The Valkyrie workout took a long time to develop, with a lot of stumbles on the way. Until I had a recent discussion with someone online about the relative value of bodyweight training vs weight training for martial arts, I’d sort of forgotten how I got to where I am in my fitness thinking. Thinking back on it, it all kind of flooded back to me. The books, the notes, the endless plotting and charting, trying to wrap my head around sport science concepts that were far deeper than I ever expected.
Bodybuilding was the only form of weight training when I was in my teens. As martial artists, we tried to avoid weigh training, because, as everyone knew, weights just made you stiff and slow. And yet…I discovered I had an affinity for them. There was something atavistic in the appeal. Nothing complex, just move a heavy weight up and down ten times. Repeat with a heavier weight. It had the same appeal to me that distance running did: It was a solo activity.
Didn’t get serious about it until after high school, when the kung fu school I was training at had a rudimentary weight set. And I was working at a book store, which gave me access to all the bodybuilding books. Weight training became a bit of an obsession…until I blew my knee out doing squats.
Roll forward a few short years, and my high school friends had moved to the big city with me, and we made a regular habit of hitting the weight room at BCIT to bulk up…yeah, we were all skinny back then. It was a wonderful gym. Real weight sets, not a machine in the place except for the lone and abandoned Universal Gym, used only for rows and pulldowns. Some big, big boys trained there, and we learned about the camaraderie of iron. I learned about powerlifting…Deadlift, Squat, and Bench press.
A co-worker actually phoned up one of the big names, and got a fax back of his training program. I don’t remember who it was…I’m thinking Louie Simmons, but that fax is long gone. It was a beautiful program. Tight, compact…tiny reps, big weights. Not just split days, but changing cycles…lifting heavy then light. Madness! But oh, the results. I learned to absolutely love squats and deadlifts, and I lived for new singles. Every cycle peaked with a new PR. My weight soared, and my arms and legs thickened…so did my waist, but who cared? In those days I could lose twenty pounds in a few weeks with no effort.
There was nothing like the sweet joy of deadlifting a new personal record, and watching the flamingo bodybuilders…massive upper bodies and biceps, no legs…pale when they saw a “thin” guy like me lift so much iron. I lived for the gym…until I tore a pec tendon. I learned quite a bit about musculature recovering from that. I only stopped lifting for a few weeks, and taught myself to work around the damaged tissue. But I was never again able to shoulder press more than 35 pounds. My bench stalled out, and eventually life took a hold of me and the gym became a thing of the past.
Fast forward a decade or so, and now I’m teaching swordplay at a brand new school a friend and I started up. I’ve got a weight set at home now, and I’m working on the olympic lifts…Snatch and Clean and Jerk. We still have no permanent location for the school, though, so I start to develop some bodyweight training to build strength. We start out with a mix of the Farmer Burns workouts being promoted by Bob Charron, mixed in with some of the more fun things I dig up of my decades of unarmed martial arts training. I got some volunteers to work through a special high-performance experiment, where I really push the pace to see what we can do.
Eventually, when we have a permanent location, I develop the high-performance workout into the full-fledged Palaestra class. The weights are now at the school, but no one uses them. They just seem archaic…and far too light for real use, anyway. We occasionally do sets of O-lifts, but it seems more fitting to work on technical skills that pay off quicker. The Palaestra class is the exception. We push the limits of bodyweight training. Five minute rounds of pushups, five minutes of squats, situps, mountain climbers, with only a one minute rest in between. One class I just flat out asked the students to alternate between situps, squats and pushups for fifteen minutes straight, with no rest. When you got tired of one exercise, switch to the next.
It was fantastic exercise, but I started to notice a problem. The fitness wasn’t translating into fight skill. The toughness was, for sure, but there was no performance benefit showing up. Students who didn’t take Palaestra were fencing with the same speed and power as Palaestra students. I decided to do some fitness evaluation, to see what the problem was. Students rated fantastically in strength…they were off the charts on any measure that used pushups and situps as a standard…but when tested on vertical jump height? The results were abysmal. Some of the fittest students could only make a vertical jump of a few inches. Something was very seriously wrong with the training program.
I turned to plyometric training. One of my students was a former cheerleader, so we lifted one of their plyo programs. It turned out to be six weeks of utter hell. It got results, but it was completely soul-crushing. We started the session with over a dozen students, and ended it with two…and those two hated my guts by the end of it. We repeated the cycle another three times, with similar results. Jump heights definitely went up, and fitness overall skyrocketed. It was noticeable to everyone. But…still no real gain in actual fight performance. We eventually gained some by starting the “Per Hasta” drill classes, but that’s another post…
Rolling forward another few years, and I’m on my own again, starting a new school. In an effort to skip past the problems of the old training methods, I experiment with some new training ideas. I incorporate more trendy modern sport training. We start working agility drills, more plyo, more balance and so-called speed work. I learn what everyone else learns…such training is fun, but has no real transference to sport-specific skill. I roll the clock back, and start working pure strength with students. We go so far as to incorporate sumo wrestling and strongman stunts…bending metal rods of different thickness in class. Fun, but still not there.
That school folds, and a new one starts. And I discover Coach Sommer’s Gymnastics Bodies workout program. I test it out on myself for three months…and suddenly I’m stronger than all my students. We start to incorporate some of the exercises and progressions into regular class work. There is a lot of resistance, as the challenge is high. But the results…the results are amazing. Combined with our other bodyweight exercises, the students are transformed. They become fast, powerful..and more so, they move from being merely fit to being athletic. The real test comes when an old student…extremely fit and strong, blacksmith strong not weight strong…comes to class and get tossed about in wrestling.
About this time I am thinking about getting back into weight training, so my wife and I get gym memberships. And that’s when I learn a powerful truth. My bench is substantially higher than it was when I was powerlifting. When I play with the bodybuilder toy machines, I’m maxing out on everything. Not a big deal for a weigh-trainer, but I haven’t really touched a weight in at least ten years by this point. My squat was about the same, and deadlift was way up. Most importantly for me, though, I could shoulder press again. The heavy diet of gymnastics training had somehow fixed my shoulder issues. It was eye-opening, but at the same time it kinda killed my desire to go back to weight training. To improve my lifts meant training to improve my lifts. I was still getting stronger by training to move.
When we started to incorporate sword training, that’s when it all clicked. The new students were moving in ways that I would have thought impossible with a sword…ducking, weaving, jumping…successfully. I’d finally found a workout that translated into sport-specific results. When I start Valkyrie WMA, we jumped right in with the movement training. This time, though, we did it heavier…harder and more frequently. I got to watch students bulk up in front of my eyes…muscles getting first stronger, and then thicker. And their fight game jumped up by leaps and bounds. We are still having some difficulty marrying the fitness to the technique. It’s a learning process for all of us.
It’s a transformation in progress. I’m looking forward to seeing where it leads, and it does help to look back and see where it came from. Of all the things I’ve done to make better martial artists, this is the one thing that consistently shows results that directly apply. And as a small side benefit, the movement work is opening the world up to all of us in new ways. Being fitter, stronger, more able to move through the world…everything becomes a playground. And every day we long less for rest, and more for play.