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Five Essential Rules for Physical Training

There is a vast amount of information available for anyone who is interested in Exercise Science to consume, but most of us just want to get to the meat of it so we can advise our training and become better, faster, stronger. This week, I’m going to list my top 5 facts from exercise science that I use to advise my training and yours. As with most things, the basics are the most important!

General Training Principles

1. Specificity

The principle of specificity is a foundational aspect of every effective training program.

This cannot be emphasized enough! But what does it really mean? I’ll break it down.

Train the muscle groups you want to use.

Know the muscle groups you need to train to effectively execute a specific motion and find exercises that train those muscle groups.

Ex: You want to perform a powerful front snap kick. To perform a front snap kick, you will need to train the following major muscle groups:

a. Quadriceps- Responsible for extending the leg (probably the most important part of the kick)

b. Hip Flexors- Responsible for lifting the knee (you can’t kick without raising up the knee!)

c. Hamstrings- Responsible for contracting the leg (you want your foot back fast before someone can grab it)

Some basic exercises that might fit the bill to train these muscles are: squats (for the quads), knee raises (for the hip flexors), and butt kicks (for the hamstrings)

Train the right energy systems. Do you want to gain endurance, strength, muscular size, or power? There are different rules for training for hypertrophy (increase in size), endurance, strength, and power. More on this later.

Train the right movement velocities. If you want to strike hard, practice striking hard! While there is virtue in training the muscles to carry through a full range of motion at an even speed, and the strength of the muscle overall will contribute to a powerful strike, in general, to train powerful strikes you must strive to strike powerfully.

Train the right movement patterns. Just because you’re making a muscle group stronger, doesn’t necessarily mean your making it stronger in the way you want! Exercise should resemble the motor patterns you’re trying to improve.

Ex: We decided we needed to work on our front snap kick and chose some possible exercises that targeted the muscle groups involved in that kick (squat, knee raise, butt kicks). But what exercise is the best to improve our kick? Well, we could practice the kick itself, but there might also be benefits to choosing another exercise type. For example, if we are having trouble raising our knee quickly, our hip flexors might need more specific attention. Something like a knee raise would isolate those muscles while closely resembling the action of a kick. But if we want to work on the speed of the kick, we should try to execute the knee raises quickly!

2. Overload

Training stress or intensity must be greater than what you are accustomed to. Some ways to increase overload when you exercise are:

Introduce a larger weight

Introduce more reps

Introduce more sets

Shorten the rest interval between sets

Increase the number of times you train per week

Introduce new and/or more challenging exercises

At the Fox’s Den, you should try to improve each exercise, every time you train. One way of doing this is increasing the number of repetitions, which is why it is so important to set a goal for each exercise when you train. We do the same exercises all month so you can establish a baseline and try to beat it! Note that you can also reduce your rest time in between your exercises when you take breaks, perform certain exercises with more power, or try and improve your form too. Each session is an opportunity to improve, and to do that, you need to set goals.

3. Variation

I do my best to organize our training to take advantage of this principle. Types of variation include:

Change in volume: in exercise science this means weight x repetitions—note that sometimes the right answer is not always to increase volume, however (more on this in the progression section below).

Intensity: how fervently you are performing the exercise. Increasing intensity could be the difference between a regular pushup and a power pushup. But again, intensity does not always have to go up!

Exercise Selection: the type of exercises you do. I change exercise types for you each month for this reason.

Frequency of Training: adding or subtracting sessions. This should take into account any other training you are doing to allow for appropriate rest intervals throughout the week to avoid the negative effects of overtraining. If you are able to make all my sessions, they are spaced out appropriately and should provide you the proper training stimulus. If not, you’ll need to either sub in your own exercise throughout the week, or use the program I’ve developed for you at home!

Rest Interval: how long you rest between sets. With one minute for each exercise during our circuit training, you can increase or reduce the amount of rest you take during your breaks.

Speed of Movement: how fast you perform an exercise. Again, this does not necessarily always mean make it faster. Sometimes slowing an exercise down can help improve form, strengthen parts of the muscle that have been neglected, allow you to work on balance vice power, or allow for recovery.

4. Progression

Training programs should be modified over time. As you adapt to a program, you should alter stress and intensity to see continued improvement. For the most part, this means adding stress over time, but rest periods (where stress is reduced) and varying inter-weekly intensity are also important for adaptations. It is standard to take a rest week (or reduce training intensity) every 3-4 weeks for 1 week. Additionally, you should have days during the week where you push it to your max, and others where you slow it down and work more on form. I like making the first day my hard day to see how much I’ve improved since last week, back off a bit on the second day, and push it again on the third (though not necessarily quite as hard as the first). Taking a step back sometimes is necessary for taking a step forward!

Training Frequency

It is best to divide sessions as evenly as possible across a week (which, if you’re coming Tues/Thurs/Sun it’s done for you!). Your body needs rest to recover from prior training sessions to make the adaptations you want. The rest is where the real gains occur!

Novice/Beginner (1-6 months of consistent training): 2-3 sessions per week

Intermediate (6-12 months of consistent training): 3 sessions per week (particularly for full body training, which is what we do)

Advanced (1 year or more of consistent training): 4-6 sessions per week. Some practitioners may choose to perform multiple sessions per day with varying intensity—one for skill practice, and another for strength training, for example). Sometimes it is better to do two sessions in a single day vice work out six days in a row to give yourself more rest time in between.

Core Exercises beat Assistance Exercises

A core exercise is one that involves multiple muscle groups, such as a pushup. A pushup trains the pectoralis muscles, the anterior deltoid, the triceps, and the serratus anterior in a way that mimics an actual movement (push or punch). This beats exercising a specific muscle group by doing something such as a tricep extension, which would train only the tricep. However, if you find a specific muscle group of yours is weak, there is nothing wrong with including assistance exercises in your routine! They are also great recovery tools if you’re performing a circuit.

Know What Energy Systems You Want to Train

Muscles utilize three basic forms of fuel in order to perform work for us. The three energy systems our body uses are as follows:

Phosphagen: the primary source of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) for short-term, high intensity activities. It takes ATP directly from the muscles. (Think of ATP as currency for movement). An example of using the phosphagen system would be kicking or jumping, but it is involved at the start of all types of exercise no matter the intensity. ATP is stored in muscles in small amounts, however, so it is depleted quickly and therefore, the phosphagen system cannot supply energy for long, continuous activity.

Glycolysis: the breakdown of carbohydrates stored as glycogen in muscles or glucose in the blood to produce ATP. Glycolysis supplements the phosphagen system, then becomes the primary ATP provider for high-intensity activity, lasting up to 2 minutes. A great example in our practice of this would be a continuous bout of sparring, striking pads, or performing a form at a fast pace. Glycolysis is exactly why supplying your diet with the proper amount of carbohydrates is so important for performance! No glycogen, no lasting power. (It is physically impossible).

Oxidative System: provides ATP during rest or aerobic activities, using carbohydrates and fats. Doing yoga or walking are good examples of this system in action, though like the other systems, the oxidative system will always be utilized in some capacity.

Know Your Resistance Training Types

Training muscles in different ways has different effects. In martial arts we rely on adaptations from all forms of resistance training in some way or another, therefore it is important to understand the general principles governing them.

Muscular Endurance: how long a muscle can perform a given action. The following are the energy systems this type of resistance training relies upon and the reps and rest intervals you should use to improve it.

Energy Systems: Primarily Glycolysis and Oxidative

Repetitions: 10-25+ (think one minute of regular pushups)

Rest Intervals: <30s

Muscular Hypertrophy: how big a muscle gets (which can in-turn, assist in its strength)

Energy Systems: Primarily Phosphagen and Glycolysis

Repetitions: 8-12 (think mace training)

Rest Intervals: 30s-1.5 minutes

Muscular Power: how much force x speed a muscle can produce

Energy System: Primarily Phosphagen

Repetitions: 1-6 (though this is regarding heavy weights, not body weight—think power pushups)

Rest Intervals: 2-5 minutes

Muscular Strength: how much force a muscle can produce

Energy System: Primarily Phosphagen

Repetitions: </= 6 (this is something we cannot do in the park—think bench press)

Rest Intervals: 2-5 minutes

I hope this helps you better understand the reasons behind proper exercise selection! This stuff is invaluable, because understanding this (along with the nutritional piece) is the most efficient way to improve your physical ability. Your physical ability is 50% of the puzzle when it comes to being a great martial artist.

The other half is skills training, which I will discuss soon!


1. Coburn JW, Malek M H. NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training 2nd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2012.

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