I was watching one of the newer students work on his cartwheels last night. Like most of the students, he was new (at least as an adult) to doing cartwheels. He’d asked some advice about doing an advanced variation, and I told him to start by working on a few specific basics first…back extension and arm position mostly. I watched for a bit before going on to my exercises, and got to see him nail exactly what I was looking for. The last cartwheel in a series of three was done slow and smooth, with just enough stall at the midpoint to let him choose his descent. Solid strength development on display.

It makes sense to me to incorporate cartwheels into fencing training. Fencers of any kind are notorious to me for having weak backs and shoulder problems, and a lot of their fencing form and tactical choices come from working around the weakness instead of eliminating it. Gymnastics in general, with it’s emphasis on back and shoulder strength, is the perfect companion to western martial arts practice. You can see images of people doing acrobatics in the middle ages as part of a workout, but people seem to ignore that. I don’t know why it’s so intimidating for people.

Strength training in general seems to be almost terrifying. I’ve run across people who seem to think the only way they can train is if they are strapped into some sort of machine to make them safe…or limit themselves to only approved exercises, done within the narrow limits of perfect form. Being actually good and strong at movement in general seems like a real anathema. Intentionally moving in a way that is extra difficult, even dangerous? Hell no! …But sparring with swords? Sure, no problem. Sounds like fun. As the French say, “Le Sigh.”

I run a challenging class. Not so much in the exercises or drills, but in the pacing. The human body works with certain rhythms, and if you know what you are doing, you can really screw with those patterns. The class feels like fun, and at the end of it you feel excited, energetic and happy…twenty minutes later you just want to curl up and sleep. Or eat an entire elk all by yourself. The pace is designed to break up a lifetime of energy patterns. The energy patterns I’m talking about are the metabolic patterns we fall into. A certain amount of effort makes us tired, another amount makes us almost panic, some amounts we can only sustain for seconds. By managing and pushing those patterns, we can manipulate the limit switch in the body. Overall fitness and strength improvement becomes a dominant factor in our daily metabolic allotment.

Or in other words, the students start turning into little muscles monkeys, with predator grins. They get hungry for more challenge. Rest becomes a punishment.

You can do this in your own classes, it’s not hard. The sprint is your friend. It promotes muscle growth. The Tabata cycle (short burst of intense exercise, short rest phase) is fundamental, but horribly misunderstood. It’s useless just to do some random exercise really hard for a few seconds. You need to work the entire body at maximum effort. Leave the sledgehammers and tires in the garage. Move your whole body, move like an animal. Move like a monkey, but not as playful monkey. Move like a monkey that just saw the tiger leap. Rest and repeat. Then move like the tiger who hasn’t eaten in a week, who just saw a fat little monkey scuttling away.

I know people work out hard, but the first five minutes of your workout should make you feel like you’ve just used up every available ounce of energy. That’s what we call our warmup…