by Thomas Kurz
In this article I will discuss examples of good and bad martial arts workouts.
I start with the example of a good workout. This description is based on a typical workout of East European athletes of the combat sports (boxers, fencers, karateka, judoka, wrestlers).
At the opening of the workout the assembled class greets the instructor, who then explains the goal of today’s workout, presents the technique, combination, or a drill that is this workout’s focus.
The instructor then leads the class through an initial warm-up. It may begin with marching around the gym performing exercises of increasing intensity and range of motion along the way, or it may begin with the athletes standing in staggered rows, first limbering up their joints and then practicing footwork, from simple steps to side-steps. Another option after limbering up is playing some mobile game (see the article How to Select Exercises for the Warm-Up for examples). The warm-up may also begin with calisthenics, arranged so the end position of the first exercise is the beginning position for the second, until the last exercise of the initial warm-up blends into dynamic stretches preparing for the main subject of the workout. Whatever way the warm-up begins, the intensity of its exercises is increased gradually, not in fits and starts. No exercise in the warm-up is done to the point of fatigue.
At the end of the initial warm-up come dynamic stretches to prepare for the main subject of the workout. If the main subject is learning and practice of some high kick, or putting together combinations using one or more high kicks, dynamic stretches for the legs are done, starting with the easiest and gradually progressing to more difficult ones—for example, high knee kicks or high knee raises, then straight leg raises, to the front, to the side, and then the actual kicks, starting low and progressing to the required or even maximal height. All these stretches and kicks can be added to the last exercise of the initial warm-up, so if that was marching or jogging around the gym, then these stretches are done during jogging (a knee raise or a leg raise every three steps, for instance). If the last exercise was shadowboxing, then the stretches are added to the shadowboxing actions (one or more stretches after every combination).
If flying kicks are to be learned or practiced during the workout, now is the time to do lead-up exercises for them. Start with the simplest kicks and low jumps, progress to higher flying kicks done holding on to a partner, the barre, or a climbing rope, and eventually do the standard techniques. If this sequence is not followed an injury is likely. (A typical example from a taekwondo school run by an instructor ignorant of proper methodology for physical education and sports training: the taekwondo class warm-up consisted of some running and stretching and then, out of the blue, doing flying side kicks. One student who was returning to the class after a few months absence, broke his heel bone. If the instructor had conducted the warm-up properly, either the student would have landed properly and not gotten hurt, or during the lead-up exercises he would have felt that something was wrong with his foot and excused himself from doing the flying kicks. Another factor that may have contributed to this injury was the concrete floor.)
After the warm-up, the class moves to exercises in the main part of the workout, such as hitting focus mitts, work on the bag, sparring—specifics depend on the subject of the workout. The intensity of the exercises of the main part gradually increases, then peaks or plateaus depending on the subject and purpose of the workout, and then gradually decreases to blend with cool-down exercises such as calisthenics (which this time may be done until fatigue) or just jogging.
After the main part is over the cool-down may start with calisthenics. If so, the exercises are sequenced so the the prime movers are exercised first and stabilizers or core muscles are exercised last. The most intensive exercises are done ahead of the low-intensity endurance work. For example, jumps or plyometrics for legs and arms (if they are suitable and were not done in the main part) are done before long sets of squats and pushups, then the work on the lower back is done and then on the abdomen. Start with high-resistance/low repetitions and end with low-resistance/high repetitions. After that is the time for relaxed static stretching and finally for a few minutes of jogging and marching—preferably outside.
This is a general outline of a properly constructed workout. More exercises can be fitted into this structure—for example, dynamic stretches for the legs can be done additionally during the main part between other exercises and also after or between long sets of squats. Isometric stretches can be done after plyometrics or high intensity calisthenics but before exhausting muscular endurance exercises such as long sets of squats or pushups. If isometrics are done at that point, then dynamic stretches for the same muscle groups may have to be skipped for the sake of safety.
A well-constructed workout, apart from proper and gradual changes of intensity, has such a flow of exercises that each subsequent exercise includes elements of the preceding one, building up from simple natural movements to the sport-specific ones in the warm-up and in the main part, and then, in the course of the cool-down, moving away from sport-specific movements back to natural ones.
1st Bad Workout
The first example of a bad workout is a description of the first night of an aerobic kickboxing class (Toy 2001).
The warm-up consisted of two minutes of rope jumping to “the high-energy dance [music] that often accompanies a typical aerobic class.” This was “followed by five- to ten-minute set of leg stretches on the floor.”
Faults of the warm-up
First fault: Starting the warm-up with a high intensity exercise and then, as if that were not bad enough, drastically lowering intensity in the stretches is the first fault. The reason for starting the warm-up at low intensity is explained in the article A Well-Run Workout: The Warm-Up, and in Science of Sports Training. Here I put it briefly: An intensive start reduces the athlete’s work capacity needed for effectively carrying out tasks of the main part of the workout. Intensive exercises quickly use up stores of muscle glycogen and increase the level of lactate in blood. The higher the blood level of lactate, the lower is the use of free fatty acids for energy and so the less work an athlete can perform before fatiguing.
Second fault: The break of the flow of exercises—the abrupt change from high-intensity jumping rope to static stretches on the floor is the second fault. Exercises in a well-designed workout flow into each other, but how does rope jumping flow into static stretches on the floor?
Third fault: Doing static stretches on the floor at the beginning of a kickboxing workout is the third fault. Kickboxers need dynamic flexibility for their kicks, which is best developed with dynamic stretches done standing, walking, or shadowboxing.
After that “warm-up” the class proceeded to learn the basics such as “foot positioning, keeping gloves up to protect the face, bob-and-weave moves.” Then they proceeded to learning “the basics of punches and kicks that would evolve into the combinations geared to maximize the heart rate, build strength and endurance.”
Then the class “jabbed, crossed, hooked and threw uppercuts. [They] threw front kicks, side kicks and roundhouse kicks—one after another—all the while focusing on maintaining [their] balance.” Next, these techniques, all acquired during this one class, were put together into “series of fast and furious combinations,” which brings to mind the saying: “All sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“The instructor motivated [the class] to focus all [their] energy on hitting the bag. He assured [them the] stresses of the day would vanish. He was right. . . .”
Faults of the main part
First fault: Teaching too many techniques so none is learned well is the first fault. I am guessing that the instructor wanted to show many techniques to keep the class interested. This is typical for the instructors who do not know many lead-up exercises, games, and drills for every technique. In a well-run workout, in which only one technique is taught, participants are never bored because of the variety of exercises and drills and games that first lead up to the technique and then utilize it.
Second fault: If the techniques are not right, hitting the bag hard can cause injury—either sudden, like spraining or breaking the wrist, or gradual onset, like arthritic changes in the joints of the hand and wrist.
The main part of this kickboxing class was followed by a fifteen minute cool-down during which the class—“burned out [the] abs, arms and chests with sets of crunches and pushups, leg stretches as [they] did during the warm-up, and a few standing deep breath lunges.”
Faults of the cool-down
First fault: This sequence of calisthenics or muscular strength exercises is wrong. Crunches should be done after pushups, not before them, because the muscles of the abdomen stabilize the trunk during the pushups.
Second fault: Calisthenics can begin a cool-down but, since these calisthenics were intensive enough to “burn the abs, arms, and chest,” they should have been followed by low-intensity exercises lasting long enough to gradually bring down the physiological functions (as manifested by the frequency and volume of breathing and by heart rate) to nearly normal level.
A person who has never been trained properly and has no knowledge of methodology of physical education and sports training may like this workout—it feels great. But after a series of such workouts the participants are likely to get aches and pains resulting from repetitions of poorly learned techniques and the wrong sequence of exercises. This happens to many people doing Tae Bo.
2nd Bad Workout
The second example of a bad workout is what Deborah Sommerville describes with horror as her first martial arts class (Sommerville 1998).
The gym or the dojang had a cement floor covered with a thin carpet. The warm-up began with jumping jacks on that cement floor. Then running in a circle, on that cement floor, then a hundred more jumping jacks, then some squat thrusts, followed by lying down prone and performing a hundred leg-scissors. After that some stretching on the floor.
Faults of the warm-up
First fault: The training surface itself is the first fault. Bare concrete, or concrete covered by carpet, wood, or a thin mat, is not an acceptable surface for a martial arts workout. The only acceptable training surface for combat sports and martial arts is a springing floor that has a bounce similar to a gymnastic floor for floor exercises. In the case of various types of wrestling (such as Greco-Roman, free-style, judo, sambo, and others) the springing floor is additionally covered by the mat.
The reason self-defense or contact sports workouts should be conducted on springing floors is that such floors absorb a considerable part of an impact’s energy thus protecting joints. The energy of all the hops, jumps, and throws that is not absorbed by the floor is absorbed by the joints and causes gradual-onset injuries, such as knee and back pains, shin splints, and even broken foot bones. An accidental fall in which the head hits a hard floor is very likely to end in tragedy, and wearing a foam helmet like those used in taekwondo may not be enough protection to prevent it. Laying a mat, even a soft mat such as a regulation wrestling mat, on an unyielding floor protects against superficial bruises but offers little protection for the joints.
Second fault: Besides using jumping jacks (one of the lamest exercises—see explanation in the article A Well-Run Workout: The Warm-Up), the instructor orders the class to do long sets of strenuous exercises that easily fatigue people. A warm-up is not supposed to be a wear-down. The purpose of the warm-up is not to fatigue the athletes but to prepare for fatiguing work. Fatigue predisposes for injury. Fatigued muscles cannot absorb as much energy as strong muscles and are therefore more likely to be injured than strong muscles (Best 1995). Acute muscle strain injury is highly associated with improper warm-up before sports, fatigue, and previous injury (Garret and Best 1994). Educated instructors know that such fatiguing exercises as those for muscular endurance and aerobic endurance should be done after all difficult technical, speed, or strength exercises.
The above is obvious to those who have common sense, and it is borne out by observation. But if common sense is not enough reason to do proper warm-ups then there are those research papers.
Third fault: Doing stretches on the floor as a preparation for practicing techniques that will be done standing like in the most forms (kata, hyung, etc.) is the third fault.
After that abysmal warm-up the class started to learn a kata (a form). These beginners, during their first class, tried to learn and memorize a form while fatigued and, on top of that, before learning any of the single techniques that comprise the whole form.
3rd Bad Workout
The third example of a bad workout is a composite of several that I have seen people do. The essence of these workouts was doing very fatiguing work on aerobic or mixed aerobic-anaerobic endurance, then doing very intense work—for example, anaerobic endurance—followed by a very short cool-down or none at all. An example of such a workout is one run by martial arts “instructors” who make the class do some very intensive, exhausting exercises at the end of a moderate-intensity workout just to “kill ’em, so they know they had a tough workout.” This is typically followed by an insufficient cool-down. Prolonged soreness results, which limits progress in strength, endurance, and most visibly in flexibility. Other examples include running five miles as fast as possible and then doing wind sprints (Walker 2001), or doing interval training with long intervals first and short, more intense intervals at the end of the workout. The rationale given for such an arrangement is that it develops a strong finish. Yes, it does, although repeating such workouts too often can easily cause overtraining, and the insufficient cool-down can speed up the onset of the overtraining. There are better ways to develop a strong finish, such as sane interval training, fartlek or “running play” (see Science of Sports Training [Kurz 2001] for examples).
There is an increased risk of injury in such topsy-turvy workouts from doing all-out efforts while mental concentration and control of movements are diminished by fatigue. Apart from those nervous system aspects of fatigue there is the muscular aspect. During moderate to heavy prolonged exercise, the slow-twitch muscle fibers are always the first to become glycogen-depleted while the fast-twitch fibers are virtually unused, their stores of glycogen largely untapped (McArdle, Katch, and Katch 1996). The slow-twitch fibers stabilize joints (Hertling and Kessler 1996; Walther 2000), so performing high-intensity efforts, which use fast-twitch fibers, while the slow-twitch fibers are fatigued is asking for joint injuries. “When glycogen stores in the ST [slow-twitch] fibers are depleted, it appears that FT [fast-twitch] fibers either are unable to generate enough tension or cannot be sufficiently recruited to compensate for the loss in muscle tension” (Wilmore and Costill 1999).
Intense exercises, such as sprints or intervals of all-out punching and kicking, should be followed by low-intensity exercises of long enough duration to gradually bring down the heart rate and frequency and volume of breathing to nearly normal levels. These low-intensity exercises speed up recovery so that athletes are not sore or stale during the next workout. Though it sounds paradoxical, long low-intensity efforts are good for relieving spasms of overworked muscles, caused by exercises of high-intensity or heavy resistance. This is because muscle spasms caused by hypoxia (insufficient supply of oxygen during high-intensity effort, affecting mainly the fast-twitch muscle fibers) are relieved by the increased flow of oxygenated blood brought in by the repetitive weak to moderate contractions of slow-twitch motor units. It is the slow-twitch fibers, richly capillarized, that supply blood to the poorly capillarized fast-twitch fibers.
In the next article you will learn about interrelation among workouts in a weekly training schedule.
Best, T. M. 1995. Muscle tendon injuries in young athletes. Clinics in Sports Medicine vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 669–86.
Garret, W. E., and T. M. Best. 1994. Anatomy, physiology, and mechanics of skeletal muscle. In Orthopaedic Basic Science, ed. S. R. Simon, pp. 89–126. Rosemont, IL: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Quoted in M. R. Hutchinson and R. Nasser. 2000. Common Sports Injuries in Children and Adolescents. Medscape Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine vol. 4, no. 4.
Hertling, D., and R. M. Kessler. 2005. Management of Common Musculoskeletal Disorders: Physical Therapy Principles and Methods. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Kurz, T. 2001. Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc.
McArdle, W. D., F. I. Katch, and V. L. Katch. 2001. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins.
Sommerville, D. 1998. My first martial arts class. Martial Arts Professional vol. 3, no. 1 (January), pp. 34–35.
Toy, M. D. 2001. Impressions of a martial arts fitness class. MAPro Martial Arts Professional vol. 6, no. 2 (February), p. 34.
Walker, B. 2001. Block and devastate. Martial Arts & Combat Sports vol. 22, no. 7 (July), pp. 62–71.
Walther, D. S. 2000. Applied Kinesiology: Synopsis. Pueblo, CO: Systems DC.
Wilmore, J. H., and D. L. Costill. 2011. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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