The best forms of exercise almost never come in a gym. This is because you really have to work to master them.
Sunday morning was the monthly black-belts-only class at jiu-jitsu. We ended the class with some freestyle grappling: start off mounted, then reverse your opponent. Once you end up on top, switch roles. After five minutes of this I was completely drained. I was soaked through to the skin in sweat; my arms and legs hung like rope. I drove to the nearby BSC to take a shower before I offended anyone with my stench. Once I got to RJ’s for our weekly Burning Imperium game, I flopped onto his couch, a glass of iced tea before me and a whirring fan on my right. I was loose and calm.
I’ve never been to a hammam, but I understand Turkish massage is somewhat similar. You warm up first by lying on a heated marble slab until everything’s loose. Then a burly Moroccan rolls you onto your stomach, stands between your legs, and lifts you by your wrists until your spine cracks. The combined stretching and heating loosens your shoulders. I apply a similar pressure when I’m cranking on a juji gatame, only I’m not as nice and I don’t charge you money.
You couldn’t offer grappling as an eight week, 8-hour class at the fitness center, though, and expect the same benefits. It’s taken me almost ten years of training to get to the point where I’m sort of competent. I know some holds and escapes, I know to keep my center of gravity low, and I can use my freakishly long limbs to post out like a pavilion tent. But I’m still mastering the chessboard mentality of grappling: the feint within the feint within the feint. Anyone who did 4 years of high school wrestling could still make me look foolish.
My point: when a 240-pound man kneels in your armpits and sits on your stomach, the natural inclination is to just give up. It takes a trained grappler to realize that you have escapes from there – several, in fact – and to work for them. The process of working for an escape builds your core, arms, legs and cardio conditioning. I can’t think of anything better for it. Swimming, perhaps, or a yoga routine executed with force and precision. Kickboxing. Carrying a 40-lb backpack and a rifle up a hill.
It takes years of practice to learn how to effectively work your body as a whole unit, however. The body isn’t meant to be sculpted in isolation, one muscle at a time. That’s not evolutionarily useful. And anything which takes longer than a 12-week class won’t make it at the local gym.