Fat loss sucks.
Let me rephrase: Losing fat is pretty damn cool, but the process sucks like a Hoover. Especially the cardio, or energy system work, or whatever lipstick you want to smear on that old hairy sow.
I loathe it; in an instinctual, visceral way that all red-blooded, fast twitch dominant guys do. It’s boring. It’s repetitive. I swear it burns muscle and hordes fat. (Note: it doesn’t.)
The only way I can survive even 20 minutes on a treadmill is with magazines or my iPad and the TV cranked to 11. And you can only watch so many Sportscenter highlight reels.
Still, I need to do it. Dieting only gets me so far. As much as I’d like to be “that guy” who simply drinks less Pepsi and gets paper-skin lean in 6 weeks, that’s just not me. My genetics say that cardio and me have to be good friends, at least for part of the year.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the treadmill or the stationary bike or even the oh-so popular Prowler.
I have an Ebook coming out soon about different ways to do cardio without actually doing, you know, cardio. It will be awesome (and free) — and maybe I’ll even write it sometime — but until then, let’s look at the number one activity on my list: martial arts.
Over the past year or so I’ve gone from 227 pounds to 197 pounds without doing a second of traditional cardio.
What I have done is weight trained 4-5 days per week and gradually restricted my calorie intake. I’ve also performed an hour of Krav Maga training 3-4 days per week.
It hasn’t gotten me “there” quite yet but I’m certainly in striking distance of my goal. Close enough that when I do add traditional cardio (likely next week) I should reach the finish line with relative ease.
Krav Maga is the official self defense system of the Israeli military. It’s a mix of many fighting arts such as boxing, judo, jiu jitsu, and wrestling. It’s known for being extremely practical, especially in street fighting contexts or facing multiple attackers. The hallmarks of the art are speed, aggression, and never fighting power against power.
I won’t go in to the specifics of the art as I’m the furthest thing from an expert. I can only speak to how it has affected my training and my goals as a physique athlete. Which have been life changing, and possibly career extending.
Started from the Bottom
When I arrived in NYC I came packing truly awful work capacity not to mention poor mobility through the hips and shoulders. I also seemed to be suffering a new injury or “tweak” every week.
While part (most) of it could be blamed on scattered programming, a great deal could also be attributed to stress. In the two years prior I’d moved my house three times, seen my wife diagnosed with cancer and undergone treatment, lived out of a bag for more days than I could count, and somehow arrived in a new country — in NYC of all places; not exactly the most low stress environment one could relocate to.
I was still weight training but I could literally feel myself getting tighter on a daily basis, and no amount of dynamic flexibility or static stretching was helping.
Since I wasn’t going to quit lifting (ha!), I needed to augment my training with something that used my muscles and challenged my nervous system in a different way. Flexibility training and meditation were musts, obviously, but I also needed to learn to move much, much faster.
What I didn’t want to do was frequent bouts of hill sprints or HIIT. While that would certainly improve my conditioning, it wouldn’t really “teach” me anything, nor would it help with my mobility issues.
Plus, I don’t enjoy it. It’s stressful, and I don’t need more stress. I prefer to save it for (brief) pure fat loss periods.
I do, however, love martial arts. I’d done some mixed martial arts training over the years but always wanted to learn Krav Maga. The “strike vulnerable targets” aspect seemed practical, and considering I was far more interested in protecting myself on the street than I was competing against Johnny Lawrence in the dojo, it was a logical fit.
The problem was I could never find a really good school that taught the art the way it was intended — with very strict standards, from practitioners who’ve dedicated their professional lives to it.
That all changed after I moved to New York City and found the Krav Maga Federation in Chelsea.
Now you likely don’t live in NYC, and perhaps you have no interest in learning how to poke someone’s eye or kick him in the shnutz so hard his scrotum comes out his left ear.
But if you’re searching for something extra to add to your barbell training that will actually improve your lifts and get you in shape, I would join a very good martial arts school.
Here are the benefits:
Get In Shape – A hard martial arts class burns a ton of calories. Sparring in particular jacks your heart rate into the stratosphere. It has to be experienced to be believed.
Learn a Skill – Self defense is cool. It’s the epitome of practicality – you’re literally learning skills that could one day extend your life. Martial arts and cooking are literally the only skills a man needs to survive. And a really good woman can make said cooking skills redundant but you didn’t hear that from me.
Personal Responsibility – For thousands of years we survived by eating Paleo-approved foods and occasionally beating some aggressive knuckledragger into the ground. Sure, today we have 911, mace, and conceal carry permits. But you can’t deny that you’re on this planet because at some point your ancestors bested someone else, and it wasn’t through lawyers sending letters. Accept it.
Confidence – I’m of the belief that most of us are inherenty good. It’s the left of center Canadian in me. I’m also of the belief that there are some truly evil or deeply disturbed people lurking out there, and they look for weakness to exploit. Martial arts gives you confidence, and true confidence is the antithesis of weakness.
It’s Fun – You couldn’t pay me to ride a stationary bike for an hour. I don’t care if the seat was made of the plushest fabric or that a sweaty Jessica Biel was bending over her handlebars in front of me, eventually sheer boredom would have me staring at my watch, counting the seconds. Martial arts, on the other hand, is fun. Time flies.
Mental Engagement – This is huge. I’ve been weight training for a very long time. I have taught the exercises, off and on, for nearly two decades, and have lifted weights for even longer. You’ll have to excuse me if I’ve occasionally mailed in a set of curls or pressdowns. I’ve ridden that old horse a few times before.
That’s impossible when you’re learning or practicing a martial art. You have to get in the zone or you won’t pick it up. Your body will rebel. So you must slow down and move at deliberate pace, until that hook punch becomes something fluid and smooth, and then practice it thousands of times until it becomes muscle memory. That requires discipline, patience, and most importantly, an almost meditative state — being in the moment.
The remarkable thing for me is how this mindset has carried over to my weight training. I don’t just “do my sets” any more, ever. I now feel the muscle working, and key in precisely on how the movement is supposed to look and feel.
I’ve always had above average form but learning martial arts has made this much better. I can’t imagine listening to music while I train. My mind is already engaged with what I’m doing.
Flexibility – A well-rounded art will encourage and develop both dynamic and static flexibility. Although it’s something I still have to work on, my hip and lower back woes are basically gone. Now I just have to work on the shoulder mobility….
Speed – Speed is largely genetic and it’s improvement potential is limited (at least compared to strength), but you can definitely teach yourself to be quicker. Once we stop playing sports it seems our body naturally gravitates towards moving as slow as possible, i.e., getting the most out of the least. I’ve noticed a tremendous improvement in my hand and foot speed, which I attribute directly to my Krav training.
It’s Bigger Than You – One thing about bodybuilding or strength training is that can be a very singular activity. You’re trying to be the best you can be, for you. But a good martial arts school will make you feel like you’re joining a fraternity of people with the same goals and values as you. And often they’ll hold you to a far higher standard than you’d ever hold for yourself. While that can be extremely frustrating at times, it’s also incredibly rewarding if and when you do meet those standards.
Doing this shit ain’t all roses and puppies.
Time – You’re already lifting weights at least three days a week. To get decent at any martial art at an appreciable rate also requires at least three sessions a week, for years. When I was preparing to test for a belt I was up to six days a week, plus five days of weights. On limited calories. I honestly don’t know how I did it. #coffee
Money – Good schools aren’t cheap.
Inconvenient – Another class to attend means another commute, another set of laundry, another block in your schedule. Fortunately, my school is five minutes away from my gym, so I’d hit the weights and then pedal over and take a class. Perhaps it wasn’t ideal from a recovery perspective but I guess it works.
Injuries – Nothing done at a high level comes without a risk. Accidents happen, and although my school has zero tolerance for reckless behavior, I’ve been kicked and punched and elbowed and scratched. It never hurt too much and by the next day was a distant memory. Still, you’re learning to beat people up or at least “defend yourself.” You have to expect some physical contact.
How to Do It
Choose the Right School – With there being so many disciplines to choose from, my best advice is to scope out a lot of them and visit as many schools as possible in your area. Ask about the philosophy of the club – do they just offer a “workout” experience or do they actually teach it as a skill?
I strongly encourage the latter. If you learn a pure martial art you’ll get in better shape as a by-product of the training. If you join one of these Cardio-Kickboxing abominations you basically work up a sweat, and that’s about it. And God forbid you ever find yourself in a tense situation and all you have backing you is three years of intense Tae Bo.
Most schools will offer a free or low-cost trial class. Take advantage of this and notice the professionalism of the instructors, the attitude of the students, and the cleanliness of the facility. Also make sure that any classes you take could potentially fit your schedule.
Have the Right Attitude – You will suck at first and likely for a very, very long time. Embrace it.
The Teacher is Everything — A so-so discipline with an exceptional teacher is far more worthwhile than a possibly more effective discipline with an instructor that’s checked out or sold out.
Know When To Pull Back – My schedule is admittedly a little crazy as I earn my living in part by lifting and being muscular. I can cut back on the training a bit but it’s never going to be put on the “back-burner” as long as I can help it.
I do concede, however, that I made faster progress at Krav Maga when I weight trained a bit less and did more restorative work like dynamic flexibility drills in the morning and static stretching at night. This is part of my meathead mediation thing and I’m a big believer in it. Lesson learned.
Honor, Discipline, Focus, Respect
As gym rats we tend to seek solutions that keep us within striking distance of the weight room. Need more flexibility? Do dynamic stretches pre-weights. Need to lose fat? Perform barbell complexes. Want to get in better shape? Sprint on the treadmill three days a week.
For years I was the same way.
However, augmenting my bodybuilding lifestyle with intense martial arts training has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My weight training hasn’t suffered – quite the contrary – and I’m enjoying watching my physique get tighter as I learn a whole new training discipline.
It isn’t for everyone. But maybe it’s for you? Try it and see for yourself.
The treadmill will always be there.
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