Sunday, November 25, 2012

Clubbell-style Wrist Exercises

Tools like Indian Clubs and Clubbells etc. are popular tools, most often for wrist strengthening. There is a basic difference between a typical program for using these tools and what does the best job of building up wrist and forearm strength.

As I've mentioned before, the best way to build strength is with relatively higher weight and lower repetitions. For small joint exercises we can't get too high an intensity, but it is safe to do exercises in the 10-12RM range for the wrist; and elbow exercises in the 8-10RM range. Therefore increase the weight of the tool until you can only do the specified number of reps. This is also the reason that I prefer an adjustable tool.

This is in distinct contrast to the usual program for these tools which is based around very large numbers of repetitions at just a few pounds. This style of exercise will produce gains in muscular endurance but very little gain in strength. For somebody new to the program there will be a noticeable gain in strength when starting this program, but these gains are primarily a result of neural training. The training effect is that the muscles become more efficient and coordinated at the action. While this isn't a bad thing, it's not the result we are looking for in strengthening the muscles, because we still aren't triggering or building up our high-threshold motor units. The high-threshold motor units are responsible for our strength and power.

Further we should avoid trying to have good cutting form with these tools. It's not possible and so we shouldn't. Trying to have good form with a strength training tool will cause us to distort our form and so degrade form in the long run. In general you should not try to train form in a tool that weighs more than double the usual amount. For a tool that we are swinging around the math requires an extra step because we are looking at moment of inertia*. In short multiply the total weight of the tool by the distance from the top of your hand to the center of balance for the tool. For a typical longsword, with a 10cm CoB and a total mass of 1.5kg we get .15kgm. With a 2.5 kg tool (~5 lbs.) that's built like a clubbell the CoB is around 20cm out. As such we get a moment of inertia of .5kgm. Too heavy for good form. So use this tool for strength training instead.

* I have simplified the physics here for the sake of making it accessible and usable for a large number of people. I do not believe that my simplification alters the utility of the math.

Wrist and Elbow Exercises

Moulinets and Falling-away - lie on your back* and extend your arm straight up. The imaginary target is in the direction of the ceiling. Cut wrist moulinets: inside, outside and reverses. To make the exercises more difficult you can fall away to the same side, that is when cutting an outside moulinet have the weight fall to the outside instead of continuing in a straight line to the inside.

These exercises are done with the forearm straight up so that the "power" part of the exercise is with the weight moving away from you and towards the target. Normally these exercises are shown standing upright with the forearm parallel to the floor. In that position the power is on the return action and the weight can fall through the cut.

* You can also stand/sit with the upper arm parallel to the floor and the forearm straight up, but this brings the weight closer to the head, so it doesn't work well with a lot of equipment or is just plain dangerous.

Disengage - assume the same position as above and then simply make circles with the end of the tool. Small circles are easier and more specific. Larger circles will require and build more strength but are less specific. A mix of each is reasonable. Remember to do both clockwise and counterclockwise.

Elbow Cuts - from the same position you can perform elbow cuts. For these actions a larger weight will be needed to maintain a strength training stimulus. And lower reps can be safely done because the prime movers are the elbow muscles. This exercise brings the weight closer to your face so care must be taken to avoid injury.

Basic Strength
Wrist Abduction and Adduction - Stand upright with your hands down by your side palm inward. Let the weight hang down and then lift it straight up. This is the power stroke of a false/short edge cut. Then reverse the weight so that the heavy end sticks out from the pinky side and do the same. This is the power stroke of a long/true edge cut.

Wrist Supination and Pronation - Stand with your arm extended fully out in front of you. Stick the weight out perpendicular to your arm, to the inside and let it hang down as far as comfortable. Then bring it upright. The next exercise is to rotate the end around until it sticks out to the outside line. As the pronators are normally stronger than the supinators it is necessary to switch weights for these two exercises.

Wrist Extension and Flexion - These exercises are done with a dumbbell. They consist simply of standing with the arm hanging at your side and curling or extending the wrist. They can also be done seated with the elbow on your leg and the forearm parallel to the floor. This produces a different stimulus, so it is useful to occasionally switch from one to the other.

The wrist curl will also help develop grip strength for grappling.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Equipment Recommendations

Here are some of my favorite pieces of equipment:

1.  Medicine Balls that bounce, such as these or these. Medicine balls that bounce have two advantages that I appreciate. First, they allow for more plyometric drills for the upper body and torso. Second, they can also train reflexes.

For sword martial arts medicine balls of 4lbs. or 6lbs are appropriate. The objective is something not more than twice the weight of the sword so that you can train speed of execution and the elastic properties of the muscle (with plyometrics).

For unarmed striking training a 2lb. medicine ball works just fine. For grappling training heavier medicine balls become more useful. But see the next item.

2.  Sandbells are a great way to throw around heavier things. For these weights of up to around 30% of 1RM work well, since that is the resistance at which maximum power output occurs. Since these are used primarily for upper body work I base the resistance off of bench press 1RM. If you are buying these for a class then aim for lower on the weight, 10-20 lbs.

3.  Weighted bars in two-handed and one-handed sizes are a great additional tool. And these are quite easy to DIY. A piece of iron pipe with caps, filled with sand (leftover from the sandbell project), works just as well. I, of course, recommend using them like swords i.e. holding them at the end instead of the way they are used in aerobics classes.

Also, as a DIY project you can make one-handed bars that are much thicker and heavier. These are then useful for grip and wrist strength.

I'm linking to the manufacturers website so that you can get the best view of the product. Once you know what you are getting you, I see no reason not to check Amazon for better prices.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Core/Trunk Training for Combat Sports

I seem to have an unusual position on what kind of trunk exercises are appropriate for combat sports. Most trunk exercises I see done are bodyweight and done with a large numbers of repetitions or simply isometric holds. While this is as good a way as any to do conditioning, I don't see it as benefiting the needs of a fighter very much.

In striking and weapon arts the primary ways in which the trunk muscles are going to be used can be divided into offensive and defensive. On the defense I might pull my head backwards quickly, arching my back as I do, so that I can dodge a strike; or duck to the side turning my torso and basically doing an oblique crunch while standing. On the attack my trunk is used to transmit force from my legs and hips to my upper body to make for more powerful hits.

Each of these applications have several important characteristics in common. The movement is sudden: it does not build gradually, it must be made in an instant; the movement is fast; and the movement is high intensity: that is rapid acceleration (and then deceleration).

To this end our trunk exercises should be geared towards producing sudden, fast, high intensity movements. We don't do that with exercises that are way out on the endurance end of intensity. Nor do we do it with isometric exercises.

I suggest four categories of trunk exercises for the fighter.

Conventional Strength Training - Exercises like weighted crunches, obliques, side bends and hyperextensions. The important part is to use enough weight that you can do only 8-12 reps max. Higher intensity i.e. 6RM or less, is not recommended for small muscles like those of the trunk nor for single joint exercises, which these effectively are. Lower intensity builds more strength than endurance and for our purposes we need strength.

For someone who is brand new, isometric exercises, like planks and bridges, can be a reasonable starting point, but only until a 30 sec. hold is possible. Then you need to move up to dynamic exercises. And if necessary start doing crunches and the like with no weight, but only until you can do more than 12, then you need to add weight.

I actually see machines as a perfectly good way to do these exercises. Things like an ab crunch machine, back extension machine or torso rotation machine. But I say that in the context of a person doing a program that includes four different kinds of torso training as well as their technical training. The advantage of a machine in this context is that it allows for higher weights, which builds more strength and power. And I wouldn't do machines all the time, I'd do them in the run up to a competition when I'm looking for max strength and power in my entire program.

Structural Loading - Structural loading is the demand on your torso muscles from lifting and carrying heavy weights. While doing exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges and step-ups* you have to stabilize your torso against the weight. The higher up the weight is held the greater the demand on trunk muscles, so racking weights at shoulder level in the clean position is more challenging than having dumbbells hanging down by your side.

For single leg exercises it's beneficial to hold the weight on the opposite side, such as doing right leg step-ups with a dumbbell in the left hand and vice-versa.

A variety of different exercises will provide a variety of different challenges to your trunk muscles allowing for some fairly complete training of the torso.

* This list isn't exclusive, these are categories of exercises with lot's of potential for variation. Additionally, a wide variety of non-conventional weightlifting options exist which will fulfill this objective. Examples include: sled drag/push, tire flipping, side presses and lots of other options.

Plyometrics - As the needs of our torso muscles are primarily these are important exercises for the program. The neurologic component of any plyometric exercise is driven by the reflex traveling from the muscle to the spine and back. For trunk muscles this is necessarily shorter than any other joint. As such it is most important with trunk plyometrics to minimize the contact time.

Suggested Exercises: Floor slams, Back throws, side throws, reverse/back side throws. As well as chest pass/bounce with a hip pivot.

High-Intensity Trunk Conditioning - There are several options for High-Intensity Interval Training that will also provide a valuable training load on the trunk muscles that stabilize your torso. Battle ropes, clubbells, sledgehammer and similar exercises.

My preference is for heavy bar cutting patterns. Taking a 9+ lb. exercise bar doing cutting patterns is a good high intensity exercises for intervals. Plus throwing around that weight at the end will challenge all of your balance muscles from the ankles to your upper back. This can be put together by buying a 4 foot iron pipe at a home improvement store, and then filling it with sand. The result is cheaper than a sledge hammer (or clubbell) but with similar characteristics. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Event Foods

What to eat during a long event recently came up here, on Armour Archive.

Having just finished a semester of nutrition for performance, here's what I replied:

While fighting the primary thing your body is losing is water and electrolytes.

Think about the time you spend on the field. In your armour you're pretty much always sweating (heck I sweat through my gambeson at a frostbite tourney). But most of the time is spent standing around or maybe walking. Interspersed are brief bits of max intensity action. While those are physically demanding, they don't actually burn that many calories. And your muscles also highly active, but you shouldn't be sore like you are after a session of strength training.

The needs are to replace electrolytes and water. You don't actually have a high need for either carbs or protein at this time.

There are plenty of ways to replenish electrolytes: gatorade, jerky, pickles etc. So you need to find what appeals to you and what has worked in the past.

You need to eat enough that you don't feel hungry or tired. Obviously those will impede performance and these will vary from person to person and how that day is going (or how last night went). And to meet this need you should eat whatever you like to eat and has worked for you in the past. Eating lean meats is going to be preferable to fatty meats, for most people, because the fattier meals tend to be harder on the digestion.

The question asked was about event foods. And not recovery from training. Training should be much more demanding than fighting and so the needs are different and increased.

Of course, the topic of protein came up in the discussion:

You don't burn protein for energy under normal circumstance. Protein metabolism has noxious by-products (due to the nitrogen), so the body always keeps it to a minimum. Except in starvation. Using your muscles a bunch doesn't lead to protein metabolism.

If your muscles are sore, and in need of repair, then protein is needed. But the repair process takes time. If you're sore on Saturday then the repair process won't be complete until Monday or Tuesday. Protein consumption does not meaningfully affect this process. Protein consumption simply isn't gonna make a difference for Sunday.

Of course, that's no reason not to eat food you enjoy! One of the things I liked about my nutrition class was the repeated emphasis on Enjoying Food.

And the only thing that doesn't recover in a day or less is muscle soreness of the kind that would be fixed by protein consumption. There are different ways for a muscle to be sore (including Delayed Onset, where I don't hurt until after I get home from the event :P ).

Some of those other kinds of sore can be fixed faster. For instance cramps may be fixed by stretching, massage and/or electrolytes depending on cause.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Olympic Lifts v. Kettlebells

A recent journal article(1) on kettlebells initiated another round of discussion on the merits and/or advantages of the kettlebell. I want to talk about that, and I will in a moment, but just to be clear: I have nothing against kettlebells. My objection is when folks think they are better than another tool at everything, as opposed to using them for what they do well and using the correct tool for other objectives.

First, the results of the study: conventional weightlifting was superior to the kettlebell training.

Now, listen to how the results are described by the authors,
The principle finding of the present study was that short-term kettlebell training significantly increased vertical jump, and that the gain in vertical jump performance was equivalent to that achieved with a combination of [Olympic] weightlifting and traditional heavy resistance training exercises.
Both kettlebell and training and weightlifting increased back squat 1RM.
The results of the present study indicated that both weightlifting and kettlebell movements are effective in improving back squat and power clean 1RM as well as vertical jump ability; however, weightlifting exercises are more effective for strength development.
Does this sound like the weightlifting was superior? 

In all three tests (power clean and back squat 1RM and vertical jump) the conventional training produced larger gains. In the vertical jump and power clean the gains were close enough to each other that the differences were not statistically significant.

Which brings me to the next point: significance. The fact that the test for statistical significance was "passed" does not mean the results are significant in any other way. The increase in jump height for the KB group was less than 2mm. This is not telling, not meaningful, not important, not momentous, not compelling, or frankly even suggestive (yup, I used a thesaurus).

True, the conventional protocol produced jump height gains of just under a centimeter, so it wasn't any of those synonyms either.

On to the conversation! There have been numerous blog posts about this already. And there are two criticisms of the study that I've seen multiple times, so I'd like to address them.

A. The test procedures. Others have criticized the selection of tests on the grounds that they don't test what the kettlebell training trains or the tests are more similar to the weightlifting exercises so of course that group got better.

The tests selected for this study are standard tests. This has two advantages. First the results of this test can be compared to other studies that used the same test. Second, there is already a body of literature demonstrating that these tests correlate to actual measures of athletic performance. Both of these point are important for useful science.

If the conventional weightlifting exercises and tests are more similar, doesn't that tell us that the specificity of those exercises is higher? Remember, correlation between those test and athletic performance have already been demonstrated.

And while kettlebell exercises can be useful, one characteristic they don't possess is a high degree of movement specificity to many sport actions. (They are instead good for metabolic specificity etc.)

B. Another criticism was that the weights used for the KB protocol were too light. For the KB protocol everyone used a 16kg bell. For the conventional training 80% of 1RM was used, which was substantially higher. Some argued that the KB group should have used the same weight as the conventional group.

There are two problems with this criticism. The typical KB program uses the same weight or a narrow range and the objective is to increase reps not weight. The KB protocol used in this study looks like others I've seen suggested for kettlebell training.

But the sillier part is that the researchers couldn't have used kettlebells heavy enough for 80% of 1RM. They would have needed a set of KB's that went from around 60kg to 150kg. The largest I could find online was 48kg. And a blog post that a manufacture was planning to go up to 100 kg. So weights that size would've been impossible to get.

And why? Because KB training isn't done that way. The researchers compared a typical KB approach to a typical Olympic lifting approach. That's reasonable.

Lastly, a pet peeve of mind when it comes to discussing kettlebells. There were no kettlebell exercises done as part of this study. There were exercises done with kettlebells. All of the KB protocol could have been done with dumbbells. And for cheaper

1. Otto WH 3rd, Coburn JW, Brown LE, Spiering BA (2012). Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength, and body composition. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, volume 26(5),1199-202

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Interesting Links

A couple of other blog posts I've liked:
On CrossFit and General v. Specific training

On Kettlebells

In both cases there are little things I disagree with, but overall they are worth reading.

Friday, April 13, 2012

More Interval Training

This came up again on the HEMA Alliance forum, someone asked about the training that Mike Edelson was doing (which I talked about before).

Tabata's are a specific protocol of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). As Mike acknowledges, he is not using the term correctly. Tabata protocol is 20 seconds of high intensity and 10 seconds of medium intensity (i.e. active rest). The periods are alternated 8 times for 4 minutes. Work:rest ratio is 2:1. High intensity was defined using a cycle ergometer originally, but you can think of it as an intensity you can only maintain for around 20 seconds. This should be well above your anaerobic threshold i.e. you should be breathless at the end of each . As you improve over the weeks you can progress by increasing duration or intensity.

Mike is doing more conventional interval training. This is done with longer work periods of 30 s. to 2 minutes. And easier work to rest ratios of 1:2 to 3:2. Also the intensity is lower, around your anaerobic threshold. So a run but not a sprint.

Both do a good job of increasing conditioning, especially for anaerobic activities like fighting. But the HIIT is gonna be better for that purpose. For increasing the intensity of his stations to high-intensity you could use a sledge hammer in place of the axe (or an exercise bar) and replace the speed rope with some plyos like box jumps or med ball slams.

What Mike is doing is a lot like circuit training. The primary difference being that he has several different training stations while interval training typically refers to all the same exercise. Perhaps we should develop the "HEMAA Protocol", a high-intensity sword specific circuit.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Overhead lifts

"Another common mistake is lifting weights higher than shoulder level or bringing weights behind the the plane of the body." P. 188 Complete Conditioning for Tennis, E. Paul Roetert & Todd S. Ellenbecker.

This is a quote from a book on tennis. But the similarity in movements between tennis and longsword are relevant . This is also common advice for baseball pitchers.So, for longsword guys the overhead lifts are a potential problem. Due to the high stress on the shoulder from doing overhead sport actions the overhead lifts should be avoided. This is also common advice for baseball pitchers.

So do an incline press instead of the shoulder press (and do a vertical pull exercise as well e.g. lat pulldown, pull-ups, dips etc.). And only do cleans for Olympic lifts, not the snatch or jerk.

To explain, a little anatomy first: the head of the humerus rests in a socket, the glenoid cavity. Above the socket is the acromion, a projection off the scapula. In between these two is the subacromial space, which has to fit tendons, muscle and bursa.

Lifting the humerus above about 90* tends to compress the subacromial space. This can be lessened by strengthening the rotator cuff muscles. Healthy, strong rotator cuff muscles will help the head of the humerus move correctly, so that it doesn't impinge.

However, strengthening the muscles that pull the humerus upward will not reduce the upward compression of the humerus against the arcomion.

Overhead work, like house painting, and overhead sports, like pitchers and tennis, involve much more upward movement of the humerus. Most people bodies can't tolerate a large amount of overhead movement of the arm. There is variation in this characteristic; differences in acromion shape, glenoid cavity health, rotator cuff health and strength, and history of injury will all effect the likelihood of developing impingement.

Motion at the edge of a range of motion increases the likelihood of chronic injury. So overhead athletes have a much higher likelihood of impingement. Even with correct form for pitching or serves in tennis, the stress is still high. Professional athletes frequently subject themselves to predictable injury because of their drive to compete.

This blog post also does a reasonable job of discussing it.

To produce the same strengthening of as an overhead press you can do an upright row and a shoulder shrug. Same muscles, used the same way, but each avoids excess abduction of the humerus.

Complex training

Recently I was asked my thoughts on Complex training, in this thread.

Complex training involves mixing another training mode in with weight training. This is done during the rest periods between sets of lifts. The most common form uses plyometrics that are biomechanically related. Such as doing squats and box jumps. There is a good summary here. Other forms exist as well.

I'm aware of only a small body of research on complex training. What I've seen is that the benefits are small. That means that the advantages are most useful to people already at the top of their game. If you're coming in second in races then complexes may push you to first. If you're coming in tenth, you have fundamentals to work on more importantly.

The other reason that they are most appropriate for high-end athletes is that they significantly increase the stress on the body. The total volume of work done in a workout roughly doubles. For someone whose already developed a tolerance for lot's of exercise it's fine. For an amateur athlete it's probably too much and increases the risk of overtraining or even injury.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bodyweight = Natural?

So, reading a book on fighting technique over the weekend, the book had a section on physical training. In there Mondschein states, ". . . in general, body-weight exercises have several advantages over weight training: . . . they develop the body in a more natural way, [and] teach us to use ourselves more efficiently."(p. 87) The listed exercises include:
  • Planks
  • Side Planks
  • Bridges
  • A yoga Sun Salutation
  • Leg Push-down
  • Back-to-Back Squats

And my question is, "What's natural about these?" In my regular life, the only time I ever end up in a plank, side plank, downward dog etc. position is while working out. And I certainly don't end up in those positions in a fight. Since these positions are not in fact natural, and are non-specific to fighting we should not value them above other exercises. They can still be useful, but they can't be the only exercises we do.

As to the assertion that they teach us to use our bodies more efficiently, I find myself confused by Ken's words. Training adaptations are specific, so my plank will become more efficient, but what else will? And my squats may gain some strength at first, but I'm not going to gain power with just body-weight squats. As such when I need power from my quads I will not have improved the efficiency of that action.

I'm not picking on Ken. He's a friend and can bench more than me. And I've seen this kind of thing from lot's of sources and people. His book just reminded me.

Many traditional martial arts have a bias towards body-weight or minimal equipment physical training. Over the years folks become convinced that this was because of it's superiority. Modern sports science has demonstrated this to be false. And so we need to move on in our martial arts training.

Mondschein, K. (2012). The Art of the Two-Handed Sword. Staten Island, NY: Swordplay Books

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sport Specific vs. General Fitness

One of the basic points of this blog is to describe a sport specific program for strength training for combat sports and martial arts. This is distinct from general fitness objectives, but not in a qualitative way. General fitness is a wonderful thing and anyone who does exercise to have good general fitness is doing a good thing.

But this blog isn't about general fitness, it's about performance in a specific endeavor. And a specific training program will produce better results than a general one in that endeavor.

This is why recommendations for non-specific exercises bug me. I see them plenty on people's descriptions of the exercise they do for their fighting. And it's not that they aren't getting fit. It's not they aren't strong. It's that the ability to hold a one-arm plank for 2 minutes has nothing to do with a sword fight. That's not disrespect for the ability to do that. I just object when they think that such does help with the fighting.

Non-specific training will carryover to fighting, but not as efficiently as specific training. Doing non-specific training and then winning a match doesn't prove it was the best route. Maybe you could do even better with a more specific program. Or maybe you don't care and you like the fitness you have - that's also wonderful.

Enjoy your exercise and enjoy your results, but please understand the difference between general fitness and sport specific fitness.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Plyometric Intensity

Ebben, W.P., Fauth, M.L., Garceau, R.L., & Petusher, E.J.(2011). Kinetic Quantification of Plyometric Exercise Intensity. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, Volume 25 (number 12) 3288-3298.

Another article from a recent NSCA journal. This one is a study analyzing the intensity of plyometric exercises. The introduction describes how a wide variety of ideas of intensity are used to assess plyometric exercises and that a standard does not exist. I admit that my main textbook, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, is vague on the topic and it's own assignments of intensity don't always make sense to me.

The importance of determining intensity is that is allows a sensible progression of exercise. For weight lifting it's easy. Intensity = weight, simple as that. For typical aerobic/anaerobic conditioning it's nearly as simple. Increases in time, speed or incline equal higher intensity. Comparisons between time, speed and incline are not well defined but frequently application or objective can be used for guidance. No similar metric exists for plyometric exercise.

Previous studies have focused on muscle activation or joint stresses for assessing the intensity of the exercise. These studies are useful but do not provide a complete picture, as they do not take into account the neural training. The neural training aspect of plyometrics should show a strong carryover to performance. Assessments of muscle activity and joint stress can be used to guide the number of repetitions per set, number of sets and total foot contacts per session when designing a program, as described here.

The present study analyzed the ground reaction force (GRF) and several other variables from a variety of different common plyometric exercises. GRF for take-off and landing are calculated separately and the authors conclude that these can form the guiding components. The other variables were well correlated to to these two or were obvious from the exercise. That is RFD, GRF and power will always be related. And a countermovement jump will normally have a longer flight time than a hop.

If the exercises are ordered from lowest to highest GRF then two separate lists are needed for take-off versus landing. However, I do not see how the landing plyos relate well to combat sports. If I'm hitting the ground at speed it's due to being thrown, not jumps and the like. Even the most energetic footwork appears to be quite modest compared to a drop jump.

Intensity of Takeoff from lowest to highest:
  1. Single Leg Jump
  2. Dumbbell Jump/Squat Jump*
  3. Countermovement Jump/Line Hop*
  4. Tuck Jump
  5. Cone Hop
 * Some levels have two exercises due to results that were similar.
These two links: Brian Mac and  Sport Fitness Advisor, provide visuals to describe the various exercises.

Note this progression is not a chart of difficulty of the exercise in general. I find the single-leg jump to be harder than a countermovement jump, but the takeoff force needed is lower for the single-leg jump. The SLJ spreads the force out over more time, so that peak force is lower even though the amount of force produced by the single leg is greater than in a double leg jump.

Other measures of intensity include power, jump height and time to takeoff. Power and jump height are strongly correlated, except that using a dumbbells increases the power needs of the exercise. As power is important for combat sports jump height can be used to progress the intensity of exercise, with dumbbell jumps at the highest intensity.

Time to takeoff is another important measure for combat sports because of the need for rapid execution of strikes. The most powerful strike is useless if it's too slow to hit, so a somewhat lighter hit that is faster can be more useful (especially if it allows a set-up for a harder hit). Time to takeoff follows the opposite progression of jump height with low jumps having a shorter time to takeoff. The exception is overloaded jumps i.e. the single leg and dumbbell jumps which have a high time to takeoff despite the low jump height. Drop jumps also have a short time to takeoff due to the elastic nature of the exercise. This suggests that low jumps in rapid succession may be the best training stimulus for rapid actions like those found in fighting.

The above information can  be used to design a program based on the needs of the particular athlete and the particular sport. If the coach concludes that the athlete needs to be faster than one program is indicated, but if the coach concludes that power needs to be worked then a different program is designed. Ultimately, a single best program will not be found, instead the program must be individualized to achieve the best results.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Front Squats

For sword arts the Front Squat is a better choice than the Back Squat the bulk of the time. The arm position of a Back Squat produces an additional strain on the shoulder joint. One which is unnecessary.

As I'm sure most of you know, shoulder injuries are one of the most common problems for  fighters in sword arts.

This is the same reason why behind the neck lat pulldowns and any other similar position should be avoided for baseball players, tennis players and other overhead athletes and professions.

Also, this website is awesome, and has been added to the links on the right.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wooden Legs

This past weekend I was at an event, hitting friends with swords as usual. One of the guys there described feeling 'wooden' in his footwork. And he talked about what training things he was doing about it.  While we were fighting he said that he started off feeling like he was moving well, what I think of as explosive, but that he quickly slowed down.

He attributes the problem primarily to some weight that he's put on.

After watching the video of the day's fighting, I'm not sure that he actually slowed down all that much. So maybe part of the problem was perception. Maybe it was cardiorespiratory.

His chosen solution was Tabata's or rather high-intensity interval training (HIIT). He does footwork patterns at high-intensity with an interval timer. And some of those intervals he does while carrying extra weight. He also does jump rope, and I'm not sure what else is part of his training regimen.

I think there are a couple of ways he can improve the training for his footwork.

1) The Tabata's - the Tabata protocol is based on very high intensities of exercise - in the realm of 170% of VO2max. These are done for short durations, generally around 20 seconds. And there are rest periods in between sets of anywhere from half as much time to two to three times (that is work:rest ratios of 2:1 to 1:3). Footwork patterns aren't gonna do that. And footwork while carrying extra weight still aren't likely to hit that intensity for his legs. To get that kind of intensity of exercise in his legs, he should probably be jumping, hopping, bounding and other plyometric exercises like that.

Carrying 50lbs. while doing footwork increases the intensity by about 25% for a 200 lb. person. But jumping easily reaches 100%+ of bodyweight. So added weight is good, but jumping is better.

By carefully picking what kinds of plyos he does he can maintain a high-degree of specificity in the exercises, while also upping the intensity level beyond just footwork. As these are a new exercise for him, he should start with low-intensity plyos and work his way up progressively.

Altogether, this should provide a better conditioning training for his footwork.
The next two sections are more strength training than conditioning solutions to his wooden legs. And should be done in conjunction with the HIIT. The basic idea is that if the necessary force for a given action is a smaller percentage of max then endurance increases without sacrificing speed. For example, if I go from a 12" vertical to a 18" vertical then I can do 6" more times because each one represents a smaller portion of my max.

2) Explosive lifts - Ideally, these would be Olympic lifts, like the Power Clean. However, those require expensive equipment and significant training. So for a simpler solution we can do Squat Jumps, as described by Mike Boyle in Functional Training for Sports (p. 165). This exercise consists of simple jumping straight up from a squat position. It is important to get full extension of the hip, knee and ankle in this exercise.

The intensity of this exercise should be increased until each set consists of only 3-5 jumps in a row. This is done by adding weight, such as dumbbells, which can be held in the hands. For a lower body exercise like this weight can be increased in 10-20# increments.

Rest periods between sets should 2 minutes or longer, and the athlete should do at least 3 sets. For efficiency of time the athlete could do a light upper body activity in between sets.

3) Conventional weight lifting - Squats, leg presses and deadlifts will all contribute to lower leg strength and be useful in explosive footwork. Straight leg deadlifts do a good job of focusing on the glutes, while the squats/leg press focus on the quadricpes, so both exercises should be done. Single-leg variants of both of these exercises are also a good addition to the program.

For improving explosiveness in footwork weights should be chosen in the range that develops strength and power. So 1-6 RM weights. These are going to be large weights for such exercises and an athlete new to these should proceed slowly.

A program might look like four workouts a week for this, with two strength training and two plyo/conditioning days each week. A day off between each workout is ideal, which results in an 8 day cycle.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Best Power Clean?

Comfort, P., Allen, M., & Graham-Smith, P., (2011). Kinetic Comparisons During Variations of the Power Clean. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, Volume 25 (number 12) 3269-3273.

This article in the most recent NSCA journal discusses two basic variants of the power clean exercise. The clean is an excellent exercise for training power production of the lower body. It's already assumed that the power version is preferable for sports training for it's specificity. This study examines the differences between starting positions: on the ground, the hang position and mid-thigh. The study also compares the clean pull from mid-thigh.

The study found that the mid-thigh start position produced the highest force (ground reaction force (GRF)), highest rate of force production (RFD) and highest power (P). The clean and pull produced similar forces. For the purposes of sports training, and especially the incredibly quick movements of combat, these characteristics are some of the most important.

That the force characteristics are highest for the mid-thigh start is not surprising given the mechanics. Regardless of the start position the bar has to be brought to the same end position. Producing sufficient force for this with a smaller movement requires the acceleration to be higher. And so RFD and Power are higher.

The conclusion is that, for sports and combat training, the mid-thigh start position best suits the the strength objectives.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Types of Strength Training

Different intensities or loads of strength training will produce different results. This is an essential principle in strength training. The selection of load for an exercise then needs to be based on the training objective. Strength training can improve muscular endurance, size of the muscle, called hypertrophy, max (or basic) strength and power.

Power is differentiated from strength by the speed of action; the term power is used to refer to high-speed strength. In physics terms power is equal to Force times velocity, so faster application of force equals higher power. In combat sports and swordplay power is most often our objective.

Each of these can and should be trained as part of a comprehensive training regimen. How to incorporate them all is part of a periodization scheme - a topic to be covered later.

Note that any strength training will improve all four capacities: endurance, size, strength and power. However, a given load will develop a particular characteristic more than others.

The primary variable in the periodization of strength training is the weight being lifted and the number of times that weight can be lifted. This will generally be described with the concept of Repetition Maximum (RM). RM is the max weight that can be lifted a given number of times. So a 10 RM weight is one that I can lift 10 times and then I need to stop. A 1RM weight is on that I can lift only once and then I need a break.

For each exercise different weights will be necessary to produce different RM's. There are resources for estimating these, but most folks can just as easily figure it out by trial and error. Start low and work upwards in small increments until the objective is reached.

Muscular Endurance
Loads of 12RM to 20RM or more will mostly produce gains in endurance, not maximum strength. Of note is the fact that endurance is achieved with different muscle cells than strength so the gains in strength will be minimal. Endurance training will also produce a modest increase in size of the muscle but this is not the optimal load for that objective.

Hypertrophy is the increase in size of a muscle that comes with training. It is primarily the result of the body building more muscle fibers at the molecular scale. The body will also adapt by increasing the blood vessels in the muscle. Hypertrophy is achieved at all levels of strength training but is optimally achieved with 8-15RM loads. The goal of the hypertrophy phase is to produce more muscle tissue to be used in the other phases of training. Loads of 6RM to 12RM will also increase muscular endurance. For swordfighters the amount of muscular endurance needed is not great and so this range of loads will usually be sufficient for endurance training.

The force that an individual muscle fiber can produce is based entirely on it's cross-sectional area. So hypertrophy is a necessary part of achieving maximum strength. Higher loads will further train the coordination of separate muscle fibers, so that the fibers work together better.

Low-Speed Strength
Loads in the 1RM to 6RM range will produce gains in maximum strength primarily by training the neuromuscular aspects to use the muscles more efficiently. Maximum strength increases maximum speed of action because strength refers, in physics terms, to Force. Force is mass times acceleration, so increases in force production are increases in the ability to accelerate. Therefore increases in strength will increase the speed with which an attack can be executed. Max strength training provides a foundation on which high-speed strength can be added.

Hypertrophy will continue to occur at these loads but to a lesser degree. There will be little increase in muscular endurance but endurance gained in earlier phases will be maintained. However, endurance will be increased secondarily. The weight of your hand or foot or sword does not increase so as max strength increase the percentage of strength necessary to hold it up or move it decreases. 

Power - High-Speed Strength
Power is well trained by high loads in the 1RM to 5RM range. Additionally, training at higher speeds will develop power. There are several ways to incorporate such into your training. In the weight room you can move the weights at higher speed. Instead of pushing the weight up over a 1 or 2 count, you can explosively lift the weight as fast as you can. When moving the weight faster you should expect to get fewer reps out of each set. So a 8RM weight will become a 5RM load when done explosively.

Other options include Olympic lifts, squat jumps, bench press throws, chains and resistance bands etc. All of these are topics for future posts. But don't forget that high weight loads will still do much to increase power. These more complex methods are not necessary for power development - they are used to refine a strong athlete to maximum potential.

Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W. (Eds.). (2008).  Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed.) . Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Increasing the Impact Force of the Rear Hand Punch - Part 2

Rear Leg Drive was covered in the previous post. This post will deal with the other 4 concepts from that article.

* * *

Turner, A., Baker, E., Miller, S.,  (2011). Increasing the Impact Force of the Rear Hand Punch. Strength and Conditioning Journal, volume 33 (number 6), pages 2-9.

The article discusses the kinetics and kinematics of the rear hand punch to show ways of increasing the impact of the punch. Turner indicates that the material is generalizable to other strikes, which I don't doubt. The rear hand punch is used as the basis of the analysis because it is well understood, used in many arts and the most powerful punch.

Five key aspects of the punch are identified to optimize the strike:
1. Rear leg drive
2. Landing with a rigid front leg
3. Stretch-shortening cycle of the trunk
4. Velocity of the strike
5. Effective mass of the strike

These key aspects align with the key elements of the kinetics of the strike
Rear Leg Drive - the rear leg is used to initiate the strike and extended explosively to contribute power. This is done with the front leg in the air and moving forward. The more powerful the rear leg drive the harder the strike.
Rigid Front Leg - the front leg must land rigidly to provide a brake on the forward motion of the body. This focuses the rear leg drive on the upper body. The more rigid the braking action, the more force is transferred to the strike.
SSC of the Trunk - the rear shoulder is pulled back early in the strike coiling the trunk to generate more power. This occurs because of the elastic nature of musculature. Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC) is the neurologic component that increases the elastic reaction of the muscles. A better trained SSC in the trunk increases the trunks contribution to power.
Velocity of the Strike - the arm can move at tremendous speed and is quite light, so it's primary contribution to force is through velocity. The faster the arm moves the harder the strike.
Increase Effect Mass - the arm actually slows down just before the strike lands. Activation of the muscles in the arm to make it rigid cause this effect. A rigid arm allows more of the mass of the body to be contributed to the power of the strike.

Rigid Front Leg
Landing with a rigid front leg will cause more force to be transferred to the strike. Substantial bend in the knee is the most likely indicator that the front leg is not rigid enough. Training for a more rigid leg should be done gradually, because we are training to overcome the body's natural defense against impact/landing. As long as this process is done gradually then the connective tissues and related structures will strengthen appropriately.

Training for a more rigid landing can be done with box drops. Simply step off a plyometric box (or similar) and land. Don't focus on trying to land rigidly, let that develop at it's own pace. Start with small boxes and work your way up to taller boxes, as well as single-leg drops. When incorporating this with other plyometric programs it is important to take into consideration the total number of contacts per training session, so as not to overload the tissues.

Olympic lifts and squat jumps will also help develop this characteristic.

Stretch Shortening Cycle of the Trunk
The rear hand punch, and many other strikes, include a wind-up action that brings the elastic nature of the muscles into play. This elasticity is the reason that untrained folks will naturally pull their fist back before punching. It's also the reason why when you jump you naturally drop down just a bit before moving upwards.

The elasticity of the musculature is the result of two factors: connective tissue is elastic similar to the way that rubber bands are; and our nervous system has controls on the muscles that produce a similar effect - which is known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC). These two together can substantially add to force production.

Medicine ball exercises can be used to train this capacity. The most basic is a side pass.
  1. Stand in your typical striking stance with your left foot forward. 
  2. Hold a medicine ball at arm's length with both arms. 
  3. Rotate clockwise a short distance, quickly and then reverse direction and throw the ball. 
  4. If possible catch the ball and repeat, making sure to counter turn a little with each catch or before each throw.
  • Focus doing the throw with the torso, not the arms.
  • For this exercise, we are concerned with rapid action so a light ball of around 2 kg is sufficient. 
  • Not all med balls are equal, some bounce better than others. For fighter training I think the bouncier kind are more useful for a wide variety of drills.
A forward and backward pass can be done as well, following the same principles. For the forward pass face the wall with your feet squared and the ball over head. Arch back just a little bit before throwing forward. The backward version is done while facing away from the wall and you crunch forward just a bit before throwing overhead and backwards.

There are plenty of good variations on these exercises. This is meant as a good start.

Increase the Velocity of the Punch
Training to increase arm velocity will focus on ballistic type exercises. The focus is on speed not just weight. Here again, medicine ball exercises will help. A variety of throws using form similar to strikes will work for this kind of training. Again, use a light medicine ball to focus on velocity of action. However, the simplest ballistic upper body exercise is the clap push-up.

Another option is to use resistance bands for conventional weight training exercises (not discussed in the article). These increase resistance progressively and so the action starts off fast with a light resistance and the load increases as velocity decreases. This method also plays well into the next concept.

Increase the Effective Mass
The effective mass of the hit is determined by how rigidly linked the parts of the arm and body are at impact. The more rigid they are at impact the more weight is behind the punch. Studies of muscle activation in punches show a double-peak effect. As the hand starts to move forward the muscles activate strongly. Then the relax and the hand sort of glides forward. Last the muscles activate again making the arm and wrist rigid.

This double peak is not observed in shadow-boxing or other training done "in the air". So training with a solid striking target is necessary to train the body to transfer force on impact. Pad and bag work is the basic way to do this. For weapon arts it's necessary to have a striking target like a pell to hit.

* * *
The article also has a sample program to show the combination of these various training elements. That's a whole other topic though, and I'll get into it with later posts.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Increasing the Impact Force of the Rear Hand Punch

The Strength and Conditioning Journal, published by the NSCA, did a special issue all about Combat Sports. I'm gonna review most of the articles from that issue.

* * *

Turner, A., Baker, E., Miller, S.,  (2011). Increasing the Impact Force of the Rear Hand Punch. Strength and Conditioning Journal, volume 33 (number 6), pages 2-9.

The article discusses the kinetics and kinematics of the rear hand punch to show ways of increasing the impact of the punch. Turner indicates that the material is generalizable to other strikes, which I don't doubt. The rear hand punch is used as the basis of the analysis because it is well understood, used in many arts and the most powerful punch.

Five key aspects of the punch are identified to optimize the strike:
1. Rear leg drive
2. Landing with a rigid front leg
3. Stretch-shortening cycle of the trunk
4. Velocity of the strike
5. Effective mass of the strike

These key aspects align with the key elements of the kinetics of the strike
Rear Leg Drive - the rear leg is used to initiate the strike and extended explosively to contribute power. This is done with the front leg in the air and moving forward. The more powerful the rear leg drive the harder the strike.
Rigid Front Leg - the front leg must land rigidly to provide a brake on the forward motion of the body. This focuses the rear leg drive on the upper body. The more rigid the braking action, the more force is transferred to the strike.
SSC of the Trunk - the rear shoulder is pulled back early in the strike coiling the trunk to generate more power. This occurs because of the elastic nature of musculature. Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC) is the neurologic component that increases the elastic reaction of the muscles. A better trained SSC in the trunk increases the trunks contribution to power.
Velocity of the Strike - the arm can move at tremendous speed and is quite light, so it's primary contribution to force is through velocity. The faster the arm moves the harder the strike.
Increase Effect Mass - the arm actually slows down just before the strike lands. Activation of the muscles in the arm to make it rigid cause this effect. A rigid arm allows more of the mass of the body to be contributed to the power of the strike.

Rear leg drive
Rear leg drive is best increased by exercises that make use of the full extension of the legs. Basic weightlifting exercises for this are the squat and deadlift. Specifically, the traditional bent-leg deadlift should be used for this objective since it includes knee extension as well as the hip extension. Calf raises, especially one-legged calf raises, are a good assistance exercise (not mentioned in the article), since ankle extension (plantarflexion) is not included in the squat and deadlift. The single-leg version is preferable from the viewpoint of specificity to the sport - you never produce rear leg drive with both legs simultaneously.

Similarly, single-leg variants of the squat and deadlift are also useful. However, single-leg versions will reduce max weight, so they should not be the sole version used. Both max weight lifts and more functional/specific lifts together will contribute to maximal performance.

These lifts are best trained at high loads in the 1-8 Rep Max (RM) range. This range will produce the biggest gains in power generation and peak force. Additionally, these high load lifts produce gains primarily through neurologic training not hypertrophy, so athletes who need to make weight are better served in this type of exercise.

Conventional lifts like these will increase peak force or the height of the Force-Time curve. The strike happens very quickly, around 300 milliseconds. Therefore the rate of force development (RFD) is also important i.e. the steepness of the Force-Time curve. Increasing RFD can be trained with very rapid exercises instead of high loads.

Olympic lifts, such as the Clean, are an ideal method of developing rapid force production. However, they are technically demanding and so require training. Squat jumps, with dumbbells in hand to increase load, are a good alternative to these lifts. Squat jumps are less demanding technically and less physically demanding on the back of the athlete.

Plyometric exercises, such as box jumps, are another good method of increasing RFD. Since strikes are normally executed from a fairly stable position, and because the same strike is not normally rapidly repeated, a quick rebound action is not as necessary for lower-body plyometrics. So jumps for height and distance are effective instead of rapid jumps in succession.

The authors note an important part in training lower body power: long, slow, distance running is counter-productive. Long endurance activities shift muscle from peak power type to endurance type, which is not useful in our sports. The legs seldom fatigue in sword arts and combat sports, but peak power generation is a must.

* * *

This article is a big one, so the review of it will be broken up over several posts.

A Response to Ralf LeBigod

Over on the Armour Archive a link was posted to a presentation done by Ralf LeBigod (his SCA name) on  physical conditioning for the SCA.

Ralf presents some good material in this. But ultimately there is a lot of untrue material that I wish to address.

1. First, he trots out the tired old myth of strength training causing shortened muscles/tendons. This is only true with poorly designed programs. Of the kind that bodybuilding has a reputation for doing. A well-designed program will not shorten muscles/tendons. I'll explain the two common errors and how to design a program that prevents them.

Incomplete Range of Motion
Exercising with an incomplete range of motion (ROM), at high volume, without stretching or activities that use the complete ROM will shorten the tendon. The example of this I've seen in person was a friend who couldn't completely straighten his arm at the elbow. He'd done a huge amount of bicep curls without going all the way down on the exercise. I see this error at the gym today in bodybuilder types.

The solution is simple: use complete range of motion. It's not necessary for every single action/exercise to use the complete ROM. But using the full ROM should be the norm i.e. what you do with almost all exercises. The thing is that if you fully straighten your arm 12 times per set, 3 sets per workout, 3 days per week you can't help but have full ROM at the elbow. Doing that meets the ACSM stretching standards.

Imbalanced Muscles
Front to back, left to right or interal/external rotation imbalances can also lead to shorten tendons. The classic example of this is the bodybuilder who focuses too much on the "mirror muscles", that is the chest muscles. If the chest muscles are too much stronger than the back muscles then the joints will be pulled forwards toward the chest under normal resting conditions. This leads to a slouched or forward rolled shoulder look. The tendons of the chest muscles will then shorten because the resting length is shortened. Correspondingly, the back muscles will lengthen and weaken.

The solution here is equally simple: match each exercise with it's opposite. For every push, a pull. For every flexion, an extension etc. If a muscle and it's opposite (antagonist) are kept near each other in strength then this problem won't occur.

Tendon shortening is not the inevitable result of strength training and is easily prevented.

2. The topic on which he spends the most time is cardiovascular conditioning and here, again, he presents a view based on an old myth. This myth is the idea of needing to use a large amount of long slow jogs/runs for building an "aerobic base". The aerobic base is a prerequisite for interval training in his version and will also mean that a  fighter burns fat instead of carbs while recovering. The idea of building an aerobic base was the result of team sports coaches asking track coaches how to train running. But research in the last 20 years has shown this to be a non-optimal method.

Aerobic capacity is usually measured by VO2max. While long, slow, distance running (LSD) will increase VO2max, it's not the only way. Importantly, interval training methods will also increase VO2max, and are just as effective. So there is simply no need to require three (!) months of 90 minutes a day, or 10+ hours a week, of running just to increase VO2max.

In fact, LSD for increasing aerobic capacity runs into a specificity problem. Our body will not simultaneously develop both high aerobic capacity and high anaerobic power. So three months of training, 10 hours a week for aerobic capacity pulls resources away from power development and anaerobic capacity (1). The interval training that follows development of this "aerobic base" mostly regains the body's ability to work anaerobically after detraining that capacity for three months. And fighters really want to detrain power?

You are much better off starting with interval training. Start with intervals that are relatively easy, like 10-minute jogs, if you are deconditioned, and gradually move up to runs and sprints. Interval training is well-demonstrated as being effective for increasing VO2max. And a wide variety of interval training protocols including fartlek high-intensity and mixed effort protocols will work.

Increased VO2max will produce the recovery benefit that is Ralf's objective. A high VO2max is strongly correlated to good scores of performance decrement (Pdec) on repeated sprint and repeated effort tests. Da Silve (2) et al is a good example of this. Performance decrement is how much an athletes sprint time goes up when they do sprints with short rest periods in-between. Pdec is the best lab measure of "recovery" - that is the ability to go at max intensity over and over again with little rest. Which is, of course, what's required in a fight.

Furthermore, Ralf describes how LSD will increase the percentage of calories that are obtained from fat while engaging in exercise, and describes this as an objective of LSD program. The idea being that if the fat burning system is well trained then a fighter will burn fat in a fight and therefore use "better" recovery energy sources.

First of all, I have no idea why he believes that fat is a better source of energy during a fight. I think his reason is that we store many more calories of energy as fat, so it's a better source than glycogen. However, we are built to use glycogen as a short term energy source for our muscles. And we store thousands of calories as glycogen. Marathoners usually run out of glycogen around the 20 mile point. Far more energy burned than even a war event in the SCA.

Secondly, we can't use fat for energy during fighting. High intensity exercise inhibits the ability to use fat for energy (3). Which makes sense fundamentally. Converting fat to energy is a slow process that can't be done at a high volume, so it can't possibly be used to provide the high-intensity bursts of energy needed for fighting.

Just do interval training for combat sports like the SCA. It works. It works well. And it doesn't waste your time.

1. Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W. (Eds.). (2008).  Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed.) . Human Kinetics
2. da Silva, Juliano F; Guglielmo, Luiz G A; Bishop, David (2010). Relationship Between Different Measures of Aerobic Fitness and Repeated-Sprint Ability in Elite Soccer Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Vol. 24, issue 8, pp. 2115-2121
3. Van Loon, L.J., Greenhaff, P.L., Constantin-Teododiu, D., Saris, W.H., Wagenmakers, A.J., The Effects of Increasing Exercise Intensity of Muscle Fuel Utilisation in Humans (2001). Journal of Physiology 588: 4289-4302