China Acrobatic Training (2)

Today, I’d like to share with you a glimpse into the Chinese methods of strength and weights training, as described to me and practised 40-odd years ago by my Fujian mentor, Ling Qing Hu.

My mentor told me that he used to be a scrawny boy, and retained his slight build and lanky frame even into his early 20s. Then, some people in the trade pissed him off by mocking his physqiue and claiming that he’ll never be able to grow much bigger or stronger.

And thus the determined young acrobat embarked on a course to prove his doubters wrong.

When describing the strength and weights training that he employed (translated, of course):

“I used to train intensively every night, a strength and weightlifting session that lasted for about 1 – 2 hours. I’d start off with a single set of 200 shoulder presses with a 60-kilo barbell, and go on to another set of 200 shoulder presses with the same weight, this time pressing the barbell from behind the neck. Then I’d hit a set of 200 bench presses, same weight used as in the shoulder presses. After that I’d perform a set of 200 biceps curl, this time dropping the weight by half to about 30 kilos on a barbell. And then I’d stop the weights and finish off with a single set of 200 parallel bar dips.

I did this every night, sometimes with a few other training partners. One of us would work the weights or the parallel bars while the rest of us rested in between our sets. So it was like a rotational system, the barbell and the parallel bars were never free, and we rested until the previous guy came off the weights or the bar, whereupon one of us would pick up where we left off. It was extremely intense, the muscles being worked will feel hot and swollen after the session.

It was an extremely effective routine. I went from a skinny 50-odd kilos to about 80 kilos in a few short years, and my muscular development was such that my old friends and colleagues who had not seen me for some time could not recognise me from the back, and were shocked by my newly-acquired strength and muscular build.”

Oh and by the way, my mentor is about 165cm in height.

I would have been skeptical, if not for the formidable forearm development, the broad and well-defined muscles of the chest, and the very-visible overhang of the latissimus dorsi that my mentor still exhibits. And this, at an age of 64 years, and after having discontinued any structured physical training for about 20-odd years.

I used to laugh when my mentor recounted the hot summer days of his hometown, when he would be afflicted by rashes in the underarm region due to the sweat-slicked, abrasive contact that the inside of his upper arms made with the top of his massive lats everytime he moved his arms close to his body. The old man used to grumble good-naturedly that even something as innocuous as the natural swinging motion the arms made when he walked caused him much irritation, and on several occasions he recalled how he could never keep his arms down by his side due to his oversized lats.

The sheer number of repetitions that my mentor used to perform daily in the weighted lifts and the parallel bar dips, and for a single set per exercise, is a method that I have never heard of or seen outside of the old-time strongmen material that I’ve come across in recent years. But perhaps that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, seeing as how most recreational strength trainees and bodybuilders nowadays tend to stick to the glitzy workouts detailed in the shiny pages of glossy muscle mags.

Most of these “sleeve-busting” or “power-packed” workouts prescribe 3 – 5 sets of 8 – 15 reps per exercise. And actually they would have been more effective, if more people out there are less egoistic and more hardworking in the gym. 5 sets of 15 on an exercise actually gives you a grand total of 75 reps, which is a pretty decent number that when performed religiously every day, or even every other day, could potentially jack you up beyond recognition, and make you a walking badass.

But what is actually going on out there most of the time is that despite there being alot of guys claiming that they want it (“it” being bigger guns, or bigger chests, or bigger something), most of these dudes just don’t want this “it” bad enough. They go and cheat themselves and just curl or press some half-assed weights halfheartedly, or try and lift too heavy too fast and end up getting nothing for themselves save a hefty truckload of frustration.

People ask me how to get better at something. I get a bit irritated. But I calm myself down, and tell myself that everyone’s been through that stage: when we are looking for a shortcut cos we feel lazy about doing the work.

But the people that made it? They’re the ones who have passed through that phase, and realised that there is no quick or easy way out, and that everything is actually pretty simple, although painfully so. The rest of the poor chaps who’re still runnin’ around in circles out there are the ones who’re still trying to delude themselves into thinking that there is some magic formula that’s gonna get them jacked without the need to break a sweat.  

How to get better at something? Simple. Practice more. Simple? Yes. Easy? No.

While it is a straight road to success, it’s a bleedin’ long road, and sometimes you get so shot up trying to get to the end of it all that you find yourself only able to crawl and drag yourself forward a few pitiful inches with every titanic burst of resolve and exertion. Hey, no one said that success was easy. Hell, if it were, there’ll be alot more happy people and alot less jealousy and self-pity to go around.

Talent is greatly overrated. And hard work is greatly underrated.

Find me the best at something, anything, who got there by doing nothing, and I’ll give it to him that he’s plenty talented. But odds are the best got there by working harder at what they do than everyone else who’s also doing the same thing.

My Fujian mentor liked to say “gong dao zi ran cheng”, which is Mandarin for “work begets results”. He used this phrase whenever he was referring to those accomplished handbalancers who could do spectacular feats, such as hopping up a flight of stairs on a one-arm handstand, on a cane. Without long years of dedicated effort, he said, no one can have a hope of doing such amazing things.

This is something that the old-timers understood. They lifted iron for hours on end, practising a single lift for years and years before being able to record those feats that live on today as legend. Arthur Saxon, the Iron Master, holder for the world record of the two-hands anyhow, used to say that true strength is that which can be used repeatedly for sustained periods of time, and logic follows that such strength can only be attained by repeated exertion over equally sustained periods of rime.

And indeed, when my Fujian mentor described how the young handbalancing trainees in the acrobatic troupe used to perform 100 full-range handstand pushups in 5 sets of 20 repetitions on a wooden bench, resting in between sets in the handstand position, and how handstand drills lasted for hours with the trainee transitioning between a host of different positions for 10 – 20 repetitions each, all the while maintaining the handstand, I understood why the Chinese acrobats are the best at what they do. In the West such volume and such intensity would be considered madness.

But there is a method in the madness. Practice makes perfect. And the methodical madness of Chinese acrobatic training is just plain, intelligent hard work that makes those who have the heart and the nerve to go through it the best that they can ever be.

So are you practising hard enough for what you want to achieve in your life, be it lifting iron, balancing on your hands, or academic and work success?

Chances are, not nearly hard enough.

So snap out of all the self-deluding thoughts and excuses that are in your way, and start running a winning race on the road to your success. 🙂

Intelligent and relentless hard work – the universal equation for success. Do you have what it takes?

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~


China Acrobatic Training (1)

We’ve all seen it in one way or another: small children, girls and boys alike, being put through their paces by stern-faced coaches who are frequently armed with sticks or canes, pushing the bodies of their young charges to the absolute limit in human performance.

This is the image of China acrobatic/gymnastics training, as it is commonly portrayed in the mainstream and online media.

I have the distinct honour and pleasure of knowing in person one Ling Qing Hu, ex-acrobat and acrobatic trainer from the renowned Fujian Acrobatic Troupe. It was this 64 year-old man who brought my skills and training (and those of my training partner Bruce) to a whole new level, despite his refrain from direct coaching for personal reasons. Over the course of two years he shared with us rather more of his experiences as a professional acrobat and acrobatic trainer, along with expositions of certain Chinese training principles, philosophy and methodology.

While it is obvious that most of us out there aren’t aiming to become professional sportsmen or achieving such dizzying heights in our physical performance, I believe that we can all take a page or two from a system that has produced some of the world’s best at what they do, depsite facing strong criticisms and outright condemnations for their methods.

Before I met my Fujian mentor I was horrified by videos and photos that I saw of young Chinese children being made to go through what looks pretty much like pure physical torture in state and provincial training facilities. However, I guess all these stuff are pretty much a one-sided story, and sometimes, we learn more by listening to the other side of the tale.

My mentor recounts how, as a trainer, he used to go to schools to pick out prospective trainees for his troupe. They will conduct their selection on children between the ages of 8 – 12, which they believe is the optimal starting age for full-time professional acrobatic training.

They will conduct a series of tests, beginning with a physical examination of the candidates. Height, weight and bodily proportions are taken into account, as can be expected. One interesting detail is that the pleasantness of the face and the arrangement and appearance of the facial features will be considered. This is because the face and the facial features are the most prominent expression of a person’s bone structure, and apparently a correlation can be drawn between the structure of the face and the structure of the rest of the body.

Another important consideration is mobility, for acrobatic training will prove far more painful and difficult for those with less than average tension-flexibility. One other aspect that must be examined is the construction and alignment of the elbow joints – apparently elbow joints that form a perfect line when straightened is not desired, for they are difficult to maintain in a locked-out position for extended periods of time as in a handstand performance. Elbow joints that are excessively hyperextended when straightened are also passed on, for these result in less-than-optimal strength and load-bearing properties.

The “perfect” type of elbow joint, especially for handbalancing work, is supposedly one that is slightly kinked when fully-straightened. This will facilitate the holding of a locked-out position for extended periods of time and bestow great strength and enormous load-bearing capacity.

After the physical examination is complete those who pass through the initial screening will be subject to further tests. One of the tests that was described to me involves the subject climbing to the top of a tall step-ladder, and then jumping off from said ladder, which I was given the impression of being about 3 metres in height.

An alternative to this test is to throw a child up in the air to about the same height as the ladder without prior warning, and then catching the child as he/she is falling back down to the ground. This test and its equivalent are meant for the trainers to gauge the courage and daring of their subjects, especially their height-confidence. This is because acrobats have to work with heights a great deal, and acrophobia will be a great impediment to such training.

Those who succeed in the battery of tests will be taken to the circus school for a trial period. During the first month of the training the trainees are confined to the school compound, and family visits are strictly forbidden. Any parents who visit the school will have to take their children back, and they will be considered as rejects by the school.

My mentor tells me that for the first one or two weeks the children tend to be miserable, because they have never been exposed to such a regimented environment and such intense physical training. But he adds that by the end of the first month, the ones who have adapted successfully and exhibit potential in the acrobatic arts, and who are performing well in the training will be happy with their stay. When parental visits are allowed after the first month, and the choice is offered for those who have made it thus far to quit, usually none of the children will want to drop out of the training programme.

The training that we see being imposed on young aspiring Chinese gymnasts and acrobats appear inhumane and brutal, but there is actually a well-structured system in place, designed using a very scientific and technical approach. Great emphasis is placed on the handstand, which is the foundation of most gymnastics/acrobatic skills. Wall handstand holds of up to 10 minutes are developed and performed daily before breakfast by the trainees, with those specialising in the position doing 20 – 30 minute holds.

Mobility, which refers to the flexibility that can be achieved without any external aid, is developed as a cornerstone of the acrobatic arts. The knees are kept straight and locked and the feet pulled back instead of pointed during stretching, which keep the legs tensed instead of relaxed. Stretching under tension will pack every degree in the acquired range of motion with the capacity for strength exertion, as opposed to the type of loose flexibility that is developed by relaxed stretching.

Tumbling is another important component of the acrobatic foundation that is trained extensively. The bodily control and coordination that is developed by handstand training and tumbling, coupled with the mobility that is acquired through a structured stretching regime, equips the young aspirants with the fundamentals that will serve to propel them to great heights in their future specialisations.

In the next article of this series, I shall share with you the Chinese way of strength and weights training, which differs enormously from the modern-day concepts of recreational bodybuilding and strength training. Stay tuned!

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

Rings Training

Rings training has been around for a long time, since the 1800s.

Today, it has evolved into a formal apparatus and discipline in the sport of artistic gymnastics practised predominantly by male athletes, due to the staggering strength requirements of a typical competitive rings routine.

We have all seen it before on TV when the Olympics are being aired – heavily-muscled men with cannonballs for deltoids, bulging biceps and huge lats that resemble meaty wings, performing breathtaking routines that include spectacular swings and brutal strength elements.

Most of what we get to see of the rings discipline is pitched at such an advanced level that the average fitness enthusiast will tend to shy away from it, thinking that rings training is something reserved solely for the elite and the professional sportsperson.

However, while it is true that rings training is tough – the need for the practitioner to stabilise the freely-moving apparatus places a much greater demand on both muscle and joint strength as compared to the use of a static bar, anyone who’s in reasonably good shape can incorporate rings training into his or her fitness and exercise programme.

Sure, it will probably take you 6 – 7 years of training for 6 – 8 hours a day, 6 – 7 days a week to achieve the level of skill and proficiency that is exhibited by an Olympic rings gymnast, but you can still achieve plenty with 1/2 hour sessions on the rings, 2 – 3 times a week.

I have just gotten my own set of wooden rings along with a few like-minded friends about 2 weeks back, and I have been blown away by the sheer versatility of this ancient apparatus.

I know I’ll be raising hairs on some people by saying this, but if you’re serious about building some real strength and muscle, forget about all the new-age fancy stuff like your TRXes and your suspension trainers. The rings are a piece of time-honoured equipment that has been in use by athletes for more than 100 years, and it has helped build some of the strongest and most impressive human physiques that our planet has ever seen.

The unique challenge that is presented by the circular shape of the apparatus develops enormous grip and forearm strength when handled correctly. While it is entirely possible to use a normal finger grip on the rings, if your aim is to eventually perform more than just simple hangs and pull ups with the apparatus, you will have to learn how to do the false grip.

A false grip simply involves you gripping the rings with the meat of your palm, with your wrists flexed powerfully downwards, so that your hands and forearms resemble a pair of muscular hooks. This grip allows you to bring your torso above the level of the rings, so that you can transit into a huge variety of moves (when you become strong enough).

Another important aspect of rings training is the massive strain that it places on all of your upper body joints – the wrists, elbows and shoulders must be kept tight for you to even have a hope of stabilising yourself in basic positions. Rings gymnasts owe their prodigious physical development to the sheer amount of straight-arm strength that they employ – think iron crosses, maltese crosses, planches and inverted crosses.

Ease into rings training by practising simple supports to get your upper body joints, especially the elbows, used to the type of straight-arm strength that will be needed for you to progress to the more advanced moves on the apparatus. Over time proper training with rings will give you joints and tendons of steel.

Although rings has been the traditional realm of male athletes, there are women who have accomplished amazing feats on the apparatus. Lillian Leitzel, a circus performer in the early 1900s, could reportedly perform 27 one-arm pull ups on a suspended ring, along with a series of one arm holds and levers.

CrossFit has brought rings training back to the fitness community at large in a big way, and the Internet abounds with videos of lady CrossFitters banging out dozens of consecutive muscle ups on the apparatus. During the Ido Portal upper body strength coaching certification course I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing such a specimen of the fairer sex in action for myself – a female CrossFit Asian Games champion, making ring muscle ups look like a piece of cake.

If you were to get your own rings, I’d suggest wooden ones for better feel and grip as compared to their plastic or metal counterparts. This eliminates the need for wraps or chalk on most movements, and hence cuts alot of hassle. My own set of rings come from Rogue Fitness, which offers a huge array of sporting equipment and is the official equipment supplier for the CrossFit Games.

Easy to set up, easy to use, and easily portable. The rings ship in a cardboard box, and the whole set consists of a pair of rings (duh!), a pair of heavy duty nylon straps with sturdy metal buckles for securing and adjusting the length of the set-up.

For now I’m limited to performing a very basic rings routine which I’m sure a 10 year-old gymnast could pull off with ease and aplomb. But hey, I’m not a professional, and I’m just getting started. 🙂

My routine consists of a muscle up to a L-support, and then a drop to inverted hang, and lower to straddle front lever, before pulling out of the front lever back into a muscle up. I’m also training to lower myself from a support position to the coveted iron cross, and I’m making some progress and getting stronger in that respect.

If you are new to rings training, start out with whatever you can do, and build yourself up progressively as with all other forms of training. I’d say it’s wise to master the straight-arm support and the muscle up first, before you move on to stuff like planches, levers and crosses.

I know rings training may seem like a pretty intimidating prospect for those of you who’re thinking about incorporating it into your routines, but do not worry or fret. No one’s born a gymnast – gymnasts can do what they do simply because they train. So can I. And so can you.

So for those of you out there who’re serious about your strength training, and are looking to add a new dimension to your trunk and upper body work, look no further. Rings training will build you a great deal of strength, and because you’re working with your bodyweight the ladies will not need to worry about looking like He-Man or the Hulk from working the rings.

If you’re not chemically-aided or drug-assisted in any way, your body will retain its ideal proportions from bodyweight strength work. That’s the reason why gymnasts have such aesthetically-pleasing physiques – slender and supple for the gals and lithe and muscular for the guys.

Would you like to have the strength and physique of a gymnast, and master a host of cool skills to boot? Rings training is the perfect, age-old answer for the well-informed modern-day fitness enthusiast. 

What would you call a hundred bucks, give or take a little, for something this awesome?

Me? I’d call that a good investment. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~