Functional Fighting Fitness: How To Train Your Body To Be Wing Chun “Combat Ready”

Training for sport is not the same as training for self defense-not by a longshot-however, with all things being equal it is strength which prevails.

One of my favorite inspirational sayings is the old adage mens sana in corpore sano.  It is a Latin phrase which, when translated, means “a sound mind in a sound body.”  Specifically as it relates to Wing Chun training for self defense, fighting and combat effectiveness so many people out there miss the boat in the fact that we must have a level of functional physical fitness to apply any of the fighting arts in a realistic way.  As the saying goes, when all else is equal, it is strength which prevails.

Wing CHun’s effrctiveness in self-defense and combat lies in how it is designed.  Wing Chun works in a real fight because it is designed that way; not to mimic and insect in heat, a mythical unicorn gliding across the sky on a cloud or some other esoterically laughable scenario.  However, due to Wing Chun’s structural and conceptual perfection there are many out there who fall victim to the old thinking, “I don’t care how strong or fast or in shape someone is, I have Wing Chun on my side.”

Two words come to mind when I hear this: BULL and SHIT.

Yes, Wing Chun is, in theory, a perfect system.

Yes, Wing Chun’s greatest strength is its’ efficiency.

Yes, Wing Chun is designed for one thing: fighting.  It is not aesthetically pretty and won’t win any forms competition outside of a Wing Chun division in a tournament (but chances are since you’re reading this you already know that and, like myself, couldn’t care less).  But…

If you are not able to physically impose your will on someone, none of the above means anything.  Movies have glorified and perpetuated the myth of the slenderly built armed with magical knowledge of the secret Asian fighting arts as being able to magically dispose of a bar full of burly attackers or a dozen gangbangers in an alley.  Fun stuff to watch for sure but this is just guilty pleasure entertainment.

Ip Man himself, Patron Saint of the typical Wing Chun build, once said that fitness is important for a fighter but should not take the place of Wing Chun training; rather it should be a supplement to it.  He also warned of the dangers of putting too much muscle on, stating that it would be too difficult to maintain the proper Wing Chun posture especially when it comes to keeping the curved upper body posture and keeping the elbows in to guard the body and the centerline.

Now if you watch any of the 9,576,093 videos on the internet touting how Wing Chun sucks, the majority of them show someone who is either slightly built or not in shape at all.  MMA has transformed the fighting landscape in many ways-some good, some bad-but the one thing it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt is the emphasis on strength and fitness.

When approaching your fitness regimen for Wing Chun, however, be careful not to fall into the established thinking of training like a bodybuilder, i.e. for muscle size.

Show vs. Go

Any time I began a serious lifting regimen based on “bodybuilding,” such as the popular Chest and Tricep / Back and Bicep / Legs and Shoulders     3-day split routine (that has be come so generally accepted and commonplace that it has almost become like how the letters “R-S-T-L-N-E” are given to the players on Wheel of Fortune) I noticed an almost proportionate decrease in punching power, structure and endurance.  This is because too much emphasis is placed on the so-called “show” muscles, like the chest and biceps.

Think about it: the bigger the chest, the harder to get the elbows in; the bigger the biceps, the harder it is to generate punching power as they serve as a decelerator for any punch delivered straight out.  Punch power in the arm itself comes from the triceps and the forearms; they are the “go” muscles; they get shit done.  The bicep has little to do with anything Wing Chun related but it’s a sexy beach muscle so guess who gets the most playing time?

Easy There, Brah!

Now before any lifting devotees get their Tapout panties in a bunch I want to make it perfectly clear that I am NOT putting down weight training; any form of fitness, strength training or activity in general is a great thing that pays off exponentially in all areas of one’s life.  I mean, is it me or has the amount of motorized scooter usage at any supermarket by the non-disabled increased by 3x in the last 10 years?

What I am saying is that Wing Chun is an art and a science based solely on practicality, function and efficiency, so it stands to reason that any respective fitness regimen be structured the same way, right?  Many other styles of martial art benefit greatly from hardcore lifting and strength training, be it for mass or raw strength or muscular endurance.

Wing Chun on the other hand is a very specific skill set and while I am not saying that the Wing Chun practitioner will not benefit from a regimen of weight training (had to say it again just in case I am misinterpreted since this tends to be a “hot button” topic for many), what I am saying is that whatever program a Wing Chun guy/gal embarks on has to be congruent with the application of the art, and to that end bulk just ain’t where it’s at.

How Do I Know This?

Simple.  I have been anywhere from 180lbs with a 32″ waist to 252lbs with a 38″ waist during my time training Wing Chun (I hover around 215 right now and wear a size 34″) and can tell you that the bulkier and heavier I was the more powerful and harder to move I was, but the poorer my Wing Chun structure became.

The idea of keeping elbows in became almost a pipe dream and as a result my chi sau sessions tended to degenerate a bit into a sumo-esque shoving match at times and the finer aspects of the art were overshadowed by the “might makes right” bulldozer method.  Not a bad plan for self defense in one aspect, but it only allows for so much growth in Wing Chun and if I can’t grow in my application and understanding of Wing Chun I am going to be one-dimensional in  my approach since all I am going to have is that bulldozer method.

On the other hand, when all I tried to do was get lower and lower in weight for the sake of weighing less, my ability to generate power and root well suffered and I felt weaker in my ability to impose my will on someone.

When I was 180 I was performing high intensity cardio and a standard “bodybuilding” routine, both of which sapped my energy for training.  When I was 252 I was engaging in very heavy (450lbs. plus) deadlifts, 100lb. one-arm dumbbell snatches and sumo squats, and was eating like a death row inmate at his last meal.

I have found through personal experience firsthand that neither one of these made me feel as comfortable in my own skin as bodyweight calisthenics does and that is why they are the core of my personal regimen today and from now on.

What About Strength?

The popular opinion is that calisthenics are great and all for something to polish out your routine but not for building real power or strength.  This is nonsense.  I’d rather be able to knock off one arm pushups or one arm pullups than lift a whole stack on the cable pulldown machine any day, but in order to do the latter right I suppose I’d have to grunt, scream and slam down the entire stack of weights then puff my chest out and strut around with a scowl on my face while checking the mirror every 79 seconds, so the whole weights thing seems like too much work anyway.

The best resource I have ever seen on the topic of calisthenics and hardcore bodyweight exercises for strength is the Elastic Steel Method Gravity Advantage Workout by Paul Zaichik.

The stuff he does is off the hook, and his strength is ridiculous using just his bodyweight.  I use several of his ideas and they have tremendously increased muscular strength and endurance for my shoulders while chain punching and for stability in the core region (which actually extends from the upper abdomen just under the ribs down to the thighs, all the way around).  Check it out HERE.

The Way of the (American) Ninja

By way of functional fitness, look no further than my favorite TV show, American Ninja Warrior.  Here is a show that promotes fitness-true fitness, not some makeover show where someone who weighs 700 lbs. is cut out of his house and whisked away to some resort where he or she is put through the Hollywood wringer complete with “dirty little secrets” for weight loss and surgeries to remove your stomach.

What I love most about American Ninja Warrior is the type of athlete it produces-I mean these guys and gals have to adapt literally on the fly and their success boils down to their ability to adapt to any obstacle.

What do the majority of these folks do for exercise?  Rock climbing, gymnastic and bodyweight-based routines and, most importantly, obstacle courses.  That’s right!  They train specific aspects of fitness, sure, but the bulk of their activity comes from engaging in activities that mimic their sport of choice.  In essence, they train their art.  Their strength?  Freakish.  Their flexibility, endurance and agility?  Outstanding.

The same cannot be said for the average lifter strutting around the gym, which is why it seems that every person who tries out for ANW who does not engage in one of the above mentioned activities and instead relies on heavy bodybuilding or lifting routines goes for a swim really quick.

Wing Chun training is based on the maximal use of a minimal amount of time.  To that end, a fitness routine based on those same principles and performed as an enhancement of their training and not as an end goal makes the most sense.

So, What About CrossFit?!?

I know it will come up so I’ll just nip it in the bud right now: CrossFit.

Let me just state that I have no problem with CrossFit and that CrossFit is exempt from my earlier critique of lifting, as it is not designed for “bodybuilding,” however, a routine based on the CrossFit principles will serve you best should you not make it the main focus of your training.  When the supplemental training becomes the end goal and not just that, a “supplement,” it detracts from the main focus of your training which should be using Wing Chun to stomp some thug’s ass.  You only have X amount of hours in the day to devote to training; fitness should be a necessary and integral portion of that training but it should be a baseline or a staple, not the main focus of the day’s work.

I have heard from several former CrossFitters that they loved it-until they got injured.  This happens a lot.  CrossFit exercises are all-encompassing and have much value, provided they do not become the main focus of your training.

There are more articles both pro-and anti-CrossFit out there on the Web than I can even begin to make up a humorous number to put into this blog but I will say that per the concerns about time and injury, this article addresses both the pros and the cons in an honest and unflinching way.

Read it here, do your research and make choice if this is something for you.

For those who want to seriously look into the benefits of Olympic style weightlifting (forget all that “how much do you bench, bro?” crap-none of that ego-stroking shit matters in the world of functional strength and power anyway) Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training by trainer par excellence Mark Rippetoe is probably the best book I have read out there on the subject.  I devoured this book when I was in my power lifting phase and all I can say is you should do the same (by clicking HERE to pick it up) before you even attempt to do any thing like a squat, deadlift or an overhead military barbell press.

Got 30 Minutes? Condense Your Suffering

My personal training regimen consists of calisthenics such as various push ups, dead hang pull-ups, bodyweight squats and the use of the Ab Wheel for core stability.  It takes between 20-30 minutes, 3 days a week.  Quite frankly, that is all I have the inclination and time to devote to that aspect of training, and that is just fine by me. Calisthenics are royalty for functional fitness and the Pull-up is the Lord of the Manor.  I’d rather spend the rest of my time sharpening all the proverbial blades in my Wing Chun toolshed.

Training my punches vertically. This not only preserves body unity in strikes but also reinforces the Wing Chun punch. Too many folks think that when they put on gloves they have to put their Wing Chun “on the shelf.” Not true. The real trick is to find a way to maintain congruency with Wing Chun in all aspects of training.

Morning Coffee

One of my former JKD instructors once said that he begins each day with his “morning coffee,”  100 pushups, 100 bodyweight squats and 100 reps of abwork.  He was one strong dude.  Now he normally lifted 2-3 days a week but his schedule for work was so hectic that his lifting became quite sporadic; very often the only physical thing he did that day was his “morning coffee.”  That story just stuck with me.  The bulk of his fitness work came from actually training his arts, be it muay thai, wrestling or boxing.  Now that, much like the American Ninja Warriors I spoke of earlier, is one functional regimen.

Like the old saying goes, “if I am to lose, let me lose because my opponent was better than me, not because I was worse than him.”  We must balance functionality and fitness.  Too far to either side will work some of the time but like another old saying goes, when skill is equal, conditioning wins.

Make sure your time is spent developing both and the best way to do that is to make sure your fitness follows a strict framework in both form and function.  Nothing builds fighting skill like training to fight.

You need to be fit to fight, but you also develop the most functional fitness for fighting by training to fight. MMA fighters like Mark Hunt and Fedor Emilianenko look like they just got off the stool next to Norm and Cliff down at Cheers, yet appearances are deceiving.  They are powerful, explosive, very well-conditioned fighting machines with endurance to spare and a punch like a sledgehammer.  How do they do this?  They train their art.

As Wing Chun folks, we should go and do likewise.  Fitness and Wing Chun do not have to be mutually exclusive.  Apply your Wing Chun training mentality to your fitness routine or, if you don’t have one, use your Wing Chun to create one based on your needs and the end goals of Wing Chun for your purposes and see your proficiency grow.

The best benefit to a calisthenic routine is the fact that it trains your mind as well.  I have found that it is much harder to grind out 5 more pushups at the end of a long set than to add 5lb. on a weight stack for one more rep.

If you love weight training, have at it.  I’m just documenting and sharing what works for me.  The important part is that you do something to increase your fitness that will not hinder or counteract your Wing Chun training.

This type of training strengthens (bodyweight calisthenics) the WILL as well as the body.  Give it a whirl, have at it and remember the words of Hall of Fame coach of the Green Bay Packers Vince Lombardi, “fatigue makes cowards of us all.”


Train Smart, Stay Safe

Sifu Bobby


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