A solid foundation is key to success when acquiring new skills, especially when the skills are intended to transform both the body & mind. This is even more true in the martial arts, where the quality of one’s foundation, or lack of quality, could mean the difference between victory or defeat, life or death. Basic training not only imparts the structural basis of a martial art, it also serves the greater purpose of self-transformation, an aspect easily & often overlooked by beginners. The repetitive nature can bore those with short attention spans or only passing interest. It’s also quite common to see people “graduate” themselves without ever having bothered to learn even one of their style’s basic exercises. This attitude has never made any sense to me, as it tends to be held by people lacking in physical talent. I once had a roommate who, who also attended the same school & studied the same styles as I did, claim that he didn’t “need” to learn the basics. He said that he had “evolved” beyond the limits of lesser people. I’m not joking. He also claimed to have invented the U.S. Military’s Patriot Missile, in his mother’s garage, no less. Make of that what you will.
At any rate, the traditional scheme of Chinese Martial Arts training involves a period of varying length dedicated to the practice of the basics, both the basic methods of the style & the more general basics of competitive physical activity. Generally, the basics of style would be trained for one to three years, but only after an acceptable level had been reached in the fundamental basic physical conditioning. This physical conditioning, so vital to building true kung fu, “cannot be rushed or forced,” as Xingyiquan would say. Nor can it be faked, I would add. Without the proper physical conditioning it would be unnecessarily difficult to complete even one round of practice in some styles. You can’t just make up the difference as you go, in a manner of speaking. That’s part of the reason for the old teachers insisting on fixed periods of basic conditioning.
Another reason is to avoid bad habits, work-a-rounds, & “cheating” in the execution of the style. A person with insufficient flexibility will, knowingly or unknowingly, break the structure of a movement or posture to visually approximate the correct performance. Bad habits can be ingrained just as easily & thoroughly as good habits, but are significantly more difficult to correct as time goes on. In the oldest styles of martial arts, really in most martial arts, the basic physical conditioning consists of exercises to intended to build up physical strength, functional flexibility, & coordination between the eyes & limbs. These types of exercises tend to be especially focused on the legs, however else they happen to be structured. One must build the foundation from the ground up, after all.
For an active, healthy person of average build & athleticism, three to four months of this sort of conditioning, or roughly one hundred days, is sufficient to prepare them for the more style specific exercises that come next. As martial techniques evolved, additional exercises were added in order to prepare the student for more rigorous or mechanically specialized methods of power generation. As an example: my introduction to Chinese Martial Arts was Bafanquan, a famous Northern Style renown for its combat effectiveness. It’s so well-known for this that numerous martial artists sought out its techniques, with later styles incorporating it wholesale in order to gain the advantages offered by its short & dense flurries of strikes. Tanglangquan, Baguazhang, & Xingyiquan were all greatly influenced by the inclusion of Bafanquan. Many other styles, especially in Northern China, are directly descended from it & its subsequent variations. The famed Eagle’s Claw & Cotton Palm styles are examples of direct descent. Fanziquan is the modern-day representative variation of the Bafan School. There are also less obvious styles in all of these categories. My basic training consisted of almost exactly one hundred days of stances, strength building, & flexibility exercises. Next, basic attacks &, more importantly, basic defense were focused on for the next hundred days. With that foundation I managed to pick up the Twenty Four Roads, often called Bafan Shou today, in around eight months.
A period of dedicated basic training is vital to building the strongest possible foundation for future growth & development. The health benefits alone are more than worth the effort needed to “gain the habit” of regular systematic exercise. The physical foundation of functional flexibility & practical strength becomes even more important as the tactics, mechanics, & methodology of various styles became more complex, with some styles unusable if one lacks the proper “body.” Tongbeiquan, Taijiquan, Baguazhang, & even Xingyiquan are all but impossible to apply without such a specialized, style-specific body. The unusual additions to the physical basics often serve to begin this process of growing into the ability to use these specialized techniques.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of following the proper progression of training in the martial arts: from simple to complex, from slow to fast, & from weak to strong. Dedicated Basic Training, especially of a physical conditioning type, is the most important piece in all three of these transformations. When taken seriously, basic training accelerates the rate at which a student grows into the style they’ve chosen. Making it that much easier to develop the “kung fu body” most appropriate for both their needs & the requirements of said chosen style.