Should You Choose Calisthenics or Lifting for Combat Sports?

In today’s polarized fitness world people love to pick sides and become attached to one way of doing things. Calisthenics and weight training are one such topic. I wanted to know what would be best for combat sports, so I looked into both to see what would be best.

Both lifting weights and calisthenics are effective in developing strength and fitness for combat sports. Lifting performed properly builds greater muscle size and strength. Calisthenics is more effective for conditioning and weight loss.

Now that we know that both weight training and calisthenics have a place in your training, let’s take a look at how they can help your training and how you can integrate them effectively into your routine.

How Strength Helps Your Martial Arts Techniques

In a contest of martial artists of similar weight and skill, the stronger one will have a substantial advantage in sparring. Stronger individuals will use less energy to create a similar power output, which can allow them to execute techniques more times. Also, power can cover up technical imperfections.

Techniques are also simply easier to execute if you are strong enough to do them. Finding perfect leverage in all your sparring rounds isn’t going to happen, and some techniques are more like power techniques. This isn’t inherently bad, it’s just another option that a stronger athlete has.

Even the Gracies who heavily emphasize technique and downplay the role of strength acknowledge that strength can be used efficiently in jiu-jitsu. Their take is that you can focus on being technical and use your strength primarily in your escapes, favoring your hips and leg muscles the most.

Using Strength for Off-Balancing

Being strong enough to greatly manipulate your weight and your opponent’s weight is a huge advantage in combat sports. Proper technique is vital to the effectiveness of off-balancing, but having high basic strength is very helpful.

Anybody who has been grabbed by somebody who is strong understands that being strong plays an undeniable role in combat sports.

For grappling sports, this translates extremely effectively into making techniques easier to execute and making the technique far more powerful overall. Other sports and martial arts will also feel this carryover, like Muay Thai, Aikido, Hapkido, certain schools of Karate, and other arts.

Does Lifting Weights or Calisthenics Help More for Combat Sports?

Lifting weights builds raw strength faster and more effectively which is more helpful if choosing one to stand alone. However, mixing both types of training offers a better fitness and strength outcome than choosing one style alone, especially since you have more options to manage fatigue.

Lifting weights for basic strength is undeniably helpful, but this also has a high fatigue cost. This makes it a form of supplemental training that needs to be actively managed for a combat sports athlete. This management is important since combat sports have a high fatigue cost as well.

Calisthenics is a great way to blend muscular endurance and conditioning alongside decent strength development and body control. Bodyweight exercises that are common in calisthenics can transfer over into combat sports and also tend to develop the core. For instance, headstands and handstands can directly benefit in passing a guard in jiu-jitsu.

Ultimately, both lifting weights and calisthenics need to fit the overall goal of your combat sports training. This ultimately means managing fatigue so that you can build skills effectively in your martial art or combat sport of choice.

Integrating both types of workouts into your schedule with an eye on your training days and managing fatigue is an important factor to overall development.

Which Weight Lifting Exercises Are Most Effective for Combat Sports?

The goal for lifting is to develop good multi-joint strength that will allow us to push, pull, and move our legs with maximal strength and effectiveness. If you just integrate bench presses, deadlifts, and squats you will cover most of your strength development needs for combat sports.

The below table shows a representative group of exercises that might be used in lifting that can help combat sports.

ExerciseMuscle GroupsPrimary DevelopmentBenefits for Combat Sports
Bench PressChest, Shoulders, TricepsPushingGrappling: helps to get full extension and build frames, will also allow better power for off-balancing purposes.

Striking: high carry-over for punching power, especially for the rear hand.
Push PressShoulders, TricepsPushingGrappling: helps to escape arm locks like the Americana shoulder lock, shoulder strength also helps with manipulating frames

Striking: shoulder stability and core development allow better punches.
Pull-UpsBack, BicepsPullingGrappling: grip strength and addressing muscle imbalances are huge benefits. Grapplers tend to use a lot of pushing muscles and pull-ups can stabilize the body and prevent injury. Also helpful in dominating clinching situations.

Striking: the increased stability from having a stronger back is essential for adding power to punches.
SquatsQuads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Lower BackLegsGrappling: maintaining posture and changing levels are much easier when you have a strong squat. Muscles developed here help takedown power, allowing you to lift somebody or run them down more easily.

Striking: leg strength development from squats gives a stronger base and power can translate through in strikes.
DeadliftsQuads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Lower Back, Upper BackPulling and LegsGrappling: a deadlift allows you to both make posture and keep it standing and on the ground. It also covers muscle groups that the squat does not emphasize quite as much. Many of guard breaks become more effective with a strong deadlift, even allowing a grappler to stand up with a person wrapped around them.

Striking: leg strength development from deadlifts gives a stronger base and power can translate through in strikes.
LungesQuads, Hamstrings, GlutesLegsGrappling: the increase of stability from lunges in takedowns that involve hitting a knee is undeniable doing a grappler’s lunge makes takedowns more effective.

Striking: leg strength development is useful for striking since most strikes originate from the legs and core even for punches in boxing.

Does Calisthenics or Weight Training Have Higher Injury Risk for Combat Athletes?

Calisthenics has a lower risk of injury overall. Strength Gang outlines injury risk in a pretty clear table in their article here. The takeaway is that calisthenics has an overall smaller injury risk as compared to powerlifting, which is the closest lifting style to that used by most combat athletes.

Can Calisthenics Make You Big?

Calisthenics can add muscle mass to a certain extent provided you can achieve progressive overload. However, it will not be as efficient over time as compared to lifting weights. You eventually cross over into muscular endurance training as you progress into calisthenics which is not as hypertrophic.

The best way to get bigger is to do weight lifting training according to Health Line in the comparison article between calisthenics and weight training.

Can You Train Powerlifting and Calisthenics at the Same Time?

Incorporating both calisthenics and powerlifting-styled weight training into your routine is a good idea. This allows you to better manage your fatigue while building good strength, fitness, and overall movement quality.

Should I Do Calisthenics Before or After Weight Training?

Doing calisthenics before weight training as a warm-up routine allows you to benefit from calisthenics movements while preparing for your weight lifting routine. Getting muscles primed this way can potentially reduce your injury risk as well since you will also be warming up adjacent muscle groups.

Keep your overall fatigue in mind when combining the two, since if the calisthenics portion of your workout is too intense, you could inhibit the effectiveness of your weightlifting routine and increase the risk of injury.

Final Thoughts

Building strength and fitness is an important factor for combat sports. It directly impacts all kinds of techniques in both striking arts and grappling arts so it cannot be ignored if you want to progress optimally.

Striking a smart balance between calisthenics and lifting weights can build up your body in a way that can directly contribute to your combat sports training while also managing your fatigue. Keeping your fatigue at good levels helps you to acquire skills in whatever your chosen combat sport is.

I encourage anybody who participates in combat sports or martial arts to use these strength-building options in their overall training routines.

For more check out 3 Reasons Strength Training Is Essential for BJJ.


Hi, I'm Andre and I am the author of this website. I currently train primarily in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but supplement with other grappling martial arts as well as help to coach my kid's blended grappling program.

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