Friday, December 11, 2015

Longpoint Exercise Selection - Phase I and II

Continuing to use our Longpoint plan as an example of program design, here is the exercise layout for the first two phases. The first post, describing the periodization scheme, can be found here.These phases are geared towards general purpose building of an athletic base. The reality is that this is the most important thing that a strength and conditioning program can do. High specificity exercises are gravy, not the meat and potatoes.

Additionally, the number of reps are geared towards increasing training capacity and so are more towards the muscular endurance range. Not true endurance training, but in the hypertrophy range to get more endurance than just straight strength.

The hypertrophy exercises also have the advantage of increasing the foundation on which to layer the neurological timing component of strength and power. Essentially, strength and power are mediated by how well timed the signals are from the brain. If we give those signals bigger motor units to trigger then we get more strength and power.

Phase I

Heavy Day

  • Clean - specifically, from the hang start position and with a power stance catch. This version is the best for strength & power athletes. 
  • Box jumps - the clean is paired with box jumps for two reasons: 1) the box jump uses the same movement pattern and so functions as a potentiating exercise for the clean; 2) and this is important because many of my athletes are still learning the clean, and so they are not driving as much weight due to limitations in technique.
  • Deadlift - this is one of our most basic full body strengthening exercises. It also works a similar movement pattern as the clean, giving us a substantial stimulus to those muscles and pattern. 
  • Bench Press - Another basic strengthening exercise. This works the major upper body muscles involved in cuts, thrusts and parries.
  • Barbell Overhead Squat - the deadlift is paired with the overhead squat as a lower intensity exercise. Additionally, it helps set the stage for the Jerk that will be introduced later.
  • Split Squat - circuited with the bench press, the split squat is part of the single-leg/lunge pattern exercises. It has a smaller base of support than a squat, increasing the stabilization demand and also makes one leg dominant at a time.
  • Suspension Row - also circuited with the bench press the suspension row completes our set of movement patterns with a pulling, upper back exercise. The suspension handles add a stabilization component to the exercise. And by keeping an inverted plank position while doing this exercise we can use the entire posterior chain, but in a different configuration than the deadlift. 
Lastly, the suspension row is also chosen in part because of the limitations on equipment and space at my facility. No program can be perfect, and practicality must override our best designs.

Light Day

  • Dumbbell Jerk - The jerk develops the upper body power component and complements the clean in this regard. This is done one arm at a time. Further, the exercise was started with the Push Press as needed depending on the athletes experience level.
  • Medicine Ball Chest Pass - This is paired with the Jerk and creates a velocity version of the same stimulus that is also in the correct plane.
  • Front Squat - Our last basic movement pattern exercise. Important for basic lower body strength and structural loading of the spine.
  • Romanian Deadlift (RDL) - The straight leg deadlift  focuses on the glutes and hamstrings. It is our lift pattern exercise for this day and complements the deadlift from the heavy day. This is also a functional exercise. While we are always told to lift with our knees, life does not always make that feasible - the exercise teaches lifting with a neutral spine. Paired with the Front Squat.
  • Rear Foot Elevated Squat (RFE) - The rear foot elevated squat decreases the base of support even more compared to the split squat and puts more of the emphasis on the front leg. Further this exercise is a grueling, driving hypertrophy in the quads. Circuit with the following exercises.
  • Incline Dumbbell Bench Press - The single arm exercise has a multi-layered stability component. Without both hands on a bar the shoulder must work harder to stabilize the weight. And one arm at a time requires a cross-body, oblique stabilization from the trunk muscles. The inclined bench allows us to complement the flat bench of the standard press and put more demand on the shoulder. Circuited with the RFE Squat.
  • 1-arm Dumbbell Row - This is the pull exercise on the light day. The single arm row requires another substantial oblique trunk demand, this one being even harder.

Phase II

Since good program design involves incremental, progressive changes the differences here are not huge. And only the differences will be noted.

The changes are also small because I still have people coming on-board who need to get up to speed first.

Heavy Day

  • Box Jump - volume on these decreased to two sets so that they don't interfere with performance in the Clean. Note also that the box jumps are done before the Clean so as to maximize the potentiation effect.
  •  No changes except higher intensities i.e. lower RM numbers
  •  The split squat was moved to the light day and traded for the RFE squat. This was an equipment and space concern created by additional athletes joining the program and the addition of the Barbell Row.
  • Barbell Bent-over Row - This replaces the the suspension rows. It demands good form and increases the weight being moved.

Light Day

  • Barbell Split Jerk - we upgrade our overhead, explosive power exercise with the full barbell version. The athletes should be able to transition to this easily due to the training with the dumbbell version. Of course this also allows us to up the weight.
  •  No changes except higher intensities i.e. lower RM numbers
  • The RDL and incline press swap positions in the order of exercises. This means that the muscle groups used do not overlap as much within a super-set. As such we can demand more weight moved, but get a lower hypertrophy effect. 
  • 1-arm Pulldown - Woo hoo! I have a pulldown rig set-up now. I'm limited to the single arm version for now since it's a plate loaded version and I don't have much weight with the correct size hole. Once I've got enough weight we move to a standard lat pulldown.


Overall the program represents a combination of two things: 1) Incremental progression; 2) Compromise based on equipment limitations - and that's life.

Furthermore this is only the weightlifting component of the total strength and conditioning program. There is a power, agility and core circuit at the beginning of each class. These will be described later.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Our Longpoint Periodization Scheme

Longpoint 2016 Training has begun. There are lots of components to this training regime on the technical skills side as well but here, obviously, I'm going to focus on our strength training program.

With a clear end date for the program it is possible for us have a clear outline. We are looking to peak our training in mid-July next year. The program started at the beginning of November. We've got about 9 months to go.

I've broken this down into 5 phases. The first four are two months each and the last is the remaining weeks before the event.

The periodization is a simple linear progression. We start at (relatively) low intensities and high volume of training and progress to higher intensities while cutting back on volume.

Each phase has a three day a week workout plan:
  • The first day is the heavy day, with Clean, Deadlift and Bench Pres, plus a small number of accessory exercises covering the lunge, pull and anti-rotation movement patterns.
  • The second day is the lighter day, with Jerk and Squat as the big lifts and more of the accessory type exercises covering the lunge, pull, lift and anti-rotation movements.
  • The third day is optional and consists entirely of accessory style exercises. It is intended to be done at home or at a typical commercial gym and so focuses on dumbbell exercises.
Each month has a low-intensity, sub-max week for more complete recovery. Otherwise the numbers listed below are all Repetition Maximums (RM).

Unless otherwise stated each exercise is done for 3 sets.

Phase I

Heavy day
  1. Power - 5 (Clean and Box jumps)
  2. Primary - 8
  3. Accessory - 10
Light day
  1. Power - 5 (DB Jerk and Medball throws)
  2. Primary - 12
  3. Accessory - 12 
Power exercises are pairs of Olympic lifts and another simpler power exercise.
Main exercises are paired with a complementary exercise.
Accessory exercises are circuits of three exercises.

Phase II

Heavy day
  1. Power - 5
  2. Primary - 8
  3. Accessory - 10
Light day
  1. Power - 5 (Barbell Jerk)
  2. Primary - 12
  3. Accessory - 12 
Power exercises are paired with fewer sets of the alternate exercise as their load goes up.

Phase III

Heavy day
  1. Power - 5
  2. Primary -6
  3. Accessory -8
Light day
  1. Power - 5
  2. Primary -10
  3. Accessory - 12 
Power exercises are no longer paired with an alternate exercise. The load should be fairly high at this point and the athletes sufficiently experienced with the exercises to get true max effort sets.
Main exercises are no longer paired with a complementary exercise.
Accessory exercises are now only pairs of exercises. Specificity increases with lateral leg exercises and upper body exercises with torso rotation.
A small circuit of lower intensity exercises fills out the program. Examples include: carries, single-leg squats, planks & variations and band exercises.

Phase IV

Heavy day
  1. Power - 5/4/4
  2. Primary - 5 Complex
  3. Accessory -8
Light day
  1. Power - 5
  2. Primary -8
  3. Accessory - 10
Main exercises are now either complex sets or with resistance bands added. 
Accessory exercises dialed back to just two sets.

Phase V

Heavy day
  1. Power - 5/4/3
  2. Primary - 5 Complex
  3. Accessory - 8
Light day
  1. Power - 5
  2. Primary - 6
  3. Accessory - 8
Accessory exercises will increase in specificity while decreasing in load.

Rep Max Testing 

Rep Max testing is done at the end of each phase to recalibrate numbers for the main exercises. At the end of Phase I it will be just 3-5RM testing since they have not been moving high intensity loads for this phase.

For the remainder of the program 1RM testing will be used.


This is a simple linear periodization scheme appropriate for beginning and intermediate lifters. Even for advanced lifters this type of program works well when there is a single most important event on the calendar. Other, more complex, schemes are more appropriate for a fuller competition schedule and advanced athletes.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

More of What Is Strength?

Well, I'm glad you asked? Actually, Alex Bourdas asked this in his most recent post over on my favorite HEMA blog: Encased In Steel. My post is intended to act as a commentary on that post - to add details and clarity. Alex's post is good, mine is not a criticism, his is shorter and more readable.

As Alex starts off with defining strength. Strength is a term that gets used a lot in an imprecise way.

To a exercise professional, strength is maximal force production. In addition to the sources that Alex provides we see the same from the NSCA and ACSM research. It's the same in my Doctorate in Physical Therapy program.

Force = mass*acceleration. So increasing force production means increasing acceleration of the body and weapon.

On the other hand, endurance is defined as the amount of time that an amount of force can be produced. In this case increased endurance means more repetitions, not more force in each repetition. There is a clear inverse relationship between power and duration of force production. Therefore strength and endurance are at opposite ends of a spectrum of force production.

In exercise science intensity is defined as a percentage of maximal force production. This is different from the colloquial and dictionary usage of intensity. So a Crossfit workout that leaves you puking may have been intense, but not in the technical use of the word, since it was high rep training. A 100m sprint may not feel as draining as a marathon, but the sprint was more intense.

So, a single exercise intensity cannot increase both endurance and strength.

Does that mean that any claim that an exercise program increases both endurance and strength bogus? Well, only mostly. If you take a sedentary person and increase their physical activity - by any means - then that person will gain both strength and endurance. But only for the first 8-12 weeks. After that, one of the characteristics is going to plateau based on the program's intensity.

And this is where we get the personal testimonials of a program that does everything. And the research backs up this fact that any exercise will improve most things in a sedentary person. So, a personal trainer, or a person selling a book, can even claim to be supported by the science. But only by cherry-picking the research instead of looking at the entire body of research.

How Intense is Strength?

I defined above that strength gains are made at a given intensity. That intensity is 67% and higher (1, 2).

And this is where a clarification of something Alex said is really necessary. The repetition range he quotes is 20RM and lower. While the sources above give 12RM and lower.

Note though that the IOC source that Alex provides also specifies the duration of those sets - 30 seconds or less. I can do 20 reps in 30 seconds only by moving the weight faster, which requires more force. Or I can do reps that take 3-4 seconds each and do only 8-10 reps. That 3-4 seconds is 1-2 seconds down, pause at the bottom, 1 second up and then pause at the top.

Twenty slow controlled reps is not strength training, it's muscular endurance. But 20 medicine ball throws in 30 seconds is strength and power.

Most strength training is done at intensities of 12RM and lower. Significant strength gains - and significant power gains - occur at intensities higher than 8RM. As such strength training should focus on those numbers.

Strength Isn't the Only Thing

Of course it isn't. And I'm certainly not saying that you should win a fight simply by being stronger than the other guy.

But more relevantly, strength is not the only characteristic relevant to training. Increasing endurance allows a person put in more training time. And that's good for us. Therefore a balance should be found between strength and endurance training. We can do that three ways:
  1. Remember that strength increases will also increase muscular and cardiovascular endurance. Not as effectively as dedicated endurance and cardio work, but sometimes it's all that's needed. Note though that this is not a two way street. Endurance and cardio do very little for strength.
  2. Include lower intensity exercises. Perform the accessory exercises of the program at a lower intensity to help cover muscular endurance needs. These are the single leg or arm exercises or the trunk/core specific exercises.
  3. Periodization. Start the program at lower intensities and gradually increase the intensity. Don't just increase the weight as you get stronger. Increase the weight enough to decrease the number of reps possible. Aim to have the highest strength and power portions in time for a particular important event, date or competition. However, periodization is it's own topic for a much longer post. 


Train smart and know what strength is. And how it is different from endurance and cardiovascular conditioning.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Well, it worked for me. - No, it didn't.

This showed up again on Facebook recently. The idea that because somebody thinks something worked it must have. It's a common misunderstanding and it is caused by the limitations of human brains.

This particular story was a response to someone posting on the HEMA Alliance page about their impending knee surgery. And it's ensuing rehabilitation needs.

The first response was, "see a doctor". This response wins.

Many people encouraged the OP to get physical therapy. And more importantly to find a PT who has experience with vigorous athletes. After all, most PT is sedentary folks, so they just don't have as many opportunities to work with folks like us.

Then somebody else said, try "tui na". I'd seen the term before, but I had to look it up. It's a traditional Chinese medicine practice (TCM) involving manipulation and massage.

There is nothing wrong with manipulation or massage in and of themselves. They have been covered in my PT program so far. However, because it is TCM these treatments are not guided by the physical reality of what's inside a human body. They are instead guided by unsubstantiated beliefs about structures and energy that have never been shown to exist.

Furthermore, the TCM process for determining what manipulation and massage is necessary are not based on the reality of human physiological processes. I know how manipulation works because I've dissected a human cadaver. And because others have done so for five centuries accumulating knowledge of all the details. TCM does not have this information.

But It Worked for Him

I understand why he thinks this. But the mere fact that he got better does not prove that he got better because of the Tui Na.

The poster describes having undertaken both PT and tui na. And I'll assume that he also rested. So his rehabilitation plan looks like this:
  1. Rest
  2. Physical Therapy
  3. Tui Na
We know, from extensive research and experience, that the first two are sufficient. He didn't need to do anything else to get better. The most parsimonious explanation of his improvement is that he undertook the first two items and so he got better. And that the tui na was simply not relevant.

But this is typical. This person undertook both a medical treatment and an alternative treatment and he credits his improvement to the alternative treatment. Instead of acknowledging the way that PT addressed his rehab needs

Of course, when you've paid money for the treatment and taken time out of your life to get it done, you have a subconscious drive to believe that you didn't waste your time and money. The human brain is incredibly good at rationalization. And that's the better explanation for this person's personal experience.

I'm not saying this person didn't experience what they experienced. I want them to understand which narrative explains their experiences best. We all have our own narratives that we use to interpret the world. But our narratives are not reliable.

It is imperative for humans to acknowledge the limitations and illusions of our mind. Daniel Simons extensively documents this in the book, "The Invisible Gorilla." If you know what that title means then you should already understand this phenomenon a bit. But if you don't know what the title means then watch this video, it's only 1:21 minutes.

I'll repeat something I've said before: I'm not claiming to have a better brain then other people. I suffer from the same illusions and cognitive difficulties as everyone else. Instead, the difference is that I work hard to have "neurocognitive humility" as Steven Novella puts it. I don't have a different brain, I engage in specific behaviors intended to address the known limitations.

And I'm sure I fail at it sometimes.

What's the Harm

Of course, the follow-up question is, "what's the harm?" So what if the tui na did not do anything? Well, the list of harms from these kinds of pseudo-scientific or not at all scientific medical treatments include:
  1. Wasted money - this is real harm, especially for those who struggle to pay for healthcare and since these treatments are usually not covered by insurance (with good reason).
  2. Wasted time - which can also be money lost if a person takes time off from their job for the treatment.
  3. False hope - if a person thinks that an alternative treatment will help and it does not then that is harm.
  4. Delayed treatment - if a person delays getting effective treatment because they undertook an ineffective treatment first then that is harm - a longer period of disability. And it increases the likelihood that the problem cannot be fixed or fixed fully.
  5. Additional, unnecessary and ineffective treatment - it is often the case that pseudo-medicine practitioners fancy themselves as general practitioners able to diagnose all sorts of problems besides the one you came in for. Many of which are just made up. Then they sell you supplements (that they profit from), order tests that are unnecessary (that they profit from) and recommend treatment that does nothing (that they profit from).
  6. The treatment may be harmful - unlike with medicine the alternative medicine field is essentially unregulated and so even harmful treatments are able to proliferate.

Generalizing this Post

This is a bit of a rant. So what does it have to do with strength and conditioning training? Don't believe in fad exercise programs. Don't believe in fad recovery methods. Don't believe in "ancient wisdom" until it has been studied.

Don't believe yourself.

Acknowledge that your own experiences may not accurately represent reality. That your conclusions may be based on the common illusions of the human brain.

The basics of both exercise and injury treatment and recovery are well understood and good results are reliable with these basic approaches. This may seem boring. And it is, but it also works.

So do it.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Help, my shoulders are too high!

We see this plenty in martial arts, fencing and, well, normal life. People who keep their shoulders up too high, kind of bunched up or tense, but all the time. Or maybe just while they are training. For training it's most common in new fencers. Recently somebody asked about it on the HEMA Alliance Facebook page and here's my long response.

Let me get technical for a moment. I'm talking about excessive tension in the upper traps that elevates the shoulder joints. If you're actually looking at something else, then this won't help.

I'm going to address the common advice and suggestions as well as my own thoughts.


A lot of people will suggest stretching for something like this. But stretching is seldom the answer, though it can be part of it. Here's why:

  1. Go stand in front of the mirror.
  2. Depress your shoulders, that is shove them towards the ground - see the third picture
  3. If you can get them to normal posture (the second picture) then muscle length isn't the problem.

Hunched posture - the problem we are correcting
Normal posture - the objective
Depressed posture - should be able to get the shoulders this low
Stretching solves problems when the muscle is short. And such is seldom the case for this particular problem.

If stretching feels good then that's good and go ahead and do it.

If stretching helps relieve tension then that's good and go ahead and do it.

So, by all means, include stretching if you like, but also know that it won't solve the problem.


Yoga for what?

If it's stress reduction then go for it. Lots of people are stressed and any kind of meditation activity that they find stress relieving is a good thing. Stress can be the primary contributor to the elevated shoulder problem. You've probably heard, or are, somebody who says, "I carry my stress in my shoulders".

Finding a good way to reduce your stress is quite important in life. But it's outside the scope of my blog.

If the yoga suggestion is based on the idea that certain of the yoga postures will cure the problem then I want to know which ones. All too often there is just a generic suggestion for yoga as if the whole of it is some cure-all, without looking at the specifics of individual yoga postures.

A quick google search on yoga poses for shoulder problems came up with a whopping zero poses useful to this problem. This does not mean that they don't exist. But it illustrates that a simple suggestion of yoga in general is not sufficient.

Strengthen the Upper Back

Well, we might expect me to be all over a strength training solution!

But the upper back strength isn't the solution to this problem. It's probably the cause, or at least an accomplice.

The upper back muscles are primarily the trapezius and rhomboids. You also have the top part of the spinal extensors, but they don't attach to the shoulder blade or joint.

The traps are a big muscle group that primarily elevates and upwardly rotates the scapula, so that's a possible culprit. And by possible I mean almost certainly it. Though with a possible contribution from the levator scapulae.

So strengthening the already overactive or tight muscles won't help!

The rhomboids downwardly rotate and retract the scapula, so we can rule them out. Strengthening the rhomboids might actually help us, but the upper traps are much bigger, and so we can't win that tug of war with just reverse flys.

Strengthen Other Things

Farmer's Carries - I love farmer's carries. I just spent good money buying equipment to do heavier carries. But that's an exercise where gravity pulls the shoulder down, so they won't help keep the shoulders down in other actions.

Indian Clubs - I'm not a big fan of these, because there is nothing they do particularly well, they're really just a conditioning tool. And they don't have a way to work the muscles to pull down the shoulders. Whether or not they help is entirely dependent on how good you keep your posture while using them. And that's true of a lot of options. So it's really independent of a solution.

But it does indicate something useful. Being mindful of posture during all strength training, especially standing exercises, will help.

Bodyweight exercises - Which ones? Most of them are simply not relevant to the problem. The only relevant one, really, is pull-ups. And so if you are capable of pull-ups then they should benefit this particular problem. But pull-ups are really hard for a lot of people, so they are usually not a good general purpose suggestion.


We are moving progressively closer to the best understanding and solution to the problem with this. Better posture is better. Work to increase the amount of time in good posture and your awareness of your posture - in every part of your life. In particular here is getting the shoulders back and down. If you have a desk job this is a challenge. And addressing that challenge is it's own big topic.

There is also your posture when you are on-guard. When you are in guards with the arms and sword above the level of the shoulder it's natural to also hunch up the shoulders. But you don't have to do that. You can get your arms overhead and keep your shoulders down.

Shoulders hunched high guard position
Shoulder neutral high guard position
You may also have your shoulders elevated in a lot of your guards. In which case switching to pflug or Fiore won't help. Sean Hayes talks about it in this video.

One of the cues for getting your scapula into the right position for overhead guards is to think about sticking your shoulder blade into your back pocket.

* Side benefit of this: it's healthier for your rotator cuff!


Are you tense while you are training? If you're new you probably are. I see this problem an awful lot. And it's understandable. When you start you don't understand any of it, it's all new. There's a lot to concentrate on. And many people naturally hunch up their shoulders in this situation.

I tell people to relax. I then I tell them that relaxing will take a while. You have to get better at the actions to be able to think about relaxing while doing them. When it's new you have too many things to think about to be able to also think about relaxing.

I'm really relaxed while doing the things that I've been doing with a sword for years. It's easy for me at that point. I'm sure a video camera would show more tension in the brand new stuff. But I've also got, at this point, 17 years of martial arts training, so I've got a habit of being relaxed while doing this stuff. And that took time i.e. don't expect a quick fix. This is a long-term project.

The take-away is spend more training time on the stuff that is not super challenging. That's doesn't mean spend it all on the easy stuff. But spend most of your time on the actions that you get mostly right, most of the time. This is actually my general advice to all my students, just based on learning theory. The advanced stuff, that may be stressing you out, should be practiced with a coach who can provide feedback.

Good Strength Training

Of course I'm going to conclude that strength training has a role to play in addressing this! But it may be a much smaller role than the above about stress and tension, depending on the person.

There is a reflex in the body to keep the muscles safe by turning down the activation of opposing muscle groups when activating a particular muscle. So an overactive upper trap is turning down the activity of the opposing muscles that pull the shoulders down.

And so we can use that to our advantage. As we train up the muscles that pull the shoulders down we increase their resting tone. This will have the effect of turning down the resting tone in the opposing muscles. And thereby reducing the tendency to hunch up those shoulders

What exercises pull down the shoulders? Lat pulldowns. And pull-ups.

You may think of these as primarily latissimus dorsi exercises, and they are. The lats are a big muscle that pulls the shoulders down - amongst other actions. Your rhomboids will also be helping with these exercises. As well as the lower traps.

And that's pretty much all the muscles that pull your shoulders down. So make sure you are including vertical pulling exercises in your complete strength training program.

Does it Hurt?

If yes, then see a medical professional. I am not a doctor.

If you aren't sure yet then ask following questions:
  1. Has it hurt for more than 2 weeks? If so, see a doctor.
  2. Does it hurt even when you are not training? If so, see a doctor.
  3. Does the pain interfere with any other part of your life? If so, see a doctor.

Specifically, see a physical therapist or orthopedist.


In my experience, the most common cause of this is being new. And that can go on for a very long time. The next most common is generally carrying tension in your shoulders. As such, strengthening, stretching and other exercises have only a small role to play in this type of problem.

However, it's not a self-correcting problem. If you do this when you are new then you will do this always. That's what coaches are for, to spot your errors and remind you to fix them.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Forearm, Wrist and Grip Strengthening

One of the biggest challenges for many new students of the sword and other combat sports is forearm/wrist strength. This is especially the case for single-handed sword work, smaller people and those with limited upper-body strength. There are two areas of problem that emerge from limitations in forearm strength: 1) the risk of injury is higher, both for repetitive stress and sudden injuries; 2) the student will be limited in the number of repetitions of an action they can do, especially those they can do with good quality - which limits how much training they can do.

The first and most basic strategy for creating a foundation of forearm strength is going to be basic lifts. In subsequent posts I'll discuss ways to focus, refine and increase the specificity of the program.

Lifts, Pulls and Pushes

Of our basic categories of exercises the ones that will apply most to forearm function are lifts, pulls and pushes.

Lifts - lifting exercises, like deadlifts and any of the myriad related variants, are the most basic way to put a demand on the forearm muscles. All of the forearm muscles are used in grip. And lifting exercises put the most weight in your hand to grip. It is not uncommon for a person's deadlift to be limited by grip strength more than anything else.

Pulls - pulling exercises, like rows and pull-ups, can impose a similar demand to the forearm but usually these are actually a lower demand, but may be higher number of repetitions (since you shouldn't be doing dozens of deadlifts but you can do dozens of dumbbell rows). As such they frequently improve endurance more than maximal strength.

Pushes - pushing exercises, like bench and overhead press, will use the forearm very differently. The forearm now has to actively stabilize the weight. It is easier, when pressing a lot of weight, to let the wrist bend back, but it is better form, especially for us, to maintain a neutral wrist.

Dumbbell exercises especially will force you to develop the muscles that stabilize the shoulder, arm, forearm and wrist. Overall these will help you insure that the whole arm is straight, and therefore minimizes the bending forces on the wrist. As well as backing up your wrist with solid, useful structure.

All of these exercises have the limitation that they are isometric for the wrist and forearm. As such they will transfer best when the wrist is near neutral. However, that's most of the time in sword work and striking, so it's a good foundation.


To achieve the benefits described here the weights moved have to be big, big enough that you are usually limited to 6-8 repetitions, or less. The reason for this is simple, impact is a brief moment of very high stress. Low weights and many reps simply do not require the muscles to contract with the strength and intensity needed for impact.


None of this strength training changes the fact that technique is vitally important to a stable, injury free wrist when fighting. If you find that you are frequently ending up parrying with your wrist bent, or punching the bag with your wrist crooked then the important thing that you need to do is study and improve your form.

Don't just keep doing it wrong. Talk to your coach and modify training to improve this problem. The technical side of how to train this is it's own huge discussion. And also beyond the scope of my strength training blog.

Wrist neutral

In fencing I see two situations in which beginning students frequently fail to maintain a neutral wrist when they should.
  1. Over-extending a cut. At the terminus of a cut their is the natural desire to continue extending the wrist - to just reach a little bit farther. This creates a weak position and structure. It may not be a problem when landing a tip cut without opposition, but if you do it when coming to a strong bind you are going to have problems.
  2. Not keeping the wrist straight when parrying. And related, not keeping the edge aligned with the forearm. The straight, aligned position creates the optimal structure for your skeleton and for the sword. Against any strong attack the parry can fail without this position and their is the potential for wrist injuries as well. I've seen several myself.


Are you already doing a basic, comprehensive strength training plan? If not, then start there. And if that is not enough then watch for the next post.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Value of Fun

In reply to a comment on another post I brought up the idea of the value of fun in training. And I think it's important to expand on this, in large part because I think a lot of people have the wrong idea from me.

Fun can be incredibly important in exercise and training.
It's preferable to enjoy what you do.
It helps generate and maintain motivation.

My blog is not generally geared towards finding something for everybody though. And I realize that it often comes across as: there is one correct way to do things.

To be more clear though, the blog is about best practices for HEMA and fencing specific training. It's about what methods produce optimal results. There are plenty of different ways to produce results and improvements. But they aren't all the same, especially in terms of safety, efficiency and maximum results.

But from a public health standpoint anything is better than nothing. And if there is stuff you just don't like doing then that shouldn't be a reason to avoid the training approaches you do prefer.

That being said, I will keep emphasizing the value of a complete program that includes strength training. Specifically because of the value of such an approach.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Agility Ladder Training

I think I promised this post back in October. Well, I'm on Spring Break right now, so I've got time to catch up on things.

 Principles of Agility Ladder Training

Agility ladder drills serve three basic purposes:
  • Conditioning
  • Elastic response
  • Agility & Quickness
From a conditioning standpoint the ladder serves the same basic role as a jump rope, it gets you moving in a basic bouncy activity. As such there's a good reason to keep your ladder drills going for a few minutes. Ladder drills are easier to learn than jump rope for many folks, plus they are more interesting. The basic pattern of a group ladder drill is alternating between waiting your turn and moving quickly through the ladder, which is the kind of energy usage we want to be training.

The conditioning aspect can also serve as a nice warm-up. 

Any kind of bouncy exercise will help develop the elastic properties of our musculature. This is the principle underlying big plyometric exercises like box jumps, hurdles, and depth jumps. However, the ladder drills are much lower intensity. This lower intensity means that they are suitable for just about everyone. This will also benefit quickness in the various smaller reactive actions involved in swordplay.

Agility is primarily change of direction and is determined by the ability to put force into the ground. Ladder drills have a limited ability to improve agility because they do not often use the large, intense actions that are the defining aspect of difficult changes of direction.

Instead agility ladder drills can be thought of as increasing quickness in the sense of reacting to the environment and performing many small changes of direction. The environment is fixed not random but there is tactile feedback from stepping on the ladder.

Overall, the ladder is not the best tool for any single component but serves as a multipurpose tool in the movement prep part of a training session. The body is made more ready for the various kinds of training by doing lower intensity exercises first.

I also like to use the ladder to instill and reinforce the idea of mindful practice. You can always mess up a ladder drill - step on the rungs, kick it out of position and so on. But I demand that my athletes pay attention and do the drill right. This brings me to one of the most common instructions I give in training, both basic physical training and fencing training:

"Correct is more important that fast or number of repetitions"

Alternately, you can call this quality over quantity.

What it Does Not Do

The agility ladder does not improve speed, though they are sometimes called speed ladders. Speed is distance divided by time. Putting a ladder in the way of your feet won't help with that. Only dedicated speed, strength and power training will. However, raw running speed is not directly related to swordfighting (unless you're losing), so it doesn't matter.

Also, ladder drills do not improve your dexterity. Coordination is not a general purpose trait that can be trained. The body and brain's ability to produce smooth, coordinated action requires specific practice, there is no way around this.

Permutational Analysis

One of the ways I conceptualize the value of ladder drills is with the idea of permutational analysis. This is an idea I got from Scott Brown a few years ago, which he applies to handwork drills. The basic idea is that if I get into a new situation I cannot produce a useful action in the moment - whatever I do will be uncoordinated and slow because it is untrained. As such it is useful to dedicate a part of training to a wide variety of arbitrary variations, specifically to make it less likely that your feet will end up in a truly novel position. This is also the reason to switch up the drills every few months.

Categories of Exercises

I will not attempt an exhaustive list of exercises here, nor even much in the way of specifics. Instead I want to look at broad categories to guide decisions about what to include and how to organize the workout.


Intensity levels are roughly as follows:
  1. Stepping - one leg moves at a time and one leg is on the ground. This starts with simple exercises like Quickfeet and moves up through a wide variety of exercises like In-In-Out-Out. More complex patterns include Ickey Shuffle and Carioca. Also includes the fencing actions of Advance and Retreat, as well as Doubles etc.
  2. Double-leg actions - both legs move at the same time. The prime example is Scissors. Hopscotch can be roughly put in this category as well.
  3. Double-leg hop - basic is both feet in the same box. Alternatives can include Skiers and variations on direction of movement etc.
  4. Single-leg hop - one leg bouncing from square to square, same leg throughout
Skipping squares - in general, exercises can be made more intense by skipping squares of the ladder. This is most useful for double-leg hops but can be applied to a wide variety of exercises. It would be a bit much for single-leg hops for all but the highest level athletes.

Direction of Movement

Ladder drills can also be characterized by direction of movement.
  1. Linear - forwards and backwards. The amount of linear you need depends on the type fencing you train.
  2. Lateral - side to side
  3. Medial - this distinction only matter for single leg actions, lateral is to the outside of the leg but medial is towards the inside. That is, if I am standing on my right leg then medial is a jump to my left.
  4. Diagonal - a mix of linear and lateral while facing down the ladder. For a lot of fencing training this is more relevant than lateral.
  5. Rotational - changing the direction you face from one action to the next. Easiest is 90°, 180°+ can be done as well.
  6. Crossover - one foot crosses over the other. Most often part of drills that are otherwise diagonal
  7. Backwards - any of the above categories can also be done backwards; presenting a higher coordination requirement.
Some exercises don't fit well into any of these categories, so this is only a rough guide to get you started. For instance the Shuffle Wide and Stick goes: two feet in the box, one foot out - leaping as far as you can, stick that landing and leap back to two feet in the next box.

Designing the Workout

Start at low intensity and work up progressively. With athletes new to the drills do not incorporate the most intense drills to start with. In particular single-leg hops are very intense for anyone unused to such actions. Even double-leg hops may not be a good starting exercise depending on the population you are working with or what the rest of the day's training will be like.

Include all directions of movement in a given routine, with an emphasis on those most relevant to the style. This goes back to the permutational analysis idea from earlier.

The number of exercises to include will depend in part on the objective of the workout. As a quick warm-up before fighting, maybe just four exercises. As part of a conditioning routine, do 8 or 10. For general movement prep before a class I usually do 6.


1Quickfeet*Double-leg Hop*Single-leg Hop* (incl. Medial)
2Double Advance-Retreat**same with SwordCommand drill
4Front Crossoversame with ReverseRear Crossover
5ScissorsSkiersSkiers with Rotation
6Snakesame with ReverseSnake Skipping boxes
* Forward, Backward and Lateral
** Each leg leading

Progression in Agility Ladder Training

There are two basic modes of progression in agility ladder training. First is intensity and the other is complexity.

Intensity is easy, and the intensity guide above directs that type of progression. Increases can also be made in the number of drills or the speed demands of the drills.

Complexity increases are part of making this more directly applicable to fencing training. First, insist that the athletes not look down. When they start they have to look just to avoid stepping on the ladder but they should be pushed to keep their eyes up early and often.

Another method of increasing complexity is to hold your sword while doing the drills, and specifically to hold the sword in a well-formed guard.

Additional complexity can also come in the form of actions after or in-between the ladders.
  • Set-up two ladders in a row about 5m apart. Sprint from one ladder to the next with a smooth transition from the run into the ladder drill. 
  • Set-up two ladders side-by-side at least 3m apart. Side shuffle from one ladder to the next while facing the same way and then do the next ladder backwards.
  • Have a coach stand at the end of the ladder with a focus mitt or target and execute an attack at the end of the ladder.
The variations are endless - just make sure you understand how the exercise you design helps the people you are training.


Ladder drills are fun and serve a variety of purposes from warm-up to movement prep to footwork quickness. They are also cheap and easy to use. You can use them to reinforce mindful practice and hone proprioception and kinesthetic awareness.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Shopping Trip!

Who doesn't like going shopping?

I don't.

But that's not the point. Normally, when I run a one-off training session with a group they ask me for a shopping list of the equipment I brought with me. I bring a lot of toys to these sorts of training sessions.

None of the equipment I'm about to list replaces having a basic weightlifting set-up and program. And some of the material I present is best used and safest when done in conjunction with a complete strength training plan - it's not all basic material.

Also, feel free to shop around but keep in mind the reasons for why I recommend the products that I do.


Medicine Balls - I recommend these particular medicine balls because they bounce and the bounce is helpful for a variety of drills. For HEMA I suggest 4 or 6 pound balls. For smallsword and later period fencing, including modern fencing, a 2 pound ball is best. Our objective is for the ball to be no more than double the weight of the sword - this allows us to train velocity of action.

Sandbells - No one else makes a version that is as durable, though you can usually get a better price on Amazon than on their website. Great for a wide variety of throwing drills. The appropriate weight is going to be around 30-70% of bench press max. This is quite a wide range and so you have to get a number of different sizes to work best.

Sandbells only go up to 50 pounds but there are good reason to keep going higher. To do that I put multiple sandbells into these sandbag trainers. Again, the product I pick is based on our durability needs, we are going to be throwing these as hard as we can at the wall and floor etc. However, you can usually get a better price on Amazon for these as well.

Everyone starts at 10 pounds so that they can get the form right before they go up in weight.

At beginner levels these can be replaced with Dynamax balls.

Hurdles - Adjustable hurdles and other variations exist and each is a trade-off between flexibility, durability and cost. Individual choices are going to depend in large part on expected use. But start small, big hurdles are hard on the joints.

Plyo boxes - I'm not going to recommend a specific product here, because their are so many facility specific factors that go into a purchasing decision here - mostly space concerns. Plyo boxes are an important tool though. They are much safer on the joints than doing other jumping exercises.

Everyone should have plyo boxes.


Agility Ladders - basic tool, so basic that a lot of folks already have them. There are spiffy versions that do niftier things and cost more, but those are really only going to matter for high-end athletes and even then only after they have mastered all the lower intensity stuff. Probably not worth spending extra money on fancy ones.

Rings - another basic level tool. The advantage of items like ladders and rings is that they force the athlete to pay attention to their footwork - you can't just put your foot anywhere with these drills. Which is why I recommend rings, even though you could do the associated drills without anything special.

Dots - These are a minor tool that are all about forcing accuracy in footwork. 

Reflex ball - aka Z-ball (which is the brand I originally got). These are for proving to your athletes that you wish to torture them. It's fun. But not a lot of tools actually allow you to create random stimuli for training reflexes, so these are pretty unique in their utility.

Core Training

Heavy Bar - Functionally similar to various sledgehammer workouts except safer. Safer than swinging a hammer head past your legs at speed. Not only are they safer for the user, they are also safer for the floor and walls. These are also similar to Indian clubs in terms of the workouts that you can do, but they are cheaper and more versatile. I start adults off at 6 pounds.

Mini-bands - Primarily for hip strengthening exercises. Color coded for resistance level. Adults can usually start with the green bands and work their way up. Adolescents and smaller folks should start with yellow.

Sandbags - these are useful for a variety of core training exercises as well, which makes them a nice multi-purpose tool. Plus it means that you don't need to buy conventional weights as well.


Everything I've shown here is usually also available at Perform Better, with minor variations existing. Check their before purchasing to see if they have a better deal or suit your needs better. Or it's available in a prettier color.

My  start-up level kit would include the following as a minimum:
  1. Medicine ball
  2. Agility ladder
  3. Mini-bands
  4. Z-ball
The next most important component is plyo boxes, but they are expensive, heavy and take up a lot of space. Which makes them not easy for a lot of clubs. They really can't be beat for utility though. And they are still safer than the alternatives.

I would love for all the useful things to be free. However, a well designed program will have overload and progression, both of which are hard to do without tools. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Geeking Out - Part 3: Estimating Calories Burned

This is the third part (part 1, part 2) of my series on geeking out about your exercise. Geeking out about your exercise isn't necessary. But it can help you become and remain motivated and it can help you achieve your goals.


The simplest way of estimating calories burned in exercise is what's known as METs which stands for metabolic equivalents. At rest a person is at 1 MET. Exercise will be some multiple of this amount.

1 MET is approximately 1 calorie per hour per kilogram of bodyweight. I weigh about 85 kilos right  now, so I burn about 85 calories per hour doing nothing.

Martial arts training, like HEMA, is going to be 5-8 METs. Most of the training is going to be around 6 METs, and using that as a baseline value is a reasonable estimate. While high-intensity training or sparring can get up to 10 METs, this is typically alternated with rest periods so over the course of an hour it will average out to something lower - like 6 METs.

At 6 METs, 1 hour of HEMA would be 85x6 = 510 calories. This is consistent with my own values from my heart rate monitor.

The Compendium(pdf) is a resource that estimates METs for a very wide range of activities. This can then be used to help you estimate calories for all of your exercise and fitness endeavors.


Lot's of different methods exist for estimating calorie expenditure in exercise - apps and online calculators and so on. But for something unusual like HEMA there aren't such resources. As such a heart rate monitor or METs estimate are your best tools.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Geeking Out - Part 2: General Fitness

My last post was about heart rate and calories burned in HEMA training - as determined by a heart rate monitor. In that post I talked about how this informs training for athletic development and performance improvement. Now I'm going to talk about what these numbers say about general fitness, because I know that many folks use HEMA as a part of their approach to general health.

Moderate versus Vigorous Exercise

The basic guidelines for cardiovascular exercise for general health recommend either 60 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Or some combination of the two - basically every minute of vigorous is equivalent to 2.5 minutes of moderate exercise.

Over the course of a 1-2 hour class my typical heart rate was in the moderate exercise range. The only part of my practices that boosted my pulse into the vigorous range is the intense warm-up that is a part of training at Athena School of Arms. However, most groups warm-up is only going to equate to a few minutes of vigorous exercise.

Good motor learning, just like learning anything else, happens best when you are alert and refreshed. Exhausting exercise will impair motor learning. As such, a large amount of vigorous exercise is not appropriate for for a technical training session.

In other words, HEMA training should be moderate exercise, and we shouldn't be pushing ourselves to make a significant part of it vigorous.

Physical Activity Goals

150 minutes per week of HEMA training is a perfectly reasonable objective. I suspect that everyone who isn't already doing that much would like to be able to.

If you are endeavoring to reach a complete program of physical activity for general health and wellness, then your HEMA training, a few times a week, is sufficient for cardiovascular health and fitness. While HEMA training is simultaneously neuromotor exercise - good for balance and agility.

As such you can dedicate remaining available time to strength training and flexibility.

The ACSM guidelines go on to say that greater cardiovascular health benefits are seen at double these amounts. This becomes more time consuming but can be met more easily with the inclusion of vigorous, dedicated cardio work in addition to HEMA training.

Calories Burned

HEMA training burns calories, of course. However, HEMA does not burn calories at an intense rate, as is to be expected from moderate exercise. I will go into details on estimating calories burned in my next post in the series.


HEMA training is a good way to meet both the cardiovascular and neuromotor training goals of a complete approach to physical activity for health. And, well, that's convenient and fun.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Geeking Out about Heart Rate

Late last year I got a new heart rate monitor watch. And it let's me geek about my exercise even more. The watch I got was the Polar FT7. Like my last one it uses a strap around the chest to measure heart rate (but this one is cleanable). The chest strap is a good, accurate way to track pulse.

But this watch does more; it tracks pulse throughout the workout and calculates calories burned. I've been using this to track just about all my training and exercise for a few months now. And there are some clear patterns.

What does this mean for HEMA?

Now, I'm not going to pretend that my personal experience and numbers are data. That would contradict some key points that I've made previously. Instead I'll point out that my results show generalizability of other research. A reasonable amount of research has been done on the cardiovascular aspects of martial arts. So far, I have just assumed that our martial art is similar to others in regards to metabolic demand, like here.

My own numbers have been in line with other martial arts studies. This makes sense to me because a 3lb. sword is not going to add much to moving my full bodyweight around.

Heart Rate

It takes time for the body to react to intense exercise and raise the heart rate - this process is mediated by hormonal factors that have to be made, enter the bloodstream and then reach the heart. As such short bursts of high intensity activity will produce only a limited increase in pulse. The muscles being used are therefore primarily acting anaerobically and using their stored glucose (glycogen) and creatine-phosphate for energy.

My heart rate got up to about 155-160 at most. Which is 82-87% of my max. Hitting 90%+ of my max requires much more intense training, like interval sprints.

Most of the time my heart rate hovered around the 125-130 mark. Around 65-70% of my max. But this was only when I bothered to look at my watch, which was usually after doing some particular drill, to see what effect that drill had on my heart rate. One of the great things about the watch is that it gives me a breakdown of how much time I spent above or below 65% of max. And in reality I spend about half or more of my time below that threshold.

The 65% threshold is based on the silly notion of the 'Fat Burning Zone' versus the 'Cardiovascular Fitness Zone'. However, and importantly for exercise planning, these two zones do correspond reasonably well to the definitions of moderate versus vigorous exercise, which I've discussed before. And I'll cover this in more detail for the next post in this series.

So don't expect to get your heart rate up all that high with HEMA training.

Furthermore a quick recovery to baseline is a good trait to watch for. It indicates good cardiovascular fitness and will benefit your ability to do repeated bouts and training. If my pulse was over the line when I looked at my watch, but averaged below that line then I must have been recovering quickly. This is encouraging.

On the flip side, while your pulse doesn't get that high while training it will stay elevated for a long time after you finish. I've continued wearing the strap for a couple hours after exercising a few times specifically to observe this phenomenon. This is when the body goes through the aerobic process of replenishing the resources used while at high intensity - a phenomenon known as Excess Post-exercise Oxgyen Consumption (EPOC). Additionally, this is when the body is literally burning fat as a result of your exercise - the fat is metabolized to fuel the replenishment of your muscles.


I burned about 10 calories per minute for a typical training session. Some parts of training were higher, and some parts were lower. On the days where I was mostly coaching the rate was about half that. I weigh 85 kg (190 lbs) so your personal expenditures will be different based on your own bodyweight.  I will go into more detail about calculating that (using METs) in another post.

This is in line with the previous research I linked to above about calorie expenditures. Of note is the fact that high-intensity sparring is a higher demand than actual competition.

Overall the calorie demand for HEMA training is comparable to many other common modes of exercise.

How does this inform training?

Make training harder than fighting and fighting will be easier.

Hard sparring sessions can be a component of training max cardiovascular output and recovery. But this must be done intentionally. It is much easier to slowly dial down the intensity of training than to push all out and stay there. And you will do this unconsciously.

Instead I suggest doing flow drills or parry-riposte drills at high intensity for conditioning purposes. Training to exhaustion is bad for technique and strategy so such training should be done with the simplest actions.

And the really intense cardio training needs to be non-HEMA stuff. This is one of the reasons why running is used so extensively in many sports - it can be done with very high intensity and form doesn't break down, and you are not training bad motor patterns for technique.

Really though, we want to keep most training below the threshold for vigorous training because this will facilitate good motor learning. The primary objective of the HEMA class time should be focused around motor learning. The cardio training should be separate - that way each can be done well.

How hard are you training?

This isn't a competition and I'm not saying this to brag or anything. I have visited plenty of schools and talked to plenty more folks about how they train in their classes. And the conclusion is this:

I run the most physically demanding HEMA classes.

I will amend that statement by saying that I believe there are numerous European clubs at a similar level and that I'm comparing myself primarily to US clubs.

This has to do with my objectives for HEMA training. If your club's or your personal objectives are different then do what matches your goals. And I hope that my blog helps you meet your goals.

I'm not saying that my way is only 'good' way or the best way or any other such BS. It meets my goals, though, so it's what I do and how I run my classes.

But this does mean that almost all of a typical groups class time is going to be moderate intensity, as far as cardiovascular response goes. And that just means that the conditioning for performance improvement has to be done separately.


I'm a geek. I obsess about these things. I got one degree in the field and I'm working on another. You don't need to do any of this kind of tracking if you don't want to.

But if you find it helps you meet fitness or performance goals, then by all means, go for it.