Get functioning

Written by John Will

The term ‘functionality’ is bandied around a lot these days, but what does it mean, and what does it take to get it? 

'Functional fitness' means the desired ends must dictate the means

The world is a very different place than what it was even a decade ago. For many of us, time is now the most valuable resource. The world is simply moving at a faster pace than it did for our parents, or their parents. So what does that mean for the martial arts? For many, it simply means that we want to ‘cut to the chase’.

We are less willing to spend time on practice that does not give us a solid return. We live in a world where results are expected, so we have less patience for things that do not ‘work’ or are less effective than promised. In short, we thirst for functionality!

‘Functional fitness’ was a term unheard of 10 years ago. Sure, different people espoused different fitness protocols then, but times have seen a paradigm shift in terms of how and why people are going about getting ‘fitter’.

We change, we adapt according to the stresses we are exposed to, so if we stress our cardio system, we become better at just endurance; if we stress our anaerobic system, we become better adapted to short and powerful bursts; if we stress our muscular system, we grow thicker muscle fibres and ‘bulk up’, etc.

But nowadays, more and more people are asking the obvious question: what areas do I want to improve in, and why? What do I want to get in return for my efforts? And in asking these questions, we are led to the concept of functionality.

Functionality is something that I have always looked for in my own martial arts practice. I, like most others of my time, began my martial arts journey in the traditional arts. After some undesired pressure-testing in real life, I realised that while the training was of some value, I wanted to take a more practical (functional) approach, and so I began my journey in earnest.

I headed to South East Asia and immersed myself in silat, dabbled in muay Thai, wrestled in India, trained in Japan and China, etc. By the mid ’80s I had caught my first glimpse of vale tudo (anything goes) in Brazil and made my way there a few years later to begin my foray into the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

At that time, and for a few years after, I was only interested in those aspects of BJJ that could be brought to bear in ‘real-world’ fights. My desire for ‘functional’ martial arts training forced me to address those areas of my training that were severely lacking (the biggest one being groundwork).

BJJ, for me, was highly functional, even at the most fundamental level; like in boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and judo, every day I was pressure-tested on the mat. It was a daunting experience, but the reward was well worth the price, and has become increasingly more so over several decades of practice.

Nowadays, the BJJ scene is very different from the one I first encountered in Rio de Janeiro back in 1986. The sporting aspect of BJJ has enjoyed a level of growth that I could never have predicted. I knew I loved it, but I never dreamed that so many others would also! It seems, though, that I am not alone in my search for functionality.

I think this is why BJJ is still enjoying incredible growth; with even a little training, you can expect a very big (and measureable) return on time invested. Same goes, by the way, for an art like boxing; it’s highly functional, almost all of the ‘fluff’ stripped away. Be prepared for a price, though; again, not for everyone.

It is usually difficult to get great returns from undertaking low-risk or low-effort activities. Don’t expect exceptional fitness from a nightly walk around the block; don’t expect to become independently wealthy by saving $10 a week; and don’t expect to develop exceptional fighting skills practising TKD twice a week.

That’s not to say these things aren’t worthwhile; saving $10 a week, walking around the block and doing two classes of TKD each week is infinitely better than doing nothing. But If you want to be functionally fit, expect to sweat hard for it; if you want to be financially independent, expect to make more than a few sacrifices, over more time than you might like, to make it happen; if you want to have functional, street-worthy fighting skills, expect to do the hard yards and live outside of your comfort zone.

There’s design on paper and then there is building the house in real life; these are two different things — ask any builder and his counterpart, the architect. Strong functionality requires a meeting of the two, and so it is with our martial arts training.
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