Workout Ideas

Black Belt magazine is an excellent resource for anyone studying the martial arts, not just those who have attained their black belt status. Here’s a workout suggestion for developing core strength. It’s long, you may want to print or save this post.

Remember to go at your own pace when starting a new workout. Work through the exercises carefully and adapt them as necessary for your ability and fitness level.

Good luck!


The following is paraphrased from an article in Black Belt magazine entitled “Swiss Army Abs” by Mike Carlson, NASM-CPT, CFL-1; Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015.


For generations, martial artists have known that the core muscles are the “brains” behind the coordination of movements involving the upper and lower body. As a result, devotion to “crunches” has prevailed in most dojos. While crunches are excellent for developing the rectus abdominus, the core is made up of several other muscles that allow a variety of movements such as twisting, bending, leaning, and stabilizing. One of the most important movements generated by the abdominals is rotation. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most overlooked in training.

“Martial artists need to be able to rotate and rotate explosively. They need to work that pattern and those muscles to react to a kick or a punch.” States Brian Richardson, who trains top UFC welterweight, Tarec Saffiedine and other fighters from the Team Quest MMA squad. He states that improving speed and power in the external obliques, the muscles that drive rotation, is the key to improving performance in all types of sports. Training these muscles can be tricky. When standing, they move the body from right to left (and vice versa), and are the main drivers when throwing a right cross. On your back, however, with your hips anchored to the floor, like being in the guard for example, they will move your hips farther to the right. It is important that one performs rotational exercises while standing and lying down.

Rep scheme is also important. Often in the dojo, the “more is better” approach is common. Since the core muscles consist of “fast-twitch” and “slow-twitch” fibres, they must be targeted with heavy loads and low reps as well as light weight and high reps. Unlike body builders, who want a narrow waist and abdominals that are more “show” than “go”, martial artists benefit from the shock-absorbing aspects of thick, well-built abs.

Basically, you need a well-rounded abdominal training program that encompasses multiple planes of movement, full ranges of motion, and varying rep schemes. The following is a short but effective workout Richardson created to address all the variables and prep you for any challenge.



You need two exercises to develop rotational ability across two planes of motion. The first focuses on building power, while the second enhances stability and muscular endurance.


  • Hold a heavy medicine ball or slam ball at waist level while standing about 5 feet away from a stable wall.
  • Point your left shoulder toward the wall and your toes 90 degrees away from it.
  • With both hands under the ball, pivot to your left on your right foot and throw the ball into the wall as hard as possible using a two-handed scooping motion.

SETS/REPS: 2 sets of 25 reps on each side.

TEMPO: Repeat as quickly as possible while maintaining good form.



  • Lie on your back with your arms straight out to the sides, legs straight up, and toes pointed at the ceiling.
  • Your hips, shoulder blades, and the back of your head should remain in contact with the ground throughout the exercise.
  • Lower your legs to one side until they lightly touch the ground. THIS IS YOUR STARTING POSITION.
  • Take a breath and tighten your abs.
  • Slowly raise your legs in an arcing motion across your body, then lower them on the other side until they lightly touch the ground.

SETS/REPS: 3 sets of 12-15 reps.

TEMPO: Take a full three (3) seconds to move from left to right. Spend another three seconds going from right to left.

ADVANCED TIP: Keep your palms facing up to promote a neutral posture.



This doesn’t mean you should neglect your “rectus abdominus” – the muscles that make the six-pack.

An excellent way to work that part of your core is with the hanging leg raise. It is a great movement for kicks. With kicking motions, the lower muscle fibres in the abdominal wall will really fire off, and there is a whole slew of other things going on synergistically. It really helps for explosiveness.

Hanging Leg Raise with Posterior Tilt:

  • Grasp an overhead bar with one hand and contract that lat muscle, then grab the bar with the other hand and contract that lat as well. Your lats and shoulder girdle should be locked down, as opposed to being in a dead hang.
  • From here, internally rotate your legs, point your toes in and squeeze your thighs together.
  • With this built up tension, raise your feet as high as possible toward your head while maintaining total control the entire time.
  • Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, tilt your pelvis to move your feet slightly forward and a little higher.

SETS/REPS: 3 sets of 10 reps.

TEMPO: Take two seconds to raise your legs and two seconds to lower them.

ADVANCED TIP: Hold a medicine ball or light dumbbell between your feet.



A body needs to do more than contract and explode. Deceleration and control are essential abilities for martial artists. If you can lock down your core and prevent excess motion, you’ll more effectively transfer power from your trunk to your extremities. Here’s a turbo-charged version of the classis plank that forces you to maintain dynamic stability for a full minute.


  • Assume a kneeling position with an exercise ball in front of you and place your forearms on the ball.
  • Come off your knees, onto the balls of your feet and into a plank position with your body forming a straight line from head to heels.
  • Your abs should be braced, your glutes engaged, and your elbows under your shoulders while you strive for neutral spine alignment.
  • Initiate the exercise by slowly moving your forearms forward and then in circles for the prescribed time.
  • Reverse the direction of the circles for the next set.

SETS/REPS: Aim to hold the plank for 60 seconds.

TEMPO: Four seconds for each circle.

ADVANCED TIP: Instead of performing circles, try writing the alphabet with your forearms.