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fitness level

Older to start?

I'm a little bit older but still interested in starting martial arts. My doctor says I need more exercise but I'm worried about my back. Any comments?

Many modern exercise systems can lead to overdevelopment in one area of the body to the neglect of others, and this can throw our alignment out of true. Bodybuilding, and spot exercises that focus only on attractive muscular appearance, can interfere with flexibility and be a source of repetitive stress injury. Those who have become obsessed with a flat stomach and purchased the latest abdominal exercise contraption can throw their necks or backs out of alignment due to a lack of muscular support, or aggravate problems with discs or vertebrae because of grinding or twisting in bad positions. This is most unfortunate for those who are just beginning an exercise program and have a genuine interest in getting in shape. The tendency to want to make up quickly for a long period of inactivity contributes to failure. It is important to understand how interconnected the body's muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons are, and how to train them and correct weaknesses in a gradual way.

Sedentary people have usually let their abdomens sag, and developed lower back pain because the stronger muscles of the back have contracted and tilted the pelvis down and back. Those who are more active, especially runners and cyclists for example, may feel they lack flexibility in their lower back while stretching, when in fact it is the hamstring muscles of the legs that are too tight, inhibiting the ability to bend over to touch the ground. Alignment of the pelvis and hips can often be thrown out of whack by the psoas muscles, which run from the top front of the leg through the hip to the sacrum at the base of the spine. Any of these situations can cause back or neck pain, spinal degeneration, and inhibit mobility, but are technically not conditions of the spine at all. However, long-term imbalance and misalignment can indeed cause serious problems in the spine if not addressed.

In the Eastern modality of medicine, most treatment therapies begin with regaining the proper alignment of the spine, and many methods are used to achieve this. Shiatsu (digital pressure massage) and sotai (gentle manipulation and natural exercise), for example, seek to unlock tension, rebalance the arrangement of muscles and bones, and stimulate vital energy that can aid in healing and supporting the active healthy state. Acupuncture and acupressure also work from the body's natural strengths.

Although martial training is about self-defense and prevention of injury, and does not primarily seek to be a healing art, it can be helpful in the process of recovery from injury after professional diagnosis and treatment. Because martial training incorporates evaluation and self-awareness as well as the feedback of a teacher, it blends particularly well with Eastern health practices. Their emphasis is on the body, mind, and spirit of the whole person as the basis of health, rather than the "treat the illness" point of view often found in Western medicine. Many of the modern alternative movement therapies, such as those of Feldenkrais (himself a judoka, the first black belt of Europe), borrow the simple basic exercises found in martial art training and use them, (sometimes slowed or modified for hands-on manipulation), as treatments for illness or injury.

Martial art training can be recommended as an exercise program because of its supervised, progressive approach, emphasizing good technique and correct body position. Patience, discipline, and an ability to maintain focus in the present moment assist greatly in achieving the benefits of the martial arts exercise regimen. In other sports or activities, participants can become discouraged or forced to quit if the goal orientation or competitive atmosphere does not allow for individual progress within the group. It is important that the teacher be able to assist students in evaluating what is happening with their bodies during the training process.




Training to slim down my arms

I train in karate, kobudo, kumite & cardio-kickboxing everyday. I am a 31 year old female. I am 5'3" and weigh 140lbs. My arms have become quite large as a result and I would like to slim them down. What exercises should I do? I do not want the muscle to turn into fat. - Gail, U.S.A.

First of all you should be congratulated for your energy and devotion to your training. It is quite natural that your body will undergo changes as it adapts and responds to the exercise. Initially your arms may feel larger as a result of developing muscle. If you focus on training for speed rather than strength (speed will also give you power and force), the muscle should provide shape and form to your arms, not bulk.

If you have begun this training relatively recently you may be creating muscle underneath fat that is already there thus giving the effect you describe. As you continue to train this fat will be utilized by the body as fuel, leaving you with lean and trim arms (and body).

You don't mention whether you are also lifting weights (or heavy weapons?) Lifting heavy weights rather than lighter weight with increased repetitions can also produce a similar result. Heavy bag training should also be done with speed.

Also, are you being influenced by an unrealistic and distorted "message" about how women's arms should look? Television, magazines and movies show us too many examples of sleeveless women, with no arms to speak of, who probably can't lift their own suitcase, are emaciated, unhealthy, unhappy and weak. Many other women would love to have the upper body strength you are obviously developing. If you continue your training you will develop a body that is attractive, compelling, strong and healthy in action and function.

Continue to work in your aerobic/cardiovascular training, with emphasis on fast repetitions. You will burn fat and lengthen and tone your muscle. Be attentive that in your kobudo practice you are not wielding weapons that are too heavy for this stage in your development. You may wish to consult "The Secret Art of Health & Fitness" (available in electronic version from for guidance and exercises that will "round out" your training.

Most importantly, remember that in Martial Art we are training for all the benefits it has to offer: physical, mental and spiritual. Let the changes happen. Focus on how you feel and what you can do, which is most impressive. The rest will follow. Set your sights a little further down the path and enjoy the moment you are in.





Alignment of the spine as a central issue

I'm training in kickboxing and the adult classes seem obsessed with leg stretching and cardio workouts. In conversations I've tried to discuss the importance of the alignment of the spine as a central issue, but no one seems to care. Am I alone on this?

No, you are not alone and soon or later your fellow kickboxers will join you. Every aspect of the fitness workout is important and they complement each other, but when we neglect the care of the spine it can lead to serious troubles.

As soon as someone begins to discuss backs, posture, or breathing, we all tend to sit up straighter, pull our shoulders back, and squirm in our chairs. You may well have done so when you began to read this. Although this is a good reaction generally, it does indicate that we probably were not sitting or standing properly in the first place. Inactivity, together with poor body positioning does more damage to backs and necks as we age than any vigorous activity such as heavy lifting, tennis serves, or even minor traffic accidents ever could. Although these latter are responsible for many injuries, it is notable that most of the movements that "put the back out" tend to be simple ones like bending too quickly to pick up a sock, reaching over the bed to tuck in a sheet, or lifting a suitcase out of the trunk of your car. What we often fail to realize at these moments is that the fault lies not in the actions themselves, but the neglect to which we have subjected the spinal system for years, and in some cases, whole lifetimes.

Although there are those who have been born with curvatures or anomalies, and others whose injuries have produced conditions that require special care, most of us have allowed our spines to get out of line gradually. Over time, surrounding tissues and muscles have adapted and compensated. Even when told to sit up straight we may feel in line but in fact there may be subtle bends in the spine. This can cause an unnatural movement of components such as what occurs when your car wheels are out of alignment and the tires wear unevenly. As well, when we age, the spine’s natural shock absorbers begin to lose their elasticity, and a severe jolt, especially when vertebrae are twisted out of line, can cause them to fail or break down.

Fortunately, in recent years we have come to recognize, with the help of sports physicians and movement therapists, that these defects can be avoided, and in many cases reversed, by exercise, good posture, and more respect for the framework that supports the body.

The martial artist is already toiling in this field, working away on spinal alignment whether or not he or she has ever experienced back or neck pain before. In much the same way that the students of martial art are trained in the art of breathing, they learn the art of standing and sitting correctly from the very beginning of their practice. In order to move well, the martial artist requires a body that is well tuned and in good running order, one in which reflexes, balance, strength, flexibility, and intrinsic energy are responding in harmony. This is not possible without good alignment of the spine, head, and body.

Since so much martial art training is based on the disciplined and supervised execution of good technique, it offers an excellent opportunity for the development or repair of alignment. Learning the location of your center of gravity and how to lever or rotate the body around it, is practiced from the first day, and continues to a refined subtlety at advanced levels of training. From a health and fitness point of view, elegant technique and feats of balance and agility are all in aid of a relaxed, natural stance.

Developing self-awareness, or a kinesthetic sense of where your various body parts are and how they are moving in the execution of technique, is valuable both in and outside the dojo. A martial artist requires the ability to move quickly and change direction, but also to hold his ground in a stable stance when necessary. Although these demands may seem to be contradictory, they are in fact the principles of yin and yang at work; both are needed for balanced performance.




Are the vital points only for doing damage to the human body?

Are the vital points only for doing damage to the human body?

Absolutely not. Although the vital points are recognized as areas of vulnerability they are also points of healing and invigoration. It is thought that these points allow access to the flow of Ki energy.

Vital Spots ©1999 Claudio Iedwab

Vital points for the application of techniques in the martial arts can be seen to relate to meridians and chakras. Illustration by ©1999-2012 Claudio Iedwab


It is important for us to remember that in Eastern philosophy and health practices, mind and body do not suffer from being thought of as completely distinct and different. Mind, body, and spirit are inextricably wound together when we consider the energy of ki. Moreover, the connection of the individual to the circular forces and elements at work in nature is part of this picture. These relationships are important to the study of martial arts and are revealed systematically as one’s training proceeds. By practicing the physical, and developing the connections between the conscious and unconscious, the mental and spiritual realities of this energy can begin to be understood. As the skills develop and experience grows, the ability to access and utilize these energies improves. At more advanced levels, the attention turns to ki as the primary concern of the practice, and physical technique becomes more of the consequence of the application of ki. The reaction becomes the action in this case.

Martial artists understand practically and intuitively that there is more going on in their training than merely the physical. Knowing that the human body is so fragile that it can be easily been damaged should dispel any illusions of invincibility. When practicing, emphasis is on mutual respect and care for the training partner, and this consideration for others is extended outside the walls of the dojo.

This ancient knowledge of ki is also of interest to martial artists for its own sake, with respect to personal healing, stress relief, and pain management, but also because of the relationship to vital points on the body that can be used for self-defense. There are many points which, if manipulated a certain way, can cause pleasant sensations and healing energies, but if struck or squeezed can cause pain, paralysis, or in some cases, serious injury and death. Throughout the centuries of studying these vital points, there have been various mappings, using drawings or statues, to illustrate the locations of meridians and points. Three-dimensional bronze sculptures were known to have been made as early as 1026 AD in China for the purpose of teaching acupuncture and moxibustion students.

In different geographical areas and textual renderings, the same points and their connecting meridians sometimes have different names, presumably to control dissemination of this knowledge to ensure that it was used for appropriate purposes. Certainly acupuncturists are cautioned against the use of certain points, or specific points at certain times, because of the danger of causing injury. In addition, other points were kept as secrets within the ranks of physicians and scholars of the healing and martial arts. It is thought that this knowledge of striking vital points, along with their use in grappling, was introduced in Japan by a Chinese martial artist named Chen Gen Pin who arrived in 1638. His students formed separate schools of jujutsu incorporating these techniques.

The study of vital points has captured great attention in Western martial arts literature because of the near magical powers this knowledge seems to impart to the practitioners. However, it is the use of ki energy, balancing and focus of power that pertains directly to the training process. From a health and fitness point of view, this where the real "magic" is, the area of the traditional wisdom that is of most value to modern students.

Clearly, there are many targets available on the human body, where it is weak or where vital organs can be impacted. It is interesting that in Eastern martial arts, special attention has historically been paid to locations that can also heal, and often a strike at these points causes temporary reactions such as pain, paralysis, or unconsciousness without resulting in permanent harm. Knowledge of these points is extremely useful considering the "prime directive" of self-defense, that an opportunity to escape or immobilize an attack is always the preferred strategy. The more the martial artist learns about the areas of vulnerability of the human body, the more he becomes aware of having to protect them.




Why don't we use the dominant side of the body?

Right, left, right, left . . . Why don't we use the dominant side of the body? It may cut the training time in half!

Yes, but you are just half way right. The total equation is completed when bilateral motion of the body is strongly emphasized in martial arts training. The student is discouraged from favoring his dominant side, so that equal proficiency in skills on both the left and right sides is developed. Extra attention is devoted to the weaker side, with more repetitions, resistance, or time spent working that side.

Although it is best to learn a technique on the more proficient side, when practicing one should begin and end on the other, weaker side. This is important not only to avoid displaying a weakness to an opponent, but also to maintain a balance in the strength of muscles across the pelvis, back, and shoulders that help control the alignment of the spine. We may appear to be straight on the frontal plane, and have natural curves on the lateral, but a top view might indicate a twist in the relaxed position of the pelvis or shoulders. This can inhibit flexibility, or lead to a shearing effect of the vertebrae under a load or unusual stress.

From a self-defense point of view we also have to consider the situation where an injury might prevent us from using our "better" side. Also, it is scientifically proved that practicing on the less skillful side will improve the better one directly. Think about it . . . with both sides of the brain of course. Take care.




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