Spicing Up Fitness with Martial Arts Moves

Ancient combat techniques improve strength, stamina, reflexes and coordination

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Nina RadhaKrishna and Hari-Om RadhaKrishna of Ashland practice with kali sticks. Photography by David Gibb.

If boring old bicep curls have you making excuses to skip the gym, some local fitness trainers believe the integration of martial arts moves can reshape and reenergize workouts. Best known as formal disciplines used for self-defense, many techniques utilized on a more casual basis can achieve a variety of physical and mental benefits.

“When it comes to fitness there are so many options available,” says Peter Wolf, a martial arts practitioner and personal trainer. “It comes down to your personal goals and what you actually have time for. If you’re not willing to spend hours at the gym, you need to get the maximum results during the time you do spend exercising.”

Martial arts styles, such as judo, karate and kendo, were originally developed as a system of combat moves. The various disciplines, many originating in Asia, are generally broken into striking or stand-up styles, grappling or ground fighting, throwing or take-down moves, weapons-based or more meditative practices like tai chi.

“Use only that which works and take it from any place you can find it.”

Bruce Lee

Wolf, whose life-long passion for martial arts took him all the way to China for training, says that in terms of fitness, he uses moves from a variety of disciplines without the strict formality of the individual styles. “You use it for inspiration, but since this is not a formal martial arts class, you don’t have to worry about belt rankings or obey tradition quite so much.”

Wolf admits that from a trainer’s point of view, it’s a lot more interesting than just counting repetitions, and it has proven to be “fun with benefits” for his clients at Steelhead Crossfit gym, Superior Athletic Club and Soul Shine Yoga in Medford.

Although highly-trained martial artists can be violent, even deadly, as portrayed by Hollywood greats like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chuck Norris, personal trainer Michael Sotos says, “In this setting, we’re not talking about sparring and hitting each other. This is more about using the martial arts for fitness, but I do believe people get some self-defense training out of it. You can’t help but gain self-confidence and an improved sense of personal safety from practicing these techniques.”

Sotos, who owns Rogue Valley Strength & Conditioning in Ashland, uses martial arts moves with at least 75% of his clients. “There are so many choices and each style has its own emphasis. I might use movements from the Brazilian jiu-jitsu during warmups or add Filipino fighting stick drills to the workout, which I equate to turbocharged boxing.”

When using “kali” sticks, two people get into a karate “horse stance” with a stick in each hand, Sotos explains. “Each one turns the stick in a circular motion, hitting the sticks against each other in a particular pattern. There’s a rhythm to it, almost like a kind of drumming. It takes total focus and concentration, so it can be mentally challenging to have a stick coming at you and having to react in a defensive move. It sounds easy, but it can get complicated. We just tap the sticks and never do it hard enough for someone to get hurt, but there are times when a misplaced stick can rap a knuckle or land on fingers. It’s great for the reflexes and it keeps you on your toes.”

Though Wolf is a longtime user of martial arts for fitness, he says incorporating some of the traditional weapons practice is a somewhat newer trend. “What you’re getting out of the weapons training is grip strength, shoulder mobility, core strength and balance. Plus, it’s really fun to hit things. It takes the student’s mind away from the fact that it’s work.”

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

-Bruce Lee

Martial arts drills are all about sensory input, Wolf explains. “You’re going to look, touch and feel, get some push and pull, which means more stimulation overall. You might do a simple plank, which doesn’t stimulate the brain by just holding that position. But when you pop right up and do some punching drills, it becomes more functional as you’re twisting your body and hitting things. There’s a naturalness to throwing and swinging. It can be very cathartic to let go and punch something.”

Research indicates there are neurological benefits from rhythmic motions, crossing the body’s center and practicing hand-eye coordination, Sotos says. “I recently saw a video about how they were using boxing for therapy with patients who had Parkinson’s disease, and other research shows that tai chi, kung fu and boxing improves functional capacity, coordination, timing, flexibility and balance, which helps reduce incidents of falling.”

Boxing is a favorite of both trainers and clients, Wolf says. “I like to bring in simple boxing combinations like jabs, cross and hooks that we can do on the mats as shadow boxing, or use against the bags because it causes lateral movement. When you use the cross, that’s crossing the center line, shifting your weight, and that is what’s so good for the brain. It improves coordination and balance. The same thing happens when you bring in the kali sticks and use them in those crossing movements.”

Though many of the benefits are physical, Wolf says, “In martial arts, it’s about owning the movement, getting a better sense of self and feeling more confident, which brings an overall sense of well-being. I feel that as trainers, we’re using the fun stuff in martial arts without the formal trappings. We give a light touch to some of the philosophical aspects and hope some life lessons might trickle through during training sessions, like don’t beat people up, and that your strength has a purpose, so use it wisely.”

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More to Explore

Choose your weapons

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Though it may seem like a primitive form of combat, martial arts weapons training challenges all components of fitness, like reaction time, speed, power, endurance and balance. It promotes joint mobility in shoulders, elbows, hips and knees, which are key to attaining other fitness goals like agility, flexibility and strength. Most importantly, it is fun and mentally stimulating.

Stick Fighting

Kali sticks, popular in Filipino martial arts practices, are slender lengths of lightweight and durable rattan measuring approximately 26 inches in length. Double stick sparring practice is aerobically challenging because of the weight of the two sticks and the degree of coordination required to execute the intricate geometric patterns used to teach fighters various angles of attack, deflections, traps and passes at different ranges.

Indian Club Swinging

Indian clubs, or meels, are bowling-pin shaped wooden clubs of varying sizes and weights, ranging from a few pounds up to 50 pounds each. They are swung in choreographed routines that utilize flowing circular patterns and the figure-eight motions. The routines vary according to the practitioner’s ability and the weight of the club. As its name implies, Indian club swinging originated in India where the war club was a feared weapon during ancient times.

Heavy Mace

The gada, or heavy mace, was the weapon of choice of Hindu warriors over 2,000 years ago. Primitive versions consisted of a heavy stone with a hole in the middle secured to a length of bamboo. Today, a mace can be a steel ball secured to the end of a shaft, a cement ball on a bamboo pole, gym weights at one end of a barbell, or even a heavy bowling ball attached to the end of a copper or steel pipe. However, it is fashioned, swinging the gada or mace is a whole body workout that strengthens the torso, shoulders, forearms and grip. Popular exercises with the mace are the 360 swing, which works the shoulders, chest, back and forearms, the barbarian squat, the dynamic curl and the spear stab.


Photo: John Doty (left) Michael Sotos (center) and Nina RadhaKrishna 

Fitness not fighting

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“In this setting, we’re using martial arts for fitness. We’re not talking about sparring and hitting each other.”

-Michael Sotos, martial artist, personal trainer, owner of Rogue Valley Strength & Conditioning



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