Martial Arts Body Mechanics & Structures Vs Fitness & Strength

Some martial art schools/associations/franchises put a lot of emphasis on fitness and strength training. A good work out gets the endorphins going and people come out feeling good and happy, stress levels reduced and a general feeling of well-being. Being fit always feels good. Sometimes the fitness may consist of doing a lot of circuit type training and/or doing everything fast all the time.

Whilst I am definitely in favour of being fit and strong, I am not in favour of emphasising these aspects over good body mechanics and body structures (which I have seen in some places).

There is a general assumption amongst many people that to defend yourself effectively, you have to be really super fit as fighting is very physically demanding and intense. Whilst there are obviously definite advantages in being really fit, it is far better to be able to hit somebody once and be sure that they’ll go down then gear your self defence training to having to hit them 10 to 20 times before they go down.

Furthermore, there is a big difference between self-protection and fighting; most notably self-protection is legal whereas fighting is not (UK law – you’ll have to check in your own country). The main difference is that fighting is consensual, you both agree to, “sort it out”! Self-protection applies when one party does not agree to a fight and the other person forces an altercation upon them.

In the self-protection scenario, if you honestly and sincerely believe that you are in imminent danger of being hurt/assaulted, you are legally entitled to strike first – though you may have to justify later why you believed you were in imminent danger (UK law). It’s a very common misconception that the best way to learn to defend yourself is to learn to fight. Fighting is what you do when everything else has failed. It’s the last thing you resort to in a good self-protection system.

But not a lot of people realise that. Even Bruce Lee who was probably the most influential person in the Western world for promoting the popularity of martial arts talked more about “fighting” than he did about self-protection, as he himself had been in a number of street fights and accepted a few challenges. No disrespect to Bruce Lee, but you just don’t do that if your main objective is simply self protection. You do it if you have a big ego and a point to prove!

Should you be in a self-protection situation where you decide to strike first, you want to be powerful enough to end the situation with one strike. You don’t want to have to hit them 10 to 20 times. There are other elements too, such as distraction, having some knowledge of vulnerable places to hit and how to position yourself to best advantage for a preemptive strike so that they don’t see it coming; but that’s outside of the remit of this post.

If you decide to commit to that preemptive strike and you want it to work on the first strike, then you really need good body mechanics to transfer as much body weight and acceleration into the target as possible so as to create maximum force on impact. You also want good body structures so that all of that force is transferred into the target rather than losing force because your wrist bends or your elbow/shoulder buckles, etc! It’s called “good technique”! It’s also important if you’re facing more than one opponent as you don’t want to be hitting 2 (or more) people 10 times each. You only want to hit them once each and have a good chance that they’ll both go down.

So to get good body mechanics and structures, part of the training has be slow so as to ensure everything is correct. It’s difficult to correct faults when everything is done full speed all the time. This is why so many traditional styles do things slowly and/or to the count so that the instructor can check everybody is moving correctly. Just firing of 50 full speed reps into a focus mitt doesn’t cut it; that’s ok for somebody with good technique looking to improve stamina, but it’s not so good for somebody learning it. And even advanced martial artists still have to do things slowly sometimes to make sure that bad habits don’t creep in and to include extra refinements.

Tai Chi is a classic example of this. They train slow, but a practitioner who trains it as a martial art can move lighting fast when they need to.

Also, if you learn good body mechanics and good structures first, it’s quite easy to add speed afterwards because everything is moving with optimum efficiency. It is however, quite difficult the other way around. If you focus on speed first, you get into bad habits; then you have break those habits and build new ones to put it right.

One of the influencing factors leading to some schools placing fitness before good technique is the growth of combat sports, especially MMA in recent years. This involves 2 athletes who should be fairly evenly matched and equally well trained, who are both going into the fight will full knowledge and consent, and fighting to a set of rules for safety. It is obviously going to be an endurance event where fitness is a huge part. That said, the best MMA competitors will work technique to a high standard too, but sport can give the impression to the inexperienced observer that it’s all about fitness.

Another influencing factor are films where hero’s and villains battle it out for an excessively long time, both absorbing more punishment then is humanly possible. This also gives the impression that it’s all about fitness.

This approach of over emphasising fitness and strength at the expense of good technique is especially prevalent with the McDojo’s. Unsuspecting students eagerly accept the fitness over good body mechanics/structures from an instructor in a flashy uniform, calling him/herself “master” and with good marketing material. Films and sport make this approach seem logical! But it’s a good way to hide poor technique. The student also finishes the class with endorphins flowing and feeling on a high, so they feel that they’ve had a good workout . . . . so it must be good . . . . right!

The ironic part is, that working with good body mechanics/structure can still be an excellent workout, great for fitness and still be very tiring as any traditional martial artist knows. But if you want to produce a fast growing franchise system and make a lot of money, it’s easier to train/produce “fit” instructors who look the part, then it is to train technically good instructors. That way your franchise grows faster and you have more money coming in from yet another school!

It’s often said that people these days don’t want to work hard for their grades and want to get given them easily, but I think this is unfair. To the uninformed student, a fit instructor with a lean body, who can move really fast; is going to look like the real deal. He/she looks like the fit lean action hero’s and sportsmen. The uninformed student will not be aware of the shortcomings of this persons technique as they don’t know what a good technique looks like. In fairness, many of these franchise instructors don’t know what a good technique looks like either as they’ve never been taught that way. But the uninformed student comes out feeling great from a good workout and has no reason to suspect that something is missing!

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