Using martial arts to reach your physical fitness goals

Whether you're already in shape or have made working out regularly your resolution for the year, you likely can improve upon your physical fitness. Everyone has areas they'd like to develop, and, fortunately, reaching your goals can be fun. In fact, martial arts target a variety of fitness areas, depending on which style you study. Here are some common workout goals and how martial arts can help you meet them:

Flexibility
From high kicks to wide stances, martial arts forms can increase your flexibility limits. Some forms require greater flexibility than others, but you'll be able to stretch no matter what style you prefer. Stretching before and after class is important as well – and not just because you want to get better at it. Doing so helps prevent injury and reduce soreness after a hard workout. Many instructors stretch with their students before class begins, targeting areas they know their students will use, which is, in most cases, the entire body.

If your class doesn't warm up before class begins, get to the studio early and do it on your own.

Strength
While you may not lift weights in a dojo, you can improve strength through martial arts. Simply putting force behind your punches and kicks can tone your muscles. Additionally, the stances various forms use increase leg strength – you're basically squatting and lunging repeatedly, sometimes for long periods. Even your abs will get a workout.

Acrobatic martial-arts forms, like kung fu, can also build strength in areas you didn't consider. Jumping, lunging and tumbling all require muscle control.

No matter how you're building strength in martial arts, focus on your forms. Correct posture and body usage will protect you from injury and give you the most intense workout.

Endurance
Muscular endurance is closely related to strength – many argue it's even more important. If you're looking to last longer in your workouts – whether it's cardio or muscular related – martial arts can help. You'll have to keep fighting at full speed when you spar, even when you're out of breath. You'll have to hold a horse stance when your legs are aching. And while building endurance is painful and mentally challenging at first, you'll eventually improve.

Many people claim martial arts help teach perseverance, and they're right. It's a mental trait you'll need as you work on your physical-fitness goals. So if you want to improve flexibility, strength and endurance, consider having fun at the same time by studying martial arts.