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4 Fitness Lessons I've Learned Through Martial Arts

Applicable to any physical activity
by Jason Tulio | Jun 25, 2017
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I’ve been involved in the martial arts in one form or another since I was 13. I’ve dabbled to various degrees in Muay Thai, Boxing, Filipino Kali, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). I’m 27 now, and I just recently got my BJJ blue belt after some years on and off the mats. Along the way, I’ve learned some tough lessons about life and fitness that are useful for whatever active venture you pursue:

Sport specificity is very real

You know how people love to say “I’m going to get fit, man!” My question is always, fit for what? To run a marathon? To swim a freestyle sprint? To impress your gym bros with your bench press? You see, “being fit” is actually a pretty vague thing. This is why the specificity of training principle exists.

In layman’s terms, to get fit for a particular sport, skill, or event, you have to actually do that activity over and over again to develop a specific fitness for it. As Vladimir Zatsiorsky outlines in his book Science and Practice of Strength Training, in order for your training to be effective, it must mimic the demands of the sport.

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I’ve learned this through some tough experiences. During my many stints away from martial arts, I would try to compensate through some form of running or weight lifting. But no amount of pavement-hitting or squats can duplicate the fitness needed to bridge a big opponent off from full mount, or to hold your hands up for three rounds of sparring. If you want to get fit for something, best believe that you have to do said thing as part of your training.

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The importance of easing into things

As I’ve mentioned, there have been stretches in my life where I wouldn’t train for some months because of one reason or another. Life happens, right? No matter what, though, the itch to train always comes back and I’d dive right back in. In my younger years, I often made the mistake of trying to train at the same intensity as when I’d stopped. Not surprisingly, this would usually lead to illness, injury, burnout, or some combination of the three. Turns out, my body had forgotten the feeling of combat sports during all that time off.


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With a tiny bit more wisdom, I’ve learned that it pays to take it easy on yourself and get back into training slowly. It’s advised in gyms everywhere to take exercise at your own pace, and it’s a good idea to listen. If you haven’t been working out in a while, pump the brakes and ease yourself back into it. If you do it right, you’ll be back to your previous level in just a short amount of time.

You see, “being fit” is actually a pretty vague thing. This is why the specificity of training principle exists

Flexibility is just as important as flex-ability

Guys love to puff their chests to prove they’re the alpha dog. It’s biological instinct, really. So it’s no surprise that lot of guys hit the gym in order to get their #swole on. In the pursuit of getting huge, one thing that a lot of guys neglect is a good stretching routine.

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In martial arts, your body’s flexibility is just as important as its strength. You could have enough weight and power to kick a horse unconscious, but it won’t amount to much if your hips are too stiff to even pull off a basic roundhouse kick. A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training shows that doing static stretches can help reduce muscle soreness, too. Which means you’ll live (and be pain-free) to fight another day.

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On any given day, there’s someone better than you

In the '80s classic The Karate Kid, a curious Daniel-san asks Mr. Miyagi what his belt is in Karate. The teacher sarcastically replies, “In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants.” What he actually meant is your true skill and spirit is determined by how you perform and carry yourself, and not by a piece of cloth tied around your waist.

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So whether it’s in martial arts or any other aspect of fitness (or life, for that matter), it pays to be humble. On the mats or in the ring, anyone can beat you on any given day. Call it luck or whatever, but it’s a good principle to always keep in mind. So don’t go bragging about that big bench press of yours, because some other guy can do that as his warm up. Stay humble, bro. It’s a good way to keep yourself focused on ways you can continue to improve.


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