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.

(Parts II, III, IV and conclusion about programming)

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.

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