This may be the most important blog post on the subject of martial arts and fitness that I ever write. When I was 22, I was in the best shape of my life, and I can point to the very reason why: I was building strength, endurance, flexibility, and martial arts skill atop a well-established foundation.
When I turned 30, I fell away from my training (I’m 34 as of the time of this writing). I’ve been trying to regain my previous levels of fitness and performance, but I’ve only just realized why it’s been so difficult: I forgot all about foundation.
Why Foundation is So Important
Ever hear the phrase “you can’t run before you can walk”? Now, those of you who have children may be thinking “but my baby ran first.” But having kids, I can attest to the fact that it never works out well for them when they don’t have the walking foundation down first. And you need the same foundation for your fitness and martial arts practice.
So what am I talking about here?
A basic foundation of strength, endurance, flexibility, and core martial skills.
I’m not talking about benching 100s of pounds, running miles, doing the splits, or being able to work the dummy like Donnie Yen. (That’s step 2.) What I mean is a basic foundation for these things.
When I was 24, I attended a seminar with a Hapkido expert. It never occured to me before then that I was stronger than the average practitioner of traditional martial arts. But then one of this guy’s students was trying to perform a throw on me (and I was told to provide resistance), and he just didn’t have the power to do it –– and this wasn’t some out of shape paper tiger, this kid was around 19 and fit. But he said something I’ll never forget: “man, you’re really strong!”
Being the weakest person in my group of friends at the time, that came as a shock. I lifted weights and ran like crazy, but everyone around me did more of both. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it (how insightful were you at 24; don’t answer if you’re currently 24, give it another decade), but after a few years, it got me thinking about how important fitness is to training in the martial arts. And now that I’m out of shape, I can see just how important it really is.
Building a Foundation
In the story above, I make myself out to be Hercules. But I’ll tell you, I’m far from it, and have never been to that level of strength. But I had that basic fitness that allowed me to do just about anything, including resisting a fully-trained kid in his prime from taking me down (there was some skill involved in that, to be sure, but that’s not the point here).
So how did I build my foundation? Modern fitness experts refer to the method as “greasing the groove“, but my version added a bit of a spin on the typical method.
I had a simple circuit that I worked through 2-3x daily (usually just once, to be honest, but I was consistent to do it at least everyday). I did this even on days where I had martial arts training (most days back then), weights, or cardio. But if I didn’t do anything but this, then I tried to fit it in right when I woke up and right before bed.
The first few movements of my circuit were focused around cardio (jumping jacks, burpees…I’ll list my routine at the bottom of this post). And it was a “one and done” thing for me. I knocked out a single set of each move, then moved on with my day, barely breaking a sweat. But it gave me incredible gains.
Before I post my full routine, I want to point out a few things. You’ll notice that there are martial arts movements…because I’m a martial artist; consider those to be optional for someone who isn’t. I also have some equipment ($10 exercise cables from Walmart; I used bicycle intertubes when I was in high school, but snapped them more often than not). The equipment is optional. You can do most or all of this with nothing but a floor and a door post.
Where something says X-Y, that means start with the first number, but each time you work through the program try to push one of the exercises a bit, but only one, and not to failure (unless you’re failing at or before the first number, then go ahead and fail and build your strength).
- Jumping Jacks (25)
- Burpees (the 5-count variety; 5-10)
- Walking Lunges (20; 10 each side)
- Cable Rows (if you have cables/workout bands, wrap them around something and pull them with one or both hands to your waist or chest; 10-15)
- Cable Curls (either keep the cables where they are, lift your elbows and curl to your shoulders, or put the cables beneath your feet and curl; 10-15)
- Push-Ups (10-20)
- Knuckle Push-Ups (5-10)
- Finger Push-Ups (push-ups on the tips of all your fingers, try to remove fingers as your progress in the program; 5-10)
- Chest Isometrics (just push your hands together in front of you, as hard as you can, for 8-12s)
- Backfist Isometrics (bend your arm slightly and put the outside of your forearm against a door post, then press against the post as hard as you can for 8-12s)
- Planks (30s-1m)
- Crunches (20-50)
- Leg Lifts (only 12″ pulses, not all the way up; 20-50)
- Butterfly Kicks (like leg lifts, but kick your feet like you’re swimming; 20-50)
- Open and Close (feet 6″ of the ground, then open and close them; 20-50)
- Samson Stretch (lung position with one knee on the floor, then push your hips forward to stretch the hip flexors; 15-20s)
- Single Leg Stretch (either sitting on the floor, putting one leg on the top of a couch or bar, or both; 15-20s)
- Toe Touches (just bend over and touch your toes; 15-20s)
- Should Width Toe Touches (toe touches with you feet spread, alternate between going down to the floor, then to each leg; 15s each)
- Splits (go as far as you can for 10s, then move directly to “American splits” with one foot on the toe and one on the heel for 15s, then back to the center for 15s, then to the other side for 15s, then back to the center for 20s –– this is a great stretch!)
And that’s it! It might seem complicated because of my direction, but it’s a mere 20 moves, and most of them are lying on the floor or stretching. It shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes after you’ve done it a few times. The best part is that you can take your time after the first portion. Blitz through the first 3 moves, then slow it down and just move at your own pace.
If you’re in a hurry, or just starting out and think that looks intimidating, start with this:
- Jumping Jacks (25)
- Burpees (5)
- Lunges (10 total)
- Push-Ups (10)
- Planks (30s)
- Crunches (25)
- Leg Lifts (25)
- Any stretches you feel you need (you should at least hit hamstrings, hip flexors, and groin)
I left out the cables from the above because I’m assuming that if you are just starting out, or don’t have a lot of time, then you don’t have that equipment (or time to set it up). If you do, add those in there.
What About the Martial Arts
I left it out because I don’t think most people who follow this blog actually practice martial arts, but just in case I’m wrong, here’s what I add just before my stretches.
When I practice martial arts, I choose a “lead” (which foot is forward in my stance) and switch it the next time I practice. So if I choose to put my left side forward in the morning, I might put might right side forward in the evening, or the next day (if I’m lazy and skipped the evening workout).
- Straight Lead Punch (most people call it a “jab”; 20)
- Straight Rear Punch (most people call it a “cross”; 20)
- Hooks (I just throw a left-right cadence; 40 total)
- Uppercut (same as hooks: a left-right cadence; 40 total)
- Lead Front Kick (any variation you know; 10-12)
- Rear Front Kick (10-12)
- Lead Round Kick (10-12)
- Rear Round Kick (either stepping it down into the alternate lead or spinning all the way through; 10-12)
- Lead Side Kick (10-12)
- Spinning Back Kick (10-12)
And if I’m feeling froggy, I might throw in some elbows or knees, but that’s honestly pretty rare. I do, however, perform 1-2 kata –– always an Ung Moon (JKD’s trapping form) and usually a Karate, Tai Chi, or Chi Kung form for good measure.
What This Did For Me
After training like this for several months, I not only had abs for days (seriously, I didn’t even need to flex to see them), but I had the core strength, endurance, and flexibility to lift weights, run, jump rope, or perform martial arts techniques for hours on end.
Remember, this is not the “be all, end all” of training (you won’t become Bruce Lee on this program). This is a foundational program that can get you started. But foundations are just that: something to build on.
I’m going to do this for the next three months, then move on to more intense routines.
Are you going to try it? Let me know what your results are if you do.