Martial artists working out on the beach.

Should you get in shape before starting martial arts?

I could sense his embarrassment. Talking after class, I realized he was at a crossroad and reeling him back into confidence would take some effort.

Moments before, he was in the midst of his first pressure test. He slumped against the wall about halfway through, giving a pleading wave of a hand that said “I’m done.” Now he searched the floor in front of him for the words I already knew were coming.

“I think I’m going to get in shape before I start taking these classes.”

He, she, Bill, Jane, Ryan, Susan… they all fit within the opening story. Doesn’t really matter the gender or the name, they all share one thing.

They never come back.

Would you get in shape to work out?

No matter the style of martial arts, many people question their fitness during the first class. Or, before the first class, preventing themselves from ever starting.

Man getting ready to lift a heavy barbell.

Truth is, anything new will seem hard at first. Have you ever starting a workout program? Maybe lifting weights or running? Perhaps you know someone who has.

Did you say, “I’m going to get in shape before I start working out?” Of course not. You get in shape BY working out. 

Martial arts is no different. You’ll develop fitness for your chosen style by participating in it. But it’s easy to step into class and question yourself. Even students who are relatively new seem more fit than you. It’s important to realize most of them started right where you are. Quick improvements are not uncommon for those who train consistently.

Of course, there are exercises you can do outside of class to supplement what you do in class. We’ll go over those in a moment. But first, let’s take a look at the fitness benefits of martial arts.

Is martial arts training a good way to get in shape?

Martial arts has multiple fitness benefits. Better yet, it’s all functional. I don’t meant functional like doing barbell squats while standing on one of those big puffy exercise balls. Those are circus tricks.

The fitness you get from martial arts benefits every aspect of your life. Look at some of the old Chinese and Japanese martial arts masters. And I mean OLD. Look how gracefully they move at ages like 70, 80, and even 90.

So exactly what fitness benefits do you get from martial arts? Here’s a quick list.

Martial artist demonstration flexibility and balance with a side kick.
Photo by Staff Sgt. Ian Kummer. View original.

Strength: develops from holding deep stances, working with weapons, working against resistance from partner, calisthenics such as push-ups and pull ups done during class.

Endurance: comes from sparring, pressure testing, cardio exercises, grappling with a resistant partner, doing katas with the proper intensity and intent.

Power: gained from performing strikes, hitting heavy bags and kick shields, explosive movements in calisthenics like clapping pushups.

Balance: you develop balance from moving through stances, doing kicks, performing takedowns and throws, and learning to move naturally through new positions.

Agility: due to sparring, working with weapons, moving around a partner, skill-specific drills used to improve reaction time and speed.

Flexibility and joint mobility: comes from stretching, moving through new ranges of motion, strengthening the muscles around the joints (when your muscles are weak, the body allows less flexibility to protect the muscles and joints)

Do you need to be in shape to defend yourself?

Fitness is not the ultimate deciding factor in self defense. Many people successfully defend themselves without being in shape. 

But… 

Woman practicing self defense against a choke from behind.
Photo by Cpl. Kenneth K. Trotter, Jr. View original.

The better your fitness, the better your survival chances. Even if survival means running for your life.

Understand that everyone has their own level of “in shape.” Your fitness level may not peak as high as someone else, but that’s OK. Age, injury, genetics– they all play a role. The important thing is to get in the best shape you can.

Don’t compare your fitness level to someone else. Compare to where you were last week, last month, or last year.

When it comes to self defense, fitness lets you fight back harder, longer. Perhaps it allows you to fight back, then still have the energy to run away.

There’s another advantage of increasing your fitness. When you get in better shape, it takes longer for the strength and fitness of your attacker to come into play.

Fitness also allows your body to take more abuse before shutting down. And make no mistake, the idea you can defend yourself with nary a scratch is pure myth.

When you’re in “fighting shape” from training, however, your body is used to it. Being familiar with that affects your mentality during a fight as well. I’ll venture to say that mental toughness is even more important than physical toughness when it comes to survival.

What are the best exercises for martial arts?

Now, what if you start martial arts classes, but want to do other exercises to complement it? What should you do?

The best exercises for martial arts is completely dependent on you. Everyone is different. 

Having said that, start out by filling in your weak areas. Do you feel your cardio is lacking? Then do cardio work on days you don’t have class. Need more strength? Do weight lifting exercises. Feel like you can barely touch your knees while everyone else is touching their toes? Make time to get in some extra stretching.

Just the basics are fine. No need to become a bodybuilder, marathon runner, or Yogi to develop into a good martial artist (though those things are perfectly fine should you want to pursue them).

What are the basics?

Would you get in shape before you started working out at the gym? Of course not! You get in shape BY working out.

For strength, stick with basic lifts like squats, bench press, and deadlifts. Don’t have a gym membership? Try the many variations of push ups, pull ups, and lunges or single leg squats.

If you’re after power, bodyweight exercises are great. Clapping push ups, for instance. Jump squats and kipping pull ups are other staples. Olympic lifts are great for building explosiveness.  Just make sure you have a good coach.

Need better cardio? Try speed walking if you can’t run yet. If you do run, work on intervals. Other options are bodyweight circuits, kettlebells, and hitting a heavy bag.

Maybe you wish you were more flexible. Join a yoga class, or just stretch for 30 minutes while you’re watching TV at night. Remember, don’t static stretch before class. The rule is dynamic stretching before a workout, static after.

Don’t let fitness, or lack of it, stop you from enjoying martial arts.

Joining a new class and watching others do things you can’t seems intimidating. Just remember, every one of those people started where you are. If it makes you feel better, I’ve had several Crossfitters come into Krav class over the years and wonder why they feel so out of shape. 

It’s not that they aren’t in shape, of course. They’re simply doing something their body isn’t used to.

You don’t have to be a master at every aspect of fitness. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Once you’re settled into class, use supplemental training to improve the areas you feel are lagging.

Remember, take your time. Work up to new intensity levels slowly. Know your limitations and control your work level. At the same time, be willing to push your limits, and they’ll grow.

What about you? Have you started martial arts or another fitness program and stuck with it? Looking back, what kind of improvements have you made, and how have they benefited you in your every day life? Tell us about it in the comments.

Want to get in better shape, but unsure how to make it all work together? Maybe you’re unfamiliar with some exercises, or trying to work around a physical limitation like or injury.

If so, contact our Krav instructor, Steve. Even if you’re not a student at our school.  He’s been a trainer for 20 years, specializing in post rehab and athletic performance.

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