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Function First... Form Second


Some people think they if they take up martial arts, they will automatically end up looking like Bruce Lee, George St. Pierre, Connor MacGregor, or some other professional martial arts combative athlete. They assume a causal relationship between activity and appearance, when in reality, such is not the case. In the context of this blog, “function” relates to one’s physical abilities and capacities to perform, whereas “form” relates to one’s physique or physical appearance.


The fundamental goal of any form of martial training is not to change how the body looks (form), but to improve how the body moves (function). Martial art training is primarily skill conditioning, developing the neuromuscular coordination necessary to perform complex motor actions such as throwing a kick or punch, executing a throw, evading an opponent’s attack using footwork or body displacement, etc. Muscles will develop naturally as different movement patterns are worked consistently over an extended period of time, so a student may look as if they had done some form of bodybuilding through weights or calisthenics. As with any extended form of athletics, training will have some physical effect on a martial artist’s body.


However, form and function are not synonyms. At times you may see the two come together, as in the case of Bruce Lee, and other high-caliber combative athletes. However, just because someone doesn’t look the way we picture a finely tuned body to look, doesn’t mean that the person can’t fight and that their body isn’t perfect for that discipline. I have seen martial arts, dancers, and people engaged in various other activities who might seem to be overweight or out of shape in some people’s eyes. But when they move – wow! - they’re incredible. I have seen older martial artists who, while their speed may have been reduced from their younger days, still move dynamically with both smoothness and ferocity.


Take a moment to think back and remember what it was like when you first began your martial art training (For some of us it might be more difficult than others to remember that far back, right?). If you’re like me, you’ll remember that some movements, techniques, and actions came easy as you learned them, while others were hard. The training was all about cultivating how your body moved, developing a dynamic sense of balance, efficient body movement, good coordination, cultivating specific motor skills and body mechanics. These are all factors of function that are controlled by the nervous system. And if you trained consistently for a number of years, I’m sure you did seem some changes in your physical appearance.


During one of my many conversations with my friend, John Little a few years back, I broached the subject of the merging of martial arts and fitness conditioning and the emergence of such fads as “combat conditioning” and other programs designed to help you supposedly get “combat ready.” John felt that it was primarily “window dressing,” the result of people in both the martial arts industry and the fitness industry (remember they are both “industries”) marrying two different commercial opportunities: martial arts/self-defense and the ability to defend yourself and/or your loved ones, and fitness, which is “You can look more beautiful than you do now, so you can look really good while you’re doing it.”


Am I saying that a martial artist shouldn’t engage in supplementary physical conditioning to increase their capacities such as strength, power, endurance, etc.? Of course not. Such training will definitely enhance their abilities to not only perform their skill conditioning and execute their techniques at higher levels, but also help reduce the possible risks of injury that might occur in training. What I am saying is that with regard to your martial art training, place your focus on how your body moves as opposed to how your body looks. Think of function first, and form second.


Keep Training Well