Not long ago a training partner mentioned that he was having problems finding help for his construction business. Every time he would hire they would quit after just a few days, because the work was just too hard. He couldn’t understand what the problem was – after all he spent every day for the past 20 years climbing ladders, hauling timber, and moving heavy equipment. Well, unlike his younger employees who worked out in a weight room, he had spent years building functional strength, and when it comes to fighting it will give you an edge.

The first time I learned about functional strength wasn’t from a training book, fitness study or veteran coach, but a children’s book about folk tales. One story was about John Henry a railroad worker and the great strength he got from pounding away with his sledgehammer day after day. In the story he proved what he could do when he squared off versus a steam drill. He was able to carve a tunnel through a mountain using only a sledgehammer, iron will, and the brute strength to beat the machine. While it may be a work of fiction, the story reminds us that if you want to develop real power it takes a lot of hard work.

Most body builders can lift an impressive amount of weight, but they can only do it for short bursts. They can probably lift a weight ten times before having to put it down, but ask them to do it until they can’t do it any more and they probably only have a few more reps left in them. While bench-pressing 500lbs looks impressive, your average sanitation worker in New York City lifts around 13 tons of trash into his truck daily. For real combat martial arts you need strength for the long haul. You shouldn’t give up your weights, but they shouldn’t be the only way you build muscle. If you want to survive a street fight you need explosive power that will last, because you won’t get any breaks.

Things like splitting wood will burn a ton of calories while developing muscles, but not every body lives on a farm. If you are stuck in a desk job and only have a small apartment, you can still benefit from functional strength. Callisthenic exercises are a great way to build muscle while only using your own body weight. You don’t need any equipment and there’s no danger of “over doing it” when you workout. You can get a lot out of doing push-ups, sit-ups, along with other exercises and simply running. If you’re already doing weight training, include calisthenics in with your workout. You will find that you will need to spend less time pumping iron, and actually feel stronger and more flexible.

Many people practice martial arts because they aren’t very strong and want a different kind of advantage in a fight. While the right techniques do help you out the better shape you’re in the better of you will be. Just because you are learning self defense doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop building up your body. The longer you’re able to fight the greater the chance you will outlast your attacker and win – so keep working out and keep doing your self defense training.