Going to rant a little bit. It doesn’t take much to get me going, some days. Today it was Twitter’s fault. Or rather a tidbit that was forwarded on twitter, linking to an online article. How could I not click on it? It was labelled “Muscles Used In Fencing.”  Sounded neat…I was pretty leery when I saw that it was a Livestrong link. That place seems to have become home to some seriously empty fluff disguised as sports science. I clicked anyway.

I suppose I just assume a lot of things are common sense. I’m wrong about that. It’s a lesson I learn frequently. I make the assumption that people without a formal education are as curious as I am, always eager to learn. It seems completely natural to me to pick up a hobby, and then study the hell out of it, from every possible angle, and as deeply as possible. Often that deep study leads to a new hobby, which repeats the process and gosh isn’t life wonderful and overflowing with things to learn? Or I suppose you can learn by skimming whatever “fact” gets labelled on to a photo shared around on facebook. Meme’s are educational, right? You can learn without needing to challenge your assumptions, right?

I’m guessing, right off the bat, that I’m not the core demographic the article is aimed at. It’s clear right away that the focus of the article is that somehow you can fence to make some muscles look more pretty than others…because that’s the whole point of fitness, right? Looking pretty? Why would you want to attain anything else in life? Say…excelling at sport performance? Or just being physically competent enough that you can fence for pleasure with any opponent, regardless of skill? Nah…I just want to look great in shorts!

And that dreaded “core” word shows up again. If you say “core” as a writer, it’s supposed to indicate that you are taking a no-bullshit, serious approach to your training. Sit up folks. Listen up. Pay attention. We’re gonna get all “functional” now. Gonna re-calibrate the warp-field generators to create a negative tachyon pulse! It’s the only way to defeat the Borg!

And of course, we have a separate mention of Lower Back as being something separate from Core. This is what happens when people/personal trainers build up an idea of performance that is structured around exercises, and not around understanding how the body actually works. A book on fencing is mentioned, and the author is quoted as saying that the lower back has to be “engaged” and “tightened” in order to keep your balance and perform.

Here’s a hint: When someone tells you that you are doing an exercise wrong, because it seems easy? And their solution is to “engage your core!” or make sure you are keep a certain muscle tight or toned? It’s not your fault. It’s just a really, really lame exercise. And the person telling you to engage your core/recalibrate the warp field knows as much about sport science as a screenwriter knows physics.

Being athletic requires toned muscles. Tone doesn’t mean pretty. It doesn’t mean “shapely, but not icky bulky like a body-builder.” Its sure as hell doesn’t haven’t anything to do with body fat! Muscle tone refers to residual tension in a muscle. It might help to use the word tuned instead of toned. Think of a really high mast-tower, the skinny metal kind. Automatically, when I visualize that…or at least look up a picture on the internet, you don’t see just the tall tower. You see the guy wires that hold the thing up. Slack or missing wires make the thing fall down. Toned muscles provide the support for the skeletal system.

If you have to engage or try to actively tighten muscles during your sport, you lack tone. Tone is a result of muscle strength. The stronger the muscle, the better the tone. Strength is key. You do not build strength with lots of repetitions. You build strength by doing exercises that are so hard you can only do a few reps, or maintain a position for only a few seconds. Most historical fencers I’ve seen, regardless of weapon or fitness regime, seriously lack tone. They do not move well. They lack the strength they need in their support muscles.

It’s a result of training from a body of exercises instead of a body of knowledge. Reading between the lines in the article, I can see the preferred exercises the author is pushing. Agility drills, trendy “core” exercises that are really nothing more than disguised isometric exercises, and high rep exercises that result in the athlete feeling like they’ve accomplished something more than actually accomplishing something. Until they know better, most people equate work with minutes more than effort. Doing lots of things feels inherently more worthy than doing one thing, no matter how difficult the one thing was. One hundred situps feels like more work than a thirty second L-sit, so it must be better…

So the WMA world is full of classes that have you running all around, doing pushups and situps and squats and weirdly convoluted drills that someone made up because they felt hard. It results in students who move flaccidly, or stiffly…jerking about oddly. The real definition of spastic, the so-called “jacknife” muscle effect where the initial muscle contraction is harder than the remainder of the motion. It all comes from bad tone. Weak muscles trying to guy up the system and being defeated by the stronger muscles used in habitual fencing actions.

We need a lot less specific exercises. Students should become comfortable and capable in more normal athletic actions…the kinds of things we tend to overlook. Here’s a quick test for all the teachers out there: If you took all your students out to a track today, how would they do on a course of hurdles? If you get a little twinge in your gut that makes you think about your liability insurance and coverage for split lips, cracked shins or broken arms from falling…maybe it’s time to re-think your training program. If you can imagine your students doing terribly in terms of time, but laughing and enjoying themselves as they tried it out? You’re doing pretty good. If you’re a student and the thought of doing hurdles makes you quail… Then you need better instruction.