Core training for martial arts

A strong midsection is essential to your game. A marvel of engineering, the torso manages to twist, lean, give power to a punch, stay upright, even support an opponent’s weight, and keep you breathing throughout, all with only one supporting “tent pole”: the spine. Much of the torso isn’t bone; it’s gooshy stuff and 26 feet’s worth of last night’s dinner. So where’s the magic? It’s in the coordinated effort of the midsection muscles: abs, obliques, low back, deep torso muscles along with the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles. They’re designed to work together in concert to form a rigid “cube” that’s strong and stable while also flexible. Don’t fuss with isolating the pieces. You want these babies marching to the same tune.

The torso can be trained in many ways depending on your goals, and each exercise is different. For injury prevention, work on the strength-endurance of the muscles with long duration sets: 15-20 reps or more, or 30 seconds or more if you hate counting. Good exercises for this include the side bridge to plank and the hanging tuck. For power, focus on explosiveness (for example, in the full contact twist). For general strength and stability, use as heavy a weight as you can manage and focus on really bracing the midsection as if someone were about to punch you in the gut. You’ll feel this nicely when doing exercises like the Turkish getup.

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elevated bridge

what it does:

The bridge exercise is a common warmup drill and fundamental movement in BJJ. It relies on the power of hip extension (i.e. straightening the hip from bent) and thus the strength of your primary hip extensors as well as the pelvic stabilizers: glutes, hamstrings, the deeper hip muscles, and even your abs and obliques go along for the ride.

This variation increases the difficulty of the standard floor bridge. It’s more difficult because your feet are elevated, which means you have to balance a little more on your shoulders, and you’re moving a little more of your body weight.

what you’ll see in the video:

I’ve got an elevated platform here; in this case, a steel box. You can use anything you like: a bench, a coffee table, a big exercise ball, or a golden retriever. In the case of the latter two, you’ll also find you get some additional balance and “core” work from trying to keep your feet stable while the platform moves. Lie on the floor and put your feet on the platform.

I start by assessing my distance. I try a rep and notice that I’m too far away, so I scooch closer to the box. Notice how I’m aiming to begin with my hips bent about 90 degrees. Then I squeeze my butt and press hips up towards the ceiling.The top of the rep makes me look like a triangle: the point at the top is formed by my knees, and then my body is a straight(ish) line from knees to shoulders. My weight rests on my shoulders and upper back, not my neck. Hands are at my sides and relaxed; I’m not using them for assistance. It’s all booty, baby.

To make the movement more difficult, I then use one leg. You can hold the nonworking leg wherever you like, but I like to point it up at the ceiling.

side plank to bridge

what it does:

This exercise helps you develop strength-endurance in your torso muscles and coordinate stability, movement, and the demands of breathing as you remain in a single position.

what you’ll see in the video:

  1. I begin in a side bridge position. My bottom hand is planted on the floor. My body is a straight rigid line from shoulders to ankles. If this is too hard for you in the beginning, start from your knees resting on the floor instead of your feet, but keep the same concept of straight body line from shoulder to whatever’s resting on the floor (you’ll see I do this later in the video). For this exercise imagine you’re a roast chicken turning on a spit. Mmmm roast chicken. You can see I’m kinda cheating as I turn over and poke my butt up a little too high. Do as I say not as I do. Ha ha!
  2. Slowly and deliberately, I turn over into the plank position with both hands on the floor. You can also think of this as the top of a pushup. Hell, why not throw a pushup in there if you want. I’m not gonna tell you how to run your life.
  3. I keep turning slowly till I’m facing the other side. You’ll notice I need to shuffle my feet a little bit to do this. That’s OK.
  4. Slowly and deliberately I turn back again.

You can do this as slowly as you like, holding each position for several seconds if you want. The aim here is control and stability, not power.

For the next iteration of the bridge I throw in a variation I call the starfish. Lift the top arm and leg up and hold that position. Um, then there appears to be some minor earthquake and the camera wiggles and I’m all like “Huh”?. Then, I show that you can just hold one arm up if you prefer. Then another starfish iteration.

I then come down on my elbows to show a plank variation resting on the forearms. Same concept applies: turn like a tasty little chicken from side to side. I prefer resting on my hands; some folks prefer the forearms — use whichever one feels best. Finally, I show the version resting on the knees.

turkish getup

what it does:

The Turkish getup is an old-timey strength exercise that works just about every muscle you have. It strengthens the shoulder girdle by requiring you to stabilize the weight overhead. It requires isometric contraction in the arm muscles and careful balancing. It involves a squatting motion and strengthens the hips. It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping! However, it’s generally used as a core strength exercise.

what you’ll see in the video:

The premise behind this exercise is simple: Lie down holding a weight overhead. Get up, keeping that weight overhead with straightened arm the entire time. There are many ways to do this, but I’m showing one that might be more specific to BJJ. You can use a kettlebell, a dumbbell, and if you’re a real badass with plenty of floor space, a barbell. Don’t worry about the speed of this movement. Keep it slow, deliberate, and careful.

  1. I start by pressing the dumbbell overhead. I lock my arm out (without hyperextending the elbow) and keep it straight.
  2. I roll to my side and press up with the bottom arm as though about to begin a “hip bump”. My bottom knee bends and scoots under me. The upper knee also bends.
  3. I end up in a sort of base position: one knee bent and folded under me, the other knee bent with foot planted on the floor. I shift my weight over my hips.
  4. I press up off the foot planted on the floor, using the bottom leg and hand for assistance.
  5. The bottom foot scoots up and plants on the floor.
  6. And I’m up!
  7. OK, now the fun part is getting back down. Reverse the motion, dropping under control into a squat, then basing out with the nonlifting hand. Top foot remains planted on the floor, bottom leg scoots back underneath. I roll back down on my side, then return to my back. I keep the arm straightened, but if you wanted to, you could also lower the dumbbell by dropping your elbow to your hip and including a dumbbell press portion with every rep.

Once you get the hang of this one, don’t be shy about adding some weight. Find the “sweet spot” between what your shoulder can safely stabilize, and a weight that really challenges you to get up.

perturbation stimulus, aka the “hey! quit it!” exercise

what it does:

This exercise helps develop body awareness, balance, and the ability of the body to re-stabilize itself when disrupted. It’s not a half bad “core” workout either.

what you’ll see in the video:

I begin by holding a weight overhead. In this case, I’m using a plate, but it could be dumbbells, or a barbell. Try one handed as well as two. Then a helpful (or annoying) partner comes along and tries to push me off balance. My goal is to correct myself from the disturbance, and maintain my starting position. Sometimes I can do it with a little sway. Other times, if the push is strong, I need to engage the “stepping reflex” too.

full contact twist

what it does:

This exercise works both rotational power and holding the body stable during rotation. In other words, it helps you turn and twist strongly, but also with control.

what you’ll see in the video:

I’ve put one end of the full sized Olympic barbell into a corner. If you’re working out somewhere that doesn’t have the full sized bar, you can use a shorter one, but unfortunately it doesn’t work as well. Stand to one side of the barbell and grab one end with an over-under grip. The hand closest to the corner is over, and the hand closest to the barbell’s free end is under.

Keeping my arms straight but relatively relaxed, I swing up and in front of me. Notice how I turn using my hips rather than just a twist at the waist. Think of the torso moving like a block from shoulders to hips — if there’s rotation let the hips handle it as much as possible. That’s where the power comes from. I finish with upper body facing down the length of the bar and arms overhead.

To make this work you need to commit to each rep. This one doesn’t work well with half-assed reps. For each rep, tighten your abs like someone’s about to punch you in the gut, and GO! with a good confident upward swing. To add resistance, put plates on the free end of the barbell.

hanging knee raises/”tuck”

what it does:

You’ll often use the knee-to-elbows movement in BJJ to escape a mount, keep your arms tight as you pass a guard, to protect your body, etc. This involves your abs as the prime movers with assistance from the front of your hips and the little muscles around your ribcage, the serratus. There’s even some assistance from your back muscles (feel under your arms when you do this and you should notice the muscles contracting). This exercise trains the movement both isometrically (i.e. a static hold without going through a range of motion) and dynamically. Use whichever one you can do, and/or mix them up a little.

what you’ll see in the videos:

Video #1 (above): Here I use the wall to “scramble” up to a tucked position. If you don’t have a low pullup bar in your gym, use a Smith machine (the machine with a barbell on a slidey up and down track). You can scramble using a wall, a partner’s help, or even just a jump (which is demonstrated at the end of the second video below).

My goal is to get my knees up and tucked tight, then hang there as long as I can. You can see by my simian swinging that it’s hard to even hold the body steady in that position — it’s an ab workout all on its own. This is a good starter movement if you can’t get the knees up from a hanging position as shown below, but it’s also a rather decent challenge in and of itself if you’re using it for a timed hold. See if you can manage it for, say, 30 seconds. Or 60. Or all day.

Video #2 (above): In the second video, I begin hanging. Then I curl my tailbone underneath me, and bring my knees up to my chest. Notice I also do a half pullup too. What I’m thinking about is trying to make my knees and elbows connect. I’m also not just thinking about bringing the knees forward and up — I’m thinking about curling up into a ball. It’s like turtling from a hanging position.

I lower down under control. One of my aims here is to keep my body as stable as possible throughout the movement, rather than wildly swinging all over the place. And I finish up with a jump up to a tuck hang.