What is it and why do I care?

(Goshin) Taiso = Goshin (protective) tai (body) + so (hardening) is a generic Japanese term for conditioning. It can range from simply stretching to very serious conditioning. Essentially, it is whatever activity you do to help you get safely ready for some other activity. In Japan you can see old folks who go to the park every morning and stretch who do it. (Interestingly enough, it is also the word for gymnastics too.) The way I like to do it is on the severe side, as a mixture of bodyweight, dumbbell and two-partner exercises. Actually, this is extremely scalable, from rehab on to training extreme athletes. The severe end has a reputation as the 'wickedest workout on two legs', so yes, this can be extreme conditioning if you like.

The big concept here is that one should not train muscles but movements. Your body has no concept of muscles, just movements. Even if you have no intention of ever doing any martial arts training, taiso is a great workout and extremely portable. It doesn't need much in the way of equipment. Of course, you can get snazzy looking dumbells, but machines, weird diets and such are not to be found here. You'll move better, have more stamina and just feel good afterwards. It also is pretty quick and you only need train about half an hour a day with it. Throw in 20 - 30 minutes of cardiovascular training and you have a really great workout.

Another factor is how to push the limit. Going full tilt in a martial arts class is good training, but doing so on a regular basis courts injuries and overtraining issues. Taiso puts the extreme parts of the training in the conditioning, where it can be controlled and you can practice training as hard as you like, with minimal risk of injury. This is one of the most important tricks in being able to stay active at a higher level as you age or try to return after an injury, say.

Many martial arts will train you hard by means of sparring or other work. This has a couple of serious drawbacks. First off, given the chaotic nature of the training, it is very easy to get badly injured. One of the most common accounts of an injury runs along the lines of "we were just sparring when I tried hard to do an X as he tried Y then pop and that was that." Generally, putting the extreme parts of the training separate from sparring lets you learn what your limits actually are. You should always be working well inside of them any time you need to use your art. (And I do beleive that requiring some athletic feat to carry the day will fail pretty reliably.)

Said differently, I like to train on the edge, but I'm smart enough about it to carefully monitor my failure modes.  It's safer and gives great results. Also, I emphasize training movements rather than muscles. The reason is that I think Pareto's Principle holds, viz., 20% of the exercises give 80% of the benefit. Distilling this down to the 20% that I think is important gives the motions to be trained.

I don't claim that on lick of this is original. If you have done sports for a while you'll have seen all of these movements elsewhere. I just claim to have organized it in a way that compliments my training.

Rolling your own workout

So how do you put a taiso workout together? Easy. First you remember the movements you need to cover, pick the appropriate mode of movement and a loading pattern. Then you pick one 'anchor' exercise for the day, that is to say, one big exercise you will use as punctuation. I usually settle on one of falling (ukemi), swings,  pistols or maybe squats. Then you do some big complex exercise from each group. When you finish, do the anchor again and repeat with all different exercises. This I refer to as a period. Yes, this is also called a circuit and that would be a fine name for it except people tend to think it is "circuit training" which is different. You should change activity every 30 - 60 seconds and never do more than 10 of a given exercise. Yes, you will be moving lickety-split the whole time.

The main focus of an exercise is doing one of these motions along with maybe some other movements. You can intersperse smaller exercises, aerobic or anaerobic exercises (drop everything when in doubt and jump rope, sprint or do stars, for example) to vary the pace. Four or five such periods constitutes a workout and should take about 3 to 4 minutes for a period, depending on various factors. Remember, there are a lot of possible combinations and your goal is to have a pretty fair amount of chaos as you train. Normally I have more focus one day on bodyweight, partner or weights, depending on equipment and such, or just completely mix and match. A good measure of wear and tear is periods per week. Start with a couple of sessions a week with a couple of periods. You can gradually increase these. After several years of doing this, I can do a session daily with 5 periods per, five days a week, depending on how strenuous I want to do things. In other words, I find that about 20 periods a week is a pretty good goal. I might up this as a training program: Every summer I send myself to "boot camp" (alias shugyo  or "ascetic training" in Japanese) for a couple of weeks, consisting of 40+ taiso sets weekly and a solid hour of cardio a day, but this can't be maintained for more than a small march of time.

Scaling it up or down.

You can use taiso to recover from an injury or training disruption too. Just aim for movement within the complete range of motion with excellent form. That is paramount before adding any weight and I would always opt for motion over poundages. Avoid the jumping and plyometric variations or anything else that is sudden. Anything your healthcare professional forbids you must avoid. They are the expert not you or me. If it was a severe problem, you want to err on the side of caution. Be sure everything in your body works. Any deficiencies in form should be fixed before increasing the load.

The first workout after a sicknes or injury is for inventory, not for getting back in shape. You should see how well things move and check for potential imbalances and weaknesses. Start with no weight for the first couple of reps. If that works, then add a little weight. You could add more, but this is to be sure that loads are transmitted correctly, muscles are functioning and so forth. I would consider avoiding the more taxing bodyweight exercises the first time if they affect the injured body part. You want to feel warm and nicely tingley all over.

If you were sick (flu or some other systemic illness), you can have residual muscle soreness. Don't underestimate how much wear and tear a bad case of the chills or a days-long coughing fit can put on you. The last thing you want to do is find that that those two days you spent in the bathroom with that tummy bug overtrained your lower back which will rip on the first highweight exercise.

If this is due to a local problem, such as an injury or infection, many times you will uncounsciously conscript other muscles to help, sacrificing structure and form. If you are or were limping in any capacity then a red flag should go up for the workout. Limping even for a few minutes can involve hundreds of repetitions which can have a training effect. For load-bearing joints you have to be sure that you have proper structure before doing much of anything. Too much weight (including just your bodyweight) then might catch you unaware and cause an injury.

The importance of structure. One of the absolute worst back injuries I got was from blithely trying to tie my shoe shortly after my hip surgery. I knew I could get into the position and bent over. That worked great. My back muscles were conditioned for when I was really twisted up, and on standing back up they tried valiantly to splint the hip and back with the effect I ripped a whole slew of them. Surgery quickly allowed me to get into a "normal" position, but the muscles "knew" that was impossible. I knew it as it was happening, but there was no way to stop it. I literally hit the floor (my falling practice helped) and was bed-ridden for nearly a week, then needed a good two months before I was feeling like my old self again. I was not doing an exercise, just tying my shoe. Never underestimate the body's ability to learn new ways to move or protect itself.

Jeff's important recovery tip: You will only come to trust your body if you have successes. Therefore, you want to be sure that every practice builds your confidence.

You will not return to a high level of activity if you mistrust your body (will that knee go out again?) You must regain your trust or you will be courting problems. Part of your recovery planning is how to plot successful workouts. Just make incremental changes and stick with it.

Cycling your workouts

You should also consider cycling your workouts. By this I mean go in 6 - 8 week phases or cycles in which there is a definite high point for certain activities (say, weeks 3 and 4 are for lots of bodyweight and therefore strength training, whereas as week 5 and 6 emphasize cardio). This will keep you fresher and give your body time to recover. Not to mention that you aren't a machine and you should have a life, which will change your workout times. Anyway, I'm saying it's ok to have breaks and you should actually just build them in and be done with it.

I admit that my hobby is working out. So I want to be able to do it pretty much every day. I have some good strategies for always looking forward to a workout and cycling is one of them. The two week timeframe is not happenstance. It has been shown that after about two weeks the maximum amount of adaptation in the body has occurred and overtraining can start to rear its ugly head. Cycling means that you get to have your cake and eat it too.

How to get hurt doing taiso

Maybe the title is a bit brash. I just want to emphasize to people coming from other backgrounds, especially powerlifting, that this is different critter. A problem I have seen is this. In powerlifting, your feedback that you've had a good workout out is that the target is really sore ('man my abs!'). When such folks start doing taiso, they tend to think that they have to go as hard at it as possible. That is to say, one body part has to be really sore the next day.

This conditioning is distributed all over you. Nothing should hurt unduly. Oh you'll know you trained, don't worry. Overdoing it until something burns like in a powerlifting workout leads to the dreaded overtraining syndrome. In that case, you will notice this first in stiffness and vague soreness. There will be no one thing you can think of that would cause it. Warming up makes the problem go away, only to return more forcefully when you cool off. What is happening? Your body's ability to recover from what you are doing to it has been exceeded. You must cease training the affected body part for at least a few days until all soreness and stiffness is gone. Why? Because you are working on somewhat damaged muscles and that bit of damage might lead to a big thumping injury. This training stresses all of you and whatever the weakest link is will probably go. Seriously, you can be working on what you think is a shoulder exercise and blow out a calf muscle if it is overtrained.

This is a serious exercise protocol. Never underestimate it.

How I hurt my knee. It is no secret that I have a ginky knee. Let me tell you the story. Back when I was still relatively new at taekwondo I took a university sports class with a fellow named Don Burns, at Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana. Mind you, I was fat and was badly out of shape. Burns was as well, although he had all sorts of important sounding rankings (turned out later these were awarded by his students and were essentially worthless). His idea of getting us to workout was to bark orders at us and really before I knew how to kick well, he was having us do flying side kicks. I landed with my left leg locked out and blew the knee out. He barked at me to get back in there and do it again, and I blew it out a second time. I was in university and the student health service misdiagnosed what was actually an anterior cruciate ligament ACL) tear with a medial collateral ligament strain. For your information, a torn ligament can be re-attached surgically only within the first 72 hours. After that it is not possible to fix it and the ligament dissolves.

It was only later that I had the great and good fortune to meet up with Dr. John McCarroll, a well repsected knee specialist. I got one of the earliest ACL (anterior cruciate ligament)  rebuilds, in which the middle of the knee ligament is removed and threaded through a hole bored in the shin, replacing the missing ACL. The reconstruction was pretty successful, although since there was no real guideline for recovery, I was on crutches too long and ended up having to learn how to walk again. On the balance, this meant I made great and good headway when I got a
new hip. I have restricted motion and if I don't mind to avoid certain sorts of shearing actions it will swell impressively.

In my opinion, Mr. Burns teaching was flatly incompetent and he showed a criminal negligence for the welfare of his students. This is the origin of my realization that there are no standards in the martial arts, that rank has no real meaning of competence, and that any idiot can proclaim himself a master. I get to think of Mr. Burns  everyday as a result of this and it serves as a reminder of exactly how I don't want to train my own students.