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Martial Arts as an Exercise

Is Martial Arts its Own Workout?

Judo Martial Arts

Is Martial Arts its Own Workout?

If you’re here, you’re definitely interested in working out. And, there’s a lot of overlap in the working out and martial arts communities. But, from a biological perspective, is there a lot of overlap between the two? Can practicing martial arts be its own workout?

As with all yes-or-no questions, the answer is “sort of.”

Defining Martial Arts

Martial arts is the systemized study of using your body against somebody else either defensively, as in most traditional martial arts (Tae Kwon Do, Soo Bahk Do) or aggressively as in most modern martial arts (kickboxing, MMA).

Defensive Martial Arts

One of the defined selling points of defensive martial arts is that the art itself makes up for physical size difference. So, most martial arts don’t inherently include muscle building activities. Instead, they stress things like understanding weak points in your opponent and applying biomechanics and physics to overcome them.

However, most of these martial arts also have a psychological or philosophical component encouraging the health and wellness of the practitioner beyond their practice. As a result, most martial artists are interested in some workout regimen beyond their martial art practice.

Aggressive Martial Arts

Aggressive martial arts tend to encourage physical strength more than defensive martial arts do. However, they also put their emphasis on developing speed and strategy, generally assuming that the practitioner is working on their physical strength outside of the ring.

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Defining Workouts

Like martial arts, workouts can be generally divided into two main camps. There are any number of ways that people can and do make this division but for our cases, we’re talking about aerobic and anaerobic exercises.

Both of these names come from the ways in which muscles access energy during the exercise. Aerobic exercise typically involves faster repeated motions with little resistance while anaerobic exercise typically involves slower repeated motions with higher resistance (Bagchi et al., p. 411). Both have their benefits.

Aerobic exercise, including martial arts, is good for losing weight, toning muscle, and increasing your overall endurance, while anaerobic exercise is associated with building muscle. 

Generally speaking, aerobic activity is considered more important for overall health. It’s also more likely to be overlooked by people more focused on muscle building.

Incorporating Martial Arts into Your Workout

No matter what your health and fitness goals are, incorporating martial arts into your workout can help you meet them. And there are a number of ways in which you can do it – each with its own good reasons.

As Education

Anatomical Weakness Points

Martial arts isn’t just punching and kicking stuff. Proper study involves learning a lot about the human body. That includes learning a lot about the muscles, bones and joints, including their weaknesses.

All of this can help you think about your workout more analytically the next time that you reach for the weights.

As its Own Exercise

If you’re just interested in building muscle, martial arts won’t really help you meet that goal. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look into it.

As mentioned above, it is good for toning muscles and working out some types of muscle fibers and smaller muscle groups that are harder to target with other exercises.

Martial arts checks a lot of boxes that muscle building workouts don’t, but they do it in an engaging and challenging way. If you know that you shouldn’t just be lifting all the time but jogging doesn’t really keep you engaged, martial arts can fill that space.

Martial Arts Aggressive

For Balance and Flexibility

Martial arts as a workout doesn’t just get your heart rate up. It also challenges your balance and flexibility. These are also on the list of things that you need for overall health and wellness –  as well as for improving your weight lifting game – that martial arts can help you with.

Martial arts also helps you develop proprioception – awareness of your body in space.

These last topics are things that other popular exercises like jogging don’t really deliver on either. Most of them can be delivered on by yoga, but that’s a topic for another article.

Competition and Benchmarks

Finally, martial arts does one other great thing, namely incorporating competition and benchmarks into the workout routine.

Some people find that having a little friendly competition helps them to meet their goals. Some people also find that their goals are easier met if they have quantifiable metrics attached. Martial arts incorporate both of these elements into their workout routines.

While defensive martial arts encourage you to try to be better than your former self rather than to try to be better than the other practitioners, even these martial arts incorporate competition in the form of sparring – regulated and refereed fights between practitioners.

Even if you don’t need competition, most martial arts – particularly the more traditional schools – have a ranking system in which practitioners receive “promotions” for achieving various accomplishments. Having a goal in mind does help some people to push themselves.

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How to Get Started

If you do decide to get started incorporating martial arts into your workout routine, it’s pretty easy to get started. We linked the sites to some common traditional martial arts organizations above, which can be a good place to get started finding training centers near you. A quick trip to your favorite search engine or phone directory can help you find offerings near you.

If you don’t have a dedicated training center near you, you probably still have access to martial arts in your community. Most universities and gyms have classes that are open to the public. Most allow a “trial period” during which interested individuals can take a couple of classes without committing.

However, practicing martial arts does entail financial commitment both in the form of dues to the martial arts organization and to the gym where you practice. If you’re already a member of a gym that also offers martial arts instruction, you may already be paying the larger fee.

Why to Get Started

A theme throughout this article, and throughout a number of the articles on this site, is that building muscle is a great goal but that it should be part of a more expansive and well-rounded lifestyle. There’s more to being healthy than bodybuilding.

So, while incorporating martial arts into your workout routine won’t help you get bigger muscles, it is a great way to incorporate exercise that’s great for toning muscle, burning fat, promoting lung and heart health, and increasing your balance and flexibility.

So, why not look into finding a dojo near you?

Further Reading

Bagchi, Debasis; Nair, Sreejayan; Sen, K. Chandan. (ed.s). “Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance: Muscle Building, Endurance, and Strength. Academic Press. 2013.

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