Friday, August 1, 2008

Tales of a gym rat, part 2

This post is a continuation of another blog post, which you can read here.

My exposure to the martial arts started when I was a wee little middle schooler punching and kicking my way through karate class. My sensei, I can proudly say, was actually someone not to be trifled with. He may have been a very nice man teaching a bunch of sub-optimally conditioned recreational martial artists, but I do remember him just looking tough. How do I know? Well, I'm judging based on how fit I remember him being. It was an old school sort of fitness. Nothing like the McDojo level of fitness you often see nowadays. The man had bowling pin forearms, which in my mind is a good sign that he took his training seriously. I distinctly remember him inflicting random ab torture days on us where we did ab work until we had trouble holding ourselves upright (and then doing some more). I had the misfortune of one of those ab torture days coming the day before my presidential fitness test in PE. I was really sore the day of the test. Boy, did I ever flunk the situp portion of that test.

I never did become good at Karate, but that's because like most people, I just didn't put in the effort to truly excel. Kids in particular tend to have short attention spans, and I was no exception. I did like it, but I soon moved on to other things. It wouldn't be until graduate school that I would take up another martial art. I got hooked on the idea of tai chi after watching a martial arts documentary. Luckily for me, a few weeks later, a tai chi club formed at Duke. I managed to train Chen style tai chi for something like 6 years and loved every minute of it. I'm not entirely sure why I was drawn to tai chi, but I was definitely hooked on training internal martial arts after a few months.

Since there was a lot of emphasis on correct body mechanics and the internal training, my approach to other physical activities began to change. Slowly, I began making little connections between tai chi training principles and sports. When I got in the weight room, I tried to pay the same sort of attention to body mechanics while lifting weights as I would when training form. It made lifting much more of a meditative activity.

Training an internal martial art, I've often heard that it's not a good idea to do weight lifting. Through my own research and experience, I've come to mostly agree with that sentiment. I don't totally agree though. Weight lifting done incorrectly will certainly tighten you up and promote bad motion patterns. However, like any other activity, if done correctly, it's just another tool for improving your strength conditioning. Unfortunately, way too many people weight train incorrectly. Anyhow, from training martial arts and spending too much time reading about training, I eventually came across the idea of bodyweight strength training. I hadn't given much thought before to bodyweight training since I had a common misconception that lifting weights was the only way to get strong. It had never dawned on me that leverage combined with one's own bodyweight could make bodyweight strength conditioning just as challenging as (and sometimes even harder than) regular weight lifting. Also, most of the wild and crazy bodyweight exercises I saw people doing involved a lot more functional strength than the typical jaunt through the weight room. My weight training routine had gotten a little stale at that point anyhow, so I switched to an all bodyweight regimen as an experiment.

That switch to bodyweight exercises was originally intended to be a 3 month experiment. I think it's been well over a year now, and it doesn't look like weight lifting will be anything more than a training supplement for me for the foreseeable future. A lot of those bodyweight exercises (the rings in particular) are a helluva lot harder than the exercises I had been doing before. They require a good deal of body awareness, total body control, and core strength to execute correctly, and they seem to more readily tie in with my martial arts training. Most importantly, they're just a lot more fun for me; it's like mind candy for me to explore how I can use my body to improve my functional strength. Another added bonus is that the exercises usually look really cool. I know it's pure vanity on my part, but I do enjoy flaunting a little when I'm jumping rope, doing the rings, or trying to hold a dragon flag.

Even the most ardent fan of lifting big iron would be hard pressed to say these two bodyweight exercises are for pansies.

It's been a meandering road recounting how I wound up becoming a gym rat. I think my parents (especially my dad) are sometime baffled at why I'm so into martial arts and physical fitness. Though I've retold what I think is the path that brought me to this point, it may just be that it was predestined. According to the Chinese zodiac, I'm a snake, and if you believe those cheesy placemat descriptions, I'm "vain and intense." Oddly enough, that's a pretty fair description of me. I'm both vain and intense about my training and other aspects of my life. Then there's the fact that my parents named me Qiang (強), which translates to "strong and forceful." If you ask me, blame for this aspect of my life falls squarely on my parents for their predictive naming. It's just a good thing that they didn't choose to name me something like "smelly tofu."

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