Martial arts as fitness training
If you’re interested in getting in shape by practicing Martial Arts, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1) Martial Arts classes vary by the style of the art – karate, jujitsu, judo, etc. – but also by the personality of the teacher. Some classes are vigorous physical workouts, while others are more cerebral and slow-paced. It’s important to know your own goals before you get started.
2) Martial arts aren’t mainly about getting fit, although they can be a fantastic way to lose weight or build up cardio performance. That’s usually a secondary benefit, though. Martial arts are mostly about learning physical techniques and mental discipline for sport, self-defense, or exercise.
Martial Arts fall into three basic categories:
1) Martial sports. These are competitive arts like taekwondo, judo, Thai kickboxing, wu shu, mixed martial arts (MMA) and some forms of karate. They’re organized around sport competition, whether a fight in a ring or a performance of stylized formal movements before a panel of judges. Not all students in these arts compete, but the overall focus of training is on competitions with certain rules, and those rules (no kicks to the groin, no biting, no eye-poking, no two-on-one attacks, etc.) shape the way people practice. Competitive training is an excellent way to get fit and lose weight.
2) Martial exercises. These are often solo or two-person styles, like tai chi, where the goal of the student is to learn a series of movements to practice repetitively for fitness or improved coordination. Often the movements of the formal exercises are meant to help the student meditate. Some of these styles use weapons like swords or sticks in their practice. Training of this type isn’t often intense and cardio-focused, though it can be, depending on the instructor. Martial exercises develop muscle memory and coordination, and they are relaxing and beautiful.
3) Martial arts. These styles tend to be for self-defense, and they vary widely. Most martial arts schools teach some form of self-defense, as fighting was the original goal of ancient styles of martial arts. But self-defense schools are almost entirely focused on training students to avoid and escape from a physical attack. Depending on the class and the philosophy of the school, that can be very physically intense, which means good fitness and cardio training, or it can be the opposite.
Some common styles of Martial Arts
Aikido: Developed by Japanese master Morihei Ueshiba in the 20th Century, aikido is most often a pure martial art rather than an exercise or sport. Techniques of aikido include grappling, particularly throws involving wrist locks or twists to other joints like the elbow and shoulder. Students learn to fall safely, without hitting their head or breaking an arm, in order to practice with a partner. Although aikido schools vary, most focus on beautiful, flowing techniques, often involving multiple attackers. The philosophy of the style is to blend with the force of an attack in order to counter or avoid it. Aikido is not primarily a style for someone seeking to lose weight or improve their cardio fitness, though its techniques will certainly increase a student’s balance, coordination and strength.
Hapkido: A Korean art related to aikido and developed after World War II, hapkido combines the falling, throwing and joint locks of aikido with a wide variety of kicks like those of taekwondo, another Korean style. Hapkido is not typically a sport, rather it is a pure self-defense art, meant for fighting. Training in a hapkido school can vary widely – it can be a lot like a serene aikido workout, with much beauty but not much sweat. Or it can be open-style sparring with few rules, and that’s excellent cardio and weight-loss training. But before students can spar, they must learn the basic falls to protect themselves in the fight. Training in hapkido often includes work on a heavy bag or other kicking and punching targets, which is excellent for getting fit.
Judo: An Olympic sport developed in the 20th Century by Jigoro Kano, judo trains students to compete in tournaments where two opponents seek to knock each other off balance, throw each other on the mat, and force each other to give up. It is an intense and furious workout, which provides excellent cardio training and potential for weight loss. Hitting and kicking are not permitted in judo competition. New students learn to fall and roll safely on the mat, then begin learning how to throw an opponent and how to wrestle.
Jujitsu: Originally jujitsu was derived from the ancient samurai art of fighting without weapons, or even fighting an opponent wearing armor. Its techniques thus included attacks on the joints, which were the weakest points of an enemy’s suit of armor, and throws that would slam an enemy to the ground and disable him or kill him. In the 20th Century, jujitsu evolved in several directions, giving rise to the sport of judo described above, and also to several other styles – the founders of hapkido and aikido both studied jujitsu in Japan before forming their own schools. Particular non-sport styles of jujitsu flourished among the Japanese population of Hawaii before and after World War II, and then masters like Wally Jay brought them to California, where they spread across the mainland. Other Japanese immigrants brought jujitsu to South America, where it evolved in Brazil, in particular, into Brazilian Jujitsu, a competitive grappling and wrestling style. Although Brazilian Jujitsu also varies from school to school and teacher to teacher, it is generally a vigorous competitive sport with rules and a defined set of techniques. Training is usually very intense and is excellent for cardio or weight loss. But Brazilian Jujitsu classes may not be the best for someone who isn’t already in shape, or for older students, who need a slower pace.
Karate: Originally developed in Okinawa and Japan, karate today is difficult to define, as the word has been applied to so many different types of martial arts over the years. Indeed, in the 1970s, the Korean sport of taekwondo was sometimes called “Korean karate” in the United States, since students here all knew what karate was, but had never then heard of taekwondo. Karate schools range from sports studios training competitors for the ring to quiet, traditional dojos where students practice stylized forms called kata. And karate includes everything in between. It has many different styles, some linear (fighters move back and forth on a single line, like two fencers), others circular. Though karate usually teaches mainly powerful kicking and punching, some karate schools teach off-balancing techniques for grappling and throwing. The best way to learn what a karate school teaches is just to go there and watch a class.
Kendo: A Japanese sport based on ancient samurai sword fighting. Students wear armor and wield bamboo swords, which they hit each other with at full power. Kendo is a sport, and as such it has definite rules and particular targets the opponents must hit. But because students wear armor they can usually go at each other with full force, and this makes kendo a vigorous workout most of the time. It is also particularly good for strength training, as students spend hours swinging heavy wooden practice swords, developing the muscles in their arms, shoulders and back in particular. Kendo also has other non-sport aspects, including the formal movements of a martial exercise and many opportunities for spiritual meditation and development.
Muay Thai: Thai boxing or kickboxing is a style becoming much more popular in the United States these days, as it has been incorporated into mixed martial arts tournaments. Muay Thai is an incredibly demanding and difficult sport in its native Thailand, where young, fit competitors sometimes fight in a village bout, then get in a pickup truck to drive to another village and fight again the same night. Their professional careers are short, though, as the training is hard and the many blows received from elbows, fists and knees during fights add up. In the United States, Muay Thai isn’t quite so brutal, although there are tough competitive schools whose students train hard for tournaments. The sport is also taught as a pure fitness exercise, much like “cardio boxing” classes. Training is similar to a traditional boxing gym, with lots of jumping rope and other cardio work, throwing medicine balls and such, plus work on the heavy bag. All this is excellent for improving cardio fitness and for weight loss.
Taekwondo: A Korean sport focused around kicking, kicking and lots more kicking. Taekwondo is an Olympic sport developed after World War II in which students learn dozens of different types of kicks. The goal, as one taekwondo master once put it, “is to make the leg and foot as coordinated as the arm and hand.” Competitors train for two different types of event. Sparring competition involves two opponents wearing a padded helmet and body armor who seek to score points by kicking each other in specific places on the body and head. No kicks below the waist are permitted. The other type of competition is in forms – stylized exercises done before a panel of judges, who award points. Because the goal of taekwondo is usually fierce competition, training can be at an elite level, with great cardio work and potential for weight loss.
Tai chi chuan: A Chinese martial exercise, often done alone, meant for meditation, improvement of strength, balance and flexibility, and for spiritual development. If you get up early enough, you’ll sometimes see people practicing tai chi forms in local parks. Although tai chi is mainly meant as this sort of solo exercise – slow and beautiful and not particularly suited to cardio training – it also has two-person forms where partners seek to push or pull each other off balance. Training improves strength, coordination and balance (good for core strength), and the underlying techniques can also be applied to self-defense.
Wu shu: An umbrella term for many styles of Chinese martial arts and sports, analogous to the term “kung fu” known to many Americans. Although wu shu is sometimes a competitive sport played at a world-class level, it also embraces a variety of styles, somewhat like karate as described above. Many wu shu styles use a fantastic variety of weapons, from swords and sticks to very long spears and more exotic weapons. Students learn formal exercises using these weapons and compete against each other before judges. Training for the forms can be intense and vigorous, as participants must move quickly and flexibly. Other styles of wu shu tend more towards the solitary movements of tai chi and are meant as solo disciplines that can be practiced anywhere to improve strength, balance and coordination. Wu shu is so varied, like karate, that the best way to learn what a particular school does is to go and watch a class.
As a final reminder – the best way to find out if a particular martial arts class or school is right for you is to go there and watch an entire class. Look at the students. Are they all super-fit and bulging with muscles? If they are and you aren’t, you may want to try something else. Look for Martial Arts students who are like you in age and fitness level in the class. Ask them about their experience, how their Martial Arts training has worked for them, what their goals are. Also pay attention to the teacher. Is this a person you can learn from? Do you like their style? Joining a Martial Arts class with a teacher you like and from whom you can learn is probably the best way to insure you will stick with the program.
If you are looking to practice Martial Arts at home the Tai Cheng program is something worth checking out.