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For a lot of folks, when you have only trained in one school for most of your wushu life you start to wonder what life is like on the other side of the proverbial carpet. Do other schools train the same as you? What do they do during their class? Do they focus more on basics or forms? What about conditioning drills?

These are pretty normal questions and, even after you have experienced training at a few other schools, you might still be curious about what other wushu athletes go through. That curiosity is good because it is a signal that we are always on the look out to figure out the optimal training system for our own needs.

I thought it might be helpful to talk a bit about the typical training that you see in the West, and compare it with the type of training you find in China.

Truth be told, they aren’t really all that much different. After all, most of the coaches who open schools in the West are either from China or are directly influenced by training experiences in China, so they tend to run their workouts in very similar ways.

However, I still find that many people are curious about the typical or standard training regimen of athletes in China, both as an extension of that aforementioned natural curiosity, but also because it is nice to know what the “pros” are doing so that we can mirror their environment.

Most training classes I’ve been a part of are broken up in to 4 main phases, and some of these phases also have sub-phases that comprise their whole. They are preparations, basics, forms and conditioning. Almost every class I’ve ever participated in, either in the U.S. or China, follows this format with very little exceptions. Here is a bit more detail on each:

Preparations

There are 3 parts to the preparatory phase of class. Warm ups, Cardio and Stretching. Each one plays an important part in getting your body ready for the rigors of wushu.

Warm ups

Typically this is when you do the ankle and wrist rotations, rotate your head, loosen up your shoulders, twist your waist, etc. Basically the purpose of this is to warm up your joints before you start to move around. Often times there will be some light stretching here too, but usually nothing much more than some lunge stretches or toe touches. Just some light bouncing to give you proper range of motion.

The reason this is important is mainly for injury prevention. The better you warm up, the less likely you are to injure yourself. I realize this is something that you probably hear a lot, and when I was younger I sort of dismissed the importance of it. After all, when you are young you can sort of start running without too much preparation.

But trust me. This is one of the main things you can do to prevent injuries. And if you still don’t’ think it is worth your time, then at least take a cue from the professionals. Zhao Qing Jian and Liu Qing Hua started each workout with a joint warm up, so unless you think you are somehow better than them or know some wushu secret they have yet to uncover, then you should probably pay heed.

In comparing the West and China, I find that this is one area that is not consistently drilled in the West. I’ve seen some classes where they go straight in to running after the class starts. Or they start their games of tag or dodge ball. That is a big mistake, because those games, with all their quick jerky starts and stops, are just asking for someone to twist their knee or roll their ankle.

In China the warm up usually takes about 10 or 15 minutes, depending on the weather. In the winter they spend a little more time on this. In the heat of summer, not so much.

Cardio

After warming up the joints the athletes usually start off on a small trot around the room. And by trot I really mean they start with a very light jog.

This isn’t because they are lazy. It is because if you start running quickly right off the bat, you don’t give your body time to acclimate to the increase in heart rate or breathing. You have to warm up your engine like a car. Gunning the motor as soon as you turn the ignition is a good way to mess up your transmission. Same goes for your body.

After a couple laps of light jogging (maybe 5 – 10 minutes), they’ll start incorporating other things like high knees, butt kickers, toe flickers, light hops, etc. Also ways to get the body revved up and loosen up the joints and muscles. After 10 or so minutes of that they usually end the cardio with some wind sprints across the room — maybe 5 of them — and then they finish up.

For variety you will sometimes see the athletes break off in to a game after the light jogging. Some wushu tag or dragon tag, or possibly the game where you throw a piece of foam in the air and call the name of someone to catch it. Just something to keep the kids from getting completely mind-numb from the same workout day after day.

In the West this is pretty similar. The only real difference I see is that sometimes you see that people in the West take the little games way too seriously. The purpose of the games is to warm up and have fun. It isn’t a competitive sport. If you take it as such, then you are missing the point of the exercise. My advice: give the ego a rest and just enjoy yourselves. Sure, you should do your best, but that doesn’t mean acting like the score in dodgeball really matters all that much.

The whole point of this part of the workout is to break a sweat. Focus on doing that and you’ll be okay.

Stretching

And finally we come to everyone’s favorite — stretching. This one is almost universally the same. I’ve trained with several different professional teams in China and they all do pretty much the identical routine.

First they start off on the bars. They stretch their head to toes, their side stretches, their shoulders and arms and sometimes a drop stance against the wall.

Then after about 5 – 10 minutes of that they head to the carpet and do their more focused stretches. Often times they’ll bring some mats or pads out to use to prop their front legs for the splits. A lot of them focus on stretching past the splits so that landing in splits is not so difficult.

Most athletes will really work their stretching at this point, because this is crutial for their full range of motion during the next phase of the workout. They’ll put a lot of focus in to it, and you should too. Just going through the motions with stretching is not going to yield any good results down the line.

In the West I’ve noticed that there is much more group stretching than in China. You’ll have a class all do stretching together, counting off each position as a group. The main reason for this is that you have a lot of people in the class who might have never stretched before. Especially if they are new to wushu. By the time they get to the advanced level they can probably be left to their own devices, but it also builds up a sense of camaraderie in the class when you all do something together.

Of course in China they all live, work, sweat and play together 24 /7 so there isn’t a need to develop this through group stretching. Plus, they’ve all been stretching for years so, once athletes leave the kids classes behind, they don’t really do the group thing as much. Sometimes at the end of class, but not as often as in the West. Group stretching is mainly reserved for kids who have to be pushed hard to get flexible.

That isn’t a pretty sight, but we can talk about the rigors of childhood wushu training in China in another entry.

All together the preparatory part of the class should take about 30 – 45 minutes, depending on a few variables. That is about how long it takes to really break a sweat and get a good stretch in prior to focusing on wushu technique.

Basics

So, now that the athletes are warmed up, sweating and stretched out, it is time for basics. I tend to break this part of the workout in to three phases: basics, combos and jumps.

Basics

I know, I’m repeating myself. This is the “basics” part of the “basics” phase of the workout. Just go with me on this one.

Almost always without fail this starts with some loose kicks and light stance work. After a few lines up and down the carpets of that then they start with the hard core kicking basics. Front stretch, side stretch, inside, outside, etc. etc. You know the drill. Depending on the day they’ll do anywhere from 2 lines to 4 lines of each, followed by some variations or related combination.

If they have time, you’ll often see them do stance work training after the kicking basics. Mabu-gongbu or similar things. They in to other techniques like body turns, back sweeps, front sweeps and possibly even a wubuquan if you’re lucky. 😉

Most classes in the west have the same sort of basics too. I would say the main difference here is the intensity. In the U.S. you’ll see more corrections, fixing and helping from the coaches while the athletes go through the basics. The simple reason for this is that, in China, these are basic maneuvers. The athletes are already really really good at most of these things. But in the West our levels on even basic techniques can still use a lot of help, so we tend to focus on them a bit more and get more corrections.

I’ve noticed that some folks when they come to China are discouraged both because everyone in China has such good basics, and because they aren’t really getting corrected as much as they’d like. To be honest, there are probably a few reasons this happens. First, you were coddled a bit back home by your coach. This sort of thing is a result of you paying for classes, whereas in China athletes have to prove themselves in order to stay in the wushu guan. Athletes in China work for the approval of the coach, but in the West coaches work for the approval of the customer. That slight change in dynamic means you get a lot more hand-holding back in your hometown.

Another reason is because they are probably just waiting for you to get up to speed and improve to the point where the obvious corrections can be replaced with more specific help. “Kick faster” is sort of an obvious correction. Obviously you are slower than everyone else. Telling you to “kick faster” is sort of like saying “do better”. It goes without saying. When they start focusing on body alignment issues, or more subtle details, then you know you went from learning basics, to mastering some technique.

Of course, I’m generalizing a little bit here, and this is really not the place to discuss this particular topic, but you get the idea. This is all about basics. Either in the West or in China.

I should add that another difference I notice between the two is the amount of time spent on basics. In China they’ll do these for a good 25 – 30 minutes, but in the West you’ll often see just 15 minutes of basics and then the students eagerly go right to the excitement of jumps. Again … there is a reason why the basics of Chinese athletes is better than those of the West. They do thousands of them a week. How many of us can say the same thing?

Combos

Combos, short for “combinations” are really just an extension of the basics. In fact, from basics to combos to jumps, often times is a pretty seamless transition.

Usually athletes will start doing specific combinations of movements from their forms. And what you’ll also often see is them doing this during the basics part of “basics”.

For example, after the inside kick, they might incorporate a few movements from their individual form that follow their own inside kick, just to practice having a smooth transition.

What this means is that sometimes the “combos” and “basics” parts get fused together. This isn’t unusual so no need to be surprised if it happens to you. In fact it is a pretty normal thing to do if you are preparing for a competition.

Again, I notice that in China they tend to really focus on dissecting their movements. In the West you’ll see a bit more hesitation or students being unsure of themselves and not really focusing their attention on their technique, rather they focus their attention on trying not to be the focus of attention. My advice is to think less about what people think of you and pay more attention to whether or not your shoulders are aligned properly, or your fingers in your hands are together like they’re supposed to be.

The one thing you’ll definitely pick up by training in China is that the difference between “okay” and “good” is how much you are able to focus your energy into self-critiques, self-improvement and self-analysis. Look inside a bit more, and the outside will look a lot better.

Jumps

It seems this is most people’s favorite part of the workout. Jumps! Whee! Given the state of my knees I usually sit this part of class out in favor of more stance work. But it also gives me a good vantage point of viewing what athletes do during this phase of the class.

Essentially, there is just a ton of repetition going on. Jumps after jumps after jumps, ad nauseum. Again, it is all about focus and paying attention to the little details. This is where a good coach can be vital to making those small incremental improvements that are necessary. But a coach’s advice only goes so far. A lot of improvement comes from just getting on the carpet and practicing over and over and over and over again.

In comparing this part of class between China and the West, I notice that the athletes in the West take much more pleasure in this part of class than the ones in China seem to. I think this is partially because the athletes in China look at this as their job. They are working, and part of their work is to improve their jumps — especially their nandu — since it can make or break their careers.

In the West we do wushu more for fun, so we tend to look at the jumping part of class as a time to look cool doing cool moves. After all, the reason a lot of us started wushu is because of the jumping stuff. (Well, not me so much, but I’m sure some of you did.) Unfortunately when you view the jumping part of class as the “fun” part, then you are likely to take it less seriously as a method for improving your wushu.

Of course, if you’re an old wushu miser like me, then you’d just as soon focus on kicks, stances and combos, since those will end up making all of your wushu look better, as opposed to a 3 second move that can either make or break your score.

As I always say, if your horse stance looks like crap and your body caves in when you do a waist-high front stretch kick, then you have no business practicing a butterfly twist.

Forms

After they have finished the basics, athletes will often take a quick water break (that’s right — this is usually their first water break of the class) and then prepare themselves for whatever forms they are supposed to work on that day.

Most coaches have a schedule posted (or they have told them at the beginning of the week) so the athletes know what they are supposed to do on any given day. Typically it is a series of sections followed by half sets or full sets, depending on how close it is to competition.

There isn’t much to say about this. We all know what it is like to run through sections. The main difference between China and the West is the number of sections they’ll do. A lot of classes I’ve been to in the U.S. would just do one of each section before the class finishes up. In China they’ll often do 4 of each section, followed by 4 half-sets and one or two full sets.

This is mainly due to a matter of time. The classes in the West are usually shorter than their Chinese counterparts. When you have 2 1/2 to 3 hours to train like they do in China, then you can do a whole lot more wushu. Most classes I’ve been to in the U.S. last anywhere from 75 minutes to 2 hours. If you’re lucky you’ll have a school that goes for longer, but most seem to err on the side of too little.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think any coach or school worth their salt should be offering classes less than 75 minutes for their students. The reason or this is pretty simple: There is just no way you can get a comprehensive wushu workout in any less time than that. If you have been following along so far, you may have noticed that the preparatory part of class alone is almost half an hour. Then another 45 minutes for basics, and you’re already at your 75 minute minimum. Pretty soon you’re cutting corners and the class is just a mess of disorganization and half-learned techniques. In my opinion, the only way a 75 minute class is enough time is if you are doing 2 of them a day. The first class can focus on basics, and the second class can focus on forms.

Anyway, that is enough of that rant. You get the idea. I’m a strong believer that you get out of wushu the amount of time you put in to it. Hopefully your school is providing you with the best opportunities to improve.

Now, having said all that, I would be remiss not to mention a slight exception to this rule: beginners. When you are coaching beginners it is important not to overwhelm them at the start. In this situation a 75 minute class is probably fine. They aren’t going to be working on jumps, nandu or forms too much at this point, so if the class is focused on basics, then this should be plenty of time.

And what a lot of schools do is have the first 75 minutes be basics and fundamentals, open for all levels, followed immediately with a more advanced combos, jumps and forms workout for the advanced or upper intermediate students. This is also a schedule that works well.

In fact, I’ve written up a really long document (two, actually) specifically about the ideal curriculum and structure that I would use if I were going to start a wushu school, but this isn’t the place for that either. I’ll stick it on the blog one of these days so you can have a look-see.

Conditioning

And then we come to the end of the class. This part of class seems to be optional in China, mainly because they are in class so much already. And also because they often have specific classes set aside for conditioning or strength training work. With 11 classes a week, they can set aside a few dedicated workouts in the weight room or at the track.

But in the West we don’t really have that luxury, so often we will stick the conditioning workout at the end of class.

This is usually a bunch of cross-fit type drills. Like duck-walks, burpies, frog leaps, wall sits and the like.

The one thing that is pretty standard though is some end-of-class stretching. Often, both in China and in the West, the athletes will spend a good amount of time stretching at the end of class.

Actually, I should mention that this is something that I feel isn’t really done as much as it should be. I think my opinion on this was changed by Joe Scarcella back in the day. He emphasized the importance of post-class stretching to me during a workout at Cal Wushu, and since then I’ve subscribed to the idea that it is during the post-class stretching that true flexibility gains are made.

I mentioned in my “beginning wushu” entry, that it is important to stretch when you are warmed up. But I should also add to that my feeling that the type of stretching you do at the beginning of class should be a little different than what you do at the end of class.

Specifically, at the beginning of class I advocate more dynamic stretching such as the head-to-toe bouncing thing. (Yes, I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t bounce your stretches, but everyone in China does it and they are the most flexible people I know, so I’m sticking with what seems to work.) And at the end of class I tend to prefer the more static stretching, such as holding splits for a long time, or getting in to various position (ala Yoga poses) and holding them.

In my (limited) experience, I’ve found that this combination seems to improve my flexibility the fastest.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. The typical workout in China and how it generally compares to what I’ve seen in the West.

Now, I should mention that there are lots of variations here. And often, as I mentioned before, they will set aside certain classes for strength training or cardio training. But I would say that 80% of the wushu classes follow this general pattern.

And again, it is all about putting in the time. 2 – 3 hours minimum if you want to follow this sort of training format. If I’m coaching a class I’ll usually try to break it down in the following time increments:

  • Preparatory: 30 minutes
  • Basics: 40 minutes
  • Forms: 60 minutes
  • Conditioning: 20 minutes.

That is 150 minutes, but if you add in water breaks and small transition breaks here and there it usually ends up going closer to 3 hours. From these numbers I’ll adjust up or down depending on the available time. For example, if the class is only 90 minutes long then I might do something like this:

  • Preparatory: 20 minutes
  • Basics: 30 minutes
  • Forms: 30 minutes
  • Conditioning 10 minutes

Again, it is all somewhat fluid. It is one of the things I enjoy about coaching wushu. You can really create a unique experience each class even though it has many of the same components each time.

UPDATE: 11-July-2012

I was recently asked this question related to this blog post, so I thought I would post the answer here.

I have a few questions if you don’t mind mark. I’m assuming the pro athletes train a couple times a day, using that same format. When do they usually do their strength training (morning/evening), and how many times a week do they do this? I’m actually surprised they practice jumping every day, as my joints feel it after just one session. Probably another reason why they retire relatively young.

Well, of course every professional wushu training environment is different so whatever I say is going to be a generalization based on my limited experiences, but from what I can gather, a “normal” training schedule for a week might be something like this:

Class Times (M-Sat):

  • 6:00 AM – 7:30 AM (sometimes they have an early morning cardio or basics training, but this is not as common in all schools)
  • 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM
  • 3:00 PM – 5:30 PM (no afternoon training on Saturday)

Monday

  • 9:00: Basics and Forms
  • 3:00: Basics and Forms

Tuesday

  • 9:00: Basics and Forms
  • 3:00: Conditioning Class (weights or other conditioning exercises)

Wednesday

  • 9:00: Basics and Forms
  • 3:00: Cardio Class (maybe at the track)

Thursday

  • 9:00: Basics and Forms
  • 3:00: Conditioning Class

Friday

  • 9:00: Basics and Forms
  • 3:00: Basics and Forms

Saturday

  • 9:00: Basics and Forms
  • 3:00: Cardio Class (I’ve seen some schools do this, but it isn’t as common to have a Saturday afternoon class).

Now, keep in mind a few things …

  • The forms training often changes from class to class. They might work on open hand one class and weapons a different class. They might work on traditional forms if they have a traditional forms competition coming up. Or they might practice a group or sparring set if that is their focus. It depends on their competition schedule and the season.
  • Some schools do more cardio than other, but most will have two sessions a week at least. Sometimes they do them in the mornings, and sometimes they do them on specific days. It depends on the coach, the season, the facility and the alignment of the planets.
  • During preparations for competition they will often include another evening training to practice their forms. Often what they will do for the week or two before a competition is practice specific sets in a “competition” environment based on the schedule of the competition. For example, if your event is nanquan and it will be held in the evening during the competition, then they will have you go through your full forms in the evenings to prepare your body for that schedule.Here is some footage of an old wushu training blog that might shed some light on their competition schedule
  • The athletes have been training for years to be able to practice jumping on a consistent basis, but they don’t do it EVERY class. Again, the format of class that I outlined in the blog entry was a generalization and every week has its variations on this theme. Some classes they focus a lot of time and energy on nandu and jumping, and sometimes they don’t. It just depends on the coaches.
  • This is just a generalization. Every school/coach/athlete/individual’s experience will probably vary to some degree.