Martial arts fitness

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Japanese warm-up

The Japanese were the pioneers of the modern day martial arts.
They invented the modern uniform (adapted from a fireman's tunic), set in place grades (adapted from the game Go), a syllabus and a comprehensive warm-up routine.
Nowadays, most martial arts classes employ a comparable warm-up routine


The original warm-up routine was not unique to any particular style of martial art. It was simply a military fitness routine; known to be effective in generating a basic level of fitness.

What does a warm-up usually involve?

Although the specific exercises may vary relative to each martial arts class, most classes employ the following:

  1. Cardio work

  2. Leg stretches

  3. Yoga-type stretches e.g. cobra

  4. Core strengthening exercises

  5. Dynamic stretching

  6. Punching/kicking drills

  7. Endurance/stamina exercises

The aim is to train all 3 areas of fitness: cardio, strength and flexibility.

Many beginners think that they do not need to warm-up. Skipping a warm-up will automatically result in pain later on, and that will restrict your fighting abilities. A good pre-workout warm-up protects against future aches and pains. Furthermore, it is also an immediate factor in improving performance.

(Frederic Delavier)

You get stronger

As a martial arts student gets fitter they cease to find the warm-up quite as demanding. The routine remains the same. The student has got stronger

Physical fitness

When learning a martial art there are essentially 3 stages:

  1. Physical fitness

  2. Technical skill

  3. Combat

Most students want to do stage 3 but flounder before they even reach stage 1. The white belt is an introductory grade. It is not stage 1. How come? Laziness.


A student must be fit enough to perform moderate cardiovascular exercise for 10 minutes without being in any way out of breath. This is a the absolute minimum requirement.
30 minutes is actually more realistic. In real life combat you cannot afford to lose your breath.

Drills, s
kills, techniques and forms

Once a student it physically fit enough to undertake the warm-up with ease, they can focus on learning the vastly more demanding syllabus ahead of them.
There is limited risk of
injury because the body is toughened, resilient and strong. Supple, flexible, supported and well-aligned; the student is hardy.

Mixed Martial Arts

People who study MMA often step into the realm of sports fitness. This is another level of fitness entirely.
They combine gruelling training (that is standard for boxers) with gym work, weights and tougher cardio practice

Why cardio and core strength?

Traditionally it took a student many years to be fit enough for combat.
By undertaking core strength exercises and cardio work - in addition to normal practice - you can literally shave years off the typical timescale by getting stronger sooner.
Core strength and cardio training are not complex. The routines are short. The results occur quickly.

So where does tai chi fit in?

An interesting question. It depends on what you call 'tai chi'. There are so many different classes in the world, each offering their own interpretation of the art
In truth, most tai chi classes only teach qigong, pushing hands and simplified form.

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 workout 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 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 as a martial art

When tai chi came to the West, a lot of people got this idea that a few qigong exercises, pushing hands and form would provide combat skill. This myth prevails today in most tai chi classes.
It is hopelessly naive. YouTube is filled with images of people getting beaten up because they aren't actually fit for combat.

Why do so many tai chi people think that the rigorous training (undertaken by all other martial artists) is not required by them?

Laziness. Tai chi people love to talk about the power of 'qi' or the wonders of 'internal strength'. It sure beats training hard

The human body

Your body is physical. It moves around. It is fundamentally no different from anyone else's body.
No matter how skilled you are with qigong, neigong, form or pushing hands, you still need cardiovascular fitness. You also need to be supple and strong
Training tai chi does not excuse you from the need to get fit.

Mild expectations?

If you are simply wanting to learn tai chi for health, then a fairly mild fitness regime will suffice. If you have any martial aspirations (tai chi), be prepared to train harder.

Tai chi

A student is not looking to punish their body and suffer. But they do need to get fit.
This can be accomplished by starting with mild exercises and increasing the difficulty as the body becomes stronger. Gradually, martial fitness is achieved.

A gentler approach

Tai chi training complements the conventional martial arts fitness standard and training methods. It allows the exponent to avoid harshness and unwanted muscular tension.
There is no exertion, forcing or strain. But it is far from easy.

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:

Qigong serves to keep the muscles relaxed and the joints flexible
Neigong ensures proper use of strength
Form teaches agility and coordination
Partner work and martial drills drills train the nervous system

The risk of injury in combat sports is especially high. To prevent injury, do the following: 1) Learn to warm-up well before any exercise, 2) Do everything possible to accelerate recovery between workouts.

(Frederic Delavier)

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Page created 3 August 1998
Last updated
21 May 1999