Sunday, 23 October 2016

Martial Arts & Fitness - What do we even know about fitness?

Quality.  This is a word all martial arts instructors live by.
Knowledgeable.  This is another one.
Informed.  Yet another one.

And I would venture to believe that most instructors consider themselves to be all three.  In my many years of martial arts training I find myself, being in my mid-thirties, as having had the fortune of meeting some of the world’s best practitioners and instructors.  One thing they all share in common is their enthusiasm for their sport.

Most people come to martial arts because a specific need arose in their life.  That need maybe fitness or self-defence, and in joining the art the practitioner may end up gaining more than they originally sought.  Many practitioners, having experienced some profound life change through their art, feel incredibly grateful for it and out of good intentions wish to share that experience with others and pass their knowledge on – and so the instructor is often born.

Many instructors begin their journey by way of good intentions.  Few instructors wake up one morning and think, ‘oh, today I want to be the world’s worst instructor’.  However, no matter how good the original intentions to begin teaching, sooner or later, the decision to start up a club and the decision to start teaching brings with it a requirement to bring in students through the front door.  Unfortunately, in my experience, the build it and they will come mentality just doesn’t produce students.

Having looked at many club’s marketing literature one thing they all seem to share in common is ‘fitness’.  This has got me thinking.  What instructors training do instructors actually receive in ‘fitness’.  How do they even define ‘fitness’?  Is it well-being, cardio-vascular endurance, what?  To get their black belt they had to learn moves for sure, but ‘fitness’ theory?  Not so much.  My experience on the main shows me that many martial arts instructors are uninformed, without proper knowledge, and simply unable to provide quality fitness instruction.

For example; all fitness instruction should start with lectures on macro-nutrients.  This is the basic idea that all food is reducible to carbs, proteins and fat.  It is surprising that many individuals do not understand basic nutrition.  This is evidenced by our great love affair with carbs, which are ultimately responsible for weight gain.  No one ever got fat on proteins!  Any bodybuilder knows, if you truly want to lose weight start with your diet, the gym work is secondary to that.

Neurological pathways:-  this is the idea that different forms of intensity produce different results and can only be sustained for a defined period.  These pathways should inform the instructor’s basic programming.  Why?  Because quality can only be sustained with limited repetitions, but quantity will force muscular adaption.  This is why kata only use one move at a time and then moves on to the next, whilst basic training is about repetition and number crunching.  Why is this even important?  Because if you number crunch and expect perfection every time you are being unrealistic.  That neurological pathway is unable to sustain that degree of intensity whilst retaining quality and forcing your student to do the impossible will not only cause them frustration but risk them injury.

It is also important to understand that number crunching is important.  Why?   The brain is structured by way of cellular synapse.  Your brain, much like a hard-drive, is limited in terms of how much space it has.  If memories or knowledge are filing cabinets, there must be a basic pathway to that knowledge, like a road.  As your brain is only able to support so much, the brain will decide which knowledge banks are unimportant and will break down those pathways to free up space.  This process is called ‘pruning’. 

By training through repetition we create numerous pathways to the same filing cabinet.  The more pathways we have the less chance we have of forgetting something, and the quicker and more readily available that cabinet or knowledge becomes.  Again, why is this important?  I have met instructors who themselves hate number crunching.  They find it boring and unenjoyable because they didn’t like having to do it when they were learning, and yet they fail to recognise the advantage they gain by ditching this teaching method, least of which is cardiovascular conditioning, which is itself a basic competent of fitness training.

I think back over the years and think, I’ve never heard an instructor talking about muscular motor recruitment patterns.  This is the idea that certain muscles work together to gain more efficient movement.  If these instructors were really serious about fitness they would be making their students undertake metabolic conditioning (elevated heart rates through repeated repetition), through exercises which improve not just their mid-line stabilisation (balance and core), but which also support their basic martial arts movements.  An example would be air squats and leg lunges to improve basic forward stance or kamae.  

These same instructors fail to isolate muscle groups and use their lessons to isolate muscle areas.  Their lessons, often performed on the fly, are a mix of movements without any observable linkage.  A linked lesson could be: begin with basic foot/body movement, preform a met-con of air squats and lunges, and then do kick work.  This is an example of a ‘leg day’, and is also an example of isometric conditioning, a method of fitness training common to bodybuilders.  

At the end of the day, we all want others to experience that profound experience we experienced when we began martial arts.  As educators ourselves, all I would say is that we require education in the very things that we want to promote.  Our martial art does not teach us about fitness and does not arm us to provide this form of training to others.  All I would suggest is that if you want to take ‘fitness’ seriously, it is important to learn about it yourself just as seriously as you learnt about your martial art in the first place.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Reflections on Martial Arts Strategy

"Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it." – Buddha

One of my students and I sat the other day and discussed martial arts strategy.  “It is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our martial arts” I explained.  As much as we’d like to believe, no martial art is all encompassing.  As martial artists we tend to favor and prefer the art that we have dedicated our lives towards.  Sometimes our passion towards these blinds us to the obvious.  The reason for this is often that a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, financial resources and time have all been invested into these.  This is why many of us feel committed to what we do.  None of us want to admit that perhaps we have wasted these precious assets on something that was folly.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “if passion drives you, let reason hold the reins”.  It is unreasonable to believe that any martial art is capable of being all things to all men.  Each martial art was after all designed with a specific goal in mind.  Let’s take Aiki-based martial arts as an example.

Toshishiro Obata suggests that Aiki-jujutsu was originally designed to deal with matters relating to castle law and correct etiquette between senior samurai officers in conflict scenarios.  Let’s consider Suwari Waza.  The samurai were not meant to stand above their feudal lords, nor spill blood in front of them.  Doing so was deemed bad manners and could carry grave punishments, including seppuku (ritual suicide).  This is one of the reasons way it is thought that Suwari Waza was originally created, i.e. to sub-due a colleague, without standing and drawing blood.  Likewise, why is it that many Aiki-based techniques begin from wrist grabs?  Some would argue that it was because the wrists of samurai warriors, in full armor, were poorly protected.

All of this makes sense within the correct historical context.  From a martial arts strategy point of view, the goal of these techniques were logical.  It also makes sense why Karate would not work in the same scenario.  The martial arts strategy of Karate is considered by some to be, strike an aggressor, over power him and render him incapable of further violence.  Originally designed by farmers to defeat wayward samurai (i.e. a samurai misbehaving, rather than on the battlefield), these techniques were performed standing and often resulted in great physical damage to the opponent.  There were no Suwari Waza and soft techniques which did not draw blood.  Karate’s martial arts strategy was therefore unsuitable for castle etiquette, which should appear obvious given the context.

The context of a martial art is important to practitioners.  We have become accustomed to espousing the virtues of UFC and MMA, as an example.  However, let us not forget that their martial arts strategy is often one of hand to hand combat which takes place 1 on 1 within the confines of the ring environment with a referee to hand should the fight get out of control.  These techniques, whilst highly effective within such situations, are not always conducive or practical for group combat and police restraining type scenarios. 


Every martial art has its own strengths and weaknesses and it is important for all students of these to understand their martial arts strategy.  It is important to be mindful about our passions and to consider them rationally.  This should allow each and every one of us to act more professionally whilst avoiding making claims about our arts, which to the educated may at first seem unsustainable thereby degrading the value of that art and the professionalism of that teacher to the wider audience.