An ill-informed guide to cross-training for capoeira
1) I am not a doctor, or a health professional of any kind. My education in the medical arts does not extend beyond high school biology, although I do own the first season of House on DVD. All subsequent training advice is based on personal observation and experience, and must be taken with the obligatory grain of salt.
2) Cross-training is in no way a substitute for actual training. The physical demands of capoeira, let alone the techniques and reactions involved, cannot be approximated by even the craziest and most overboard workout schemes. If you want to improve your capoeira, go to class, as no amount of marathons, sit-ups or military presses can teach you to properly dodge a kick. Cross-training should be regarded as a supplement rather than a replacement. If you find capoeira hasn’t already sucked up all of your free time and energy, by all means do some workouts. But never at the expense of your regular training.
Part I) Why should I cross-train?
In many sports, cross-training is an integral part of improving performance. Running sprints can make you a better wide-receiver. Lifting weights can help you hit more home runs. For capoeira, however, this relationship is much less direct. Because capoeira movements are so unusual, in general it’s difficult to mimic the stresses capoeira places on your muscles with traditional exercise. There’s no machine at the gym that works like a back-bend, for example. So why bother?
The first reason is, of course, your health. Cross-training is one of the most effective ways to prevent injuries in capoeira. Many of the most common capoeira injuries (knee problems, back pain, etc.) can be avoided by staying in proper shape. Developing strong leg muscles, for instance, greatly reduces the strain capoeira puts on your knees and ankles. Strong abdominals and back muscles can keep your spine safe. Capoeira, as we all know, is very physically demanding, and joint injuries are the price a capoeirista pays for not meeting those demands. For many of us, capoeira is our primary (read: only) source of exercise, aside from carrying cases of Bud Light and bags of Bacon-Cheddar Doritos home from Safeway. Cross-training can help bridge the dangerous gap between a day spent hunched over a computer working on an Excel spreadsheet and an evening spent attempting back-flips in your academy.
In addition to keeping capoeiristas from becoming arthritic wheelchair-bound vegetables, cross-training can also dramatically, if indirectly, improve one’s game. After years of training, a capoeirista develops a strong and intuitive sense of the limits of his or her game. Over time, the largest obstacle stopping a capoeirista from learning new moves or solidifying old ones ceases to be a lack of training and becomes instead a matter of physical ability. This is especially true for those of us who are not gifted with an excess of natural athleticism. Those blessed few whose vocabulary of movements is limited only by their imagination and experience can seriously just shut up, as this does not apply to them. For the rest of us, at a certain point our technique and ability in the roda is dictated as much by our bodies as it is our training. These limiting factors vary from person to person; I, for example, have extremely inflexible shoulders and back, so much so that I often suspect I have a piece of wood running from my hips to the base of my skull like a scarecrow. Movements like macaco em pe, au cortado, and the like are thus significantly more difficult for me than for a more limber person. However, being comparatively lightweight for my size, other moves such as queda de rins, au de cabeca, etc. are easier for me than they are for some of my heavier friends. Every experienced capoeirista develops an understanding of their own proficiencies and limitations as dictated by their anatomical strengths and weaknesses. Flexible, strong, agile, light, heavy, tall, short… to a large extent our game, style, and technique are dictated by the physics our bodies. But these limits are not set in stone.
Targeted cross-training is the best and often the only way to overcome one’s physical limitations. Strength, flexibility, and agility can all be greatly improved with proper training and dedication, allowing us to break through our personal glass ceilings. While that sounds like ridiculous Richard Simmons-style motivational double-talk, it’s true. Almost nobody is born with the type of exotic athletic aptitude necessary to master a wide variety of capoeira movements without the investment of time and training. Those lucky few who are rarely end up in a capoeira class, as they are usually too busy making forty trillion a year in the NBA or fighting crime as superheroes. The rest of us mere mortals have to identify our boundaries and invest whatever amount of time our bodies require of us to overcome our weaknesses.
II) How should I cross-train?
For general cross-training necessary to prevent injuries, to stay fit, or to just not look so fat in that shirt, here are a few suggestions:
1) Running – To use myself again as an example: I run an unimpressive 10-12 miles a week, usually spread over two days. Honestly, I hate pretty much every minute of it. I find it boring, uncomfortable, and hard on my knees. That being said, the marked improvement I’ve seen in stamina in the roda from this small investment in cross-training is startling, certainly worth a couple hours of unpleasantness a week. Breathing is easier, and I can train longer and with more focus. Distance running, or even running sprints or stairs, is a very accessible way to begin cross-training, and also offers a societally acceptable excuse for having the Rocky soundtrack on your ipod.
2) Free weights & bands – Given the choice between working out with free weights (or some equivalent) and a gym machine, the informed capoeirista almost always chooses free weights. Machines artificially limit your range of motion in exercises, whereas free weights require you to exert both the strength necessary for the motion and the control necessary to maintain technique. In other words, a machine allows you to exert yourself blindly, while free weights force you focus on your motor control. Developing an effective and personalized weights workout, however, requires significantly more investment and knowledge than this article can provide. Thankfully, many personal trainers at gyms offer one or two free sessions, allowing a capoeirista to ask a barrage of necessary questions and develop a targeted approach without actually paying any exorbitant fees.
3) The Jail Cell workout: Sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, etc. – There are literally hundreds of simplistic & equipment-free exercises a capoeirista can do outside of class. Pick a set of easily repeatable exercises that focus on your weaknesses and do them regularly. The trick to seeing effective results from these is to a) make them routine and b) steadily increase the amount you’re attempting. It’s far better to do ten pushups a day than to do thirty pushups once every few weeks when you happen to feel like it. Pick whatever cliché, inane motivational technique helps you maintain your schedule, increase your reps every week (even if it’s only a slight increase), and don’t slack. An example – Twenty bridge pushups, five pullups, twenty dips between chairs, and fifty situps three times a week, adding on a few more for each week. It only takes fifteen minutes and as long as you’re consistent, it can be a big help in class.
If flexibility rather than strength is an issue, this same principle can be applied to stretching. Stretching, especially on days between capoeira classes, can boost flexibility very quickly. Certainly more quickly than, say, not stretching.
4) Yoga – If you haven’t tried yoga, ignore the quasi-spiritual aspects and any other stigma associated with it and take a class. Seriously. Yoga is hard, much harder than many people give it credit for. It’s probably the most efficient way to improve flexibility and can have a dramatic positive impact on one’s capoeira. In almost any group, there’s a stark and visible contrast between the capoeiristas with a yoga background and those without. Although I’m not experienced enough with yoga to recommend a certain type, the wide variety of yoga styles allows you to find one that matches both your personality and your ability level. Any reservations a capoeirista has about the applicability or effectiveness of yoga can be offset by attending a class or two. Pay particular attention to the instructor, and you’ll undoubtedly notice a combination of impressive flexibility and crazy whip-cord muscles. Yoga aficionados have the kind of lean, subtle, enviable upper-body strength usually reserved for rock-climbers and people who dig ditches for a living. The first person I ever took a yoga class from had been a linebacker in college before quitting football and taking up yoga. Imagine Vin Diesel but in Cirque de Soleil.
Flexibility should not be overlooked as an important attribute for a capoeirista. It makes certain difficult movements possible, and makes other moves significantly easier. A flexible capoeirista relies much less on momentum and force in the roda, and gets almost all floreio at a discount.
4) Swimming – We’ve saved the best for last. In my experience, no form exercise compliments capoeira as well as swimming; an unfortunate irony given how few capoeiristas swim regularly. Most people I’ve trained with know how to swim, but will typically only do so if thrown from a boat.
As a rule, the vast majority of capoeira movements are a type of push or extension. Things like ginga, bananeira, au, all types of esquivas and kicks, these are essentially different ways of pushing against the ground. Very few movements, aside from things like rasteira, require any sort of pulling motion, giving a capoeirista a broad, effective, but occasionally lopsided workout. Swimming, however, offers an almost diametrically opposed set of motions and strains. Swimming, like capoeira, requires a wide variety of physical exertions, and though it uses many of the same muscles as capoeira, it uses them in such a different way that the workouts have little overlap.
Swimming has other obvious benefits in that it offers a similar cardiovascular workout to running, it’s accessible (if you live near a pool), and it’s very low impact. Nobody gets shin splints from swimming laps. All that is secondary, however, to the fact that regular swimming combined with capoeira is one of the most intense and comprehensive workout routines available.
Perhaps the most difficult step in cross-training for capoeira is coming up with an effective and maintainable routine. Often the exercises a capoeirista finds most unapproachable and overwhelming are the ones that he or she needs the most. It takes no small amount of discipline to focus on exercises and routines one finds difficult, but chances are if you find the cross-training you’re doing easy, you’re doing the wrong type.
This is not to say you should always choose the path of most resistance. I’ve trained with people whose workout routines bordered on masochism, people who ran up mountains at dawn with backpacks full of bricks or constructed freaky, dangerous obstacle courses in their backyards. Although the eight-year-old in me understands the appeal of building a ropes course over a pit of snakes or bench-pressing giant rocks, ninety-nine times out of a hundred you’d be better of playing the traditionalist and just jumping rope for half an hour.
For a capoeirista, it’s easy to push the limits of physical endurance in class, both because it’s in a group setting and because capoeira is fun in ways that gym routines and personal exercise are definitely not. However, the serious capoeirista understands that the monotony of cross-training is a small price to pay when compared to the benefits. Take the time to analyze your weaknesses, craft a manageable routine that addresses them, and keep it up.
When you find yourself exhausted, sore, and disheartened, remember an important axiom:
Working out really sucks, but it’s usually worth it.