Why ancient Chinese martial arts might be the ideal personal training system

Anaerobic conditioning

power training 

Strength training

Speed work


Organic, nutritious food


Aerobic conditioning 

flexibility training

Training healthful breathing patterns

Balance work

Resting techniques and quality sleep



The Chinese fighting arts incorporate healing practices

Over my years of studying traditional Chinese Martial Arts and the related healing arts that they often are bound to, I am often left amazed by their beautiful ‘simplexity’. That is to say, there is a profound underlying philosophy to it all, which is trained via various means, to become embodied within the practitioner.

Chinese martial arts have long had a very symbiotic relationship with the Chinese healing arts. These healing arts often combine the ideas of the yellow emperor’s classic of medicine, with further developments based on the profound philosophical ideas of the I Ching and the Yin/Yang paradigm.

Fundamentally, the idea is to reach a state of natural balance, where the human systems of both body and mind function optimally. The mind is trained to become free of worry, anger and other stress derived emotions. The body is trained to achieve natural strength, stamina and flexibility.

Modern western physical training is often concerned primarily with the observable characteristics of the body, such as the size of the muscles, body fat etc. Whilst these can be important visible signs of health, training to achieve these types of attributes is often carried out in a way that may be counter productive and actually move the practitioner away from good health.

The traditional Chinese health and healing arts concern themselves not so much with how things appear (form), but with the actual effective and optimal functioning of no only the visible aspects of the body, but also the less visible but equally important parts of the human system. Traditional Chinese health practices such as the baduanjin have long had explanations for the various movements being beneficial for specific internal organs, or the functioning of the eyes or other often forgotten aspects of the trainable body.

The more complex Chinese martial arts, particularly the so called internal martial arts, seamlessly fuse this awareness of the deeper aspects of physical health and fitness, with an incredibly diverse array of physical and mental training protocols.

Most of these internal martial arts are infused with the philosophy of Taoism, whose primary objective is to achieve a state of health so optimal that longevity is achieved and people harmonise with nature and society. This is known as living in accordance with the Tao, or the way of nature and people.

The development of a balance focussed mindset

One of the first pieces of advice from the ancient martial arts texts is ‘first in the mind, then in the body’. This can be interpreted a few different ways, but i believe fundamentally it is advising practitioners to cultivate their mindset before they cultivate their body.

So the mindset they encourage us to attain initially is a realistic one ‘devoid of delusions’. Don’t set overly lofty short term goals. Be realistic. The road could be long, the most important thing is that you are on the path to progress and develop focus on the process and the variables we can control. A longer term vision is an excellent thing to have, but too many unrealistic short term goals can increase mental and biological stress. Don’t be in a rush. Long lasting change should take time to incorporate all the required internal adaptations. Rushing will only lead to more stress and probably dissapointment.

Cultivation of biological energy

The modern world is s stressful enrolment for most people. Particularly for those who live in big towns and cities. And if you are starting an exercise program in an overly stressed state, you may simply be adding fuel to the fire and creating a more stressed state.

Being in a chronically stressed state is problematic on all levels. Your metabolism slows, your hormonal systems shut down and become sub-optimal, inflamation develops, your mood will be negatively affected. Literally all aspects of body and mind are negatively effected in high stress states.

So simply adding lots of stressful exercise sessions on top of an already overloaded body/mind system isn’t a good idea. The Chinese health paradigm would encourage you to instead firstly remove the sources of stress where possible, by modifying those aspects of your lifestyle that you can change. As all stressors are removed, positive practices are developed.

Sleep would be the first thing to enhance, with traditional Taoist ideas encouraging you to essentially match rest and activity with the cycles of the sun and moon. Going to bed soon after it gets dark, and avoiding the blue light emissions from screens and electronic devices of all kinds, makes a lot of sense if you can do that. The circadian rhythm in humans is primarily controlled by the pituitary gland, which releases the activity/rest hormones depending on the signals it receives. If you don’t spend adequate time at rest (preferably sleep) when its dark, you won’t be spending enough time in your body’s natural recovery mode. This is considered un-harmonious by the old Chinese sages that developed these early observations. Theres a lot of modern research on chronobiology that completely supports the old timers’ view on harmonising with the yin/yang cycles of the day.

High quality nutrition is the secondary thing you can do to improve biological energy. I always quite like the rastafarian idea of focussing on eating what they call ital food eating (they humorously omit the v). Which simply means if you know a food to have a lot of vitality and a high degree of freshness, its probably good for you to eat. Everyone has an instinctive awareness of if a given food fits that criteria. Chinese medicine has a slightly more complex system, using the five elements and so on. Fundamentally though eating fresh, organic whole foods in adequate quantities is probably all you need to do. Adaptogenic herbs are also an excellent addition to your diet if you are in a somewhat depleted condition, as these balance the activity of the immune system as well as regulate the secretion of cortisol (in some cases).

The use of Qi Gong and Neigong to build health from the inside out

The Chinese concept of Qi can be a bit abstract, in a way representing the ideas of energy in quantum physics. Essentially everything is a manifestation of primordial energy, according to the quantum physics people and the ancient Chinese sages. The Chinese view is that in our body’s when something isn’t working properly it’s simply down to the natural movement of these energies being hindered or obstructed in some way. In order to encourage the free and natural movement of all the different bodily factors required they came up with various system of exercise, now known as Qigong (through this term is quite recent). Depending on the system, the Qigong exercises combine a lot of stretching type movements, with mental training and sometimes visualsation.

The objective of the stretching is to remove hindrances to important movement patterns, whilst encouraging the healthful relaxations of the various fibres involved in those movements. This in turn leads to a higher functioning of the tissues and internal communication processes inherent in that particular movement pattern. When this is done systematically across all the major movement patterns of human movement, body and mind have been gently reconnected and a natural and harmonious communication up and down the nervous system can be enhanced.

The stomach area is often trained to become as relaxed as possible, which aids in the movement of the diaphragm. What is sought is a gentle downwards movement of the diaphragm so that we do ‘belly breathing’, rather than upper chest breathing. There are many health benefits from this aspect alone, but helping the parasympathetic nervous system become dominant is one of them. This is the mode your body is in when at rest, when it can heal and repair most efficiently. This is why after hard training a gentle cool down is important to encourage a return to this mode.

This type of belly breathing, in conjunction with specific rotational, opening and closing movements of the torso can stretch and massage the internal organs, which is believed to bring them more blood (and Qi of various kinds) leading to them functioning at a higher level. All organs are equally important as they work as part of an integrated system, though in some Qigong systems the liver and kidneys in particular are given extra attention. They kidneys are believed to play an important role in building levels of ‘Jing’, which as a kind of more solid state manifestation of Qi (usually as various body fluids). This Jing force in many ways is said to determine the overall potential for vitality in a person and is linked to creative energy, sexual energy and general ‘aliveness’. The western view of the Jing would be closely resemble balanced/optimal hormonal health.

Other aspects of Qigong and Neigong can be primarily meditative. These can be visualisation based, breath awareness methods or even mantra based meditation. Each type of meditation has it’s own particular strong point, which I believe has been fairly well researched by scientists using brain imaging techniques. what we do known is that generally meditation can be said to be effective in reducing stress and some forms of anxiety, can enhance clarity of thought and awareness, can increase levels of compassion, and develop the ability to focus to a higher degree. There are other aspects which some meditators seek, such as ego dissolution, though this is probably not relevant to most people looking for a fitness and health building regime. Just practicing an appropriate system of meditation, it could be argued, could go a long way to improving not only your physical and emotional health, but also to improve the overall quality of life. This aspect of practice is all working on what the Chinese term Shen, which represents the energetic workings of the mind/spirit. If the Shen becomes well trained we will be functioning at a level closer to our maximal potential.

Neigong, is a type of Qigong, which is more directly concerned with building attributes that can be highly effective in martial arts. This includes things such as raw strength, refined and focused power development, endurance and stamina as well as balance and flexibility.

Whilst starting to add the more physically demanding aspects of training, it is important to make sure that we match the exercise portion of the training equation with added rest and recovery.

Systematic training of all aspects of human fitness and potential

Training in a full system of Chinese martial arts, you have the opportunity to engage pretty much all aspects of possible human movements and body systems. For example there are aspects of the training that develop your ability to maximally recruit your available muscle fibres, leading to skilful strength. There are training practices that focus on extreme explosive speed development. Over aspects work on your ability to read an opponent, either visually or through sense of touch, cultivating physical sensitivity and extensive proprioception.

Stamina is a hugely important requirement for a ‘fighter/martial artist’, and so when a practitioner has a good base of physical preparation higher intensity training methods have traditionally been used to develop the highest levels of high intensity stamina.

The training of distance awareness and maintenace, reflexes, precision and accuracy are all things that not only enhance you as a human, but are also rewarding in their practice and make you feel truly engaged and alive.

There is so much variety and enjoyment to be had in the training of practical versions of Chinese martial arts, that it is essentially impossible to become bored or demotivated. There is a depth of sophistication to not only the movements practiced, but their underlying principles of use, making it interesting intellectually as well as physically.

So in summary

  • Chinese Martial arts are infused with the wisdom of the ancient Chinese healing arts and philosophies
  • They consider the physical and psychological factors of good health and vibrant fitness
  • They develop the body internally and externally
  • Strength, flexibility, Stamina, Power and Coordination are all trained
  • You won’t be bored of training ever again
  • You can learn more healthful attitudes
  • You can master a wide variety of physical skills and abilities
  • The arts can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual
  • Self defence is always useful