A lot of people labour under misconceptions about health and training.
In some ways I can summarize this by saying that the reason I have a sixpack* is that I don’t do cardio, I don’t do crunches or planks and I don’t cut fat when I eat. So what do I do? I’ll tell you in a while.
What I’ve learned is that what feels as if it’s giving you results is not necessarily what gives you the results. Hungry is a good sensation to get used to, but starving yourself is not the best way to get slim.
Even clearer and more insidious for people who actually relish strong sensations in their exercise is that feeling the burn is not necessarily a sign that something useful is happening. Crossfitters can get attached post-metcon** shaky hands and rubbery legs, clearly a sign that the body has worked hard, but not necessarily worked right.
I think that similar problems occur in self defense and martial arts.
To me a crunch a movement born from the oversimplified perspective of ‘targeting’ muscles. Do enough of them and you get the satisfying sensation of a burn in the working muscles. The problem is that this movement does not really integrate into anything else that you do. Where in life do you crunch? Same for planks. Where in life do you simply hold yourself rigid while doing nothing else with your limbs?
The muscles have been removed from the context of their real use. It’s not that your abs will not get stronger through doing crunches, just that there are better things to do and limited time to do them. Same goes for metcon, I’d pick a nice painful WOD over a stupid treadmill any day, but depending on your goal even metcon/HIIT may not be the best tool for the job.
Martial arts have their parallels to this.
Forms are very satisfying, but where in combat do you get to run through a whole series of techniques without having to adapt to someone else?
Are the techniques that are the most gratifying to perform the most universal or useful?
If you like to express power is that the quality you most need to develop? Even if you need power, are you working on it in a way that maximizes the pleasure from the the feel of it, or from a way that helps you to actually use it?
Do you focus your energy into the exercises you are good at, that are the ‘specialities’ of your style? Or do you work on your weakest links? Would it be more useful to focus on being a badass, or on being patient and polite?
Back to the beginning, no crunches, no cardio, plenty of fat. So what do I do? First I eat food. Lots of it. Then I move in ways that are demanding either in their coordination and complexity, or their load and occasionally both. My body takes care of the rest. A set of heavy squats for example does not involve a ‘burn’, but does demand that my abs contract to stabilize my spine. The heavier the weight, the more everything has to be held just right.
The overall effect on my body is a cascade of adaptations that are broader, deeper and more interesting than hundreds of crunches. I can not only headbutt my knee from the ground, but I can lift heavy objects with little strain, which helps me stay active through the day (and so I don’t need ‘cardio’).
It’s not that I never hold simple postures, like planks. But when I do I use them to develop the ability to move onto something more complex and more interesting. The hollow body position of a plank is a component of a handstand, or a front lever, but the abs or ‘core’ is rarely the limiting factor. In the photo above a whole set of abdominal muscles are working harder than they would in a ‘crunch’ to stabilize my spine. What limits my ability to hold the posture is the stability of my shoulders.
Generally I will focus on the more complex unless I identify a weak link that needs to be addressed in isolation. Building complex demanding movements is an interesting process and I don’t have space to do it justice here. It’s best addressed face to face.
How can we really apply this kind of thinking to martial arts? Again this a wildly complex subject. If all you want is exotic movement, partner play and ‘entertrainment’ then it does not really matter. Do what is fun.
On the other hand if you want your training to have greater carry over you will have to put some more thought into it, to root out your weaknesses. Perhaps the best tool you can have for this are training partners and teachers who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings, or your body (in moderation!).
*sixpacks are a cosmetic sign of something more interesting. I mention sixpacks because in this cosmetic obsessed world I either have to show skin, or be a cute furry animal to get likes, and it takes likes to spread a more useful message.
**metcon = metabolic conditioning, HIIT =High intensity interval training, and WOD = workout of the day . These are almost synonymous – usually fairly short bursts of exercise at a threshold that goes far beyond the aerobic threshold. This is much more efficient for getting lean than being a treadmill or stationary bike zombie.