Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cardiovascular Response in Sparring

At my internship today I had some time to kill and grabbed an NSCA journal off the stack on my co-workers desk. It was from May 2008 and had a great study on cardiovascular measurements in karate sparring. Obviously, there are some pretty big differences between karate and most kinds of HEMA, but I don't think the cardiovascular components could be significantly different.

The primary study that I'm going to discuss actually attached VO2max measuring equipment to world class karate athletes while they did some sparring[1].

The results are fairly basic and inline with my own expectations but not necessarily the expectations of many I've talked to about this topic. The study measured heart rate, %VO2max, lactic acid and energy expenditure.

Cardiovascular Capacity

The athletes aerobic capacity i.e. VO2max, was measured first using a standard treadmill test. Then the percentage of that max capacity was measured during sparring. Of note was that the athletes were only at about 40-50% of max while they were sparring. The heart rate was monitored as well and is consistent with anaerobic effort. Another study by the same lab[2] showed that highly technical training like basic striking drills and kata had a lower %VO2max - from a cardiovascular standpoint, they were easier. While sparring drills had a higher %VO2max than actual sparring.

As such we need to include the high intensity sparring drills to get cardiovascular conditioning for fighting.


Energy Expenditure

I've heard people talk about how many calories are burned in fighting. And I've thought that the number would actually be pretty low. An assumption I'd made based on RPE and the METs Compendium. And this study does confirm my expectations. Calories were burned at rate of about 5-8 calories per minute*. so for matches that last 2-3 minutes the total calories was be only 10-15. And an entire tournament would range from 50-120 depending on the number of fights and other variables.

* One of those other variables in calorie expenditure is the athlete's weight. The measured values are really most accurate when viewed relative to bodyweight. And the above number of calories is based on 60 kg athletes. The average weight of male fighters at IGX was closer to 90 kg, so we should increase the estimate proportionally.


Lactic Acid

All kinds of karate training and sparring increased lactic acid concentrations, but not by amounts that are hard to manage. Interval training will readily adapt the body to managing the clearance of a lactate load. Well trained athletes in one study[2] were able to clear lactic acid back to baseline levels within a few minutes after 70 minutes of training, this despite minimal cardio training as part of their regimen.


Intervals in the Fight

The primary study also used video of the fights to time how much time was spent actually fighting versus not actively attacking or defending. The results don't surprise me, but they do emphasize the value of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) relative to long, slow distance (LSD) for cardiovascular conditioning.
  • Average time spent on offense or defense at one time: 0.3 ± 0.1 seconds. 
  • Total time for the entire match
    • 13.3 ± 3.3 sec. for the 2 minute matches
    • 19.4 ± 5.5 sec.for the 3 minute matches
So not a lot. At all. In fact I think the primary value of significant cardio training is that it allows a person to train more. It's not likely to be the determining factor within a single match.


1. Iide, K., Imamura, H., Yoshimura, Y., Yamashita, A., Miyahara, K., Miyamoto, N., & Moriwaki, C. (2008). Physiological Responses of Simulated Karate Sparring Matches in Young Men and Boys. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins), 22(3), 839–844.

2. IMAMURA, H., YOSHIMURA, Y., NISHIMURA, S., NAKAZAWA, A., NISHIMURA, C., & SHIROTA, T. (1999). Oxygen uptake, heart rate, and blood lactate responses during and following karate training. [Miscellaneous Article]. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise February 1999, 31(2), 342–347.

3. Imamura, H., Yoshimura, Y., Nishimura, S., Nakazawa, T., Teshima, K., Nishimura, C., & Miyamoto, N. (2002). Physiological responses during and following karate training in women. / Reponses physiologiques pendant et apres un entrainement de karate chez des athletes feminines. Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness, 42(4), 431–437.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Anti-motion and Isometric Exercises

I've been at my internship for six weeks now. I'd been planning to post each week on some topic within my internship, but I've been kind of swamped (with Iron Gate Exhibition, grad school applications, marathon training, 6am shifts at my internship etc.)

In this post I'd like to expand on the idea proper training for the trunk muscles AKA the "core". Researchers like Stuart McGill emphasize that the primary role of the trunk muscles is to stiffen the torso to prevent motion. This stiffening will transmit force from the lower body to the upper body more efficiently - obviously useful for both striking and grappling. Stiffening the torso will also reduce the stresses on the spine and therefore contribute to a healthy spine and back.

In addition to the trunk exercises that I've discussed before I'd like to add anti-motion exercises to the set of trunk exercises that should be done. And I'd reduce the role of conventional exercises like the weighted crunch.

Unlike McGill I am not convinced that exercises like the crunch need to be eliminated entirely. Firstly, I'll reiterate that I do not recommend a high volume of such training and instead focus on force production with a small volume of weighted exercises. Secondly, there are some limitations to the research that McGill has done which I have not seen addressed. Thirdly, I think McGill generalizes from the physical therapy to the sport training setting in ways that may not be valid.

Specifically, while a relatively sedentary office worker or cashier should focus on excellent posture and limiting spinal motion an athlete definitely needs to move their torso. Just look at the spinal motion, in three planes, of this pitcher. This is good pitching mechanics.
Source: http://www.drivelinebaseball.com/2013/08/16/disconnected-pitching-mechanics-a-good-thing/
So the martial artist will need to have strong spinal and core motion as well. To extend the torso with a lunge, to weave the head to avoid a strike, to cut through the target etc.

Overall a balance must be found in the program between these competing aspects of trunk training. And the balance will be different depending on the person. A new student may be hyper-mobile or have poor posture and so focusing on torso stiffening will benefit them most. Or they could be deconditioned such that the basic isometric exercises will be the most they can handle initially. But with a more advanced athlete the need will include more motion in the balance of exercises, as well as plyos and conditioning like the ropes or heavy bar.

Sample Exercises in the Anti-Motion category include:
Any of the planks and variants, though I will emphasize the value of adding weight or other difficulty to these exercises as building up endurance in these has diminishing returns.
Basic exercises also include the Pallof press and it's variation. An advanced version would be a Push-Pull exercise like this, except with the torso held motionless. Similarly, woodchoppers done with the torso still and reverse woodchoppers.
Anti-motion exercises can also include simpler core exercises like leg lowers, rollouts and deadbugs, when the emphasis is on keeping hips inline with the shoulders, spine neutral and hips stable.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Classes Starting!

I am happy to announce that I have begun running classes at Quietman Sports Gym.

The classes teach the basic lifts as well as Olympic lifts.
Basic exercises including the deadlift, squat and bench press will be used to develop a foundation of intense strength.

The high-power Olympic lifts will be used to refine the strength base into power for fighting or athletic performance.

No experience is necessary. I will teach you the core lifts of a basic strength training program, so you can develop intense strength and power.

The workout meets Monday and Wednesday at 6:00p.

Drop-in price is $10 per class.
Special Introductory Price: Get the whole month of September for just $20

Space is limited and so a reservation is required.

Classes are at Quietman Sports Gym, 4000 Mystic Valley Pkwy, Medford, MA 02155
Directions are here.

You can find any updates or RSVP on Facebook.

Monday, August 26, 2013

More on why to Strength Train

Here is an updated list (old post) of my reasons for emphasizing strength training.

One of the common responses I get to my emphasis on strength training is statements like, "why [is] this is so important compared, say to flexibility or speed which for me seem more important?"link

Part of the answer lies in not ranking these different attributes. Instead I advocate for people to engage in a complete program. A complete program benefits the fighter, the athlete and general health and well-being.

5 Reasons

  1. Strength improves a variety of general health outcomes. The ACSM recommends that essentially all people engage in (appropriate) strength training. The benefits of strength training are separate from the benefits of cardiovascular and neuromotor training (balance and agility) that are already common amongst HEMA people.
  2. Strength reduces the likelihood of injury. More so than either cardiovascular and neuromotor training - although the neuromotor training is a good layer to add onto strength training. Strength training also improves recovery from muskuloskeletal injury.
  3. Strength training improves the capacity for technical training. One of the factors which normally limits a persons training capacity is the number of repetitions in a row they can do before needing to rest. Strength training increases that number of reps. Strength training is not the only means of doing that. Obviously, volume of training increases that attribute as well, however, volume of training is not always sufficient, and even if it were, strength training increases the efficiency and rapidity of results.
  4. You will gain more from your technical training, time and effort, if your program includes strength training as a component. The reason is that strength training increases the excitability of the neuromotor pathways from brain to muscle. This in turn increases motor learning.
  5. Strength training is necessary for a person to reach their personal best. That is because a complete program is necessary for a person to reach their personal best. Strength training will increase acceleration and power. Both which will effect the outcome of a fight. They are clearly not the only aspects of who wins, but they do effect the outcome, so improving them allows a person to reach their personal best.
It is very important to note that reason #1 is good enough to stand alone. If I had no other reasons besides the general health reason I would still be just as confident about the importance of strength training. It is as much a public health PSA as a HEMA training PSA.

In fact, each of these reasons is good enough on it's own. They're each strong enough in terms of both evidence and effect to stand alone. It depends on what matters to you - what motivates you.

These reasons are ranked from most important to least important. At least according to my personal feelings on the matter. Public health is #1. Ability to keep doing what you love is #2. Improvement in what you do are #3 and #4. Performance is #5. Although the last entry on the list is not unimportant to me. I think they are all important.

And their is another reason for my emphasis on strength training. And it's in two parts:
A) Many people understand the importance of cardiovascular, technical and neuromotor training already. But most people don't know about the importance of strength training as well.

B) Many people are not aware of what real strength training is. They think that conditioning work like 100 pushups or 200 squats is the same as strength. And it's not. So these people understand A but they aren't actually doing it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Sprinting is Good for You

Sprinting is a great tool for conditioning for fighters. Sprinting, like other high-intensity interval training, mimics the energy demands of a fight, which is why it will benefit you. Most fights are short bursts of very high intensity with periods of low intensity in-between. And this is what something like sprint-walkbacks are like.

Plus I get bored from running for a long time. So if I can get good training without that, then I exercise more.

A recent article over on Fitocracy does a good job of outlining a program to begin sprinting.

It starts with two basic Functional Movement Screen tests to check for the physical ability to have safe form while running at high intensity. And then provides some basic exercises for improving these characteristics if they are inadequate.

These basic exercises are focused on the hips and trunk muscles involved in stabilizing the body while running. It should be noted that general strength training as outlined here will also support these improvements. The structural loading from doing squats will develop the stabilizing muscles to support the hips, legs and low back, and so on.

The author stresses the importance of a good strength training program before starting a high-intensity running program like this but does not provide guidance on that matter, but I've already linked to a good starting point.

I must however comment that the author overstates the benefits of sprinting. As is so often the case with fitness "magazine" style articles the author wishes to convince the reader that this exercise is the "awesomest" thing possible. Sprinting is good and will clearly benefit the athlete or fighter, but it's not everything - that's what a complete program is for.

Overall a good article. Just ignore the first paragraph.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Throwing things Around

So, this is 75 pounds of sand, in 5 pound bags. Based on plans(PDF) from RossTraining.
The plan is to put these into a bigger canvas bag. And throw it around.
With the 10 lb. sandbell we already own we can do any increment from 5 to 85. As such we can hit the 30-70% of 1RM that is optimal for power training.

The concept is that we use the sandbag for upper body power development. A variety of exercises are possible, all based on the idea of a shotput*. So we can throw the sandbags with a chest pass, over-the-shoulder  or sidearm throw, an overhead throw or even use a lunge.

We are looking for two things. First full-body coordination of power into our upper body. Second, a load that is high enough to be good power training for the upper body. And it is this second item that is why simply using a modern 16# shotput is good but not optimal.

Each athlete gets a load of at least 30% of their bench press 1RM and upwards of 70% of 1RM. The target number of repetitions ranges from 5 down to 1 or 2 depending on the size of the load. We are not concerned with how far the throw gets, only that he weight can be projected ballistically.

This is a tool not for basic strength but to layer onto a foundation of conventional strength training.

*The shotput is one of the few historically documented methods of power training.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Physical Testing for Combat Sports

Assessment and testing is an important part of a training program. It allows you to track an individuals progress. It can be used to compare members of a team and to compare to normative data.

Tracking progress can allow you to objectively determine what areas still need work in the program. And tracking can also be a powerful motivator for the athlete.

Here is my suggested set of assessments for HEMA, WMA, SCA and similar combat sports. This set of tests is not the same as the ones I'd use for grappling but it is similar.

Anthropometric Tests
Body Fat %
Arm length and "Wingspan"

Mobility-Flexibility Screening
A good explanation of the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) can be found here. It's important to note that the FMS has not been demonstrated to be correlated to performance measures. The FMS seems to be much more useful from a physical therapy and pre-hab - that is we can use it to identify potential areas of weakness and potential failure, and then tailor the program to compensate and correct those problems.
  1. Overhead Squat*
  2. Hurdle Step
  3. In-line Lunge
  4. Shoulder Mobility
  5. Trunk Stability Push-up
  6. Rotary Stability
  7. Active Straight Leg Raise*
* These tests are relevant to a strength training program and less relevant to the fighting.


Explosive Power Tests
1RM Hang Clean – Power style*
*this test is the hardest to do since it requires significant technical skill in the lift. The combination of the the other power tests and the leg strength test may be sufficient.

10# Sandbell Chest Pass – Athlete stands with toes on start line and feet flat on the floor. The sandbell is held at sternum height close to the chest with the elbows close and the hands cocked back (wrist radial deviated, extended and supinated). Throw is performed without stepping and with both heels held flat on the ground. Wrists should ulnar deviate, flex and pronate as throw is performed. Since the sandbell does not roll, the distance is measured from the position where the sandbell stops. Measurement is made from the start line to the nearest point of the sandbell.
Left and Right throws will also be measured, with the athlete standing facing perpendicular to the start line.
* This test does not appear in any literature as a validated test. However, tests like this are being investigated for their relevance to various sports. At this time the test can only be used for tracking progress on the individual athlete.

Plyometric Power - Standing Broad Jump

Reactive Strength Test - Standing Triple Jump

Maximal Strength Tests
1RM Bench Press
1RM Back Squat - with an athlete unfamiliar with squat a leg press/hip sled can be used instead.

Muscular Endurance
Endurance Cutting – Test is performed with the same sword each test to standardize the measure. Cuts are made from an over the shoulder start position. Each cut is performed with a lateral passing step. Cuts are made at a 60 per minute cadence tracked with a metronome (available as a phone app). The test continues until the athlete is no longer able to maintain cadence or good cutting form. Good form includes full extension to a target above waist height and start position with the cross at least at the level of the point of the shoulder.
This version of the test is specific to the Lichtenauer school, but only minor variations should be needed for different styles.

Cardiorespiratory Endurance
Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test – A Beep Test app for is used with a 20 m course. Test continues until the athlete stops or can no longer run at the start signal.

Friday, July 19, 2013

More things to do with Ropes

FitDeck has a video showing off many of the different exercises you can do with Muscle/Battle Ropes. I think they are a great tool for conditioning. Especially from the standpoint of including more upper body in conditioning, stability and more planes of motion.

And if an app like FitDeck is what keeps you moving then it's doing it's job.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Better than Running

An blog post on the difference between going for a run and the kind of conditioning that fighters should be doing.
Similar in concept and an expansion on the idea of Fartlek.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

No, Not Kettlebells!

Kettlebells are not a good training tool for HEMA. Let's start there.
They are a perfectly good tool for burning calories and meeting generalized fitness goals, but not for meeting the needs of a fighter.

I do want to get out of the way one point: I'm not opposed to kettlebells. Their are two minor quibbles I have with them, neither of which is significant enough that I'd tell somebody, "don't use them". But I sure can't recommend them.

1) They cost more. For the same amount of money you can buy a larger amount of weight in dumbbells and the DBs will be adjustable at that cost, but the KBs aren't. So, I would tell people not to buy kettlebells.

2) The handles don't rotate. Many KB exercises involve the bell rotating in your hand. This will cause, and then rip open, callouses more than other weight lifting tools. So that's not good. The problem isn't awful, it's  annoying, and but it can get in the way of training on those days when your hands are messed up. And that's a problem for people who train with weapons.

The best kind of strength training for HEMA is something that I've covered before. The important aspect is that good strength training for fighters is going to have one of three aspects: max force, max power or max velocity. Kettlebells are not heavy enough to elicit either maximum force or maximum power from the muscles. And they are too heavy for you to be able to generate max velocity.

Working in and around these maximums - force, power or velocity - produces the greatest benefit for the amount of time spent working out.

Max Force - Exercises which require high force production will recruit the largest motor units and the greatest proportion of your muscle fibers. This is the result of the Size Principle, and what it means is that low load exercises will simply not ever trigger the use of your biggest motor units. When you use your biggest motor units they get bigger, stronger, faster and are more easily turned on by other actions. As you train at high loads you will use your big muscles more in your fighting, so you will produce more force and power.

Max Power - Maximum power is generated in between 30% and 70% of maximum force. Different studies have found different ranges of values that elicit max power and it varies with the particular exercise and muscle groups being used. The highest power output exercises are the Olympic lifts: Clean & Jerk and Snatch. At their peak these exercise can be measured in Horsepower, with elite athletes producing over 7 horsepower. Seven horses! Kettlebells can't even get close to that. Kettlebells just aren't heavy enough. Even a small person, at 100 lbs. would need KBs around 50-60 pounds to generate max power and that person could easily train until they need over 100 pounds to elicit max power.

And their are lot's of other good reasons to do Olympic lifts, too.

Power is relevant because it is a measure of how quickly force is produced. The same amount of force in a shorter period of time is higher power output. As strikes happen faster than the muscles ability to reach maximum force the faster that force is produced the more effective the attack. (And max force still matters because in a given amount of time your muscle will produce a percentage of max force).

Max Velocity - Velocity of action drops off quickly as weight goes up. Enough so that above double-weight you get a steep drop-off in the carry-over from training to fighting. Therefore training velocity with tools above 4-6 pounds (for longsword) doesn't work well. This is why kettlebells don't do a good job of working velocity. Furthermore, velocity training is more movement pattern specific than the other two categories, so common KB exercises like swings just aren't relevant to fighting.

The better training tool for combining strength with velocity is an overweight waster (and heck, it's even historical).
You can also do a variety of plyometric medicine ball exercises for the upper body and trunk.  These are best with a light med ball (again 4-6 lbs. for longsword) that bounces well.

Conditioning is not Strength Training
This is a key caveat to everything I've said so far, which has been about strength training. For conditioning purposes kettlebells can be just as good as other approaches but not with typical KB programs. Most KB programs are geared towards increasing the amount of time or number of repetitions in a fixed period of time or a fixed number of repetitions in decreasing time. These kinds of programs are usually lacking in that they do not match the energy demands of a fight particularly closely.

A typical fight involves long periods of low intensity, while the fighters jockey for position and wait for a good tempo to attack. Then there is a brief period of maximum intensity. Each exchange usually lasts no more than a few seconds (if there's no grappling). Exchanges not infrequently last less than one second.

If your kettlebell program looks like that then great. But it probably doesn't. I've talked about conditioning before. And I'll go into more detail in the future.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Where to Start

So a few folks have asked me about getting started with strength training. Unlike my normal material the following is not sport-specific.

This is just about getting started with strength training. For those who have little or no experience with the topic.

First of all: Strength training is exercises hard enough that you can only do 12 in a row or fewer. Or, with isometric exercises, something you can only hold for less than 30 seconds.
Otherwise what you are doing is endurance training. Which is not the same thing.

Primarily, it's not about which exercises you do, it's about the intensity at which you do them. Bodyweight squats are an endurance activity for most folks because they can do 15 or 20 or more. But if you did the exact same exercise while holding weights - enough weight that you could not do more than 12 - then the exercise would be strength training instead.

If I were to recommend a set of dumbbell exercises (since adjustable dumbbells are cheap, readily available and useable at home) I'd suggest the following:
1. Squats
2. Split squats
3. Straig
ht leg deadlifts
4. Hip thrust/bridge with weight (you can start this with dumbbells in your lap. You need to put your back up against something sturdy. I push a chair up against the wall).
5. Bench press (can be done on the floor, a bench isn't necessary)
6. Bent-over row
7. Shoulder/overhead press
(do this standing not seated)
8. Pull-ups (a pull-up bar can be gotten that works in almost any apartment and doesn't require tools to install). Here's a primer on doing pull-ups if you can't yet.
9. Crunches with weight (I prefer to hold the weight by my shoulders)
10. Side bends

This set of ten covers every major muscle group in the body and works them in all the major planes of motion. So it is very nearly complete.

The amount of weight you are looking for is something that will develop strength, which means higher weights and lower reps.
Start at 12-15 RM - Repetition Maximum - the number that you can do before you cannot do another with good form.

Start easy on the exercises to develop your form. In the long run good form is much more important that increasing weight quickly.

For each week pick an intensity level. Do all of your exercises at that level. Every 2-4 weeks you can increase the intensity level.

Intensity levels:
12-15 RM
10-12 RM
8-10 RM
6-8 RM
I wouldn't go higher than that without a spotter though.

Do the workout at least twice a week and each session has a rest day in-between another session. So not more than three times per week.

Aim for multiple sets of each exercise. 2-3 sets is a reasonable workout.
But if you only have time to do one of each then start there.

You need to rest between each set to get the most out of it.
12-15RM - rest 60+ sec.
8-12RM - rest 90+ sec.
7 RM and heavier - rest 2-4 minutes

You can shorten the rest periods if you alternate exercises between different muscle groups e.g. push/pull or upper/lower. But you'll still need rest between sets. This sort of plan can be done on "light" days.

For strength training you should also have a "heavy" day where you don't alternate like this and you take appropriate rest periods.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Book!: Fight with All your Strength

I have fun news!

So I've been convinced to make a book of strength and conditioning instruction. And step one is market research.

What do you want to see in the book? What topics?
Here's a first draft chapter list:
  • Needs Analysis - What are the demands of your fighting?
  • Basic Biomechanics of Fighting
  • Assessment/Testing
  • Dynamic Warm-up and Flexibility
  • Agility and Footwork
  • Core Stability Training
  • Strength and Power Essentials
  • Cardiovascular Conditioning
  • Program Design and Periodization
  • Plyometrics
  • Injury Prevention
  • Specifics for Different Kinds of Fighers
    • Grappling and Wrestling
    • Unarmed Striking
    • Cutting
    • Thrusting
    • Wearing Armour
  • Unconventional Training Tools
    • Javelin and Shot put 
    • Sled
    • Chains and bands  
    • Sandbag and bell 
    • Heavy bar, sledge hammer and battle ropes
  •          Environmental Conditions and other Special Considerations
Should there be a separate book for instruction on individual exercises? The above book will say to do squats, does there need to be a separate item for how to do squats? Should it be pocket sized so you can bring it to the gym with you?

I'll be doing a Kickstarter project to generate funds for professional services like editing, layout and photography. What kinds of rewards would interest you?

What haven't I thought to ask?

The book will focus on fundamentals of strength training and explain the science of why particular types of training produce the results we are looking for. The book will contain the building blocks of a successful program. I'm not going to prescribe a very specific program or follow any fads.

The question I've been asked most often is: what the difference is between a more well known (general) strength training book and what I'm working on?
Here is my answer:
My objective is to condense a lot of knowledge on strength training and conditioning, as it relates to weapon martial arts and combat sports, and put it all in one place.

For starters, the basic book on strength training that forms the foundation of my education in the topic is a college level textbook. It's over 400 pages and written as densely as any other biology textbook. But most of it is way more than a fighter needs to know to train well. And it's not at all complete.

I supplement this with several other books and research that covers upper body power development. Taking the relevant exercises from a comprehensive book on power development and putting them in one place. Then I do the same for agility books and research. And for cardiovascular conditioning.

My library also includes a stack of peer reviewed journals, so I'll be including up-to-date information on emerging modes like: mixed intensity interval training, repeated sprint and repeated effort training and rate of force development training. And the point is not that any of these is a fad, but that each of these is supported by numerous studies demonstrating consistent, useful results.

If somebody already has a general purpose book on strength training do they need to have my book? No. But I would hope that I can refine that persons training. Maybe fill in some gaps. Expand it to address previously under-served aspects of training.