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.