Kung fu fitness

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Hard work

Kung fu literally means 'hard work'.

Deliberate practice

Hard work alone is not enough, though. Simply working hard will not necessarily lead to progress.
It needs to be deliberate, focused improvement designed to improve your practice by developing key skills outlined by your instructor.
The student must implement corrections, study the recommended books, undertake assignments and challenge their comfort zone.


There are many, many different styles of kung fu. Historically, the Chinese favoured originality, invention, creativity and surprise. Every martial arts school wanted an 'edge'.
Each teacher sought to develop their own unique approach in the hope that it would prove superior to other fighting styles

The difference between experienced fighters and beginners is the speed of muscle relaxation, which is 8 times faster in champion fighters. For an inexperienced fighter, the speed of muscle relaxation is too slow for the leg or the fist to gain enough speed when striking a blow. Keeping the antagonistic muscles contracted automatically slows down the movement.

(Frederic Delavier)

Fit for action

If you watch how Chinese martial artists or sports people workout, there is no laziness to be found. They train hard, they are thorough and they expect a lot from themselves

External martial arts

Most styles of kung fu are 'external' and they workout in a manner that is comparable with any other martial art. The main difference tends to be the inclusion of qigong.
Kung fu schools also tend to favour training methods designed to increase speed through muscle relaxation.


Internal martial arts

The internal martial arts avoid certain external training approaches: locked joints, tensed muscles, aggression and the use of force against force. These are of no use in neijiaquan.
However, the need for conventional fitness is just the same. Increased flexibility, suppleness, strength, cardiovascular fitness and agility
are all necessary.

Programs for fighters should consist mostly
of compound exercises. These allow for intense work on a maximum number of muscles in a minimum time.

(Frederic Delavier)


Kung fu fitness training often uses:

  1. Bao ding balls 

  2. Hand power grip exerciser

  3. Hand grip exerciser 

  4. Wooden & metal swords

  5. Sticks of various lengths and weights

  6. Wallbag work

  7. Heavy bag work

  8. Cardio work

  9. Yoga

  10. Core strength exercises


In real life combat you cannot afford to lose your breath so cardio work is essential in kung fu.
Games like 'the ball game' and stepping drills will increase your heart rate without the need for more conventional cardio exercises.
However, if a student is seriously struggling for breath, they will be taught short cardio sets to remedy this problem.

10,000 steps a day

Invest in a
pedometer. If you're not taking 10,000 steps a day then you are far too sedentary and this will adversely affect your fitness. A lazy person cannot hope to make progress in kung fu.

Weight training

It is quite common for tai chi students to train with weights. But there are many considerations to keep in mind. Pumping-up, stiffening, tension and shortened muscles are not good for kung fu fitness.
Please speak with Sifu Waller if you are planning to undertake weight training.
Delavier's Mixed Martial Arts Anatomy is worth reading before undertaking any kind of weight training.
The author advocates a very limited amount of weight training - specifically tailored to complement your given martial art - rather than a typical gym/body building approach

The philosophy of between-reps breaks consists of doing everything you can to avoid fatigue instead of seeking it out as you would in body building. Striving for failure is more appropriate for those working on muscle mass than for those wanting to increase strength or power.

(Frederic Delavier)

Not body build

Kung fu people cannot afford to pump-up, become injured or shorten their muscles. Lifting weights in order to obtain a certain aesthetic 'look' is pointless in kung fu.
Train for strength and power, not for vanity. If a student undertakes weight training, they need to do so in an
informed manner and they must do everything possible to keep their muscles lengthened.

Foam roller

Invest in a
foam roller. It is a wonderful way to help release tension in the joints and muscles.

Learn how to exercise

Instead of simply relying upon your instructor to make you fit, make an effort yourself. Take what you learn in kung fu class as a starting point. Progress from there.
Make a commitment to get continually stronger, faster, more flexible, healthier. Research exercise methods and be open to any new approach that does not interfere with your kung fu.

A different way

advocate moderation in all things. e.g. over-training is as bad as under-training. If you do not train enough, there will be very little fitness benefit and no martial development.
If you train too much, the body will become tired and there is an increased risk of injury.

Biomechanical advantage

Adjust your home exercise routine when necessary to maintain biomechanical advantage. If your training is making you stronger, then keep doing it. If you have reached a plateau, then change something.
Just avoid extremes, over-stretching and excess.

Strength training must adapt to the fighter's needs, not the other way around.

(Frederic Delavier)

Eat right

There is no point in committing to a comprehensive kung fu fitness regime is you're going to eat junk food, smoke and drink alcohol.
Your body needs its nutrients, protein and healthy carbohydrates in order to grow stronger.

Tai chi for health

Faced with a major health crisis in the 1950's, the People's Republic of China turned to the old/classical Yang style tai chi for a solution. They wanted a form of exercise that could be performed by students of all ages.
The simplest way to achieve this was to remove the more demanding fitness component and the kung fu (combat). Most modern tai chi classes are teaching an art that an old person could cope with...
By definition this cannot conceivably be a martial art.

Tai chi fitness

For best results, tai chi should be practiced alongside more conventional fitness exercises. Tai chi offers a unique range of fitness approaches:

  1. Qigong
    - serves to keep the muscles relaxed and the joints flexible
    balance, stamina, endurance, alignment, posture, poise, simplistic coordination, range & reach
    - avoid
    over-stretching, exertion or strain 

  2.  Neigong
    - whole-body strength
    - ensures proper use of strength
    - connection, better use of mass, subtle adjustments to increase power
    - sophisticated biomechanics

  3. Form
    - whole-body movement
    - teaches agility and coordination

    - nimbleness, balance, memory, timing, listening to the body
    - optimal body use, proprioception, mind/body unity, kinaesthetic awareness, ambidextrous use of the limbs, gait
    - w
    orks tendons, ligaments, fascia and muscles
    loose, fluid and relaxed musculature
    - ability to change instantaneously

  4. Jing
    - whole-body power
    - smoothness, control, spontaneity, unpredictability, stealth, circular, flowing
    - kinetic energy
    - use of 3 dimensions
    - no 'telegraphing'

  5. Partner work and martial drills
    - train the nervous system
    - sensitivity,
    biofeedback, leverage, pressure, softness, stickiness, yielding, speed, power 
    - how to respond without thinking

  6. Weapons
    - heavy weapons will strengthen the arms/back and teach you to balance the weight of the stick by using connection
    - encourage a more significant use of the body when striking
    - weapons  forms train coordination, mobility, ambidextrous body use and power generation


You can use many techniques to gain strength but not all of them are appropriate for fighting.

(Frederic Delavier)



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Page created 18 April 1996
Last updated 5 November 2000