"There's Only One Weight You Should Be Pumping - Your Own "
Andy Darling of the United Kingdom Interviews Fitness Guru MATT FUREY
[Note: This article previously appeared in the U.K. based Independent on Sunday, Jun 8, 2003]
In recent times, the buzzwords in the health industry have been core stability and functional fitness. To strengthen the deep internal muscles around the lower spine and pelvis, health and fitness professionals have been promoting Pilates, Astanga Yoga and workouts with wobble boards and Swiss Balls.
The claims for these practices are impressive: improved posture, coordination, balance and flexibility, and the elimination of back pain. But the majority of their adherents are women. Most men, it seems, have different goals. They can't be bothered with posture and balance exercises - they want to become more powerful, so they lift weights, lots of them, the heavier the better.
Matt Furey, an American trainer based in Florida, has the air of a WWE wrestler and the physique of a hardcore weight trainer. As his book, Combat Conditioning, and his sell-out seminars make clear, though, Furey has no time for pumping iron. (He is a wrestler, however - he's the only non-Chinese world champion in the grappling art of Shuai-chiao, his ring nickname being "the Surgeon of Submission".)
The 40 year old has developed an exercise system that involves one's own bodyweight alone - no barbells, dumb-bells or resistance machines. And while the natural constituency for Furey's Combat Conditioning is among male martial artists, it has plenty in common with Pilates and Astanga Yoga . As with those practices, Furey's approach rejects the way in which weight training isolates distinct muscle groups; rather, he envisions the body as a single entity.
"Pec deck, cable crossovers, triceps kickbacks... all those overly isolationist, pretty-boy movements are not only pointless," Furey snorts, " but you're going to injure yourself, because you end up building up your body in a way that isn't functional. So, it's a good idea to think of the body as one unit, not a bunch of unconnected muscles."
Like all high school and college wrestlers in the USA, Furey initially lifted weights, following the kind of bodybuilding routines still practised by gym-goers all over the world today. Later, as a personal trainer in California, he realised that some of his clients didn't enjoy lifting weights, so he devised regimes involving handstands, push-up variations, and one-legged squats.
"They started getting much better results than the weight trainers. I began realising that it's one thing to push and pull a weight around, it's quite another to master your own bodyweight from every conceivable angle and direction."
The day Matt Furey binned the weights forever was the day he met Karl Gotch, a wrestling veteran. Gotch was 75 years old, yet he had what Furey calls "an ungodly strength". "He showed me that strength wasn't simply how much you could lift, but how long your strength could last. He showed me that flexibility and strength went hand in hand, that exercise was for health as well as to improve as an athlete. He got me to do some exercises, and when I couldn't do them for any length of time, he said: 'What's the matter? Didn't those weights prepare you for this?'''
The exercises form the basis of Furey's Combat Conditioning programme. Among the basic moves are Hindu Squats and Hindu Push-Ups. Hindu squats involve swinging the arms and rising onto the toes while performing the up and down squat movement; Hindu push-ups are a big circular movement, combining components of Yoga's classic greeting the sun sequence - starting with the Downward Dog position - with US bootcamp style pushing up with the arms.
This fusion of Eastern and Western approaches is central to Furey's thinking (never mind that his business card features the motto "Kick butt, take names!"). Bruce Lee, the first crossover Asian movie superstar, was also a practitioner of own-bodyweight movements; indeed, the only time Lee was seriously injured was lifting weights. Some of the Combat Conditioning moves can be found in the recently republished Bruce Lee: The Art Of Expressing The Human Body (Tuttle), which documents the Little Dragon's workouts.
Furey has also unearthed training manuals written by Farmer Burns, a US wrestling legend of the early 20th century, and again there are areas of intersection between East and West. Burns mentions various breathing exercises that resemble the Chinese practice of chi kung, though Burns simply called them "breathing exercises". (Burns's pedigree, incidentally, can be gauged by a testimonial from William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill: "I'll bet all my ponies that he can whip any prize fighter on earth.")
"It's that combination of the ancient and the new that makes it appealing and relevant," reckons Paul Thomson, from Worthing. A practitioner of Astanga Yoga for several years, he has started to incorporate elements of Furey's Combat Conditioning into his gym workouts. "Just doing yoga and nothing else ends up a bit hippyish, and just lifting weights makes me feel too tight and immobile. These exercises make me feel stronger, but more fluid, too," says Thomson. "And they mean I don't look like a skinny yoga student."
To Matt Furey, getting fit means gaining control of one's body, and broadening the range of what it can do, as opposed to piling on muscle with the limited, linear movements of traditional weight training. In other words, it's better to attempt a couple of handstand push-ups, with every major muscle group straining to keep you stable, than to be supported by a bench while your arms push a barbell upwards in a straight line.
But why not let Furey explain his beliefs in his own inimitable way: "Look at animals in the wild - they're in far better shape, they have greater endurance and more flexibility. Monkeys and primates that climb trees for a living work with their own bodyweight - they don't lift weights."
For more information on Combat Conditioning, click here.
Some Combat Conditioning Exercises:
Hindu Squats - building strength and endurance throughout the thighs, calves, lower back and chest, and lung power.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart, hands pulled in tightly to the chest. Inhale. Keeping your back fairly straight, lower your buttocks until your thighs are parallel to the floor. As you lower your buttocks, straighten the arms and have the hands behind your back. As you move towards the parallel-to-the-floor position, raise your heels from the floor. Now swing your arms upwards and push off your toes, raising your body to a standing position. As you rise, your hands come in front of your body. They continue to rise until they're level with your chest. Once you're in the up position, pull your ams in towards your chest, as if rowing a boat. Make tight fists and keep the elbows close to the body. Repeat......
Wall Walking - stretches and strengthens all the muscles along the spine, and works the abdominals.
Stand three feet from a wall, with your back to the wall. Lean backwards with your hands stretched above your head. Slowly move your hands down the wall. Continue 'walking' until the top of your head lightly touches the floor. Turn to your stomach and stand up again. Repeat.
Reverse Push-ups - strengthens the back, shoulders and arms, and promotes flexibility and suppleness throughout the entire upper body, especially the shoulders and spine.
Lying on your back, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, place your hands next to the tops of your shoulders with palms on the ground. Push your body off the floor until your arms reach the locked position. The crown of your head should be facing the floor. Push yourself forward. Make your body into a wheel by trying to get your chest even with your hands. Slowly lower yourself, bringing your upper back and neck to the floor. Repeat.
Kneeling Back Bend - increases flexibility and strength throughout the back and thighs, and gives the abdominals a great workout.
Kneel on the floor with your palms resting on the backs of your thighs. Keep your back straight and hips forward. Let your head fall backward, and gradually lower yourself toward the floor. Go only as far as your body will allow. Don't force the movement. Once you have reached the limit of your flexibility, return to the starting position.
Bowing - builds full body explosiveness
Stand with the feet shoulder width apart. Bend your knees and lower your buttocks so that the thighs are just above being parallel to the floor. Make fists with your hands and place them above your head. One hand is above the other. Focus on your abdominals. Imagine you have a sledge hammer in your hands and you're going to drive it into concrete. Throw your hands forward and downward while straightening your legs and sliding backwards on the soles of your feet. Repeat.
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