17. Cross Training in Martial Arts

I am of the general opinion that doing too many different martial arts systems is like chasing after too many women at the same time. It’s possible, but you won’t ever end up in a long-term, meaningful relationship that grows and matures unless everyone involved is open to polygamous marriages.

On the other hand, I’ve done quite a few different martial arts styles myself, and continue to study a couple of systems, and so I hesitate to make this a blanket judgment. Doing a couple different systems does help me to see similarities, different points of views and innovative ways of looking at the same movement of a system.  But I wouldn’t pursue too many martial arts at the same time. It can get too overwhelming, at the least.

But what I really want to espouse this time around is cross training outside of martial arts. For the well-rounded classical budoka, I think it’s a necessity. Most traditional Japanese martial arts systems are not for-profit, at least in Hawai‘i. The result of this is that the dojo may often be a rented space in a dance studio or local gym, and the teachers and rental times preclude you from training all the time, 24 hours out of every day. Maybe you train once or twice a week, at most. Or if you are in a semi-pro or professionally taught dojo, maybe three or four times a week. After all these years of training, I would suggest that an ideal situation would be to train in one system about twice a week (my own situation is far from ideal since I can only rent a space once a week) and devote the other free time you have for exercise to do some cross training.

Others may have different opinions on different training regimes. The disclaimer here is that I’m no exercise specialist, and I may indeed change my mind later on, but here’s what I’ve been thinking lately.  And it’s certainly possible to have a totally different opinion and pursue a totally different training schedule and still be in shape. But this works for me.

This blog, by the way, was inspired by a link that an aikido and jo friend posted on his Facebook page. “Everything You Know About Fitness is a Lie” (http://www.mensjournal.com/everything-you-know-about-fitness-is-a-lie) is a fascinating, provocative, entertaining article about one person’s journey to super-strength health and fitness.

Traditional budo systems are specialized. Hence, in aikido the focus is largely on joint techniques and throwing, down to the beginning of controlling holds. There’s a lot of cardio-vascular work, balance and body alignment, distancing and timing involved. Ditto karate, but it’s more fistic, punch-and-kick, not very much groundwork at all. Judo, because it’s grappling and competitive, gives you a very good cardio workout, with strength and core strength building built-in if you do the basic exercises and uchikomi properly. Kendo involves a huge amount of cardio vascular conditioning, balance and movement. There are so many varieties of classical koryu budo that I hesitate to paint them all with one broad generalization, but I would say that in most part, they provide great balance, body alignment and a base amount of cardio vascular conditioning.

Unless you have a very large component of competitive, or as one acquaintance puts it, “force on force” training or their equivalent, however, you don’t get the kind of real maximum, push through the pain, grit your teeth and get through the threshold strenuous exercise that you can find in judo, or perhaps very competitive karate or kendo.

Note, too, that there is not a lot of attention paid to sheer muscle strength building. While building cardio-vascular strength will inevitably help with muscle strength and tonality, most traditional budo do not have exercises that directly and singularly focuses on sheer muscle strength. The exceptions include some traditional Okinawan exercises that makes use of what looks like body-building equipment, such as weights, Okinawan dumbbells, and the like.

I suspect this tendency is based on the Japanese systems’ preferences for development of skill, technique and body balance over sheer brute strength. That’s a very good skill set, but over the years, I’ve concluded that all these things being equal, if you are in better shape than the other guy, that does help count for a whole lot. If a person is eminently skilled but smokes ten packs a day and can’t go through a kata without stopping to take a breath, or has whiplike fast punches but no muscle strength, then his true ability as a budoka and athlete will be very limited, “ki” power notwithstanding.

Of course, for many of us, being able to put in several sessions of budo training a week plus additional cross training is impossible. We have families, jobs, and personal responsibilities. But I’m suggesting that you can aim for your own personal athletic best if you follow some simple core principles that don’t require a lot of time or the cost of a personal trainer to work with you for years and years. Just as Daniel Duane, the writer of the article previously mentioned notes, there are some really simple guidelines you could follow and then tailor for yourself.

Look at what you are doing

Be self-critical and analyze your martial art. Do you spend 80 percent of the total time in kata training, standing up, such as in traditional karate? Do you do a lot of joint manipulation and throwing such as in aikido? What exactly are you doing and how much of it is cardio-vascular, strength building, endurance, balance, flexibility and movement, core-strength building, and so on?

Look at yourself

Look at your own physique and situation. How much endurance do you really have? How much core muscle strength? Balance? Agility? Flexibility, tone, etc.?

Do something about it

Admit to yourself what your budo training lacks and what you need to work on personally, and then create a cross training regime that fits your own body.

For example, one of the problems many of my students have is lack of core muscle strength. That’s a real foundation for everything: everyday body stresses, budo training, basic movements, etc. I have so little time to teach that I can’t spend my one training session a week with them on squats and other exercises. They need to find time in their lives to cross train. Core muscle strength is not really about super-duper big hunka muscles like the Incredible Hulk. It’s about having the strength in large basic muscle areas to do general exercises and to keep body balance and alignment in normal and stressful situations. The ability to maintain proper body alignment is due to proper muscle strength and posture. Being able to keep doing throwing techniques over and over again requires proper strength in the hip and thighs.

I’m not saying you need to turn into an Arnold Schwarzenegger type body builder. But doing some weight-bearing training does wonders for core muscle strength. And for us old timers, weight-bearing training keeps us from losing muscle mass and tone as we get older.

Doing some kind of cardio-vascular training outside of budo, such as bicycling or jogging, helps with endurance and muscle tone. Combining this with muscle core building exercises creates a strong physical foundation that makes it so much easier to do martial arts. And I’m not talking about having to always go to a gym. You can get strong by working in the yard. One of my main teachers is a landscape architect who works alongside his crew. I used to marvel at his ability to grab me in an iron grip and throw me around like I was a wet noodle. I thought it was some kind of esoteric magic. A fellow student told me, “Nah, I think it’s because he moves boulders around all day. When you can figure out how to move big rocks all the time using leverage and proper application of your body, throwing around somebody is child’s play.”

I’m old enough to remember some teachers who scoffed at cross training. Just working hard at one’s particular martial art was enough, they would say. In many budo, weight lifting was denigrated because it was felt that it would lead to muscle-bound, stiff bodies that weren’t pliant and flexible enough. That may have been true in the old days when weight training wasn’t a very well thought-out system. However, it’s been since found that a properly directed weight-bearing training regime does add to one’s training, if done properly. A groundbreaking study of weight training for judo by Donn Draeger and Isao Inokuma in 1966 (Weight Training for Championship Judo) led the way in breaking the barrier in modern budo. As another example, Western weights were neglected in professional sumo wrestling until the relatively lightweight grand champion Chiyonofuji began his winning streak in the 1980s. He incorporated weights into his grueling traditional training.

What kind of weights would I suggest? Some diehard gym rats would say that you just have to work out with regular old dumbbells and free weights. Forget the expensive machines. If you do training at home, just pick up a set of used free weights and that’s it. Just learn how to use them properly and they will last you for years.

I tend towards working out at the local YMCA with machines because they are more stable (which, many would rightly argue, is a handicap; you should use free weights because they force you to try to manage and control the weights, but they also leave you open to more possible injuries). In any case, as advocates of cross training note, you should first work on core muscle strength: build up basic muscle groups that allow you to stand, squat, and move. Squats build up thigh and hip muscles. Bench presses, dead lift type exercises, military presses. Then work on other areas, such as forearms, etc., to develop overall muscle strength. All too often in the gym, I see guys who work on their upper body muscles to get that “Arnold” look, but their legs look like Pee Wee Herman’s. Develop a regime that addresses ALL parts of your body. And when you lift, be sure to lift properly. If you’ve never done weights before, find a trainer who can spot you and give you advice on proper lifting or you may end up hurting yourself.

As an aside, don’t be blind to the pluses that martial arts do provide, by the way. Swinging a sword isn’t just cardio vascular.  If you are using a shinken or a properly balanced iaito, you are using your muscles with a weight-bearing load. That is a really good exercise because it builds up muscle strength, endurance, and body alignment and balance when handling an object, almost like free weight lifting.

This leads to another possible cross training regime: finding something that helps you align your body properly. All the weight lifting in the world won’t help if you lift weights improperly, using the wrong muscles at the wrong time. If your body has been doing things wrong for a very long time, you’re going to eventually end up in a lot of hurt that will cost you lots of money in chiropractics and maybe even surgery, and will therefore hinder your progress in martial arts.

Are you moving properly? Is your body alignment right, or does your teacher constantly tell you to “stand up straighter,” or “move with your hips, not with your shoulders”? If your posture is out of synch, you may need to take up some other cross training such as Pilates, gentle yoga or Tai Chi Ch’uan. For myself, I found that taking Tai Chi really helped me to understand body alignment and posture because it takes martial arts techniques and breaks them down into very slow, very focused movements. It forced me to pay attention to exactly how my spine is aligned, how my body leans, how my hand is linked to my wrist, to my forearm, to my shoulder, when I push forward into a punch.

Are you getting enough cardio-vascular exercise so you can effortlessly do your martial arts forms over and over again? If not, maybe you need to do additional cardio-vascular work, such as jogging, bicycling or walking. I know a person who does classical sword and jo (staff) work. He augments his training with hours of bicycling nearly every day. The bicycling also has the additional plus of giving him lots of fresh air and a fresh outlook on life, that helps not only with his budo but with clearing his mind for his regular day job. Being somewhat middle-aged, I don’t jog anymore very much (all that pounding on the pavement!) but I do feel responsible for giving my dog her daily exercise, so I spend quite a bit of time walking the dog and doing yard work that requires squatting, pulling, digging, sawing, and other strenuous activities.

In fact, I have a family history of high blood pressure. I tried martial arts, gym workouts and other regimes. Nothing worked to lower the blood pressure although I did get physically stronger. The only thing that seemed to work was a simple daily walk with my dog of about an hour or so. Doing it every day lowered my blood pressure enough to finally help me lower my medication! This didn’t cost hundreds of dollars in personal trainer fees or expensive private gym fees. I just walk my dog once a day.

As one budo person told me, “You don’t do martial arts to get into shape. You get into shape to do martial arts.” Think about that.

Therefore, don’t blame your martial arts style if it’s not giving you a total, all-around fitness regime. They weren’t meant to be that, not by themselves. It’s up to you to fill in the gaps. A martial system is only good at what it does, and it won’t solve all your health problems unless you realize that you can’t shoehorn your own particular physical needs into a basic system that you’re doing with twenty or thirty other students at the dojo. You need to take control of your own personal weaknesses, analyze your own physical attributes, see how your own martial arts are addressing them, and then see how you can fill in the gaps with your own training system. You need to take control of your own health.

By looking at your general health as the beginning foundation of your entire well being (this also implies that you should think about your mental health, too, but that’s another blog!), and that martial arts is but one part of it, you place budo in its proper context. It’s not the be-all and end-all of everything, even if you really love doing budo. Martial arts should, for those of us who are not professional martial artists, be a component of, not the only ingredient of a balanced, overall healthy mind and body.


6 thoughts on “17. Cross Training in Martial Arts

  1. After 25 years of training, it is the last 5 years that given me the most injuries. After a hip operation, muscle tears, dislocations and tendon problems, cross training with some free weights has become essential for injury prevention.
    Good article and thanks for pointing me to the Mens Journal link, some top info contained in that.

    1. Thanks Stu, I’m recovering from surgery too and I find that after rehab, doing further stretching and weights really helps my recovery.

  2. Great post. I’ve been following the “starting strength” programme mentioned in the men’s journal article for just about four months now and I’m already seeing the benefits in my kendo and shinto-ryu practise, as well as in everyday life. Can’t recommend it enough!

    1. Sounds great, Kenneth. I just wish some of my students did some core strength building too for their general health and martial arts, but it’s one of those things I can only recommend, not force on them.

  3. I guess combining martial arts and fitness is kind of like playing poker.

    You can be the greatest master, but without financing (money) you can’t play. On teh other side, being very well financed and with no idea of poker rules/strategies, you are but a punching dummie.

    Said this, I am a great believer that martial arts if trained seriously, and with seriously I mean with the focus on the jutsu side, not just the do, and practising with not only the guy-in-the-class-easy-to-drop but with ukes that try to put things harder. That could provide a good body fitness prepared for the martial art.
    Regarding, martial arts like kendo/kenjutsu…buy a good/heavy suburi bokken and put time on it!



  4. Good one. Fitness also allows one to sustain injury and remain functional, and to recover sooner, also good for martial arts.

    One note re: the focus on technique – being stronger and fitter, if properly trained, allows you greater relaxation under heavier taxing.

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