By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development
As we discussed in the previous article on fighting fitness, there is fit and there is fighting fit. So this begs the question, which muscles do we need for fighting and for judo? We already know that judo is one of those sports that requires almost every muscle when doing randori or competing, but which ones are the most important?
To explore this question, let’s start with a novice to judo. The first thing he or she learns in judo is usually ukemi (breakfalls), which does not require any particular muscles, but the rolling and falling does help to strengthen the core and build confidence. Therefore, the first real strength comes in gripping, and as you will often hear in judo, “No Grip – No Throw.” In other words, if you lose your grip you often lose the throw. Therefore grip strength found in hands, wrists, and forearms, is important and often a weakness that must be addressed with female athletes. The novice will develop this strength with regular judo practice but elite athletes may want to supplement this with more specific exercises, such as rope climbs or pull-ups with judogi sleeves over a pull-up bar.
However, the novice also learns quite quickly that it requires leg strength to lift someone, particularly with the thigh muscles. Leg power is also important in reaping throws such as osoto-gari, plus the legs are integral to developing attack speed and balance. Balance comes from all the small muscles and tendons in the toes, feet, and ankles. Again, uchi-komi, nage-komi, and randori help to develop these areas over time, but this can be supplemented with exercises on a bongo-board.
At the more advanced level, when you watch an experienced judoka execute a throw, you will see the drive that he or she develops, mostly coming from the lower leg and calf muscles. This driving power is a critical component to finishing many techniques. Toe lifts, sprints, running stairs, and plyometric jumps all help to develop the required explosive leg power.
Many throws also have a turning or twisting component which requires good core strength in the abdominals, obliques, and back. Strong back and abs also prevents an opponent from bending you over, while allowing you to block attacks and execute counters such as ushiro-goshi. The pulling and lifting component of a throw should come from the trunk and legs, but it does not hurt to have strong arms as well.
Where arm strength becomes even more important is in ground fighting (newaza). Often times, escaping from a hold can be similar to executing a bench-press movement, combined with a bridge-turn. Working for a turnover, breaking out an armbar, or digging for a choke or strangle all require good hand and arm strength, particularly in the forearms. The force multiplier for the arms is in the shoulders and upper back. Ground fighting also draws on abdominal strength. If you are trying to resist a choke or strangle it is helpful to have strong neck muscles, which are also important in those bridge-turn escapes.
So in a one-page description of judo, you will have realized that the judoka uses almost every muscle in judo. This is not by chance but by design. Jigoro Kano put a lot of time and thought into selecting the techniques for judo, not just to limit injuries but also to exercise the entire body. Professor Kano’s goal, all along, was to develop a comprehensive form of physical education and human development, embodied within the value system of bushido and the martial arts.
To conclude, if a judoka has limited time for supplemental strength training, then the priorities would be core strengthening exercises, grip strengthening, and developing explosive leg power. All of these can be done in the judo dojo with a minimum of equipment, in most cases with just a training partner.