Friday, January 22, 2016

An Ideal Workout Scheme

I've got some significant advantages this year. I'm self-employed, at a gym. So I can set my own schedule, which means I get a full night's sleep every night, and I'm at the gym almost every day. As such I can set myself up with an ideal workout program.

Odds are that none of my readers can implement a program like this. That's fine. By explaining what ideal is we can look at it as a thought experiment and also take the achievable parts and implement them where doable.

What's Ideal?

First we need to establish what ideal we are looking for since ideal is necessarily based on objectives. The plan I'm about to describe is not ideal for a marathon runner or a tennis player. The objective I wanted to work on is maximum strength as a foundation for developing sport specific characteristics. As such the plan is a modified powerlifting routine.

Powerlifting is competition in Deadlift, Squat and Bench Press. Our basic, core movements with a program geared towards the highest strength possible - that is the highest 1RM. I also wanted to include the Olympic lifts because, as a(n actual) power athlete, I need those characteristics as well. (Powerlifting is not actually maximum power, the Olympic lifts do that. And competition in the Oly lifts is called weightlifting, even though it's not actually the most weight - go figure.)

The only real omission in powerlifting is a dynamic back exercise, since the deadlift is basically isometric for the spinal erectors and upper back. There are also overhead movements missing, though the bench does work those muscles and the overhead lifts from the Oly lifts cover that reasonably well. Therefore, my plan added these components in.

The plan

The plan's outline comes from this blog post by Greg Robbins over at Eric Cressey's blog.
  • Monday - Squat High
  • Tuesday - Deadlift Low
  • Wednesday - Bench High
  • Thursday - Squat Low
  • Friday - Deadlift High
  • Saturday - Bench Low
The days are divided up by our core exercises, so that we get two days of each, which is a lot of training volume. More volume gets us technical training as well as gains in weight moved. This plan keeps the same muscle group from being used maximally two days in a row e.g. my back is relevant for the squat but not maximally like it is for the deadlift.

There are two days between each day of a core exercise, which is sufficient recovery time.

There are no two days in a row of High intensity, thereby allowing me to recover in a whole body sense and not just in a muscle specific sense.

The heavy days have a warm-up portion for the main exercise as well as the maximal lifts. These are submax and help me dial in my technique as well as utilizing post-activation potentiation. The linked article describes this component.


Squat HighDL LowBench HighSquat LowDL HighBench Mid

Planks1-Leg StabilityTurkish PartsPlanks
PrepBox JumpTurkish Get-upHeavy ThrowSingle Leg BoxBroad JumpYoga Push-up
OlyCleanSnatch HighLandmine SnatchClean and JerkSnatch LowLandmine Jerk
Main Warm-upSquat Warm-up
Bench Warm-up
DL Warm-upIncline Bench
MainSquat HighDeadlift LowBench HighSquat LowDeadlift HighBench Mid
1-arm BenchSplit Squat1-arm RowLat Pulldown

Suitcase CarryRDLWrist CircuitOH SquatSLDLPallof
YTI - ScapulaExt. Rot.

Wrist Ext/Flex
* Squats are Front Squats - of course.

What else is going on

All of this is in addition to the regular training that I undertake. So there is the conditioning at the beginning of each of my classes, which includes some velocity-power work and more of the trunk stability components.

Plus, of course, there is all my technical training with the sword. Altogether I was getting about 12-14 hours a week of intense training. Plus the walking to and from work (a kilometer each way) and to any other place since I don't own a car. And going out dancing periodically. It's a lot.

Actually, it was too much to start with.

The down side

I overtrained. I felt like I'd done too much lifting to get technical training in as well, so my swordwork was decreasing. I recognized it fairly early and made adjustments. I removed some exercises (which is already reflected above). And I reduced the volume on others. I hit a sustainable point though. It just took some trial and error.

Applying it to your own case

Well, now how does this apply to you? Many ideas are possible. Here are a few ways:
  • First you can arrange your schedule around the core lifts instead of body parts or some such. You do Deadlift, Squat and Bench every time for a 3-day schedule but each day there is a most important, most intense lift.
  • You can run a 4-day program with Deadlift and Bench one day, and Squat and Pullup another. It's still more.
  • Perhaps this just motivates you to do a Powerlifting program for the early phases of your periodization.
  • Just put more sets in for the core lifts, at submax intensities, to get the technical training time under the bar. 
There are lots of other possibilities and I'd love to hear your thoughts, too.


I encourage you to put a lot of thought into what you could be doing to maximize your training. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Sword Shoulder - A Response to Jess Finley

Recently my friend Jess Finley posted some video commentary about shoulder injuries in Longsword and Messer. There are some good points, and I want to flesh out some of the things you can do to prevent the common issues that she describes.

This post will make more sense if you watch the video first.

I disagree with one wording choice. A forward shoulder position is not pulling the shoulder out of it's socket.

The primary issue Jess describes is an overextension of the arm which can stress the shoulder.  She notes this in particular for women. I don't doubt the association between this problem and women. In part because she makes a good observation that the shoulder blade wings out. Given that our society discourages women from engaging in actual strength training, especially for the upper body, it is not surprising that this is more common for women.

An extreme example of scapular winging ("Wingingofscapula". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.)

The most common cause of this is weakness of the serratus anterior muscle. The serratus anterior has it's major role in keeping the scapula pinned to the ribcage. The muscle attaches to the underside of the shoulder blade, on it's inner edge and then to the ribcage around the sides. The muscle's action is to protract the scapula i.e. slide the shoulder blade forward and also to upwardly rotate the scapula.

Secondary to this is strength of the rhomboids and middle trapezius. These muscles attach to the inner edge of the scapula and then to the spine. As such they retract the scapula, that is slide it towards the spine. Therefore they can help stabilize the scapula, but only by preventing it from moving forward also.

Our focus then needs to be on the serratus anterior development. There are two basic exercises for this:

1) Push-up plus (scapular push-up): set-up for this exercise in a push-up position. Your arms will stay locked out during the exercise and the torso needs to be kept in neutral posture. Then squeeze your shoulder blades together and then push them out. This lowers and raises your whole body (which you are keeping locked into good posture.

2) Incline presses: any kind of exercise where you are positioned on an incline bench and pressing upwards will make good use of the serratus anterior. This can be done with dumbbells, barbells and other tools. Make sure to fully extend the arm upwards to get full motion forward of the scapula. And make sure to use enough weight for strength gains - that means enough that you can only do 12 or fewer repetitions.

The rhomboids and middle trapezius will assist the serratus in stabilizing the shoulder blade and so exercising them will also be of benefit. Exercises for these can start with basic upper back exercises like rows: one-arm, barbell, cable etc. Single joint exercises like reverse flyes can be added if more is needed; but usually it is not.

Forward, Rounded Shoulders

Jess also talks about having forward, rounded shoulders, which is common with folks who work at a desk job. People who have had this for a long time may have shortened there chest muscles and so stretches may help those folks. However, it's frequently more about attention to posture and ergonomics. Additionally, strengthening the back, as I just described, will help.

Jess also makes a good point here about making sure that when you are strengthening the pecs you also need to work the back, otherwise you end up with your shoulders pulled more forward.

That's only a brief look at rounded shoulders and I'll likely get back to it in another post.

The Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff also plays a role in shoulder health and pain, but it will be covered in future posts.


Ultimately, a basic strength training program using intensities that actually develop strength (as opposed to the way most magazine's describe resistance training for women) will be sufficient for most people with this type of problem. The additional exercises here can accelerate the improvement or cover when a basic program is not working.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Don't Believe the Hype

I have a sense of humor. Even if it may not come across in this blog.

So enjoy: The 5 Saddest Money Grabbing Attempts by the Fitness Industry, by Cracked.

A little bit of a reply to this first

(This video was painful to watch) Blending functional movements with strength is not hard. Picking things up is a functional movement after all.

It's So Versatile!
  1. You can use it like a line painted on the ground
  2. Like a broom stick
  3. Throw it
Sauna Suit
There are no shortcuts. Sweat is just water. Not fat.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Power Mechanics from Grip

Alright, so a friend, Maxime Chouinard, asked on Facebook about how he was taught to grip the weapon in Irish Stick. He then goes on to describe something that is standard in saber and similar to the way Medieval weapons are held.

Here's what he said:
Instead of using a hammer grip we are told to extend the thumb and mostly hold the stick firmly with the top three fingers. We tense the rest when striking. People often ask me why. And the way I understand it is that the thumb allows you to get a little bit more snap, more control and also a little bit more extension when the fingers are tensing. 
There are a variety of advantages to this method of gripping and he wanted me articulate the biomechanics of why this is so.


The first, and most important, is the way in which this grip allows you to control the weapon better. This matters more with an edged weapon than the Irish stick, but this is a difference of degrees. 

The tips of your fingers are exquisitely sensitive with some of the highest nerve ending density in the body. This provides highly detailed information for adjusting edge alignment and positioning the weapon.

Further, by holding the weapon at the end of your fingers you are able to move them to move the weapon, making small changes. This improves edge alignment, it's how you make a disengage with a foyning weapon and a variety of other actions.


Now we get to something that seems trickier and would generate more debate but really doesn't vary as much as people think. 

Do you hold the weapon with the first two or three fingers or the last two or three? As long as all the fingers are on the hilt all the time then it doesn't actually matter. What I would not want to see is an open hand where only the first one or two fingers are on the hilt - this is good for twirling a stick but bad for fighting.

If I have my first couple of fingers gripping the weapon firmly and the bottom two just holding on then I can squeeze those fingers as my strike approaches it's target to improve the hit. Or I can hold primarily with the bottom two fingers and squeeze the grip into the top two. It ends up being nearly the same. 

Both are described and/or depicted in the source material and the biomechanics are just about the same.

What's going on is that the forearm muscles involved in both grip and ulnar deviation/adduction are all activating at once. These are mostly the muscles on the inside of your forearm - the paler side - with some of the muscles on the other side activating as well. These are probably fairly big muscles if you train a lot. (Flexor carpi radialis and extensor carpi radialis are the most significant but the flexor digitorums are also involved).

What's termed ulnar deviation or adduction of the wrist I like to think of as wrist extension, because that's how it's used related to the movement of the rest of the arm - as I extend my arm towards the target I adduct the wrist to extend farther.

(Similarly, I think of plantarflexion of the ankle as extension - this also makes the names less stupid)

So as I extend the wrist I add rotational energy to the weapon and a small motion at the hand creates a large motion at the tip i.e. it increases the velocity significantly. Increased velocity is increased power.

This also firms up the grip at the moment of impact so that you: a) transfer power efficiently in to the target; b) don't lose the weapon just because you actually hit something; c) can cut with opposition or parry effectively.

It's important to avoid over-extending the wrist as this means you lose the advantages I just described from the stronger grip. If you let your hand hang by your side you should note that it is not quite in line with the forearm.And this is as far as you should extend the wrist. Any further and the bones don't line up right for good energy transfer.

Training -  the easiest way to train this tensing component is to strike a pell. The brain will automatically tense the wrist/forearm muscles when you work the pell with power and this will make it the default when you strike. Pell work is also one of the only training methods described in historical sources.

The Thumb

With the thumb on the back of the grip you can also add it's opposability muscles to the action of generating power. This works well for lighter weapons like saber and stick, but you need the thumb wrapped around the grip for a heavier weapon like a broadsword, rapier or Medieval sword. However, this is as much providing a solid pivot point to lever the grip as actually move it. The motion is still mostly generated by the lower finger muscles.

Seizing the Weapon

Another point that Max brings up is the vulnerability of the thumb in weapon grabbing techniques. Interestingly, the Irish Stick tradition takes basically the opposite thought on this from the way I've seen it described before.

It is easiest to seize the weapon or disarm your opponent by twisting it into the thumb side, as opposed to twisting towards the palm. Putting your thumb along the back of the grip makes it even easier to be disarmed. So if I was worried about being disarmed I'd keep my thumb wrapped around the grip like I do in Broadsword and with Medieval swords.

But the Irish Stick tradition says that getting your thumb in the way of a disarm is just going to get it injured, so holding the thumb along the back is viewed as protective and advantageous. Max said, "it allows you to let go of the stick more easily if it gets grabbed and twisted." That's an interesting difference in perspective. I wonder if it has to do with the relative safety of grabbing a stick versus a blade leading to more techniques based around disarms after grabs.

Weak Grip?

(Remember, any time you see a question mark in a headline the answer is almost always, "no" - Betteridge's Law.)

One other question that Max poses is whether or not baton instructors are right to criticize this as a weak grip. Near as I can tell the answer is no. However, it has to do with style preferences and method of use. The baton that I've seen includes a lot of stick twirling and for that action wrapping the thumb around the stick will be stronger than the back of the grip alternative.

But if you are hitting to injure then the grip used for Irish Stick is just fine.

So, if you aren't planning to twirl the stick like a baton then it shouldn't matter. Read that how you like.

Follow Up

After I posted this Max replied. And he let me know that the baton he was talking about was things like police baton not French La Canne. As to why they cling to the hammer grip he suggests the following:
I think its one of those things that got developed out of simplicity's sake (easier and quicker to teach a hammer grip to soldiers and policemen) and then repeated on an on without anyone really questioning it.
I have no trouble believing this explanation. That being said, I'll note that each approach has it's advantages and it's more important to know how to use the system to train to it's fullest rather than to compare systems.