by Craig Smith
Years ago, conditioning was an integral part of the martial arts. Serious practitioners knew that the ability to exert or withstand force was directly related to muscular and endurance training, and it was to these martial artists that people often turned for physical training advice.
However, in the early seventies, a couple of things that changed this. The martial arts industry started to explode, with the marketing of Bruce Lee and Tae Kwon Do, and an entire fitness industry developed out of an obscure regimen called "aerobics". An increasing number of martial art schools started concentrating on marketing and belt promotions, and an entire fitness industry became filled with individuals with very little knowledge of serious physical training, but a very serious interest in making a lot of money.
The fitness message over the past twenty years has increasingly been one of "less is more". From the advent of "low" or "no impact" aerobics in the seventies, to studies claiming that shorter or less strenuous workouts brought the same results as more intense workouts, the public has been fed a pabulum of motivation to mediocrity. Organizations such as the Heart of America Aerobic Association (HAAA) and American Martial Training (AMT) were criticized for being too demanding, and out of step with the latest research, because of the intensity of their programs (the "latest" research being claims such as "15 minutes of exercise done three times a week is all it takes to achieve maximum fitness"). But the results speak for themselves. Theories and "latest research" (often disproved by the next "study") may be interesting in the classroom or around the salad bar, but theories don't bring results. What brings results is the correct application of proper principles.
Just as we have seen a "dumbing down" of our society, we have seen a similar decline in fitness in all categories and age groups. This, in spite of the fact that the business of "fitness" is at an all time high.
More health clubs are built every year, more hospitals and corporations build fitness/wellness centers, and more universities expand their "fitness/wellness" departments to fill the growing needs of the private sector. But a decline in real fitness is occurring for the same reason there is a decline in educational standards in many areas of the country and that is an attempt to make more people feel successful through a systematic reduction in expectations.
But reality has a devastating effect on misguided theories. Call the Marines, and ask if they have their people exercise for 15 minutes, three times a week, in order to stay in "peak physical condition". Call BUDs at Coronado, and ask if their SEAL recruits get to walk everywhere now because "walking is the best exercise". Or call the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and ask them, "Are you making sure your athletes can carry on a conversation comfortably while they exercise? We wouldn't want them overdoing it, you know!" Warning after you ask the question, hold the phone far away from your ear.
Those who are in the business of training for peak performance are not heard promoting the "latest" way to get more by doing less. We know that it simply doesn't work. And while improvements, refinements and technology can improve training techniques, the basic principles of physical training do not change.
The three main areas of physical training are muscular development, endurance and flexibility. The three basic components of any exercise program for fitness gains are frequency, intensity and time which can be remembered by the acronym "FIT". In the old days, the prescribed mix of these components were expressed in the barked orders "Do it harder!", "Do it longer!", and "Do it again!". The mass marketing of fitness, however, concentrated on a "kinder, gentler" admonition of "Do it nice and easy".
"Nice and easy" was attractive to the masses, who enjoyed the wearing of running shoes more than any deliberate use of them, and it was therefore attractive to the marketers. But the concept of intensity began to disappear, and America got fatter and more out of shape.
Intensity is imperative if you want optimal results period. Frequency of workouts is important, and so is the duration of each workout, but intensity is what makes the biggest difference.
Serious physical trainers have always known this, but studies are now available to support this position and combat the "easy-does-it" idea.
A study conducted at Ball State University followed a number of competitive runners who cut their weekly range from 50 to 15 miles, and ran only 5 days a week instead of 6. They increased their intensity by running up to 30% of their miles at a faster pace than normal. After three weeks, the runners ran almost 10% longer than usual during a maximal exercise test.
A study conducted at Norway's National Institute of Occupational Health, it was found that those who exercised intensely on stationary bikes (reaching heart rates of 185 beats per minute) showed an average 14% increase in metabolic rate, which lasted for up to 12 hours. Those who exercised less intensely (145 beats per minute) showed a metabolic rate increase of only 3%, which disappeared within 3 hours.
Dr. Donald Bahr, who conducted the study, stated, "If people want to increase their metabolic activity, they should increase the intensity and length of their workouts".
But perhaps the most graphic study was conducted at Lavall University in Quebec, which showed that High Intensity Training, done at 90% of maximal heart rate resulted in metabolic changes that caused the body to use 9 times more fat for fuel during post-exercise and resting phases than resulted from the lower intensity of 70% mhr that traditional aerobics recommends.
Study after study confirms the importance of intensity in exercise. More importantly, real-world results deny the validity of any disputing position.
There will always be those who preach an easy way, whether in martial arts, physical training or anything else. And there will always be plenty of people who will follow them because of it. But, as with most things in life, you will get out of your workouts exactly what you put into them.
Physical training has always been an integral part of the martial arts, and will become even more important as events such as Pankration develop, both here and throughout the world. Few other disciplines concentrate so much on the balanced development of strength, endurance and flexibility, and it is time for the martial arts to re-assume their rightful place as the leader in fitness and physical training.