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Conditioning and it's Debate and Place Within Martial Arts

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of the Jeet Kun Do Institute.  Bruce Lee choose to better condition his body midway through his martial arts career. It reflected in his movies and life and for decades shaped the image of the martial artist stereotype.

Courtesy of the Jeet Kun Do Institute. Bruce Lee choose to better condition his body midway through his martial arts career. It reflected in his movies and life and for decades shaped the image of the martial artist stereotype.

Something that came up in one of my former martial arts courses was the idea of conditioning. That is nothing new. Anyone who has gotten into martial arts because of Bruce Lee or Van Damme knows that they practically pioneered the idea of conditioning in the modern age.

That being said though, many martial artists don't really focus on conditioning. A former teacher for example had said that many students don't practice conditioning and in my experience this has largely been true. Also, when I started branching out my swordsmanship into African and saber styles, they too talked somewhat about conditioning and being able to properly wield the sword and develop the instincts and movements effectively.

I find it interesting and ironic that people focus so much on this though, creating a division I think in how people perceive martial arts, how they practice them, and what they think it is. Old school martial arts have always practiced conditioning in one form or another. Japanese swordsman beating wooden sticks against tree trunks for hours. Shaolin thrusting their hands into burning coals and bending their bodies to near impossible degrees to improve to a near-superhuman flexibility. The weight lifting and powerlifting in Greco-Roman wrestling and pankration.

There is definitely a solid foundation for the idea that a martial artist needs conditioning to be effective. So the question becomes what has changed? Why is it that so many of us now don't want to focus on conditioning and just want to spar or learn the techniques?

I have an idea on that based on my own experience and people who I have talked to.


"I want recognition for being good at something, not having been good at something. How long do you live off of having been good at something, when you no longer do it, and suddenly, there are people out there who are better than you? That wasn’t good enough for me.”

— Elise Laverick Sherwell, former Olympic rowing athlete on her choice to retire. https://www.themuse.

Shortening of Time, Increasing Priorities

I think the main difficulty is the lack of time. People have families, jobs, and have priorities besides just learning how to fight or to kill. This was a big reason why warriors, fighters, and soldiers were considered a different class of people by many cultures. Because they would sacrifice and make the time normally devoted to these other areas, for the sake of developing their martial arts and bodies to perform to extreme degrees. It was a daily lifestyle and not just a pastime or part-time occupation on the side. It has been argued by some that it is still possible today as demonstrated by Bruce Lee for example.

However, he didn't really get into that until much later in his life after a duel he had with another kung fu master. Reportedly saying that he was frustrated by how much the fight exhausted him (depending on which version of the fight you read). Lee also had the natural intensity that was higher than most people that propelled him to those limits. And if the story's about him are true, then that definitely had certain negative ramifications on his family life such as his infamous temper. Having said that, if people wanting to learn martial arts for self-defense and street situations feel they have to prepare their bodies for such encounters, then an almost self-defeatist mentality kicks in.

They want something to help them in the moment, not something that they have to prepare for months before they are ready for set situations. Traditional and mixed martial arts fighters are different in that they make careers out of fighting. Therefore like an Olympic athlete, they put in a strong regimen of physical development, because that's their career. And to their credit it usually gets them very far.

At the same time, if people are participating in fighting for sports or shows, it is developing the body to destroy the body. I am not talking about destroying the opponents body, but rather their own because of the numerous blows and extreme stresses that are placed upon their joints, organs, muscles, and skeleton. A little known quote from Mohammad Ali is that after one of his fights with Joe Frazier, that he felt like his hips had been hit with a baseball bat each time Frazier slammed his powerful punches into his hips.

Courtesy of Getty Pictures. Muhammad Ali vs Joe Fraizer. Madison Square Garden, 03/8/1971.  I believe boxers to have the superior stamina because they have to train for stamina and endurance rather than short, violent bursts.

Courtesy of Getty Pictures. Muhammad Ali vs Joe Fraizer. Madison Square Garden, 03/8/1971. I believe boxers to have the superior stamina because they have to train for stamina and endurance rather than short, violent bursts.

There is a reason why boxers developed the slang “punch drunk”. And I consider boxers to have the best stamina of any combat sport athlete. Or why athletes and fighters who push themselves to such heights, usually don’t maintain them very long. It is a very true reality for anyone who wants to seriously practice martial arts or combat sports. This isn't to insult those people because they feel that it's worth it. And there's nothing wrong with that. Equally, it's good for a few short years before you have to or are forced to retire, often with a body that is the worse for wear.

The average person however is not interested in developing their body to destroy it. That is the reason why they want to do self-defense: to preserve the body.

Does this limit the body's performance in whatever technique or style that they learn? Yes. Unless they’re armed, or go for weak points and pressure points like eye gouging genital grabbing, or the other person gets too cocky, they will not stand a chance in the numbers against a professional fighter or true warrior. And even if they fight with no limits, it is no guarantee.

The reason why they take such styles though is because they don't want to be the best. They want just enough to know what to do and how to do it at the moment so that they can continue on with their lives. Or to stay in relatively good shape.

Courtesy of Z.Baddorf/VOA.  Orphans from the Central African Republic practicing capoeira.  Rather than doing it to learn fighting, its being used as a therapy to handle their traumas and PTSD of the 2013-14 war.

Courtesy of Z.Baddorf/VOA. Orphans from the Central African Republic practicing capoeira. Rather than doing it to learn fighting, its being used as a therapy to handle their traumas and PTSD of the 2013-14 war.

Being a Libra of a Martial Artist

On a personal level, I do feel a sense of frustration with the idea of developing the body and conditioning for martial arts. And it's mostly due to my own nature. By that nature, I am not someone who enjoys structure or that it comes naturally to them. Like Mugen in the anime Samurai Champloo, I prefer a natural and organic movement and form to my style. And in most cases, it's worked for me.

Plus, I do martial arts for various reasons, not just fighting. However, throughout all of them, it is about primarily the expression of myself and being who I am as a person: not to copy someone else, even Bruce Lee, Van Damme, or Iko Uwais. So when I have a teacher who strongly promotes adhering to a rigid structure or conditioning, then I want to rebel. I feel constrained and trapped and I don't want to surrender my naturalness to the structure because of what they feel will work. I don’t want to submit to someone without question when a question has clearly presented itself, and is ignored.

There had been a benefit to it as well in terms of mentally challenging me and pushing me outside of my boundaries. I have always believed that it is important to have balance in one's life. To focus too much on one thing makes that person close-minded to other things that could be better or more practical at certain moments. Or just miss opportunities that present themselves.

I don't think that martial arts should ignore the conditioning of the physical body; however I also believe that for the sake of self-defense or general health and expression, conditioning of the body cannot be the absolute priority of the martial art. I’ve seen men with beer-bellies knock out twenty-somethings who thought they were hot shit. And at 45, I’m more flexible and agile than many people half my age.

People have priorities: different values and different levels of intensity. And personally I feel teaching people something is better than teaching them nothing, because they will not adhere to how I think they should practice a technique or style.

It's been argued that martial arts that have no structure such as mixed martial arts that have no structure are sloppy, ineffective, and wrong. To me, that is making the martial arts a religion. They might as well be Jedi knights or Sith Lords who practice their own styles of the Force so rigidly that they will fight anybody who disagrees with them.

To me, this often misses the point and beauty if you think about it in the martial arts. That is the point of actual interaction.


Feeling My Pace

In the Matrix Reloaded , it is said that you do not know an opponent until you fight them. And I have found this to be true in that a person can hide who they are and who their character is. But once the first movement begins, the first punch is thrown, the first quickest is launched, then the person's personality begins to reveal itself if you have the eyes to see it.

What structure also misses or ignores is that fights, real fights of life and death, are usually unexpected and chaotic. Conditioning can help with that, but such moments don’t wait for people to reach that point. And even a professional athlete level martial artist can still end up dead in a corner or bus. They will need to know or feel what to do as soon as the run up to the encounter begins.

I’m a big man, but decently balanced. My conditioning is not MMA or boxer level and yea, my style of fighting can be called sloppy, but it has also worked for me for where I am at. It’s not perfect though several techniques including JKD are a part of it, but it's done its job. And that is one of the things I am after.

Not to be an Olympic athlete, but to be able to handle myself, while knowing how to live. And if anyone feels that is laziness or lacking commitment, then that is fine.


© 2021 Jamal Smith

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