“If the best in the world are stretching their ass off in order to get strong, why aren’t you?” – Christopher Sommer
One of the big differences between Wing Chun (and other Chinese fighting approaches) and sport approaches to fighting such as MMA, Boxing, and Muay Thai, is the focus on longevity.
In the UFC, Randy Couture was a phenomenon for lasting into his 40s.
The MMA approach relies on the fighter being in top physical condition (which means young). You need youth to recover from all that training, which is, like most things in the West, directed at short term gains. UFC training camps are not designed to help you reach your sixties intact; they are designed to maximize your capacity to take out a specific opponent in three months.
In Chinese martial arts, fighters can sometimes reach their fighting peak in their 50s (as was the case with Ip Man).
The ancient Chinese were always taking the long view. Practices such as Muscle/Tendon Changing (Yi Jin) and Brain/Marrow Washing (Xi Sui) Qigong (practiced since the 4th Century) were meant to be started as early as possible and practiced for life with an eye on retaining youthful capabilities well into middle age. There are many stories of the physical (and sexual!) exploits of elderly Chinese sages with rosy cheeks seducing maidens and defeating all opponents.
While some of these approaches involved rules about preserving “Jing” (sexual energy), many Qi Gong practices focused on development of the connective tissues, such as the tendons, ligaments, and joints. The Chinese sages knew about Sarcopenia (Muscle Loss With Aging) and the other ways in which the body declines over the years. Their solution was to develop the other non-muscular elements of the body, because these structures develop and decay at a slower rate than the muscles. They developed systems which promoted the investment of training hours during youth in order to collect the dividends (with interest) in middle age and beyond.
Wing Chun practices (such as stance training and the various forms, especially the pole, and Chi Sao) are known to develop Qi (circulation) and build these connective tissues. They stress the tendons and other tissues a little bit at a time and the movements also bring blood to the area to heal (and build). Similar practices are used to modify the structures of the hand (in wall bag training ) to make them ready for bare knuckle strikes to the head. Slow and progressive development of the tissues and bones are the way.
The key to these systems of development is patience. Development of the hand for striking takes at least two years (and this must be maintained). Development of the tendons takes two years just to collect the first wave of benefits.
I was very interested to find a comparable philosophy voiced by a world-class U.S. gymnastics coach in a recent interview.
Christopher Sommers spent 40 years as a USA JR National Team Coach, prepping many athletes on their way to the Olympics. In his recent interview on Tim Ferris’s podcast, he explained his approach to the development of strength.
“Most beginners want to base all their training off muscular fatigue, which is a problem. Its problematic because muscle tissue regenerates about every ninety days, from end to end, all the cells, everything’s done in ninety days. But connective tissue takes two hundred to two hundred and ten days. So we have a huge gap…I’m not a big fan of beginners training to failure, simply because their structure isn’t mature enough yet to handle it safely, and by mature I mean enough productive structured hours under their belt…the vast majority of injuries are joint related – it’s extremely rare for someone to have a muscle belly injury – it just doesn’t happen, yet their training, especially in the beginning is all skewed toward muscular development and not connective tissue development…and that’s where they get into trouble.”
He noticed the problem in himself first, after he left competitive athletics as an young man, and then saw the pattern of how it happens to everyone else.
If you are never active and never stress your system enough to develop it, you will have problems much earlier. All the problems of old age can be yours as early as your late twenties.
But even in a more active individual, who moved a lot as a kid, who played sports or did some other physical training in grade school and high school and college, their fitness was always based not only on “structured training,” such as going to the gym and lifting weights or developing skills in a sport or activity, but also on their overall activity. The benefits of movement are cumulative.
Most of us, as kids, as teens, and as young adults, we played a lot. We ran around and walked or biked everywhere. We messed around with our friends and played games. When we get our first 8+ hour a day job, most likely doing a lot of sitting or stationary standing, the play time (which involves moving in many directions, working a larger percentage of our connective tissues) goes out the window.
Many of us get into a relationship and have kids. Training is slowly or sharply reduced to just the structured training.
When I started my Master’s Degree (while also working full-time), I stopped training Wing Chun completely and replaced it with sitting down doing homework for over two years.
This is why one day you blow out your knee rounding first base at a softball game. Even if you are lucky enough or disciplined enough to have regular structured training, you’ve been developing your body in a very mono-cultural manner. You are strong in certain channels.
“When you are a kid, you get away with a lot of stupid shit,” Sommers said, because you’re a young and heal fast. As we get older, we don’t heal so fast and we are not even keeping our joints lubricated (through movement). We sit too much. What movements we do are proscribed and habitual.
And few of us play the long game. Most of us start in March to get ready for the beach in June. But if you desire lifelong health and capacity, you need to think about how you will feel in your 50s and 60s as early as possible. You want to think about how you feel tomorrow and the next day too. Training should make you feel better, not worse. No pain, no gain is a dead end.
“We get some people who are addicted to the rush. They’re addicted to the adrenaline rush, they’re addicted to laying there in a pile of sweat…they want to crawl out of the gym. The problem with that is that if you are a world class athlete, you can’t do that, cause I have to be back in the gym the next day and train again. I can’t afford to destroy myself. The Special Operations guys we work with…they’ve got to be operational and increase their performance. It’s only in beginners … they think somehow they can cheat time — and it can’t be done. Connective tissue is going to take 200 to 210 days. There’s no supplement, you can’t paint yourself blue, you can’t dance under the moon, there’s nothing you can do to speed that up. Its gonna take what it takes.”
Your body only spends resources on capabilities which are regularly used. Unused capabilities (muscle mass, tendon development, circulation) are too “expensive” and these structures will be reclaimed, i.e., metabolized.
People will often work out in a boom and bust cycle. I’ve done this myself many times. For muscle, this is not a problem. In three months, you can build muscle. But tendons and other connective tissue take years to build. They require a more gradual adaptation. You need to be careful and stress them little by little over a long period.
Sommers said that for adults (whose bodies are mature), it must often be addressed in this order: rehabilitation of mobility, then building core strength back up to basic levels, then regular strength. Then finally we can get to the “money maker” which is dynamic strength (strength in action). Sitting for years (if not decades) is debilitating. Spines are jacked up, and shoulders are malformed.
I messed up my shoulders because I used them dynamically (in Chi Sao and other activities) without carefully building the foundation first. I was in my forties but acting like I was still fifteen. When I got these little injuries, I didn’t give them time to heal and they started gathering momentum.
Most of us need to start doing some mobility work (stretching and working the joints). We need knee stability exercises. We need shoulder mobility work and slow development of the shoulder joints.
I had been doing the Convict Conditioning series over the last year. They are a series of gymnatics-like exercises using body weight which begin with movements so easy your grandmother could do them and then progress to the crazy difficult (one arm pull ups, one legged squats).
There has always been the free weights versus machines argument. The machines are less valuable (the argument goes) because they force you into a narrow pathway so you are only building that groove. Free weights require balancing and training of the nervous system. But free weights have their own grove and coloring outsides the lines (creating a moment arm with the weight, i.e., moving it too far away from your body outside the path of gravity) is very dangerous.
Body weight exercises (such as calisthenics or what Sommers has branded as Gymnastic Strength training) can work a larger degree of range of motion. One of my favorite strength training books is The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline. In it, he covers many of these same ideas. I read that book a long time ago but have only sporadically applied them to my training. Now, age is forcing me to take another harder look!
If my summary of this has aroused your interest, check out these books:
The Naked Warrior by Pavel.
Convict Conditioning (start with the easy, beginning program and slowly increase the difficulty – plan to take a few years!)