Arnis as a fighting art has proven its potency through centuries of warfare but how will it pass as an effective exercise program?

With Republic Act 9850 better known as the Arnis Law in place, proving the health benefits of arnis is important if it must gain mass appeal in the Philippines and around the world.  The wellness component of a martial art is a great factor affecting its popularity. This has been proven true in the cases of Chinese and Japanese martial arts.

First, let’s examine what constitutes a good exercise. An optimum exercise program encompasses the development of different fitness components. Foremost is aerobic development meaning it develops the capacity of the heart and the lungs. Aerobic exercises burn calories and reduces body fat.

Another characteristic of a good exercise is it stimulates joint mobility particularly the four major joints of the body namely shoulders, elbows, hips and knees. Joint mobility is the key to attaining other fitness attributes like agility, flexibility and balance.

Next is strength development, which implies that the activity must pose some kind of resistance to the muscles. The aim of the latter is to improve muscle tone or increase muscle mass. Lastly, a good exercise must be fun and mentally stimulating.

Leo Robert Viajar, MAT PE, an expert on human kinetics said that by pragmatic and scientific evaluation; arnis qualifies as an effective exercise program. A professor at the Integrated College of Physical Education and Sports as well as a lecturer in the School of Arnis Professionals in the Philippines, Viajar attested that arnis practice is capable of improving all components of fitness like reaction time, speed, power, endurance and balance.

Arnis and Aerobic Fitness

Viajar considers arnis as a complete sport because of the diversity of its movements and the physical challenge it impose on the body. Both solo and two-man drills of arnis develop aerobic fitness.

Double stick practice is the most aerobically challenging part of arnis training mainly because of the weight of the two sticks and the degree of coordination required to execute the intricate movements. Arnisadors know the demand on the heart and lungs of performing redonda and sinawali continuously for several minutes.

Arnis sparring in heavy armor is equally tough. A match lasting two to three minutes with little rest in between requires aerobic and muscular endurance.

Experts estimate that it would take more than an hour of strenuous exercise to burn around 1,000 calories. To relate burning calories to weight loss, the simple equation is 3,500 calories is equal to one pound of body fat. So burning 3,500 calories means shaving off a pound of fat from your body.

A usual arnis class last an average of two hours and its intensity may vary from moderately strenuous to very strenuous. Yes, there is no doubt that arnis is a good aerobic exercise and the only determining factor to success is if the student can stick to his training until he starts losing weight.

Arnis and Joint Mobility

Arnis masters were known to maintain the dexterity of their hands and gripping power way into their twilight years, on this Viajar commented, “The dominant use of the hands and wrists in arnis maintains the tonicity of the muscles and ligaments of the arc of the wrist joints.” He explained that this could help a lot in preventing carpal tunnel syndrome, “The maintained integrity of the wrist arc prevents compression of the nerves and other structures passing through the wrist,” Viajar added.

To further scrutinize how arnis benefits joint mobility, it is good to examine a restorative physical discipline that employs a highly similar pattern of movements – Indian club swinging. As its name implies, Indian club swinging originated in India where the war club or gada was a feared weapon during ancient times.

Indian club swinging reached the West and was very popular in America during the early part of the 20th century. The fact that it was one of the disciplines included in the United States Army Manual of Physical Training (1914) attests of it popularity during that period. Then its popularity waned.

The resurgence of interest to the health benefits of Indian club swinging during the past two decades can be largely attributed to the efforts of Edward Thomas, Ed.D. In an article titled “Club Swinging: An Ancient Restorative Art for the Martial Artist” published in the November 1995 issue of Tae Kwon Do Times, Thomas expounds on the connection of Indian club swinging and the Filipino martial arts, it reads, “In the hands of an expert, the powerful flowing motions of the clubs somewhat resemble the patterns of Filipino Kali.

This resemblance is probably because the fifth century Indian Sri Vishaya warriors invaded the Philippines and eventually merged culturally with them. The Visayan people of the central Philippines can be traced to the Sri Vishaya culture.

In terms of basic movement patterns, the relationship between Kali and Indian club training is best illustrated by comparing Danny Inosanto’s (1980) explanation of Kali attack angles (Inosanto) with Warman’s illustration (1920) of club swinging. Both systems stress flowing circular patterns and the figure-eight motion.”

Kali angles of attacks (left) by Dan Inosanto and a 1920s club swinging illustration (right) from the November 1995 issue of Tae Kwon Do Times.

Thomas’ research revealed that this kind of movements is highly beneficial to the shoulder girdle, which according to him is by far one of the most movable areas of the body but it is also one of the most fragile, “When the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder is made strong, aligned and mobile, other joints like the wrist and elbow also benefit.”

Viajar offers a similar insight on the subject, “All movements of the arms emanate from the shoulders. In each of those, it’s the shoulder that gives the preliminary degree of movement,” he said, adding, “Likewise, arnis training enhance the dynamic ability of the shoulder joint called “scapula-humeral rhythm.”

Besides benefiting the joints of the upper extremity, Viajar said various arnis drills done with footwork as well as arnis sparring stimulate all the joints in the body.

Arnis and Muscular Strength

Viajar agrees that the various motions of arnis can improve muscle tone and strength. He said arnis movements may sometimes display fluid continuity or resistance in case of a block by a training partner.

Like in Indian club swinging, arnis offers different levels of resistance to the muscles by varying the weight of the stick used in training. A traditional way of increasing striking power in arnis is to swing a heavy hardwood stick repeatedly using the different angles of attack.

A part of a report on Indian club swinging titled “Treasures in the Attic” compiling the writings of Yoshiaki Takei, Ph.D., Karen Garland and Thomas in the March 2002 issue of Tae Kwon Do Times discusses the result of a photographic analysis of a club swinging pattern, it says, “In summary, it is evident that the double inside-outside club swing, when correctly performed, can exercise the shoulder girdle, shoulder joint, humero-ulnar and radio-ulnar joints, and wrist joint over a full range of motion.

It can exercise both agonist and antagonist muscles (flexors and extensors, adductors and abductors, and inward and outward rotators) of these joints in a single cycle of fluid motion. Conventional weight training usually limits movement to simple upward and downward (i.e., shoulder press, tricep extension, bicep curl exercises) or forward and backward (i.e., bench press exercise) types of linear motion.

The circular motion of club swinging can be used to improve flexibility and muscle tonus of these joints and muscles. It also appears useful as an exercise modality for rehabilitation.“

Beyond Physical Fitness

Another great thing about arnis is that it is one of most fun and rewarding physical activities one can do. Beyond the physicality that everyone can relate with in the beginning, the study of arnis is multifaceted and may also include history, heritage, culture and spirituality.

In both solo practice and sparring, arnis requires an analytical mind. This is evident when a practitioner seeks the weakness and opening on an opponent during a match or when he is seeking new and creative ways of combining the different angles of attacks.

This profound level of mental work was described by Inosanto with the following words, “A knowledge of these basic striking angles and how they often follow each other naturally gives the escrimador an almost psychic appearance in battle.”