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A New Approach to Fitness for RVTKD

The fitness requirement created an untenable scenario in which physical conditioning became, in a sense, more important than Tae Kwon Do skills in achieving promotion. In other words, it was possible for Il Dan candidates to be promoted if they failed to make their required break(s) or had minor lapses in performing poomsae, but they would be held back if they couldn’t meet strength or endurance standards.

After months of research, planning, discussion, and revision, I’m excited to announce a new approach to fitness for all of us who practice at River Valley Tae Kwon Do. Carin Zinter and Anna Paskausky co-authored a proposal, which I brought to a roundtable discussion that included most of our school’s black belts, both active and “retired.” After being unanimously approved by that group, the proposal was sent to Master Sean Owen, who has given me authority to make it the new standard going forward.

Since our school’s founding in 1997, we have had a fitness requirement for candidates seeking promotion to Il Dan (first degree black belt). A few years later, I added a requirement for Il Gup candidates (high brown belt) to introduce the concept of independent physical conditioning outside of class as a stepping stone for the demanding Il Dan fitness test.

“Passing” was defined at the Il Gup level as completing all three requirements, and at Il Dan passing all but one and demonstrating significant progress on that final element over the course of training for the black belt test. The above standards were passed by all successful RVTKD candidates for the respective ranks through 2013.

A number of long-time students were unable to complete these standards and eventually left the school. Although we don’t have an exit interview process for students, it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of these otherwise promising students left as a direct result of not being able to complete the fitness tests. This resulted in a double-edged scenario, in which otherwise promising students discontinued training with us, but the test served as a filter for students who weren’t willing to undergo a challenging process of self-transformation, possibly an indicator of future success after being promoted to Il Dan. Successful students also described the process as rewarding upon completion, commonly saying they’d pushed themselves to places they didn’t know they were capable of reaching before the test. When completed, the test usually resulted in personal growth, sometimes to an impressive degree. Clearly the physical characteristics tested—strength, endurance, balance; as well as indirect benefits like tenaciousness, and learning how to avoid and work around injuries—are all useful for developing martial arts performance.

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Previous Fitness Requirements

Il Gup – West Point Cadets’ fitness test

  • 42 push-ups in 2:00
  • 53 sit-ups in 2:00
  • two-mile run in 15:54

Il Dan – Fitness Requirement established 1994

  • bench press body weight 10x (barbell, flat bench or decline)
  • 10 pull-ups or chin-ups
  • stamina test: usually a run but sometimes adjusted to a swimming or similar feat for certain individuals, e.g. a fast 10K or a slower 10M run, 1 fast mile of swimming, etc.

Il Dan – Fitness Requirement added in early 2000s

  • stand on inflatable exercise ball for 2:00
2013 Fitness Requirement Revision

In an effort to make the test more rounded, more directly applicable to the specific physical skills required for Tae Kwon Do, and challenging for a greater range of body types, a working group of black belts added these elements to the original fitness test:

  • flexibility benchmark of 10x head height kicks with left and right legs: roundhouse, side kick, back kick, high backspin
  • 30″ box jump 2x
  • optional alternative to bench press: 3x left and right arms, hanging dumbbell snatch at 1/3 body weight
  • optional alternative to endurance run: 800M track run in 2:45

These were added to address observed weaknesses in past and present candidates as well as to provide alternative exercises that were more dynamic and more directly applicable to Tae Kwon Do activities.

Two candidates attempted the revised test in 2014. One passed by the historical definition, i.e. she was able to complete all elements of the challenge except one, and she made significant progress toward that goal, coming close to being able to complete it but not quite reaching the mark. The other candidate was able to complete half of the activities and made mixed progress in pursuing the others. She was allowed to test for Il Dan without completing half of the elements because a) extreme capability in certain of the skills she did pass, far beyond any other member of the school, and b) extraordinary leadership and ability in other areas of Tae Kwon Do, and c) a demonstrated commitment to addressing “unfinished business” in the months after the Il Dan test.

An additional black belt candidate attempted to pass the fitness test in 2016, and she was also able to complete only half of the required elements. Because she was also a very strong Il Dan candidate in other regards, she was allowed to take the Tae Kwon Do portion of the Il Dan test before completing the fitness test, with the understanding that she would not be promoted until she had satisfied the customary fitness requirements.

Either unfairness to classes of people or incompatibility with larger Tae Kwon Do principles would justify reconsidering this tradition; because both were true, the rationale for the study was clear.

Over the course of several months, it became apparent that it would be problematic for either of the two Il Dan candidates with “unfinished business” to complete the revised fitness test (or the earlier version) despite their best efforts. One was held back for promotion to Il Dan for more than a year, and the other would have been eligible to test for Ee Dan but was indefinitely on hold because of her difficulty in reaching the standard. Although two women had previously passed the historical test, both were younger, and both were already extraordinary athletes before coming to practice Tae Kwon Do at our school: one was a nationally ranked collegiate heptathlete and professional personal trainer, and the other was a competitive cross country runner and kinesiology Ph.D. candidate with previous martial arts training. This raised the possibility that both were outliers and not indicative of athletic potential for the typical students our school would attract.

Because both of the struggling candidates were women, and both were somewhat older than the age range considered peak athletic performance, I offered them a path to offset their struggles with the fitness test by performing research that would address perceived unfairness in holding older women (and men) to standards suitable for, say, males in their twenties. This was not only an attempt to recognize quantifiable differences in muscle mass and performance across age and gender, but just as importantly, because of the insight that otherwise well-qualified candidates for promotion were being held back solely because of the fitness test. The fitness requirement created an untenable scenario in which physical conditioning became, in a sense, more important than Tae Kwon Do skills in achieving promotion. In other words, it was possible for Il Dan candidates to be promoted if they failed to make their required break(s) or had minor lapses in performing poomsae, but they would be held back if they couldn’t meet strength or endurance standards. Either unfairness to classes of people or incompatibility with larger Tae Kwon Do principles would justify reconsidering this tradition; because both were true, the rationale for the study was clear.

2017 Fitness Challenge Proposal

The co-authors spent several months researching and developing guidelines to adjust fitness standards for both age and gender, so the tasks would require comparable effort and transformation for all RVTKD students.

Students who valued fitness and performed highly before training to pass the fitness test continued to do so, and people with less prior experience, who often had to work especially hard to transform themselves for the test, often reverted to their previous condition after the passage of months or years.

The most obvious conclusion of the proposal is the introduction of age and gender curves so students are no longer asked to meet a uniform standard regardless of the body they bring to the dojang. The hope is that these age/gender tables will create a sense of greater fairness, lowering expectations for some groups of people from extraordinary difficulty into the realm of the possible. Also immediately apparent is a reconfiguration of the specific exercises used to measure fitness. These new exercises will form the core of ongoing training to be integrated into our school’s curriculum, as will be explained later.

Over the course of this process, they also brought new and valuable insights: that although all black belts who had passed the earlier tests agreed that the process was transformative and rewarding, many of these practitioners didn’t maintain their peak performance, or anything close to it, in the years following their Il Dan tests. It seemed broadly true that students who valued fitness and performed highly before training to pass the fitness test continued to do so, and people with less prior experience, who often had to work especially hard to transform themselves for the test, often reverted to their previous condition after the passage of months or years. The analogy of a student cramming for final exams, who upon passing the test quickly forgets all their hard-earned knowledge, seemed true in a number of cases. If learning to achieve peak performance didn’t necessarily translate into lifelong fitness, with all the benefits to martial training that implies, the test was not successful in creating a culture of ongoing physical capability. Furthermore, by introducing the fitness tests only after years of training, it sent a confusing message about school priorities and the overall role of physical conditioning for practitioners.

To help create a culture of fitness earlier in students’ training, and to encourage advanced practitioners to maintain a high level of fitness, the proposal recommends changing the focus of this extracurricular training from an individual activity to a group activity shared by all members of the school. If successful, this approach will reduce the need to require candidates for higher level ranks to reach certain benchmarks over a comparatively short period of training; they should already have laid this groundwork throughout the Gup ranks. Because standards increase gradually, training for higher ranks will represent incremental gains rather than an entirely new training process. This represents a fundamental shift in the purpose and approach to fitness in our school and may be the most important long term result from the study. Only time will tell if this approach succeeds, and the leadership of the school will monitor and analyze what happens over the months and years to come, making adjustments as necessary to achieve the actual goal of long-term physical capability.

Less noticeable but just as critical for our school’s goals, the new fitness approach is called a “fitness challenge” rather than a “fitness requirement” or “fitness test.” This is not just a nuance of language, but rather a second re-envisioning of the purpose of the test. Henceforth, there will be no pass/fail standard with the potential to block promising students from achieving advanced rank. Instead, the process of measuring and logging fitness progress over time, and the ability to compare one’s personal achievements to aggregate data from across the school, will allow positive social pressure, as well as guidance from instructors, to motivate students to improve their conditioning and address obvious weaknesses. As time passes and data accumulates, the school leadership will monitor whether this approach is successful. If so, it will be a major breakthrough for our school; if not, we will revisit the process and adjust accordingly.

Conclusions

As Founder and Head Instructor of River Valley Tae Kwon Do, I am extremely reluctant to change anything about the traditions that have been passed down by my instructors. I believe it takes great wisdom and experience to make changes in long-held conventions, which generally arose for good reasons. I also think that most people overestimate their own wisdom and tend to make changes prematurely and recklessly based on their own personal (and perhaps narrow) perspectives. To avoid making the kinds of ill-advised innovations that are obviously bad ideas in so many modern martial arts schools—whether in the US or East Asia—I take great care to make changes in our school and follow a process designed to safeguard against personal vanity and whim. In the case of this study, the process was:

  • observe the problem and discuss it with my teacher: the steward of Choi Bong Young’s interpretation of Tae Kwon Do, and the head of our small line of Ji Do Kwan in the US
  • encourage the agents of change to consider perspectives with greater breadth than their own personal situations, which may have been the inspiration for the investigation but are not the fundamental reason for making changes
  • compare their findings with my own understanding of martial traditions in general as well as our own school’s traditions and precedents
  • bring a draft of the proposal to a panel of black belts, all of whom understood and valued the existing tradition, to see if there were any as-yet unforeseen reasons not to proceed
  • bring the school’s conclusions back to the Master of our school, both to seek his approval and ensure that no large concepts or small details remain undiscussed
  • communicate both the changes and the process that produced them to the school as a whole, so each member understands that changing traditions is sometimes necessary but must always be undertaken with great care
  • implement the changes but monitor them carefully to make sure they achieve their intent without introducing unintended consequences that weaken the school instead of improving it

This document constitutes my effort to perform the penultimate step, and over the months and years ahead, we will all undertake the final step together to see if this new fitness regimen succeeds. I look forward to training with all of you as we find out, hopefully becoming stronger and more capable practitioners in our ongoing practice of the Way.

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