Foundational Martial Arts and Fitness Training

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.

Tangential Story

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.

My Groove

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.

Floor Equipment Level: 10,000

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).

  1. Jumping Jacks (25)
  2. Burpees (the 5-count variety; 5-10)
  3. Walking Lunges (20; 10 each side)
  4. 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)
  5. 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)
  6. Push-Ups (10-20)
  7. Knuckle Push-Ups (5-10)
  8. Finger Push-Ups (push-ups on the tips of all your fingers, try to remove fingers as your progress in the program; 5-10)
  9. Chest Isometrics (just push your hands together in front of you, as hard as you can, for 8-12s)
  10. 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)
  11. Planks (30s-1m)
  12. Crunches (20-50)
  13. Leg Lifts (only 12″ pulses, not all the way up; 20-50)
  14. Butterfly Kicks (like leg lifts, but kick your feet like you’re swimming; 20-50)
  15. Open and Close (feet 6″ of the ground, then open and close them; 20-50)
  16. Samson Stretch (lung position with one knee on the floor, then push your hips forward to stretch the hip flexors; 15-20s)
  17. Single Leg Stretch (either sitting on the floor, putting one leg on the top of a couch or bar, or both; 15-20s)
  18. Toe Touches (just bend over and touch your toes; 15-20s)
  19. Should Width Toe Touches (toe touches with you feet spread, alternate between going down to the floor, then to each leg; 15s each)
  20. 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!)
Sunglasses Optional

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:

  1. Jumping Jacks (25)
  2. Burpees (5)
  3. Lunges (10 total)
  4. Push-Ups (10)
  5. Planks (30s)
  6. Crunches (25)
  7. Leg Lifts (25)
  8. 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).

  1. Straight Lead Punch (most people call it a “jab”; 20)
  2. Straight Rear Punch (most people call it a “cross”; 20)
  3. Hooks (I just throw a left-right cadence; 40 total)
  4. Uppercut (same as hooks: a left-right cadence; 40 total)
  5. Lead Front Kick (any variation you know; 10-12)
  6. Rear Front Kick (10-12)
  7. Lead Round Kick (10-12)
  8. Rear Round Kick (either stepping it down into the alternate lead or spinning all the way through; 10-12)
  9. Lead Side Kick (10-12)
  10. 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.


5 Simple Steps to Mastering the Martial Arts

That title may say five simple steps, but that doesn’t mean they’re five easy steps. Martial arts training is damn hard, anything worthwhile always is, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. In this article, I’m going to give away the “secret formula” that instructors follow when teaching a new technique to a student: the five steps to mastery.

Are you ready to become a martial arts master?
Are you ready to become a martial arts master?

Is that all it takes to master the martial arts, five simple steps? Yes…and no. You did catch the part where I said this isn’t easy, right? First of all, these are the steps necessary to master a single technique. Using that technique in an actual combative situation, setting up an opponent…there are a lot of aspects of the martial arts these steps do not cover. But before you can utilize a technique as part of a strategy, you need to master its use. This article will give you the steps to do that.

Take each of your techniques through this five-step gauntlet as many times as you can over as many sessions as possible. There is no end to this journey. The bar for “master” doesn’t exist; it’s a lifelong process of tortuous learning, and you’re going to love it – if you haven’t fallen head over heels for it already.

Step 1: Practice in the Air


The first step to mastery is monotonous, but possibly the most important: you need to practice your techniques in the air, and if you can see yourself (in a mirror or a video) even better.

Why? Ever hear of the 10,000-hour rule? No matter what pop-psychologists say, you’ve gotta put your reps in, and this is the best place for it. If your style incorporates strikes, then punch at your shadow. Joint locks, practice kata. If you practice a grappling art, solo and partner drills.

What makes this the best step is that you can almost (style depending) practice it anywhere. So there’s no excuse not to be able to train.

Step 2: Practice with a Willing Opponentblock-punch

This step is where you start to learn how your technique interacts with an opponent’s geometry and thinking mind, often in the form of martial arts drills. But beware: “getting a move right” can be exciting, but that’s a false-positive at this stage. You haven’t performed the technique properly; you just executed the steps while someone let you borrow their body.

Sadly, this is the step where many martial arts practitioners stop. They execute the drill, disarm, or combination on a willing opponent and believe they can execute it anytime, anyplace, against any opponent. It’s a recipe for disaster. Don’t fall for it. If your school doesn’t go any further than this, it’s time to make a switch.

Step 3: Practice with Resistancebruce-lee-punching-bag

There’s a saying in some boxing circles that goes: “you are as powerful as you are.” I’ve heard it many times in different ways. What it refers to is not trying to generate power during a fight, just throw your punches and let your power come from your repetition-perfected technique (you did your reps, right?). When you’re in a fight, your opponent can see you tensing for that monstrous haymaker (it’s called telegraphing), but they won’t see the smooth rear straight punch that is executed like so many others you’ve done in while training air. It doesn’t pay to try to generate power when you’re in a fight unless you have a position of advantage over your opponent (but that’s a strategy discussion for another article).

But here’s the thing: you can improve your power, even your power in a fight, and I’m not just talking about weight training for bigger muscles (though that does help). There is one time when you can and should go all-out with your techniques, and that’s when you’re hitting a heavy bag, focus mitts, kicking shield, etc. Training in this way teaches you how to tense at the right times, how to turn your hips, pivot your ankles…how to explode on your target. The level of your “powerful as you are” goes up, even when you’re not trying for it.

Or you could dress your friend up like a crash test dummy
Or you could dress your friend up like a crash test dummy

Since grappling is more about the smooth application of force than the transfer of power into a target, this step isn’t as crucial for grapplers. I would suggest that dedicated grapplers build their gross motor strength (lift heavy weights) and skip worrying too much about heavy bag training.

Step 4: Practice with an Unwilling Opponent

They'll let you know if the technique doesn't work
They’ll let you know if the technique doesn’t work

This step will let you know if you can make the technique work when your partner doesn’t want to let you use it on them (but don’t be that guy). For some styles, this is sparring, others call it randori, and for some, it’s simply just one partner not letting the other get their move off while drilling. Whatever your style, this step is when your training partner is giving you resistance and making you work for the technique.

It’s important to wait until you’ve gone through the other steps of practice before trying the technique out on an unwilling opponent. If you jump to this step on a move that you question the viability of then you’re likely to not have mastered it to the point where it will work anyway. I’ve seen many people throw solid techniques away because they couldn’t make them work after their first session of practice. Give it time before you get here.

Step 5: Practice in a Stressful Situation

No one does "stressful situation" like Jason Statham
No one does “stressful situation” like Jason Statham

Have you ever heard of situation-based training? It has a lot of different titles depending on which organization is charging for the material. Whatever you choose to call it, this is where you set up a distressing (or shocking) situation that adds emotional turmoil similar to what you’ll find in a real fight. You might fake a mugging, have a training partner push you face first into a wall before you turn to face their technique… it could even be as simple as practicing the technique while exhausted from a grueling conditioning session. There are thousands of situations you could put yourself in for this step. Just pretend you’re in a Jason Statham movie, and you should do fine (just no snapping necks).

This step is your final exam for the technique. When you don’t have the time to set up a stance, line up your target, etc., then you’ll be putting your mastery of the technique to the test. If you practice situation-based training a few times and still can’t execute your technique, there are two possibilities: (1) you haven’t put the technique through enough repetitions in the previous steps (you haven’t mastered it yet), or (2) the technique leans too far on the side of martial theory instead of combative technique (the problem is with the technique, not the practitioner). But it takes a lot of training to know the difference.

So Am I a Master Now?

Sure, if you want to say that, but I wouldn’t let anyone hear you call yourself that unless you want to earn ridicule on the level of people who lie about being Navy SEALs. See, “Master” isn’t a title you give to yourself; it’s something other people call you. Don’t be so egotistical that you make up titles for yourself.

But if you take a single technique through this crucible, it’s likely that you are on the path to mastery, a path that never ends.