Sunday, November 30, 2008

Importance of Physical Conditioning in Fighting

Here's a martial arts-related essay for you. I wrote it when I was younger and a bit newer to the martial arts. Please forgive any errors or demonstrations of naivete.

Importance of Physical Conditioning in Fighting
12/31/2004 (2/15/05)
Word Count: 2,211

In the exquisite art of fighting, it is important to note that that the majority of the fighting sports' practitioners and, most especially, the champions are considered to be in top physical condition. Next to technical skill, physical condition is the most important aspect of the martial arts.

By this, I do not mean that a particular martial art should serve as a means of achieving fitness, though many instructors would list that as a primary reason for studying their art. Throughout the history of martial arts, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being have often been the goals of particular arts. Some of the more prominent examples are Qi Gong (stressing spiritual well-being), Taijiquan (stressing both spiritual and physical fitness), and Aikido (making physical, spiritual, and mental well-being goals of every practitioner).

Qi Gong is an internal style of Gong Fu (or Kung Fu, a broad term for all fighting arts originating in China) that puts stress on the cultivation of energy and the growth of one's personal chi (internal energy). There are certain rules for living that a practitioner of Qi Gong is supposed to follow and particular ways to breathe that must be practiced. This is all in the hope that the practitioner may develop a healthier chi and grow spiritually stronger.

Taijiquan ("Grand Ultimate Fist", also know as Tai Chi) is a very well-known internal style of Gong Fu, being the most popular art in China and certainly the most-practiced Chinese art outside of China. Its most important aspects are often described as physical and spiritual health. Taijiquan uses breathing techniques to cleanse the body and soul. It also uses smooth, flowing positions that, when done in Taijiquan's typically slow nature, put stress on certain muscles. The stress put on these muscles does not make them larger, but tones them and makes them stronger and healthier.

Aikido ("the Way of Harmony") is a Japanese art that, like the aforementioned two Chinese arts, attempts to strengthen the spirit. Like Taijiquan, it also puts emphasis on making the body stronger. An aspect of Aikido that sets it apart from Taijiquan and Qi Gong is its incorporation of the idea that a practitioner must also exercise the mind. This is a concept taken from an ancestor of many Japanese arts, Bushido ("the Way of the Warrior"). Bushido was the art that the samurai lived by, which included a common idea of Zen Buddhism that all parts of a person must be strengthened and developed to the greatest potential of that person.

Each of these arts has something to offer and helps its practitioners to become a better person. Each art helps the practitioners to be more spiritual and brings them closer to whatever deity or force they worship. Taijiquan and Aikido both help their practitioners to become physically stronger and healthier. Aikido fills the triangle by having its practitioners strengthen their mind through learning and other forms of art.

Qi Gong, like many of the arts focusing on one's spirit, tends to lack far too much in the physical department to truly be beneficial to a fighter. Many spirit-focused practitioners, instructors, and masters are often heard defending similar "accusations" with "This martial art is not meant for fighting, merely to help one become a better person." This can be accepted, but not when such an art is considered a martial art. To say that it is a "martial" art would imply that the art is meant for "martial" reasons. The very word "martial" means "of warfare", which means that any martial art is meant for fighting.

Another aspect of Qi Gong, and other internal arts that use breathing techniques as a primary cleanser of the soul, which makes it unfit for fighting or physical conditioning, is the use of certain breathing techniques. Most of the breathing techniques incorporated within the art of Qi Gong are techniques that diminish the abdominal muscles. A well-toned abdomen is a trait found in all of the greatest fighters. The necessity for the abdomen to be muscular and defined has been preached since the beginnings of Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and even by that hero of China-Bruce Lee. The abdomen is a prime target for attacks in most fights and should therefore be exercised routinely and intensely in order to properly defend oneself from a larger risk of internal injury. The breathing techniques of Qi Gong and similar spiritual arts make the stomachs of their practitioners distended and round. This, of course, is "because their chi has settled and they've developed a chi build".

Taijiquan is considered an internal art, like Qi Gong, and even uses breathing techniques to cleanse the soul. However, this particular internal art also uses breathing for physical health (as most martial arts do). The breathing in Taijiquan does not create a "chi build", but also does not necessarily promote abdominal muscles like a sit-up does. The art of Taijiquan does promote physical fitness through muscle exercise that stresses particular muscles during certain positions of a form. This promotes health, but does not push a person towards physical superiority, which is sought by every serious combatant.

Aikido is most certainly not an internal art, but it is also not an art that excludes spiritual development. It is a way of living that requires one to grow physically, spiritually, and mentally. A practitioner of Aikido exercises whenever he practices a form or attends a class. He meditates, connecting himself to the deity or force he worships, strengthening him spiritually. He also reads and writes, draws, paints, sings, or plays an instrument, depending on his artistic preference and the way he wishes to express his ever-growing mind.

Even though Taijiquan and Aikido each provide for better physical fitness, they tend to make that a focus of the art. This is not necessarily a bad idea. In fact, it's quite good that an art of fighting promotes fitness, which is essential for every fighter to have. However, it should be explained by every instructor of each art promoting physical fitness that the art itself should never be considered a replacement for routine exercise and physical conditioning such as weight training, abdominal workouts, and cardiovascular exercises. That is the very point of this piece of writing: arts that aid in physical fitness should never be considered a complete path towards physical achievement.

It's been heard often: "I've gotten over the effects of old age by studying Tai Chi!" or "I lost fifty pounds in just three months by taking up Tae Kwon Do!" Though simply practicing certain martial arts might aid the elderly, overweight, or sickly, they should never be taken by one who wishes to be a serious fighter as the only means necessary to achieve physical superiority. In order to truly become a great fighter, one must have a physique that can stand up to the most powerful blows, just in case one is unable to dodge, block, parry, or counter quickly enough.

As previously stated, it is a very good idea for a martial art to help its practitioners gain better physical health and become a stronger person, but more so it should be the instructor of an art's responsibility to encourage his students to exercise and train rigorously outside of the dojo, kwoon, or other type of martial art school. Sadly, most instructors believe themselves that the art in which they practice is the only means one needs to achieve the physical level of a great or even moderate fighter. Luckily, however, there are a few martial arts in existence that stress to their students the importance of outside training and exercise. Three that deserve special merit are Muay Thai, Sanshou, and, of course, Jeet Kune Do.

Muay Thai (also known as Thai Kickboxing) is not an art that typically incorporates exercise into a normal class curriculum. In training facilities and schools for Muay Thai, the students will often have various machines and training devices at their disposal, much like in a gym, but when they are being trained to use their techniques, their teacher most often will not devote the first ten minutes of class to exercising. While practicing Muay Thai will certainly help one gain physical fitness, when two fighters actually step into the ring, it soon becomes clear who actually trains on their own time and who doesn't. The Muay Thai practitioner who does not exercise and work out regularly and rigorously soon learns his lesson.

Sanshou can best be described as China's answer to Muay Thai. Sanshou is not necessarily a particular style in that it incorporates techniques from all Chinese styles. As in Muay Thai, there are hardly any kinds of techniques not used in Sanshou. Throws, kicks, punches, knees, elbows, and even groin, knee, and throat shots are allowed (except in North America and a few other areas). It's full-contact and completely and undeniably barbaric. But therein lies the realism. Just as in Muay Thai, the Sanshou practitioner who simply does not put in the needed energy and time will often have to learn his lesson the hard way.

The third of these most notable arts that require outside work is the art of unlimited, unregulated, and ultimately real fighting: Jeet Kune Do. Jeet Kune Do is an art that was developed by Bruce Lee in an effort to break through the rigid structure of stylistic martial arts. It is not a style, nor is it necessarily a way. It is more of a philosophy that one should always strive to express not his instructor's ideas, but his own through the martial arts, because that is what "art" is all about: self-expression. When taught the art of Jeet Kune Do, one learns to not merely learn, but absorb what one needs and what works best from what he is taught, while tossing aside that which he does not need or is not able to use as effectively as the other concepts and techniques. While learning Jeet Kune Do, as the case is with many arts, one may become more physically fit, but Jeet Kune Do, like Muay Thai and Sanshou, requires its students to commit time and energy to training outside of class. Bruce Lee spoke and wrote often on the subject of physical achievement, and his body towards the end of his life continues to inspire many fighters, bodybuilders, and health nuts thirty years later.

As stated before, the greatest fighters of our time have all had incredible bodies and were often at the peak of human condition. Muhammad Ali is often considered the best boxer ever, his technique being studied by even Bruce Lee (Lee often reviewed footage of Ali's fights so that he could refine his own personal footwork and boxing techniques), and he was in magnificent shape. Like Ali, as he was also a legendary boxer and admired by Bruce Lee, Sugar Ray Robinson can not only be praised for his technique and skill, but also for his physique. During the last year of his life, Bruce Lee was down to less than 1% body fat and was eating and drinking nothing but protein shakes and tea (while this is not considered the most healthy of choices by doctors, looking at Lee's body during this time, one cannot help but feel an odd and confusing mixture of awe, inspiration, and just a little shame).

To take a look at more modern fighters, one should immediately look to the new generation of champions: Marcus Reed, Steven Lopez, and Cung Le. Marcus "the Hammer" Reed was a Canadian kickboxing champion in the early and mid-90's whose physique once prompted an announcer to say, "If looks could kill, he'd be a serial murderer." Steven Lopez is an Olympic gold-medalist in Tae Kwon Do and works out in a manner that is both consistent and intense. Probably the best of these fighters, Cung Le is both a Sanshou champion and K-1 champion, and he has a body not unlike a young Muhammad Ali's (his abs are not as well-defined as Bruce Lee's, but his arms are beyond what many once thought the Vietnamese were genetically capable of).
When seeing that the greatest fighters are most often the most well-sculpted, it raises the question of why more martial arts instructors do not warn their students that the art they practice will not ensure their survival against blows from fighters with bodies like Ali or Le's. Sadly, the answer may never be known. Most instructors really do believe that practicing their art is the only exercise necessary. Hopefully, this piece will open the eyes of those who wish to go beyond merely executing techniques and are serious about fighting.

It is the responsibility of every martial artist to help educate their fellow practitioners and an aspect that sorely needs to be touched upon is the lack of personal training that anyone can observe among many of those who know how to fight. Sadly, though these people may know how to fight, their belief that they have a chance against those who workout is both wrong and popular. Let's hope they will learn their lesson the easy way, and not have to suffer on the streets or in a ring.


mohitparikh said...

QiGong looks intersting. Do u think it(or any other style/art for that matter) can be self-taught..u know through some ebook or sth.?

M.C. Elroy said...

I think that, like any art, martial arts are best learned from skilled teachers.

However, I myself do use books and videos to supplement my training (especially in times when I'm lacking a teacher).

You might want to check out the following books:

"Qi Gong for Beginners: Eight Easy Movements for Vibrant Health" by Stanley D. Wilson

"Shaolin Qi Gong: Energy in Motion" by Shi Xinggui

Also, most of my Qi Gong "experience" has come from some enlightening articles from Kung Fu Magazine, so you may want to check out and look in their archives.

mohitparikh said...

Is GYM-ing an essential part for building physical strength?

mohitparikh said...

and thanx for the suggested books and links. i have planned to go for Tao of Jeet Kune Do first for philosophical reasons.

M.C. Elroy said...

Tao of Jeet Kune Do is a great book. So is Tao of Gung Fu.

Strength training and cardiovascular training are essential to skill and efficiency in the martial arts.

Going to the gym is a great idea for training. Any decent gym with free weights or machines should be visited frequently. However, like all training, weight training should be done properly and only with efficiency in mind.

If going to a gym is too costly, then there are a lot of things that can be done for free or on the cheap.
I myself prefer bodyweight exercises to weight lifting most of the time. Push-ups and chin ups are the best upper body exercises one can do. Sit-ups and waist twists are good for ab training. And running can be done just about anywhere that's not too crowded. If it is too crowded, you can always do a bunch of jumping jacks inside.

I'll be posting a push-up regimen that is THE most effective thing for building strength. And perhaps a good workout for martial artists, beginners and experts alike.