December 2017 Issue

Focus on Fitness: Martial Arts Workouts
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 19, No. 12, P. 50

Calorie consumption often increases in December due to colder weather and frequent holiday gatherings. End-of-year busy schedules mean fewer opportunities to exercise. If you and your clients want to maximize workout time, consider martial arts-based workouts to burn extra calories and build strength and endurance in shorter, more intense exercise sessions. In this article, I'll discuss the different types of martial arts workouts, benefits and risks, low-impact modifications, and some new and interesting applications of martial arts-based exercise.

Martial arts workouts can be divided into the following general groups:

Workouts that incorporate martial arts movements (eg, cardio kickboxing). Gaining in popularity since the introduction of Tae Bo in the 1990s, these workouts combine punches, kicks, blocks, and other movements from karate, kung fu, kickboxing, and other martial arts styles, and don't involve sparring between participants. They're generally taught in a group fitness or small group personal training setting, and instructors don't necessarily have a martial arts background; training in instructing cardio-based martial arts workouts is obtained mostly from fitness training organizations. Some gyms may have heavy bags and targets available for punching and kicking, which adds intensity and a more authentic martial arts experience without sparring. Mixed martial arts fitness classes merge movements from several different martial arts styles with high-intensity interval athletic movements; contact with equipment is more common in this type of workout.

Practicing noncompetitive or competitive martial arts. Participating in martial arts training with or without the intention to compete typically requires two to three sessions weekly at a dojo or gym. Depending on the style, sessions include learning movement combinations (forms), use of equipment (eg, fighting staff), and physical conditioning. Noncompetitive martial arts usually don't involve sparring with others; participants may be interested primarily in the physical and mental benefits of practicing martial arts. Competition requires sparring with others. Martial arts disciplines are divided into striking (use of kicks, punches, knees, or elbows while standing), grappling (ground fighting), weapons-based, or meditative. Example disciplines for each, respectively, are karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Itto-Ryu/Kendo (Japanese sword fighting), and tai chi.

Benefits and Risks
Martial arts-based fitness workouts can provide both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, depending on the workout structure. Performing repetitive movements at a consistent pace for a certain period of time provides cardiorespiratory aerobic conditioning. Interspersing brief intervals of intense movement (eg, very fast punching athletic drills) boosts the participant into an anaerobic conditioning "zone." Upper and lower body strength, endurance, and range of motion are improved by repeated punching and kicking combinations. Standing on one leg for kicking and putting combinations of movements together improves balance and coordination.

The most common risks associated with martial arts-based fitness workouts are repetitive stress injuries and strains or sprains. Injury risk is similar to other intense fitness workouts, including boot camp classes and interval training. Risk of injury increases with the intensity of the workout and when participants punch and kick equipment. For example, participants in a cardio kickboxing class may be at risk of a repetitive stress shoulder injury from punching, but at a very low risk of a wrist sprain. Mixed martial arts workout participants would have the added higher risk of wrist and hand sprains from punching bags.

Practicing a martial arts discipline not only improves physical fitness but also has mental benefits. All martial arts disciplines require focus, control, and mind-body awareness. Repeated practice has been shown to build cognitive function, self-esteem, self-awareness, and respect of self and others. A recent study found that martial arts practitioners of all ages and levels had significantly better performance on attention and creativity tests, as well as significantly higher levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy.1 Other studies have shown that practicing martial arts improves behavioral outcomes for youth with autism spectrum disorders, including stereotypic behaviors, social-emotional functioning, cognition, and attention.2

Risk of injury increases substantially in competitive martial arts with sparring and includes fractures, concussions, and other traumatic injuries. Youth participating in martial arts are at risk of long-term adverse effects, such as postconcussion syndrome and bone and joint injuries that affect growth into adulthood. The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a clinical report on minimizing risks for youth practicing martial arts.3

Emerging Innovative Applications
Currently, martial arts-based workouts are being researched for military training, rehabilitation of combat amputees, and fall prevention in older adults. Martial arts-based high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is being tested as an alternative to long-distance running and marching for training military recruits. The training consists of repeated short bursts (less than 45 seconds) to long intervals (two to four minutes) of high-intensity martial arts-based movements alternating with a recovery period. Researchers noted that today's military doesn't require long-distance marching of troops; hence, running/marching as training is outdated. In addition, this traditional training method has caused significant overuse injuries. Researchers have proposed martial arts-based HIIT because it better conditions for modern military demands that require power, agility, and endurance, such as moving under fire, evacuating injured troops, rapid deployment of equipment, etc. An added benefit is that it can be performed with a minimal amount of space, unlike traditional long-distance running and obstacle courses.4

Martial arts-based HIIT also is under investigation for rehabilitating combat amputees, who are younger, are better conditioned, and have a longer survival rate than other amputees. Researchers have found that this type of training improves recovery and adjustment to prosthesis movement, appeals to military-trained individuals, can be modified to accommodate different amputated limbs, and increases strength, endurance, self-esteem, and confidence.5

Karate and tai ji quan-based programs recently have been found to positively affect gait and improve balance, and thereby prevent falls, in older adults. The martial arts-based exercises were modified for older adults, and could be performed even by those who had to exercise seated or with support. The tai ji quan-based program has been implemented as a fall prevention public health intervention in community senior centers.6,7

Advice for Clients
As with any new fitness activity, clients should be advised to start slowly if adding martial arts to their exercise regimen. Those interested in adding variety to their gym routine can find martial arts-based fitness workouts at most gym franchises; some dedicated franchises, like MMAXout, offer more intense workouts with equipment such as punching bags and kicking targets, and may appeal to athletes and advanced exercisers. DVDs and online videos are available for those who prefer to exercise at home. For those clients interested in learning a martial arts discipline, local dojos and studios or community centers offering noncompetitive martial arts instruction are a good starting point.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care researcher in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area.

1. Fabio RA, Towey GE. Cognitive and personality factors in the regular practice of martial arts [published online May 5, 2017]. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.17.07245-0.

2. Bremer E, Crozier M, Lloyd M. A systematic review of the behavioural outcomes following exercise interventions for children and youth with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. 2016;20(8):899-915.

3. Demorest RA, Koutures C; Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Youth participation and injury risk in martial arts. Pediatrics. 2016;138(6):e20163022.

4. Mills GL, Johnson AE. Martial arts-based high intensity interval training as a component of warfighter rehabilitation and tactical athlete fitness. US Army Med Dep J. 2017;(2-17):44-52.

5. Mills GL, Tennent DJ, Aldrete JF, Johnson AE. Martial arts-based high intensity interval training in the rehabilitation of combat amputees. US Army Med Dep J. 2017;(2-17):53-56.

6. Li F, Harmer P, Fitzgerald K. Implementing an evidence-based fall prevention intervention in community senior centers. Am J Public Health. 2016;106(11):2026-2031.

7. Pliske G, Emmermacher P, Weinbeer V, Witte K. Changes in dual-task performance after 5 months of karate and fitness training for older adults to enhance fall prevention. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2016;28(6):1179-1186.