Musings: The 5 aspects of physical training

Miyamoto Musashi, the great Japanese swordsman once wrote:

The way is in training

This is a basic requirement of all martial arts. When translated from Chinese, Kung Fu means “hard work“. To progress in the world of martial arts you must be willing to toil and sweat. If you are willing to put in the hard work, you will reap the following benefits:

  • Improved circulation
  • Increased strength
  • Better stamina
  • Greater mental discipline
  • Skill improvement

The hard work in martial arts is physical by nature. In his book “Budo Mind & Body“, Nicklaus Suino has identified five key aspects to physical training and how following these aspects can improve your martial arts. The five aspects to physical training are:

  • Progressive skill development
  • Breaking things down
  • Determining principles
  • Repetition
  • Conditioning

The first aspect identified is that of progressive skill development. Before you can start performing advanced techniques you must first learn and master foundational techniques. This can be likened to a baby learning to crawl before learning to walk. In traditional Japanese and Okinawan martial arts this has always been an integral part of training.

Gichin Funakoshi, a pioneer of modern Karate, adopted the coloured belt system from Judo as a way of showing a student’s progress through the syllabus of techniques being taught. Before the student can advance to the next level, they must prove that they can perform the techniques they have been taught. This is very important as advanced techniques build upon the principles and techniques learnt earlier.

Progressive skill development can also be seen in the kata created by Anko Itosu (1830-1915). Typically students will begin with Heian Shodan, where they are introduced to basic stances and blocks. Subsequent Heian Katas (Nidan to Godan) build upon these basic techniques and introduce new techniques. Once the techniques in these kata are mastered then more advanced kata such as Bassai Dai/Sho and Kanku Dai/Sho can be introduced to the student. Again, these kata will build upon techniques learnt in earlier kata.

The importance of progressive skill development lies in gaining the ability to use the techniques being learnt. As confidence is gained and a strong foundation laid down, new more advanced techniques can be learnt. I would say the key aim is to achieve a state where techniques can be performed automatically in the appropriate situation. There are no shortcuts. Only long dedicated practice will lead to improvement in the skills being learnt. Failure to learn techniques in a progressive way can lead to stunted growth in the student’s chosen style.

Breaking a technique down is the next aspect of physical training. This aspect is essential for learning a new technique. Typically, when a new technique is being learnt, first practice the whole technique in its entirety. Once you have an overview of how the technique works, break the technique down into its constituent parts. Then keep on practising the separate parts until you feel comfortable performing the actions of the technique.

Each of the separate parts should be practice and continually refined until they can be performed in a strong, fluid, and balanced manner. Once this is achieved re-combine the parts and practice.

I have found this aspect of training to be especially useful for learning new kata. When I start to learn a new kata, I first practice it in its entirety. I then practice by breaking the kata into its individual combinations. The next stage for me is to work on the correct timings between the techniques in each of the combinations. The final stage involves practising the entire kata, concentrating on the flow of the kata and remembering the key points learnt in the previous stages.

The next aspect of physical training is determining the principle behind the technique being learned. It is important to understand what makes a technique work. All techniques have a foundational principle behind them. For example, when executing a block followed by a reverse punch it is not enough just to use your arms to perform the techniques. The waist and arms must be synchronised in such a way that performing the block acts as a spring board for throwing an effective reverse punch. The principle behind this combination is to think of the body as a central column around which the hips rotate around. Rotating the hips smoothly and effectively allows the arms to get in the correct positions for the block followed by the punch.

Once you understand the principles behind a technique you are in a better position to know when to use it. Also understanding the underlying principle makes it easier to learn new techniques that share the same principle.

Repetition is the next aspect of physical training. There is no secret or magic trick in becoming proficient in your chosen art. The key to success is constant practice and the repetition of techniques over and over. Combined with the other aspects previously mentioned, repetition can lead to learning how a technique works. By repeating a technique constantly, we begin to understand the mechanics of the technique and how to better perform it. The aim of this aspect of physical training is to be able perform a technique correctly without any conscious thought.

The final aspect of physical training is conditioning. By their very nature martial arts involve physical actions which require one’s body to be strong. This can normally be done through hard training and constant repetition of techniques. However, to be able to perform techniques effectively one needs to be in shape. In our training we have all experienced times when we reach our physical limits and our techniques start to become ragged.

The key components of conditioning are stamina, strength, and flexibility. Although these components can be achieved through hard training in one’s art, it is useful to do some supplemental training such as resistance training, running, callisthenics, and plyometrics. Sometimes the difference between two fighters matched equally in skill can be determined by their conditioning.

In this post I have looked at the five key aspects of physical training. Applying these aspects to your training will hopefully lead to improvement in your techniques over time.

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