I’ve mentioned before how martial arts inspires and fosters healthier lifestyles. One of the biggest things that happens with new students is they start classes, and after working on rolls, throws, strikings, and generally experience the higher activity level we provide, they start seeing a need to improve their fitness.
As a note, I want this article to be open to questions at the end. Make sure to check out the question at the end if you are a new (or even experienced) student!
For students who have interest in improving mat performance, there are some strong recommendations I can make concerning how to start down the fitness path. I tend to follow two primary fitness principles in this case: the principle of specificity, and the principle of progressive resistance. What are these?
The Principle of Specificity states that you should simply use exercises that are aligned with your activity of choice and fitness goals. For example, it is less specific to train for stronger punching with bicep curls, and more specific to do a resistance band press. Non specific activities can certainly bring some carryover benefit, but you wont get the best bang for your buck in time. NOTE: Specificity as a broader term doesn’t just apply to the movements you perform, but the overall goal of your training as well including your current training state.
The principle of progressive resistance is a simple rule that states that a strong program incorporates increasing resistance at slow intervals, starting with a level that matches your training state. For example, a person looking to begin running ought not start with a marathon; Your body must be able to meet the stress level your training supplies. If you train at an intensity level for which your body isn’t prepared, it is a quick route to injury. On the other end, if you never increase your workload or intensity, you will not see any kind of sustained development in your performance. If I am just starting martial arts training and am new to fitness, perhaps workouts of hundreds of pushups and sprawls wont be appropriate.
As I look at a new student who is new to physical fitness (especially relative to martial arts) I have some simple recommendations I always give, and resources I point people to. Let’s use the above principles to break down ninjitsu and martial arts and see what may work well in the context of progression
- Lots of multi-joint movements
- Lots of level change/up-down movement in knees
- Requires developed sense of coordination and proprioception
- Core stability is a factor in success
- Light load, beginning techniques don’t require lifting a lot of weight
- Balance development a key concern
- Foundation of aerobic fitness needs to be established, progressing to anaerobic
- Unique body positions (especially relative to groundfighting) and weigt support postures
- Developing explosiveness for striking can begin early
- Some positions require moderate flexibility in hips, legs, and shoulders, and higher flexibility is typically a benefit to the practitioner
This is a short list that chooses out of the MANY training attributes of martial arts those that are most suited to beginners. They should be targeted first in their training program. As a beginner, it is important to establish foundations in your fitness before progressing to some of the more challenging and/or specialized fitness goals needed for advanced or more intense training. If I were to break the above list into training objectives, it would be pretty short:
- Begin making aerobic cardio a priority; improve low-mid intensity working endurance
- Develop the muscular strength and endurance required for low load bearing, complex movements
- For the above, choose exercises that incorporate balance training and coordination, with a secondary emphasis on some explosiveness
- Develop basic flexibility (enough to avoid injury in common movements)
Now of course I wouldn’t so irresponsible as forget to mention that if you are thinking of beginning an exercise program that you need to consult your Dr., especially if you have any preexisting conditions, no history of exercise, or a previous injury. To all the doctors (and lawyers) out there, I salute you!
Now, onto the good stuff. We’ve chosen a few core objectives to address with exercise that satisfies the two principles: they are important for martial arts specifically, and they are something we can address as a beginner in fitness and martial arts. We can design programs of MANY types with these objectives; basic aerobic fitness can be addressed via consistently attending training, jogging, running, skipping rope, circuit training, rowing… really any moderate activity level will boost your aerobic capacity. I do highly recommend walking, jogging, and running as a simple, no-gear-needed way to get started today. Start by jogging or running if possible, with walking breaks as needed for a half hour 3 days a week in addition to your mat time to start and then you can build from there. I would also like to throw my hat into the ring concerning skipping rope: It’s a very beneficial form of exercise for martial arts students since it helps develop balance and agility alongside cardio. It does take some time to develop the skills needed to perform well for a sustained period, and may be considered good supplemental work until you are able to skip consistently without mistakes.
We can address strength and endurance with simple calisthenics and light weights to begin. Exercise for the lower body like squats, lunges, split jumps, step ups, etc. are all strong candidates for you. Pick any two to 3 exercises, and try 3 sets of 12-15 reps twice a week to start. You can alternate that with a different workout for the upper body consisting of pushups, shoulder presses and rows with dumbbells, shadow boxing with light weights (that’s good cardio too!), and more. I recommend the same frequency, reps, and duration as before. Systems like yoga can be very helpful in getting you started, though I do not find all of the movements specific to martial arts. Still, it’s a great way to get started without having to design your own workouts. We also address some basic functional strength exercises during cardio kickboxing.
As you develop your confidence and basic strength, you can certainly look at a gym membership. Whether it’s a Crossfit gym, or Planet Fitness, what matters is that you are in there moving. Look for a future article concerning weight training for martial arts!
You can consider core training and flexibility training as supplemental to the above prescriptions. I recommend stretching post workouts; if you make it a part of your routine, it will only add 5 to 10 minutes to your workout, and you wont forget it! A stretch or two for hamstrings, quadriceps (thighs), hips, torso, shoulders, and chest makes for a relatively brief and effective regimen. For every muscle group and joint, there are many flexibility exercises you can perform. Your homework is simply to search online and check out a selection of stretches and progressions that work for you. We offer yoga for free at Discovery, and there you will learn lots of movements to help you develop your flexibility.
The fitness world is a big one, and can be confusing to navigate sometimes for the beginner. What I hope this article does for you is help you whittle the quest down to a few key objectives, and some effective ways to meet those methods. To go into too much detail for every exercise or objective will simply turn this article into a book. What works best is to let your passion help you; If you have some dumbbells in the basement and just want to get started, by all means look up simple dumbbell workouts online, and go from there! What you have to keep in mind is your level of progression, and what exercises will work best for you. If you’ve never seriously lifted weights, don’t start with single leg kettlebell snatches! Instead, look for exercises and programs that work for you. Seek people who have expertise, ask questions, and stick with it. When you have a few months of regular fitness activity in the books, you will see how much easier for your body martial arts training will become.
Let’s open this one up: What questions do you have about martial arts related fitness?