Wednesday, April 16, 2014

April Link Round-up

Since I've done several Link posts I should start labeling them better. So, I'll do about one a month - and this is the April installment.

Agility Cone Drills for SAQ
This video comes from the maker of various SAQ related sports equipment: SKLZ. It describes 5 agility drills
  1. Pro Agility (AKA 5-10-5) - Emphasizes lateral change of direction.
  2. 3-Cone - Emphasizes the agility and balance needed to stay on your feet while leaning laterally.
  3. Linear W Sprint - Emphasizes forward-backward change of direction with a diagonal component.
  4. Lateral W Slide - Combines lateral movement with change of direction
    1. Lateral W Sprint - Adds complexity by changing from lateral slide to sprinting and back
  5. Figure 8 - Challenges lateral movement with inside and outside curves
Your first question is going to be: what do these have to do with martial arts and combat sports? So let me explain my philosophy regarding agility training for our purposes.

1) Overload -  The first drill there illustrates this component well. If I just drill in class by doing my agile footwork I never train above the level of what I'm trying to achieve - I don't get overload. But by sprinting a few yards from one change of direction to the next I make the change more difficult - I do get overload. The deceleration component is more challenging because I sprinted into it. And the acceleration is more challenging as well since I'm trying to power into a sprint. (Although from an injury prevention standpoint the deceleration part is more important)

2) Permutational Analysis - This is a term that Scott Brown uses to explain a set of drills he uses for swordwork. He has developed a large library of drills that train every possible combination of actions with the sword. This means that at whatever point in a fight you need to go from one action to another it's not something new - you have trained it already. Agility training does the same thing for foot actions.

Building a Superhuman Core
by the appropriately named Tony Gentilcore
Does a good job of providing a variety of anti-motion exercises for the core. These are exercises to prevent motion of the trunk - and very important to martial arts. Think of how much instructors will harp on keeping your shoulders and hips aligned. Well the reason for this is that a stable core like that will transfer power from the hips/legs to the upper body.

There are a few basic categories of such exercises.
  • Anti-extension - preventing the torso from curling forwards, these exercises engage the spinal erectors, glutes and hamstrings
  • Ant-flexion - preventing excessive arch in the back, these exercises engage the abs
  • Anti-rotation - preventing the torso from turning, these exercises primarily use the obliques
  • Anti-lateral flexion - preventing side bending, these exercises also target the obliques but in a different patter of activation
That's it for this month.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Doing Each Thing Well

I was once again thinking about how to explain why I don't like kettlebells. But don't worry, this isn't just a rant against kettlebells.

This has do to with making sure that each component of our Strength & Conditioning program is done well. By doing each component well we will get the best results. I think this is obvious, once I write it down, but if you want me to explain further just mention it in the comments.

This idea is present throughout my approach to training, not just the S&C part. I'm going to use a few examples below and draw the examples towards HEMA training to illustrate the general idea.

Basically, I don't like exercises that mix different components, like power and stability. At least not as the primary part of my program. And for a person new to strength training, the primary exercises are their only exercises. (I recently argued with someone about kettlebells for strength training; only to realize that he was an advanced lifter and using them as assistance exercises. He just didn't think of them as assistance exercises.)

A kettlebell snatch mixes several different components, while a dumbbell snatch focuses on power development. The dumbbell snatch is unilateral and asymmetric, so it's a bit of stability and core work, but it's mostly about the power. An exercise that is mostly one component (e.g. power or strength or conditioning) and a bit of another is a good thing. It's a good thing for the secondary exercises in a program. The primary exercises should each focus on one component and maximize that piece.

The kettlebell snatch has an off-center weight thereby increasing the stability demand of the exercise - limiting the weight. Limiting the weight I can move limits my power development - so it's not a good snatch. Limiting power development limits the acceleration training of the exercise; and acceleration is how the snatch is relevant to martial arts and combat sports.

Additionally, the KB snatch is technically demanding, because otherwise you break your arm. This means you have to progress slowly and develop the technical skill for this lift. And that is time taken away from technical training for HEMA. A KB jerk eliminates the risk of breaking your, but still has the above problem of limiting weight, and therefore power development.

Lots of Lunges

Whew, now I'm done talking about kettlebells. Why not do lots of lunges, like a hundred? It's a good conditioning workout, right? Sure, but it's crappy technical training for lunges. Out of 100 lunges I'll get good, explosive power out of the first 10-15. After that it'll be lower intensity lunges. Lunges that won't hit in  fight because they aren't fast enough.

But if I do 100 lunges for conditioning purposes then I'll have crappy lunge form. To get a good conditioning stimulus, I have to do lunges at such a tempo and intensity that making them technically excellent is impossible. This is why conditioning exercises are normally limited to those that can be done at huge volumes and remain sound, like running.

I can't do both. I can't have technically excellent lunges and good conditioning. I can't do explosive power and conditioning. Pick one, work on it. Then the next day, pick the other and work on that.

Cyclical/Flow/Parry-Riposte Drills

This same reasoning applies to this kind of drilling. These drills have different names, but they usually involve a technically simple pairing of an attack and defense. They are partner drill where the roles constantly reverse. I attack - you defend. You attack - I defend. And the attack and defense don't change.

The advantage of such a drill is primarily that you can get large numbers of repetitions out of it. And this leads some to approach these drills as a way to involve a conditioning component into the drilling part of class.

But I disagree. As we push the drill to a level that it's conditioning then we lose technical form. And that's a problem. The drill then begins to lose it's relevance to martial arts training. Either by being sloppy or by decreasing the intensity below that which is used in fighting just to get more time or reps done.

Some coaches do this because they want to make a class that does everything. A one-stop approach to strength, conditioning and technical training. But this means that there are limits on how well each component can be done.

I prefer to set a high bar. I am up front with students that if they want to reach their personal best then they need to be putting the time in outside of class to do the strength work; to do the conditioning work. Class is for technical development.

What Instead?

I will tell students to push these drills at high-intensity until their form breaks a little bit, and then they step back. Ideally, each week your students can do a few more reps than last week before they break down - but that's not always possible where power is relevant. However, that's going to come mostly from outside conditioning work and growing technical skill - it is a marker not the cause.


The basic take away piece is that I will always encourage excellence. And that means each component needs to be done well. I can do a kettlebell workout that is part strength and part conditioning and a little bit of power. But it won't do any of those things well. And that does not satisfy me.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Getting this Business Going

Greetings to everyone who reads my blog. I am looking to turn my current program of training my teammates into a functioning business that can be my job in grad school. Such a job would allow me to have flexible hours, good pay and work that I love. Important stuff for making sure that I can do this and complete my studies.

(In June I begin my Doctorate in Physical Therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital's Institute of Health Professionals).

I know that my readers are scattered around the country and the globe. But I want to let you know that some of the perks that are available can be done with video. And at the minimum level you can just get a sticker to show everyone how important strength training is.

So even if you can't contribute I hope you would share this with others.

Steven Hirsch

Monday, March 31, 2014

PRs and Periodization

I just competed in a tournament the Brass Frog Assault of Arms in Easthampton, CT. I took 3rd place in the Broadsword. And as such my strength training program was designed to peak a few days before.

Below are the Personal Records (PR) that I set in training for this event. I was not doing 1RM testing, so the results are simply the peaks I hit in my training. It is possible that I would have be able to hit higher numbers with a 1RM testing scheme that has longer rest periods.

Hang Power Clean - 160 lbs
Hang Power Snatch - 120 lbs
Front Squat - 245 x2
Bench Press - 180 lbs
Pull-ups - 1 rep with +10 lbs (my first ever pull-ups with extra weight!)

Bodyweight ~193 lbs

Doing actual 1RM testing would have taken more time out of my training schedule. Which I didn't feel like doing.


Previously I've outlined a beginner program. However, improvement and progression demand that such a program evolve over time. A program will normally be divided into several cycles. I generally work with cycles of about 1 month, though larger and smaller scale cycles are useful as well.

Periodization normally involves manipulating three variables: intensity, volume and exercise selection. These variables will be changed from one cycle to the next in a way that leads to a peak at some selected time. I normally build programs to peak for an event or competition because that gives me the mental drive I need.

The basic periodization model is linear. The early phase of the program will be relatively high volume and lower intensity. As the program moves from one cycle to the next the volume of exercise decreases while the intensity of exercise increases. Additionally, the exercises selected will increase in specificity as the peak approaches, though one day a week will remain the foundation, basic exercises.


My next cycle will peak at Longpoint in mid-July. It will be interesting to see which of these numbers I can move up and by how much.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How Strength Training Benefits Fencing

Specifically, training heavy with basic weightlifting exercises like squats and bench press will benefit the fighter in modern fencing, historical fencing, martial arts and combat sports.

When I suggest strength training for fencing  I frequently hear, "speed is more important" or even, "it's not about strength". A lot of this objection comes from a misapplication of the concept of specificity. Specificity is not just one thing - there are different components to be specific about. And different aspects of training will focus on these varied areas.

This is why fencing training is not just a bunch of free fencing. Different kinds of drills allow the fencer to focus on footwork, bladework, timing, distance etc. The same must be true of the physical conditioning side of training. We can focus on anaerobic conditioning, recovery, acceleration, power and so on.

But Squats and Bench Press Aren't Very Specific

It's true that the movement pattern for the squat and press are not specific to fencing actions. (However, they are specific to grappling actions and historical fencing finds it's roots in grappling.) But the movement pattern is only one aspect of specificity. The movements are bilateral, well-balanced and stable.While fencing actions usually involve powering off of one leg and the arm motion is either unilateral or the arms move differently from each other.

The benefit of these basic exercises is that they allow maximum force production. By taking instability out of the exercise you are not as limited by the failure point of the stabilizing muscles.

As I've discussed before, force is the determinant of acceleration in our muscles. So increasing force production increases acceleration. Maximizing force is the specificity of basic strength because it will maximize acceleration.

Acceleration is of supreme importance in historical fencing - just as it is with any other sport. Acceleration will put attacks on target faster. Acceleration put your parries in place faster. Acceleration will move you around faster - retreats, advances and voids will all be more effective because of greater acceleration.

Of course, it is also the case that exercises with greater specificity in movement pattern and requiring more stability are a necessary part of a complete program. This is why basic squats should be supplemented with exercises like: split squats, RFE squats, single-leg squats, lunges and lateral variants. Similar kinds of variations exist for bench press, deadlift, rows and pull-ups, but those are a topic for another day.

Basic Strength is the Foundation

Training must begin with foundational exercises. Just as fencing training begins with basic footwork exercises, so strength training must start with basic exercises. And just as footwork exercises never stop in fencing training so must basic strength training always form the core of the S&C program.

To build up our various sport-specific attributes we must do so upon a foundation of basic strength. This allows us to produce the best results. The maximal force production from strength training is refined to sport-specific actions with additional training and varied exercises. Joint strength supports the development of maximum power and agility, while minimizing the chance of injury.

Historical fencing can put significant strain on the body and a variety of training injuries are possible. Most non-impact injuries can be prevented or made less likely with strength training. Furthermore, full recovery from injury requires rebuilding the strength of the injured joint.

Strength/Power Should Be About Structure and the Core

This is another common response that I get in discussions of strength - that structure is more important or that core training is key. Of course structure is important to the application of strength. And of course the core is an important part of link in the chain. But it is a chain. And as the old saying goes: a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link. So we need to strengthen all components to achieve optimal results.

Stronger legs from squats will produce more force that can be transmitted to the arms through a strong core. And stronger chest & arms from bench presses will supplement good structure to transfer power to the target.

When a cut is parried, the defender must absorb all the force that the attacker can direct into their weapon. If not the parry will fail and my collapse entirely. As the opponent's sword hits the defender's sword they must essentially perform and isometric press outwards against the force of the attack. That upper-body press must be accompanied by pushing back with the anterior core, driven by the legs pushing into the ground. All of this requires both structure and strength.

Furthermore, basic strength training exercises will develop good structure. The best results with these exercises will come from developing good structure as well as basic strength. Additionally, the core is well engaged with these exercises and contributes to the amount of weight that can  be lifted.

And certainly, core specific exercises should be included as well, as discussed previously.

What About Plyometrics?

Plyos, jump training, medicine ball training etc. are frequently included in a fencing program. And plyos will help develop strength it's true. Because plyos focus on speed, power and explosive movement they are more specific in certain ways. As such many in martial arts and fencing see them as superior to conventional strength training for their application.

Plyometrics are a broad category of exercises ranging substantially in intensity, so there is not just one reply.

At the low end of intensity you have plyometric exercises like hopping. These are useful, especially for styles that have bouncy footwork. But their low intensity means that they are not primarily strength training. They will help develop the "bounce" reflex (formally known as the stretch-shortening-cycle) and appropriate conditioning. But they cannot replace strength training.

At the high end we exercises like hurdle jumps and drop jumps. These are very large stresses on the joints. Doing them safely requires a strong foundation in basic strength because basic strength training will reinforce the joints. Squats will ready the knee joint for the forces needed to land a high jump without injury. Ultimately, high intensity plyometrics are a useful program component that will benefit performance, but they must come after appropriate strength has been developed.

The effect of combined strength and plyometric programs is a synergistic one. Increased force production and acceleration from strength training can be reinforced by high-speed exercises which focus on rate of force development (RFD).

A well executed attack will take around 300 milliseconds to complete. This is faster than the time necessary for a muscle to reach maximum force production. This fact emphasizes the benefit of acceleration from force increases; as well as illustrating the benefits of a combined program.


Basic strength training forms the foundation for success, joint health and more advanced training. It insures that every link in the chain is made strong, instead of focusing on only a few. Furthermore it has basic health benefits. There is every reason to include strength training as a core component of a complete program.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Link Round Up

Strength Training for Women. It's actually pretty simple. There are more similarities than differences. And programming should be based on a person's objectives.

A modified version of the bottom's up walk that I discussed previously, to make it a bit harder.

A recent blog post from another HEMA-ist, discussing the role of heavier training tools. Weapons up to double-weight are one of the few training tools attested to in historical records on HEMA training.

I like the post, but I have two additions that I'd make. Research with other sports that involve swinging an implement show that using a trainer up to double weight is beneficial. That it doesn't become too heavy until higher weight.
That is, a 3kg trainer is a fine component of a complete program, when used correctly.

Note that anything heavier, like doing a sledgehammer workout, is conditioning and technical skills shouldn't be practiced at that weight.

Second, lighter tools are useful too. By using a lighter trainer we are able to physically able to move the weapon faster. This allows us to train firing our muscles at a higher rate - which we cannot do as well with regular weight tools.

So both heavier and lighter have their place in an advanced, comprehensive training program.

It's not really a matter of lighter or heavier being better. They achieve different results.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Fighting Is Not the Best Conditioning

This is another one of those persistent, old-school martial artist myths - that fighting is the best conditioning for fighting. Usually people mean it is the best cardiovascular conditioning, but some folks will claim it's the best for strength as well. The suggestion that training with the sword is the best strength training for swordplay is just silly, but I won't go into detail in this post.

Let's look at conditioning for fighting.

If it were true fighting is the best conditioning then the best conditioning for any sport would be playing that sport. But decades of research and experience have conclusively shown that to be false. A large body of published research demonstrates that simply playing/fighting is not the best conditioning. Furthermore countless athletic teams have implemented specific conditioning programs and seen performance improve. Teams with these kinds of conditioning programs normally do better than those without.
When you are familiar with the evidence on the topic there is no doubt that simply playing is not the best conditioning.

Should we conclude that martial arts are the only human physical activity where this rule is broken?

The Evidence

A well-developed and effective program always has three characteristics:
  • Overload
  • Progression
  • Specificity
Applying these principles to training programs has been used by strength coaches for decades to produce the best athletes in the world in a wide variety of disciplines.


Cardiovascular overload is not common in free sparring for most people. It happens. Of course. But it's not happening much. And not to the degree seen in actual cardio training. If I do several matches during my groups free fencing period I may be quite winded by the end of the last one. But that's not the same as doing intervals.

In interval training I may sprint 100 yards in 20-25 seconds. I am far more winded at that point then I am after 3 minutes of fighting. I have achieved a higher level of overload.

And since I am interval training I do another 100 yard sprint as soon as I get back to the finish line. And I repeat this for several cycles. This is far more intense than just doing some fighting training. Or I'll do 1 minute at 10.5 mph (16.9 kph) on the treadmill. This is alternated with 4 minutes of walking. After 5 blocks like this (only 20 minutes) I am far more winded than 45 minutes of free-fencing with my students.

Some of you are probably quite fatigued by the end of a session of free-fencing. Some of you know people in your group who just don't last as long in free-fencing. If fighting was really working so well for conditioning would this still be happening? If it worked the problem would just go away after a couple of months of training like that.

When we free-fence at my school we fight until I have exhausted all the students. I can keep fighting at this point. I normally feel energized and awake at the end of class.

Besides, do we want fighting to the point of total fatigue to be our norm for training? Sure, training under stress conditions should be done periodically, to acclimate our body and mind. But as we fatigue we lose our ability to implement strategy, tactics and fine motor skills. Should we be regularly training to this level of fatigue? No, because doing so impairs the progress and development of those attributes.

And if you only fight to fatigue sometimes, then you are not doing it often enough to get a meaningful cardiovascular training response. For a good adaptive response it is necessary to train to overload several times per week.


Progression is increasing the difficulty variables of training over time. Without it there is no long-term progress. With fighting as our sole conditioning what will you use as progression? You can increase the number and duration of fights. But can you force each fight to be equally intense? Or will you slow down as the number of fights mount up?

Against a canny opponent will you attack with great ferocity to train metabolic power? No. You will fight smarter. And the conditioning stimuli of each fight will depend on the opponent. You can't develop a clear program to stress specific variables.

As I've described previously there are a couple of different attributes to train with conditioning: recovery and power. Achieving progression with these components is easily done by manipulating simple variables like recovery time and duration. Variables that you can control completely. This leads too . . .


The kind of programming that I describe in the link above allows you to make your program specific. Are you training metabolic power or recovery? If I just fight for conditioning how will I achieve a specific result? The stimuli will be all over the place depending on the nature of each particular fight. And while this may sound useful because it is "like a real fight", it does not allow us to apply overload to specific characteristics. Without that overload we will not improve in each dimension that we wish to improve.


In short, your conditioning program should make the fighting easy. Don't make the fighting hard on your conditioning.