A Little Fight in your Fitness
My martial arts training began around the age of 16 at the local YMCA. Tae Kwon Do (TKD) was the first martial art that I ever trained in. A wide assortment of offbeat characters met in a downstairs room, to learn forms, and throw fancy kicks. I thought I was going to be the next Jean-Claude Van Damme, doling out punishment with crazy, jumping roundhouse kicks. For those of you that are unfamiliar with TKD, it loosely translates to “The way of the foot and fist”, and we focused a lot on the foot (kicking). To be honest, I wasn’t very good. When I wasn’t getting punished like a human punching bag by a higher level classmate, I was dealing with a swollen knee (old basketball injury) from the hundred kicks we were executing with reckless abandon. In the beginning it was fun, exhilarating, and quite the conditioning workout, but I eventually began to dread it. After two sparring accidents, both truly accidents, Sahbumnim (Korean for “Master”) grew angry with me. It was pretty much all down hill from there. Some of the highlights from the downward trend included a busted up nose, twisted knee, and some bruised ribs. Those last two injuries occurred when I was paired up in sparring match with a guy that was twice my size. I swear he was trying to kick my head off. I am sure that some people found it to be a fun challenge, and one of my friends even went on to get his black belt. However, needless to say, TKD wasn’t a good match for me. Now you’re probably thinking, why would I want to participate in something like that? It’s because there are a lot of positive things to gain from training in a martial art. I promise I am getting to my point, bear with me for a moment. After getting over my past fears, I gave martial arts another try, and I settled into a Karate class at the YMCA in Eugene. The head instructor was an interesting man, fascinated with attacking nerve points and causing pain. He often talked of apprehending local anarchists with zip ties. and was not afraid to share with us, his own dreams of vigilante justice. Most classes had quite the element of pain involved, with endless punching and blocking drills, focusing on hard blocks and building pain tolerance. The kicking was kept to a minimum, so my knee was happy. The assistant instructor became a real mentor to me and I always enjoyed it when he taught the class. He gave me a lot of tips about becoming a better martial artist, and he was very positive. Even though I liked it better than TKD, things still weren’t quite right. It was kind of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, “too Hot”, “too Cold”, and I was looking for something that was closer to “just right”. I eventually left Eugene, and upon my return to Ashland, I took up Aikido. It can be loosely Translated as “The way to harmonize with the spirit of the universe.” Essentially, Aikido is all about flow. You flow with an attack, and move with the opponents energy, not against it, becoming one with it. Techniques are an assortment of joint locks, and throws, and it’s very important to learn how to fall properly. I really enjoyed the art, and the people I trained with. I also felt like it was something I could do for the rest of my life,which was important to me. While in TKD, I knew I wouldn’t last long, because of my knee. I had found my “just right.” During this time, I added some Tai Chi training into the mix. My Tai Chi work was all about practicing forms and coordinating breathing. It was essentially moving meditation, and I liked the calm feeling it brought over me. However, my youthful spirit still yearned to participate in a striking art. When I moved back to Eugene, along with Aikido, I began participating in Jeet Kune Do. “The way of the intercepting fist” was created by Bruce Lee. It’s essentially the origin of mixed martial arts (MMA). As Bruce Lee said, “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” I took private training lessons that included boxing, Escrima (check out Dan Inosanto’s demonstration here), Muay Thai Boxing, and Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ). I really fell in love with BJJ, and our training sessions eventually evolved into mostly BJJ training. I loved the intense conditioning I got out of the art. Often times, our rolling sessions left me on my back, chest heaving, in a pool of sweat, and I loved it. I even entered a BJJ tournament in Eugene as a white belt, and after receiving the only first round bye in the light heavyweight division, I got demolished. Even worse, Randy “The Natural” Couture was in the crowd watching. It was still a good experience to take me out of my comfort zone. I’ve acquired a few nicks and dings from the training over the years, but I still think Martial Arts is an excellent way to improve fitness, and the benefits go way beyond that. Here are a few reasons why you may want to take up a martial art.
- Balance/Falling: According to the CDC, falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries in older adults (65 years and older). Tai Chi is excellent for balance. The forms teach a person to gracefully shift their weight, and at times, even balance on one leg. A 2012 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that Tai Chi improved balance in mild to moderate Parkinson’s patients, while also improving functional capacity and reducing falls. Aikido is great for learning how to fall properly, without getting injured. A lot of techniques in Aikido involve throwing, so learning to break fall is a very important part of class. Other striking and grappling arts on the feet, will also help improve balance and footwork.
- Camaraderie: Before there was CrossFit, before there were sports teams, people gathered together to train in the combat arts. Working out with people provides a support system and accountability. Finding a martial art with a group of people that you click with, is a crucial part of finding the right art. It all starts with the teacher and the environment they wish to foster. I always looked for a positive teacher who taught class with honor and respect. Just watch out for that person in class who pretends to be a beginner, and then tries to rough you up. I never did like those people. But in general, martial arts have introduced me to a lot of awesome people.
- Conditioning: Some of the best cardio workouts I have ever gotten have come from BJJ rolling, aikido randori, and MMA sparring. Obviously, the intensity of the conditioning will depend on the type of martial art, the instructor, and how hard you want to push yourself. High intensity martial arts: Ground based (wrestling, BJJ, etc.), Striking Arts (Boxing, Karate, TKD, etc.) Lower intensity martial arts (Aikido, Tai Chi,etc.)
- Confidence: Training in a martial art and having knowledge of self defense can help build confidence. Ironically, a confident person is less likely to run into trouble. This confidence can spill over into other areas of life. Dealing with stress in training, from difficult techniques, sparring, and testing for higher ranks, makes other things in life seem easy. Dan Gable said,”Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.”
- Coordination: Many martial arts consist of techniques, forms, and combinations. This helps improve precision, timing, and coordination. I often have clients throw punching combinations on the focus mitts as part of their workout. I feel my older clients benefit the most from this. At first they make a lot of mistakes, and have to think about the combinations. Eventually it gets easier and their coordination clearly improves. As we age, we often don’t do things to challenge our coordination (i.e. throwing and catching a ball, shooting hoops, etc.). Martial arts can provide us this opportunity for coordinating movement.
- Discipline: A good teacher will expect his students to be well behaved and show good discipline. This may be more helpful for those that are younger, but we can lack discipline at any age. How many of us would consider ourselves undisciplined when it comes to working out? Eating healthy? Getting enough sleep? The list goes on and on. Most of us can benefit from the discipline a teacher and martial arts class can provide, and just maybe, it will expand into other areas of our life.
- Personal Safety: This is an added bonus that training in the martial arts can provide, the ability to protect ourselves and the ones we care about. We won’t gain this from playing a team sport, or lifting weights, or just running (although running away from a dangerous situation is often the best option). In the last week, a local woman was abducted while out jogging. Luckily, it was only for a short period of time and she only suffered minor injuries. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that plays out all over the country, not just in our small valley. It could have been a lot worse, but if you know some form of self defense training, then you will have some tools to protect yourself. Obviously, some martial arts will be more applicable than others in a dangerous situation, but anyone can at least learn some basic self defense techniques to mitigate an attack. I am certified instructor in MovNat Combatives, which is simple self defense. You can read more about it here, in a past post. I would recommend learning basic self defense techniques, especially for those that train in a more gentle martial art, such as Tai Chi.
This is the part where I encourage you to investigate some different martial arts and find the one that is “just right” for you. It will be a great addition to your current fitness program, especially for conditioning. Just remember, there are risks with training in martial arts, especially the high intensity ones, but you can always decide for yourself, what level of intensity you are comfortable with. I don’t have any statistics but the risk of injury in something like Tai Chi, I imagine, would be very low. So there is truly an option for everyone. While you weigh your options on what kind of class would be right for you, you can get started right away, by adding some shadow boxing or heavy bag work (we have a heavy bag set-up at Anytime Fitness in Ashland) to your workouts. My clients are often amazed at how tiring it is to throw punch combos for a couple of short intervals. Most people seem to enjoy it, because they feel more focused and engaged in the activity then when they perform a standard cardio workout(running, elliptical, bike, etc.). Try this as a workout finisher or stand alone conditioning session:
3 to 5 rounds of:
Shadow Box or Heavy Bag Combos (jab,cross,hook) for 30 seconds
Run 1 minute on the treadmill
Battle Rope (alternating or double waves) or TRX Inverted Rows for 30 seconds
1 minute rest
Martial arts have been a fun, challenging, and important part of my life since I was a teenager. It can be a great workout, where you meet awesome people, and learn to build discipline and confidence. I encourage you to make martial arts a part of your life, and put a little fight in your fitness.