There is an interesting concept that seems to prevail in the minds of many aikidoka. It runs a bit like this. You don’t need to be fit or strong to do aikido. This is an assertion I have come across over and over through my years of training.
I can see how people would arrive at this conclusion. It’s an obvious outcome of being told that your martial art does not rely on strength and that it uses the other person’s motion. It practically screams that you can be a couch potato and still be a bad-ass. Many dojo’s recruit on the idea that you don’t have to be fit to do aikido. It’s a concept perpetuated in our demonstrations; many of our top instructors are in less than stellar physical condition. So much so that it’s verging on becoming a meme in the martial arts.
The argument I would make is that aikidoka need to be some of the fittest martial artists in the world. The very nature of our art, by definition, means that we cannot get away with being unfit. Aikidoka must be strong, fast, and athletic. Far more than they think they should be.
I suspect that in our heart of hearts we actually know this. If not, then posting a picture of Steven Seagal on an aikido forum would not result in so many fat comments. Regardless of what you think about him many aikidoka do feel Steven Seagal is a terrible representation of our art, partly because of his size.
A question I am often asked in relation to this topic is how I came to my conclusions over aikido and fitness, which seem to be the polar opposite of the main view. Contrary to what you may suspect, this has nothing to do with the fact that, by all accounts, Morihei Ueshiba was a physical powerhouse for a significant portion of his life. No, this comes from a simple examination of the nature of our art and realising that there is only one logical conclusion about how fit an aikidoka has to be.
Although useful, we don’t even have to define ‘fit’ to reach this conclusion. We’ll get to ‘what is fit’ in another blog post, the answer may surprise you but don’t worry about it right now.
Let’s consider the general assertion that you don’t need to be fit to do aikido. Before going any further, there’s always some wag that points out you have to use your muscles or you can’t stand up, you just puddle on the floor. So there is a strength requirement because you can’t relax completely, etc. etc. While this is technically true, it’s beyond pedantic and utterly unhelpful in just about every context of this discussion. There is always a baseline implication that you can move yourself around.
First question then is the somewhat obvious, “Why do aikidoka not need to be fit?” The answer is simple, you use the other person’s energy against them. To do that you need to keep them off-balance and moving. There is no strength or fitness required for this. An argument can be made, though not a very good one, that being strong is actually detrimental to this goal.
There seems to be nothing wrong with that when you first look at it. If all the energy comes from the other person then your ability to provide momentum is irrelevant. The problem here is that the conclusion does not logically follow from the assertion. Consider for a moment that uke and nage are in isolation. There are no influences upon them other than each other. Uke provides the energy, all nage must do is get out of the way and direct that energy. There lies the major problem.
Imagine that uke and nage are cars. Both are driving towards a T-junction. Nage is on the main road and uke is going to join it. Let’s imagine too that uke’s brakes fail and they are unable to stop. Let’s also imagine that nage is aware of this. Uke is going to hit nage, so nage needs to speed up. If both cars are already going at the same speed this isn’t an issue. Nage easily avoids the uke. But what if uke is going faster than nage? Nage has to speed up a lot more to avoid the collision. What if uke is in a shiny new race car? How fast does nage need to move to avoid a collision now? It’s a lot faster than if uke were a family saloon. What if uke were in a shiny new race car and nage is in my shitty beat-up 12 year old Fiat Panda?
Nage is toast.
This is why the logic behind the assertion that you don’t have to be fit to do aikido effectively is immensely flawed. The opposite is true. You need to be immensely fit.
If everybody has the same level of fitness then there aren’t really any problems. Most aikidoka have a similar level of fitness and so there are no problems in training. If someone is stronger, faster, or fitter than you are though, then the problems appear. By allowing the uke to provide the energy for the attack, and by seeking to merge with that energy, the nage is turning over a portion of control of the encounter to the uke. The uke is allowed to dictate the initial speed at which things happen.
While it is perfectly feasible to slow down or accelerate an uke, in general, we try to keep things at the same speed to create harmony. It’s just easier to do that without it becoming a fight. It’s why we tell beginners that ‘speed in equals speed out’.
If uke is dictating the speed of the encounter then nage is forced to move at that speed. If uke is faster than nage then the nage has a serious problem to contend with. A problem that they will be unable to solve during the encounter. It’s a problem that could have been avoided and will only be solved by spending time in a gym.
There is a slightly deeper aspect to this which is highlighted by the car analogy. The entire discussion so far hasn’t truly reflected our training. The suggestion was made that both uke and nage are moving. In our training though uke is often attacking a stationary nage. It would be more accurate to say that uke’s accelerating race car is heading towards nage’s stationary Fiat Panda. Nage doesn’t have a chance of avoiding the collision. The outcome is inevitable. Nage gets hit.
It generally takes more energy to get an object at rest into motion than it does to accelerate an already moving one.
What this really comes down to is the very simple and obvious truth. A physically fit person can move faster than a relatively less fit person. To ensure that you can move at the same speed as another person you need to be at least as physically capable as they are. The simple conclusion reached is that as an aikidoka, you need to be the fittest person in the room. There is only one way to ensure that is the case. You need to workout.
One of the arguments made against my assertion is that it doesn’t matter because aikido is not a martial art, or that people aren’t training it for self-defence, etc. Sadly this is all nonsense. Aikido is very clearly a martial art and in the second many people do train for self-defence. Interestingly though, that doesn’t matter at all. If you’re trying to learn for the purposes of self-improvement and harmonious living then the techniques of aikido will teach you that. One of the big lessons they contain is how to blend with other people. That means moving with them rather than fighting. Again, the implication is that you need to be the fittest person in the dojo.
Realistically though, you cannot be as fit as I am suggesting. I do understand that. The level of fitness I’m advocating here is reserved for elite athletes. Clearly, we aren’t that. There is a happy medium to reach for. I would advocate aiming to be fitter than your average martial artist. Not aikidoka, martial artist. For instance the average boxer, judoka, or MMA practitioner. That’s a level you can attain and that you should strive for. Reaching that would place you above the average fitness level of most people, and in the majority of cases that should suffice.
Ultimately, it’s time to go to the gym. Think about the fittest person you know of. You need to be at least that fit.