Strength Lessons from Martial Arts Master Donn F. Draeger

Having known a gentleman who had trained under Donn F. Draeger, a Western pioneer of Japanese martial arts, I did not hesitate for a moment when I saw a book he co-authored in a used book store—Judo Training Methods by Takahiko Ishikawa and Donn F. Draeger, published in 1962.

In addition to being a highly-accomplished martial artist, Draeger was one of the first in his field to get serious about strength. He was decades ahead of his times; even today his advice stands strong. Following are some quotations from the book. Enjoy.

Donn F. Draeger

Draeger on Weighted vs. Bodyweight Training

  • “Finally, one ‘myth’ refers to weight exercises as ‘un-natural’ exercises, which can find no direct transfer to practical situations in daily life, except possibly ox-like tasks or the like. For this ill-based reason they are condemned and considered wholly unnecessary. What is apparent here, is lack of understanding of what should be an obvious fact. In performing weight exercises, we sometimes purposefully penalize our muscles from the standpoint of leverages, fulcrums, and body positions, in order to more fully make them exert. These imposed handicaps, if any, will enhance the full development of the muscles, and make them more effective under normal circumstances. Of course, we must train them to work in Judo unison.”
  • On the bodyweight squat: “Return to the upright standing position, but as you rise, thrust the stomach forward…”
  • Draeger recommended the pistol and referred to it as a “severe exercise used to promote great strength and flexibility in the leg and hip joint muscles.”
  • In push-ups: “The body must be stiff as a board from head to toe.” Draeger teaches to lock out the elbows.
  • Draeger recommends the the one-arm push-up and calls it “a severe method of developing arm and shoulder strength.”

An Explanation of the Spread-out

“Spread-outs” are “a severe exercise for developing unified body tension and strength necessary in Katame Waza [grappling]. Exercises almost all major muscle groups, but used here as an abdominal belt exercise. Promotes great fixation power.

“Lie face down on the ground with the legs widespread and the arms outstretched to the sides or slightly above shoulder level. Using the combined power of the body, press the body upward, a few inches off the ground, keeping the arms fully extended and locked. Only the toes and palms touch the ground. Hold this position for a count of 5 and then return to the ground. Repeat this movement 10 times.

“Key points: The arms must be kept extended and locked. The body must not be allowed to sag in the middle.

“A more severe exercise can be obtained by suspending the entire body on toes and fingertips in similar fashion.”

Draeger’s “Power Program”

“Do not set a definite schedule to train, but utilize days of high energy to exceed past workout poundages. Never exceed 3 workouts per week. It is common to train every third day and thus only twice per week… a substantial diet is necessary… Enjoy a minimum of 8 hours of sleep.

“Perform only 2 or 3 different exercises during the entire workout. Train with the same exercises until you reach peak performance beyond which you can make no advance (this is sometimes in excess of 3 months).

“Avoid high repetitions. Use 2-4 repetitions, unlimited (minimum of 4) sets, until the weight being used allows you only one repetition. Use poundages which are 85-100% plus of your total ability in each lift.”

Had he still been alive, I believe Mr. Draeger would have felt at home at StrongFirst.

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11 thoughts on “Strength Lessons from Martial Arts Master Donn F. Draeger

  • It’s funny that to the samurai the pistol is a “severe exercise” but to Cossacks it was a regular dance move.

    I’m not surprised that some of the best strength training methods come from the cultures of the Slavs – very tough people, and the Russian Empire currently the largest in the world.

  • I am glad his is still a talk of the world, he was one of my sensei, he was a great genteman and Martial Artist, as a sensei he had a lot of Patient for the Student, he never took a single Cent for his teachings. I loved watching his Body when he used to take a sun bathing in my Country Malaysia, I am glad I had this oppurtunity of Training with one of the great legends of Budo.
    Yous Student

  • Donn Draeger, one of the first [along with R.W. Smith] Westerners to be skillful and knowledgeable enough to contextualize the Eastern Martial Arts from the perspective of Westerners. Incidentally the photograph of Mr Draeger was taken whilst he was working as the martial arts action choreographer and stunt double to Sean Connery on the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice filmed on location in Japan in 1967. Incidentally, Strong First=Great Resource..

  • Nice find, Mr. Tsatsouline! There is very little truly new. Goblet squats had a precursor with the Malasana from yoga. I love that StrongFirst isn’t “new.” It’s the opposite of infomercials.

  • Pavel, Donn Dreager taught my instructor (Dr. Don Smith, deceased) at the Kodokan. Dr. Smith was an exchange student in Japan (1960’s) he was small and many of the other judoka were picking on him so Sensei Dreager took him under his wing. Very cool article you can’t go wrong with his advice.

  • It is also interesting to note that Mr.Draeger served as a Marine, fighting on Iwo Jima. One of his prodigies, Hunter Armstrong was one of the pioneers of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. Donn Draeger, a consummate warrior. Excellent article.

  • I have quite a few of Draeger’s books being a life long student of Martial arts myself. He was one of the early pioneers of the era.

  • I think Bruce Lee would have also felt like like home at StrongFirst. No kidding! Don’t you all think the same?

  • Thank you for sharing this, quite inspiring fifty years later. I can not recall where I read it, but I read that Donn could squat 500 Lbs. He definitely lived Strong First!

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