Qualified Personal Trainer

The Many Benefits of Martial Arts on Health, Fitness, and Well-Being

Chris Berardi
Chris Berardi
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Chris has been a world-renowned burlesque performer and pianist under the pseudonym "Chrys Columbine" for over twelve years, the owner of a piano academy, and has been a personal and online trainer since 2018 when she qualified as a Level 2, and Level 3 Personal Trainer with Premier Global NASM. 

Her love for Martial arts, namely Karate has been around since childhood when she trained with Phoenix Karate of North London, working through the various belts and competing. 

Let's learn a little bit more about martial arts and her story. 

Her Love for Karate

Although like most sporty children, much of the hardcore training went out the window, but in 2016, after years of touring the world's stages, and frankly, being tired from it, she got in touch with her childhood sensei Kingsley Johnson and re-initiated her journey as a Karate practitioner. Almost every Martial artist will relate that the study of it IS in fact, a lifelong journey.

Her love for karate, various sports and gym or outdoor training; added to that, the benefits she found to her mental wellbeing, compelled her to try and help others reach their health and fitness goals. She strongly believes one should primarily train for their long-term health, and that physiological aesthetics as great as they are, should be looked at as a desirable side-effect. Martial arts does both of these things.

In the first instance, the many wonderful styles and forms of Martial arts will have many of the health and strength benefits I will describe below, but since I am a Karate practitioner I will refer to the exercise terms as they appear in Karate.

"My arms aren't strong enough"... "I don't have powerful legs"... are two of the most common misconceptions I have heard from friends and clients, when trying to encourage them to give Martial arts (or boxing) a go. Whilst punching and kicking are two vital forms of movement, we know that 1) they aren't the sole movements, 2) nor are they solely powered by the limbs themselves. 

Exaggerated perceptions of martial arts

There is another, sometimes exaggerated, perception. People often believe that martial artists go straight in for an all-in attack, like a Marvel superhero overreacting on an off-day, charging in empty-handed (as the word "karate" literally means Empty Hand in Japanese) with nothing but their fists.

 In fact, one of the primary goals of the Martial arts is not to attack, but to avoid/deflect an attack and when necessary, defend the attack with the also all-important blocking or avoidance techniques. 

Both blocking and striking (whatever the choice of limb) require solid balance and coordination powered by both mind and body, and the training to achieve that balance can have an incredibly positive effect on one's proprioception, reflexes and mental health (focus and sharpness). 

CORE Benefits of martial arts

Both upper and lower body movements are powered by both absolute core strength and core stability. 

Your solid, braced abdominal muscles give you that power from pushing your feet into the ground, to fuel that rising-block that can deflect the harshest of attacks coming at you. You are able to execute a perfect maegeri (front snap-kick) with maximally squeezed, powerfully-thrust gluteals. It is that blessed hip-rotation that makes for a very effective hijiate (elbow-strike). 

Core strength and stability keeps us rooted in the ground with our various stances, so that we can deflect from, and/or defend against any potential attack (whether in the ring or in real life) without at worst, being knocked down, or at mildest, wobbling to the side like a teenage girl rather ungracefully learning to walk in heels (the type of teenager that I for sure, could have been described as). 

Martial arts is almost-always guaranteed to be one of the most complete, full-body AND bodyweight workouts you can embark upon, including being a formidable boost to anyone's cardio-vascular fitness and flexibility. 

The strength and endurance requisites to hold the various stances for example, a "shiko-datchi or "square" stand /stance" (which is quintessentially, a squat held for a sometimes-uncomfortable length of time); or the recruiting of various muscle groups and balance required for kicking with your front foot and straight-away reverse-punching whilst keeping hips and shoulders square, makes Martial arts, an ultimate "multi-tasker" of a fitness program.

ALL-aROUND WORKOUT

 In a nutshell, it involves and reinforces the workings of several muscle groups, to work accordingly with each other... After my years of the trying (and, at times, failing at) various sports as a child and until today -  Martial arts are, in my opinion, the ultimate "All-In-One" workout.

Martial arts complement and reinforce the workings of different muscle groups; therefore a training session can well be looked at as a huge realm of compound exercises. 

Muscle groups and exercises targeted with martial arts

Just take a look at some of the primary muscles used in the upper body - biceps, triceps, pectorals, deltoids, rhomboids, and trapezius. And the lower body - muscles of the calve (gastrocnemius, soleus, tibialis anterior, extensor hallucis longus) gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and the major muscles of the hip (including the deep six lateral hip rotators).

The auxiliary muscles are the Serratus anterior (a key muscle for example, that aids the force of a punch by protracting the scapula), hamstring complex (lengthening under tension whilst supporting the leg during a kick) rectus abdominus, obliques, and lattissimus dorsi (which when contracted, keeps the arms and elbows to the sides of your body without "areoplaning out", and keeping shoulders down, not "mountain-peaking" up). 

So, let me list some of the exercises that may recruit these muscles groups: 

- push-ups (fig. 1)

pushup

- pull-ups

- tricep-dips

- hand-walk-outs

- shoulder-taps (fig. 2)

 shoulder-taps

- squats

- lunges (fig. 3)

lunges

- wall-sits ( as little as 1-to-2-minutes)

.... and a compendium of core-floor or abdominal exercises as simple as the 

- bird-dog

- dead-bug

- abs-scissors (fig.4)

 ab-scissors

- reverse crunch or the many wonderful plank-variations that exist

plank-picture

And for so many of you whose multi-tasking lives may sometimes inhibit you from travelling to and from a gym... you can do these exercises anywhere. Martial arts training  really is an anytime, anywhere-type workout (and yes, if you are stuck in flight-transit and lose track of your time zone, provided you have had enough sleep, you can even do these workouts in an airport lounge).

the CARDIOVASCULAR benefits of martial arts

Martial arts is a great way of honing down decent cardiovascular and heart health, right from the get-go. Never mind the light, springy foot-work often reminiscent of gymnast/ballet-like agility (note, "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee") which can sometimes seem to last for hours during a sparring session... The warm-up itself usually consists of a light jog around the Dojo (martial arts training room), a set of light-footed jumping-jacks alternating with not-so-heavy burpees.

The practising of stances in all three planes of motions, often moving forwards, backwards and sideways and the swift pivots required to navigate these movements, all create a continuous pace which raises your heart-rate at a steady, sustained level. This increases your heart's efficiency at pumping blood around the body. Added to that the sometimes-ongoing punch and kick drills, and the practising of "kata" or "form", over and over again for minutes OR hours means you are, by far, getting your aerobic-workout box ticked. 

FLEXIBILITY AND THE CORRECTION OF MUSCULAR IMBALANCES 

Flexibility is not simply about executing a Streetfighter-style jumping front-kick, or a flying kick aimed at someone of Colossus's (of X-Men) height, although obviously, we do need to regularly stretch (to the point of reaching the split-position to achieve the high kicks - figures 6 and 7).

splits

We are all becoming more and more aware of the benefits of stretching, the vital importance of being able to carry our joints through full range-of-motion, and about how maintaining decent flexibility throughout our lives can help us in our later years - making bending an easy endeavor.

What we as sports and fitness practitioners should always have at the forefront of our heads is that stretching is a vital part of ANY workout to prevent injury and physically-inhibiting states of anatomy later in life. We are taught in Martial arts the importance of stretching and joint-mobility throughout our training sessions.

The dynamic flexibility such as swinging-arm over-head squats initially, and the held static-stretching positions to close the sessions, such as gastrocnemius  - leaning against the wall with one leg in front of the other.

OR one leg bent on a raised platform while calf is stretched out, quadraceps via  "the pigeon" (vital for hip-flexors, deep hip-rotators and sciatic nerve) and lifting the back leg up, hamstrings via sitting with both legs out in front and grabbing toes, adductors and groin maintenance via  "box-splits" position with elbows places on the ground in front. These are just some of the best of the miscellany of stretches that marry with Martial arts.

On a final note... lest we forget that we are no longer cave creatures who squat around a fire or run around hunting or gathering for food (well, unless we are at an odd, nerdy re-enactment or cosplay event).

Most of us drive or ride to work, the shops, the park, the gym even... we have work where we are sat, and our hip-flexors are tight, and what-should-be-some-of-our-strongest muscles, our glueteals, are "reciprocally inhibited" or, in layman’s terms, relaxed and in a weakened state. Stretching those hip-flexors will give you more room to develop those wall-sits, which in turn will strengthen the hip-abductors and wake up those glutes from a constant-lazy-Sunday state."

MARTIAL ARTS AND MENTAL HEALTH

In today's technologically-overtaken world where computer games are inundated with characters who, when not using machine-guns and mortars, blast out double-jabs and flying-kicks to defeat aliens and zombies; where action, sci-fi and fantasy often have grandiose displays of fight choreography (I am not saying I do not enjoy them); and where live and/or televised MMA fights are often preceded by press conferences involving a staged "gas-lighting" or "slagging" match between the fighters - it can be worryingly easy to forget the root of the mind-set behind the martials arts. 

A true martial arts practitioner will tell you that the first and foremost rule is to refrain from violent behaviour, to create a state of inner-peace from the inside-out which will hopefully be of some help to those around them, and to ONLY use their fighting techniques in self-defence, or when protecting others. 

The physical techniques themselves and the execution of them or "kime", the posture or "kamae" required for maximal force and neuromuscular control, the application of minute details to maintain the safety of limbs and bones, such as making sure elbows or thumbs are tucked in, and breathing technique (as, of course, we all have to check ourselves at times and our clients, when training )  - ALL of these require maximal concentration, for our minds to be empty of everything else and to be fully focused and present! 

"In essence, the body remembers how to move and the mind remembers how to be still” - Japan Karate Association

Which is why Martial arts practitioners often meditate to practise the state of emptying their minds. And, as with all physical training, our minds should be precisely focussed on the exercises themselves, rather than what we are going to have for dinner later that day, or whether or not we will file our Companies House tax form in time. 

The word "karate" means "empty-handed"... not only is this taken in the literal sense, but our minds too are meant to be empty  - no, NOT empty-headed in trad-colloquial sense, but empty or rather, free - free from negativity and toxicity. 

Concluding thoughts

This global pandemic has been a unique period in history, unlike any other. Fear and doubt about how the future of even the simplest of daily activities has, almost certainly, crossed most of our paths. During the lockdown I believe that for many of us our "saving grace" has been to stay as physically strong as possible in order to feel that mentally we are fit to deal with anything life catapults at us. Many of us who guide or teach others have also, I am sure, been communicating to our clients (whether they were virtually with us or not) the importance of maintaining their health and wellbeing through one of the most testing times ever.

My karate training (both with my Sensei Kingsley Johnson of Phoenix Karate, and alone in the front room, garden or secluded park), has sky-rocketed. I have come out the other side like Rocket Racoon, ready to blast out with full speed and power, and feel ready to undertake NASM's MMA Conditioning Specialist course which I have been waiting to start for some time to make sure I further develop my Martial arts knowledge. 

All of which makes me believe that through adherence to my regimes, and by the application of some discipline, I have come through lockdown with both my mind and body in pretty good shape, and I hope I will come out of this being of even more use and help to my clients. 

If you are interested in more information and posts on fitness and Martial arts, please visit my website http://ccacademy.fitness/ and also follow me on Instagram @chryscolumbine

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Chris Berardi

Chris Berardi