As many of you know I have done, and continue to do, quite a lot of martial arts training. And for a while now I’ve been trying to work something out.
How is that fat martial artists can outperform totally ripped gym bunnies?
The obvious answer is that how we look has very little to do with our actual level of fitness. Someone who is chunky but works out a lot is going to be more fit than someone who stays sexy by staying away from food.
But I’ve recently realised that there is more to it than that.
In fact I’m pretty sure that the type of physical training of which gym training is a typical example actually teaches you to be less ‘fit’ than you should be. Furthermore I shall argue that traditional martial arts are often much better at overcoming this failure than modern or mixed martial arts are.
The first part of my argument is based upon the assumption that how fit you are is absolutely inseparable from the skill you possess in performing a particular task.
Take a moment, think about that.
I am saying that no matter what task you are performing skill will be a key factor in how fit you are.
So fitness is not merely physical.
I used to train with world-class Gracie Jiu Jitsu black belt, who was also a fitness fanatic. As one might expect he was in fantastic shape. But when we had a group training seminar on Muy Thai he was unable to stay the pace for as long as some less diligent Kung Fu practitioners.
What was going on?
Simply put the Kung Fu guys, like myself, were just more used to throwing punches and kicks than he was.
In any test of general fitness he probably would have won. In any test of fitness that involved grappling he would’ve dominated.
But punching and kicking were just not his thing. So he was at a disadvantage in terms of physical skill.
I chose this example because it isn’t a case of a targeted lack of fitness. This isn’t a situation where a 100 meter sprinter finds they can’t run a marathon or a diver tries to pole vault and ends up squashing a judge.
Both Jiu Jitsu and Muy Thai involve full body fitness. People who are good at them have to train comprehensively, and both require great stamina.
So the only difference between the two situations was the precise nature of the skills being employed.
So how “fit” you are isn’t just a physical thing. It has two aspects. The first one is purely physical and relates to how quickly and how often your muscles can tighten and relax, how effectively your body can provide sugar to the areas that need it and how good you are at absorbing and distributing oxygen, as well as many other factors.
The second aspect is mental (sort of) and relates to how efficiently you move and whether you waste or conserve energy.
But what does this have to do with gym and martial arts training?
Simple: the culture that predominates in Western style training, of the type you often see in gyms, tries to teach you to move as inefficiently as possible, thus dramatically reducing the skill you possess.
I’ve been doing martial arts for a very long time. And while I’ve done my share of MMA I started in traditional martial arts like Karate, Aikido and Kung Fu. The main advantage that something like Kung Fu has with all its flashy, dramatic, acrobatic moves is that it trains the whole body to move efficiently. If you want to keep moving like that for any length of time you have no choice but to learn efficiency and learn it fast.
Kung Fu is not alone in this of course. Aikido and Jiu Jitsu both have it as a matter of fundamental ideology that if you are using force in your technique then you’re doing it wrong. They also strive towards maximum efficiency.
In fact most traditional martial arts do.
But Western style training doesn’t.
What’s the most commonly heard phrase in a modern gym, or with a personal trainer?
“Feel the burn”.
I hate that phrase.
And not because I have a problem with working hard but because we’ve forgotten what that phrase is supposed to mean.
It started off meaning “work so hard that you can feel your body exercising”, and that was fine.
But these days it has come to mean “do whatever you can to get that burn”.
And the easiest way to do that is to move inefficiently.
I was once in a class where we had to do the following drill. We placed a skipping rope on the ground and stood to one side of it. Then we had to hop from one side to the other, and back again. This exercise works the leg muscles and also develops balance. The exercise was explained to us and we were told to do it for 30 seconds straight.
The non-martial artists in the group (many of whom were a lot more ‘fit’ than I was) proceeded to hop to one side, and then hop back again, just as they had been instructed to do.
I tried that for a few seconds before realising that it was completely exhausting me, so I shifted my approach. Instead of landing completely on the other side I left my centre of gravity directly above the rope and bounced my feet rapidly from one side to the other.
To the people watching it seemed as if I was some sort of rope hopping machine. I was moving much more quickly than anyone else but just kept on going, apparently indefatigable.
They were rather impressed.
But they shouldn’t have been, because I was actually cheating.
What I was doing looked better than what they were doing but I was actually burning a lot less energy.
Here’s how the ‘cheat’ works. When my classmates jumped across the rope they moved their entire body from one side to the other, using up a lot of energy. But what I was doing was leaving my body where it was, hovering in the air above the rope and basically just moving my legs.
The instructor, who was far more knowledgeable than my classmates, realised almost immediately what I was doing and come over to ask me to stop it.
And that my friends is the problem.
Because my way of doing that workout may have been worse exercise, but it was much better training.
Let me explain what I mean with reference to another exercise: the sprawl.