Taiso is a conditioning system designed to prevent injury when practicing a martial art, specifically jujutsu. Done well, taiso teaches and trains proper biomechanics. It is also scalable for people at a variety of fitness levels and for people with disabilities.
Jujutsu strives to use the minimal amount of force necessary so that one can deal with larger opponents. The aim is to be clever about how people’s bodies don’t work to defeat them. As such, it has no conditioning component intrinsic to the training. A major part of grappling is getting the right body alignment to generate power in all sorts of weird positions as well as being able to smoothly switch methods of applying force.
Although most of the techniques in jujutsu do not require much power to do, they may require extremely high motor skills to receive. Since you cannot really learn a grappling system without experiencing it, if you never receive a complete technique in the system, no matter how hard you practice otherwise, you probably will never quite own that technique.
The body must be conditioned to move properly and precisely to avoid injury and apply techniques at a high level. Of course, raw functional strength never hurts and tends to be a side effect of taiso.
More about scalability
More about martial arts
Why not just lift weights? Weightlifters, powerlifters, and body builders.
Types of strength and movement
I do jujutsu, a martial art that uses angle and position to gain advantage and control an attacker’s joints. The system strives to use the minimal amount of force necessary so that larger opponents can be dealt with. As such, it really has no conditioning component that is intrinsic to the training. Let me make this clear: the aim is to be clever about how people’s bodies don’t work to defeat them. Some martial arts (such as boxing) rely on very high levels of conditioning as part of their training. You will not find an out of shape boxer (nor will you find many using it when they are 70.)Take something like kung fu which is the generic name of several Chinese martial arts. Generally they have formal exercises called forms (these are essentially extended solo drills). These contains lots of awkward movements, extremely low stances and a variety of other things that make doing them well very difficult. When you think of ‘funky oriental martial art’ you are thinking most likely of some form of kung fu. Don’t get me wrong, some systems really rock and the people that do them are top-notch, but I’m addressing how they put their conditioning into their systems. A lot of the movements in the forms are just conditioning really. Think of it as one-stop-shopping.
So why does jujutsu need some sort of conditioning? First and foremost: to protect you against injury. Strong limbs get injured a lot less. Most of the techniques in the system do not require much power to do, but may require extremely high motor skills to receive. Since you cannot really learn a grappling system without experiencing it, the truth is that never receiving a complete technique in the system, no matter how hard you practice otherwise, probably means you will never quite own that technique.
Also, a major part of grappling is getting the right body alignment to generate power in all sorts of weird positions as well as being able to smoothly switch methods of applying force. There just aren’t many good ways to train that. A correctly aimed conditioning program should make learning a system easier. Also, there have been times that I have not had a partner. Now, you can’t do jujutsu alone because you need to grapple with another person. All that happens is you get really bad habits that will get you thumped when you get back into training. So, in those times, I set about trying to get solo exercises that would aid me, and make it so I would be in shape with no bad habits when I could find someone else.
Another reason is to recover from injury. I have an artificial hip. I found myself in the unenviable position of not merely being out of practice, but being handicapped. Taiso was perfect, being extremely scalable and low impact. I was able to start at the bare bones fairly soon after surgery and work up to sessions worthy of an extreme athlete. While I admit that I am special (so my mother didn’t lie after all!) in that most martial artists don’t have to contend with this issue, I really think that this alone would justify getting to know it. I have consistently had physical therapists compliment me on the excellence of my rehabilitation. I follow their guidelines to a ‘t’ but always try to put it in the framework outlined here.
By the way, I did taiso for years and didn’t think of putting more than a bit of it into our class workouts. I only canvassed for more bodies after I started a recovery program from hip surgery and wanted some company (I admit it, I am selfish and it sure is easier to do it regularly if you have a few buddies there). I found out that what I thought was pretty much run of the mill was unknown. This has gotten such an enthusiastic reception all the way around, I figured I should write some of it down.
Why not just lift weights?
That is a really good question. There are several issues with just doing this. Here is a definition to get it all started.
Functional strength is the ability to use the total body plus supporting structures to meet specific demands placed on it.
What is behind this is the so-called Principle of Specificity, that is to say that the body will adapt only to those stresses placed on it. Said differently (and this is a mantra with some trainers) you only improve what you practice.
Functional training attempts to use the body as a unit and stimulate the nervous system to treat certain movements as atomic, i.e. to get used to firing them from start to finish. A lot of this thinking actually comes from rehabilitation, where it is pretty clear if a person lacks the ability to perfom a function such as walking. Functional training is aimed a movements, not groups of muscles.
Functional strength, while aided by power, is far from synonmous with it. Lifting weights trains one type of strength (raw strength) in one plane of motion and it does it very well. This is simply too optimized for a long-term martial arts training program but can’t be beat for getting stronger. Use it wisely.
There are two groups of people who train with weights this section address. Powerlifters, the people who train to lift huge amounts of weight, and body sculptors/builders, who train to reshape their bodies. I’ll call these collectively lifters. It is the powerlifters who make arguments about strength training. Why not? That is their business.
|Halil Mutlu winning a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
A world class weightlifter.
|Stan McQuay A world class body builder.|
OK, for you purists out there, yes I know the difference between a weightlifter and a powerlifter. Weightlifting is an Olympic sport with two movements, the snatch – in which the weight is lifted above the head in a single movement – and the clean and jerk – in which the first phase of the movement, the clean, brings the weight to the shoulders in one ‘clean’ movement before it is thrust or ‘jerked’ overhead. Powerlifting is another event that tests the squat, deadlift and bench press. I am trying to make a difference between people that lift weights to do something competitive with them vs. people who compete using the results of weight training. The former I collectively call powerlifters here while the latter I collectively call body sculptors – you won’t see a single weight in a body sculpting competition. I should point out the powerlifters usually don’t look all that different from other athletes in their weight class. They are certainly huskier, but body sculptors do look appreciably different.
By the way, body sculptors only look the way they do on the day of a competition, since a lot of ‘showing’ relates to balancing growth of new muscle (which also grows fat that hides muscle) and dieting (which loses muscle) down to a low enough body fat percentage (typically 6% – 8%) for the muscles to be seen. It is not unusual for body sculptors to undertake often alarming dieting practices and such in the days before a meet. Usually body sculptors will do a sequence of sodium loading/carb depletion followed by a couple of days of carb loading with diruetics. The idea is to cause the muscles to suck up a great deal of carbohydrates and bloat, which makes thme look larger as well as thinning the skin with dehydration. I know a couple of topnotch competitive body sculptors and they all claim that the pre-show diet is the hardest part of training. A mistiming of a few hours will destroy the cosmetic effect. I’m telling you this because if you think you will train in a gym and look like a body sculptor on show day, you are sadly mistaken. Stan McQuay, pictured above, is one of the very few genetically gifted body sculptors who doesn’t undertake extreme measures, simply reducing his bodyfat during competition season. He is, of course, quite unique in this respect.
Powerlifters tend to completely pooh-pooh functional strength and state (quite rightly) that strength is strength. This is mostly because statements about “functional strength” are incomplete. To use the term “functional training” you must supply the context. It must be functional for a specific purpose and the more specific the better, e.g. getting your floor fighter faster. This is why we have several types of strength is in effect giving a classification of functional modes.
Now on the flip side of this, I’ve seen guys who obsess about bench pressing high loads, but lack the core strength to maintain form in a pushup. The short answer to powerlifters is:
Powerlifting is functional training for something other than martial arts — in this case powerlifting itself.
The origins of these statements is ongoing chats with my powerlifting buddies who would say something along the lines that “if you really want to get strong, come with me and do deadlifts”. What I am trying to do is counter this by pointing out jujutsu does a lot more than deadlift. Don’t get me wrong, if you are weak or have some imbalance of just want to be strong (if you are over 40, start powerlifting!) then definitely do it. There is nothing in powerlifting per se that will prevent you from being fast or smooth, but most people I’ve met don’t have professional training. So before you take advice from someone on lifting, be sure they know what they are talking about. Pretty much every guy at the gym thinks he is an expert in bench press. That said, here are some pointed reasons why powerlifting alone is insufficient:
- Restricted range of motion The range of motion must be severeley restricted if high loads are to be lifted. This has to be the case to do this safely. There is a reason there are only a small handful of competitive lifting events. Moving loads in three dimensions with a variety of trajectories is not trained in any capacity. Said differently, of the three possible planes of anatomical movement, powerlifting can only train the sagital plane.
- Wrong conscription of fibers If you lift a heavy weight, your muscle fibers kick in as ST, FTA and FTB (look in the general section for more about this). We would like to have all the fibers conscript at once and this requires some specific neural training involving velocity.
- Constant improvement as a mantra. No. It is goofy to think that you will be able to add 15 – 20 lbs. of muscle a year indefinitely. This is just simple common sense but a lot of powerlifters don’t consider it. The good ones take care to cycle their routines and have built in (aka “strategic”) deconditioning, but these are the minority in a gym.For what it is worth, nobody has figured out why you cannot just pack on muscle year after year. So for example, adding a pound a week to your bench press would mean that starting at 20 years of age and going until you are 65 would have you adding 2,340 lbs. At some point you hit a wall and can’t get past it. However, a carefully controlled study for adding muscle showed that there is no difference in how much muscle someone who is in their 20’s can add vs. how much a person in their 60’s can add. Both control groups added the same amount of muscle over 12 weeks when using the same training routine. Much of the wasting that is seen in the elderly probably relates to inactivity levels as much as anything else. Stay active as you age.If you think that you want to bulk up then you should consider cycling it in to your training. Be sure to stick with compound exercises like the deadlift, squat and clean and jerk and by all means find a local club with good instruction if you get serious. Many of the lifts are extremely technical (seriously!!) and just grabbing some large pile of iron is a really bad idea.Of course, some of people try to overcome natural limitations by extrordinary measures, such as drugs and hormones, which can’t be condemned highly enough. Food for thought, a lot of people with asthma have to take steroids (such as Prednisone) as part of their treatment. Even under the care of a trained physician, I run into a fair amount who suffer joint death, called avascular necrosis and have to get artificial joints. You cannot do any heavy lifting with most artificial joints (although I’ve got one and can do taiso just fine and this was one of the big motivations for the way this is structured.) Don’t do drugs. Period. In any case if you hop on the constant growth bandwagon you will eventually do what many a weightlifters does and that is either burnout or find you have so many joint issues (arthritis, for instance) that your poundages have to drop. Then you have nothing. We want something to maintain certain skills.
Now for the body sculptors and why that is definitely a no-no. One sculptor once went so far as to intimate that the goal was to look as much like an erect phallus as possible; odd thought that for female lifters. They spend a lot of time doing isolation exercises to just get bulkier and more defined. If powerlifters train muscle groups, body sculptors train muscles. There are a bewildering number of these exercises and, being a gym rat, I’ve seen body sculptors spending as much as 3 – 4 hours working on some set of muscles. So in the time it takes me to do my workout, run a martial arts class and clean up afterwards they are still in there doing yet another of their shoulder or pec sets. There is nothing wrong with that, but here is the gripe: Many folks who take up lifting do so without clear cut purpose and end up sort of mixing up powerlifting and body sculpting. They waste a lot of time doing neither. Fuzzy goals give fuzzy results. They end up with preposterous strength imbalances that can be very hard to overcome. More to the point:
- Isolation exercises make you slow. Every muscle that fires, called the agonist, has an opposing muscle called an antagonist. If there are not trained together and the antagonist is quite a bit weaker then it must fire longer to oppose the agonist. This is just like having a worn brake shoe on your car, you have to hit the brakes sooner to slow down. While proper training avoids this, the odd fascination most people have with big pecs, biceps and quads mean that these are practically all that are trained.
- Isolation exercises make you weak. When a muscle is in use (called in this case a prime mover) it needs to have muscles that act as stabilizers. If the stabilizers are weak then the body will not allow the prime mover to contract at full power less there be an injury. This more than anything else explains why someone can, say, curl some enormously high weight on a machine but has trouble carrying their groceries.
- Isolation exercises can train your muscle to misfire. The most famous example of this is the leg curl machine. The hamstring is made to straighten the hip when bent, although it also can bend the knee, being one of the few muscles that can act on two joints. This machine mis-trains the hamstring to do leg curls which can lead to a higher incidence of hamstring rips. Sure, it makes the hamstrings get bigger, but you’d better not be planning on using them for much of anything else.
- It is a bald-faced lie that using weight machines is safer than using free weights. They allow you to use really crappy form and body mechanics with no idea what is wrong. The reason gyms have them is because the gym can hire completely unskilled workers at minimum wage. All that most gym employees do is sweep around the equipment and clean it off. Patrons use the machines which are supposedly safe. However, since the perception is that the machine is safe, they misuse them, sometimes massively. One of the most grisly shoulder dislocations I ever saw was from someone who was trying to use a pec fly machine with 60 lbs. on it! Since he was having trouble moving the weights, he tried to use his abs in a massive situp to start the motion and his left shoulder came clean out of the socket (the ball was by his ear. He went into shock as the hapless gym staff tried to ice it! Fortunately someone had the good sense to call an ambulance.) I doubt seriously he could have done that with free weights.
Types of strength
My approach has been to think of conditioning as maintaining certain skills for my martial arts. These skills or types of strength are:
- Raw strength = How much you can move. This includes how easily you can move yourself
- Speed = Ability to move you (or a load) fast.
- Agility = Ability to switch from one movement to another. note this includes moving the whole body. You cannot be agile if you cannot move yourself.
- Flexibility = Ability to move within full range of motion with power
- Endurance – Ability to keep yourself (possibly with a small extra load) in motion for an extended period of time. Swimming, running are great examples, as are high rep squats.
- Explosive = Ability to set yourself or an external load in motion quickly, includes plyometrics, sprints and such
- Isometric = Ability to hold a position with maximal contraction either with or without an external load.
Working on these various types of strength is should drive your goals for a workout.
Movements in the large.
The concept is that if you have the basic motions down, then you can specialize them to a purpose. Here are the basic movements you need to train. These naturally organize in pairs that are given here:
- Shoulder flexion/extension: Standing upright, raise your arm straight overhead/lower it
- Overhead pushing/pulling: handstand pushup, overhead press/pullup
- Chest pulling/pushing: pulling something to your chest/pushing something away from your chest
- Pushing or pulling with the legs. squating motions (includes jumping and swings) are pushes and deadlift type motions are pulls. Roughly, pushes are done mostly by the glutes, pulls by the hamstrings.
- Trunk flexion/extension: touch your toes/stand back up or tuck into a ball and extend
All of these should be done with a torso twist too, as well as unilaterally or bilaterally. Finally, you can move yourself or an external load (this covers what is called closed and open chain movements in training, by the way.) This thinking of movement training is ripped off of gymnastics where it has been shown to be extremely useful. These were chosen because they are the basis for most martial arts techniques. To reprise my thinking, actual techniques require some gross motor movement that is done in a variety of settings and orientations and require specific fine movements to finish. As it were, once the big movement is done, techniques effectively happen from the elbows or knees down. A lot (time-wise) of a traditional martial arts class revolves around tutoring these small movements, but there is no way that the large movements can be trained independently. This eats up a lot of time and often it is often not clear which part of a technique is what.
If we can get the big movements fluid, powerful and well practiced, we can concentrate on the hard (and fun) parts of the techniques. What’s more, practicing these large movements can be done alone without screwing up techniques, as I alluded to elsewhere. Don’t forget we grapple, so you might not be standing when you must perform a technique. If we had different goals, we would have different movements. For example, we don’t really kick much, so there are no motions for raising the legs independently.
The last set of definitions I want to add is to clarify our usage from other usages. Standard usage is that an isolation exercise targets exactly on muscle group, e.g., a seated bicep curl. A compound exercise is one that uses more than one muscle group, e.g. a squat. Pretty much very taiso exercise is compound. We refer to taiso exercises as simple that is to say, consisting of one of the basic set (swing, side press, push-up, pull-up, etc.) or complex which is some combination of these simple exercises. A complex exercise would be the swing + side press + windmill combination, consisting of three simple exercises.