Internal Martial Arts and Calisthenics

by Ray Shonk on May 30, 2017

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Ray Shonk Flag Lead Photo

A long time ago, before I became a trainer (and after a long hiatus in my own fitness and martial art training), I decided to get back on the scene. I began training a martial art called Taijiquan, also known as Tai Chi. To be perfectly honest, I chose this after watching late night Kung Fu movies. Inspiration comes from many places!

Without much research on it, I jumped in. The first few classes were exceptionally frustrating. I was super uncoordinated and it felt like I was doing “the robot.” I was unprepared for the fluidity of many of the moves, as well as for the full body unity that is required. However, after about a year, things eventually started smoothing out, and I finally got into the martial side of Taijiquan.

Ray Shonk Tai Chi

I started working on “pushing hands” or chi sau, and once again the frustration kicked in. As I had previously experienced, I felt clunky in many of my movements.

I decided to get into weight training in hopes of improving my performance. Like many folks from my generation, weight training seemed like the most viable way to get better physically equipped. And while it’s true that my weight training at this time incorporated a few push-ups and assisted pull-ups, the primary focus was still on external resistance.

Speed ahead years later and I got a bit stronger and leaner. I won my first gold medal for Taijiquan. I even left my corporate job to become a trainer. But something was still missing in my own development. I needed to try something different…

At this time, a good friend of mine introduced me to the Kavadlo Brothers by showing me a YouTube video. Like many, my first thought was, “How can you possibly get stronger using no weights?” But I kept an open mind and gave it a shot. I started my training with the basic, fundamental movements of bodyweight strength training: push-ups, squats, lunges, dips and, of course, pull-ups!

Ray Shonk Pull-Up

After several months of training in both calisthenics and Taijiquan, I noticed that I was not only getting faster, stronger and leaner, but all my movements flowed more freely. I had found what I was missing! The movements in all aspects of Taijiquan required control of multiple muscles at the same time and calisthenics promotes multiple muscle recruitment in each exercise. I mean, lets look at it. A bench press uses the pectorals, triceps and deltoids, but a push-up hits all those muscles, as well as just about everything else. A strong man may be able to control others, but a truly powerful man can control himself.

It’s been five years since I put the weights down for good. Now that I’ve established a solid foundation in the basics, I’ve incorporated more advanced bodyweight exercises like the pistol squat, muscle-up and human flag. I have since attended the SCC in New York with Danny Kavadlo, and the PCC in Boston with Al & Danny Kavadlo. I’m finding that I’m stronger, faster and more agile in my late 30’s than I ever was in my 20’s. A huge part of that has been training my body with my body, an art that extends as far back as man. My Tai Chi practice and all aspects of my life are better with calisthenics!

Ray Shonk Jungle Gym MuscleUp

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Ray Shonk, PCC, SCC is a personal trainer in Grand Rapids Michigan, a adjunct professor at GVSU and owner of Quest Fitness. He currently specializes in Calisthenics, Sports Performance and Martial Arts training. When he is not training he spends time brewing beer, and spending time with friends and family. Learn more at www.questfitnessgym.com.

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  • Matt Schifferle

    Yes! It’s crazy how calisthenics can carry over to the martial arts. I really like how you put it as training your body with your body. You hit the nail right on the head with that one Ray.

    • Ray Shonk

      Thanks! Many traditional practitioners still use calisthenics in their training. Nothing wrong with with weights but I like the old ways best.

  • Geoffrey Levens

    I have very limited experience with chi sau but what little I have, training with a high level expert of 30 plus years fanatic involvement, showed me that muscular strength has only a very small part in success. Sensitivity and responsiveness are the keys. As my teacher used to say, “You don’t need to be fast, you just need to be ‘on time’.” Consistent use of strength in the practice will actually hold you back from learning the needed great sensitivity. Then, yes, all things being equal, strength will win. But the weaker but skilled player can easily trash the muscled up hack

    • Ray Shonk

      I agree, training with masters of much higher levels will make your skill increase quickly! For Chi Sau you need good listening jin over strength to build up that reaction time. As Bruce Lee said, “You need speed, accuracy and power”. Be like water my friend.

  • There’s more to moving about than moving about. All exercise can be medative. I used to find that running & swimming lent themselves to rational thought & problem solving. Now I find calisthenics is much the same, I used to call it the “mind in motion.” Long duration isometrics also produce the same effect, so I reckon it’s more to do with tension than motion per se. Anyway, a good article Ray, thanks.

    • Ray Shonk

      Thanks!

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