Before I launch into this article, I would like to say that although bodybuilding has never been of great interest to me personally, I respect the dedication, scientific methodology and perseverance of bodybuilding athletes. I have invested a great deal of effort into my own chosen discipline and I admire the dedication of others even though I may not share their passion for their preferred path.
Traditional Wushu can be a very demanding occupation. The physical requirements are many and varied. A great deal of strength, flexibility, stamina and physical resilience is required to practice traditional Wushu. And yet, not many of the top practitioners of traditional Wushu are big and bulky although they are very strong.

Why is this so?

Is bodybuilding of use to a traditional Wushu practitioner? Let’s examine some of the pros and cons.

What are the advantages of bodybuilding?

  • Bigger muscles are stronger muscles. Note, however, that building bigger muscles is not the only way to increase strength. Weight-lifting and power-lifting definitely increase the strength of the practitioner but yield less muscle growth than strict bodybuilding. They are more neural in nature and provide more in terms of muscle recruitment and strength through improved nervous response to the practitioner. I refer you to the following article which mentions some of the differences between the various disciplines: So it is possible to increase strength without necessarily increasing muscle size.
  • Having bigger muscles increases the weight of a combatant which does confer an advantage in some combat scenarios, especially in grappling situations. Having well-developed muscles can confer a certain amount of resistance to damage because attacks have to essentially pierce the ‘natural armour’ of muscle tissue. The science and art of bodybuilding can yield great muscular control to the practitioner which can be of benefit in combat.

What are the disadvantages of bodybuilding?

  • Bigger muscles increase the weight of a combatant’s body and limbs. This does confer a weight advantage in some circumstances as noted above, but it also means that there is a penalty to acceleration. This can be circumvented to some extent by the increased muscular strength but there is a trade-off. The heavier a limb becomes, the faster and stronger the muscles have to be in order to provide maximum acceleration. The faster and stronger the muscles have to be, the more bodybuilding is required and the bigger the muscles become. The bigger the muscles become, the heavier the body becomes etc. etc. You get the idea, I’m sure.
  • Traditional Wushu seeks to centralise the force-generation impulse instead of sub-contracting it out to peripheral limbs. So, if a traditional Wushu practitioner lifts a weight with their arms, they will seek to source the impulse from centre instead of from their arms. As such, a traditional Wushu practitioner’s centre and centreline become well developed which allows them to accelerate their arms and legs at much higher speeds than if they were relying purely on the muscles in their peripheral limbs. The concepts behind most main-stream bodybuilding approaches are at odds with the unification process inherent in the internal training which is part of traditional Wushu. If the majority of a student’s training is divisionist in nature, it will be difficult for them to unify intent and body movement because an incredible investment of time and effort is required to achieve even a small degree of unification. By ‘divisionist’, I mean concentrating on exercising individual muscle groups as separate systems instead of working on movement and intent stemming from the physical and mental centre of the Wushu practitioner. What some strict bodybuilders may call ‘cheating’ ie. Harnessing whole body movement to perform an action, is one of the steps towards unification that Wushu practitioners must take.
  • Bodybuilding is a very demanding discipline which requires dedication and time. The dedication and time required hampers any major progress in traditional Wushu internal training which is an equally time-consuming discipline. In short, there isn’t enough time and energy to go around. Either you choose one or the other or walk a tightrope of compromise between the two which may yield compromised results for both disciplines.

An interesting concept which would be a matter for future experimentation and investigation would be to see whether a traditional Wushu practitioner who is competent with the internal training methods and is developing their internal force generation structures could adopt some of the bodybuilding methodology into their training. I would predict that there would be an effect although exactly what it would be, I cannot say, because internal training appears to evolve in a very individual way within practitioners to meet the needs of that individual.

One need only look at the accounts of the exploits of historic martial artists who trained in Shaolin. There seemed to be a very high degree of specificity and individuality in the effects that these practitioners could generate. Some were exceedingly fast in their movement. Some were exceedingly strong. Some could climb walls using advanced subcutaneous muscle control. Some could move as though they had almost no weight at all (as an aside, Jackie Chan demonstrates some of the incredible effects of the same lightness training that the old masters practiced). Some could smash cobblestones under their feet as though they weighed tonnes. Some were very resistant to damage.

In short, the reason there are not many big and bulky traditional Wushu practitioners is that the training does not favour muscle growth on the scale that you would expect from a strict bodybuilding approach to training. In addition, some of the aspects of bodybuilding are at odds with the central principles of traditional Wushu.

Always remember that the practitioner is a product of the training, whether bodybuilding or traditional Wushu. If you want a bodybuilder’s physique, traditional Wushu internal training is probably not for you.

Written by Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia

Photo Credit: Lin Mei –