Old School Conditioning
When I started training in the eighty’s Chinese martial arts clubs, and I suspect most clubs, were very different animals from what they are today. Conditioning was the primary work done every class, even in my first teachers club which was basically a mainstream club that turned into a McDojo as time went on. The first hour was all repetitions of techniques, push ups, cardio work, horse stance training, running, and rolling. In my very first martial arts journal, I have some of the workouts I ran in that club written out as I was still a teenager and needed to make lists in order to be confident at class. It was common to see 500 jumping jacks, 100 push ups, twenty minutes of stretching, and minutes in horse stances on those lists. As my first teacher realized more about the business side of things workouts became easier and ranks came faster, by the time I left the club business was booming and the art was suffering.
Master Ma’s workouts were brutal and most months we saw people quit after trying a class or two because he was unforgiving about them. The first forty-five minutes to an hour was all conditioning but not like the repetitions of technique like my first teachers. Ma’s workouts were more exercise oriented with deep horse stances, monkey running around the room, strength exercises for the upper body like push ups with a partner leaning on your back or crunches while being punched in the stomach. Horse stance training sometimes was done with a partner standing on your thighs or other times while Ma was walking around the room striking or kicking you in the chest or stomach – if you lose the stance you do push ups. On extreme workout nights I am sure some of the exercises were borderline torture but those of us who stuck around built a lot of foundations and a lot of willpower.
Now? I see the old school Chinatown schools with no workouts. Students come and stretch a little and chat and then practice forms together for the next tournament. Another class is for ‘sparring’ which is all by sanda rules and boxing gloves and some boxing drills. Last time I did a workshop at one of these old school places I ended up having mot of the class not able to continue because of a warmup! People wonder why Chinese martial arts have a bad reputation nowadays. It’s because we deserve it. These Chinatown schools were the ones everyone was afraid of thirty years ago, the scary guys trained and taught there. They would take challenge matches and go out to challenge other people to test their skills. It was a check and balance system that harkens back into antiquity in China. If you can’t fight, you can’t teach.
But now the belt factory rules the business side of things or people completely change their game and go train another style like MMA. MMA sells man, BJJ sells, Muay Thai sells now and that’s fine. But their reputation for being able to actually fight has brought them the current fad and more power to them. They have been teaching a lesson to the Chinese stylists now for decades and yet it seems that we are not listening. I get it, I have done martial arts as my main income for twenty years and going with the fads works for business. Likely the reason I have not made much for a living is I simply do not want money to be the bottom line of why I teach or train. My own fault really – stubborn and old fashioned, I guess. But, let me say this – Every art has something to offer, but changing the training to suit your business model is what is killing the real arts. Every art is built a certain way for a certain reason, sometimes it could be said they are out of date and atavistic sure but, that does not mean they do not have real benefits from learning them. Balance is always key I think in this life, if it is called a Martial Art it must have some Martial to it, but it cannot also lose the Art side either. The side that says it is better to be a warrior in a garden, than a gardener in a war.