In part 1 of “Weight Training for Better Strength, Power, Endurance, and Flexibility,” we dug into building strength and power. These two topics are easy to understand and are commonly known as true. Even those that don’t lift weights can see how lifting weights increases strength and, when added to martial arts training, can improve power production.
In case you missed it, the main take-home message for lifting to improve strength is that working within a repetition range of 3-6 is ideal. But it is also a good idea to spend some time lifting in the 8-12 rep range to build a bit more lean muscle and take advantage of what is referred to as muscle hypertrophy. You can think of the hypertrophy phase as laying the foundation for greater strength gain.
When it comes to the best increase in power, we must understand what power is. Power is the ability to overcome resistance over a certain period of time. The shorter the time, the greater the power. When working to maximize our power increase with weights, practitioners will use heavy weights for rep ranges of 1-3 reps for best results. They can also incorporate plyometric training or the use of exercise bands as a means of adding resistance and moving with as much speed as safely possible.
Now, let’s get into our focus of today and see how we can improve both our endurance and flexibility through weight training.
As we mentioned in Part 1, being powerful is undoubtedly a great advantage in an altercation, but what about in a sporting match that lasts much longer than a typical self-defense scuffle? That’s where endurance is of vital importance. As Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” And if you’ve been in a sparring match, stand-up, or grappling, you know that feeling of fatigue setting in and having to fight with all your might mentally to keep trudging forward.
What if I said you could improve your endurance through weight training? Some folks complain that lifting weights will make you carry too much oxygen-hungry muscle causing you to gas out more quickly. However, as I mentioned in Part 1, putting on excessive muscle is hard to do, especially by accident. You can and should take an approach to your weightlifting that actually increases your endurance.
There are a couple of main things to do with weightlifting to improve your endurance. You can perform high reps sets and you can adjust your rest periods. First, let’s focus on the rep range. If you read part 1, you already know the ideal rep ranges for Power (1-3), Strength (3-6), and Hypertrophy (8-12). To maximize your muscular endurance, focus the reps for each set in the 15-25 rep range. This will still help build some muscle and add strength, but it will also greatly improve muscular endurance. As the body is repeatedly challenged to supply the necessary oxygen to the muscle during training sets, it will adapt and enhance long-term endurance.
The other approach mentioned is to reduce rest time between sets as much as possible. This can be accomplished by simply keeping the rest between exercise sets down around thirty seconds or less. An even more effective approach, though, is to use what are called “super sets” and “giant sets.” Supersets are where opposing muscle groups are trained in succession, alternating one and then another back and forth. For example, when doing bench press and barbell row, one set of bench press would be completed and immediately followed by one set of barbell row. Then back to the bench for the second set of bench press and on to the barbell row again for set number two, etc. The same approach is used for giant sets with three or more exercises. For this, one could add a barbell squat to the mix or nearly any other exercise for that matter. The main thing is to use different muscle groups in each exercise. That way, you can move from lift to lift without taking a rest. Each muscle group has enough fuel to keep going, and at the same time, you get the added benefit of improved cardiovascular training. Coupling this with the high reps that are endurance focused, you get a double whammy and can’t help but increase endurance.
We understand the importance of endurance and training to build it, but did you know that one important way to improve endurance has nothing to do with performing more reps? One of the most important things to be able to do to endure during a fight is being able to relax. This also helps with speed, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day. Regarding relaxing, if a muscle is not being used at a given moment, holding tension in that muscle is counterproductive and leads to early fatigue. I remember starting off sparring, both standup and grappling, I would get gassed so quickly. This wasn’t because I was out of shape per se, but rather because I was holding so much tension since I didn’t know when and what I could relax.
Much of learning what and when we can relax simply comes from experience, but improved flexibility can also help. Furthermore, improved flexibility can improve speed and reduce injury. For all these reasons, it makes sense that more flexibility will serve a marital artist well. Unfortunately, in days of the past, people spread the belief that weight training would destroy flexibility. When, in fact, when appropriately done with intentionality, weight training can lead to greater flexibility as well as muscular control, allowing one to engage and relax muscles with more ease.
So, how do we improve flexibility through weight training?
There are two main ways to accomplish this goal. First, working through a full range of motion for most repetitions for each exercise is the first step towards improving flexibility. There are times when partial reps make sense. But, as a basic rule, working through the full range is a good starting point for maintaining and improving mobility. For most exercises, you’ll feel a gentle stretch at one end of the movement and a solid contraction at the other. On the bench press, for instance, when the bar touches the chest, you’ll feel a stretch across the chest. Then at the top of the movement, you should feel the chest muscles flex. That is the full range of the bench press action.
Understanding muscle fiber and fascia is another component of gaining flexibility during weight training. You see, in the old days, it was thought that we should perform static stretches before we would workout. When in fact, a dynamic warm-up before a workout and a static stretch afterward is ideal. This goes for our marital arts training as well, by the way. But I digress. When lifting weights, you’ll likely feel “the pump.” This is a temporary engorgement of the muscle that happens when lifting weights. At this point, the muscle is warm and is ripe for improving flexibility.
You can think of it this way, when the muscle is pumped, it is already “stretched” outward when considering the muscle in 3D. This outward expansion from the muscle pump is similar to that of a long balloon being blown up that is expanding in circumference as more air is added. In this example, the balloon is representative of the fascia and the air inside the balloon is the muscle fiber. What’s more is that the muscle is also completely warmed up at this point, making it less susceptible to injury. This is the ideal time to stretch lengthwise. With the muscles warm, the fascia already experiencing an outward stretch, adding a static lengthening stretch at this point is a surefire way to increase flexibility in the fascia and muscle fiber as much as is safely possible.
Performing static stretches immediately after a workout or even during the second half of a lifting session is best. However, remember that stretches must be done regularly if one wants significant and lasting results. An added side benefit of static stretching, done in conjunction with weightlifting, is an improved mental connection to the muscles. When you focus the mind on relaxing the muscle of choice and add in breath work to improve the stretch, you will see that you can select and relax your muscles of choice when you desire. I’m sure you can imagine the advantages of the resulting increase in mobility and relaxation in an altercation or sparring situation.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
Now you know what rep ranges to use to maximize your strength gain. You also know how many repetitions you should focus on when you’re looking to increase your power. We’ve discussed how to go about adding muscle most efficiently without overdoing it to the point where your muscle becomes a liability. And on top of all that, we’ve discussed how you can improve your endurance and increase your flexibility with resistance training.
Now, put it into action…
If there is a particular area where you feel you need the most improvement, spend the majority of your time there. However, keep in mind that it is a good idea to work through all of the different phases, at least occasionally, as you train to improve your strength, power, and endurance. I frequently will even work through different rep ranges within a single workout. When it comes to flexibility, it is best to work on that during every workout via the use of full range of motion exercises and after each workout with focused static stretching. I hope you’ll give this a try and let us know how these concepts work for you!
Ian Lauer CSCS, IFBB Men’s Physique Professional
Weight training, Training tips, Training
Black Belt Magazine
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