Tuesday, February 18, 2014

HEMA Specific Fitness

Again, I'm writing a different post than the one I was planning, but hopefully this makes the posts more engaging. I've recently come across several examples of something I want to address. I've seen it on Facebook and other places. And it's a fairly common trope in martial arts circles.

The idea that Martial Arts Fitness is all about bodyweight exercises and large numbers of reps.

I'm not picking on Guy Windsor, since I've seen this idea in plenty of places, he just happens to have this laid out very clearly on his school's wiki. (And it's pretty awesome that his school has it's own wiki).

He has a fitness test laid out here. He describes it as, "the minimum level of physical fitness and strength appropriate for training swordsmanship." So it's clearly intended to be HEMA specific fitness. But is it specific? It' has 20 push-ups, 60 squats and a bunch of other bodyweight or lightweight exercises. And it's supposed to take at least 6 minutes.

And I've seen plenty of similar assertions for what is fitness for HEMA from other people.

To clearly develop an idea of specific fitness then we need to understand the needs of HEMA. So let's take a look at what the needs of a fight are. And the follow-up question will be what the needs of HEMA training are, since training and fighting are not going to be the same.

Fighting Fitness
  • Short bursts of high intensity with longer periods of low intensity. 
  • The low intensity is moving around adjusting distance, waiting for a good tempo etc. This is in the neighborhood of a walking pace - though that varies with a person's fighting style.
  • The high intensity is very high, frequently attempting max acceleration, speed and/or power.
  • The high intensity periods are normally only a few seconds - 1 to 3 seconds.
  • High intensity bursts incorporate only a few high intensity actions: a pass or lunge (occasionally two), with a few attacks and some other footwork done at a high speed.
  • Total fight time is short. Data from real fights suggest that most are less than a minute. And tournament matches top out at 3-4 minutes depending on the event.
Does this look like the 6 minute test described by Guy Windsor? Is it like doing 100 pushups or 200 squats in a row as advocated by some others?

Before we talk about the fitness needs of training we need to get something out up front. Training needs to avoid being so fatigued that it impairs form and technique. 100 lunges in a row may be a good number of lunges, but if many of them were crap due to fatigue then how useful was that practice time?

And besides do you ever do 100 lunges in a row during a fight? No, of course not, so is that level of fitness useful?

The reality is that well before I hit lunge number 100 my muscles have fatigued to the point that I'm not practicing at an explosive intensity - it's just not possible to practice at an explosive intensity for 100 reps. Do I want to train 85 non-explosive lunges? What you're thinking is that your are practicing form at that point. But we cannot separate form from muscular action. As I fatigue I use different muscles. As I slow down my muscles fire differently. When I'm fresh and ready to fight will I express the 15 explosive lunges or the 85 slower lunges? Will I even have the choice because of which I trained more?

Training Fitness
  • The same as above except with larger volume and less rest.
  • Also, periods of medium-high intensity continuously for many repetitions.
In short, training related fitness is about power-endurance and speed-endurance.

I don't want to get into detail about assessment right now, but I do want to make it clear that reasonable benchmarks for fitness appropriate for training needs to be based on what a fight is like, and not extended endurance actions.

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