Due to the nature of Kung Fu the first thing to say about warm ups is that some people don’t believe in them. There are even some famous teachers who see no value at all in warm ups. Some of these teachers say, “After all, you can’t warm up before a fight.” They believe that you should do the warm ups and the basics as a whole, that the warm ups and basics should be so close together that they are indistinguishable.
I believe in warm ups. The advantage is not so much that you get your body warm—you can do that with anything—but rather that a good warm up is so foundational it accomplishes many things at one time. I also believe that warm ups should be circular. They should not emphasize strength at all. They should be clearly understood. They should be martial, but they should be generic. You should take them slowly. And you should take them with a lot of thoughtfulness.
Let’s talk about some simple warm ups. If you are doing hip circles, for instance, where you just put your hands on your sides and roll your hips, make sure that the movement is round, completely round. Most of the time people make a “D” shape, they roll to the front then cut straight across on the rear half. When doing a circular warm up—assuming your physical anatomy allows this—you should be extra careful that you inscribe the entire circle.
Another example, when you circle your neck—if you are capable of it and have no neck injuries— your head should actually go back so you can catch a glimpse of the ceiling. In general, as you incrementally increase your circular range of motion you will drastically reduce injuries. But you must do this properly.
Arm circles give us a great example of how you should customize warm ups.
A proper arm circle is performed in Kung Fu with a backward action. In this your hand brushes your thigh on the down stroke and on the up stroke your upper arm brushes your ear.The circle is totally vertical at full extension, and kept very close to your body.It should be effortless. However many people, especially men, keep their arms too stiff. When they feel the bind on their shoulders they let their hands flip over to relieve the pressure. This generally happens when the arms is just about pointing straight up.
What they SHOULD do is anticipate the turn and gently rotate their arms BEFORE reaching this tight spot. But even when some men can do this, their shoulders are still too bound to negotiate this kind of circle.
The next level of customization—still holding to the idea of complete circularity— is to hold that vertical circle further away from the torso. So, instead of the arm brushing your sides, you create the upright circle a foot away from your torso, or two feet or for that
matter so extended that basically the arm is almost parallel to the floor and making a circle only three or four inches in diameter, BUT STILL A PERFECT CIRCLE. The point is to get a circle. When we say circle we actually mean circular. That’s a very important goal for warm ups and for Kung Fu. It is the same case with wrists, or hips, all the nine joints including the three of the back.
Warm ups should also have the FEELING of Kung Fu. This means that when you circle you de-emphasize any rough spots or moments of tightness. You shouldn’t have any power surges or jerky movements. Remember, you are warming up the general move so that later you can add power without creating problems.
Warm ups have to be as vanilla as possible. All circles have to be complete circles as much as possible, but in your range. You can slowly expand your range over a period of months of training. Don’t jump the gun and create a misshapen circle. So, no lumps in the oatmeal.
When to warm up and for how long can vary. Try to make them match the session. If you have only ten minutes to practice do not waste seven minutes on warm ups. If you only have five minutes to practice, say, Tai Chi and none for warm ups, then don’t take long, deep stances. You can still practice the art fluidly without having to go to the deep stance. The idea is to practice short term while staying safe inside an envelope. Even without warm ups you are still increasing your skill. When you have time to warm up first, you can go deeper and increase your skill even more.
Warm ups have two functions. First is to warm your body so it can do all those martial movements without injury. So that’s a preparational set. And second is to settle your mind and acknowledge that you are doing Kung Fu and not some other form of physical exercise. This, too, is preparation of a different kind.
To review. Keep the movements round but adjust the circular path to your true range of motion. Do not mistake power moves for warm ups. Try to maintain the feel of Kung Fu when you warm up. And customize the warm ups to you, your needs, your location and the allotted time.