Way back in the day I was at trade school learning to be a welder. My friend was also there doing some crazy technical thing that eventually caused him to be able to explain in great detail what happens when a foot thick piece of steel instantly evaporates in front of you…anyway. We started to hit the gym and explore the joys of powerlifting.
Powerlifting is the brutal thug of the weightlifting world. We loved it. Pick up a heavy weight, put it down. Watch the bodybuilders get all self-conscious about how much weight you are squatting, and then scurry off and do another set of bicep curls. So much fun. The gym had a big, heavy leather punching bag. Since our real forte was martial arts, we put it to good use between sets. We’d hit the bag hard, make it shake and bounce, big deep booming hits. Felt pretty bad-ass…until this tiny little Laotian guy came in.
When he hit the bag with a kick, there was no boom. It was a ripping noise, like he’d just split that bag in half. And he did it again and again. We were not too humble to go and say hi, thank god. Turned out the guy was kickboxer, and a former national champ. We hit him up for hints and lessons whenever we saw him in the gym, and we started to really tear into that bag. Over the next year or so of classes, they had to replace that bag a few times. We kept splitting it. The locker room guys ran out once when we were hitting the bag. They thought the damage was being caused by some ass with a baseball bat or golf clubs wailing on the bag, and when they heard the loud gunshot-like cracks coming out of the weight room, they figured they’d caught the culprit. We got dirty looks, but all we were doing was kicking the bag.
We weren’t doing thai-style kicks, we wanted to hit really hard so we kept hitting with our insteps instead of our shins. I remember at the time that when I was hitting with peak power, I could only hit the bag five or six times…my foot couldn’t take anymore. I’d be limping after every session.
I was talking with another good friend the other day. He’d just spent a few days working with an elite athlete…ranked number one in the world at her sport more than once. Since this friend was a damned good fencer, and was familiar with the best of the current crop of rapier fighters, I asked him to compare them athletically. What was the major difference in movement between a ranked elite, and the top in our sport?
Power and strength was his answer. She was able to cover a lot of ground in just a few steps. She was able to move explosively, stop where she wanted with absolute precision, and be moving again in a blink. She had a level of power development that made the top rapier fighters look out and out lazy by comparison.
And they are. I know many top guys (yes, all men right now) workout somewhat, but not at the level required. No one does…and from what I’ve seen no one even understands what’s needed to build the base of fitness required to really hit elite level performance. I said about six years ago that we were ten to twenty years away from producing the first truly good fencer, and I stand by that. Can we make the first elite in four years? I doubt it. It’s possible, the technical knowledge is there. There are a lot of other factors that need to develop, but the one I’m interested in is the fitness factor.
Rapier fencing is a pure power sport. That means a successful elite would have to be remarkably strong. Right now people are only dabbling with strength training, with little or no understanding of why or what it can do.
In order to reach elite levels, you have to build a solid foundation first. I could learn to kick a bag really hard, but without the years of conditioning to support that impact, my foot couldn’t keep up. Lifting a heavy weight doesn’t require big muscles, it requires the ability to activate a very large percentage of muscle fibres. When you start lifting weights for the first time, you only use a tiny percentage of your muscles…something under five percent is the number I remember very late at night. An elite can activate something on the order of seventy to eighty percent of a muscles fibres (Hell no I’m not gonna fact check that. Look it up! Learn something on your own, dammit!) The nervous system needs solid, consistent, and frankly overwhelming training to be able to do that.
If you get up from your chair right now and sprint full out, odds are you are only going to be able to maintain that for a few seconds. And when you slow down and stop, and think about how much effort you put in, you will (unless you are a sprinter by training) likely realize you didn’t go full out. If you try, you will find you can’t actually go full out. Your muscles will only seem to contract so much before they just give up.
You have to train your capacity first. You have to have the ability to maintain a large volume of work before you can increase your intensity of work. You start by sprinting a couple of times a week, then daily, then a few sessions a day. Then you start to sprint faster, and then you start making it harder to sprint. Those few sentences describe a few years of training and prep… In a complex sport like rapier, you have to have an athlete capable of that level of sprint training AND have left over capacity for technical and other training. I’m really not even touching on what’s actually necessary…and there is still the big question.
Why bother? Where’s the motivation? Hell, where is the competition? The way the game is right now, a gimmick or natural talent, combined with even just a few hours a week of training is enough to get you to the top. I think there is a potential for change, a possibility of things getting more energetic and popular. It could happen…and maybe someone out there, right now, is starting to train the right way. Don’t you kinda want to kick their ass?