Fitness or Skill? Which Matters More In Fighting

In martial arts I often witness various extremes arguing as to which extreme is better.  Grappling vs striking, eastern vs western, competition vs combat drills, weapons usage or just weapons defense, etc, etc.  One recently that I have seen discussed in online forums and among some friends I know is about whether conditioning and or skill training is more critical for being prepared to protect yourself?

First, to avoid the obvious oversimplifications of this issue.  In an ideal world where access to both were available for everyone and everyone had the time to focus on both, you would do both.  In Tang Wei this is what we always answer to these either or questions and we have worked to bring opposite extremes under one roof as much as possible.

But in practical terms, I can admit that in Tang Wei we tend to spend our class time not on workouts and fitness but on skill development as skill development requires time and attention from instructors where working out can be done on one’s own time.  We cover fitness programs with students and then that is considered their homework to do on their own.

There are other self-defense and especially sport oriented martial arts that put the focus on the fitness and fight conditioning before skill development.  Certainly if the contest you are preparing for is a sporting contest, conditioning likely will be as important if not more so than skill development as many of the skills which can negate size and strength will be removed from the contest.  The various “dirty” fighting moves like eye gouges, throat shots, etc are not available and the contest really will come down to basic tactics, developed athleticism and who has superior conditioning.

On the other hand, if the contest you are concerned about is in dealing with a criminal assault that will likely be an ambush and will likely involve a weapon like a knife which of course is no more impressed by muscle on your body than fat, you may need to focus more on finding effective skills than on conditioning.  The extra weightlifting or cardio workout, are not going to be what decide the contest.  Situational awareness, Power output, targeting, maneuvering, leverage, angles, skillsets and fighting habits will decide the contest.  But it should be remembered that to employ skills, you still need a body with a level of fitness which can actually perform them.

A couple examples that I have encountered to illustrate this point.  I have seen a few highly skilled female martial artists, but who are frankly quite weak physically, especially with their upper body.  During sparring against an opponent simulating a knife wielding opponent I remember that their arm when they would check would often collapse and let knife thrusts through.  They would look for several tips of leverage and I would give them everything that I had while teaching in terms of leverage tips and those would help, but at the end of the day, the upper body strength was just an overly blatant weakness.  At the end of the training session I would recommend they do some more conditioning for their overall strength and in particular for their upperbody strength as it was behind their lower body and core strength.

For months the recommendations fell on deaf ears as the person preferred skill training and did not like to workout.  Now to explain, this person had difficultly completing 1 pushup and so the strength deficit was large.  I am not suggesting that she needed to become strength focused because even if she lifted weights every day, the enemy that would attack her would still be larger and stronger and so it would be skill that let her make up the difference and prevail.  She eventually took the advice and got up to being able to do 25 pushups and fixed the strength imbalance with habits of basic strength conditioning.  Suddenly all her skill habits, coupled with sufficient strength were able to yield their advantage in sparring drills.  Further all the work she had done to master leverage gave her an ability to fight way outside her weight class now that she had a sufficient baseline of strength.  Smaller female and male practitioners often could fall into a similar situation.

I also have known a couple of really strong people who I have trained with in martial arts and seen an opposite problem.  Despite being able to bench my bodyweight a few times over, when we would train together they often suffered from a limited spectrum of explosive mobility.  You wouldn’t want to get directly in front of him but as soon as he was flanked a little bit, he was slower and weaker on obscure angles and unable to recover, as a result, he would struggle to defend attacks that people in a much lower strength category who put more emphasis upon skills would easily be able to deal with.  In the end, he liked strength training too much to cut back and work more on mobility, so he chose not to continue to pursue martial arts.

Ultimately at the end of the day, you need to know what you are training to deal with, and as someone working to be prepared to defend yourself and your family, you need to have a functional balance in your training.  If you have tremendous knowledge and skill but your strength, speed and endurance are so insufficient that you are too outclassed to get your skills in a fight, then those skills may do you no good.

You need enough conditioning that your body (which is your weapon in a fight) has enough of an edge to cut and to make sure that the fight does come down to skill.  After that, in a non-regulated, self-protection type fight, it will be skills and mindset which determines the victory, not mere conditioning.  The extra pushups, extra weight on the bench press or dead lift does little to prevent traumatic brain injury, spinal attacks, small joint manipulation etc.  Those have to be countered by skills and knowledge.

In my own opinion, this balance of conditioning and skill is something everyone ought to consider and continue to refine.  Both conditioning and skill development are important, you don’t want to get caught in pointless “either-or” “this or that” quandaries and you don’t want to get stuck with an imbalance just because you like conditioning or skill more.  Irrelevant preferences are the real vulnerability, the only preference is to be as effective as you can.


Kyle Whiteley

Tang Wei Martial Arts Association


Dimensions of Improvement in Martial Arts

The summary of this whole article is to give students and instructors a reinforcement in their training doctrine to seek out repetition in their learning of the various topics in the Tang Wei System.  Most material in the system is designed to have you cover it 2-4 times to absorb the various layers of skill and to ultimately reap the benefit of training.  When you cover material the first time, this is the dimension of broadening, follow up exposures and training achieve the more critical dimensions of deepening the skill and then integrating the skill.

I remember several instances where in my training, upon learning something new, I realized that what was being learned had been covered yet went over my head when I learned it in basics.  You have to remember, you never leave the basics, you only build on them.  Tom Garriga when teaching classes I was attending has many times told me that bridging and pressing if fully understood is all you need to know about the Tang Wei System.  Jokingly I have often heard him say that bridging and pressing are covered in the first month of training so that you will understand them by the end of training.

While some more illustration and persuasion for this perspective is listed below, the summary is simple… seek out repetitive exposures to material in the system.  Really, we are a skill based system focused on the 5 core skills we outline in Wu Ji Quan Fa (5 extremes martial method) structure of the system.  The massive amount of information we have acquired was not to have a student over broaden out and be paper thin, but was so that you can be only as broad as is useful and then go a mile deep on the core skills and ultimately integrate those skills together into a spontaneous adaptive set of skills.  Going over the “same” material multiple times will always yield a deeper and better understanding which leads to better application.  Remember application ability is king over mere knowledge.

“Knowing is not enough, you must apply what you know”.  Anonymous

Further Points to Consider:

Something to consider with your own martial arts training.  Learning new material is always exciting and everyone enjoys covering new topics and skills.  Fighting is a dynamic skill, it is different from learning an academic skill.  The distinction here is that a dynamic skill requires spontaneous adaptable application in a real time adaptively resistant situation.

In martial arts training there are 3 dimensions of improvement to consider as you are acquiring knowledge and skill.  Broadening refers to learning new material (mentioned above), deepening refers to taking previously learned items and expanding your ability to apply it and further ingraining the skill into your subconscious habit patterns, integrating refers to individual and distinct skills beginning to integrate into a cohesive and integrated whole.

In many ways, while broadening is always prized, what broadening achieves is to increase your awareness of what is possible with and what the basic idea of using a skill is.  If learning stops at broadening, then a student is always doubtful of everything they have learned, often they believe that their teacher, or another person can apply the skill, but they will always doubt their own ability to apply.  Deepening in training is what leads you to have faith in YOUR ability to apply what you have learned.  Integration is what allows all of your separate skill subsets to come together into a cohesive whole and become a spontaneous ability.

You have to remember why you try to learn about fighting in the first place to not lose your way in martial training.  Warriors are concerned with building honorable lives and families worth protecting and then becoming really good at protecting the lives and families they have built.  Fighting proficiency is the ending goal of combat training.  Fighting from a warrior’s perspective refers to the SPONTANEOUS and INSTINCTIVE ability to end imminent and unlawful uses of violent force against oneself or others one has chosen to protect.

All the drills, the shadow boxing, the fitness training, the bag work, the pad work, the sparring, the flow drills, etc are all about giving oneself an instinctive advantage.  This means that when facing another human being bent on doing you or others harm, you seem to have a magical ability to generate overwhelming force, attacking appropriate and vulnerable targets while causing the enemy’s efforts to attack you fail.

BUT, you have to remember, that to get basic concepts and movements to arrive at this level of skill, where it actually gives you an instinctive advantage, requires more than an academic level of learning.  Thus, the tip here is that in your own learning, focus equally on deepening and integration as you do upon broadening.

Deepening and integration come from repeated exposures to material.  Ideally it is not rote repetition that is exactly the same, but it is similar enough that it is not like learning it all over again.  All of the instructors and long time practitioners in the Tang Wei community I am sure will attest, that the beginning skills can never be learned enough.  The best martial artists, masters in most people’s estimation are really of the mindsets to be forever students of war.

When seminars and classes are going to cover something you have learned previously, remember not to let the thought that it is old material creep in and shut down your opportunity to deepen and further integrate what you are learning.  When first learning a set (Tao Lu), the motion pattern is foreign and so simply getting the sequence down is the first objective in learning.  This is also the most boring part of learning in other ways, because all you are getting is the basic sequence of moves.  You cannot typically keep up with integrating more advanced motion concepts because you learning bandwidth is absorbed in just getting the basic form and sequence right.

Take learning the Lost Dragon Form for example.  If you simply broaden and learn the form, it basically has contributed only to your general motion base and coordination base.  The major motion concepts from their system such as Yin Yang Shifting and Dragons Tail concept are mentioned but it is difficult to focus on them and remember the sequence because the sequence is not ingrained yet on a subconscious basis.  You spend about the first week or two on getting the sequence of a Tao Lu down to the point where you don’t have to think about it and your body does the sequence subconsciously.  At that point you begin to focus upon the motion concepts and making sure you are applying them with the set.  This is deepening.

Later on the side effect of making dragon’s tail a habit in your set is that your acceleration and weight shift follow through increase by a minimum of 25%.  All people genetically have different levels of speed, but they are all essentially in the same class.  A 25% increase in overall speed and power output is a significant change, one that yields an obvious advantage to those that see you apply it.  However, most people do not see that it was the repetitive aspect of training that actually yielded the change and is due the credit.


Tang Wei Martial Arts Association

Live with Honor