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


  1. I think you have to quote the whole sentence to get the context: "Weight training is advantageous, but in general, body-weight exercises have several advantages over weight training: In addition to being able to be performed anywhere, they develop the body in a more natural way, teach us to use ourselves more efficiently, and do not require any special equipment or a spotter."

    We also need to clarify the context: We're talking about the older, out-of-shape North Americans most attracted to HEMA. Many need to rehab and get some strength, balance, and coordination first. Others are gym-strong but lack coordination and relaxation in their movement.

    So what do I mean by "natural" development? That's easy: Developing as our bodies were designed to develop. Sitting on a Nautilus machine and becoming a leg-extension athlete or a bicep-curl athlete is unnatural in the sense that it doesn't build any coordination or supporting musculature. (I hate Nautilus machines.) Conversely, to do a side-plank or sun salutation, you need to actually inhabit your body and use it mindfully.

    My philosophy on exercise in fencing is quite a difference from the way I was raised, which was old-school "weight lifting is bad for fencing." Then again, good technique doesn't require you be Ah-nuld.

  2. Hello Ken,

    The parts of the paragraph that I left out were the parts with which I agreed. That bodyweight exercises are cheaper and more convenient is good, but not germane to their "natural" quality.

    Your point about the exercises being for unfit folks isn't relevant either. There are lots of ways to get more fit. The Mass General Hospital trained physical therapist who helped me after my back surgery had me do lots of weightlifting and almost no bodyweight exercises.

    Bringing up the Nautilus machine is a false dichotomy and you know it. Don't waste space on my blog that way. Doing a squat with 200 lbs. on the bar also requires me to inhabit my body and use it mindfully. And I couldn't possibly get the same training stimulus without the weight.

    Good technique doesn't require great strength. But maximum speed of execution requires strength training (and skill training etc.).

  3. Don't you think the context was important?"

    May I point out that the phys therapist was part of a healthcare system that makes a lot of money off cargo like pills and weights? Yoga would have done similar, but then no one gets paid.

    The objective here is not physical therapy, per se, but to teach people to use their bodies in a coordinated way. I can only advise the sort of training that I have found has helped teach me how to move in an integrated, coordinated way.

  4. The context was a list of benefits of bodyweight exercises. I agree with several and disagree with others.

    The healthcare system has an advantage in this argument that you don't have: research. Modern physical therapy is an evidence-based, evidence-driven practice. More than once the physical therapist said to me, "My common sense says that X is bad, but the research says otherwise." and similar comments.

    Your common sense/personal experience says that weight training and yoga would achieve the same result. The evidence contradicts you.

    Want to convince me? Show me research studies in which a control, yoga and weight training were compared across a wide variety of measures.

    The Sun Salutation requires coordination, sure. But since I won't do those moves outside of my yoga practice, how do I benefit?

    In a weightlifting routine I will do actions similar to picking something up off the floor and putting it on a shelf; in the form of deadlifts, front raises and lateral raises. That's something I do everyday.

    And people who teach yoga ask for money in return Ken. So of course they have a motivation to extol the advantages of their teaching/services while denigrating others.

    And a PT can have yoga training and incorporate it into there practice. Such was done with me, but other activities were needed to achieve the optimal result. Yoga alone was insufficient.

    I don't "advise the sort of training that I have found has helped teach me." I advise the sort of training shown by research to work best.

  5. No one in the healthcare system gets paid, bien sûr.

    When do I say not to use weight training, etc.? I merely say that body-weight exercise builds the body in a "natural" way. Interpret this hackneyed and over-used term as you will. I interpret it to mean, in the context of the overall sentiment I was expressing, that it works on multiple muscle groups, rather than isolating one, while simultaneously building coordination and proprioception. This is an efficient use of time when dealing with non-athletes who will be training for only a few hours a week.

    I'm well familiar with the benefits of weight training to fencing and other combat sports. There have been ample studies done, and this is harped on in the USFCA materials. But teaching fencing is much more than reading books as if they are some sort of algorithm. One teaches human beings, not control groups.

  6. Free weights can also easily be used to "work on multiple muscle groups, rather than isolating one, while simultaneously building coordination and proprioception." Every benefit listed in that last comment is equally true of free-weight exercises. Except that free-weights allow for higher intensity.

    The [i]implication[/i] of the sentence in question from your book is that body-weight is superior. This is not true.

    For most exercises body-weight is of insufficient intensity to produce a training adaptation that is useful to our sport.