That brings us to the question which seeks the ultimate truth behind fitness: What is the True Purpose of Fitness?
In the prehistoric days, there was no such thing as running shoes or fitness gyms. There was no Olympic games or sports such as soccer or basketball. People had to be fit simply because only the fittest survive.
Before the start of civilization, mankind had to protect themselves. There weren’t any policeman, or lawyers in that period of time. You have to protect yourself from wild animals, from other human beings, and not to mention hunt wild animals for food. That means you really have to be very fit, with sharp senses and immense strength to kill your prey with one strike. Mankind didn’t even have fixed shelter like apartments in the city, once the food sources of the area is depleted they have to migrate to another area.
When mankind began to form clans and tribes, every group has their warriors. The clans with the strongest warriors will be able to conquer other clans and expand their numbers and territory. Clans who were weak or remain small could be easily crushed and overrun by other clans. Warriors served to protect their young, women and elderly. They protect their hunting and gathering grounds to preserve their food supply, and against dangerous big animals such as tigers and bears from threatening their people.
As time passes by and civilizations form, these empires needed huge armies to safeguard their territory and people. The strength of an empire is often judged by the might of the army and the empire’s capacity to maintain it. People who enlisted had a goal, to do their country and their family proud. The soldiers were trained in none other than fighting skills, the skills of using swords and spears as well as hand to hand combat. The outcome of war depends much on the soldiers’ fighting skills.
The modern fitness geek focuses mainly on cardiovascular endurance and muscle endurance. Activities like pumping iron in the gym, and slow but long distance running are popular for achieving their goals. These kinds of fitness would not be so useful on the battlefield, or for self-defense and protection of your loved ones.
During the ancient times, the fitness of swinging and parrying with a sword would be very important. Swordsmanship is not totally dependent on the person’s muscular endurance. Stuff such as Body-Mass-Index(BMI), ability to lift heavy weights and even stamina would not matter so much in swordplay. The most important thing in swordsmanship is mental focus, for it is the mind which guides the body and the sword. This is because the objective is to deliver the technique, unlike modern gym fitness which is to build muscle. Swordsmen could have a figure which is hardly athletic looking but can be very fast and powerful with their weapon. On the other hand, a gym athlete will have trouble handling the sword, he might even find it heavy and cannot swing it at the same speed and precision as the swordsman. This is because the objective of their training is different, one trains for killing, the other trains for appearance.
Why did I say stamina is not a major factor in an efficient fighter? This is because in a fight a fighter will not get to swing a sword so many times. In a 5km run a runner will probably pound the pavement with his feet for tens of thousand times. To kill 10 enemies a swordsman will hardly get to swing his sword more than a hundred times. In a sword fight, quality matters, not quantity. Quality in what sense? The timing of the stroke, the speed, the precision of the slash and the cutting power. In defense it will be the rigidity of the block, the ability to turn a parry into a counterattack. On the other hand a runner would not bother about the precision of each step he takes as long as the general running technique is correct and he has the stamina to sustain the run till it’s over.
While stamina is not a major factor of combat fitness, explosive power is a key factor. In the lower body, the explosive plyometric strength of the legs will give a warrior quicker footwork. He will be able to charge at his opponents faster, as well as evade his enemy’s attacks better. The explosive strength in the torso such as the obliques, lats and glutes will allow the warrior to change direction quickly as well as deliver quick consecutive attacks with his weapon.
Unlike modern Thai Boxing and MMA combat sport, speed is the most important fitness when weapons are involved. In combat sport, you can go slow and steady, you can afford to get hit and try to wear your opponent out. You are only dealing with one fella so you have all the attention to deal with him. Even if you get hit, you have all the time until the sound of the bell to make your payback. However when weapons are involved, one strike from the opponent’s weapon is enough to put you out of action. The ability to deliver that one strike and to prevent that one strike means you need to be very fast and very precise.
Another area of fitness which is important in combat is core strength or some call it isometric strength. It is your body’s ability to support and sustain movements which are strong and sudden. In combat, isometric strength will keep you going strong much more than aerobic endurance, because it is isometric strength which handles the stress you place on your body when you move around quickly and deliver attacks.
Few may notice the significance core strength play in combat, when it actually affects the precision of your movements, your striking accuracy. Say if your trunk is unable to keep still and rocks around when you swing your sword with your arms, your cut is going to be off.
Generally in combat every movement you do, the rest of your body will be keeping still to support your action. From throwing punches to thrusting a spear, your core strength is engaged to make you firm so your action is precise and focused.
Flexibility is a very important aspect, but people frequently get the wrong idea about it. They think that flexibility is about being very very flexible, as flexible as possible. That is certainly not recommended, for over stretching the muscles and tendons may lead to loss of isometric strength which limits your stability and power. You don’t have to split your legs or twist your back like a contortionist, just being flexible enough to perform all the practical martial arts moves will do. And that takes flexibility not just in the lower body, but in your upper body such as your trunk muscles like the obliques, abdominus rectus, erector spinae and shoulder muscles such as the lattisimus dorsi and infraspinatus.
The upper body flexibility is important because having a full range of motion will make attacks more powerful and give them further reach. Your blocks will also be able to cover a larger area in defense. One very important part of the body to keep flexible is the wrist. The hand is the most versatile tool of the body. If the wrist is still you will have poor dexterity to use your hand techniques and all weapons. After pointing out the various kinds of fitness like burst power in speed, core strength and balanced flexibility, we can tell that most people in our comfortable city environment are not training their body to be ‘survivable’. People such as leisure runners and weekend warriors, they have limited knowledge of fitness and don’t have sport experts to guide them.
What is their main concern? That has to be appearance and health. A slim and athletic figure for the young, and good health for the not-so-young. This is why the focus of modern fitness has shifted from functional fitness to burning calories and working the heart rate for the results people want. To the enlightened, they definitely can see that this is not the real fitness. The law of survival is, the fittest survive. That’s why real fitness is for survival.
There are other reasons too, such as wanting fitness for playing sports and games. While our ancestors led the harsh life that the winner of fights gets fame and recognition, the modern man earns respect and recognition through performing well in sports games such as soccer and basketball. Not everyone who participates in sports games will want to play for fame though, most leisure players simply play to pass time and have fun.
Playing sports and games actually requires a fair bit of functional fitness, because they have to be fast and have quick reflexes. Sports such as rugby and tennis is quite good for developing speed and reaction. Other sports such as strongman challenge and track and field sports will develop your body in a way it won’t be as well rounded. There are exceptions though, some sprinters and swimmers are in fact good fighters in combat sport.
For us martial artists it’s definitely good to play some sports games with our friends once in a while, besides our usual running(or swimming and mountain climbing for some) to keep our stamina in check.
What about Chinese Kung Fu? Do we need fitness? There are some people who say you do not need strength or stamina, no need fitness at all, is that good? We certainly need fitness to keep ourselves going in a fight. We notice that when a fighter panics he will drain stamina much quicker. We can see this in the form of sweating and panting more profusely, as well as losing core strength. From my experience I can tell you that even seasoned internal martial artists will deplete their stamina in combat situation, at a more alarming rate than people who train.
You can skip the body weight aerobics and weight training, but you definitely need the cardio and respiratory capacity to carry yourself under pressure. Come on, don't talk about going the distance in a fight, if you lack stamina you can't even complete your own training. You can't even finish a proper satisfying training session. You won't even feel like training if you lack physical fitness.
For Kung Fu practitioners we are already training our core strength by doing our stance training. When we move around in our stance and exert force we will surely feel the work done. The sweat and body soreness is inevitable. In fact stationary stance and bridge hands training is a part of training which almost all Kung Fu students must go through. Either this or what you are doing will not be called Kung Fu.
Speed is very important. To be fast we need to be firm enough and smooth enough. Not firm enough, we’ll crumble before we reach the target. Not smooth enough, we’ll jam and miss the opportunity. Firmness needs core strength, smooth actions require flexibility and the muscles’ ability to function throughout the entire range of motion.
I’d say that Kung Fu is about developing the fitness to function in combat. Your fitness is what your Kung Fu is about. Fitness is very important in Kung Fu and Kung Fu must come together with fitness.
In fact even today, people are still keeping themselves fit to protect the security of their country. In any event a physical conflict threatens the safety and integrity of their country they have to fight, and win the fight. Many of you ladies might not know that, but your boyfriends and husbands could have the intention of keeping fit or training martial arts to protect you. Men still want to be strong to protect their family, their children from harm. And there are people like me, who unconditionally vow to protect the pride of our art and our culture. Anyone who tries to harm or insult the Chinese people will have to try us first.
Do you want to be useful to your country? If you want to serve the purpose, it’s good that you be fit. A country will be proud if its citizens are strong.