Sorry, whatever you’ve been told, size and strength matter in fighting.
I know I know, the martial arts, even the legitimate ones are ripe with contrary opinions. But let me lay out some facts and logic to dispel any myths.
First, there is the notion of the definitive “Strength DOESN’T matter”. That’s an absolute statement. To take it literally would mean a 5 year old should be able to break my arm if I let them start in an arm bar. But they lack the requisite level of strength needed to complete the task. And, frankly, I’d stand up and toss them off my arm. Even then, if my arm was super frail and I didn’t resist at all, there is still going to need to be some level of force required to break. Bones don’t snap because we just happen to be in the right position. So some force is needed. Size and strength influence force production. Physics still matter whether it’s BJJ , Boxing, or Tai Chi. Your not breaking bones with intent, your using force, force is produced by strength. Strength is multiplied, sometimes enormously, by technique.
So the real topic here is not whether strength and size matter, but to what degree. What we find is that now we have a set of competing and complimentary attribute scales. Some minimum of force is required, sometimes more force makes the job easier. Just as a car with a higher horsepower can accelerate faster. But also just because it has more horsepower doesn’t make it faster if it has bald tires or a shit transmission. I bet I could never beat Dale Earnhardt Jr in a race even if I had a faster car than him, but if I forced him to ride a bike while I had a 2010 Camry I think the safe money is on me. Somehwere in between those extremes is where we perform. It’s not if strength or size matter, it’s to what degree, and in what situations.
It may be great to be the 350 lb guy on top of the 200 lb guy, but being the 350 lb guy on bottom is gonna suck. The thing about weight is, you have to move it too. So increases in size can give advantage when we are using that weight to pin or control, but can be a detriment when we need to move it. The horsepower we need to move our weight is strength. Strength matters.
Lets take a look at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Absolute winners and their weights:
- 1998 Mario Sperry 220lb
- 1999 Roberto Traven 205lb
- 2000 Mark Kerr 263lb
- 2001 Ricardo Arona 198lb
- 2003 Dean Lister 220lb
- 2005 Roger Gracie 215lb
- 2007 Robert Drysdale 205lb
- 2009 Braulio Estima 190lb
- 2011 Andre Galvao 194lb
- 2013 Robert Abreu 222lb
- 2015 Claudio Calasans 194lb
- 2017 Felipe Penna 194lb
- 2019 Gordon Ryan 218lb
I don’t see any featherweights in there. At the very peak of the sport, where everyone is an athlete and everyone is relatively strong do we really think it just happens that only the guys around 200 lbs have the best technique? Do we not think there are some lighter guys with at least as good technique? (side note I took these weights from the weight class events those athletes competed in during that year)
How about American Football? According to Go Big Recruiting the average size for an NFL Linebacker is 6’2″ 220lb. Sounds a lot like the measurements for our ADCC champs above. Do we think a 140lb 5’10” dude can compete for that job if only his technique is good enough? When people are paying millions of dollars for people to physically enforce their will on others it seems being big and strong are would give you an advantage. I contend that advantage doesn’t disappear because of the magick of martial arts.
Now, well applied functional arts do things like compound our strength through leverage, place us in positions where our opponents size and strength matter less, and make use of wedges, fulcrums, and levers to take that raw strength and multiply it where needed.
So what does that mean to me a 5′ 11″ 175 lb 41 year old ? Well, life isn’t a weight class sport. There’s a limit to how much muscle weight my frame will comfortably hold while maximizing other attributes such as speed and flexibility, but within that range I should maximize my strength as much as is reasonable without risk of injury or taking time from my main focus which is skill acquisition.
Wait…… all that talk about how important brute strength is and my main goal is skill? Yes! Because as one of my coaches Cecil Burch points out, skill is the one thing I can always be increasing. I’m not getting taller, I’m not changing my genetics, and I may be in the best shape of my life but I’m not getting any younger. But I can certainly get better. I can certainly learn to use more leverage, more timing, more deception. If I can use more leverage I can get more out of what strength I have and produce more force than if I was merely stronger and less skilled.
Keeping this in mind I try to fight that urge so common of complaining that opponents “only used strength” or just went hard. What a strange thing that “your really strong” can be a backhanded compliment! This should inform me of how much more skill I need to build to overcome that deficit! Or more rightly that someone needed to work that hard against my skill! One of my favorite training partners, who is much larger than me, told me he has to use all his strength against me, I think that’s a compliment personally. For my training I should maximize my skill with the minimum amount of force required to execute, but when application time comes I want maximum horsepower to bring to bear through the most efficient system possible.