Exercise vs. Training

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu

The Difference Between Exercising and Training

Why did/do you you go to school?  Why do you think there are grades and exams and reviews in school? Why not just pick up a few books and start reading randomly? Why do you work at an organization with a structure? Why are the most successful organizations the ones with the best policies and strategies? Why not just walk out into the world and figure out some random way to make a living? Why do you practice the same movements over and over again? Why not just move your limbs the way you want to or draw some random colored lines and hope they make sense?

Success doesn’t work that way. And a transformation from skilled to unskilled, fat to fit, weak to strong, or unhealthy to healthy doesn’t work that way either.

Exercise is as any activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness.  It is exercise for today – focused on the short-term.  Training, on the other hand, is way more than that.

Training is the act of learning, practicing, analyzing, monitoring and progressing per a plan that is designed taking into consideration the student’s current position in the relevant space and future goals. It involves careful instruction, self-reflection, structure, testing, commitment, and adherence.  It is exercise with a purpose.

It is important to understand that random acts of physical activity, though better than a carefully planned regimen of sitting around, eating junk, and doing virtually nothing, won’t take you far in acquiring skill. You need to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. You need to learn to understand your body and it’s capacity for strength, agility, and flexibility. You need to practice movements that have a purpose. You need to strive to progress. You need to train.

The Base of a Mountain

Martial Arts Foundation

Martial Arts Foundation

“In this world, if you start at the base of a mountain and travel far enough, you will find yourself on the other side at the base of the mountain again;  you are still at the base of the mountain, but in a completely different place.  This is the same for any path of study.  You start at the beginning and struggle uphill.  You go deeper and deeper into it until you find yourself on the other side with a heart of understanding.  This is the way of all learning, and it is the only path to enlightenment.  

Understanding this, I do not hold back knowledge from my students because they have not trained long enough.  Each person is different and understanding comes differently to each of us, so I try to gauge the student’s level of understanding and teach each one what he is ready for at that time.  I do not like pledges or oaths of secrecy.  There are no secrets.  Knowledge is open to all, but few truly want it.  There is no need to hide things; most people go out of their way to avoid the truth.  

With this in mind, teach the students everything they can handle and hide nothing, because very few of them will ever come to real understanding anyway.  Leave the knowledge in the open and only true warriors will find it.  Give them everything you have and help them past whatever shortcomings they have.  The teacher should help the student come to his own enlightenment.  Only this way will the student truly know strategy.”

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), founder of Niten-ryū style of swordsmanship.  The Book of Five Rings Trans. D.E. Tarver

Wondering If You’re Getting Any Health Benefits From Your Program? So Was I.

Brea Shaolin Kung fu Martial Arts

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Martial Arts

When I walked into the Shaolin Kung Fu School for the first time, I wasn’t thinking about my health.  My aim was more about self-discovery.  Could I develop some new qualities to even a mediocre level, let alone a higher sash level, when I was starting with no experience and no skill?  Where would any balance, any flexibility, any technique, any mental focus really come from?  These would certainly not spring out from my years of “training” as a black sash in the art of Couch Potato.  The only qualities achieved from that program were my remote control thumb techniques and a well developed spare tire.

Early on, I didn’t figure to achieve any health benefits, because I wasn’t sure I’d be around long.  It seemed to take many weeks just to not fall over on a low stretch kick.  Watching the more experienced students practice sometimes made me feel agonizingly slow and lacking in talent.  The road to yellow sash seemed miles and miles long.  Moving in inches was making for a long journey.  I could tell this was going to be another story of the tortoise and the hare, where I was the tortoise once again.  Like the tortoise, I knew I could be determined and consistent at least.  However, I do believe I was sweating a lot more than a tortoise.

After about ten months at the School, I went to my doctor and had blood drawn for a follow-up to a medical procedure.  By coincidence, I had baseline tests taken shortly before I started kung fu.  I was curious to see how my heart and blood qualities had changed following less than a year of training.  The results showed pretty big changes:

  • Overall Cholesterol at 178, improved 15%.
  • LDL’s (the “bad” cholesterol) at 113, improved 19%.
  • Blood pressure at 104/70, improved by 19%/21%.
  • Pulse rate at 52, down from 77 or 32%.

I was excited, and felt this was nice improvement, especially for a tortoise.  Maybe best of all, it reminded me that studying kung fu is not a competition with others, and certainly not a race.  My first year of diligent effort had paid off nicely, even recognizing my own skill level and slow starting physical condition.  I was competent in many basic techniques, and shown improvement in flexibility and balance.  And surprise, I had achieved much improvement in an unexpected area, my health!

By Jim Reeder, a former Brea Shaolin Kung Fu School student

The Components of Martial Skill – Power, Speed, Endurance, and Technique

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Martial Arts

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Martial Arts

Power is something that most everyone can develop.  Proper breathing (timely exhaling during the execution of a strike), whole body strength (a firm rooting to the ground, strong and loose muscles, and release of energy), and proper body alignment (posture and structure) create more power than what simple muscles can deliver.  There is far more to power than strong musculature.  Of course, if you attempt to employ power without correct speed or technique, then you have a wasted movement as you will not likely impact your target or if you do it may not have much effect.

Speed is a necessity for many techniques to work.  Without proper speed, your movements will likely be blocked, avoided or countered or, defensively, your blocks and evading techniques won’t be effective.  As with all of the components to fighting ability, speed can be developed with consistent training.  Each time you practice a movement – be it a punch, a kick, a sweep, a throw, a joint lock – you must try to do it faster (while maintaining both proper form and power).  Relaxation is a must to maximize speed as tightness delays movement.

Endurance ensures you have the physical capacity to successfully utilize techniques after a good deal of physical exertion.  You never know when you may be called on to defend yourself and loved ones from one or multiple opponents.  Sparring is typically held towards the end of class for this very reason.  Much of the hard work has already been done and it forces you to gather yourself (read:  “your energy”) and give 100% focus and effort when sparring your opponent.  This hard training is often when “chi” is cultivated and can come into play for more advanced students.  Never forget, you may be strong and fast, but if you’re too gassed to react properly in a physical encounter – you’re history.

Technique conquers all.  Technique is a broad concept that covers the proper execution of defensive and offensive fighting movements – including striking, grappling, throwing, sweeping, timing and distance.  It is the essence of any and all martial arts.  You may have power, speed and endurance (which might make you an incredible athlete), but without technique you will very likely not have the ability to successfully defend yourself against someone who does.

Learning a technique is one thing, but truly possessing a technique in such a way that you can call on it immediately in a fight is another.  This kind of mastery takes many years of practice with your kung fu brothers and sisters.  It’s learning the technique, re-learning it, repeating it over and over in hundreds (even thousands) of different positions and scenarios for the purpose of using it in the few serious physical engagements you may encounter.  Luckily, it doesn’t require a large arsenal of these mastered techniques to successfully defend yourself from untrained and even trained adversaries.  However, mastering technique is unquestionably the most difficult and time consuming of the four components.  It is also one of the most rewarding.

You must develop and maintain power, speed and endurance to make techniques work.  In fact, all four components of martial skill must be present.  If a punch or kick is flying to your face or body, your speed and technique will allow you to create space from the oncoming blow and block it.  Speed, power and technique are still required to successfully counter the attack.  Endurance may be required in certain circumstances, but is a necessity in your training when you are developing your speed, power and technique.  The endurance aspect brings ALL the components of martial skill together when you are exhausted while sparring and have to draw on your highest abilities to bring power, speed and technique to bear against an opponent.

Health Benefits of Tai Chi Chuan

  • The gentle movements help the body strengthen bone mass with zero joint damage and are lower impact than brisk walking.
  • Burns nearly as many calories as downhill skiing and has many of the same benefits as low-impact aerobic exercise.
  • Balance and coordination improvements that are nearly twice as effective as the best balance training exercises.
  • Helps in letting go of nervous tension.  This makes everything inside the body work better, which often makes the world around us seem better.
  • Sometimes lowers blood pressure as effectively as medicine
  • The goal is balance, with a mindful of awareness of constant adjustment of posture; increasing grace, flexibility and an elongated form.  As we age, it is tension that shortens our bodies more than gravity.
  • Promotes stroke recovery due to soothing demands on left brain – right brain interaction as well as mind-body connection.
  • Tones the muscles, increases breathing capacity, lowers stress levels, improves organ function, and corrects poor posture.  All these things help the body maximize its self-healing potential.
  • Requires the body to rotate about 95% thereby clearing the joints of calcium deposits and gently massages the internal organs to improve digestion.  Swimming only rotates 65% of the body motions.
  • Stimulates the liquid systems of the body to keep our joints flexible.
  • The muscles seem to begin releasing their tight grip on the bones.  This allows the spine to realign and reduces chronic pain.
  • Slow standing movements massage the bottoms of the feet, stimulating all the acupuncture points through acupressure, thereby treating the whole body.
  • Encourages stillness within so that the nervous system can begin to cleanse the accumulated toxins and clear the lymph glands.  Anxiety creates lactic acid within our body and relaxation allows for tissue cleansing.

Self Study – Super Slow Kicks

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Kicking

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Kicking

An excellent way to increase strength and develop proper kicking form is to practice kicking very slowly – the slower you can do it, the harder it is.

One way to develop this, and the best way for newer students, is to put one hand on a wall and practice your slow kick – thus taking much of the balance difficulty out of the equation.  The kick could be a snap kick, heal kick, turn kick, or side kick for starters…. hook kick, cutting kick, or others can also be practiced for more advanced students.  Be sure to begin each kick by bringing up your knee first.  Then, depending on what kick it is, fully extend your leg as slowly as possible and move your torso accordingly.  As slowly as the kick went out, re-bend the knee and bring your torso back to an upright position.  This takes a great deal of body control and strength – both from your leg muscles and core of your body.

To add even more difficulty, take your hand off the wall and do these kicks without supporting yourself.  In addition to developing your ability to balance, this method requires even more strict attention to proper form.  Just as when you’re balancing on the wall, you must initiate each kick by raising your knee first, extend the leg fully, re-bend the knee while bringing torso back to upright position, and step back into start position.

This method of training is relatively difficult for people to do, typically for less limber practitioners who struggle with balance.   Start small by only doing a few kicks and keeping it at a speed that’s manageable.  Remember that proper form is more important than anything else.  Should you feel tightness in your hip or leg muscles, spend time stretching those muscles.  After practicing for a few weeks, add more kicks or simply keep the same number of kicks only do them more slowly.

The ultimate end result of this practice is the ability to properly execute head height kicks and hold them at full extension without losing your balance.  This requires a great deal of strength and flexibility, particularly in your legs and the benefits of this ability will certainly show in your sparring and forms.  However, the ability to execute slow kicks with perfect form will translate into fast, sharp full speed kicks, which will prove quite useful in sparring.

Training at Home

“A day of missed training can never be recovered.”  This thought has been echoed by Kung Fu masters for generations.

There is no question that the more time you spend intently practicing your art the faster you will advance and the more skill you will acquire.  That said, when you can’t attend class for whatever reason try to spend some time training on your own.  Many have found solitary practice indispensable for overcoming weak areas, practicing new movements and conditioning their body.

There are three kinds of home practice.  The first is focused on creating a class-like workout at home, which would typically include kicking, single-step movements, forms, stances, exercises, etc.  Ideally, this workout is based on a self-examination of your kung fu skills and a focused effort on overcoming your imperfections (e.g. stances, kicks, saltongs, upper body strength, etc.) or further development of movements and techniques that you want to perfect.  If you are lucky enough to have a housemate or family member to train with you can even work on chin na, san shou and potentially sparring, although sparring must be done cautiously (just be careful not to get injured.)  This should be your primary training when not at the kung fu school.  At the very least, practice the latest forms you’ve learned or work on perfecting the eight stances and holding them until your legs begin to shake (and then a little more).

The second kind of training, some call it “cross-training”, can also be of value by way of physical conditioning.  This training seeks to develop speed, strength, and endurance.  Swimming is an excellent exercise that both strengthens and stretches your body while giving your joints a break from gravity.  Jogging, lifting weights, yoga, and playing various sports will all benefit your kung fu training as long as you are careful not to overdo it and avoid injury.  Another good idea is to combine some of the above exercises with traditional kung fu training.  For example, jog a lap around the block, do a few forms, followed by push ups and stances, and repeat.  An excellent work out.

The third kind of training involves resting your body and using your mind.  Simply put, there are times when you must rest like when you are sick, injured, or just plain exhausted to the point where you become irritable and achey.  Resting your body and brain allows it to recharge and regenerate, which is necessary for growth.   Many studies have supported the benefits of getting eight hours of sleep and how it significantly improves both physical and mental performance.  Daytime naps have also been shown to be healthy.

While your body is resting, kung fu training can continue in your mind through self-imagery.  Imagine yourself in various sparring scenarios successfully utilizing counters to your opponents attacks.  Go further and think of your opponents response to your counter and what you would do.  Or, you can think about chin na techniques you know and visualize exactly how they are to be performed.  The same can be said for san shou.  You can even think about your forms and what fighting techniques can be derived from various movements in the form.  This self-imagery training is very valuable and many professional athletes swear by it.  One of the all-time great golfers, Jack Nicklaus said, “I never hit a shot even in practice without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.  First, I “see” the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I “see” the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behaviour on landing. Then there’s a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality and only at the end of this short private Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball.”

At times life can get hectic and unfortunately take precedence over coming to the school for class.  However, you can and should find a way to practice on your own – if even for a short time – and you may very well find your skills move to the next level because of it.  Sample home workouts will come in future posts.  Keep training…