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Physical Fitness and Conditioning in Wushu

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Physical Fitness and Conditioning in Wushu: The Sport in the Sport Martial Art

Written March 28th, 2014

“Supposedly, since the 1980s, wushu programs in the professional Chinese teams have increasingly embraced sport science.  This has led to the increase of weight training, track and field training, as well as diet and recovery methods.” — Hao Li, Wushu Practitioner and Master’s Thesis Writer on Wushu (Harvard RSEA 2011) 

It is interesting to note that the connotation of the term Wushu “athlete” differentiates it from practitioners of other martial arts styles, such as “karateka” in Karate, and “judoka” in Judo.  This is due to modern Wushu’s sportive nature.  Modern Wushu, as I have defined it before, is a standardized way of teaching and practicing Chinese martial arts for sport and competitive purposes.  While I have said before in an earlier write-up, “Putting the “Shu” Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, that modern Wushu walks a fine line between the distinctions of martial arts and sport, its training and practice methods, especially at the professional competitive level, seem to define its role more as a sport.  Unlike other traditional Chinese martial arts styles, which can vary from style to style, modern Wushu is explicitly designed for athleticism.  However, this particular subject of Wushu training has rarely been discussed in-depth from a Western standpoint.  The purpose of this write-up is to analyze and critique the physical training and conditioning methods of modern Wushu.  I have observed that physical fitness and conditioning in modern Wushu training, while no doubt both distinct and difficult at a competitive and professional level, overlooks many other aspects of fitness that can be improved upon.  As such, I will break down my analysis of modern Wushu fitness and conditioning into three different areas concerning cardiovascular, muscular, and diet aspects.

Before I begin, I would like to preface this by saying that in no way am I an expert on this subject.  I am by no means a certified physical therapist or fitness instructor, nor do I possess any sort of educational degree, doctorate, or PhD in Physical Education.  Rather, I am only attempting to shed some light on a rarely discussed topic, relying on my own personal experience and observations with competitive Wushu training, as well as with research, albeit limited.

As a sport, modern Wushu has been standardized into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms) and Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), also known as Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand).  Professional athletes who train under the modern Wushu umbrella typically specialize in only one discipline or the other for competition.  This write-up will cover both disciplines of Taolu and Sanshou, but will mostly address Taolu, due to its more specific nature.

When the term cardiovascular, better known by its shorthand term “cardio,” is mentioned in the context of training, people often refer to the category of aerobic cardio, where oxygen and breathing is actively employed, without considering its counterpart, “anaerobic cardio,” where there is an absence of a steady, endurance-based state.  For those who are not familiar with these concepts, examples of aerobic exercises are those that require the use of oxygen and stamina over long and consistent periods of time, such as long distance running, biking, swimming and the like, whereas anaerobic exercises are concerned with high-intensity activity over a shorter period of time, such as sprinting and resistance training.  One of the misconceptions of modern Wushu training is that because it requires a great degree of physical stamina, it is aerobic in nature.  However, this is not true.  Naturally, there is a strong emphasis on cardio, both in Taolu and Sanshou.  In fact, it can be said that cardiovascular fitness supersedes muscular fitness in general for martial arts.  In Taolu, the majority of the forms events are optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual).  These events are focused on routines which are performed by a singular athlete, and required by regulation to last only a minute and twenty seconds in duration, and no less.  An exception to this rule is the competition style of Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) routines, which usually last over five minutes.  Compared to other sports martial arts disciplines, such as Karate, this is considerably short for a kata (形; Karate forms) performance.  In such a short time, optional Taolu routines require short bursts of energy throughout, rather than a continuous output of energy.  Therefore, it can be said that modern Wushu is in fact anaerobic by definition, not aerobic.  Thus, Wushu is not necessarily your average physical activity, because elite overall performance is required at competitive levels.  Practicing Taolu does not simply require maintaining a consistency of speed and power of a long period of time; it requires a high amount of energy pulsated over a relatively short duration.

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While this is not to say that aerobic training is absent in either of the modern Wushu disciplines, it is simply not emphasized conceptually, which, in terms of evaluating overall physical fitness, may be a huge flaw in athletic training.  The lack of aerobic cardio also results in a lack of the conventional stamina that athletes from other sports such as track and field are known for.  Traditional Chinese martial arts styles are not subject to this limitation.  Styles like Taijiquan and Hung Gar (Tiger Crane), which are not restricted by specific competition rules and standards, have traditional routines that can be practiced over the course of thirty minutes or more.  Because modern Wushu training is so specific, there is little room for the abundance of aerobic conditioning in proper competitive training.  On top of this, Taolu can be said to be a finesse sport, because in competition, especially at a professional level, Wushu techniques and movements must be performed with great specificity to be judged as technically compliant.  The intense nature of anaerobic activities, including Wushu, can be physically draining, leaving athletes with the inherent danger of muscle fatigue, and elevated risks of injury if pushed beyond one’s physical limits.  Proper technique and posture are usually the first things sacrificed when an athlete experiences physical fatigue, because the muscles experience exhaustion and are no longer able to perform at the desired skill level or intensity.  Without awareness of how far one can physically go in an intense workout, injuries can, and do, occur frequently due to resultant exhaustion without adequate physical recovery.

In Sanda, standardized matches occur within two minutes, and are usually determined from two out of three rounds by decision, unless either the match goes to a third round in the event of a tie, or a knockout, severe injury, or disqualification of some sort occurs.  Compared to other combat sports, such as boxing and kickboxing, Sanda matches are relatively short, even without considering the minimal number of rounds and duration.  Sanda training is divided into four general elements of fighting, as covered in Chinese martial arts training: kicking (踢; tī), punching (打; dǎ), takedowns (摔; shuāi), and grappling (拿; ná), with grappling prohibited for safety reasons.  All of these aspects of sparring are designed for quick exchanges, on top of such a short time span; as soon as either a takedown or three-second clinch occurs, or one of the fighters falls, the match is reset to stand-up positions to keep the fight going at a fast pace.  So, much like Taolu, Sanda training is anaerobic as well.  By contrast, other combat sport disciplines such as boxing require a combination of aerobic and anaerobic training, in order to address the need for consistent physical shape over the long course of the fight, and the quick escalations that can happen during close exchanges.

This difference in format results in a difference in training, which may be seen as a shortcoming in Sanda fighters when matched up with other kickboxing stylists.  Whereas the conditioning for Taolu is very specific, the fact that Sanda’s competition format falls into the full-contact realm of combat sports makes it more comparable to other ringed sports.  The shorter nature of matches leaves Sanda athletes at a disadvantage, because when matched up against kickboxing stylists conditioned for a longer bout, they have a dangerous tendency to be gassed, and thus unable to fight properly.  By overlooking aerobic cardio training, stamina in the long run is neglected, and athletes who are faced with physical activity for longer periods of time end up paying for it dearly.

The central approach to solving this general flaw in modern Wushu training is to not only be aware of aerobic cardio training in addition to anaerobic cardio, but to also incorporate it for better fitness overall.  Since competitive Wushu training is so specific towards the goals and time requirements of the competition, the simple addition of abundant aerobics on top of an already exhaustive anaerobic workload is not the best option.  However, incremental incorporation of aerobic training, namely during the off-season allows for improved athleticism, which improves general stamina across all fields of physical activity.  This will allow athletes to not only be better prepared for previous levels of fatigue and exhaustion, but also become more skillful and robust athletes in general.

In terms of muscular fitness, Wushu can be said to be quite lacking.  Like many traditional Chinese martial arts styles, modern Wushu is not known for its emphasis on muscle mass and density.  In fact, it is a well established fact that Wushu’s most fundamental requirement for almost all its movements, as with most traditional East Asian martial arts styles, is flexibility.  But arguably the most valued physical aspect in Wushu is explosiveness, which correlates with looseness, body mechanics and physics, not muscle strength.  Part of Wushu’s lack of the muscular aspect of training, at least in the Western sense, may be due to the fact that during the sport’s development, modern sports science was not as comprehensive in China as it was in the rest of the world.

An interview, “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words”, by Mastering WUSHU details Zhao’s experience in his competitive career as a reigning champion and Wushu legend.  On the topic of supplementary training for Wushu, Zhao recalls that, “Each week we would include two sessions that were mostly supplementary training to build up our physical strength.  We did many exercises like squats with and without lifting weights, one-legged squats, long-distance running, short distance running, frog jumping, sprints, etc.”  Here, it is important to recognize that while supplementary training and conditioning is no doubt important, as Zhao himself says, it is still just that; supplementary in nature.  Strength and conditioning is no doubt important for Wushu, but because the practice of Wushu is so specific to Wushu itself, the actual practicing of Wushu movements and techniques is most important.

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A Kung Fu Magazine article “A Real Karate Kid: Hasan Rucker” recounts the eponymous Rucker’s experience training at the Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy in Xi’an, China.  Regarding the development of sports science at the time, Rucker said, “‘They knew little about weight training.  They had some equipment, but it went unused.’”  Up to the 20th century, China’s combination of state implemented programs, including modern Wushu, with the study of Western training methods was limited compared to other countries.  As China’s understanding of sport science has increased, so has general awareness of physical fitness, including areas such as weight training and plyometrics.  Athletes and coaches now have a better understanding of athletic fitness, compared to thirty years ago.  This in turn raised the standards of athleticism in modern Wushu.

However, this is not to say that there was no degree of muscle strength in Wushu training to begin with.  Well-known exercises in Wushu conditioning include v-ups, back crunches and frog jumps, and calf raises.  As these exercises suggest, Wushu training specifically targets the muscle groups in the midsection, the core muscles such as the abdominals and lower back, and the big lower body muscles, namely the quadriceps (thighs) and gastrocnemiuses (calves).  For Taolu, this addresses the basic strength needed for jumps, leaps, high kicks, deep stances, and running movements, especially in modern Wushu’s primary competition style of Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist).  Almost little to no time is spent emphasizing muscle strength in the upper body for Taolu.  Rather, any techniques or movements that engage the upper body rely on looseness, and acceleration from one position to the next to achieve the aforementioned explosiveness valued in Wushu.  The most popular of calisthenics, the push-up, while existent in Wushu training, is not prioritized in conditioning, because it is more a measure of muscle strength and endurance, rather than explosive strength.  An exception to this lack of upper body training in modern Wushu is the style of Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist).  The prevalence of arm techniques such as paoquan (抛拳; pāoquán, swinging uppercut fist) and guagaiquan (挂盖拳; guàgàiquán, swinging overhead fists) require extensive use of the deltoid (shoulder) muscles, and for this reason upper body training is more of a priority in conditioning for Nanquan.  Sanda, for obvious reasons, requires a greater degree of lifting and upper body training, because of its own emphasis on takedowns.  The inclusion of boxing techniques also requires exercises that target the pectorals (chest), triceps, deltoids, various back muscles, and rotator cuffs.

Another misconception about modern Wushu’s athleticism is that all modern Wushu athletes have sculpted bodies.  Not only is this observation a generalization, it detracts from what is really important in training.   It is important to understand that while having a beach body is undeniably a plus in fitness, it is a byproduct of the physical training endured for Wushu, not an end in and of itself.  Athletes should ideally be more concerned about how to utilize their bodies in the ways that they are required to train, rather than how good they look.

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Diet is perhaps the most unclear aspect of training in Wushu.  Before I continue discussing diet, I would like to be clear about what context I am using the term “diet” under.  By diet, I simply mean what one normally consumes, as in dietary habits, NOT the restriction of certain foods, as in “going on a diet.”  When people go on a restrictive diet, many make the mistake of only consuming certain foods for specific nutritional content, or lack thereof, to the complete exclusion of all other nutrients.  Thus, they overlook their need for other equally important nutrients that are not explicitly mentioned in their meal plan, which can be detrimental.  Popular fitness trends like “no fats” or “no sugars”, are simplistic in approach, and can even further malnourish one’s health.  After all, the body has a natural need of fats and sugars to function, just not in excessive amounts.  This means that completely cutting off foods you naturally need to consume are not good, but that you shouldn’t be living on a daily diet of McDonald’s either.  There are no clear rules to follow on what to eat and what not to eat.  Thus, what exactly athletes choose to eat seems to depend on the individual.  This may be because the diet area of fitness is not as valued as much as those areas that directly relate to the practice of Wushu, such as the aforementioned cardio and strength training.  While the things that we put into our bodies, and the way they are processed are important to consider, they are not as important as the direct training of Wushu itself.  The only general guideline heard of is the need for protein and adequate recovery after training.  An anecdote of Jet Li tells about how his coach, Wu Bin, would come to his house and bring meat to his family’s household, due to Li’s malnourishment during his competitive training.  In general, athletes have been known to consume copious amounts of meat during competitive training.  This is in direct contrast to those that train directly inside the Shaolin Temple, who live off a vegetarian diet.

Another aspect of diet that is overlooked in Wushu training is the inclusion of calcium and vitamin D.  This applies to both Taolu and Sanda.  An ironic observation that has been made is that despite the fact that Taolu is not in the same league of contact as Sanda, Taolu athletes are at even greater risk of injury on the basis of physical impact that the body endures.  This is because of high risk of injury during the execution of certain movements, namely jumps with various landings that, if not trained properly, can negatively impact areas such as the tibia (shin bones).  The physics of the body absorbing force upon landing on the ground, combined with frequent and intense training on a competitive level, can result in chronic injuries like shin splints and tendonitis, and to an even more dangerous degree, tendon ruptures and stress fractures, all of which can partially stem from weak bones and subsequent lack of nutrition.

Sanda, while not subject to the same specific risks of Taolu training, can still face similar and more frequent injuries, if the body lacks proper strength from conditioning and nutrition.  Like other kickboxing styles, full-contact sparring in Sanda is open to unpredictable physical contact, which also frequently involves the shin, either through kicks or leg checks.  Muay Thai fighters in Thailand, who are renowned for their vicious “Thai (round) kick”, have their tough and powerful shins attributed to hard conditioning, not unlike the conditioning methods of various traditional external Chinese martial arts styles (外家拳; wàijiāquán).  However, for those of us who do not have access or knowledge to such hard conditioning methods, we must turn to other areas of fitness and conditioning, such as diet and nutrition.  The inclusion of calcium and vitamin D in a well-balanced diet can strengthen and increase bone density, and thus better prepare the body for physical contact on a skeletal level.  Again, while diet is not a central part of Wushu training, it can, and does play a role in the general strength and health of the body, especially when it comes to dealing with the physical work and stress it is put through.

In summary, modern Wushu training alone is very difficult at a competitive level, but as it is, it is currently not ideal for general athletics.  But by balancing out our training in the three areas of fitness discussed, cardiovascular, muscular, and diet, physical fitness and conditioning can improve.  Again, while I am still of the opinion that modern Wushu lies somewhere between martial arts and sport, its development in sports is just as crucial as its development from traditional Chinese martial arts.  Better awareness and application of sport science is something that can help further escalate the athleticism of modern Wushu to the league of other sports.

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