Friday, June 20, 2014

Programming Core Workouts - Part 3

Dynamic Core Work

Dynamic exercises to train moving your body around a stationary torso for good structure in the fight.

Sorry it took so long to get the next blog post up. Grad school has been intense and I needed to shoot a video for it.

In case you missed them here are Part 1 and Part 2.

Here's the video

The key point of this series of exercises is moving the limbs around a stationary torso. This is what we do when we fight, as I discussed in part 1. As such this is a natural progression for the core training.

Plank Walkout - the two most common errors I see with this exercise involve the end points of the motion.
  • Too Far Back - Only come back to a push-up position, don't bring your hands any closer to your feet and don't let your backside pop-up.
  • Too Far Out - Don't reach as far forward as you can. Instead you should only walk forward as far as you are able to do well. And well here means maintaining a neutral spine (as it pretty much always does). If you can't get very far at first then don't worry about - just go a little bit farther each week.
Side Plank Reach - a common error here is a short range of motion. Do not try to do this exercise quickly, take the time to reach as far as you can in each direction.

1-leg Hip Bridge - be sure to get the hips all the way up to full extension. This version of the exercise helps to engage the glute med muscles of the hip because of the need to stabilize with one side.


For all three of these exercises 8-12 reps for three sets, done as a circuit is a good program, easily included at the beginning of a strength training session. If the objective is simple activation before technical training, such as part of a pre-class warm-up, then half as many reps is sufficient.


Overall these exercises develop movement quality and the focus is not on difficulty or intensity. Progression is therefore less of a concern than with other exercises. However, advanced exercises will be discussed in coming blog posts.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

May Link Round-up - Stretching, Working Harder by Working Smarter and Vitamins

Welcome to another edition of: Things I Read That I Want to Share

Smart Ways to Go Harder

11 Ways to Make an Exercise Harder
For most exercises adding weight is the way to make it harder, but for some exercises there are other ways that are appropriate. These different suggestions can be used to add variety, increase the specificity of a workout or address a specific deficit.

Some highlights for HEMA:
#11 suggests a basic way to make exercises more specific to our needs, such as standing cable presses and rows to mimic the body position of strikes and pulling back to parry. These kinds of exercises should be in a program alongside the foundation exercises like squats.
#10 addresses the need for single leg training and for stability in the same, since when fighting we normally only get to push off one leg at a time, and frequently we are trying to do something else at the same time, such as attacking or parrying.
#5 matters greatly for extended postures like longpoint.


The 5 Most Common Errors Athletes Make with Yoga
15 Static Stretching Mistakes
Stretching obviously has it's benefits. Unfortunately, too many people are unaware of the proper way to incorporate stretching into their program. People tend to think that more is better, when what we really need is the correct amount mobility + stability. Stretching programs may be done before exercise, involve stretching muscles that don't need to be stretched and similar errors. These two articles do a good job of summarizing many relevant points about a stretching program.

In short: If you are not sure, don't stretch it.


Why Vitamins May Be Bad for Your Workout
I am a skeptic when it comes to supplements. The reality is that good eating is sufficient, and actually superior to supplements. Eating a lot of vegetables and fruits, eating a variety of such and an otherwise sensible diet is well demonstrated to produce good outcomes. The primary exception to this is for individuals who have a known deficiency of a particular nutrient, usually the result of some disease process. But the meme that most people are deficient in something or another just isn't true.

This blog is not just about physical conditioning for fighting, it's also about general Health & Wellness. I have a Bachelor's in Exercise and Health Sciences and I generally want people to be healthier and smarter about their health.


Increase specificity or decrease stability.
Be thoughtful about stretching.
Eat your veggies.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Programming Core Workouts - Part 2

Adding in the Hips and Motion

Part 1 is here. Now we are going to add three more basic components to our core workout. These additions have to do with the hip musculature. While these muscles are used in the previous exercises there are two basic reasons to work them separately:
  1. They are often inactive - Modern living frequently leads to the muscles being poorly used. They get tight or weak. Whether from sitting too much or faulty movement patterns or both. As such it is useful to target them specifically.
  2. The hip muscles generate motion - while the trunk muscles prevent motion. The previous exercises are geared towards preventing torso motion. But we need to be able to move around this stable core. These exercises work this aspect.
Once again we have three basic directions - front, back and sides - which define a complete approach.

Front - (iliopsoas and rectus femoris) While the rectus abdominis prevents extension of the back and create a a stable torso, these muscles are used to flex the thigh. Our objective is to train to keep the back flat, with the abs, while being able to generate leg motion.

Back - (gluteus maximus) Weak abs and a tight back frequently lead to hip extension being tied to back extension. Our objective though is to train hip extension while maintaining a flat back, which requires co-activation of the abs while extending at the hip. As well as training to separate back and hip extension.

Side - (gluteus medius) Another muscle that is under utilized in daily life, this muscle serves to stabilize and move the hips laterally. Again the objective is to be able to move the leg laterally while keeping the torso still.

(The side muscles can also be thought to include the adductor group. However, this group serves a different kind of role, is worked separately from the core muscles and is less likely to be problematic)


Our objective with these muscles is activation and movement pattern related. As such it is useful to include these exercises with the warm-up instead of trying to build-up strength with them.

Deadbugs - The link is to a blog post by Tony Gentilcore. There are two key related points he makes: 1) keep the back flat on the floor, really press it down; 2) the number of repetitions is limited not by your leg muscles but by how many you can do while keeping the back flat. As such 5-8 reps per side is generally the limit, but do 2-3 sets.

Bird-dog - The animated gif with the link isn't perfect, because the objective is maintain a nice neutral spine throughout the movement. 5-8 reps per side is good for 2-3 sets.

Mini-band walks - The mini-band walks will place a strong demand on the glute med muscles, enough that people new to the exercise often have the feeling of having worked a muscle they didn't know they had.

These three exercises as part of the warm-up helps round out the core program and make it more complete and functional. Easier and harder versions of all of these exist and some of them will be discussed later in the series.

Next time we'll be discussing how to organize the great diversity of available exercises and start looking at exercises that require a bit of equipment.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Kettlebells Annoy Me

I'm going to keep this short. And I'm going to return to my series on Core Programming tomorrow.

Kettlebells have legitimate uses. I actually went to Sports Authority yesterday specifically to buy one or two. They were going to fill a small niche in my strength training 'tool bag'.

My main problem with kettlebells is that they are over-hyped. And some will say that's not a reason itself to object to them. But . . .

I found an 8 kg (17.6 lb) bell at the Sports Authority. It didn't have a price tag. I took it up to the register where it rang up for $59.99!

That's almost four dollars a pound. For a single piece, cast hunk of metal. And that's what being over-hyped does that is objectively bad.

A kettlebell can be made from cheap, crap, pig iron, it can be made from impure, mixed, recycled or whatever as long as it's mostly iron. It just does not matter. And the store brand bell, at a discount store, was nearly 4 dollars a pound.

Compare that to the Olympic plates. The Oly plate is made from multiple materials and has to withstand more extreme use, so higher grade materials are a must. It must be precision milled to fit other equipment and still move freely. These are less than 2 dollars a pound at the same Sports Authority.

I walked out of there empty handed. It was a waste of my time.

And that's why over hyped stuff bugs me.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Programming Core Workouts - Part 1

I think "core" workouts are one the grayest areas of program design for any kind of exercise plan. I'm going to start off by describing what I think are the two key elements:
  1. Defining a complete program
  2. Establishing objectives

Complete Program

Our trunk muscles are arranged into three primary groups: front, back and oblique. While there is clearly more going on than just this, it is a good, functional starting point for understanding them.

Front - (rectus abdominis, iliopsoas, rectus femoris) These muscles produce forward flexion and prevent extension of the spine. In fencing we will hardly need to flex forward at the waist, but we do require good anti-extension. Anti-extension will help us form overhead guards with good posture, strike with good structure and resist grappling. Forward flexion will occasionally be used to duck especially in unarmed fighting.

Back - (erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, glutes) These muscles produce back extension and prevent flexion of the spine. For swordfighting we will normally use these muscles to resist flexion. Example actions include maintaining good posture with forward extended guards and retaining an upright posture as you lunge. Extension is used in dodging backwards, such as against a thrust to the face, and in some grappling techniques.

Oblique - (external obliques, internal obliques, quadratus) These muscles are involved in two movement patterns.
  • Lateral Flexion i.e. bending to the side and preventing the same. Used primarily for lateral stability while moving explosively and occasionally for slipping an attack.
  • Rotation and anti-rotation. Anti-rotation is used primarily to keep the torso aligned correctly for good structure with attacks and defenses.
These three elements define a complete program and three exercises to target each aspect is enough for a single day's core workout.


Our primary use for these muscles is to hold our core still while our limbs move around it. To maintain good posture and structure as we fight. The largest demand on these objectives is created during very intense moments such as lunge or passing attacks, and defenses against powerful blows.

The demand is high force production for a brief moment in time.

As such our exercises should be geared towards keeping the core stiff and motionless at high-intensity, with a secondary aspect of moving the rest of the body while doing the same. Long duration and high rep exercise programs do not achieve these objectives.


Let's start with a really basic approach. Subsequent posts will expand on this topic, but this is a good starting point. For each of these 30 seconds is sufficient for a set. Add weight when you can easily to 45-60 seconds to bring the time back down to 30.

Side Plank
Hip Bridge


Programming for the core need not be complex nor does it need to be a time consuming part of the workout. But this only makes sense in the situation where you are doing a complete strength training program, as I've described before. For instance, one arm dumbbell rows are an anti-rotation exercise, so a day with those and side planks is a complete workout for the oblique muscle groups.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Fundraising Campaign Continues

Hey everybody,

Just a quick reminder: there is one week left in the Indiegogo fundraising campaign. It's doing great so far, with over 150% of the goal met.

But that doesn't mean we're done! Stretch funding allows me to get more specific and fun equipment to provide a better tailored workout and to have better access to research and information.

The link is to the right - please support this today!

Steven Hirsch

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Power Testing

A key element to any program of development, whether it's strength training or technical skill, is periodic assessment. Ideally the test should be as objective as possible. With strength and power measures that's fairly easy to do - we measure weight or distance/height.

The next question is what should we test. What test's should we carry out. This is a topic of reasonable discussion. And I am not certain that the set of tests I currently use are the best choices.

My bias is towards those test which are already well-used within the exercise science. Assessments that have well known applicability towards a variety of sports. The downside to these is that they have lower specificity to our particular activity. Tests specifically for combat sports are not well studied.

Here are the Tests

Vertical Jump - Basic test of lower body speed-power. Well correlated to performance in a variety of sports.

Broad Jump - Horizontal jump from a standing start. A second measure of lower body power, except here the direction of motion is more consistent with combat sports applications. Less commonly used in sports testing it cannot be as strongly correlated to performance. I conduct both tests so that I can eventually determine which is the best for our purposes.

Sean Franklin of Blood & Iron has proposed a variant of this test using a passing step mechanic and other variants. I think this idea has merit but I have not explored it further yet.

Standing Triple Jump - A test of reactive strength and power. Basically it tests how much power you can produce on the second step. A variety of pieces of HEMA footwork are dependent this power mechanic.

Sandbag Throw - From a seated position, to isolate the upper body power, a 10 lbs sandbag is thrown. There are two version of this.
     Front Pass - Push throw straight from the chest.
     Side Throw - With extended arms the sandbag is thrown with a torso twist
Tests like this are fairly new to sports testing and so a clear standard on the best practices are still developing.

Hexagon Agility Test - This is the only agility test which uses tight quick movements (most agility tests involve running on a field). The test is describe here.

Test Results

Nathan Weston and I recently finished a cycle of strength training peaking for Brass Frog Assault of Arms. Afterwards we did the above tests. Here are our results:

TestNathan IGXNathan BFSteven BF
10# Sandbell15' 9"16' 4"17' 10"
Right14' 4"26' 7"24' 9"
Left16' 8"28' 8"23' 9"
Broad Jump82"76"71"
Vertical Jump14"17"16"
Triple Jump16' 4"17' 4"18' 2"
Hexagon Agility13.4 sec12.1 sec15.1 sec

For comparison I've included Nathan's results from his last round of testing before Iron Gate Exhibition (IGX) in September 2013.


Strength training worked. Given the wins that both Nathan I have at Brass Frog, I feel confident asserting that our strength training contributed to our success. I'm not for a moment advocating attribute fencing, but even without relying on strength it is possible to use strength to improve one's fencing.

But there is still much to be studies and investigated as to what tests best suit Historical European Martial Arts.