The first lesson you’ll learn in any kung fu movie is that martial arts are not meant for attack. That’s why, despite starring in some 50 action movies, Jet Li has never used his skills in real life — and yet, he practices every day. Of course, without the practice, without the kung fu moves he could use for attack, Li also wouldn’t have been in any movies, and that hints at the first purpose of strength: Strength is for the spirit.
In developing strength, be it in your muscles or via a versatile skill, you also develop confidence, flexibility, and resilience. You teach yourself to show up, to make the best of the opportunities you are given, and to not give up easily. That’s the kind of spirit it takes to become a Hollywood star, and it’s probably just as important as actual acting skills.
I, too, practice every day. Every morning, I do 50 push-ups. I also work out my shoulders. I simply hold out my arms straight in front of me, move them up, to the sides, and back to the front, then repeat. Plus some butterflies. It prevents my back and shoulders from hurting despite long writing sessions.
Yesterday, however, I used my shoulder strength for something else. As I walked, or rather shuffled, to the bakery amidst a sudden onslaught of black ice in Munich, I slipped. I was already well on my way to the ground when, instinctively, I grabbed a chain hanging between two poles on the side and, albeit with a violent yank, managed to prevent a fall.
The show of strength here was not grabbing the chain. It was that, the next day, my shoulder didn’t hurt in the slightest. Had I not trained it every day, putting such sudden, high stress on it in freezing weather would have given me a very sore joint at the least, if not worse.
That brings me to the second purpose of strength, the one most kung fu masters refer to when they tell their students not to whoop each other’s butts: Strength is for defense.
Even if you pursue martial arts entirely for their spiritual benefits, they still might come in handy. The best martial artist never has to use their skills. The second-best only has to use them a few times in their life. Here, too, it is the daily practice that keeps disaster at bay — not necessarily by keeping it away from you, but by keeping you ready to fend it off whenever it rears its ugly head.
Strength is not for punching. Strength is for the spirit, and strength is for defense. Both of these things, we most intensely rely on only when we truly need to, and by then, you better be ready. So keep training. Practicing. Learning. You might not have a target in front of you that you want to hit, but you never know what your powers might be good for — and a hero is not defined by how much power she has but by the times she chooses to wield it.