Many of the skills you will learn in this belt require excellent physical conditioning. This requirement increases significantly as you progress into future belts. This is the time to become serious about your physical conditioning. Hopefully you have been doing exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, stand-ups, and similar drills to increase strength, improve flexibility, and enhance your stamina. Here are some additional things you will want to work on. These might be referred to as the core Tensoku Ryu exercise regimen. Believe me when I say that you will need this training later.
Before performing any conditioning exercises it is wise to consult with a medical specialist to ensure there is not some underlying medical condition that might lead to a significant health risk during periods of exertion. This is important even if you feel you are in good physical condition.
If you have a known physical condition then you should seek medical advice about whether a specific exercise would be beneficial or detrimental to your health condition. Do not simply assume an exercise would be beneficial without seeking competent medical advice.
The exercises in this section provide a set of good general conditioning exercises. Not every exercise is good for every person. Some exercises can cause negative health consequences if done with improper form, performed when you are not yet physically prepared for them, or if done excessively. Begin any new exercise slowly at first until you understand how the exercise will affect you. Everyone is different and reacts to various exercises in a unique manner. Start slowly and built up your endurance and strength over time. There is no need to rush anything. Be cautious to avoid injury and over-exertion. If an exercise seems to bother you or have negative effects, stop doing the exercise in favor of something else and seek medical advice where appropriate. It is not necessary that you be able to do every exercise in this list. Pick what works for you and avoid things that are currently too difficult or that cause you discomfort, pain, or excessive fatigue.
Push-up Sit-up Progressions
This is a simple combination exercise, but it will work on strength and stamina in a very short period of time. Let’s pick a number. Let’s pick the number four. This is our terminus number. It is where we will stop.
Now stretch out forward and do one full push up. Immediately roll to your right onto your back and do one sit-up (of whichever variety you prefer). Now quickly roll back to your left and do two full push-ups. Now roll to the right and do two full sit-ups. Roll back to the starting position and do three push-ups and then roll over to do three sit-ups. Complete the sequence by doing four push-ups and four sit-ups. This is the basic pattern. The only thing you need to determine is what you will use as your terminus number. Don’t go overboard at first. This is a surprisingly difficult and challenging exercise.
Incidentally, rolling to right and then back to the left is important when doing the exercise with others (for example, in a group class setting). It helps to keep people from randomly rolling into one another during the fury of the exercise if everyone is moving in the same directions.
Naturally, when you can reliably do an exercise set with a specific terminus number, then you increase the terminus number by one for future exercises. Going up by one can be tremendously challenging. Don’t rush things. If you can reliably do the exercise with a terminus number of ten, then you should begin to see dramatic improvements in your strength and stamina. An excellent workout is somewhere around terminus number seven. Getting to ten is quite an accomplishment.
The table below provides the total number of push-ups and sit-ups you will do when completing the exercise at a specific terminus number.
Another variation, which can be easier, is to start with your terminus number and work down. This saves the smaller sets of push-ups and sit-ups for the end of the exercise, rather than doing them at the beginning. It is the same total number of push-ups and sit-ups either way. It just depends on whether you want do the most repetitions first or last in the sequence.
If you can comfortably do the exercise with a terminus number of 15 (congratulations by the way), then try this variation. Do the exercise with a terminus number of twelve, then work back down to one. For clarification, when you get to the terminus number of twelve, you would then continue, but this time doing eleven push-ups and eleven sit-ups. Then you would do ten, nine, eight, etc. until you get back to one. This would give you a total of 121 push-ups and 121 sit-ups. Using a terminus number of thirteen and going up to thirteen then back down to one would yield a total of 169 push-ups and an equal number of sit-ups. As you can see, one can easily get to some impressive numbers very quickly.
If you can do the exercise comfortably with a terminus number somewhere between seven and ten, you are doing fine. Not everyone is well-suited to doing hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups in a single session. There is no need to go to extremes. But there is no reason not to push yourself to achieve that next terminus number either.
Doing Kata, especially doing them so that they are physically demanding can be good exercise. Pushing to have deep and strong stances, rapid and succinct movements, and vigorous blocks, punches, and kicks can do a lot to improve your conditioning. Doing a Kata this way also works on the martial aspects of the movements contained in the form.
You might decide to do a given Kata three times in a row. Or you might alternately decide to do an entire series (e.g. the Kihontekki series or the Pinan series) without stopping. When done with strong stances, crisp movements, and effective Bunkai you will work to develop improved conditioning and endurance, all while finding new and interesting ways to do the Kata you know.
Toughen Your Midsection
Core strength is an important consideration as you advance through the ranks. It becomes increasingly important as you move through the middle ranks and into the advance ranks. Without a strong core you will experience difficulty with many of the skills you will encounter. Begin work now to develop an exercise and training program that will afford you strong abdominal, back, and shoulder muscles. Here are a few exercises that can help (in addition to Push-up Sit-up Progressions).
Lay on your back with your feet raised and your knees bent. Now move your feet to simulate pedaling a bicycle. After thirty seconds or so, reverse the direction of movement, as though you were pedaling backward. Now revert to a forward direction again. Do several sets of forward and backward pedaling sequences.
Be sure to place your open hands under your rear when doing this exercise. This simple posture helps to keep the small of your back flat against the floor, reducing the stress on your lower back.
These are quite difficult to do well, but they can be beneficial. Begin by lying on your back and then raising your feet, with legs straight, directly upward toward the ceiling (or sky). Your arms should be straight and placed on the floor near your hips. Now propel your hips and legs directly upward so that your feet move in a nearly vertical direction (with minimum forward and backward sway). Carefully return your hips to the floor so that your feet do not sway forward or backward during their descent.
Don’t overdo this exercise initially. Do a few, certainly no more than five, and give yourself a day or two to figure out how your body will react. This will help you gauge how many you can do in future exercise sets. Doing ten Trunk Raises is quite a significant effort.
This exercise requires two people. One person rests with his or her back on the floor with their straightened legs raised toward the ceiling. The two legs should be parallel to one another and touching. The other person stands immediately in front of the first persons legs, facing the heels of the raised feet. The person standing then suddenly pushes the first person’s legs directly away in the direction of the first person’s face. The person on the floor must then return the legs to their original position. Naturally, the two individuals trade positions after some reasonable number of leg pushes (five to ten is typical).
Rest on the floor supporting yourself only with your forearms and the balls of your feet. Your back and abdomen should be straight and generally parallel to the floor. Your head and neck should be in alignment with your spine. Hold this position as long as you can without pain or severe muscle fatigue. Over time increase the amount of time you can hold this position before you have to stop.
Take care not to strain yourself unnecessarily. Build up the duration of the planking exercise over time. Start with a modest 20 second interval at first. Add small increments of time to both build up your initial conditioning and to provide increased core strength over time.
As a point for consideration, holding a plank for an hour might sound like a good goal, but your core strength will not be that much improved over someone who holds a plank for five minutes. One could reasonably argue that there are other quite beneficial exercises that might aid other parts of the body that could be done in the fifty-five minute difference. There is no reason to be obsessive about planking.
Build Leg Strength
Your legs are important tools in any style of martial arts training. You will want to use a variety of the following exercises to help build both leg strength and leg stamina.
Adopting and holding some stances will help to build leg strength (and determination). Holding a deep Kiba Dachi, with thighs nearly parallel to the floor, is an excellent way to work on upper leg strength. Breathe slowly, and count your breaths. Now work to be able to hold that stance, without moving, for twice as many breaths (of the same duration). Now work to double that number of breaths again. Now double it again. It may take you many months, but it is not unreasonable to expect you can hold this stance for fifty to one hundred breathing cycles that each last six to ten seconds.
Soft Bow Stances are another way to work on fundamental leg strength. Settle into a deep soft bow stance with the back leg less than one inch from the floor, but never touching the floor. Hold this stance for ten seconds. Switch sides and do the same for the other leg. Now work to hold these stances for twenty seconds. How about thirty?
A Sanchin Dachi helps to build strong legs from the ground up. It is also great for working on muscles in the core and torso areas. Holding the stance (on both sides) for minutes at a time is an excellent strength exercise.
Various leg raise exercises work on both the legs and your core. You might rest on your hands and knees and pump one leg behind you repeatedly as though you were doing Ushiro Geri. Alternately you might rest on the floor on your side and raise your top-most leg upward multiple times. A harder alternative is to lay on your back with both legs straight and raised just slightly above the floor. Now alternately raise each leg quickly toward the ceiling and then slowly slower it to its original position. Alternate legs for a total of six to ten leg raises. Be sure to tuck your hands under your rear to keep the small of your back pressed into the floor.
You might try a variation of the last exercise by moving both legs concurrently. This time they both move outward in unison, then return to the original position, but now continue moving until they have crossed with the right leg higher than the left. Now they move outward again and move inward again to cross with the left leg higher than the right. Do a set of six or ten to set a baseline and take it from there.
Once you can do the above leg raise exercises without much difficulty you can progress to standing leg raises. Place your back against a counter-top or stable table of some sort so you can use your core and hands for stability. Now raise one leg and hold it straight forward at your maximum elevation for ten seconds. Lower that leg and raise the other for ten seconds. Do at least three repetitions on each side.
Now rotate ninety degrees and place a single hand on the counter-top. Remain generally erect and raise your outer-most leg upward, while keeping it straight, to your maximum elevation. You should be in a basic extended Yoko Geri posture. Again, hold it at your maximum elevation for ten seconds. Now turn and do the other leg. Do at least three repetitions per side.
Work to slowly increase the number of repetitions, the duration of your extensions, and the elevation for the standing leg raises. This improves leg and core strength, but also improves your stretch and your ability to hold an extended leg aloft. This will improve your ability to do things like an Ax Kick, but it might also prove quite beneficial much later.
Simple leg squats in which you stand in Heiko Dachi, then bend your legs until your rear reaches the level of your knees can help build leg strength. Doing a set of ten repetitions is a good first goal. You might, over time, do multiple sets, increase the number of repetitions per set, or augment these squats by using some weights. Weights are not necessary or even prudent initially; they can cause more harm than benefit if used before you have developed some initial strength in the muscles associated with this exercise. You will want to ensure you do not overly stress the knee joint and the lower back which could result in tendon, joint, or muscle injuries that can be quite severe.
Jump ups are essentially the opposite of squats. With this exercise you start in a squatting position, then suddenly leap vertically. When you return to the ground you immediately assume the squatting position again. Doing five to ten squats will give you a good baseline to work from. Don’t over-exert yourself at first. Get a viable baseline and take it from there.
Endurance is a fundamental requirement moving forward. Perhaps the number one reason students fail future belt ranking examinations is that their lack of stamina prevents them from demonstrating proper form and technique in increasingly complex skills. If you are wondering what you should practice today, start and end by working on your stamina. Here are a few exercises that will help.
When building endurance try to work on different endurance exercises each time. Avoid doing the same exercise in back-to-back sessions. Mix things up for both the increased benefit afforded by various exercises and the alleviation of the boredom that can come from repetitive activities.
Some of the endurance exercises below involve short bursts of intense movement. When doing these types of exercises be sure to focus on your breathing, both to ensure you are breathing, and to ensure your breathing is done in a manner that benefits your intense activities and your recovery periods.
Kicking, as you undoubtedly know by now, can be physically demanding and quite tiring. So use this to your advantage. Use the kicks to work on your endurance. Start by doing every kick you know, on both sides, three times each. Stop for a rest only when you have completed all of the kicks in a given belt curriculum. When you have sufficiently recovered, move on to the kicks in the next belt.
When you can comfortably do three kicks on each side of all the kicks you know, step up to four kicks on each side. Then progress to five kicks per side. Now we’re getting somewhere. You know you are doing well when you can do in excess of five kicks per side. But get there in a logical and sound manner that does not over tax your metabolism. We want to build your metabolism and stamina, not jolt or overwhelm them. It may take you months to go from two or three kicks per side to five or six kicks per side. That’s okay. You’re getting better every day. There’s no rush; let your body tell you when you are ready to move forward.
Walk-ups and Stand-ups
This exercise begins with you resting on your hands and knees on the floor. Now suddenly raise one knee and place that foot on the floor before you. Use that leg to stand up and begin running in place, pumping your hands and your legs as fast and as hard as you can. In a short time you will being to tire. Drop back down to your hands and knees for several seconds of rest. Now pop back up and run again. Repeat the cycle three to ten times, depending on your current level of fitness.
You can vary the amount of time you run and the amount of time your rest, depending both on your level of fitness and your goals. Running for ten to twenty seconds, and resting for twenty to thirty seconds is a typical cycle. You can obviously run longer or rest longer as your needs and goals dictate. You might also use a long rest period for one cycle and a shorter rest period for another.
These are tiring exercises. Take them slowly at first until you understand what is entailed and how your body will react to the strain they introduce. You will be quite winded very quickly in these exercises. Do not do them if you have not yet achieved a fundamental level of fitness and general endurance.
A very similar exercise is the Stand-up. This is nearly the same as a walk-up except your starting position is slightly different. In a stand-up you begin in a squatting position rather than a kneeling position. You rest on the balls of both feet with your knees raised upward and spread outward. Your hands rest on the floor directly forward of your torso and between your knees. To begin the exercise you quickly rise straight upward. From that point you begin running in place in the same way as with the walk-up. At the conclusion of the running you then quickly return to a squatted position. So the only significant difference is that in a stand-up your first action is to gain an erect structure, while in a walk-up you raise one knee and step forward as you stand. Pick whichever method you prefer.
A far less strenuous exercise than Walk-ups is the simple jumping jack. They’ve been around for ages and do a lot for development of coordination (important for some people) and general endurance training. Do ten. Then work up to twenty. Fifty to one hundred is a good target goal. If you can do a hundred jumping jacks then you are ready to move on to other exercises that have a more prolonged endurance benefit.
Speed punches involve sitting in a deep Kiba Dachi with both hands raised to an effective guard position. Now begin punching directly toward angle one with alternating left and right punches, all while maintaining your deep stance. Throw as many punches as you can, as fast as you can, for ten seconds. Stop and rest. Then do another round.
As your endurance improves you can work toward doing five rounds of twenty seconds each, pausing about forty seconds between rounds. Once you get to this level you can now stretch the punching duration to thirty seconds, with a minute rest between rounds. You might ultimately work to do sixty-second rounds. This is a difficult level of fitness to achieve, so don’t stress out if you can’t get there. Twenty seconds rounds is generally sufficient.
Naturally, you can add additional rounds to your training regime as an alternate way to increase your stamina.
Shadow boxing is related to speed punching, but only slightly. Shadow boxing requires that you move around as though you were sparring with a fictitious opponent. You will want to close and escape using different angles of the octagon as you concurrently deliver various hand strikes and kicks, perhaps using multiple attacks in rapid succession. It is critical to work on having a good guard position and to be constantly on the move. You should also strive to do at least one kick for every four or five hand strikes.
This is a more mentally stimulating exercise than Speed Punches, but it requires more attention to detail as well. Footwork, octagon angles, combination striking, entering and exiting strategies, blocking, feinting, and parrying are all part of the exercise. You will want to ensure you do not enter and exit along the same angles of the octagon.
When you first start you might shadow box for twenty seconds and then take a short break. Go for three rounds and then stop for the day. As your endurance improves work up to thirty second rounds; then forty-five second rounds. Your goal should be to achieve at least three one minute rounds with a two minute rest between rounds. If you are in excellent shape you might ultimately work up to five three-minute rounds. That should approximate what you will encounter in a serious sparring match.
For overall general endurance nothing beats jogging. Some people hate it, some love it. I hated it for many years, but eventually came to love it. The key was to approach it slowly. Do small incremental improvements in jogging duration and you will be met with increased success and improving endurance.
If you are new to jogging then I would recommend you jog for only two minutes initially. Do this three times a week for a couple of weeks. Now stretch it to three minutes for a week or two. When you can, increase it to five minutes. We’re into this a month or more and are only jogging for five minutes at a time. That’s perfect. Better things are yet to come.
Now that you can do five minutes of non-stop jogging. Slowly work up to ten minutes per session. Hold that duration for a period of two or three weeks. Once you can sustain ten minutes, you should be able to increase your time to fifteen minutes. Again, hold that duration for several weeks, even if you think you can do more. By going through these incremental increases and holding patterns you are slowing but methodically building endurance at a pace your body can readily accept. Now you have the pattern that will allow you to slowly work up to an hour or more of jogging. It will take you six months or a year to get there, but every day your endurance will improve, and you won’t feel overwhelmed or overtaxed in the process.
Jogging for an hour is not essential. If you can jog for thirty minutes you should have pretty good endurance for most activities you will encounter, at least in the next several belts. If you find you love jogging, by all means work up to longer periods of activity. If you still aren’t a big fan of jogging, then getting to thirty minutes should be a sufficient goal.
If you decide to try jogging then the first thing you should do is buy yourself a very good pair of running shoes. Don’t skimp here. Your feet, shins, knees, and back will all thank you.
Riding a Bicycle
This is different from the previous Bicycle Riding exercise. Here we’re talking about using a real bicycle. Riding a bike has many of the same endurance building benefits of jogging. It also can work to improve leg strength (those hills can be leg burners) and improved core muscle strength. Naturally, you’ll need access to a bicycle, requisite safety equipment, and a safe place to ride, but other than that you will have an enjoyable past time that also works to improve your martial arts endurance and conditioning.
There are a great number of ways in which you can use a pair of gloves and a bag to improve your conditioning. Here are just a few you might consider.
- Punch the bag non-stop for thirty seconds, varying the nature, rhythm, and location of your punches so you can incorporate some strategy and tactics in your exercise program. Once you can comfortably do thirty seconds, add another fifteen seconds to your sessions. Work up slowly until you can do a three minute session. Now you can consider doing multiple rounds. Remember, a full contact sparring match is commonly three three-minute rounds.
- Strike the bag using hand and leg combination strikes. You might elect to do ten sets of a left and right hand strike combination followed by a Mawashi Geri, doing the set on both sides. Of course you can and should do other combinations as well. You might also wish to do thirty seconds of random striking combinations trying to avoid repeating the same striking pattern twice.
- Move about the bag so that you never strike the bag in the same area in two consecutive strikes.
- Work on hand speed, seeking to deliver a set number of strikes within a given unit of time.
The specific work you do will depend somewhat on the type of bag(s) you have available. You can use a bag to develop power, speed, and stamina. Explore different methods whereby you can employ a bag for these different purposes.
Related Exercise Programs
Yoga, Pilates, dancing, and swimming are all additional exercise practices that can benefit your martial arts conditioning. If you enjoy, or have enjoyed these or related activities in the past, then you may wish to use them as a way to enhance your martial arts training.
There is great similarity between many of the movements in dance and the martial arts. The same could be said of ice skating, gymnastics, rock climbing, or longboarding. There are similar movements in any two different forms of training if you take time to look for them. So cross training is an excellent want to improve your overall health, experience different skills and social opportunities, and unconsciously improve your martial arts movements, techniques, and patterns of behavior.
There are innumerable exercise machines and pieces of exercise equipment for the home and at your local gym or Dojo that can be used effectively to improve strength and aerobic conditioning. Here is a partial list of equipment you can use to improve your physical condition.
- Free weights, kettle bells, resistance bands, etc.
- Weight machines
- Stationary Bicycles
- Elliptical Machines
- Punching Bags (heavy bags, speed bags, standing bags, etc.)
- Jump ropes
- Hand grips
- Fitness, medicine, or stability balls
All of this equipment can be of some benefit to your martial arts conditioning goals. It is best if you can use a variety of these tools rather than a single tool or strategy. To be good at the martial arts requires a very broad set of fitness development activities.
Drill, Baby, Drill
In this belt material you will find an increased focus on specific drills. Practice these (and other drills you may have learned) until they are second nature and require no thought. Then slow them down and add conscious thought back into the process so that you can be aware of even the most subtle movements you are making. Look for ways to eliminate excess movement and long delays. Then work to incorporate these changes until they again become an unconscious part of the drill. Now break the drill down again and look for additional improvements. Repeat until you can find no improvements. Then come back in a few months and look for additional improvements. There should still be some you can uncover.