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

pushing hands

Pushing Hands drills for conditioned close quarter fighting responses

Pushing Hands drills are designed to build high level close quarter abilities.

Pushing hands drills come from internal Chinese Martial arts. At distance your eyes are the tools that feed you most of the information you need to make decisions in self defence or in a competition fight. Once the distance has been closed and physical contact has been made, we have the sense of touch that can feed us very accurate information at very high speeds, so that we can make good decisions almost instantaneously. When things are happening for real at close quarters, there is no time or space for slow reaction time or responses. To be highly effective in this range you need to feel what’s happening, decide what to do and then respond almost instantaneously. This ability is called sensitivity. Sensitivity is determined by your ability to feel or sense the intent of the opponent and then respond intelligently as quickly as possible. Feel, reflex and pre programmed responses. If the responses aren’t pre programmed you have zero chance of responding well.

In neuroscience they talk about hot and cold cognition. The hot cognition mechanism is run by parts of the brain that are more ‘animal’ and that operate far more quickly than the more intellectual cold cognition. Pushing Hands training is about making your responses to close quarter Combat questions extremely hot.

Hot cognition Pushing hands skills

There are eight different pushing hands exercises in this syllabus. The name pushing hands is a little misleading as the hands, arms and entire body are involved in applying and neutralising the different manifestations of the 8 powers discussed in an earlier post. Some of the styles are done in fixed positions and some use and train footwork methods.

From an ancient martial arts manuscript it is written;

A feather cannot be placed, and a fly cannot alight on any part of the body.

This phrase letting us know that we ought to practice in a way that builds extreme sensitivity to not only changes but also the physical sense of touch with our opponent.  Whatever part of our body is in contact with a partner or opponent should be feeding us information, to which we can make a response. So when you train make sure you are trying your best to feel with whatever part is in contact.

Listening for force. It means to put all your observational capacity into reading an opponent. All senses can be involved theoretically, though in pushing hands we are for the most part working with the sense of feel. I observe many students holding their bodies’ whilst training in a stiff and unreceptive manner. This isn’t how it should be done. Any time you are in contact with an opponent you should have a very soft sense of touch, almost like that of a masseur, who is trying to feel for muscles and knots and so on. We are trying to be similarly receptive to any information the opponents body may be giving us about their intended action. Each of your sense can provide specific types of information about the opponents intention. By developing a highly sensitive sense oft touch we can know the directions and magnitude of the force.

Neutralise the force. The important thing is to initially ‘listen for’ the force effectively, then apply the most efficient technique or combination of techniques to neutralise it, with minimal effort and whilst maintain good positioning. We can neutralise an attack by using our arms (or legs) but also using our body. It is generally better to deal with an oncoming force early, so to have our limbs extended as a kind of early warning system, we can listen and neutralise incoming blows and forces at an early stage. The key is to program subtle and skillful use for force to achieve this. Minimal use of strength at all times.

Discharge your force at the right time and in the right direction. This can be hard a fast power, like a knockout strike, or a long and slow power such as a push that moves somebody a long distance. There is something called a force velocity curve that can help people to understand the relationship between speed, force and power. But for our purposes you simply want to become adept at issuing force in all three dimensions, fluidly and smoothly, whilst keeping perfect balance and positioning, getting as much from your personal physical attributes as you can, through efficient coordination of your mechanics.

From historical martial arts manuscripts we are advised;

The chin [intrinsic strength] should be rooted in the feet, generated from the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the fingers.

You must practice pushing hands drills with an awareness of each of these three aspects, continually refining your sensitivity, spontaneity and body mechanics. As you practice the pushing hands exercises it is important to play with variances in pressure and force as well as speed and rhythm. 

Four powers pushing hands drill

From historical manuscripts;

Empty the left wherever a pressure appears, and similarly the right.

Start practicing the four powers drill  pushing hands by first of all understanding the two extreme stances used. The first is the sitting stance where all the weight is on the back foot with the centre of gravity low. The front leg is straight but not locked, with the toes off the ground, making the heel the pivot point for our rotational movement.  Study carefully the optimal alignment of the hip ankle and knee.

The initial beginning practice of four directions trains the use of frontal drive and lateral deflection. As you move forward into the front stance you apply frontal pressure by pushing straight towards your partner. Your partner moves backwards and diverts the attack by using side neuatralising. They then return the favour and provide you a frontal push to the chest which you should therefore neutralise with lateral deflection. The hand that doesn’t strike is held slightly away from the body, by the throat’ in a guard.  Smooth movement is important from the initial stage of practice. Make sure balance is perfect as you move through the changes of stance and turn your waist to attack or divert. Ensure that the body is employed as one whole unit.  The other thing to understand is that your hands should control the wrist and also the elbow on every single repetition. This ensures that in chaotic combat situations your body will always instinctively find these advantageous control points.

Once you have mastered the basic front/lateral method of practice you should begin to use up pressure and down pressure too. To do this make the first attack go in a straight forward line, towards the head or chest of your partner and make the second attack go downwards towards their groin or abdomen. The defender should divert the frontal pressure strike with and upwards pressure and the downwards strike with a sideways diversion. As you practice continuously the sequence takes on a fluid circular feel. So you will in the sequence be doing a two strike followed by two diversions, and repeat. This practice can be continued indefinitely though should be done for at least several minutes.  There is a lot of benefit in being highly aware of which of the four forces we are using and developing the best possible body mechanics for each as we practice.

spontaneity and change

Profound ideas from the past martial arts masters instruct us to follow the reality of events rather than what we would want them to be. This means that in all of our training methods we should develop this quality and continuously work on the idea of becoming able to immediately change to changes in circumstance.  In the four powers exercise we do this by introducing changes of hand, so that the lead strike rhythm is changed. For example if you lead with the right strike, when you are in the yang position and have performed your strike rather than perform the left strike start to pull back, giving the partner a subtle pull on their arm. This will signal a change. They will then follow you and perform what will be their initial strike, followed by their second strike. Your next strike will be with your left hand which has become your lead strike in the sequence. Either partner can initiate changes as regularly as they wish.  Try to become as sensitive and responsive to these changes as you can.  When you have achieved some skill in all the above you can finally add changes of stance. This is accomplished by stepping forwards or backwards as you practice the four directions drill at any time. Again as with the changes of hand, this will help to further develop your ability to be sensitive to and feel changes in what the opponent is doing and also develop the mindset of following changes.

The Four powers drill is a good place to practice certain applications, particularly sweeps, throws and locking techniques.

Lateral stepping and frontal pressure pushing hands drill

pushing hands
pushing hands

This exercise teaches you to be fluid,stable and secure in your basic footwork movements. It involves stepping in a zig zagging pattern, forwards seven times and then backwards seven times. To begin with step towards your left at a forty five degree angle. All the weight will be on the left foot. The right foot is weightless, though the ball of the foot may rest in good alignment by the left. Next repeat the same thing with the right leg.  Once you have done seven steps in a forward manner, reverse the movement and practice moving backwards in the same way.  Once you have mastered the footwork its time to add the hand techniques. As you move forward into the initial left step use the whole body and turn of the waist to produce a straight frontal pressure strike. As you step to the right you will do the same thing with your left hand. The hand that doesn’t strike is held slightly away from the body, by the throat’ in a guard.  For the backwards stepping part, you will use both hands in a sweeping defensive motion, which will be diverting your partners attacks to the side using lateral diversion. Stepping to the right will imply a right rotation of the body, stepping left will employ a left turn.

To partner up using this exercise the attacker initially steps to the left and moves forward with a fromtal strike to his partners chest. The defender will move backwards to the right and will apply lateral diversion, controlling the wrist and elbow. The attacker then moves to their right, striking with the left, to which the defender responds by moving the same way, intercepting and diverting  the strike. Repeat the sequence for at least 5 minutes, but again can be practiced indefinitely.   The lateral stepping drill can provide significant cardiovascular conditioning is the speed of movement and adequately deep postures are used. 

Don't lean in any direction; 

This advice from the classics is very useful for both the attacker and defender, try to keep the shoulders level and make full use of the rotational capability of the waist in both attacking and defending. 

Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel.

Far too many people seem too high and stilted when practicing the stepping exercises. Sink nice and low to lower your centre of gravity and fluidly shift your weight between steps. Work to get to the point where movements feel completely comfortable, smooth and never lose balance.

Forward and back bending pushing hands drill

This trains you to follow an opponents force in a vertical way. It’s a fixed step method that uses the same two stances as the four directions exercise. With the same foot forward you face your partner, moving into a two handed Forward push toward their chest. The partner receiving the push should wait until they feel the pressure of the push and start to bend back, following the motion of the push. At this point the partner who has absorbed the push should control the wrists and start to move them down their own torso. Once you reach a point where you can fold in with the pressure, do so, moving only as far as you need to to render the pressure ineffective. Keep control of the wrists and move the hands down your legs and then off you. The person applying the pushing pressure should not resist their parents attempts to move their hands, they should simply supply pressure into their partners’ body.  As you supply the pressure in towards your partner, keep good mechanical alignment through your entire body.

Diamond step pushing hands drill

The exercise is based on a diamond pattern of movements, where each of the four steps touches a point of the diamond.  Start with your left foot froward and step across yourself towards the right, in a cross stepping manner. The stance will be low and weight predominantly on the front left foot. This is the side point of the diamond. The next step will be with the right foot toward the front point of the diamond, again in a cross step. The third step will be a retreating step with the left foot to a back stance, touch the left most sides of the diamond. The final step will be the right foot stepping back to the rearmost point of the diamond into a back stance.

Next add pushes. So as you take the initial step you will push straight ahead, the second cross step will push downwards, the third step will feature a two handed upwards diversion at the wrist and elbow (up pressure) and the fourth retreat step will have an accompanying lateral diversion to the side. As one partner steps in to attack the other partner retreats and diverts as shown in the images. The retreating steps should be long, smooth and dynamic, helping you to evade your partners attacks.  Like the other exercises it is best down for a reasonably long duration of 10 or more minutes. As well as technical aspects there are conditioning benefits to be gained. Adding changes is important in this drill for the same reasons as the others. Let the exercises become highly dynamic with as many changes as possible.

The remaining drills are;

Forearm/elbow training

This methods trains the skilful use of the forearm and the elbow

The uprooting wave pushing hands drill

This methods trains you in the use of spiralling force in all three dimensions as well as conceptual methods of uprooting and immediately countering an opponent. 

Spiralling arms pushing hands

Designed to develop fluid spiralling movement in your limbs, whilst sharpening your reflexes and evasive skills. It also helps to train what is known as gyrating arm skill. Following pressure in a spiralling manner and then countering immediately. 

Four, courners, five steps and eight gates pushing hands

Further develops footwork and stepping skills, whilst training spiralling, uprooting elbow and shoulder skill. It is also known as ‘great diversion’

5 step strategy path to good close quarter skills

Keep revisiting these and remember to use the ideas in all close quarter practice.

1. Sticking skill: This means to stick with your opponent. Once you have made contact with him or her, train yourself to stick to them almost like glue. If you have contact with them you can feel their intent and respond more quickly. At close quarters your eyes will not be able to be relied upon to feed you enough information so you have to make and keep contact.

2 Continuity skill: Make your movements continuous. Defence should move straight into attack, which should move straight into defence. If one attack is neutralised, you should immediately and continuously change into another, flowing from technique to technique. The free flower picking drill trains you to do this, continually attacking the gaps that open and close in your partners’ defences. Sensitivity is required to know which of your techniques are successful and when you should change to another movement.

3 Softness skill: Softness is required to achieve a high level of physical and mental sensitivity. Stiffness is the enemy here and will reduce your ability to feel what your opponent intends to do and will slow your response to it. If you can maintain a soft contact with your opponent you will receive more information about the power and direction of their movements and be able to fluidly respond. It will also help in conservation of energy and help keep the mind more tranquil and therefore able to make better decisions.

4 Following skill: Following the opponent has multiple connotations. Firstly you must following the reality of events and what is actually happening rather than what you would like to happen. this means you must follow what the opponent gives you in terms of opportunity and threats and work with this. The situation will continually change so you must continually be hyper aware of all the possibilities and threats. The other important aspect of following is to follow the power of the opponent and divert it, rather than going directly against it.

5 Never go force against force: This is almost like a summing up of the previous points. Never lose contact nor directly oppose the opponent. Keep a soft and continuous contact with the opponent and avoid using strength to oppose the opponent. Using trained force is what we want to do, against the opponents weaknesses. The opponents strengths should not be opposed but led into the void via skilful use of technique and evasion (via the thirteen tactics). By training in this way you will continually improve your skills as a martial artist, rather than rely on any natural physical attributes you may have.  Using the close quarter concepts will add many layers of subtlety to your martial arts practice. The ideas are there to be used in training, not to just be ‘known’.

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7 Strength and Conditioning systems for performance in freefighting and MMA.

Strength and Conditioning for freefighting and MMA has highly specific requirements

Strength and conditioning work should develop the right physical qualities for martial arts performance

The concept of freefighting has been around as long as there have been people. It basically refers to unarmed combat in all ranges and all environments. All techniques are permissible. Modern sporting representations of freefighting include MMA, Combat Sambo and Sanda/San Shou. In a well designed freefighting/martial arts strength and conditioning  program we will build the qualities and attributes that you need to be able to most effectively execute your movements and skills. This includes building your stamina, both physical and mental, as well as the structural and nervous components of your body. Movement awareness, posture development and other aspects of athleticism should be built in too. A lot of people make the mistake of looking at fashionable trends, which are often quite seductive, rather than basing their training on the true principles that govern true training adaptation and that will craft and mold them into more effective and healthier martial artists.There is arguably a point at which training for high performance can lead you away from healthful practices. I believe it is wise to think about the long term goals of training and train at appropriate intensities and to factor in healthful recovery periods.

Strength and conditioning work should develop the right physical qualities and also play a role in the development of a tough mindset. The indomitable spirit. The refuse to lose attitude.  A lot of the work can be tough and not particularly exciting when viewed superficially. Given time however we can learn to enjoy challenging ourselves even if the tools used to do so aren't always overtly interesting or fun.

Below are some of the tools we use to effectively build the right type of strength and power for a free fighter/competition fighter.

Strength and conditioning system 1: Inner potential training

These exercises are a remarkable strength and conditioning system designed to increase the strength, stamina and movement skill of the entire body. They develop your ability to use the body as one unit of power, precisely coordinating the efforts of all major muscle groups into highly refined movement expressions. In addition the strengthen your body at specific and useful joint angles, via the use of isometric stance holds. Your breathing becomes long, smooth and efficient with practice and will become deep and diaphragmatic. You will also refine the quality of your movements, with movements becoming more fluid and sure, as well as smoother and much more consistent, due to many of them being practiced dozens or even hundreds of times in a training session.  The relatively new field of study into fascia and connective tissues has shed some light into some of the nei kung practice, in particular the use of certain movements which appear to be designed to maximise our ability to use the body’s powerful and natural elastic properties to generate more force and power, without the need for large and energy hungry muscles. 

Strength and conditioning for mma
Strength and conditioning for mma training structure

In addition to all those aspects there are various meditational components in the exercises, including standing meditation, breath awareness meditation and mantra based meditation, all of which can have significant effects on our ability to achieve spontaneity in combat, or generally help to enhance our ability to concentrate and focus. These exercises are very old, coming from secretive Chinese martial arts practices but tap into a lot of misunderstood training wisdom, which makes more and more sense when considered in light of cutting edge training research and practice.

Strength and conditioning system 2: Impact training

Impact training plays an important role in martial arts conditioning. It gives you direct feedback as to the impact levels of your techniques. It educates you into how to most effectively align your striking body part and also time spinal stiffness, in order to reduce power ‘leakages’.  Over time body tissues are naturally strengthened and calloused. To build up the strength of the wrist, and to develop a smooth chain of motion in your straight punching strikes its good to practice static punching on a single pad. This should be done barefisted to condition your hands and build up the toughness of the bones and skin over time. What is also important is to learn efficient and correct punching alignment. If your punches don’t arrive straight onto the pad you will start to scuff your knuckles and they will bleed. If you correct this and the force goes straight into your target, there will be no such problems, so its a great feedback method to learn and to respect efficient lines of force.

Strength and conditioning system 3: Velocity weight training

Speed strength practice is done with 3, 4 or even 5 pound weights. There are two main patterns used, one is a circular continuous pattern where the hands stay on the centre line the whole time, coming from a slightly lower position and arriving at a perfect punching position at head height, on the centre line with with large knuckles of the wrist well aligned. The shape and alignment of the whole movement has to be carefully considered during practice to build up the most powerful striking mechanic for straight punching. The idea is to build up your strength and stamina to the point you can do 20 minutes continually at a rate of 3 punches per second. Technique and speed should be the priority however. The second patten moves the spiral of the movement to become and almost horizontal movement with a chopping backhand movement and a semi/half hooking punch with the other hand. In my experience not only is stamina, speed and strength improved, you will also start to develop a certain heaviness in your strikes, so that when you punch its as if you have a punching weight in your hand still. Other punching patterns can also be done in the same manner, though the straight pattern develops very useful beautiful straight line striking technique and employs the natural elasticity of the entire body for pushing the fist out to strike and for the recoil.

Strength and conditioning system 4: Inversion training 

Static handstands held from 1-4 minutes improve the strength and stability of the shoulder joint as well as some strengthening of the arms. Adding push ups builds more dynamic strength. We were taught to do these on the knuckles to help strengthen the wrist but also the alignment of the arm and wrist, which translates to less recoil and therefore more power in punching.

Strength and conditioning system 5: Interval training

Striking based interval training

In the first version one partner runs backwards holding the pad at a stable angle and keeping a large open circle of movement. The other partner follows and punches the pad using the running thunderhand pattern, with one punch thrown per step, so that when the left leg is forward the right straight punch is thrown. A decent pace should be kept. This is done for rounds of 2-4 minutes, with various rest intervals used, though one minute is most common to reproduce competition requirements.

The second version involves using two different pads as the holder, showing either the left or the right, changing directions sporadically sometimes running back quickly, sometimes slowly, somtimes moving towards the puncher. In essence you are trying to reproduce the variability and chaos of a fight so that your partner has to adapt his footwork and body positioning to match. Agains this is done in rounds.

Similar repletion striking should be done using other punching patterns as well as the other kicking patterns (including knees). For basic self defence training rather than competition fighting I recommend concentrating on the punching versions of the drill.

Stamina Rolls

Stamina rolls build up your ability to exert a lot of energy in a short space of time. Your body is also comprised and in a stressed position which adds to the intensity of the exercise. It’s a whole body interval training exercise that will stress all parts of your body. It is done by performing a forward roll on a mat, turning around as efficiently as possible and then exposing from an athletic position into another roll. This is repeated 80 times, which should be completed within 2 minutes. We do this for 3 rounds or more with one minutes rest in between rounds.

Strength and conditioning system 6: Ballistic Kettlebell Training

Using the versatile Russian kettlebell for both speed strength/power and endurance training. We focus on movements, loads and velocities that are generally extremely useful for any athlete but a martial artist in particular. Ballistic exercises such as snatches, jerks and throws are our focus once a good base of strength is achieved.

Strength and conditioning system 7. Restoration and recovery

Anybody who is involved in high intensity martial arts training has to factor in recovery.

Training = exercise + recovery

Continual high intensity work will lead to burnout and reduced adaptations and gains, or even detraining. It is absolutely essential to add in days, weeks or even months of softer and lighter periods of training. This will keep your nervous, hormonal and structural systems healthy and optimised. Useful things in restorative periods include;

  • Massage
  • Qigong/Tai Chi/yoga
  • Meditation
  • Sauna
  • Light exercise in other sports/activities
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Movement training wisdom from ancient Chinese internal martial arts masters

Movement training from the old masters that is incredibly insightful

Movement training has become trendy. A lot of modern martial artists, particularly MMA fighters and some boxers have recently begun to appreciate the subtle qualities that make someone move well. This has led to the appointment of some ‘movement gurus’ to the unexpected role of coach in certain MMA gyms. General movement training is a good thing and has a positive impact on health and wellbeing across the board. But a lot of what i see as movement training done today, will probably detract from fighting skill rather than enhance it. The traditional Chinese martial arts, had high level martial movement training down to a very fine art. This encompasses not only your ability to control and maintain biomechanically optimal postures, but to move from posture to posture without defect or loss of balance.  What must be remembered is that classical martial arts were originally concerned only with absolute combat performance. They developed exercises and conditioning systems whose only concern was to continually refine your movement skill and coordination, whilst ensuring that your power and stability is maximised. - there is a difference between moving beautifully in a performing arts kind of way, and moving in a way that is optimised for combat efficiency - which means respecting the stability, mobility potential and balance requirements of combat ready positions. 

In this post we will look at some of the movement training wisdom of classical martial arts training manuals. All highlighted text comes from classical Internal Chinese Martial Arts classics.

With the Yin and Yang paradigm in mind, the former masters advised us to not only know the opponent, but also to ‘know ourselves’. 

Movement training for martial arts
Movement training for martial arts

This means that to achieve the highest levels of development in the art we strive to continually develop conscious awareness and the improvement over our body and mind. Being able to master our own bodies’s and to become physically capable of doing exactly what we wish, extremely precisely and accurately obviously has tremendous carry over to martial ability. Not only will you become a better ‘fighter’ or martial artist, you will also improve your overall health by improving the control you have over your body and ‘ceaselessly refining’ your coordination.  Conscious movement training in Tai Chi Chuan is involved in every single aspect of the art. In the west conscious awareness and control of our body is termed proprioception.  Your objective as you train is to become ever increasingly aware of your body positions and alignments and to seek gradual improvements as your understanding of the optimal position or movement improves. this is a continual process of awareness increase and then implementation during physical practice.


Movement training qualities that we are after as a martial artist

All movements are motivated by I [mind-intention],  not external form.

Visualisation should become a key component of training as you begin to perfectly perceive in your minds eye how a movement is best done. You must learn to perceive with extreme clarity the qualities you want your body to develop.

In motion the whole body should be light and agile,  with all parts of the body linked  as if threaded together.

This is pretty self explanatory, and will lead to you moving very beautifully indeed if you practice everything taking heed of this advice. You will conserve energy, be better balanced, be able to produce more physical force and achieve better positioning.

The postures should be without defect, without hollows or projections from the proper alignment;  in motion the Form should be continuous, without stops and starts.

Again this piece of movement training advice reinforce the previous concepts with the added concept of geometry added in. All of your postures and movements should be designed to be of the strongest shape possible, and transitions between movements also should be mechanically as sound as we can make them. Of course this relies on our perception of what the perfect move or posture should look like, which will be influenced by experience, practice with partners and our ever expanding insight. The emphasis on continuous movement adds to the fluid movement quality we are trying to develop. Mechanically sound postures help you achieve balanced positioning as well as the improved ability to apply force, either in a striking or grappling context.

The chin [intrinsic strength] should be rooted in the feet, generated from the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the fingers.

The core principle of martial arts power generation is summed up in this passage. By using the largest muscle groups of the body in a rational and combine way we will generate the most power. The legs, glutes and hips have the most power generating potential. The waist is a complex area that can flex, extend, and rotate, given amplification to the leg generated power and also direction. The arms are mainly the simple transmitters of the forces. By learning to do this with all movements you can very significantly amplify all your efforts and ‘punch above your weight’. The feet should also be carefully considered as they provide a crucial role in not only structure of the lower body as a whole but also balance and movement potential. So in training analyse your movements from the ground up, including your feet, which in my experience are often not well considered.

If correct timing and position are not achieved, the body will become disordered and will not move as an integrated whole; the correction for this defect must be sought in the legs and waist.

So here we are being told to look out for incorrect timing of in particular, the lower body movements and the interaction between our main power sources, the legs and waist in all our movement training. The forms and internal strength practice should be done vey carefully to slowly make changes needed to perfect these timings. As you go you can also become aware of it in all the other more dynamic training methods.

Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and  move like a turning wheel.

Again this piece of advice is fairly self explanatory, which to me means training in a mindful way both during solo exercises and partner drills so that you are completely aware of your balance point at all times, and stay completely balanced at all times. A wheel has a centre point, around which the wheel moves. The body also has a centre balance point around which your limbs and trunk move. The centre point must remain that and be under your control.

Store up the trained force like drawing a bow.

This is an interesting bit of advice that is telling us to pay attention to storing potential in our postures and movement training drills. The comparison to a bow is great, because in a given movement like a punch, the power must be drawn back by prestretching the muscles and connective tissues that will power the strike. So you need to become aware in each of the solo posture training methods which parts are responsible for powering the issue of force and train yourself to ‘draw’ those parts and pre-stretch them. This should be done in forms, pushing hands, internal strength, applications etc. Become expert at ‘storing potential’. Modern rehabilitation experts as well as strength and conditioning researchers have become very interested in recent years in the role that the elastic connective tissue which surround our bodies’ plays in power potential. In Tai Chi Chuan its seems that most of the movements and postures are designed to bring together the springy potential of this connective tissue, so the ‘jin’ or trained force desired is produced to a large extent by the feel and use of this fascinating parts of our anatomy. In training you should really explore the effects of the well designed stretched shapes and their ability to help store and release potent elastic energy.

Be still as a mountain,  move like a great river.

The stillness here could be referencing a state of mind, calm and tranquil, unchanging even. Also when training certain aspects of the art such as internal strength, the postures should be held in such a manner that we don’t move around too much. The human body is composed primarily of water and as such its possible to take on such a quality when we move. This leads to a very flowing quality that can be easily observed in an expert. By moving in such a way, we develop precise control over our body and our coordination. We also will be moving the body as a complete unit. This means when issuing strikes or throws etc all muscles groups and connective tissue matrixes will be working ‘as a team’ to their greatest potential. Your force generating potential will therefore be much greater.

The upright body must be stable and comfortable  to be able to sustain an attack from any of the eight directions.

Wherever possible you should be perfectly balanced during all movement training. Training with your focus on your balance point should be done regularly. Whatever training aspect you are working on, achieving perfect balance should not be far from your mind. By being perfectly balanced you can attack, move and defend in all directions at all times.

Walk like a cat.

Watch modern day combat maestros such as Lomachenko and you will notice incredibly controlled stepping and footwork. By developing perfect control over your legs and stepping patterns you'll be able to control distance, angles and timing to a much greater degree.

Remember, when moving, there is no place that does not move.  When still, there is no place that is not still.

In training it's important to be able to recruit the whole body as an entire unit of power. This is especially true for smaller people. Not only does it improve power potential, but moving as a unit will enhance all aspects of your overall athleticism and movement skill. From the feet through to the top of the head, everything moves perfectly together. In classical martial arts stance holding is used to develop strength, improve posture alignment and to develop high levels of muscular efficiency. When doing these static holds it is best to be as close to perfectly still as possible.

The appearance  is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit

From recent research we now know that having a 'game face' on during sporting events or fighting situations helps us to activate our nervous system in a more powerful way, leading to greater speed, strength and power. The concentrated gaze of a falcon on the hunt alludes to this.

Be mindful of the interchange between insubstantial and substantial; 

Understanding these changes in ourselves and an opponent can lead to increased awareness of opportunities and threats. This can refer to mindset, attitude, balance points as well as manifestations of overtly attacking or defensive techniques.

Pay attention to the waist at all times; The source of the postures is in the waist. Completely relax the abdomen

The waist or midsection is largely responsible for the expression of physical force, as well as balanced movement. People who learn how to use this in it's fullest capacity, not just in two dimensions but as a spherical area of power amplification develop far more power potential. The concept of the waist incorporates the hips and also the spine.

During training its a good thing to keep the whole body relaxed, including the abdomen, which is often a source of tension. Relaxing the abdomen helps the diaphragm expend downwards more fully, leading to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps yo to keep calmer and to make better decisions, as well as to move more quickly due to muscle tension inhibition.

Extension and contraction, opening and closing, should be natural.

As you train in different movement drills you should become aware of opening and closing movements. Muscles can extend of contract, and we want to help this to happen in a way that coordinates different groups together in the most natural and harmonious way. This will lead to perfect movement as well as higher levels of power. A lot of people start to get an idea of opening and closing but then try to overly control it, leading to less natural movement patterns.

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