be specific’ I mean, always relate what you’re doing to the fight. But don’t be specific in the sense of over-specializing in a particular exercise or group of exercises. The main thing is to always attack the system in the same way you’ll have to use it in the fight, psychologically and physiologically, and provided you do that intensely enough,the system will overcompensate and you will be stronger than you were before. That’s the principle behind peaking.

It’s very easy to divert your energies into physical culture rather than martial arts, but this is a mistake. Particularly bodybuilding, because this tends to isolate the body parts even more. People get caught up in the imagery of what they ‘should’ be looking like, but whatever body shape you have anyway is going to be modified by what you need to do, whether you’re a rower or a tennis player or whatever. And that’s why as a fighter you need to define what you need to do, on the feet, on the ground, and then strengthen it accordingly, but ALWAYS USING THE BODY AS A WHOLE, and always with the idea of working in the anaerobic zone rather than the aerobic zone. And that ‘whole’ must include the fundamental reflex and behavioral patterns which are inherent.

In most gyms, they isolate body parts to achieve concentration on a muscle group, but this is to the expense of the synergistic application of the body. I’ve had a number of students with unbelievable ‘gym’ physiques but they were limited because their isolation training made it difficult for them to use their body as a whole, or to move outside the prescribed planes that they’d become expert in. When I hit or move or throw, I do it with every fucking thing. And I can keep doing that over and over again for as long as you like, because I’m complying with natural body movement. It’s easy.

There seems to be a phenomenon where guys are all looking to become stronger or faster or more reactive than before, and they introduce a whole array of equipment and exercises: Swiss balls, bands, whatever. It becomes a fad. So they religiously adhere to ‘the plan’ whatever it might be, without any real understanding of what they’re trying to achieve. The whole exercise is devoid of purpose. If I do plyometrics, I don’t just do the plyometric and expect it to do the job for me. I do it for the purpose of enhancing an explosive event, and I’m measuring my progress kinesthetically as I go along. I’ve got a body awareness, and I’ve got my own goals and purposes, and I’m not surrendering myself to some program and hoping it’s going to work. The whole point of doing a ply is not just to train the physiological response, but to develop the explosive impression in the mind. That’s where it effectively gets translated into the body. I watch coaches putting football players and rugby players through speed/agility/strength-training drills, and the vast majority of the players are just going through the motions. The drills, which might have some useful content, are absolutely worthless because they haven’t understood why they’re doing it.

You have to take control of your own training. You take responsbility for yourself.

There is no one exercise or exercise program to solve it all. You really do have to suck it and see. For one thing, if you feel that you’re physically inept and you go to somebody for help then you’re already vulnerable. Most people will accept any bullshit and swallow it whole, in my experience. Any fad, be it Indian squats, cat bends, whatever. The ‘prescription’ becomes their way out. They think, ‘I don’t have to look for it anymore. I’ve been given the magic pill.’ Now that might very well be true for the body beautiful, but it ain’t true for the martial arts. You need to be conditioned to be a fighter, but it’s more than that. And it’s more than just the skills. It’s the psychological state of mind. Most guys with that fighting psychological state of mind, from my experience, are not into group experience!

Having said all of that, I’ll give you a few personal tips of things that have worked for me.

First of all, your exercises have to be specific to the range of motion through which you anticipate having to execute a response, and of the resistance you anticipate. If you’re practicing strikes, use ighter weights. If you’re practicing lifts and dumps, use heavier weights or use the heavy free bag.

Personally, for my strikes in the open position I use 5 pound hand weights. That sounds light. But I use them in a very specific way to enhance short range punching. Basically, the method involves using my entire body to simultaneously or sequentially ‘throw’ the weight within my hand, and immediately retracting the weight and repeating the process in an oscillatory movement. If there were beans inside the weight, you’d hear them shaking as I shake the weight. I’m explosively, repeatedly stimulating the myotatic reflex. And I do that through all the planes of movement and actions in thirty second intervals, for say twenty minutes.

This has been my secret for some years. I’ve recently made it available to guys training with me, but even though I’ve revealed this secret, as with most things, nobody seems to be interested. Maybe they think I’m sneaking off to the gym to do bench presses or doing my chi kung and not telling anybody!

I got the idea from the Southern Fujian systems, where iron or steel rings on the forearms are used to enhance the shaking or oscillatory movements of the body as used in bridging and striking. The rapidity and intensity of the sound of the rings hitting each other is representative of the stimulation of the stretch reflex, and reflects what the Chinese call ‘shaking energy.’ You’re transferring that ‘shake’ into the man, to shake him with the violence that you’ve shook yourself. Most people can’t make that transference of the shake of their whole body into the man, but that’s the key.

So, if I can impress one thing upon you, it’s this: don’t get caught up in weight training at the expense of what you’re actually seeking to do, which is fight. It’s the fight that you’re looking for the experience of, not lifting the weight or doing the kata or whatever specific practice it might be. If I’m doing a press up, I’m not only thinking of the function of what I’m trying to achieve, but the other guy who’s also doing press-ups and thinking about me. Whenever I hit a makiwara in the old days and broke it, I had a particular image of the person I was hitting in my mind. I wasn’t just doing an exercise. There’s always an association between what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. That’s why, when people watch me punch and kick a bag, they see the violence and vicious intent. I’ve imprinted an image in my mind’s eye of the person I’m actually hitting, and it’s invariably someone I don’t like.