Body conditioning is the act of hardening your body for fighting. This teaches your body how to take impacts properly, reducing both the pain and the damage. Mostly body conditioning is done by the application of impacts. There are a lot of different methods and not all methods are created equal. For this reason it’s important to understand the goal of body conditioning as well as the medical/scientific realities of it.
The goal of conditioning is to harden our body against being hit. We can condition pretty much any and all parts of our body, with a few very important exceptions. Basically, conditioning works where we’re striking into muscle mass. Our body (torso) is probably the most common area that we need to focus on conditioning in this way. When we spar or fight, we need to hold our body in a strange state; part way between relaxed and tense. If we tense up too much we become slow and awkward, our techniques/strikes can’t flow and our muscles can’t move smoothly from position to position naturally.
At the same time if we’re fully relaxed, where we’re most able to move naturally and quickly, we can’t take a strike. Our muscles are relaxed and offer little or no resistance to the impact, allowing those forces to move through our body into our organs blowing the wind out of us or at worst, doing real damage to our internal organs.
It’s all in your head.
There is no doubt that there is a psychological aspect to body conditioning. The fact that we know that we can take a shot gives us a psychological advantage. Just knowing that we can afford to get hit means that we are willing to commit to moving forwards. Ultimately fear can be one of the biggest obstacles to being an effective (and victorious) fighter.
In fact, one of the main reasons that I started fighting competitively was because I was afraid to do it. I’ve been involved in the martial arts for a very long time, but outside of full contact sparring in the gym (with fighters of a wide variety of abilities all the way up to professionals) and various other non-serious altercations I had never actually been in a proper competitive fight. Fighting someone in the ring or cage is a different world to sparring in a gym, or even fighting outside of a gym. Often in the gym there is a weight deficit or a skill deficit. Even if all of the deficits run against you just the fact that you know each other and know what to expect gives you a feeling of security.
You don’t get that in a competitive fight. Weight classes ensure that you and your opponent are the same size. You also have no real knowledge of their style or skill set going in, so you could be walking in against a fast mobile speed fighter or a big heavy slugger who’ll take your head off with a single strike. In this situation knowing that you’re tough and that you can deal with whatever your opponent can dish out gives you a massive advantage.
There are basically two types of conditioning. Active and passive. We can do passive conditioning through sparring, working the bag, hitting pads etc. Active conditioning is actually actively being hit while doing various things.
People often underestimate the value of passive conditioning but if you do a little research into Muay Thai you find out that repeatedly kicking the heavy bag or pads actually causes micro fractures in the front of the shin-bone. These fill with calcium, actually hardening (increasing the density of) the shin bones. This is one of the areas that we want to condition, and this is my preferred method. The bag/pads don’t need to be super hard, just the repeated action of kicking (hard) on the bag hardens your shin bone against damage.
In this case the conditioning is an actual mechanical hardening of the bone, this isn’t something which is common, in fact I can’t think of any other parts of the body which i can condition in this way.
Another approach to shin conditioning is to actually hit the shins with a hard object, people often use a metal pipe or a glass bottle. They also use it to roll up and down the shin. The problem with this kind of conditioning is that it often causes excess damage, that’s why most serious fighters just use passive conditioning for their shins.
I personally favor passive conditioning with occasional light sparring without shin guards. This gives you an idea of how much checking a kick with different parts of your shin hurts. It’s important to remember that pain is just your bodies way of telling you that you’ve been damaged, so ignoring pain is something that you should only do if you actually understand what’s going on.
Hitting areas rich in nerves will cause more pain, but may not cause more damage, at the same time there are some techniques which cause phenomenal amounts of damage with a fairly minimal amount of pain. I tore my big toe off some time back doing Jujitsu and between the adrenaline and the ruptured nerves.
I actually thought I had damaged the gym mats because I could feel something weird by my foot and used the damaged foot to feel around while still pinning my opponent. My response when I realized what was going on was actually to sit up and laugh. It was really quite funny, my toe had decided to go off on it’s own and leave the rest of the foot.
Conditioning muscles is a little different. Anyone who has been hit in the stomach knows that there is a vast difference between being hit when you’re ready and are able to tense your abdominal muscles compared to being hit when you’re not ready and your abdominal muscles are relaxed. Houdini rather famously died from being struck in the stomach. But we can’t go through our entire life with our abdominals tensed up, nor can we fight this way.
Try planking for nine minutes and see how you feel, now keep in mind that you’ll be doing that while fighting some big hairy Goliath who wants to knock your face off. Not only that, the fact is that one aspect of fighting is efficiency. Whomever uses their energy the most efficiently often wins.
By far the best way to deal with this is to condition your abdominals. There are a couple of good methods, there’s the passive approach of just getting hit in the stomach during sparring. The problem with this is that most sparring isn’t overly hard and also depending on who you’re sparring. They might not throw a lot of body shots or they might not be skillful enough to hit you often. This makes the passive method of abdominal conditioning a little unpredictable and undesirable.
My preferred method is to play catch with a 6KG soft medicine ball. You can use a smaller weight, but the exercise requires that you get hit so the larger weight helps. Maybe start with a smaller one and work up. You get with a partner or two and throw the ball at each other. Don’t try to catch the ball, just let it hit you in the body and as it drops, scoop it up with your hands.
When you throw, throw the way you punch. Make sure you get your feet in the correct position and use your hips to push the ball on towards your partner. I do this for three to five minutes a couple of times a week normally as part of my workout. It’s good cardio and strength training as well as being an excellent way to condition your body.
The other method that I like for body conditioning is the Thai way. You work with a partner or two. Your partners each hold a Thai pad on their arm. You lay down on the ground with one of them on each side and you do sit-ups. As you lay down flat, one partner hits you in the abdominals with a Thai pad. When you curl up to the top of your sit-up, the other guy hits you in the abdominals.
The disadvantage of doing this is that it’s really freakin hard. Like, seriously hard. The advantage of doing this is that it’s really hard. This is pretty serious conditioning. It’s probably excessive for anyone other than a competitive fighter to be doing, but it is very effective. I’m sure everyone has seen video of fighters standing there being hit in the stomach by someone, and that’s fine *cue slow clap* but it’s basically just showing off. It works, to a certain degree, it’s as good as any of the other ways, except that all you do is stand there tensing up.
When you work with the medicine ball you only tense up at the very last moment in order to deal with the impact. Less than a second later you’re moving, scooping the ball and firing it off as quickly as you can to the next guy, moving through the exact same action as throwing a punch. It’s just a vastly more efficient form of training than standing about while someone hits in you the belly.
We can condition almost any muscle group in the same way. But the abdominals are especially important because it’s a large area covering rather important things like, organs. Your abdominals are also a fairly weak part of your body, mechanically speaking. The functional requirements of our abdominals mean there aren’t any bones or other rigid structures to link those muscles to. This means that the span of muscles is fairly long. That makes it inherently weaker than something like a bicep which is a shorter span connected to a rigid structure.
Rather importantly, you cannot condition some part of the body. You just can’t condition the hands. When I was a young lad, I thought it was a good idea to do bag work without gloves. It doesn’t work. There’s nothing in your knuckles to condition. There aren’t any muscles, just tendon, bone and cartilage. You do build up the skin on the outside of your knuckles. But it’s just skin and the difference in skin thickness between someone who does this training and someone who doesn’t is nominal enough to make it worthless.
The reason that it’s inadvisable to try and condition the hands is that hands are fairly weak structures. Most of the time all that results from someone attempting to condition their hands is injury.
Another key vital part of conditioning is that you CANNOT condition your head. All you do by attempting to condition your head is increase your risk of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and of Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury (CTBI). These are serious long term injuries. It is acceptable to risk injury for something that you care about and fighting might be that thing for you.
My opinion is that we can’t live our life worrying about things that are out of our control. Doing that just means that we don’t live life. We survive, but that’s not the same as living. We can’t deny our passions based on fear of what might happen. So if fighting is what you are passionate about, it may be worth the risk. That doesn’t mean that we should be stupid about what we do, and attempting to “condition” our head is stupid.
Conditioning is a vital activity for a serious fighters. For people whose primary interest in the martial arts is one of fitness, wellbeing or self defense, body conditioning can be a fun form of exercise but it isn’t critical. What is critical is that we take the right approach to conditioning. This means taking it slow. The whole “hit it with something hard” approach is a way to try and subvert the time requirement.
There are no shortcuts. All you do by taking that approach is run the risk of injury. The last thing anyone wants is to interrupt their training due to an unnecessary and self inflicted injury.