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

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