(The standard advice of consulting your physician prior to beginning an exercise program applies. Anyone with any form of spinal or back injury, past or present, is advised to consult their physician before beginning this program of exercise. The author advises that he accepts no liability for any difficulties incurred as a result of the content of this article).
We’re all well aware one ought not to use muscular strength in Wing Chun Kuen application. However a strong body is an advantage in being able to train harder and longer and to recover from inevitable strikes that get through your guard. Also, you will know full well that being “relaxed” and “not using force” can, paradoxically, be very, very tiring in the earlier stages of training. Hence it is my belief you benefit by having a strong body to practice with and to live your everyday life. Your body is your weapon, your tool – it needs to be developed and cared for with the best, most current maintenance methods .
All Gung Fu calls for a strong waist. This includes the abs and the lower back. You simply cannot perform your best gung fu if you have an untoned waist and are overweight. Fortunately for gung fu students, no area of the body seems to have had as much written on its conditioning than the abdominals. Whole books have been devoted to the topic of abs. This article will present to you all the essential information you need to train a strong midsection using effective, efficient and simple movements taking (as advertisements proclaim!) only minutes a day and based on safe, proven and successful methods. Just as with Wing Chun – it is not how long you train or how hard you train – it is how smart and how intensely and with how much focus on quality of performance you train which yields results. In fact, one of my gwoon mottos is: “Train smart, fight smart!”
Training the Abs
Several factors are included in the matrix which produces a strong waist. These include nutrition; exercise selection; exercise performance; exercise sequence; intensity; and, frequency of training. We could plunk all of this into a martial arts context and also discuss waist *usage* and body unity but that is really a separate topic. This article simply focuses on conditioning and building the strength of the waist area in isolation. Once this is done, in conjunction with a whole body fitness program, you are equipped to use what you have built. Would you build a house with broken, rusted and poor quality tools? No. So, you ought not build your gung fu art using a weak body.
Let’s then look more closely at the factors involved.
You can have strong abs under flab but no-one will see them. And why carry around extra non-functional weight? I’ve never seen an overweight person who was at their best in Wing Chun, myself. In terms of function for gung fu it doesn’t matter what you look like but it matters if your extra weight exposes you to injury; inhibits movement and slows you down; or, reduces your capacity for exercise or movement in a self defence situation – so you can’t train as effectively as you otherwise might if you were at your “fighting weight”. A fat stomach is the result of excess body fat and low tone. Hence the reason many otherwise fit martial artists never develop that washboard abdominal is they simply ingest too many calories – they consume more than they burn – usually by unmindful eating. I don’t intend to comment further on this aspect except to note it can make or break your efforts. Possibly the most effective, efficient and simplest commercially available nutritional (and overall fitness training) program I’ve encountered is Bill Phillip’s “Body for Life”. So I refer readers to Bill’s website and book for the details on this. However, if there is one thing in Bill’s program which can be improved (apart from the excessive cost of the optional EAS Myoplex supplements in most countries outside the US) it is the ab routine. His brother, Shawn, has, however written a great book, Absolution, which is highly recommended. Bill’s original Body for Life Abs workout is simply too old-fashioned, a little too infrequent if it is embedded in his Body for Life program as he outlines it in his excellent program, and less effective than the method I’ll outline here.
Ignorance abounds in gyms. The majority of folk you’ll see working out in gyms have little real knowledge of what they are doing thanks to the efforts of the marketers of muscle mags devoted to steroid freaks and the lousy training advice they get either from naturally big guys whom the neophyte thinks built their body in a gym or from big guys who built their bodies on steroids. (And, if you don’t believe old Zopa just pop out and pick up a copy of Stuart McRobert’s excellent books – “Brawn” and “Beyond Brawn”). Exercise selection ought to be based on research into what works rather than what is simply superstitious traditional gym lore. You don’t actually need many exercises (for any body part). The exercises can, however be varied. Sit ups deserve a mention. The word is now (and has been for some time) that sit ups predominantly train the iliopsoas – the hip flexors much more than the abs and are a very inefficient exercise. So the sit up has gone into the trash can as far as I am concerned!
I have selected several of the best abdominal exercises for this article. These are amongst my favorites and are staples of what my students refer to as “Zopa’s abdominable abdominal routine”!
Standard crunch Reverse Crunch Oblique crunch A (twist) Oblique crunch B B (twist with leg lift) Oblique crunch C (Russian twist) Lying Torso Twists Concemetric crunch “The plank”
The optimal sequence is to train the rectus abdominus (the “six pack”) with emphasis on the upper abs (above the navel), then the rectus abdominus with emphasis on the lower abs (below the navel), then the external obliques (the “love handles”), then the internal obliques (underneath the externals), then the serratus. The reason for this order is to first fatigue muscles which will inhibit the development of other muscles trained in this sequence after them.
Performing the Exercises
The standard beginning position for all these exercises except the plank is as follows: Lie on the floor with knees bent and feet as close to the butt as possible. place your fists on the sides of your head with the elbows keep in line with the ears and out of the line of sight. Lift your head off the floor by bringing your chin towards your sternum as much as is comfortable.
Assume standard beginning position. Slowly raise your shoulders and upper back about 30 degrees off the ground. Tense the stomach and hold for a second or two (“freeze & squeeze”). Slowly return to start – don’t drop your head or shoulders back to rest on the floor – maintain them off the floor throughout the set.
Assume standard beginning position. Raise your feet until your thighs are vertical. You can increase the difficulty of this load by increasing the angle of your knee joint by lifting the lower leg. Raise your head as usual and then maintain that position. Slowly draw the knees back towards your chest then “freeze & squeeze”. Don’t rock back and forth.
Oblique crunch A (twist)
Assume standard beginning position. Slowly raise your shoulders and upper back about 30 degrees off the ground. Crunch upwards then aim your right shoulder towards your left knee – but keep the elbow back. Freeze and squeeze focusing on the right oblique. Repeat next rep on the left and alternate.
Oblique crunch B (twist with leg lift)
Assume standard beginning position. Slowly raise your shoulders and upper back about 30 degrees off the ground. Crunch upwards then, for this exercise, raise your right hip and aim your right shoulder towards your left knee – but keep the elbow back. Freeze and squeeze focusing on the right oblique. Repeat next rep on the left and alternate.
Oblique crunch C (Russian twist)
Assume standard beginning position. Lower your thighs, held together, to the floor on the right. Then swing the knees back to upright as you crunch upwards and rotate your left elbow towards the right knee. Perform the predetermined number of reps then repeat on the left, lowering and raising your thighs, held together, to the floor on the left and rotating your right elbow towards the left knee.
Lying Torso Twists
Assume standard beginning position. Lower your thighs, held together, to the floor on the right. Then swing the knees from right to left. Stop short of touching the floor. Move slowly al the way. Upper body remains as still as possible. You may find you need to extend your arms out to the sides on the floor to stabilise this exercise.
Assume standard beginning position. Cross ankles. Bring both the thighs and the shoulders towards each other simultaneously with a squeezing motion – no ballistics! This is like the old “jack-knife” but with knees bent and arms held in the beginning position.
A good “finisher”, this exercise tightens the serratus and integrates the whole band of muscles surrounding the waist. Lying face down on the floor, cup your chin in your hands, placing your elbows close together in front of your upper chest, with the body straight raise yourself on only your toes and elbows. Don’t lift your hips up or leg your lower back sway down. Keep your body and legs as straight as a plank! Hold for gradually increasing periods of time.
The key to really effective training in any field seems to be intensity. The majority of folk remain “also rans” rather than champions, students rather than masters because they simply won’t seek out state of the art information; dismiss it if it doesn’t fit their pre-conceived beliefs; and won’t apply it to push themselves to higher levels of performance. Success requires intensity. Intensity can be subjective – mentally tracking your effort and fatigue and getting accustomed to rating it as a given percentage of effort out of 100%. Intensity can also be objectively measured by heart rate monitors or exercise speed (reps per minute in the case of waist training – with a low number being better) or simple number of reps and sets. Intensity can be manipulated using Spencer & Davis’ (2000) “SLOB” progression. This is a rather clever analysis in my view. Spencer & Davis describe their progressive sequencing of intensity as follows: S = stable base. Begin with simplest exercises being those on a stable base i.e, one with a large surface area; L = levers – once a stable base is established, add a lever to increase difficulty – put a limb or two out from the body in the right direction – the longer the lever away from the base the more load; O = open – once levers are added the next step is to open up the movement by adding multiple planes; B = base – decrease the size of the base.
Frequency of training
More is not better in many things. And it certainly isn’t better in this case. Waist training can certainly be undertaken daily but it simply isn’t necessary to train in this fashion on a daily basis. (Though I must admit I do train daily). You can do your waist training with great results three (every alternate day) or four times per week (two consecutive days with a day’s rest between) then a weekend or even simply twice per week on non-consecutive days. I’ve personally found either every day or every other day yields the same results. Again, it depends on intensity. If you are training with sufficient intensity you will likely benefit by a day’s rest between your workouts so your musculature can recuperate adequately. You can overtrain in anything – waist training and gung fu included – and waste energy and time and simply get more tired as time progresses and increasingly risk injury.
Training the Lower back
If you train your abdominal region but neglect your lower back you will produce imbalance which can lead to back problems as the stronger abs pull the lower back out of alignment. Hence it is important to train your lower back each time you train your abs. The safest way to do this is to do what are erroneously referred to as “hyperextensions” – always without weights. There are two ways in which you can perform hyperextensions. The most effective requires a gym hyperextension machine/bench. The other is a floor exercise. You can access a hyperextension apparatus at a commercial gym, purchase one, make your own or simply do floor exercises. The best way to work the spinal erectors, in my view, is with a hyperextension machine/bench.
To perform safe hyperextensions on the hypertension machine/bench you need to allow the torso to drop from the hip and *slowly* (no swinging!), fold your arms across your chest or put your fingertips on your ears but do not interlace your fingers behind your neck and tense – this is not good for the neck over time. Contract the lower back (rather than ballistically swinging) until your body is *slightly* above horizontal. Then hold for a second. Don’t use momentum – use a slow smooth contraction. Arch your back slightly to get the maximum effect on the spinal erectors. Do not elevate the torso much above the hip as this will strain the back and cause progressive damage over time. As with abs repetitions, perform the exercise *slowly*, with constant acceleration up and down and under full control. Do not allow the torso to fall back from the horizontal position – lower it steadily and slowly.
To perform hyperextensions without access to a hyperextension machine, you can lie face down on the floor following your abs routine with your arms extended at approximately 45 degrees forward. Then, using the arms minimally, arch your back upwards only as far as you can by trying to contract the lower back rather than swinging or pushing off the arms. Do the exercise slowly and contract and squeeze at the peak. Do not aim to raise the torso too far as the effect is maximised by contraction not elevation. The process is assisted by keeping the neck in alignment with the upper spine by keeping the chin down and in rather than by looking upwards or bending the neck back as in the yoga “Cobra” asana. Alternatively, you can lie face down and slowly raise both arms and legs simultaneously and hold in the contracted position or a second or two and slowly return to the beginning position. If you have back problems you ought *not* to do hyperextensions.
You *never* need to use any weight in these exercises as all the load you will ever need can be placed on the muscles by smooth slow movements and contractions. I‘ve seen gung-ho steroid freaks swinging themselves back and forth in hyperextension machines with a weight plate held in the worst of all possible locations – behind the neck – and on incline sit-up boards from time to time in gyms with a plate either behind their neck or on their chest – risking serious injury. Avoid this ego-driven lack of sound conditioning science at all costs. You can build a super set of abs and a strong powerful waist without resorting to foolish behavior which risks your health or time consuming superstitious exercise regimes.
** Zopa acknowledges Vince Gironda as the source of this exercise