Saturday, January 26, 2013

How much does strength matter in learning martial arts?

Let me just call bullshit right off the bat on those people who say size and strength don't matter in martial arts. I cannot speak for all martial arts but I can tell you having competed in or coached judo for 42 years, that damn, I am really old! Well, in addition to that, I can tell you that size matters. Of course a very skilled 110 pound female can beat an out-of-shape unskilled 145 pound male. That same female will get crushed by a very skilled, fit, 145 pound male and that same 145 pound male will get slammed by the 230 pound male.

If Ronda and Julia got in a fight, I would not say size and strength don't matter. I would say, "Ronda! What the hell is wrong with you?! Leave your little sister alone!"

Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I have said that - about seven hundred times.

Don't even start telling me about Moshi-moshi sensei who won the all-Japan championships in 1928 and only weighed 76 kilos (see, I can do metric weights just like the rest of the world).

A. Even the small people who won the All-Japan championships were significantly larger than the average Japanese person, especially of that time. Random diversion here - even more random than the rest of this blog - there has been a significant increase in height of Japanese people over the past 100 years, as noted in this article from the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In other words, Sensei Moshi-Moshi was pretty damn big for the time.

B. Even though there may be an occasional outstanding smaller man beat a much larger man, that is not the way to place your bets. This is why we have weight divisions.

I was wondering about this the other day when I was trying to teach tomoe nage (a circle throw) to one group of students and they were having trouble. The next day, I was trying to teach a matwork move to another group that involved scissoring your legs to lift and turn your opponent, and this group was having trouble.

So, I called up Jim Pedro because I hadn't bothered him recently and asked his opinion,

Do you think that people need a certain level of conditioning before they can do techniques effectively, and that is why some beginners have difficulty? Do you think that maybe it's necessary to say, do exercises to develop leg strength before doing throws that require lifting with your legs?

He said, "No." Well, actually, because he has a funny Boston accent it sounded more like, "No-o."

He brought up that when we were kids, everyone had the same rule,

"Be home when the streetlights go on."

And we were out ten hours a day running, jumping rope, climbing trees and playing in the park.

Now, kids watch vampire shows, play on the Wii and text their friends all day during the summer.  I asked Jim didn't that mean that it would be a good idea to work with them on getting strong enough to actually do the techniques but he thought it was coordination as much or more than strength.

So, his idea was to just have them to do whatever technique it was, a throw, or a turnover, and do lots and lots of repetitions. As they do the repetitions, they'll develop in coordination and strength and they'll learn the technique, too.

Interesting theory and I don't really have any better idea, so I'm going with that for now.

What do you all think?


Al B Here said...

I think that you're on the right track in terms of conditioning being necessary before attempting certain techniques. Have you come across any "judo games" that could disguise the conditioning? The biggest flaw I see with Sensei Pedro's "rep it out" until they develop the necessary coordination and skill is that kids will get bored to death doing rep after rep, unless it's something they think is really cool, and even then, the novelty will wear off.

Royler Gracie once recommended that any new techniques a BJJ player learns should be practiced on a smaller opponent to ensure that the mechanics are mastered as efficiently as possible. As the player gets better, he/she should be gradually matched up with bigger and bigger opponents. I find it considerably easier to work on my throws when dealing with someone smaller than me, but I eventually have to work them on someone my size or a bit bigger (the perils of the O100 kg class) if I ever expect to throw a resisting opponent.

Take all that for what it's worth. I'm a yellow belt in judo and a blue belt in BJJ. What do I know? :)

plam said...

I think repetitions are most efficient, but as Al B Here points out, sometimes kids (or adults!) get bored of repetitions as well.

Anonymous said...

The only people I know that have said that size and strength don't matter in Judo are all +100 Kg.

_Fritz_ said...

I learnt one goal of judo is being able to overcome physically stronger people... But what is if the other one can Judo himself? But i have the opinion, first the training should exhaust the technical abilities of the trainee - and building up additional strength should be the second step, for the simple reason, if the pupils is able to replace technique by power during learning, than there will be only small progress in technique...

About the question of children and repetition: Everything could getting boring for kids. So its the task/challenge of the trainer, to give them no time to think about: "Oh its a repetition, its so boring"... Repetition on its own is no problem for the non-adults: they can repeatedly press button on their game consoles or they can write repeatedly short messages at their smartphones and so on...

Regards _Fritz_

Al B Here said...

As a representative of the O100 kg class, I can assure you, we are WELL aware that size and strength matter. It's not a lot of fun trying to take on someone who is 40-50 lbs heavier than me.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

At the beginning, it is all new, so it isn't a problem to have the kids doing a lot of repetition. After a year or two, it becomes a lot harder.

Sylver said...

I am in two minds about this. It's not like strength doesn't matter, but it's used as an excuse why a perfectly botched technique didn't work. Most techniques in Judo require little strength when they are done properly at the right time.

A friend of mine is about 30kg less then me and was always going on about how he couldn't throw me no matter what because he was smaller and weaker. Truth is, as a gym buff, he is as strong than me and was abusing his strength in randori, but he never paid attention to his feet, and ended getting swept.

He would go to the gym and push more weight and even take steroids to compensate for his "lack of strength". Strength never was his problem, so it didn't help.

Strength is just one factor. Speed, agility, flexibility, balance, coordination, reaction time, cardio power, fighting spirit, understanding how/when the techniques work are all factors of similar/higher importance to strength.

My take on it is that the weakest link(s) needs to be identified and worked on. If strength is the weakest link, strength should be worked on BUT, most of the time, when I see a complain about strength, it's because the would-be tori doesn't really understand how/when the technique works and tries to force Uke into position, and so instead of taking advantage of Uke's movements/reactions, our Tori wanabe tries to yank uke into place, lift him and throw. And, indeed, he is not strong enough to do that. Not on someone his size and certainly not on someone bigger.

Some people are strong enough to make poor technique work but becoming that strong isn't the most efficient solution. In my opinion, the weakest link is what must be worked on as a priority.

By default, the weakest link is technique because it's new. A 12 years old may be weak, but still he had 12 years to figure out how his body works. How much time did he spend to learn that when uke commits his weight forward, just as his foot touches the ground, it's the right time to sweep and he must be already in the right place to do it and therefore must be able to anticipate it before uke even knows it?

Being strong enough to yank Uke in position can make a poor technique work, but it can be counter-productive because it prevents Tori from learning how the technique is supposed to work.

When some of the techniques are well known and understood, it's quite possible that strength becomes the weakest link. If tori can't do a full squat alone, there is no way he will be able to do the same move with Uke on his back.

About Moshi Moshi sensei, I plead guilty. My reasons are:

1. It's not an attempt at mysticism. I mostly train in Japan, so most of my examples come from there, that can't be helped.

2. You make it sound that these "moshi-moshi senseis" were small but won because everybody else was small at the time anyway. That's simply not consistent with the facts:

The last notable "Moshi-Moshi" sensei to win the all Japan is from 2012. A 90kg muscle bound athlete is nothing to sneer at, but some of his opponents were 135kg monsters. At the 2004 OG, Suzuki Keiji had trouble making +100kg. He won in spite of weight differences of 40lb or more. Open weight competitions are still pretty common in Japan, and it's not rare to see competitors overcome much larger opponents.

And then there is another moshi-moshi sensei closer to you. ;) You mentioned a number of times that teenage Ronda consistently defeated bigger, stronger girls on the other side of puberty.

Disclaimer: I am 102kg so I am still validating Anonymous' observation. Part of it is because people keep throwing it in our face. The subtext is "yes you won but your technique isn't actually better, it's just that you are heavier and therefore..."

Oups! Sorry, didn't mean to write such a long rant, but now that it's written, I don't have the courage to go back and summarize.

Dave said...

I've found strength training outside of class very helpful for preventing injury and developing prerequisite attributes to perform both tachiwaza and newaza. Maybe it's different for teenagers who train five days a week, but I think frail adults in particular should pay a lot of attention to getting stronger and more limber as part of their judo.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

I like that point about working on the weakest link. Makes a lot of sense.

As for someone 90 kg winning over someone who is 135 kg, yes, that is very admirable. My point though is that you never see the 60kg win the open division in Japan - ever - and as a statistician I know that there are enough 60kg guys in Japan that if strength really didn't matter, you'd see that happen.

I'm not saying size and strength are ALL that matter, but that they DO matter.

Sylver said...

"My point though is that you never see the 60kg win the open division in Japan - ever - and as a statistician I know that there are enough 60kg guys in Japan that if strength really didn't matter, you'd see that happen."

Completely agree. There is no doubt that strength is an important part of the mix. Besides, one only need to look at photos of Mifune or isao Okano in their prime to realize that these senseis weren't in the least adverse to strength training. (If you haven't seen those, here is Isao Okano, lightest man to ever win the all Japan and Mifune)

The issue is more about how strength training should fit in a Judoka's development. Concentrating on strength too early could be a disservice because at low level, the most athletic will win up until he gets to the level where all his opponents are strong too and by then nothing works anymore. Combined with the fact that strength gains can be much faster than technical gains, it can be tempting to turn Judo practice in big conditioning sessions.

Anonymous said...

if you just make them repeat the technique over and over until they acquire the necessary strength/coordination, isn't there a risk that they learn the technique the wrong way?

Unknown said...

Interesting article. I was looking for something else and stumbled across this. I am curious though. It started off about size and strength vs less size and strength and then ended up on "strength, conditioning and co-ordination" and had nothing to do with size.

Being a little guy all my life :) I can tell you that size matters. At least it does sometimes. I am the guy who trains with "sylver". I am 30 kg lighter than him and because of our location on the planet and the limited training available, we were usually paired together. Not a great situation given that we are both the same grade (kyu grade) and I only started judo at 47 years old. After a few months of judo, I was so beat up...mostly from poor execution of throws on my part that I took up weight training to help...everybody was bigger and heavier than me. My age, I found made it more difficult to build muscle and I resorted to steroids to build muscle. That worked. My goal with strength training was never to get better at judo through it, but only to survive the judo. I loved it from the start and didn't want to give it up.

The weight training helped immensely with "injury prevention" from bad technique. I survived my first couple of years of judo because of the weights and steroids. Having said that...I've stopped all of that for over a year now and just do judo. I have found that I hold my own in my weight category no problem even against the teenagers with unlimited energy. My current sensei is 130 kg...I don't do well against him. I am 70 kgs. I still don't do well against Sylver, and much of it is "bad judo" as he points out, but my "bad judo" works much better in my weight range.

Now, a little story. I was close to 80 kg, steroids, very strong for my size. I went to Laos Japan Budo center in Laos. The guys there are all very small, even in comparison to my "normal" size...5'5" 65 kg or so. I was the uke dummy for the few says we were there. My muscles and strength were of no use whatsoever. I had no technique. I was thrown for three days by these little guys running around me setting me up with ashi waza and capitalizing on my inability to stay on balance.

Based on my experience I think that if at all possible, kyu grades should practice in their weight category. Severe mismatches result in compromised training and development of poor technique and bad habits. Once skill develops, I think it is good to "venture out" into other weight categories, but without a skill set first, it'll just result in frustration and "bad judo".

A skilled small guy, against a skilled big guy.... I cannot comment based on experience, but my sense is that size and strength will decide the outcome of that situation. Unless there are other determining factors....smarts, strategy, experience, etc.