Train Like Goku and Vegeta – Strength Training for Martial Arts

By on March 19, 2021

It seems to me that, no matter who you are, if you train, you probably get inspired by Dragon Ball. Even the seemingly most unlikely people at your gym can probably hum Faulconer’s Vegeta theme, or perform the fusion dance.

This is partly due to the insanely awesome training and battle scenes on display. It’s partly due to the sense of competition and pushing yourself that runs through the entire series. And it’s partly due to the awesome way Toriyama draws Goku and Vegeta’s physiques.

But just how useful is the kind of training depicted in the anime and manga? And how do you really go about getting a body that looks AND performs like Goku or Vegeta’s? Let’s find out.

What Does Dragon Ball Training Look Like?

Dragon Ball training

When I think of Dragon Ball training, I think of two main things: the awesomely intensive bodyweight training under increased gravity or wearing weighted clothing, and the goofier scenes that seem to come straight out of an old kung fu flick or Rocky movie. You know: chasing monkeys, fighting dinosaurs, and doing menial chores for master Roshi.

Both these options are great choices for martial artists looking to increase their power, explosiveness, and all-round combat effectiveness.

Is Goku’s Physique Realistic for a Fighter?

The big question, when it comes to strength training and martial arts, is whether you can be packed with muscle and still move powerfully, explosively, and fluidly. There is a common misconception that muscle will slow you down; this is a view held by MANY excellent martial artists. We even see this in Dragon Ball Z, when Trunks bulks up to fight Cell but becomes too slow.

Goku Muscle

So, should we avoid resistance training altogether?

The answer is no, we just need to do it right! Take a look at someone like Jean Claude Van Damme for the perfect example of someone who is extremely muscular like Goku, but who also has powerful, snappy, fast punches. Or, how about Mike Tyson? Even Jackie Chan was pretty big at some points and no one would accuse him of being slow and stiff! Jason Statham has been pretty bulky at times, too.

Even Jackie Chan was pretty big at some points.

Just to be clear: I am not claiming to be a shining example of this. Commenters will tell you that my punches are stiff (they’re right) and I’m hardly bodybuilder-buff, either! But I have improved in both areas simultaneously and, importantly, I understand where I’m going wrong.

Weaponized Muscle

The issue is that the way a bodybuilder or powerlifter trains their muscles does not translate to fluid and snappy motion. When you perform a bench press, you disengage your core and push entirely from your arms. A powerlifter will then rehearse that same movement pattern over and over again, strengthening those connections in the brain.

Thus, when the same powerlifter comes to throw a punch, it’s only natural that they will generate the power from their chest and arms while keeping the torso rigid. It’s harder for them to create the competing map that allows them to throw a powerful punch.

Bench Press

What’s more, it’s harder for them to coordinate movement throughout the entire body: to rotate the hips and shoulders then whip out the fist. We see an example of this kind of interference in swimmers. One study showed that swimmers are actually worse at jumping than the untrained population (study). In other words: swimming makes you worse at jumping because you’ve developed different neural maps and strengthened different muscles.

That’s not to say that a swimmer can’t also become very good at other things – just look at triathletes for instance. All it means is that bench press on its own won’t translate to a more powerful punch. In fact, quite the opposite.

So, what’s the solution?

Why You Should Use Resistance Training

Well, one option is to train both the strength and the movement. That means you powerlift some days and you train in martial arts the other days. This is far from optimal.

For one, this gives you zero benefit when it comes to strengthening the key muscles used in rotating and stiffening the core during a punch. The core is inactive during a bench press and many strength-training protocols do nothing to strengthen the transverse plane.

The other extreme would be to ditch resistance training altogether. Why bother building muscle? Simple: because resistance training applied correctly can increase power – as well as giving you that Goku physique.

Or to put it another way: Bruce Lee trained with weights. So should you.

Bruce Lee Muscle

The Perfect Amount of Resistance

Specifically, adding about 75% of your bodyweight will allow you to train in an explosive manner, while still encouraging greater fast-twitch fibre recruitment, muscle damage, mechanical tension, and all that good stuff. In other words: we can develop power with just the right amount of resistance.

Weighted Pull Ups

I say 75% of bodyweight because this won’t be so much as to slow the movement down to a grind. This still allows fast movement and “intent,” which in turn ensures rapid rate-of-force production. In one study, it was found that sprinters could get faster by training with a heavy sled. However, this was only effective when pulling up to 75% of their bodyweight; any slower and they would no longer be moving explosively, but rather grinding out the movement (study). The same applies to any movement.

The key is then to apply this amount of resistance in a movement pattern that closely mimics the movements we want to train. This is simply the law of specificity, as seen all across functional training. This is exactly the kind of thing good sports coaches will get their MMA fighters doing.

Staggered Stance Cable Punch-Out

An example is the staggered-stance cable punch-out. Here, you attach a cable (or band) behind you and then push it out with one arm. A similar option is the band/cable press – which doesn’t involve the hips and shoulders as much.

Staggered Stance Cable Punch

Unlike punching with weights (which we do see in Dragon Ball), this places the resistance behind the fighter – right where it should be.

Now, you’ll be able to develop strength in the transverse plane AND in your chest – even in your hips and ankles to a lesser degree. You’ll be doing this with a fast intent and just the right amount of weight to increase some strength. You can then transfer those gains to your punches.

Another move you can use is a medicine ball rotational throw. Project the weight from your shoulder as you torque the body – just as you would throw a punch. This is an even more ballistic movement that lets you exert maximum power. If you want to move fluidly, you need to train fluidly.

Strength You Can Use

You’ll still build muscle like Goku, but you’ll get faster and not slower. Would bench press make you stronger? Well when lying down it would. But as JC Santana points out: building massively powerful pecs and trying to use them while standing is like trying to “fire a canon from a canoe.” Your body will bend and you’ll lose your footing! You can only actually utilize the pushing power that you are able to generate from that standing position, so band, cable, and medicine ball work is perfect!

Similar principles apply to other movement patterns. The Bulgarian Bag is a fantastic tool for developing the kind of torque and core strength you need for grappling and even works the grip and strength endurance. There are other, similar, movements you can perform with a kettlebell.

Weighted Clothing and Calisthenics

Another trope of Dragon Ball training is weighted clothing.

And this is perfect! After all, using weighted clothing in the real world will typically add just the right amount of resistance. (Though keep in mind that a press up on its own offers 75% of your bodyweight as resistance!)

Roundhouse Kick Goku Training

Training explosively with these movements is important – whether or not you choose to add weight. To begin with your own bodyweight may be enough to continue building your strength reserves. Just take a look at the conditioning work Grant does. I’ve never seen anyone punch with as much speed and power as him. So yeah: explosive calisthenics works.

I made a whole video explaining the differences between plyometrics and ballistic exercises, but that doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that you’re moving with fast, explosive intent. To move faster, you need to train faster. This will improve rate of force development – altering the rate coding such that you learn to recruit the most powerful motor units immediately.

This will improve rate of force development – altering the rate coding such that you learn to recruit the most powerful motor units immediately.

As we’ve already seen, using extremely heavy weights can hinder this. Here we are using “compensatory acceleration” to generate more force than is needed to move the weight slowly.

So that when you want it, it’s there.

This also helps us to improve the strength-to-weight ratio. In other words, we are not just strong, but strong for our size. This is important, as it allows us to move quickly and remain agile. If you are extremely strong but you can’t do a pull up or jump more than a few inches off the floor, it may be time to lighten the load and focus on bar speed instead.

Strength Endurance

If we want to train for martial arts, then we need to focus on strength endurance as much as raw power. Being massively strong is no use if you tire out after a single punch, or if you get out of breath climbing the stairs. MMA fights and definitely Dragon Ball fights go on for some time – so you need to focus on strength endurance. That means conditioning.

Strength endurance is more important in the real-world, too. It’s far more useful to be able to carry something a distance than it is to pick up something really heavy once. It’s also far more important in all sports. The military also favors strength endurance over max strength.

Work capacity

And again, our explosive calisthenics, functional movements, and weighted clothing all lend themselves perfectly to this kind of training. The aim is to be as explosive as possible through long sets and repeated bouts. This also reshapes your body like nothing else. Remember: bodybuilders use high reps because it provides metabolic build-up, triggering hypertrophy. And as this also becomes a type of cardio, you’ll simultaneously be melting away fat.

Remember: Recover

Calisthenics and weighted calisthenics are also perfect because they let you go hard without completely fatiguing your nervous system. Training with max weights is not a great move if you’re serious about martial arts training, as it leaves you too tired and exhausted to put your all into the skills component of your regime: which should always take priority if that’s your goal.

Recovery

(It’s different for me, as I train for the sake of training.)

Training DOES lead to a zenkai boost in the form of “overcompensation.” This is the physiological mechanism behind the gains achieved from each workout. But unless you’re a Saiyan, pushing too hard will simply continue to break your body down further without giving it a chance to recover.

So, listen to your body. Get your priorities straight. And eat like Goku!

Practicing Looseness

There’s another reason why big muscle may appear to slow a fighter down: tension. Very thick muscle can slow you down if the antagonist muscles work against the movement. In the case of a punch, the biceps and lats are pulling the fist back in. If you haven’t practiced punching, you’ll struggle to “turn off” these muscles while you deliver the blow. In other words: you’ll struggle to create “reciprocal inhibition.” This is important in all athletic pursuits and it’s yet another example of how you can get stronger without adding more muscle.

Looseness

If you aren’t practiced in punching and you have huge muscles, it stands to reason that you’ll experience greater resistance from your own body. Being tense and stressed will expend energy unnecessarily, too.

We actually see this in Dragon Ball Super, when Whis tells Vegeta he needs to relax while fighting. It’s also implied that this is one of the reasons that Ultra Instinct is so effective for Goku.

Martial artists know this intuitively, but it was confirmed by research conducted on UFC fighters by Dr. Stuart McGill. He found a “double pulse” occurred in the fighters during a punch: an initial punch to generate the strike and a second pulse to create stiffness in the entire body on impact.

Chi and the Mind-Muscle Connection

Tai Chi, when performed correctly, is the ideal antidote to this. In Tai Chi, you should be moving while remaining as physically relaxed as possible. Try raising your arms together right now but only contract those muscles that are absolutely necessary to generate the movement, while relaxing all others. This is difficult due to the irradiation effect, tension that we naturally carry, and more. However, learning to relax the muscle is a technique that can develop huge power. And martial artists aren’t the only ones to have discovered this: old time strongmen like Maxick likewise believed this technique could provide huge strength gains.

Qi Gong

So, maybe try practicing some Tai Chi. Check out my video on quasi-isometrics and try performing some passive, yielding isometrics. Hardstyle kettlebell training can also teach this technique. And of course, just be mindful of the tension you’re carrying during your training.

Tai Chi practitioners speak about feeling the flow of energy through the body and this makes sense in this context: all resistance is gone and the moves become graceful, yet powerful. I actually have a theory that visualizing the flow of chi around the body is a tool for tapping into the mind-muscle connection – it may help us to gain control over more muscle both for the purposes of contracting and relaxing.

Sadly, I don’t think you’ll be able to fire that chi out your hands like a kamehaha or genki-dama any time soon. Genki actually refers roughly to “vitality.” Check out some Shaolin monks if you want to see the kinds of things that are possible through this kind of will.

Robust Mental Models

Finally, what about all the chores Goku and Krillin did for Master Roshi? What about chasing King Kai’s monkey, Bubbles? Climbing Korin tower?

Well actually, this type of training is ideal for building more adaptable strength. By incorporating a cognitive component, by introducing unexpected variables, and by mixing things up, these kinds of training “challenges” can actually help to build more robust mental models.

Lizard Crawls Weighted

Bruce Lee said to fear the man who practiced a single kick a thousand times. That’s certainly true if you want the sharpest, most efficient technique possible.

But because real-life is unpredictable and non-linear, you should eventually introduce more unpredictability variety into your training. This creates more robust mental models, so that you can apply your skill in a wider variety of situations.

It’s also awesome and fun. And if Dragon Ball teaches us anything, it’s that training should be awesome and fun!

Order your copy of SuperFunctional Training - A complete training program for body and mind.





ORDER HERE



Support the Bioneer at Patreon for Exclusive Content: Click Here!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

6 Comments

  1. Isk says:

    What do you think about Dragon Ball Hyperbolic Time Chamber?
    I bet I do not have to explain what it is.. but can we use it in our training somehow?
    Perhaps like a visualization technique during meditation? Many have said that if we can mentally visualize a movement or an exercise, the brain can be tricked that it performed the exercise?

  2. brandon says:

    Any chance you can put out a video or routine for strengthening wrists specifically? I did all my rehab for dual TFCC tears in both wrists and I still have low flexibility and no strength to perform a lot of your exercises. I would love to do your workouts, but the hand and grip training isn’t enough…
    Cheers

    • Rick says:

      I could be wrong, but I believe he has a video out about strengthening the forearms and I believe he also talks about the wrists in that video. Again, I could be wrong. Hope you get better soon!

    • Rick is right! I think there is some crossover with the tendon/forearms videos. That said, I do intend to make one on wrists specifically quite soon. I’ve done knees so I’ll be going through a number of other “problem areas” over the following months 🙂

  3. Ruben says:

    Love your work and channel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *