Updated: Mar 20, 2020
Being both a student of martial arts and of exercise science, I have seen both sides of the argument of why weights (strength training) and traditional Kung Fu don’t mix and conversely why other athletic styles of martial arts endorse strength training.
Through my own martial arts journey I have trained in Boxing, Capoeira, and Kickboxing through my younger years, and Tong Long (Southern Preying Mantis) and now Practical Wing Chun. Through these experiences I have heard that weights will make you slow and bulky, and conversely I have heard that weights make you stronger and a better fighter. However, there was one point of view that I found that both strength coaches, and martial arts practitioners could agree on. That is fitness is vitally important.
The definition of fitness will vary depending on the individual you speak with and will likely have a different response depending on the context. In most cases, a person's definition of fitness reflects the person's desire or bias to expressing their fitness. For example, a marathon runner may express fitness as a Personal Best time on a 42km run. Or a Powerlifter may express fitness as a Personal Best Squat. For the general fitness enthusiast, they may state that they "want to get better...at everything." The martial arts or Kung Fu practitioner will wish to be able to train their art harder, faster, and longer with better technique. Whilst these definitions are correct, they may not be deep enough for the Fitness Professional or the fitness enthusiast, or in our case the Kung Fu practitioner looking to take their training to the next level.
My gym Ascension Performance Labs has a broad definition of fitness.
"Structured patterns of work/rest periods to elicit a desired response from the body."
What does this look like in a training program or protocol? The answer is limitless, and based solely on the individuals needs. Hence the multiple aforementioned definitions, and consequently why there may be biases towards how fitness can be improved/trained E.g. “lifting weights is not good for kung fu/fighting/insert style, so just go running. The goal of this article is to approach fitness with a scientific lens and explore whether lifting weights is worth it or wasteful.
Let us explore the definition of fitness a little deeper. The desired response from fitness, including strength training, is to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of a desired energy system. Energy systems provide the energy needed to by muscles for movement. The body requires energy to be in the form of Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP) in order to convert chemical energy into mechanical energy (movement). There are three main energy systems in the human body: the A-Lactic/Adenosine Tri-Phosphate Phosphocreatine (ATP-PC) or Phosphate energy system, the Glycolytic or Lactate Energy Systems, and the Glycolytic Aerobic Oxidative or Aerobic Energy System.
The Adenosine Tri-Phosphate Phosphocreatine or the Phosphate Energy System is the primary source for anaerobic training (does not use oxygen). This energy system uses three basic reactions during its processing of ATP or Adenosine
Triphosphate - the main energy source. The end result of these reactions is ATP. The way ATP is processed in these reactions result in the most explosive and powerful muscle contractions. Some examples of sports and movements could be sprints under 100 meters, discus/javelin throwing, Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, and powerful punches and kicks. These activities generally last between 1-10 seconds, which is how long the Phosphate Energy System lasts before it transfers into the next energy system.
The Glycolytic System or the Lactate Energy System is the second anaerobic system, which has events last from 10 seconds to 2-3 minutes in time.
This Energy System uses the breakdown of blood glucose and glycogen during high-intensity activities, (which is why nutrition should be a key component of your training system). Examples of these activities would include 400m or greater sprints, repeated high intensity muscle contractions like wrestling or boxing, chain punching in Wing Chun. Most people would relate to this energy system by feeling the muscles “burn”. After approximately to minutes, the force of muscle contractions drop sharply and the movements produced are transferred to the final energy system.
The Oxidative or Aerobic System has the same ability the breakdown of blood glucose and glycogen like the Lactate System, but the one big difference is the use of Oxygen. These sports or movements will last anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours. The Aerobic Energy System sustains long activities however, as time further progress the ability to produce powerful contractions is greatly diminished. With short intervals of rest, one can recover enough to produce powerful contractions once again, however returns are diminish after each bout or movement and rest.
Why is this information important? It allows us to make intelligent choices about how to improve our fitness. Improving our energy systems allows us to train, move, recover, and potentially compete at a high level. By having well-developed energy systems, our bodies become better developed to handling stress (physical and mental) and have higher, more consistent power output with our chosen activities; in our case Wing Chun.
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