Asian Martial Arts and Western Training Methods: are they mutually exclusive?By
A while ago, I was on a forum where the conversation turned to the differences between the training methods of Asian martial arts and the Western methods based on sports science. It got me thinking about some of the conflicts there seem to be between both, which triggered me to write this post. It’s going to be a long one and it’ll take me some time to put all the elements on the table so please bear with me.
The conversation covered a number of topics but one of the key points somebody mentioned was how they did three-hour training sessions to prepare for a Sanshou competition, mixing conditioning, sparring, tai chi chuan and sanshou all together. Here’s my reply:
This is very similar to the way my first kung fu teacher would hold his classes and how I trained for over ten years. Loads of conditioning first and by the time you were wiped out, class began. It’s one of the first things I stopped doing when I started teaching. It tends to yield results but more despite the protocol than thanks to it. If you train longer than 60-90min. you’re working mainly on endurance. But not the kind of conditioning you need for a Sanshou bout, which is 1-3 rounds of 3 min. So you’re activating the wrong energy systems and when you are using the right ones, your body is too tired (low GH and testosterone levels, muscle glycogen depleted) to get the most out of that training because of both the volume and intensity of the workload.
I made lots of mistakes when I competed and had to learn the hard way. My conditioning was one of those issues. The main thing I had to learn is that fatigue is not a good measuring stick for the effectiveness of a training schedule.
I would recommend The Science of Martial Arts Training by Charles Staley for an introduction to Western training methodology. If you’re up for it, Tudor Bompa‘s work ( Staley uses it as a starting point) is dry but worth its weight in gold. IIRC, Periodization is in its fifth edition now and still considered a classic work by most top-trainers.
The main thing I disagree with in your schedule (besides the length; I just don’t see a place for it in any part of a typical macrocycle for sanshou) is the mixing of loads, skill sets and biomotor abilities. There are far more effective ways to train. I’m not saying your way doesn’t work. I’m saying there are better ways.
Please don’t consider this a personal attack because it isn’t. I’m not saying anything another Western trainer wouldn’t say. It’s sports science, not my opinion. Though I’m convinced that if it’s good enough for world-class athletes of all other sports, it’ll also do for Chinese martial arts.
I used to do those grueling workouts that lasted for hours and left me exhausted at the end. Simply because that was the way my first teacher taught us and it had become my baseline for training sessions; if I wasn’t dead-tired afterwards, I figured I hadn’t trained hard enough. Only many years later, after I had stopped competing and studied sports science more in depth, did I learn how wrong this was. I then understood why I had lost certain fights, because my conditioning had been dead wrong: I was training the wrong way and for a different kind of competition.
I remember well the first time I implemented periodization correctly:
- I was in better shape than when I was still competing.
- I did half the strength training I used to do and was still getting stronger, much stronger.
- I was less tired. In fact, I had more energy than before.
- I had fewer injuries than ever.
It was at that time that I really understood how I unknowingly had shot myself in the foot all those years. How I could have been a much better fighter if I had only had a coach who would have made me train in a Western, scientific way. When I look at the progress I made in the following few years compared to my performance during my competitive time, it was almost depressing: I became a much better fighter when I stopped competing and only trained half as hard. The next couple years were difficult for me because I was still young enough to compete and figured I might have had a real shot at a world title. But I was also recently married, had bought a house and was starting a family. So I shelved those dreams and eventually had had one last fight at the 2000 Belgian nationals. The training paid off because I scored a TKO in the first 30 seconds.
The reason why I’m making this trip to the past is this: I can compare the results of traditional Chinese martial arts training with Western scientific training for sanshou fighting from personal experience. That experience taught me the Western way is far superior, hands down, no contest. Like I wrote before, this isn’t just my opinion, it’s science.
Periodization, the science of scheduling training sessions, is one of the six basic training fundamentals of Western sport science. Every top level athlete uses it, regardless of the sport he does. Another one is training specificity. Simplifying things a bit, it means your training must be specific to the kind of performance required for the sport you compete in.
There are several ways you can interpret this. Here are some examples:
- You don’t get better at muay Thai by training for Greco-Roman wrestling. You get better at muay Thai by training for muay Thai.
- Training your biceps for strength doesn’t make your legs stronger. If you want stronger legs, train your legs.
- Training must go from general top specific. This has to do with periodization again and it gets technical but the gist of it is: the further out from your competition date, the more general your training has to be. The closer to that date, the more specific you mimic the actual event itself.
That is my main argument against his three-hour sessions that mix different martial arts along with conditioning: it violates the specificity principle (and a few others too.)
In most other sports, this was accepted a long time ago but in the martial arts, many people still refuse to even acknowledge it. This is also why I’ve been saying “the differences are just as important as the similarities” for so many years: thinking your training applies to situations it was not intended to handle violates the specificity principle. Which doesn’t mean it can’t work, only that other styles perform better in that context. Because they were created specifically for it.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why people ignore this when science and common sense tell them they have to go stand in a corner for being wrong and refusing to accept it.
Here’s what I wrote on that forum:
A F1 car and a NASCAR car are both cars. Both have 4 wheels and an engine. Yet you never saw Michael Shumacher entering the Daytona 500 or Matt Kenseth trying to win the Monte Carlo GP. Doesn’t happen, ever. Because the differences between the cars and the tracks are just as important as the similarities. I believe the same is true for martial arts and combat sports, so I don’t mix them in my classes. The only thing that comes close is the combat sanshou I teach but in that system, all the competitive goals are taken out so it doesn’t really apply either.
And also this:
It’s more a matter of one small factor being different and able to influence everything to the point of changing almost everything.
Remember back in the late 70s and 80′ when the US fighters would come to Europe to fight in kickboxing matches with leg kicks? That was pretty much the only difference with what they were doing, just one technique. The result; they got beaten up badly in the ring. Simply because they thought they could overcome that leg kick with their existing skills. But it just doesn’t work that way.
There is a much bigger difference between sanshou competitions and tai chi chuan than there is between American kickboxing of that era and the European style.
If you still think I’m wrong, then answer me this question: Why are there weight classes in all martial arts competitions? Everything else is similar for all the fighters involved:
- They practice the exact same sport.
- They use the same techniques.
- They have the same strategies and tactics.
So everything is pretty much the same, except for one thing: one fighter weighs a lot more than the other. And that one factor is enough to change the game completely…
History has taught us that in most cases, the heavier fighter will win. I don’t think anybody will argue this point. If so, then you de facto accept that one small difference (weight) is just as important as all those other similarities (all the rest). Well, if this is true here then why can’t it be true when there are other differences? You can’t just accept this when it suits your bias and then reject it when it doesn’t…
What has all this to do with Asian vs. Western training methods?
It’s simple: not one, not a single one, of the traditional Asian martial arts was created with modern sports competition in mind. Not one. They were all created in an environment where self defense and combat was far more important than doing three rounds in a ring. The only one that comes close is judo and I’d argue you that one on several points, but let’s not go there.
Their goals are very different from those of a modern competitor. Doesn’t it stand to reason then that their training methods are also different? Perhaps even vastly different? Combined with the fact that one small difference can change everything, it only makes sense that training methods from traditional martial arts cannot be universally applied for modern competition.
Please note that I said “competition” and not “self-defense” or “combat”. Again, it’s about specificity.
In modern competitions, there is no place for non-essential training methods. Traditional methods don’t contribute in any way that cannot be done better by a Western approach. The singular goal of sports science is improving the athletic performance of competitors and it has an impressive track record in that regard. Barring exceptions, the results aren’t all that great for traditional martial arts.
The opposite is also true: modern sports science doesn’t always offer the best advice to enhance the skills of the traditional martial artist. Simply because it operates from a radically different paradigm. What I’ve noticed is that many traditionalists use this as an excuse to discard Western science as a whole and place the Asian methods on a pedestal. I can only partly agree with this.
Lots of Asian training methods yield results, especially those geared towards long term development of specific skills. But those are typically the skills you do not necessarily need for competition. Or they take too long to develop which means you only get them after your physical prime (from a Western standpoint) when your best competitive years are over. Again, specificity: training needs to be (and usually is) specific for the goals it aims to achieve.
Then again, many of the methods in for instance Chinese styles come from a culture that for centuries has thought that eating virgin boy eggs makes you healthy or eating tiger penis cures erectile dysfunction. Those are just two examples but there are many more.
There is absolutely zero scientific evidence for these practices. As in zip, nada, none. So ask yourself: are you willing to blindly accept everything that comes out of ancient times, just because in your traditional style, “that’s how it was always done.”
Remember, the people eating all those disgusting things are using the same argument…
Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater…
Now I’m not saying you should discard traditional arts wholesale. Not in the least. I still practice those styles almost every day because they have value. What I am saying is that you could do worse than take a close look at your style and compare it to modern scientific standards. In particular in the field of human performance, there has been such gigantic progress that you’d be missing out on tons of advantages otherwise. This might be difficult to swallow for your ego and perhaps you’d rather not go there. If so, I don’t blame you but then you shouldn’t expect to reach yuor true potential in the ring or cage.
In all fairness, Western methods aren’t foolproof and they have their share of quackery too. Let me rephrase that: you find just as much nonsense in the West where fraudulent people use pseudo-science to sell things that don’t work. Remember the whole power balance craze and how numerous professional athletes bought into it? In 2010 the company lost a lawsuit and then publicly stated the following:
In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974. If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologize and offer a full refund
I’d think this makes things crystal clear yet people still buy this crap today. Why? Because just like those tiger penis eating Chinese folks, they’d rather believe in a fantasy than accept reality.
I guess it’s just human nature to want to be fooled.
I can’t make up your mind for you. If you’d rather close your eyes to certain things in both the traditional arts as well as our modern Western world, then that’s your choice. Also, I never claimed it would be easy to find your way in Western science. There’s no free lunch anywhere to be found.
My point is that you should think things through before blindly accepting anything related to martial arts, training, competing or self-defense. Because like old William said:
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Truer words were never spoken.
Resources for this post:
If you’re looking for some more information and some background to some of the things I wrote here, try these resources:
- Periodization by Tudor Bompa. A dry read but this book is worth its weight in gold.
- The Science of Martial Arts Training by Charles Staley. A good, basic work on how to train in the martial arts. A bit too much emphasis on weight training but solid information nevertheless.
- Weird Asia News Go there for a look at the culture your Asian martial art originated from. Then tell me again how you want to blindly accept anything your martial arts teachers tells you…