Looking back at my history with wushu I often find myself thinking about what I might have done differently if I knew then what I know now. I think of this both in terms of my current development, but also in terms of when I’m coaching students.
As a coach you want to help students develop in a way that promotes a long-term relationship with wushu, avoids injuries and builds a strong foundation for future training efforts.
Recently I put together a list of the things I would do were I to take on a new student from scratch. The essential training I would provide to help them not just improve quickly, but improve in such a way that they can build progressively on what they do in each training session.
I’ve broken up these items in to 5 areas. I’m not going to get in to too much detail with this entry (because then you would be reading for hours and hours) but I will just briefly describe what each one entails and how I approach the particular area of training.
At some point in the future I’ll discuss each one in more detail, but for now you get the Reader’s Digest version.
1. Physical Conditioning
So, before even looking at learning specific wushu techniques I tend to approach things from a perspective of preparing the body for what it will need to do down the line. Preparing your body for the rigors of wushu is an important step before you even get on the carpet. I typically look at physical conditioning from 3 areas: Speed, Strength and Balance. And for each one there are a few things to focus on.
A lot of people get in to the details about fast twitch muscles or different types of plyometric training used to develop speed, but I really think of this as a whole body thing. I tend to work from the big picture down. So, instead of focusing on small twitchy things, I look at the whole body.
Mainly, wind sprints.
I don’t care who you are, if you can sprint a 400 meter length around the track at a fast pace, then your heart, body, legs and arms are probably ready to go for wushu training. Wushu is so intensely anaerobic in nature that building up this endurance for fast speed work is vital.
In addition to this I also think it is good to incorporate speed drills for techniques. But as you’ll recall we’re not dealing with techniques yet. That comes later. For now, lots of sprints. Start slow, and then build up over time. Maybe 3 times a week with 50 meter sprints, rest 2 minutes, and then 10 sets of that. Build up until you can do 10 400 meter sprints with just 1 minute of a rest between them. It’ll probably take several weeks or months to get there. No rush though.
This sort of training is really good for building up wushu endurance. Yes, technically wushu isn’t an endurance sport, but wushu training classes are definitely an endurance event. Any wushu class worth it’s salt is at least 90 minutes with many of them going up to 2 – 3 hours, so you need to be able to last through all of that brutality. (If your school is having you do 45-60 minute classes, then in my opinion you are being short-changed. I would say a bare minimum of 75 minutes for a beginner class. Any less than that and you are not getting what you need from your coach.)
I tend to think of this as two types of strength for wushu. Fast, pushing strength, such as a punch or strike, and then powerful holding strength, like a mabu or some low stance work. But again, we’re not talking about technique. For this stage of things I would focus on the following exercises:
Pushups, pullups, frog leaps, squats, lunges and burpies.
There are a million variations on these exercises, so you can have some variety here. But these will definitely build up your base strength in a good way for wushu.
Sure, you could go to the gym and do all sorts of other things, but sometimes all we have is the ground or a bar at the playground. If you can create a substantial strength training workout with no equipment at all, then you’re never going to be stuck for something to do if you aren’t near a gym. For these it is tricky to give numbers since everyone is at a different starting point, but try going with 3 sets of 10 for each exercise three times a week and see where your deficiencies are. Then build up from there. When you can do a cross fit workout of all 6 exercises, 5 sets with 20 repetitions of each with a 1 minute break in between each set, then you are getting pretty beastly.
Balance is good because, well, it helps your coordination. And wushu is all about coordination. There are a lot of great balance exercises you can do, but I usually just do a few key ones that I like for myself: high knee stance holding, blind karate kid, and airplane balances.
The high knee stance holding is the typical knee holding single leg balance that you see in most wushu classes. Nothing too special about it, but it is great for rooting yourself in to the ground and focusing your energy downward.
Blind Karate Kids, are basically a single leg balance on a raised small platform. Think of the karate kid on the beach (but without the funny crane pose and jumping snap kick) and then close your eyes. The balance itself is not particularly tricky, but if you can hold it for a couple minutes with your eyes closed, then you are really developing those little balance receptors in your brain.
The airplane balances is sort of like the balance you see in the compulsory routine, where you are on a single leg and all your other limbs are splayed out. This is a nice balance because most of you is in a horizontal position so it plays with your inner ear thing that usually prefers being upright.
For these 3 balances, you can start with doing them 3 times a week, 5 sets of each for 30 seconds each and then work your way up to 5 sets of 2 minutes each balance. Throw in whatever other balances you like to do too. Make it a party! 🙂
The next area I would focus on is flexibility. Wushu is hard enough without having tight hamstrings or hunched up shoulders. Start incorporating a daily stretching regimen every day in the morning as soon as you begin your wushu training. Trust me … you’ll be glad you did down the line. In fact, go do some stretching right now.
Yes, right now. I’ll wait for you. Take your time and do it right and then come back.
Okay, done? Good. Don’t you feel better?
For myself I tend to focus on a few specific stretches if I don’t have a ton of time. If I have more time then I build up from there with other variations and positions. Here is my standard routine.
Actually, before I tell you the stretching routine, I should mention that it is best to stretch when your body is warm. Stretching when you are cold can be an invitation to injury (but not always — depending on how you approach it).
So, first, do some joint warm ups (you know, roll the wrists and ankles, bend the knees, rotate the hips, etc.) and then get outside and go for a brisk walk or a jog. Build up a light sweat (or a heavy sweat if you like), so that your joints and limbs are all nice and warm. You should be sweating when you start stretching.
It isn’t just because it makes it easier and prevents injuries, but doing this tends to increase your cold flexibility too. No, I don’t have a study to confirm this as being true. This is just from my personal experience. When I consistently stretch after I’m warm, I tend to find I have a greater range of motion when I’m cold, more so than when I stretch cold.
So, once you are sweaty, this is what I would do…
- Straight leg toe touches (really good with proper alignment). Palms to the floor if you can. Face in the shins if you can.
- Cobra stretch (upward facing dog? I don’t know the right yoga name, but you know the one I mean)
- Straddle stretch (doesn’t have to be the splits yet). Left side, right side and center — do a few rotations of each.
- From here I do a sequence that shifts from position to position on each leg.
- One leg on the inside, pull the straight leg’s toe back towards your face.
- Bring the straight leg behind you for a gluteal stretch on the bent knee leg.
- Bend the back leg and lean back for a quad stretch on the back leg.
- Straighten the front leg and do a hurdler’s stretch forward to your front leg.
- Straighten the back leg in to front splits. Arch your back. Grab your toe. Hands out. You know … the usual variations.
- Bend the back leg and turn 90 degrees to do a inner groin stretch so one leg is bent an you are on the knee and the other leg is straight to your side.
- Then rock back so that you are in a drop stance position with the bent leg. Straight leg has the toe up though.
- Then sit down to the straddle stretch position and do all that for the other side.
- I also have a sequence I do for the groin, center splits and a few other positions. If I have time I do this too. (optional)
- Then find a bar or a place to do your head to toe stretching. Stretch your shoulders and back while you’re at it.
- Then find a place on the wall to do your drop stance stretch for your ankle. (my ankles are still, but if yours aren’t you can skip this part)
- Finally, I will do some groin stretches with low horse sits on the wall or carpet.
That whole sequence will take me about 20-30 minutes if I do it at the minimum level. But if I really want to work my flexibility then it can take up to an hour or more.
Also, when I go to a wushu practice I will usually do the quick version after the warm up and before basics, when most people are stretching and then I’ll spend some more time and do it all again at the end of class. Post wushu class stretching is, for me, the best way to maintain and build your flexibility for wushu. If you go home right after class is over without stretching what you just did, you’ll just end up stiff and sore and unable to kick the next day.
I realize it is hard to visualize what I’ve written here. One of these days I plan to put together some videos of my stretching routine for those who are interested. Maybe some of you can do the same and we can all share our ideas.
3. Basic Techniques
Here I tend to focus on the areas that are the most prone to injuries first. And as any seasoned wushu athlete will tell you, the knees are where it’s at.
If I’m training new students I will focus a lot of my attention on stance work. A whole lot of mabu-gong bu transitions. A LOT of mabu-mabu transitions. And basically just a whole mess of stances. On top of that I’ll typically do a lot of leg-related end-of-class conditioning like duck walks, lunge walks, frog leaps, wall sits and the like.
No, it isn’t because I like to make people suffer. Honestly, the reason is because I’ve had knee injuries in wushu, and I know for sure that if I had spent more time working on my leg strength and stance training, that I probably could have prevented them. I don’t want the same thing to happen to someone else, especially someone who’s training is my responsibility.
On top of all the stance work, I start on some fairly fundamental upper body techniques. Punches, palm strikes, flash palms … you know. The good old fundamentals of wushu. I’m sort of a stickler for quality with these so I drill them a lot. And thankfully wushu has a bajillion variations on them so you can never not have something new to do to reinforce these techniques.
Once you get someone to wubuquan (five stance form) then you can drill that puppy in to the ground too. Back when I was coaching nanquan stuff I created a southern version of wubuquan as well, so those are fun to do sometimes.
After stances and strikes, I start to work on kicks. Lots of front stretch kick, inside, outside, front slap, side kicks and side stretch. Those are my 5 go-to kicks that have to get drilled like crazy. Lines and lines of them. And when you are tired of doing them, then do a few more lines just for good measure. Focus on quality of movement and proper alignment.
Anyway, if you have a coach, then hopefully they are making sure that you have a good degree of proficiency with the basic techniques before graduating you to higher level stuff. In other words, you shouldn’t be learning a back sweep before you know how to do a mabu-gongbu-punch combination. Your coach knows best, so follow their lead and work your tail off in class.
I tend to look at basic techniques like this:
Sure, someone might find it super impressive to do a 720 aerial twist in to a 720 jump inside horse, but if you can impress someone with the precision, accuracy and beauty of your front stretch kick, then you are really reaching a higher level.
People didn’t marvel at Liu Qing Hua’s wushu because she had crazy hops. They marvelled at her wushu because her basics were so freaking good that she made really simple techniques incredibly beautiful to behold.
If you look at her 1997 Changquan form, the final 2 sections of the form contain movements that anyone with a year of wushu under their belt has probably done before. Hammer fist to front slap kick to, blah blah blah. Nothing too new and they aren’t super complex, but she makes them look better than anyone else because her quality of movement is so amazing.
If you can achieve something like this with your basics, then you don’t have to throw crazy nandu in your forms. In fact, I personally think that nandu is distracting to beautiful wushu.
But that is a topic for another blog entry…
When you have your basic techniques down, then it is time to focus on combinations.
Combinations, or “combos”, for those of you who don’t know, are a mix of basic techniques, strung together in to a sequence of movements. When you string them together in a long enough sequence you end up with a form, but before we go there we should look at some good combinations that help develop solid fundamentals.
You see, doing a single basic or a line of basics well is one thing. But doing one basic, and then a completely different one, and then another and another, in a way that looks smooth, polished and clean, is a whole different challenge.
It is like learning a language. Sure, you can learn a few key words like “hello”, “milk” or “booger”, but pretty soon you need to start stringing them together and forming complete sentences. Think of combos like a sentence. You are trying to say something about wushu with your sequence of movements, just like you try to say something when you put together a sequence of words.
And just like when you learn a language, often times people will have already put together a phrase book of some common or helpful phrases for you to memorize. “Can you tell me where the bathroom is?” or “How much for this cup of tea?” are good to know, and they allow you to have a starting reference point for more complex sentences later on.
I’m not going to give you specific combinations here, because most likely your coach has a few favorites they like to teach, or they are going to teach you combinations that are part of whatever compulsory or standard forms they use in their curriculum.
Just know that, while it might seem a little boring to the do the same combinations over and over, your focus shouldn’t be on looking amazing. Just like learning from a phrase book, you’re trying to build up your fluency — pronunciation, articulation, grammar and vocabulary — so that when you are doing your forms (or even when you start to create your own) you have the tools you need to create something beautiful to read on the carpet.
And finally we are at forms. Forms are typically the last thing I concern myself with teaching a beginning student.
Ironically it is often the first things a beginning student wants to learn. Go figure.
My feeling is, if you can’t do basic techniques correctly, then your form is just going to look like garbage. Focus on basics and you will be able to pick up any form and make it look great.
But I also recognize that learning forms is helpful for challenging and engaging students in the class. It gives them a “project” to work on over the months and months of class. It is through the study and dissection/analysis of a form that we become better acquainted with the inner workings of wushu and our own abilities and limitations. This is an important part of the process too.
Just like combos, I don’t really have any specific recommendations on which forms to learn when you start wushu. The one thing I would say though is that most people tend to rush their forms too much.
Honestly, anyone can do a form quickly and sloppily, but if you watch professional athletes when they train on their own, they’ll spend hours standing in front of a mirror, dissecting each movement slowly and carefully to figure out the optimal positions and way to execute the techniques.
When I was learning piano back a million years ago I discovered something really interesting from my friend (who was way way better than me). He said that the best way to get really fast on the piano with your runs and arpeggios is to practice extremely slowly, so that you know every nuance of each note, and you can analyze the relationships between notes — seeing exactly what the best position your fingers need to be in to get from one key to the next — and really being deliberate with your practice.
I see the same thing in wushu.
The more deliberate and careful you are with your training, the higher the quality of your movements and even the faster you will be able to do them down the line.
Take your time, and you will improve more quickly. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works. Trust me.
So, this is my personal approach to how I might start someone with wushu. I’m not saying it is appropriate for everyone or that it is the best method out there. These are just the things I tend to think about when I’m approaching a new wushu athlete’s education.
First, you have to build up your physical condition (speed, strength, balance) and work on your flexibility. In the wushu guan you focus a LOT on basic fundamental techniques, eventually graduating to combos and then forms. Each step has to be part of a plan devised by you and your coach to get you to your optimal wushu state in the future.
Hopefully, if you are starting on your wushu journey, this might give you some ideas about how to approach your training.