Fitness is the big question. Ask most people in the Anglo-American world and they’ll say fitness is one of their main concerns in life. I think, contrary to popular belief, fitness can be fun without being a struggle (something people synonymously associate with it); I’m going to use Martial Arts to prove this point. I’m also going to approach this from a Historical perspective while keeping in mind training today for combat sports like Mix Martial Arts. Let’s begin.

Did you know some of the best scoring wrestlers are from Eastern Europe, the Caucuses and Central Asia? All of them former USSR. Did you also know that many still wrestle at a much older age, compared to the US? The same can also be said about Cuba if you look at the athletes, they’re still fit and functioning. Iran has some of the best Wrestlers who perform remarkably. Do you know why? The answer is pretty simple. As well as the application of dieting, it’s a matter of mentality. What I mean by that is the following: anyone can do exercises but most don’t really do it correctly and don’t do it for play. Unfortunately, due to the several factors being misconstrued in Western Media, this is perpetuated on a larger scale then it needs to be. People suffer in long durations and end up quitting. If you look at the US, they rank pretty high in terms of Wrestling, and the enormous amounts of funding invested in teaching young people how to wrestle, implies that it should at least be a past-time but it isn’t. It’s very competitive and has a high turnover/burnout rate. In the US, wrestling is the sport to do if you don’t excel in anything else. Both of these factors have a detrimental effect in that they cause a lot of people to develop health issues, and cause irreversible bodily damage by their thirties. The difference between the Anglo-American world and everyone else is the application of training smart, rather than training hard. Fitness is as much about strategising and using economy of time (investing where strong and refraining where weak) rather than just brute forcing, especially when it’s not necessary. I don’t like people doing fitness where it ends up not working out or where they put in all this effort and it turns out it was in vain. I don’t like seeing that happen and I want to help out, so I’m going to put a simple guide to help, especially with combat sports (and this having a knock on effect on Historical Martial Arts). These are intended to be as simple as possible.

1. Everyone is different
The first thing that you need to understand is everyone is different, has different bodies and different needs; therefore, everyone works out differently. That isn’t to say everyone needs a different work-out, they just need an overall theme but have it measured to suit them. People who are larger might burn fat quicker due to body mass and are able work out less, while achieving optimum results. People who are slimmer might find it harder to burn fat but might have better overall stamina. This is just one example to show that what you need is to see how things suit you. If something’s exhausting or you feel too fatigued, don’t work out. In many ways humans aren’t built for constant monotonous repetition, our biology built for reacting to anything happening immediately, at any moment, and adapting to that. I mean it’s the same application as an adrenaline rush; you’re more motivated to run when someone’s chasing you, then when you run because “it’s good for you”. In the same way, apply that to life.

2. Fitness does not equal looking good
In the Anglo-American world, is often misconstrued that fitness will lead to looking good like the people being advertised in media, or people constantly at the gym; overall, that’s why the majority of people go to gyms. What a lot of people don’t bother to mention is that those “good looking” people are either 1) photoshopped or given special effects in advertisements or on TV; or 2) Those people you see at the gym with the “perfect” physique train almost every day to look the way they do and often have to take massive cuts to their diet to achieve that look. The people who are often seen on the internet, TV etc have the money to maintain that lifestyle but the majority of people rarely do; most of us work and have busy lives. The people who do stuff like that spend all their money doing it because it takes a lot of effort. News just in: the way a person looks does not imply their physical performance. Having muscles or a “ripped” body is not an indication of how well you perform in an activity. I’ve known too many people who excel in a particular sport who, on a superficial level, do not look like the “stereotype” (all of that is nonsense anyway). A good example for MMA are fighters who are on the larger side (Roy Nelson), or very average size (BJ Penn) but tend to do very well.

With this in mind, you need to ask yourself what are you intending to do? Are you intending to look good? Or are you intending to be fit at what you want to do? Sometimes they can overlap but most of time they don’t. Know what activity you want to do and train for that.

3. Your fitness is the activity you do
Everything you do in fitness needs to be geared towards the activity you are doing it for, it needs to be functional otherwise what you do is meaningless. With the example of Martial Arts, the activities revolve around the following: high intensity training in a short amount of time, stamina to go through with those “burst” for a long period of time, co-ordination, timing, precision and strength. This requires doing exercises to reflect that. Long distance running requires, well, a lot of long distance running. You can only be good at an activity if you practice doing it.

A lot of people tend to throw around the word “cardio” quite a bit and that provides some ingrained implications e.g. if you want to be good at cardio you need to do long-distance running. This is nonsense and only applies if you want to do long-distance running. All cardio is, is in reference to an activity which raises the heart rate and helps with the circulation of blood in the body; it’s the body’s ability to adapt to the particular activity. If a person, for example, is doing boxing it’s better they do 30 minutes of shadow boxing rather than 30 minutes running or skipping. Why (apart from joint and muscle issues)? Because they’re training for boxing, not running. They need to acclimatise their body to the activity, otherwise a lot of it is just wasted time and, when they actually do the activity, they will gas out. Try 30 minutes of long-distance running and then 30 minutes of shadow boxing, see which one is more difficult; I can assure you if you don’t do boxing, the shadow boxing is far more difficult.

4. Suffering does not equate to fitness
You see it time and again, people go to the gym and train for two hours, their body kicks into fatigue and they don’t end up getting fitter, just physically exhausted. That’s an important point, train smart; you don’t need to suffer to get what you want. I don’t know why this reason has been ingrained so much in the public when it comes to exercise but I have a theory; I still think it’s the Christian religious mentality of “if I need something, I need to suffer in order for me to get it.” Not only is this a horrible mentality, and results in issues like games of oneupmanship (“I can suffer better than you can, therefore I am better”) but also takes its toll mentally and physically. It creates a infinite feeback loop of someone pushing themselves more beyond their limits; they have to go harder, faster and in a shorter amount of time. This results in health issues and, in the end as the person gets older, they can’t do the activity they want anymore. It ends up sucking for them.

Most MMA gyms do one hour lessons, why? Because that’s all it takes. Firas Zahabi is a renowned coach for MMA, training fighters like George St Pierre. One of the things he recommends is economise training time, for the reasonable amount of time it takes to learn something, and to train playfully. It doesn’t need to take 2 hours of hard training and sparring to be a better fighter, an hour of light training or playful sparring (one or the other) will have a much better effect.

Most will train one thing and focus on that for the hour, rather than pushing it to two. Pushing to two results in several issues. Psychologically, it creates the illusion that time can be wasted in the length of time designated because it drags out, people become complacent and attention dwindles; coinciding with an intense fitness regime (that’s added to the session to make it seem worthwhile. It’s the mentality of thinking you have to work hard to get used to something) for the session. With one hour, focus can be provided on a subject, with a brief warm-up (fitness can be done outside or in the gym). People aren’t idiots and shouldn’t be treated like idiots, if you tell someone “do x”, they will do x unless they didn’t properly hear, they’re asking again out of courtesy or are there to waste your time (in which case they need to be dropped immediately, there is nothing worse than someone who wastes valuable time). Keep it simple and somewhat repetitive but with intent, providing the context as to why they’re doing the activity they’re doing. If, for example, you’re training a class on how to do a right punch in boxing, you need to clarify what a right punch is, why the group would do it and in situations where it applies. This does not require people do it for long periods of time, or that they suffer for it. People are intelligent, treat them intelligently. This isn’t a factory to roll people off an assembly line, it’s a group of individuals with their own needs, goals and progression. They don’t need to suffer for it.

5. Error correction is the lowest form of anything
Small details do not matter if they are not relevant to the person, with this in mind they will learn them eventually as they get better. Their activity needs to be tailored to them; what they’re good at, what they need improvement with and what their next steps are going to be. I see this time and again, coaches (or even worse, people who aren’t coaches), correcting errors and micromanaging people. It’s not for them to say and largely has a negative effect because it instills the person is failing when they’re just learning. If any correction is given, it always needs to be constructive and be suggestive, to provide perspective to the person and, more importantly, always should be done by a person of authority if it is absolutely necessary. For example, if someone is going dead lifts, they need to keep a straight back, otherwise there will be a risk of the person severely injuring their back. With this in mind, making the suggestion to keep the back straight while lifting is okay, it points out to someone during the moment what they’re lacking and the person doing it ends up thinking “I didn’t take that into account,” as all their attention is drawn to the activity. However, it needs to be emphasised that this needs to be done by a person who is an authority on a subject and needs to be mid-activity as a helpful “lift” to remind them.

People need to grow into what they’re doing, not have the activity be imposed on them. There is always time to get better, progress and eventually the person will learn the thing in their own way. If you’re going to give constructive feedback, always ask if they want to receive constructive feedback. When a person hasn’t done well; nine times out of ten they will take it personally and it can jeopardize them wanting to continue. Always phrase it the feedback as a contribution. For example a thing I always do is say: “do everything you were doing but apart from x, do y because y will enable you to do this….”. It provides context and a reason to do the actual thing, rather than what seems like meaninglessly giving advice.

Remember, you are your own best judge and you know yourself better than anyone else does, well, so does the person you’re doing fitness with or coaching. Have faith in yourself and they will in themselves as well.

6. You are not perfect
You will screw up, you will follow lousy advise and you will lose out sometimes. It’s okay if you don’t know something. You’re not perfect and neither are the people you are with. You don’t need to be perfect, and the people you train with will get on with you a lot better if they realise you are also human. Everyone has issues, everyone has stuff they’re working on, everyone is similar. Fitness is great because it allows you to quantify your progress based on the activity you’re doing. That’s a journey in itself, of both the body and the mind.

7. Fitness needs to be fun
From wrestling to boxing, to sprinting to swimming, what you do needs to be fun and trained playfully. If you’re sparring, spar lightly and playfully, treat it like a game. If there’s no competition or tournament, there’s no need to train hard; the only time when that’s necessary is in the last few weeks when there is a competition. Otherwise, all that happens is an overly aggressive mentality, gym wars and the person burning out before the competition. It also screws with the body and create a generation of people with body problems as they get older.

Did you know in Western Europe during the 1300’s, the main past-times were wrestling and sword and buckler? (a small shield that could be carried on the belt, it’s where the term “swash buckling” comes from). People did these activities not only as a source of fighting but also as a form of recreation. During religious festivals and rest days, people would practice these in front of large crowds who would come to watch. It was fun and a social event for people to chill at and enjoy themselves; especially for the people who were participating. The same can be said of a lot of places where wrestling is a past-time. In Iran and the former USSR bloc, people do it as a past-time, a form of social bonding and as an activity, often on traditional festivals/rest days. This succeeds in building a generation of people who excel in wrestling because they’re so use to the mechanics at a young age, so if they ever consider competing in wrestling as a sport they’ll have the tool set to do so. Your fitness needs to be like that, it needs to be playful and trained for purpose.

8. Excellence is overrated
In today’s world, despite having more leisure time than any other time in history, people are anxious or resilient to pick up an activity or a hobby. Why? Because people are afraid they’ll suck. Furthermore, they think that if they do an activity they need to excel in it. It’s not enough to do something, you need to be really good at it. In the end, this not only becomes a measuring contest but also destroys any fun and enjoyment. Do something because you enjoy it and it brings you happiness and even if you aren’t enjoying it at the time, but still like it, it’s good to keep at it. Why? I’ll explain:

You have two options in this case; do the activity or do nothing. If you do nothing, you’re doing nothing. Nothing is going to be gained and nothing learned, therefore you’re not going to get better at it. If you choose to stay and do it because you like it, it doesn’t matter if you’re not making drastic progress or your suck, you’re still making progress better than if you didn’t do it in the first place. It’s said it takes 1000 hours to master something, a lot of that time is just doing the activity with no loud bang.

Everything is based on risk. If you do something, the likelihood of you succeeding or failing will increase with how often you do the activity. In the end it doesn’t matter whether you succeed or fail (it’s not about either) it’s whether you’re doing the activity. So no matter how you’re doing, either way you’re doing better than if you hadn’t in the first place. Keep doing the thing and, more importantly, do it because you enjoy it, not because you want to excel in it. Excellence is overrated. If you keep at it, you’ll become excellent at it anyway, just make sure you enjoy it.

Advice on fitness
I’m going to use advice from personal experience and what I’ve heard by authorities. Please note, my advice revolves around Martial Arts but provides an all-round fitness model if people want to stay physically active.

Concerning activities, quantity adds up. That’s not to say that a person should disregard quality but, if distributed better, the same level of training multiplies.

For example, let’s say for three days a week I do 30 push-ups. That would make 60 push-ups a week, right? Rather than doing that, and putting all your eggs in one basket, why not stretch it out more? If that was divided in the whole week rather than 3 days, the amount would come to 9 (rounded up) push-ups a day. That’s takes little effort because it’s effectively been divided into easily manageable chunks. If you put that to 10 per day, that makes 70 push ups a week. Not much a changed on a daily basis, you’re just doing 1 more push up per day, but the numbers begin to add up. Dividing fitness into smaller sections and doing a bit more per section helps, both physically and psychologically.

More importantly, when you do stretch it into manageable chunks, and when you get good at those chunks, you can slightly increase the numbers (though still manageable and easy). You’re not longer burdened by a high amount but are doing the same amount you would normally do. With this in mind, here’s something fitness wise you can do which helps a lot on a daily basis. Overall this adds up to 15 minutes a day:

  • 10 minutes of sprints
  • 10 squats
  • 5 deadlifts
  • 2 sets of farmers carries (about 5 back and forth laps each).

The activity and duration is done on purpose. 10 Minutes is not a huge deal and sprinting is better than jogging or long distance running; as you will be doing high intensity training within a short amount of time, you body will not be able to anticipate when it’s going to burn fat; I mean after all you’ve just been sprinting for 10 minutes out of nowhere. As a result, your body will burn more fat and also try to consume more to make up for it; this is balanced by dieting (which will be explained later). Squatting works the overall body by enabling you to lift your body weight and managing your legs by putting weight on them. Overall, it is one of the best exercises to do for overall-body fitness. The dead lifts (lifting something up to the waist and putting it back down) and farmer carries (carrying something while walking) work well because they utilise pulling motions, which uses a lot more muscle power then pushing. Farmer carries enables you to sustain body mass and doesn’t let your body be acclimatised to weight lifting, because you are essentially moving with the weights and your body has to provide oxygen for the activity as well as maintain bloodflow, in the duration you are moving (in other words, it can’t recognise a pattern to prepare for it). It can’t anticipate when you’re going to put the object down, because the activity indistinguishable from a daily routine or activity.

When you go to the gym or start doing weights, your mind knows the pattern you’re going to do and starts to gear up for it. Fitness is as normal as a daily routine and needs to be treated as such, like when a child moves around so much during play and school. Be similar to that, humans were made for it. Things constantly flow and change, make your fitness like that.

80% of all fitness is diet and so it’s fundamental. No matter how much your work out, your body will not perform if it’s fuelled on garbage. These are really basic essentials which a lot of people don’t do when they work out.

Good dieting consists of three things: Protein, vegetables and complex carbohydrates. Look them up, google them to distinguish what they are, and if you have those three nailed during the day you will do great. Here’s some other advice:

  • Make your own food, you get to determine what you put in it. Try to eat more naturally; what I mean is get products which you can make yourself. Ready-made chicken has so much crap in it and chicken is very easy to cook, might as well cook it yourself.
  • Everything in the supermarket/grocery has sugar in it, be careful. Even bread (of all things) has high amounts of sugar to sweeten it. Sugar is used as a supplement for most foods (which goes back to the sugar lobbyists from the 1970’s), you can’t really escape from it. With that in mind, as mentioned before, make your own stuff and also see if the supermarket/grocery makes their own stuff. For example, instead of buying packaged bread I buy what the place makes there, usually what’s called a “farmer’s loaf”; it’s made by a bakery section of a supermarket and has hardly anything other than the flour, yeast etc. It’s a lot healthier and has less crap in it.
  • Even if sugar is in everything that’s sold, minimise this. Natural sugars (from fruit) are way better and burn more easily. Nuts are great for snacking on.
  • Chocolate or caffeine aren’t recommended. They are stimulants and end up messing with your sleep pattern. Sleep is vital for your health and ergo your fitness. Chocolate is addictive because it mixes sweetness with fattiness. Things in nature which are sweet (strawberries, melons), lack fat. Things in nature which are fattening (e.g. smoked pork), lack sweetness and tend to be salty. Chocolate successful mixes both, especially milk chocolate, and the only other thing which does that is breast milk which a child has. This is why chocolate can be so addictive.
  • Snacking is great if the right things are eaten, in many ways snacking is actually necessary. A lot of snacks have so much sugar in it. Improvise and make your own. For example, I have nuts with honey (left to dry) and sometimes mix it with yoghurt. It’s a great mix. If you need something more convenient to carry, nuts and fruits, like raisins, mix sweetness and saltiness.

So there you go, fitness is pretty easy when you think about it; same goes with dieting. We like to think that if we need something, we have to work for it and the media (advertisements) latch on to that, to persuade you that it’s true. In many ways, it’s a systemic product of wanting more because simplicity is not enough, people want the journey. Well, why not make your own journey instead? It’s your life! Only a fool spends a lot of energy working for something, most effective things are simple.

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