Workout for the win

Why waste your time working out when you can spend that time drilling on your martial arts techniques? Twenty minutes of calisthenics is twenty minutes of precious class time taken away from honing lunges or cuts. Our classes put a strong emphasis on exercise, and we catch grief for that online. The best thing people will say is that an emphasis on fitness will mean you can train longer with more focus, both in a session and over time. Otherwise, they accuse us of having a pure sport motive (as if that is a bad thing. Some people are inclined to sports as much as some people are inclined to scholarly pursuits. Putting down one is as bad as putting down the other.) The implication is that by trying to be fit, we are trying to win via pure athleticism instead of through proper technical training.

If you talk to most Historical European martial arts practitioners, they will tell you that quality of practice is better than quantity of practice. They have faith in study and hard work. They understand that you should put good work into each repetition, and work on good tactical understanding. As the saying goes, the bad martial artist doesn’t practice for one hundred hours, he practices one hour a hundred times. People like to be smug when they say that, they enjoy the feeling of sage wisdom it gives them. There is a feeling that saying and understanding a thing is the same as being and doing a thing, like understanding how to do a pushup is the same as doing a pushup.

Fencing, at it’s heart, is full of simple actions. A lunge is nothing more than an extension of the arm with a step. Things in combat must be simple, because fighting is complex. You have to chain together many simple actions into complex phrases against a foe attempting the same. As we spend more time learning, we naturally start to refine our simple actions. the lunge becomes a chain, a compound action made up of many smaller simple actions. We work to improve it, our teachers harass us to make each iota more perfect, each repetition better than the previous. We polish, endlessly. It is hard to see the value in not spending time on that process, especially when we are talking about diverse exercises that yield no benefit or relation to our actions…

We had a lot of students out of class thursday, for one reason or another. It happens. I enjoy the small classes because it means I get to really dig into each student’s soul a little bit more. With four students to work on, I knew I could spend a little bit more time explaining refinements and dealing with questions, so we could do some harder work.

We started with a sprint series to warm up, short bursts of action to get our muscles hungry for more. Sweating and panting, we started our strength work with the usual gymnastics exercises. Six months of this work has really made a difference to the students. We worked on understanding the application of arch and hollow positions to the various static holds. We moved from one to the other, feeling the difference in strength and balance, and how the muscles chain and support each other, allowing new muscles to be active.

Next we polish this understanding by hitting handstands, learning to pull upwards and activate new chains of action…this level of work would have been impossible for an average students six months ago. We spent about ten minutes playing about, and then it was time for cartwheels. We tried to hit the cartwheels with the same stable support structure in the shoulders, but chaining new muscles into the mix, moving in big circles as a unified structure.

Took a water break, and moved into the Thursday specialty of boxing. A little refinement and addition to the previous classes, working on moving from a stiff orthodox left jab to a southpaw stance, with a little philly shell action to make it interesting. I got everyone to think about the muscles used in the arch and hollow, handstands and cartwheels. I wanted everyone to find a way to integrate the understanding they has just learned from gymnastics to boxing. I wanted them to use the powerful muscles and interaction to smooth out a complex boxing action, to make what felt like a stupid and illogical idea into a useable technique. It took work, but they got it down nicely.

Another water break, this time with a little food to keep us going into the second hour, and it was time for sword work. We jumped right into a variation of the inquartata, a pulling and pivoting action designed to let you dodge out of the way of an incoming thrust while landing one of your own. It’s a favourite show-off move of rapier fencers all over…it’s all kinds of tricky. Fellow fencers tend to applaud when you pull it off.

I skipped the fancy surprise revelation, and explained that we’d been working on this move all night. The arch and hollow work we’d done earlier would now be giving us a smooth and powerful shoulder action that easily supported the void defense and extension counter attack, the handstand and cartwheel work had taught us to co-ordinate the lower back, hips and legs for a powerful sweep, and the boxing had given us solid practice on foot placement and tempo.

Six months of hard gymnastics work, relentless boxing and wrestling drills, all put together into one fencing action. Each individual muscle had been developed in greater strength and speed via the fitness training than would ever be possible in pure technical repetition. Hours and hours of wrestling and boxing in awkward and difficult combinations resulted in a level of muscle co-ordination and synergy far ahead of what they would have developed otherwise. And, of course, they still have hours of technical repetition of the inquartata ahead of them. Hours of mask time and frustration to get down this simple technique.

Athleticism is never separate from technical training. Strength and fitness must be honed hand in hand to make a real martial artist. No value in the student should ever be left untapped. Instructors must fully understand the true nature of the body in order to correctly teach. Teachers have a responsibility to their art to ensure that it is built on the correctly realized structure for each student. If all you teach is technique, you are teaching a hollow art.

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