Once upon a time, it seemed like only technique mattered in the martial arts. If you had mastered the skills of karate or kung fu, you didn't have to be in especially good shape to use them. In fact, people who really had faith in the notion of "effortless victory" could be incredibly condescending toward athletes.
Strength training and aerobic training were considered primitive and brutish, things only a simpleton would get involved in. "Real" martial artists knew that intuition and dexterity took care of everything in a fight.
Photos by Robert Reiff
These days, everyone who isn't irretrievably flaky gives sports science its due. Whether you're practicing aikijujutsu or Brazilian jiu-jitsujiu-jitsu, being strong and having more stamina will help you do it better.
Why did we resist that idea for so long? Why did it take years for the martial arts to catch up with other sports and physical pursuits? I think it's because we see our arts as mental disciplines, while we see athleticism as cognitive or spiritual failure. We see athletes as people who can't grasp anything besides conditioning and basic technique.
There is some truth to this belief. A superior athlete with only a little martial arts training will easily beat most people, and he doesn't have to delve too deeply into the arts to do it. But this doesn't mean that athletes are too stupid to understand the fighting arts and philosophies. In fact, a lot of athletes are smarter than most of us will ever be.
For example, astrophysicist David Schramm, one of the architects of Big Bang cosmology, was a champion Greco-Roman wrestler. He was so good, in fact, that he was a finalist in the 1968 Olympic trials.
So athletes can be positively brilliant sometimes. What really irks martial artists is that you don't have to be all that bright or insightful to be a good athlete. You don't have to be smarter than an ape to be as quick or as strong as one.
For every Dave Schramm out there, there are a hundred meatheads who can beat you to a pulp because of their superior strength and conditioning. It's an ugly truth that seems to debunk our beautiful martial arts ideals.
Of course, it's not that simple at all. Once an athlete is matched with a skilled martial artist of the same size and fitness level, the only difference between the two is mental: One knows how to fight, and one doesn't. One knows how to keep his head and function from a calm center, and one doesn't.
I'm sure some readers have seen football players and weightlifters get totally schooled by kyokushin or BJJ guys who were in good shape. When martial artists reach a high level of physical fitness, you can really see the difference the mental aspects of the arts make.
Still, athleticism is so ugly to many martial artists that they want to minimize its importance. They argue that increased strength or stamina is incidental, that being in shape doesn't hurt your technique but it doesn't help it either. There is some truth to this belief as well.
No amount of strength or cardio training will help you use or endure eye pokes, groin kicks and similar techniques. But if you can't walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded, chances are slim that you could even position your body to perform a decent self-defense technique.
Likewise, some people argue that being aware of your surroundings, knowing how dangerous people behave and avoiding fights are the real goals of the martial arts. But even then, you need to have at least a decent level of fitness. How can you run away from a bad situation if you can't run a few laps without passing out?
What happens when you do have to struggle with someone? You still need at least a moderate level of strength and conditioning to survive.
What about the martial arts ideal of effortless victory? It's something of an illusion. Technique is important. So are intuition and dexterity. They are all part of what makes a victory seem effortless.
Depending on your level of fitness, it may even feel effortless to you. But a lot of mental and physical training goes into making it seem that way. In short, effortless victory is about being in good enough shape to allow your body to do what you know how to do.
Keith Vargo is a Black Belt contributing editor and the author of Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior. He currently lives in Japan.