Asian Martial Arts and Western Training Methods: are they mutually exclusive?

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.

 

Conclusion

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…

Comments

  1. A little bit of a tangent on how just doing a classic martial arts form is shaping my body.

    For some years I’ve been practicing the basics of Yiquan together with the Wu Style small frame square form. This is a very yin practice and to keep up my muscle tone and to burn some calories, I supplemented this with at first weight lifting which evoved to body weight exercises and a treadmill (which was replaced with an elliptical machine after I wore it out).

    About a year ago, I decided that I needed a more yang aspect to my training so I decided to learn at least the Five Elements forms of Xingyiquan.

    I’ve always felt that our practice shapes us, and I became curious as to how this XYQ training would shape my body. I dropped the body weight exercises and elliptical altogether and the only physical stuff I do outside of my XYQ would be the normal things I do around the house (lawn care, Egyptian Pyramid slave labor project my wife thinks up for me, etc).

    I normally get results pretty quickly from exercising. I normally have big chest muscles and big biceps. I could do sit ups until the proverbial cows came home and while I would have a strong stomach, I never had a flat stomach. My thighs would be large and blocky (I can leg press a house) and would be my calves.

    After about six months of just XYQ (along with keeping up with the TJQ from and zhan zhuang), my physique has indeed changed. In fact, I think I am in the best shape I have been since my 20’s (mid 50’s now) when I trained in aikido 13 classes a week. I not only feel strong , but my stamina is as good as it’s ever been when I used a treadmill or elliptical machine religiously.

    My chest is well defined but flat, like a boxers. My biceps are still fairly big, but the quality is that my biceps are longer rather than blocky. I previously had a hard time building up my forearms, even with weights. Now (for me, anyway) my forearms are getting meaty and with a definition I’ve never approached before.

    An further interesting development is that the insides of my forearms are getting defined. That has never happened before.

    The area across my lower back that would be covered if I wore a weight belt is developing and feels like, well, a weight belt. My legs are very strong, but again the quality is not so much blocky but longer.

    I’ve lost more weight, my blood pressure, cholesterol numbers, etc. have all improved.

    I want to continue this focused kind of practice for at least a year to see how I develop, but it has been very interesting.

    • Those are some of the benefits good traditional arts offer Rick. Along with numerous others you typically don’t get form Western training methods. Again, it’s a specificity thing: different goals, different paradigms, different training methods = different results.
      What you mention is one of the reasons why I have been practicing traditional arts for the last 25 years: they work. Which should of course read “they work for what they aim to achieve” and IMO that goal isn’t modern competition.

  2. Kevin Keough says:

    Useful post Wim–thanks.

    Funny, I just assumed that reasonable people would follow along with your sensible coherent way of viewing and doing things. It works for me. I imagine you run into lots of people wedded to the traditional martial arts without better developed meta-cognitive skills (worth a discussion down the road) that would permit them to see more of the map.

    • Thanks Kevin. I meet a lot of people who seem to have been drinking the Kool aid. Maybe they just prefer the illusions that their teachers sell them, dunno.

  3. Hey Wim

    A really excellent post – thanks for writing it. I’ve often wondered about the relevant merits and de-merits of western vs asian training in martial arts.

    I’m off to read your book recommendations.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Charlie

  4. Yeap! Studying taiji to fight in a cage or studying MMA to stay healthy…
    I don’t know what to choose… :)

  5. Tiger penis does not cure erectile dysfunction?

    Damn.

  6. Interesting Wim, thanks for the thoughtful comparisons. As you say there is room for lots more. And the main issue you address is no doubt very relevant.

    In my limited experience with Western sports science (not limiting it to competition training as you have here), I have seen many cycles of popularity and fall from grace, and still do. Mostly by the time it gets to the public its just marketing and the need to always come out with a new fashion. Often it’s whatever the celebrities are doing we should do. Certainly there is wide variability in what would really apply to any given person at any given time depending on all the conflicting priorities a trainee might have (the world you professional live in).

    What I have noticed about the really good contemporary thought leaders in fitness (again, not just the martial arts competition scene) is that as they apply scientific principles to various aspects of training there is a stunning realization that that element exists somewhere in some form in the traditional Chinese tai chi training (and others probably, I don’t know). (Think wax on wax off as an example of specificity.)

    And just like with the traditional chinese training methods, it takes a wise and patient person to figure out which elements would produce which desired effects, especially with the moving target of what is nowadays called Periodization.

    Like so many other things in traditional and ancient cultures it is amazing how intuition, sensitivity and experience teaches so much, yet without the scientific method to test and sort through causes and effects the results produced include elements which eventually look silly and “obviously” in error – in health and fitness, and in martial arts competitions.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more about the fads in sports. Though I wouldn’t say this is true for sports science. The fads seem to be more prevalent at the level of athletes and salesmen instead of the scientists who do the actual studies. It wasn’t the scientists who promoted the Power Balance gizmos. In fact, they said it didn’t work. But the athletes bought them just the same.
      Have you seen the Olympics? There were tons and tons of athletes, some of the best in the world, wearing Kinesio tape. When you look at the reasearch, the picture is mixed at best. But they use it anyway… We’ll see if the fad lasts or not. For me, it offered didly squat…

      I’ve had some mixed results with traditional Asian medicine (Chinese and Indonesian). Some was very good, other things were useless. Regardless, what I wanted to point out is the total lack of scientific evidence for some of it (not all). I’m not even going to mention the quacks and frauds that most assuredly exist in the East too. And the thriving businesses they run both locally and via the internet. Let’s just say I’m very, very picky in who I go to for the stuff that I found effectiuve. Caveat emptor, which applies to lots of things in the West too. And that was also my point: otherwise rational people blatantly accept things that come from the East whereas they would dismiss them right away had the source been Western.

  7. You are right on all counts and it is fun to argue both sides of the issue whether east or west is the target.

    Wim: Couldn’t agree with you more about the fads in sports. Though I wouldn’t say this is true for sports science. The fads seem to be more prevalent at the level of athletes and salesmen instead of the scientists who do the actual studies. It wasn’t the scientists who promoted the Power Balance gizmos. In fact, they said it didn’t work. But the athletes bought them just the same.

    Well… I just blogged about an article in the June edition of the respected and peer-reviewed PM&R journal (stands for Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, the target audience is Physiatrists and other spine specialists). The article was pushing an isolation exercise that, as far as I know, falls clearly in the fad category. http://doctordilday.wordpress.com/2012/08/14/bad-news-good-news/

    Wim: Have you seen the Olympics? There were tons and tons of athletes, some of the best in the world, wearing Kinesio tape. When you look at the reasearch, the picture is mixed at best. But they use it anyway… We’ll see if the fad lasts or not. For me, it offered didly squat…

    Sometimes there are gaps in research and one has to go with “best practices” based on what evidence there is (as just one factor). It is good to remember that politics more than anything else drives research. It is also good to keep in mind that not all “research” is that good when looked at critically. (My experience with Kinesio tape was positive though I had was able to use it daily for nearly 7 months and it was combined with 3 times per week chiropractic care and cold laser. I know, daily for 7 months wasn’t how it was supposed to be used but that is a different story: what I did worked wonders.)

    Wim: I’ve had some mixed results with traditional Asian medicine (Chinese and Indonesian). Some was very good, other things were useless. Regardless, what I wanted to point out is the total lack of scientific evidence for some of it (not all). I’m not even going to mention the quacks and frauds that most assuredly exist in the East too. And the thriving businesses they run both locally and via the internet. Let’s just say I’m very, very picky in who I go to for the stuff that I found effectiuve. Caveat emptor, which applies to lots of things in the West too. And that was also my point: otherwise rational people blatantly accept things that come from the East whereas they would dismiss them right away had the source been Western.

    Point taken. And your primary point of being aware of which causes produce which effects stands. Sometimes you have to do your own thinking – which is the title to another blog post of mine which details the results of having a middle-aged, overweight, out of shape woman jump up and down off of boxes (the bright idea of her personal trainer). All the science in favor of Plyometrics couldn’t stop the inevitable in her case.

    You and I blog about these issues constantly and your clients may never fully appreciate the value you offer and all the negatives you have helped them avoid because of your experience and dedication to the art and the science of your work. They just enjoy the results they get when they follow your advice:-)

    • Dennis: “Sometimes there are gaps in research and one has to go with “best practices” based on what evidence there is (as just one factor). It is good to remember that politics more than anything else drives research. It is also good to keep in mind that not all “research” is that good when looked at critically.”

      I agree. That’s why I try to read the full papers instead of excerpts or conclusions. I don’t always have access to them but the real meat of the information is usually there, along with the context in which to place the study.
      Science isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good IMO. That said, learning how to deal with it is a science in and of itself. :-)

      Dennis: “which is the title to another blog post of mine which details the results of having a middle-aged, overweight, out of shape woman jump up and down off of boxes (the bright idea of her personal trainer). All the science in favor of Plyometrics couldn’t stop the inevitable in her case.”

      Yeah, that was smart… I’ve been getting more and more clients like that the last couple years. Some personal trainer who did a 1 week course to get an “accredited diploma” does crazy training protocols and eventually the client breaks. Then they come to me because they heard I can help them. And I get the joys of yet another uphill battle to dispel all the myths they have been fed and try to restore proper bio-mechanical function.
      I recently had a female client who’s previous trainer tried to push her into fitness competitions. When she said the weights were too heavy, he insisted. Result: one messed up knee. she came to me and when I did my initial technical assessment, I wanted to drink heavily and cry myself to sleep: atrocious form on all squats, lunges, etc. But hey, what do I know? The previous trainer works at the most expensive gym in the city and I’m just a lowly, lowly self-employed guy…

      Dennis: “They just enjoy the results they get when they follow your advice:-)”

      That’s usually the most difficult part. Like I said here above, I first have to get rid of the brainwashing they received before. I typically get the best results with clients after 3-4 months. That’s the time it takes to get them to understand what they did wrong, start ingraining proper technique and their bodies respond with good things. As in” wow, my back doesn’t hurt anymore!”. :-)

  8. Wim: Some personal trainer who did a 1 week course to get an “accredited diploma” does crazy training protocols and eventually the client breaks.

    The worst part is that I can usually tell what kind of program the guy personal trainers will put together for female clients when I see how attractive the clients are:-)

    To answer your title question, in my view “no” they are not mutually exclusive. Like mainstream medicine and traditional alternative methods one has to be suspect of all of it and as well informed as possible. Since none of us can be an expert on all things, it takes relying on the best authorities you can find. Even then it’s often a coin toss.

    It is tempting, as you point out, to accept the East because it’s the (old) East. Not a good idea. I do love though how, with practice and time, the appreciation grows for what is contained in the traditional Chinese approaches – to either health, fitness or martial art. But like raw human sewage as compost (ancient Chinese) you have to keep you eye out for the really bad ideas.

    It is also tempting to trust the Scientific method because they strive to control all the variables and arrive at hard conclusions – and they try to ask the best questions they can think of. They never control ALL the variables though, and the narrow application of science never matches exactly the individual in practice.

    For these reasons its often not a good idea to be the first to jump at the latest scientific discovery. And it’s a good idea to watch the developments (trends) in science to know when to abandon traditional practices that have not actually proven to be of great value. (Here I am thinking of the military and the boxers – in our country anyway – who are usually the last to let go of practices that are not so effective or are actually dangerous: thinking of the old-style sit ups and those toe touches that violently bend and twist the spine.)

    • Dennis:”The worst part is that I can usually tell what kind of program the guy personal trainers will put together for female clients when I see how attractive the clients are:-)”

      Boy, could I tell you stories of some of my colleagues…

      Dennis: “They never control ALL the variables though, and the narrow application of science never matches exactly the individual in practice.”

      Perhaps so but this is where I think science has one ace the traditional methods don’t have: it assumes the work is never done. Therefor it strives to continually make progress, which is something I don’t see a lot in the traditional camp.
      Also, using scientific method by default means limiting and controlling variables to avoid cognitive biases (of which there are so many we could call them Legion :-)). So I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. Whereas the traditional methods seem to embrace their biases. :-)

      Dennis:”For these reasons its often not a good idea to be the first to jump at the latest scientific discovery. And it’s a good idea to watch the developments (trends) in science to know when to abandon traditional practices that have not actually proven to be of great value.”

      I totally agree. For me, some of the most interesting studies are the ones that validate and/or try to explain things from the traditional realm. There’s some really cool stuff there.

      Dennis:”Here I am thinking of the military and the boxers – in our country anyway – who are usually the last to let go of practices that are not so effective or are actually dangerous: thinking of the old-style sit ups and those toe touches that violently bend and twist the spine.”

      Hehe. I remember doing my service and the corporal explaining that our dress changes when the platoon commander decides it is time for it. Winter begins when he says so. No matter how much we get an early frost, it’s the Summer uniform for you until he changes his mind. :-)

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