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The Importance of Cross Training

Taekwondo is a sport that can be particularly hard on your knees and hips. Yet it requires tremendous conditioning to be successful. One particularly smart way to get around this? Cross training.

Even at the colored belt level,  countless repetitions of newly learned kicks can cause knee pain. It happened to me when I was a green belt and learning the back hook kick. Some of this is due to poor form and tight muscles, tendons and ligaments (what colored belt doesn’t need to work on their form and flexibility?) but some of it is just a fact of repetitive movements. (My shoulder hurts typing this from using the computer too much for work.)

So what is cross training? It’s doing other exercises to improve your general fitness. Some examples of cross training for Taekwondo are running, swimming, lifting, yoga, etc.


Personally, this is my favorite cross training activity. It’s relaxing, good for cardio, an amazing recovery exercise and strengthens the entire body, especially the core. If you don’t know how to swim, or swim well, take lessons.

When I swim (since I am not training for a triathlon or a swim meet), I do 20 laps in a 25 yard pool with a mix of strokes. Five laps with the front crawl (or freestyle), five laps with the side stroke (alternating sides), five laps back stroke and five laps breast stroke. I find this really loosens up the shoulder girdle. Depending on how much you weigh and your physical shape, you should shoot for 40-60 seconds per lap, continuously. Learn the wall turns too to keep the speed up and the intensity high.

Swimming with fins can really up the intensity. However, definitely start with the softer, recreational ones (not the ones for SCUBA divers in the ocean) and limit your laps the first few weeks or you risk stress fractures in the foot/ankle region. A good swim workout? 20 laps without fins then 20 laps with fins, continuously.

I find swimming particularly good for those getting into shape for the first time or getting back into shape after an extended break. If it worked for Rocky Balboa, it’ll work for you 😉


You have to walk before you can run. Work your way up to 4-5 mile walks with 12 to 15 minute mile times depending on body weight. That will develop your feet, ankles and shins for the pounding they will take running on asphalt or concrete. Otherwise you risk serious shin splint pain and possible stress fractures.


Steady state cardio is actually a good thing, despite what you may hear. Just don’t over do it. The old Gold’s Gym book on lifting weights recommends people trying to build muscle mass limit themselves to 3 mile max runs. Taekwondo athletes in Korea normally run 5-6 miles a day, though there has been a shift away from this in professional boxing and combat sports in favor of interval training/sprints, AFTER a good cardiovascular baseline has been established.


After a base of strength and cardiovascular endurance is developed, sprints can hone that to the next level. Personally, I love hill sprints between 30 and 60 yards. Do that 10x, 3x a week and your whole body strength and conditioning will soar. They also burn far more calories AFTER training than steady state running. They also require significant protein and carbohydrate intake to maintain body mass and energy levels.

No long, steep hills to sprint? 3-10x 60-120 yards in length are a good substitute. Walk back to the start each time and give yourself enough rest to complete each repetition at 80-95% of your max effort. I do not recommend going past 95% effort in training except a few times a month, after at least 30 minutes of lighter work and stretching to warm up or you risk a serious muscle tear and/or burnout. Hussein Bolt never runs 100 meters in less than 10 seconds in training but keeps building his reserves over the season to do it once or twice a year. You want that reserve for the last fight in a tournament.


The focus should be on developing fast-twitch muscle fibers and maximum force. Reps in the 3-15 range for 2-5 sets is sufficient. Don’t get caught up in isolation (single joint) movements. Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, barbell rows (I always do Pendlay rows), pullups, dips and the like are my go to.

Olympic lifts like the snatch and clean and jerk are also excellent but I recommend seeking out a trained, licensed Olympic weightlifting coach before getting serious about them. Otherwise you risk shattering your femur on a dropped lift or god forbid, a head/spinal injury.

Personally, I’ve found Medhi’s StrongLifts 5×5 program great for the first year or two of general strength training.


If it’s good enough for Manny Pacquiao, it’s good enough for you. You’ll find your entire body more flexible with better blood flow and less tension after only a few sessions. Find a good yogi. The majority are full of spiritualist crap and don’t push their students.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu/Grappling

BJJ in MY TAEKWONDO? Yeah, get used to it. BJJ is great for conditioning and rounding out your striking game. However, they allow people to teach at the purple belt level (equivalent of the first dark blue belt in traditional Tang Soo Do/Taekwondo belt systems) so your instructor might still be learning how to teach what he or she knows.

BJJ is also a Brazilian influenced martial art, culturally, so don’t expect the same formality or level of respect expected in a Japanese or Korean martial art. Excessive talking and the like are pretty normal at most schools.

HOWEVER, this will give your joints and muscles a much needed break from Taekwondo practice while keeping up conditioning, learning a new skill, and having fun.


Bicycling is almost as much of a pure cardiovascular exercise as cross country skiing. Toss in a 6-12 mile ride once a week. Make sure to stretch your hamstrings and use a bike with foot clips or straps (on a stationary bike) so both sides of your legs are working on each revolution of the pedals.

A spin bike is a great way to build endurance and even anaerobic endurance. 12 minutes on a stationary spin bike with foot clips, hitting your max heart rate a few times is an amazing warm-up that will actually increase your work capacity.

Jumping Rope

I saved the best for last. Your ultimate goal should be working up to 12, 3 minute rounds in full sparring gear, with your mouth guard, with ankle weights and a weighted jump rope. (You want to be a professional fighter, right?)

Choose a rope that naturally spins at 120 revolutions per minute. To make sure your rope is the right length, you should be able to stand both feet on it and pull the handles up to your armpits. Plastic ropes are the best.

I once got my heart rate up to 240 when I was in maximum shape from the rope. At that rate, you start to feel light headed and are starving your body for oxygen. Don’t be crazy when starting or you’ll have a heart attack, though.

If you’re new to the jump rope, just work on 20 revolutions without stopping. With a natural 120rpm rope you can easily count out how long you’ve been jumping. Work your way to a full round (120 revolutions), take a minute break, then continue. It will take months, but eventually you’ll be able to pound out 3 minute rounds with added weight and grow your stretch reflex to the point where you don’t even have to flex your knees to clear the rope for a round or two.