Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What's Old is New Again! Ancient Strength Training Methods are Making a Comeback!

The latest and one of the greatest additions to my martial arts library.

In recent years, we’ve seen a move away from all the modern muscle-building methods and machines back to old-time strongman-type training. Iron boots, kettle bells, Indian clubs and anchor chains are taking their place in health clubs alongside Nautilus and Universal Machines.

What's old is new again! Old-fashioned strength training exercises like Indian clubs (above) and kettlebells (below) are making a comeback, even turning up in modern health clubs and gyms.

We’re also seeing a return to exercises that require little or no equipment, like the old-fashioned pushups, squats, planks (or as I used to call them, “gutbusters”) and lunges.

Modern athletes and fitness buffs are learning something from the old “physical culture” training methods made popular in the early 20th Century - namely, the value of “functional strength".

Modern methods of training do produce strength, but folks are learning that’s it not a coordinated strength. When using a Pec-Deck at the local health club, you build a nice set of pectoral muscles. Then you move onto another
machine that builds the shoulders. Then onto some contraption that develops the triceps.

Much modern fitness equipment is great at isolating muscles, like this pec-deck. (See above). But isolating muscles doesn't build a coordinated strength that is needed for sports or martial arts.

But the trouble is that you’re not learning to use your muscles together, to coordinate everything in a unit. Which is why bodybuilders, though strong, are not able to generate the power needed to perform specific athletic feats, like jumping, throwing, clim
bing, wrestling or boxing.

I was turned onto bodybuilding and weight training in seventh grade, inspired by the movie, “Pumping Iron” and by my health teacher, former Mr. Universe, Mike Katz. I’d also cross-trained in various martial arts throughout my teen years, which I found helped me to coordinate the strength I developed from weights.

Mike Katz, former Mr. Connecticut, Mr. America and Mr. Universe. As my junior high school health teacher, he was also my inspiration to hit the weights.

Though weights were my preferred way of training, I also loved to hit the heavy bag, the makiwara and use various weapons, like swords, sais, staves and that mainstay of every teen thug's karate arsenal, the nunchaku. Through those tools and the practice of kata/hyungs/kuens, jujitsu wazas (two-man drills) and karate-style free-sparring, I helped to round out my training.

As I got older, I came to enjoy straight weight-lifting less and le
ss. I wasn't exceeding in martial arts the way I wanted. When I was banged up and had my ass handed to me by two junior classmates during a tournament, I realized that something had to change if I was to continue as a martial artist.

Following some time off, I returned to the basics. Four years of chronic underemployment after college gave me a lot of free time to re-examine what I'd learned about martial arts and physical fitness. I soon learned to place more emphasis on trainin
g methods that related directly to martial arts training, including: sheer repetition of basic techniques; developing my own sparring combinations; hitting the bag and the makiwara; practicing judo and jujitsu throws by tying an obi (karate belt) around a tree.

I used do this type of training with my obi (belt) tied around a tree. I have to try it with inner-tubes when I get the chance.

During this time, I also discovered old fashioned Iron Palm training, using makiwaras, sandbags, heavy bags, buckets filled with dried beans and rice
as well as specified internal practices and the use of Chinese medicines.

Thanks to such training, I developed a confidence in m
y abilities that I'd never had. Though my techniques looked better as a teenager, they work better now, and with less wear-and-tear on my body.

Which brings me to the purpose (yes, I do have one) of this article. I received a book yesterday that will certainly take a treasured place in my very extensive martial arts and fitness library.

"The Art of Hojo Undo: Power Training for Traditional K
arate", by Michael Clarke, sets out to revive the ancient methods of physical training practiced in Okinawa which were inspired by time-honored Chinese kung fu training methods. (See photo of book cover at top of article).

The book is a treasure trove of classical training methods and tools used to develop full-body strength. You won't win Mr. Universe with these methods. The equipment and the results they provide are not pretty. But, speaking from experience using some of these methods, I can tell you they work.

You will find that you climb, run, jump and especially, fight better than you did before. It will be a functional type of strength, not necessarily the strength yo
u will use while laying on your back to do a bench press. Instead, you will be able to do things like moving furniture, carrying a sick injured person or pet to safety, pushing a disabled car down the street.

It's the type of power you need to throw a baseball or to dominate the soccer or football field, to scale a sheer rock wall.

Perhaps most inspiring from this book is the author's point that the Okinawans, though resource and financially poor, learned to make do with what they had. Their training methods were simple, such as tying a pot of water or heavy rocks to a stick to make a forearm exerciser. Or drilling holes rocks and sticking a wood dowel in there for a makeshift dumbbell.

Examples of hojo undo tools and training methods.

The book also includes versions of wooden training dummies. Having built my own 13 years ago, I can say it is easily the best investment of my time, effort and money that I have made to my own home martial arts training.

With my wooden dummy, practicing jeet teks (intercepting kicks)

One can't help but read this book and be inspired. I'm already coming up with ways to replicate some of the equipment in that book, particularly the stone padlocks (ishisashi) or the kongoken for my own use.

Kung fu expert with stone padlocks (above)
Okinawan karateka with kongoken (below)
I am so going to make these for the carport kwoon.

As time permits, I will work to make some of these items and post my results here.


  1. Excellent article! I'll post a link.

    John @ Dojo Rat

  2. That was useful. I will make sure to pick up a copy soon.

  3. This also reminds me of the 'caveman' training that is sweeping MMA at the moment. They hit big truck tires with sledgehammers, and that sort of business.

  4. Yeah, I had to laugh when I heard about guys hitting truck tires with hammers. I'd been doing the same thing for years, only with bokkens, kali sticks and staves.

    It's funny when I meet someone who thinks he's hot shit with weapons because he can do a kata. In my book, you also need to practice striking with that weapon.

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