It is no secret that any fighter—or any athlete—must become strong to be effective, and the indisputable truth is that achieving this requires lifting weights. But, in my time, I’ve seen countless athletes who can easily back squat enormous loads shake like jelly when they try to do a simple bodyweight lunge because they lack stability and body control. Their strength is useless because it cannot be expressed properly.
This is where bodyweight training comes in. By wisely incorporating a few exercises into your training, you will develop the awareness and proprioception needed for gains to properly manifest.By wisely incorporating a few bodyweight exercises into your training, you will develop the awareness and proprioception needed for strength gains to properly manifest. Click To Tweet
Plyometrics, isometrics, and slow eccentrics play a key role in counterbalancing the lack of external resistance, since they are methods that can effectively stimulate the muscles involved. What follows are 13 of my favorite bodyweight movements for martial artists, self-defenders, and combat sports athletes, presented in order of neurological demand (which would also usually be the order of execution during a workout).
Lower Body Plyometrics
Lower body plyometrics are inherently explosive, which can place high demands on the nervous system. This is why they are best performed at the beginning of a workout, right after warming up, when the athletes are still fresh.
The idea is to perform low reps with maximum intent on each set. Excessive reps will cause fatigue, and the nervous system will lose the ability to effectively recruit the maximum amount of high-threshold muscle fibers, which results in you getting slower overall.
1. Skater Jumps
Skater jumps are often found in martial arts training programs, and for good reason—they can teach the ability to quickly move out of the line of attack in order to evade an incoming strike. If you’re fast enough, there’s a high probability that you can launch a successful counterattack as well. I also like this movement because it utilizes the frontal plane, which can be neglected sometimes as people tend to emphasize forward and backward motion.
Video 1. In order to perform the skater jump, bend one leg behind the other at an angle, but don’t touch the ground. This way, all your weight is now on the supporting leg.
Have your athletes load their weight on their hips by hinging, then launch sideways and land on the other leg by bending their hips and knee to properly absorb the force, and finish in a mirrored starting stance. Try not to touch the ground with both legs at any time during the set.
- Do 12 sets of four explosive reps (two per side) with a 45-second rest between them, starting from the opposite side every time.
2. Backward Broad Jump
Most athletes are already familiar with the classic broad jump and its benefits, but not many practice the backward variation. Jumping in the opposite direction will significantly test your coordination. That’s not the only benefit for a fighter though, as it also teaches them to quickly pull their legs out of their opponent’s reach during a takedown attempt.
Video 2. Place your feet at about your squatting width. Start from a semi-squat stance and propel yourself backward as far as possible.
Taking care to not let their knees cave in, athletes should immediately perform the next jump in a set, minimizing contact time with the ground in order to also work on their reactive strength. After the last jump, stick to the landing position for a moment. Keep in mind that the backward broad jump is far more challenging than the original, so you will not cover as much distance as you might expect. Start slow and progress in baby steps to minimize the risk of injury.
- Perform six sets of three repetitions each, with a 30-second rest in between.
3. Sprawl to Staggered Broad Jump
The sprawl to staggered broad jump is an advanced plyometric exercise designed to not only teach the athlete to move out of harm’s way when facing a takedown attempt, but also to get back up as fast as possible and generate force immediately after.
Video 3. Assume a staggered stance. Crouch and place your hands on the ground, then quickly shoot your legs back. Your front leg should extend all the way to the back, instep touching the floor, while your back leg should bend to the side for balance and support.
In the movement, make sure the athlete lies down completely, touching both belly and chest on the ground. To finish the sprawl, they get back up on their feet in a fighting stance as fast as humanly possible. Have them instantly create momentum by swinging their arms and jumping as far as they can. Although they started the jump from a fighting stance, be sure they land with both feet in line, just like in any normal jump.
- Perform eight sets of two reps with 45 seconds of rest between sets.
Upper Body Plyometrics
As with the lower body plyos, we’re talking about violent movements, so these are best performed at the beginning of your workout, preceded by a good warm-up. Plan them for after the lower body plyos if you’re doing both in the same workout.
Again, the high-sets, low-reps protocol remains. Take plenty of rest between sets—even more than what is prescribed, if necessary—in order to be as aggressive as possible in every single repetition. Just be mindful not to overdo it, as too much rest will allow their nervous system to completely relax, taking their mind out of “the zone.”
4. Plyo Push-Ups
The plyo push-up is considered a staple movement for developing upper body explosiveness. Mimicking the motion of a punch or a shove, the horizontal push is one of the most fundamental human movement patterns.
Video 4. Begin from a classic push-up position, placing your hands just outside of your sternum and keeping your legs next to each other. Lower yourself until your chest—and only your chest—barely touches the ground.
The athlete’s hips and quads should stay off the floor at all times, and their elbows should have an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the back at this point. In other words, if an observer were to look from above, they should look like an arrow. This position protects the rotator cuffs from excessive internal rotation, which can lead to injury over time.
If you find their arms are flaring out too much, have them turn their palms outward in a slight angle, which will help minimize the problem. As soon as they reach the bottom of the range of motion, they should violently push the earth away to propel into the air.
Some athletes feel the need to clap while airborne, but clapping doesn’t add any benefits to the exercise, and nobody deserves applause for completing a single push-up. (Plus, if you fail, you may literally find yourself facing off against the ground, which is not an opponent you can defeat.) So, it’s best they keep their hands in position, ready to help with the landing. As soon as they reach the ground again, they should lower their weight once more as they enter their next repetition.
- Perform eight sets of three reps each, taking 30 seconds of rest.
5. Inverted Plyo Pull-Ups
Pulling is equally important as pushing in terms of performance, but twice as important in terms of preserving the structural integrity of the body. Practically speaking, martial artists often need to pull their opponent violently to control or grapple with them. This is where the inverted plyo pull-ups really shine.Horizontal pulling exercises greatly alleviate the muscular imbalances that athletes tend to develop due to constantly rounding their shoulders while delivery countless strikes forward. Click To Tweet
Furthermore, horizontal pulling exercises greatly alleviate the muscular imbalances that athletes tend to develop due to constantly rounding their shoulders while delivering countless strikes forward. Add our daily habit of being hunched over our computers or phones to the mix, and you can clearly see why the anterior chain gets way more stimulation than the posterior in total, making it unevenly stiffer.
Therefore, this list would be incomplete—and probably dangerous in the long term—if it didn’t include some pulling exercises (which your workout program should include, no matter what you’re training for).
Video 5. Stabilize a bar on a rack at about your belly button’s height. Get underneath, grab it with a slightly-wider-than-shoulders grip, and place your heels on a bench so that you find yourself in a fully extended supine position, parallel to the ground. Pull explosively until your chest almost hits the bar.
Ideally, the athlete should let go of the bar momentarily as they reach the top, as if wanting to launch through it. Then, they grab it again and slowly descend back in place in a controlled manner. Their body should be in a rigid plank stance throughout the move, keeping the chest out and shoulders back. Also, this probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but you can never be too safe: Make sure they are properly aligned with the rack during the execution to avoid displacing the bar and risking injury.
- Perform six sets of four reps each, and rest around 30 seconds in between.
Lower Body Strength
We are now moving into standard lower body strength development. Slow eccentrics and isometric holds are key in this part, as they are an excellent way to stimulate the muscles when no external resistance is available. These exercises should follow the plyometrics if you decide to perform both in the same workout.
6. The Copenhagen Hold
This version of the side plank primarily targets the adductors and will, in turn, make any stance that requires inner thigh strength very effective, like the guard position or the triangle choke for ground fighters.
Video 6. Begin from a standard side plank position, resting your upper body on your forearm with your elbow placed exactly under your shoulder. Place the upper leg on top of a bench and press into it so that you lift yourself off the ground.
The athlete should keep their whole body completely extended in this movement—no hinging the hips and no leaning the torso forward. They will raise their lower leg as well, so that it makes contact with the bottom of the bench. Hold this position for 30 seconds on each side while squeezing both legs into the bench as hard as possible.
If they find this easy and need a progression, have athletes place their top leg in the handle of a suspension trainer. Being unstable by nature, the suspension trainer will offer a much bigger challenge. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a regression, simply reduce the length of the lever by resting the knee on the bench instead of the foot.
- Rest for a full minute between sets and go for a total of four to five sets.
7. Kneeling Leg Extensions
The kneeling leg extension is a great bodyweight quad builder, but what I like about it the most is that it keeps the core and glutes actively engaged at all times, which is very reminiscent of the way the body works during combat. No matter what maneuver a fighter performs, it is never led by a single, isolated muscle or muscle group—it is always a full body movement.No matter what maneuver a fighter performs, it is never led by a single, isolated muscle or muscle group—it is always a full body movement. Click To Tweet
Video 7. Begin by dropping on your knees and keeping your feet flat on the ground, all the way to the toes. Tighten your core and glutes, keep your hands by your sides, and lower yourself backward in a slow and controlled fashion.
The athlete should keep their body straight and not hinge the hips. This eccentric phase should last for three seconds. When they reach the lowest possible point, they should stay there for one more second and then come back up in normal speed. If they find it hard to do, you can give them some help by attaching a band to a stable object in front of them—they will hold this with their hands extended in front of their chest.
- Perform 10 reps, rest for 90 seconds and repeat for three sets.
8. Nordic Curls
It would be unwise not to include a leg exercise for the posterior chain, and in my opinion, the Nordic Curl is one of the best of its kind. Just like the kneeling leg extension, not only will it torch your hamstrings and glutes, but it will also demand that you keep your core braced throughout the movement.
Video 8. Kneel on a soft surface, stand tall, and wedge your feet behind an immovable object.
If you’re at the gym, you can use a standard, plate-loaded bar—just be sure to secure it safely in place. If you or your athletes are doing this at home, any sturdy object that can support your weight will do, but there’s always the alternative of having a partner hold your legs down tightly.
To do the Nordic curl, athletes should squeeze the glutes, hamstrings, and abs and begin leaning forward, reaching as low as possible, to the point where they are unable to hold the weight anymore. They should get there slowly, taking a full three seconds. As soon as they are out of control, they should use the hands to break the fall and immediately push back up, just enough so the muscles can take over again and return to the starting position.
Again, have them resist the urge to hinge the hips, especially during the concentric part (when it is the most tempting). This cannot be stressed enough: In order for this to work, they must involve the hands as little as possible.
If they are having a really hard time with this and/or range of motion is too small, you can always tie a band directly behind them and around the chest so that it slows the descent and helps on the way up.
- Perform four sets of 10 reps and take 90 seconds of rest.
Upper Body Strength
Keep this part for after you’re done with your plyometrics and your lower body strength. Once again, slow eccentrics and isometric holds will trigger muscle growth more effectively and lead the nervous system to faster adaptations.
9. Diamond Push-Ups
The reason you will find many push-up variations on this list is because I am a firm believer that, as far as bodyweight exercises are concerned, they are a great tool for developing strength, explosiveness, and muscular endurance in many of the muscle groups that are involved in punching. They mostly include, but are not limited to, the chest, triceps, and front deltoids. This does not mean that the push-up is the only exercise that matters, or that you should be doing it every day: I’m just presenting some options.As far as bodyweight exercises are concerned, they are a great tool for developing strength, explosiveness, and muscular endurance in many of the muscle groups that are involved in punching. Click To Tweet
There are many other important upper body muscles to consider when building striking power, like, for example, the serratus anterior. With that said, when it’s time to emphasize triceps development, look no further than the diamond push-up.
Video 9. Assume a standard push-up position, but this time open your palms and bring them together so that the thumbs and index fingers touch, forming the shape of a diamond. Place your hands directly below your chest.
If the athlete performs this correctly, their elbows will point backward, not sideways, when bending them. Once more, they must take three seconds to get to the ground and, once down, stay still for another two seconds, obviously without touching the floor. Then push and get back up in normal speed. This is one rep.
- Perform four sets of 12 and rest for 90 seconds in between.
10. Wide Push-Ups
Just as before, the setup and technique are identical.
Video 10. The only difference with the wide push-up is that the hands are to be placed even wider than in a standard push-up, as the emphasis shifts to the pectorals.
Once more, the eccentric phase lasts for three seconds, and the isometric hold at the bottom lasts for two.
- Perform four sets of 12 and rest for 90 seconds in between.
11. Hollow Body Pull-Ups
As stated before, even though isolation work does have its merits, the bulk of a fighter’s program should include exercises that involve the entire body. In this sense, the hollow body pull-up is superior to its traditional, bodybuilding-oriented cousin—plus, it enforces more lat engagement.
Video 11. Grab the bar with a shoulders-width grip. Compress your abdominals, which will cause your chest to drop forward a little bit, just like when performing the first part of a crunch.
The athlete will keep their legs straight, glued together, and bring them slightly in front of them, with the toes pointed. Next, they will pull the bar until their chin is above it—if done correctly, their elbows will be pointing forward in a 45-degree angle and not sideways like in the traditional pull-ups. They should stay on the top for three seconds and take another three to slowly return to the bottom position with fully extended hands.
- Perform three sets of six to eight reps and rest for up to 90 seconds.
This last category of exercises focuses on the core. Keep them for the last part of your workout, after you’re done with your plyometrics and strength exercises.
12. Arch Rocks
When we think about core strength, we tend to bring the abs and general anterior chain to mind. But the core actually consists of anything that is not our arms, legs, and head; therefore, the importance of the posterior is immense too. I’m also a big fan of isometric strength, because it gives an athlete the ability to grapple more effectively and take less punishment when absorbing hits.
Enter the Arch Rocks: a great tool for strengthening the posterior chain isometrically. As far as your back is concerned, this one will work your spinal erectors, lats, and traps, but it also greatly involves the gluteals and hamstrings.
Video 12. Lay in a prone position, with your legs stuck together and your arms fully extended above your head, biceps always maintaining contact with your ears.
The athlete will lift their legs off the floor, so that their quads aren’t touching it—same for head, hands, and chest—until their body forms a smooth, long curve reminiscent of…you guessed it, an arch. Gently rock back and forth while maintaining a rigid body.
Perform five sets of 30 seconds for max repetitions—the reason I prescribe time instead of a fixed number of reps for this one is that the quality of the movement matters greatly in order for it to work. So, instead of fixating on a number, just make sure the technique is perfect and the muscles tense, and they continue until it’s over. Take one minute of rest between sets, and if you would like to progress further, have athletes try holding a weight with their hands. Be warned, loading this exercise makes it very difficult, so start with a small plate as light as 2.5 pounds.
13. Alternating Hanging Knee Raises
Finally, it’s time to take care of the anterior. The alternating hanging knee raises will require total core strength, but they will mostly tax your hip flexors, which are key for kicking, bending, and swiveling the hips. As a side note, be aware that plenty of martial arts practitioners suffer from tight hip flexors, which can lead to many issues, including low back pain. So be mindful and keep them strong, but also mobile and flexible.
Video 13. Hang from the bar using a full grip, thumb fully wrapped around it. Bring your left knee up momentarily, as close to your chest as possible, and return the leg to its starting position.
The athletes should perform the movement slowly to avoid kipping. Repeat on the right side, and continue in this fashion, always alternating the legs.
- Do three sets of as many reps as you can endure, taking a full minute of rest in between.
The performance-based advantages of training without equipment were highlighted earlier, so no need to be redundant here. Still, there is one more key benefit of bodyweight exercises, and it’s pretty important nowadays: recent global circumstances have taught us that access to the gym can sometimes become a rare commodity. In those instances, we now know that we should have a backup plan for working out at home.Recent global circumstances have taught us that access to the gym can sometimes become a rare commodity. Bodyweight exercises can help you get in great shape until you return to routine. Click To Tweet
In such a setting, can bodyweight training completely substitute for weights? No, it cannot. If you are in pursuit of the best version of yourself, you need both. But it can certainly help you get in great shape until you can return to your standard routine. These are by no means the only exercises you’ll ever need, but hopefully this list has given you some ideas to create your own bodyweight-only workout, or perhaps add to the one you already stick with. Good luck!
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