Muscles and Martial Arts

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Muscles and Martial Arts

Muscles in martial arts are important in the following ways:

Listed below are the major muscle groups in order to help you learn more about the anatomy of the human body and thus improve your martial arts training. Visit the strength training and stretching sections in order to learn about exercises and stretches for your upper body, lower body and core muscles. For more martial arts anatomy information, please visit the main Anatomy section.

List of Major Muscle Groups

  • Neck: There are a many muscles in the neck.
    • The Sternocleidomastoid helps the head rotate to the side and pull the head down. Useful in looking around to your surroundings and pulling the head down for a headbutt. The neck as a whole should be stretched in all directions as some people harbor a lot of tension/stress in their neck when doing high impact activities.
  • Front of Trunk (chest, stomach, and sides)
    • The Pectoralis muscle is the breast muscle of the chest. Primary function is to pull the arms inwards, and can be worked by many gym machines or simple push ups with the elbows out. This will improve the power of arm strikes and can act to dampen internal trauma from strikes to the chest if the pecs are well developed. For some perspective, this is the muscle that is highly valued in birds because of the act of flying and pulling their wings down wards towards the chest.
    • The Rectus/Transverse Abdominis are the superficial and deep muscles of the stomach ("Abs"). This is what people refer to as the six-pack of the stomach and often toned purely for aesthetic purposes but to martial arts is useful in protecting the body. Though not an immense layer of protection it can especially help one take a punch to the gut with little damage. This can be accomplished through slight toning of the abs and proper training. Best exercises for this includes planks and v-sits.
    • The Serratus and Obliques are the muscles on the upper and lower sides of the body. They cover the ribs and the gap between the lower ribs and the hips. Often worked out for aesthetics but provide very good reinforcement of ribs and the sides of the trunk. This helps the body better withstand impact such as punches or kicks.
  • Back of Trunk (back)
    • The Trapezius is a triangular going from the back of the neck, to the shoulder blade, and to the spine around the center of the back. This muscle helps stabilize the scapula and the neck. Working this muscle will improve posture, preventing a sore neck from intense workouts, and condition it to the impact of rolls.
    • The Latissimus dorsi is a large broad muscle that stretches from the mid/lower back to the humerus of the arm. Its function is prevalent in nearly ever arm movement and because of its function and position is important to martial artists channeling energy up through the hip to the arm for a strike. This muscle is most improved by exercises such as pull-ups, rowing, and dead lifting.
    • The Glutes (there are three of them being the maximus, medius, and minimus) that run from the pelvis to the head of the thigh joint. They assist in keeping the body upright, and most powerful function is pulling the body upright from being bent over. These muscles can be worked through heavy cardio or exercises such as squats, hips thrusts, and more. To the martial artist they can aid in regaining balance after kicks and in the transfer of energy in upward strikes such as an uppercut or rising elbow.
  • Arms
    • The Deltoid which sits at the top of the shoulders and consists of three parts that help perform a multitude of actions present in nearly all arm strikes or blocks. Lateral arm raises (with weights) are most likely to improve the strength of the deltoid, as well as exercises such as downward dog pushups.
    • The Bicep is the muscle that sits on the front of the upper arm. The bicep is use to pull the forearm closer to the upper arm. This muscle is very useful in grabbing and pulling an opponent. The typical bicep curl with weights is a great exercise as well as a standard variety of pushups. A quick strike to this muscle can surprisingly be helpful in controlling or blocking an attack.
    • The Tricep is on the back of the upper arm. This is actually the muscle that helps deliver the force of strikes as its purpose is to extend the arm outwards. Pushups are a great way to strengthen this muscle.
    • The Extensors are many long muscle that run the top of the forearm that pull the wrist back and open the hand. A sharp strike to which with an hand or improvised weapon can shock the hand into opening a bit to loosen someones grasp on you.
    • The Flexors are the muscles that run the underside of the forearm and that pull the wrist down and assist in closing the hand. Curling the wrist with weights and or using karate gripping jars can strengthen these muscles for having a stronger grasp on an opponent.
  • Legs
    • The Adductors are muscles that pull the leg closer to the central axis of the body (near the groin). Stretching these muscles for greater flexibility will greatly improve the function and height of a side kick, the best stretch you can do for which would be a straddle stretch either on the floor or standing until a full straddle is achieved. Depending on the sweep that is being performed and the way that the attacker's leg goes out from underneath of them they can severely pull these muscles.
    • The Abductors are the muscles that pull the leg further away to the side from the central axis of the body (on the outside of the hip). These muscles hugely assist in pulling the leg up for kicks such as a round house kick or a side kick. This muscle can usually be well enough worked from just repetitions of these kicks but side leg raises are also useful especially with ankle weights.
    • The Quadriceps are the muscles found on the top of the thigh and function together mostly to pull the upper leg closer to the body and extend the lower leg. These muscles help put a lot of forward power into kicks and can also be a good target for shin kicks to an opponent. Practicing kicks is often enough to work these muscles but exercises such as running and squats are also very good.
    • The Hamstrings is another large group of muscles, located on the back of the thigh, the help pull the upper and lower leg back. This is another important group to stretch for better flexibility and height of kicks, as well as pulling the leg back quicker from a kick to avoid an opponent grabbing your kick. Running is a great and easy way to improve the power of these muscles, while to touches and leg lifts are a great way to stretch the muscles.
    • The Calf is a collection of muscles on the back of the lower leg mostly made up of the Gastrocnemius which work to make the foot move up and down, moderately useful to most kicks, but is worked out in most moderately strenuous activities.

For more information on anatomy please refer back to the main Anatomy page.


  1. National Cancer Institute, Muscle Groups,, Added - 5/11/14
  2. Images from Wikimedia Commons,, Added - 5/11/14

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