While the concept of “the fittest” is relatively subjective, it is safe to say that high-level martial artists are arguably the most well-rounded athletes on the planet. Powerlifters are obviously the strongest, marathon runners have the most endurance, but martial artists must combine all of their attributes into a complete and proficient package. While a fighter may never have the same explosive power of an NFL linebacker, the balance of a gymnast, or the reaction speed of a fencer, he does train and cultivate the same muscles and skills as these specialists and applies them all at an extremely high level. Balance, strength, flexibility, reaction speed, endurance – they are all exhaustively trained and finely honed by a serious martial artist. In Sports Illustrated’s list of top 50 athletes of 2016, 11 of them were martial artists.
Another reason such a bold claim can be made about martial artists is that there is no easy way to pigeonhole the abilities of martial artists. There is no consensus on exactly what the typical martial artist is or does. A Muay Thai or MMA fighter is immensely different in their abilities than say, a Shaolin monk, but they are all capable of athletic feats near impossible to the average person or typical athlete.
Rather than continue to encourage an argument (aware that some crossfitters and heptathlon competitors out there may be riled up) let’s delve a bit into the attributes martial artists must train to be proficient, an exploration into what makes them so well rounded.
Reaction Speed and Intelligence
Unlike sports that purely require endurance or strength, the martial arts expect you to react quickly and react correctly. Everything from BJJ to kickboxing needs you to focus on both yourself and your opponent and to be able to respond to their actions with the correct counteraction. One boxer was quoted as saying: “It’s like playing chess on the back of a racehorse.”
High-level martial artists are capable of deciphering incredibly small movements in their opponents and have trained their muscle memory to the point that they can react before they have fully processed what they were even being attacked with.
Very few sports have such high stakes put into such small increments of time. A Muay Thai, BJJ, or boxing match can end in half a second with one wrong move.
After training the martial arts for awhile, you will begin to notice your reaction speed and accuracy has dramatically increased. From catching a dropped object to ducking out of the way of a stray ball, training this skill set has a wide range of daily benefits.
Balance and Coordination
Another area of physical ability where martial artists shine is overall balance and coordination. The foundation of every martial art is footwork or proper movement, and the ability to maintain your balance while doing so – you never know when you must attack or defend, so every step is done in such a way that it can be interrupted and redirected. Specific disciplines like wrestling take it to the next level and have balance and weight distribution as a core aspect, this is adapted into mixed martial arts as well. Even boxing requires a very high level of footwork and balance comparable to nearly any sport out there. In fact, many boxing agility drills and American football running back exercises are more or less the same thing.
A martial artist may not spend hours on a balance beam like a gymnast, but it’s also unlikely that the gymnast can throw an effective teep kick while being charged by an opponent – and come out standing up.
Strength and Explosive Power
Takedowns, throws, clinching, and grappling all require a level of strength and explosive ability that is hard to comprehend until you try it for yourself. While the best martial artists will rely more on skill than overbearing force, power is still an integral part of training.
When you study the science behind skills like the punch you begin to realize that there are actual changes that occur in a martial artist’s brain matter that allow them to generate more power in their actions. Seriously, it’s true. Much in the same way a professional baseball pitcher is able to focus a tremendous amount of energy into a single action, a pitch, a martial artist trains his muscles in such a way (called the kinetic link) that allows them to generate tremendous force. Force well beyond what even someone with more muscle mass could achieve.
We have explored this a bit in that linked article, but to summarize: studies have shown that “years of training and cultivating this linking of the body allows a martial artist to actually strike harder than a physically stronger and faster athlete.”
It is a simple fact that beginning to train the martial arts will make you look healthier and feel more confident. There are disciplines, like BJJ, that can be practiced well into old age and continue to provide a myriad of health benefits throughout your life. Skin health, psychological health, your metabolic rate, leadership qualities – all of these have been scientifically proven to benefit from martial arts training. To top it all off, you also gain the ability to actively defend yourself.
There really isn’t any other sport today that can claim to give you all of those some benefits. That may be why the martial arts have been around at least a millennia longer than any sport still played today.
So no matter if it’s BJJ, Muay Thai, kickboxing, or wrestling, the martial arts is perhaps the most fun and effective method of getting into the best shape of your life. So what are you waiting for? Sign up for a trial class and start your journey today!
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