Friday, February 28, 2014

Fighting Is Not the Best Conditioning

This is another one of those persistent, old-school martial artist myths - that fighting is the best conditioning for fighting. Usually people mean it is the best cardiovascular conditioning, but some folks will claim it's the best for strength as well. The suggestion that training with the sword is the best strength training for swordplay is just silly, but I won't go into detail in this post.

Let's look at conditioning for fighting.

If it were true fighting is the best conditioning then the best conditioning for any sport would be playing that sport. But decades of research and experience have conclusively shown that to be false. A large body of published research demonstrates that simply playing/fighting is not the best conditioning. Furthermore countless athletic teams have implemented specific conditioning programs and seen performance improve. Teams with these kinds of conditioning programs normally do better than those without.
When you are familiar with the evidence on the topic there is no doubt that simply playing is not the best conditioning.

Should we conclude that martial arts are the only human physical activity where this rule is broken?

The Evidence

A well-developed and effective program always has three characteristics:
  • Overload
  • Progression
  • Specificity
Applying these principles to training programs has been used by strength coaches for decades to produce the best athletes in the world in a wide variety of disciplines.


Cardiovascular overload is not common in free sparring for most people. It happens. Of course. But it's not happening much. And not to the degree seen in actual cardio training. If I do several matches during my groups free fencing period I may be quite winded by the end of the last one. But that's not the same as doing intervals.

In interval training I may sprint 100 yards in 20-25 seconds. I am far more winded at that point then I am after 3 minutes of fighting. I have achieved a higher level of overload.

And since I am interval training I do another 100 yard sprint as soon as I get back to the finish line. And I repeat this for several cycles. This is far more intense than just doing some fighting training. Or I'll do 1 minute at 10.5 mph (16.9 kph) on the treadmill. This is alternated with 4 minutes of walking. After 5 blocks like this (only 20 minutes) I am far more winded than 45 minutes of free-fencing with my students.

Some of you are probably quite fatigued by the end of a session of free-fencing. Some of you know people in your group who just don't last as long in free-fencing. If fighting was really working so well for conditioning would this still be happening? If it worked the problem would just go away after a couple of months of training like that.

When we free-fence at my school we fight until I have exhausted all the students. I can keep fighting at this point. I normally feel energized and awake at the end of class.

Besides, do we want fighting to the point of total fatigue to be our norm for training? Sure, training under stress conditions should be done periodically, to acclimate our body and mind. But as we fatigue we lose our ability to implement strategy, tactics and fine motor skills. Should we be regularly training to this level of fatigue? No, because doing so impairs the progress and development of those attributes.

And if you only fight to fatigue sometimes, then you are not doing it often enough to get a meaningful cardiovascular training response. For a good adaptive response it is necessary to train to overload several times per week.


Progression is increasing the difficulty variables of training over time. Without it there is no long-term progress. With fighting as our sole conditioning what will you use as progression? You can increase the number and duration of fights. But can you force each fight to be equally intense? Or will you slow down as the number of fights mount up?

Against a canny opponent will you attack with great ferocity to train metabolic power? No. You will fight smarter. And the conditioning stimuli of each fight will depend on the opponent. You can't develop a clear program to stress specific variables.

As I've described previously there are a couple of different attributes to train with conditioning: recovery and power. Achieving progression with these components is easily done by manipulating simple variables like recovery time and duration. Variables that you can control completely. This leads too . . .


The kind of programming that I describe in the link above allows you to make your program specific. Are you training metabolic power or recovery? If I just fight for conditioning how will I achieve a specific result? The stimuli will be all over the place depending on the nature of each particular fight. And while this may sound useful because it is "like a real fight", it does not allow us to apply overload to specific characteristics. Without that overload we will not improve in each dimension that we wish to improve.


In short, your conditioning program should make the fighting easy. Don't make the fighting hard on your conditioning.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Myth: Strength Makes You Slow and Stiff

It amazes me that this myth still exists. I have encountered it recently in several places. Even from people who should know better, I have friend who claims to have read Starting Strength who still believes this.

So let's go over the evidence that proves these two myth unambiguously false.

Does Strength Make You Slow?


This idea is so false that when I mentioned it to my wife, she said, "that's just silly." And it is. Strength is the ability to produce Force. Force is defined as mass times acceleration. So, if my body mass and sword mass remain the same then increasing force means increased acceleration. This is just definition of terms and the Laws of Physics.

But that's not all the evidence. I have trained track & field athletes at Boston University Strength & Conditioning, one of the best S&C facilities. The track athletes there train heavy. They perform basic strength exercises like the squat and bench press in the 5-8 RM range. This approach to training is obvious just from looking at the athletes at a track meet. They have strong, well-defined muscles. They are not skinny like the cross-country team.

This is Usain Bolt - Fastest Human on Earth

One of my instructors at UMass was friends with Ben Johnson's strength coach. When Ben Johnson was the fastest man on earth he was squatting 600 lbs.

Across all of the track events speed and acceleration are critical. Some events focus on lower body power and others require full body power. But all of them benefit from serious strength training.
Squat strength is well correlated with many measures of speed, power and performance. Increased squat weight leads to higher jumps, faster running times and better performance on the field (or ice, or court) in a wide variety of sports. The number of studies showing a connection between strength and performance measures is gigantic and the results are consistent. There is no evidence to cause doubt on the matter.

Serious strength training did not used to be commonplace in most sports. After WWII, the Easter Bloc countries did research on the subject and concluded that strength training improved athletic performance. They then implemented rigorous strength training programs amongst their Olympic athletes. After this training the Eastern European countries surged ahead in medals at the Olympics across a wide variety of sports. It was only when Western nations started to follow suit that the gap closed. Simply put: it is a matter of historical fact that strength training improves performance, and that it does so in ways that include improvements to speed.

The Other Side of the Coin

It is absolutely the case that strength alone does not determine speed. The best speed is achieved from smooth, well-coordinated actions with perfectly efficient form. But perfect form is only part of the equation. A complete approach requires strength and form.

Does Strength Make You Stiff?


Specifically, does it cause a loss of range of motion? No. Strength training actually improves range of motion. Numerous studies have shown that strength training will improve range of motion. These studies have been conducted with a wide variety of populations and show consistent results.

Results have been specific. That is in studies which had subjects train upper-body pushing motions but not pulling motions, the subjects increased range of motion forwards but not backwards.

The increase in range of motion is consistent all the way up through the highest levels of training for sports. A study conducted at the 1996 Olympics found that the only athletes more flexible than the weightlifters were the gymnasts.

Properly coached strength training will even specify an increase in range of motion. There are exercises that can only be done if the athlete increases their range of motion over what a typical sedentary person starts with.

The Other Side of the Coin

When most people are concerned about loss of flexibility they are imagining the the sort of bodybuilder types they have seen who look like they are inflexible. But those people aren't training for strength. They aren't training the way athletes train. They use the same tools, and in similar manners, but it's not actually the same activity.

Yes, it is possible for strength training to lead to loss of range of motion. But preventing this is so easy that it is barely necessary to mention it when talking to martial artists.

How to Prevent Stiffness from Strength Training
1) Stretch. A few times a week, stretch all your joints. When you think about the "meathead" bodybuilder, you don't see them in the stretching part of the gym. Whereas the typical person doing martial arts is going to stretch and may even stretch more than they should.

2) Full Range of Motion Exercises. Most reps on most exercises should include full range of motion. It is not actually necessary to hit full ROM on every single exercise. In fact there exercises where you shouldn't such as the Power Clean.

That being said full ROM should be the norm in strength training. And when you reach a point where you can't hit the full ROM then you've found your limit (for the day) on that exercise. Don't do the last rep with incomplete ROM. And if you can't do full motion at a given weight then the weight is too big.

There is one other aspect of loss of motion from strength training. It's possible for a muscle to get so big that some range is lost. A typical NFL lineman can't touch their elbows together in front because their pecs are so big. But most people simply don't have the genetic capacity to reach that point. And these losses seldom, if ever, limit health or performance. The lineman does not need to be able to touch their elbows together.


Strength training is a valuable component of basic health, injury prevention and performance. It should be included in everyone's physical activity regimen. And there is no truth to the old myths that it makes you slower or stiffer.

Friday, February 21, 2014

How Much Weight to Lift

This is an excellent piece from over at Nerd Fitness.

When many Rebels first get into weight lifting, the process of figuring out what weight to start with can be daunting and even cause some to not bother starting at all.

We often hear questions like:

  • What weight should I start with? How much should I be lifting?
  • If my program wants me to be doing 5 sets of 5 at 80% of my 1 rep max, how do I figure out my 1 rep max?
  • And what if it doesn’t give any percentages at all?  How do I know what weights I should be doing?

Today we’re going to take a look at how exactly to get started with your program and make sure you have picked the right amount of weight.
The rest of the article is here. If you're just getting started please read the article.

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.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Different Types of Intervals

This isn't the post I was planning on writing today, but I've been thinking about the topic, since it's part of the workout I'm doing right now. As I'm sure you know if you've been reading this blog I advocate for intervals for conditioning. But their are different kinds of approaches to intervals depending on your objective.

Interval training can usefully help develop two different traits: maximum power and recovery. Both of these are relevant to HEMA in different ways. Training at and above our aerobic max (VO2max) will increase the body's ability to generate energy at such high intensities. This facilitates the brief bursts of power in a fight. The outcome we are looking for is to increase our maximum power output. Go faster, jump higher, put out more calories per minute.

For optimum power development we need each interval to begin reasonably refreshed. This means taking relatively long rest periods.

We define our intervals by how long the high-intensity portion lasts and the work to rest ratio. The table below lays out the basic programming numbers.

Intervals for Power and Energy System Development

% of Maximum Power*
Typical Exercise Time
Work:Rest ratios
5-10 seconds
1:12 to 1:20
15-30 seconds
1:3 to 1:5
1-3 minutes
1:3 to 1:4
>3 minutes
1:1 to 1:3

* Percent of maximum is not VO2max, which is the maximum aerobic power. When we push into anaerobic training is possible to hit 170% plus of VO2max.

Starting up again shortly after these bursts helps develop the ability to recover quickly and do it again and again over the course of the fight. This is also an important characteristic to develop. This kind of conditioning will also increase your training capacity.

When intervals are restarted again after insufficient rest then your body starts tapping into additional energy systems. Metabolic waste starts to build up and performance decreases from interval to interval. Over time this type of training will shrink the performance decrement - which ultimately is the objective.

When training for recovery and capacity use work:rest ratios of 2:1, 1:1, 2:1. This is the kind of protocol that Tabata made famous and which typically characterize high-intensity interval training (HIIT) programs. In fighting we frequently have the opportunity to pull back and take a breather, because of this it is not always necessary to train in this mode.


There are lots of possibilities for using the above to write a program. This is what I'm currently doing:
Sunday: Ten 15-yard sprints, these take about 3 seconds and I have an interval timer running to give me 30 seconds between sprints. ~5 minutes
This is followed by four 1-minute runs with 4-minute walks in-between. I do this on the treadmill which makes keeping track of time easy. The runs are at 10.5 mph currently, which leaves me almost stumbling after a minute. The walk is only 3 mph since it's for recovery.

Wednesday: 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off, for 16 intervals. I alternate between sled pulls and swings for these intervals. The swings are easier than the sled pulls allowing me to dial back the intensity a bit and up the training volume. ~ 16 minutes

Friday: This is my steady state day - 20 minutes on the treadmill. I'm working to increase the speed of the run, not the time.


Pick your interval training to achieve your training objective. A mixed approach works well for HEMA since our energy demands are varied.

The table is adapted from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd edition by Baechle and Earle.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Getting Started: Conditioning

Two minutes.

Start with two minutes. At a pace that is fast for you. Not the fastest you can possibly go - that would be a pace you can only do for 15-20 seconds. But reasonably fast.

After that two minutes, walk for two minutes.

Alternate blocks of two minutes fast and two minutes slow for as many blocks as you can. Maybe you start at 2 or 3 blocks. Maybe you start at 5. That's not what matters. What matters is the improvement that you will make as you keep training.

This is interval training. Interval training is the best approach for HEMA.
Interval training is the best approach for getting started with conditioning training if you are unfit, overweight, out of shape or whatever.

What Not to Do

Don't start off trying to run for 30 minutes. Don't let yourself be convinced that brutal endurance runs are "true" conditioning. Long runs are not a good starting point. Long runs are not HEMA specific.

Don't beat yourself up over a slow start.
Don't beat about not being able to run long distances.
Don't feel like running is the only option.

This is why I don't actually recommend Couch-to-5K. It's objective isn't HEMA specific. Though it does start off well by using intervals to get you used to running. In the long term it's a plan for developing Long, Slow Distance (LSD)

What to Do

Intervals give us an energy use pattern similar to actual fighting. They do this by mixing periods of high intensity with period of low intensity - just like a fight.

So a basic program look like this:
  • 3 days a week of 20 to 30 minutes. With no two days in a row.
  • Start with a warm-up. Maybe a fast walk, maybe some dynamic stretching.
  • Finish with a cool-down. A gradually slowed walking pace, some static stretches. Water.
  • In the 10 to 20 minutes that you are "running" alternate between fast and slow - whether you are running, on a bike, swimming etc.
Fast and slow here are defined by your own capabilities. Not any arbitrary outside standard.


We need progression. That's what getting better is all about. There are two basic variable to manipulate for progression: time and speed. Start working on making progress after the first two weeks. The first two weeks are about getting used to the new exercise.

A good indicator is when you can do 20 minutes of intervals you can start playing with the variables.



Increase time. Or decrease it.
Increase time - do intervals of 3-5 minutes instead of 2. That is 3 minutes fast followed by 3 minutes slow. Go at a slower pace for the fast part - you want to be winded at the end of each interval, but able to continue.

If you are going slower, with longer intervals, then you can shorten the slow interval. You can make the slow interval one-half to one-third of the fast interval. But be careful in introducing this - it makes the workout harder. So only start shortening the slow interval when you feel ready.

Decrease time - And run faster. Do intervals of 30 seconds to 1 minute or 90 seconds. Initially these should be alternated with longer slow periods The slow period should be at least double the fast period at this intensity. But as you shorten the fast period and run faster you should have a longer rest interval. At only 30 seconds of fast, you should rest for at least 4 times as long (remembering that rest = walking, not standing around).


Keep the intervals the same: two minutes fast, two minutes slow, but run faster during these periods. This can be a good way to build up to the faster, shorter intervals described above.


You can also increase the duration of your conditioning sessions. But above 20-30 minutes we get a diminishing return. More than 40 minutes for our sport is just inefficient.


Keep the program around 3 times per week. We aren't training for a marathon and you need time for technical training and strength training.

Keep the conditioning sessions to 40 minutes or less. You just don't need more. And the high-intensity sessions can be plenty short, like 10-15 minutes. 

When you've reached the point where you can do longer durations and faster then you can start mixing it up. Have a short-fast day, a long day and a medium day.

Why I Prefer Running for HEMA

HEMA is on your feet.
HEMA is a contact activity.
HEMA is a whole body activity.

Running is also all of these things.

But, you know what? If you don't like running then don't. Just get out there and do something. Something is way better than doing nothing because you don't like running.

Use an Interval Timer and Listen to Music

These are readily available as apps for your phone. You'll simply have beeps at specified intervals that sound over your music.

Music makes people go faster and exercise more productively. If you pick a fast-paced music. I just don't get people who run without headphones.

Now get out there and get started!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Interesting Links: Frontal Plane Lower-body Work & the Hip Hinge

Here's a roundup of some interesting links:

How to Get Strong Outside of the Sagittal Plane - by Eric Cressey
For those of you not versed in the technical jargon of kinesiology, for movement analysis the body is divided up into three planes of motion (our world is 3-D afterall). The sagittal plane is most common plane to of movement and strength training exercise. It is motions that go front-to-back. Because the people who came up with the term don't know how a bow is held and shot (sagittal refers to Sagittarius, the Archer). A squat is a sagittal plane exercise because your knees bend front to back, as do the ankles and hips (more or less). A bench press is a sagittal plane exercise as well.

The other two planes are the transverse plane and frontal plane. The frontal plane is like a sheet of glass standing in front of you - motions that slide along the glass are frontal plane. So this includes an overhead press or pull-up. The transverse plane is like a table that you are sitting at, a motion that slides along the table is transverse. An exercise like the cable fly is a transverse plane exercise. (You may realize then that things are not always cut-and-dry: the bench press is both transverse and sagittal plane motion).

The article makes a good point about the need to train outside of the sagittal plane. Especially for lower body training - the focus of the piece. Furthermore the article provides a nice progression of exercises to develop strength and movement to the side.

While the article is very good advice, I would like to take a moment to insure that it's proper place in a program is understood. You should still do squats and deadlifts etc. Keep doing sagittal plane exercises as your primary exercises. Frontal plane leg exercises are used as a supplement. Something you do at the end of your workout, or as part of your warm-up. Or even just on the off days.

How to Hip Hinge Like A Boss - by Tony Gentilcore
The hip hinge is one of the most important aspects of the squat movement pattern. And it's vitally important to a healthy back in everyday life. But for many people this movement pattern does not come naturally. If you're not sure what I mean by hip hinge then just look at the videos in the link.

This article details a series of exercises to help a person train this movement pattern. Of these, the wall tap and band-resisted hip hinge are my preferred. But I'm sure that different methods work for different people.

Unlocking the Hips - by Eric Wong
A simple exercise based around an important concept - that of being able to dissociate movement at one joint from another. The specific exercise is to separate hip flexion from lumbar flexion. That is, lifting the leg while keeping the back straight, instead of bending forward while lifting the leg.

These two motions, of hip flexion and lumbar flexion, frequently get linked together by doing too many sit-ups - which are a crap exercise anyways.