Episode 63

Your Challenge for August: Get Stronger!

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Show Notes:

This is adapted from my new book, The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training.

“Conditioning” as I use the term is externally-focussed physical training such as push ups, stretching and weight lifting. What the Finns might call “Jumppa”. 

In the beginning when you take up a martial art, it’s all new. You have to move your body in unfamiliar ways, and if you’re using weapons, they start out feeling heavy and clumsy. For most students, five minutes into their first rapier class their back leg and their sword arm’s shoulder feel like they are on fire! But your body adapts, in two critical ways.

• The muscles that you weren’t used to using get stronger and develop more endurance. 

• Your actions become more and more efficient, so require less effort.

After a while, when you become expert in the art, the fun stuff is just not good exercise any more. It’s physically easy, and even when sparring people, if you’re doing it right you’re moving only just enough to get the job done. Trust me, it’s incredibly satisfying when a middle-aged instructor can fence half a dozen fit young advanced students without a break, exhausting each of them, and feel completely fine- not tired at all, just nicely warmed up. 

This means that you need to do physical conditioning separate to the art, or you become weak and unfit. Just doing sword practice isn’t a workout.

Here’s the paradox: the same kind of training that beginners need to do to get fit enough to master the art, experts need to do to stay fit because the art isn’t physically challenging any more.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Wrestling, boxing, armoured combat and similar branches of the art are in themselves hard work, so you need the fitness training to stay fit enough to do them. But the arts I focus on are unarmoured fencing, where it takes very very little effort to put your sword in the right place, and very little effort to move your body into the right place. 

There’s no getting around it. You may be here for the swords, but to get good and stay good, the sword is not enough. Besides, the sword is a labour-saving device. It makes it almost effortless to strike hard enough to kill: you can put a sharp sword through an unarmoured body with no more effort than reaching for a cup of tea. You should perceive the weapon as making life easier. It should never be treated as an obstacle to movement: we have dumbbells for that. The job of a dumbbell is to make a movement harder, so you have to use more force to accomplish it, thus encouraging an increase in strength. The job of the sword is the exact opposite: you can kill from further away and with much less force than if you were unarmed.

This book is not intended as a training guide or a guide to improving your basic health or longevity. But given that it takes a lifetime to truly master the art, a long, healthy life is a pre-requisite, so factor that in!

My job is dangerous, and I am quite scared of getting injured. This makes me careful. But I vividly recall the time when my wrists were so bad from RSI (repetitive strain injury) from my cabinet-making job that a few clangs of sword-on-sword would have them swell up and I’d lose a day of work, and so a day’s pay. At the time I was making about £6000 a year. Trainee cabinet-makers do not drive Rolls Royces, or indeed any kind of car. Really, every penny mattered. I was on the point of quitting swordsmanship altogether. Then one day I was at a meet-up of the Dawn Duellists’ Society at Craigmillar Castle, near Edinburgh. I was watching everyone else having fun, and I simply decided that swords were too important. Fuck it; wrists be damned. I’ll fight anyway and, if needs be, hold my chisel in my teeth tomorrow. 

So I picked up my sword and fenced my friends, knowing that it would do me an injury but not caring. That was one of the key moments in my life, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Through this increased commitment to swordsmanship I met a kung fu instructor who, in 20 agonizing minutes, did what the doctors of Edinburgh had failed to do: he fixed my wrists. Like most things, the fix is not permanent. I have to keep up my maintenance or I am swollen-wristed again after a week or so of writing and teaching. But I can fix it in minutes when that happens, and simply getting back into my maintenance routine keeps the problem away. My wrists have never been stronger than they are now thanks to the injury, and thanks to its cure. 

I have always been interested in the health side of swordsmanship training, but this was the first time a martial artist fixed something that the doctors couldn’t. It opened my eyes, as well as fixed my wrists. This is why I am so keen on joint care and injury prevention.

For every action you wish to do, you need the necessary range of motion, and sufficient strength exerted within the allotted time. You must also be able to route the forces created by any impact safely through your skeleton and into the ground. And you must be able to keep acting until the need for it has passed. 

The principles of physical conditioning are therefore:

• Range of Motion

• Strength 

• Power generation

• Grounding

• Stamina

Range of Motion:

The range of motion you have is determined by the structure of your skeleton (which you can’t change, so let’s move on), the length of your muscles (which is easily changed), and the flexibility of your soft tissues. Let’s take a really simple example and work from there. Stand up on straight legs, reach up towards the ceiling with your hands, and – keeping your feet flat on the floor and your knees locked – bend over and touch your toes. For some people, reaching the knees is hard; others find it trivial to put their palms flat on the floor. Note how far you reach.

Now do a few squats, jump about a bit, swing your arms back and forth, and then repeat the toe-touching exercise. Chances are, you can now reach further. This is only because your muscles are willing to permit more movement. You haven’t made any real changes. When a muscle is stretched, it hits a point at which it contracts to prevent the stretch, to protect itself from tearing. This is called the stretch reflex. Increasing range of motion usually begins by resetting the stretch reflex. There are three common ways to do this. 

1. Dynamic stretching: You can move gently in and out of the stretch position, encouraging your body to allow further movement. This is the only kind of stretching that is safe to do before strength or power training.

2. Passive stretching: You can hold the stretch for 30+ seconds. This lulls the muscle into a sense of security, and it will usually allow a longer stretch. You can then hold this for another 30+ seconds and get a bit further.

3. Plyometric stretching: You can hold the stretch, and then deliberately contract the muscle against the stretch (without allowing the muscle to actually shorten). Hold the contraction for about 10 seconds, and then relax. You will then be able to reach a bit further before the stretch reflex kicks in again. 

In any given session of passive or plyometric stretching, reset the reflex a maximum of three times. After this, the muscle will be weaker and more prone to injury for a bit, so do it after any strength or power training.

Dynamic range of motion training is done by repeating an exercise at slightly greater ranges, over and over. For example, to increase the length of your lunge, do a series of lunges with an immediate recovery, making each lunge a bit longer than the one before it, until it becomes uncomfortable. Once you are at the edge of your comfort zone, hold the position for 10–30 seconds to establish your balance and allow the supporting structures to develop. It is simply dangerous to develop unsupported ranges of motion. If you don’t have the strength to hold the position, you probably shouldn’t go into it. Then repeat the dynamic motions, but keep an inch or so in the pocket: don’t go to the maximum range, because the static stretch will have temporarily reduced your strength.

Extended positions where your muscles are stretched to their maximum safe limit are inherently less stable than movements that are well inside your range. So you may want to use supports, such as a chair, table, climbing frame etc. That’s fine, but if you need external support to get into the position it’s not nearly ready to be used in any kind of dynamic situation. Go gently.

I do my range of motion work in the evening before bed, often while watching TV. I go through all the motions that I want to retain, and spend extra time on any area that is stiffer than usual, or where I am trying to develop more range for some reason.

Strength:

Having established that you can make the motion safely, you can make it more difficult to do by increasing the load. Let me define a few terms that we’ll need:

• Rep: a repetition of the motion in question.

• Set: a given number of reps done one after the other, without a break.

• Single rep maximum: the heaviest weight you can lift once. When using weights, most lifts are represented as a percentage of your single rep maximum.

• Concentric contraction: the muscles that are doing the work are getting shorter, such as when you lift a weight up.

• Eccentric contraction: the muscles that are doing the work are getting longer, such as when you carefully lower a weight down.

Lifting progressively heavier weights is a good example of this. Assuming your mechanics are correct for the action in question, you increase strength in fundamentally two ways: by training your nervous system, and by building muscle mass. 

Neurologically, you persuade your nervous system to increase the number of muscle fibres you are using. These gains are very fast – if you’re just starting out, you may be able to double your strength in a few weeks. But there is a safety limit. If you contracted a major muscle recruiting every muscle fibre at once, you would literally rip your tendons off your bones. We usually have access to about 40% of the available muscle. That drops to almost zero if you don’t use the muscle at all (such as if your leg is in a cast).  The key to retraining the nervous system is to make the motion a few times under the heaviest load you can manage, and repeat that as often as possible during the day and the week. You’re not building up fatigue, so it doesn’t take so long to recover. Ideally you do this without eccentric contraction. Just lift the weight, then drop it. (Don’t do this at home!)

Building muscle is slower. In essence, you do minor damage to the muscle fibre and, given time and nutrition, your body repairs the damage and builds the muscle up to be a bit stronger than it was before. This is normally done by doing longer sets with a slightly lighter weight, and by emphasising eccentric contraction.

Do a quick internet search for pictures of the current “World’s Strongest Man” and “Mr. Universe”. They have a lot in common, but their bodies are really quite different. 

This is a huge subject, and for our purposes as martial artists, it’s unnecessary to go too deep into the weeds. What matters is that you understand the difference between strength-building exercises and muscle-building exercises, and incorporate both intelligently into your routines depending on your needs.

Power

Power is a factor of force divided by time. You know from experience that it is harder to lift a heavy weight quickly. The key question is, how much force can you generate in the time you have? This varies enormously from art to art. When using a longsword, I work on my speed and my grounding. I don’t work directly on power at all, because if I hit fast enough with a properly grounded strike, there is abundant power to do the job. Hitting hard is interesting, but not really useful when you have a sharp blade.  Punching is completely different. That is all about hitting hard, and so I work on speed, grounding, and the amount of muscular tension I can generate immediately at the moment of impact. 

Power can also be thought of as the difference between the relaxed state of the muscle, and the moment of muscular contraction. Strength training works the contraction end of that differential. Movement practice, breathing exercises, and grounding training work the relaxation end of that differential. Ideally the muscles start out very relaxed, then snap to maximum tension, then relax again. 

As you can probably tell, I don’t find power as a separate concept to be terribly useful in martial arts training, as it is comprised of several different components that can be developed directly. This would be much less the case if I were principally concerned with unarmed martial arts. 

Grounding

Grounding refers to how we route the forces coming into and out of our bodies. At the moment our strike connects with the target, the target strikes back with equal and opposite force. Grounding is the process of directing that force through your skeleton and into the ground. If every bone is in the right place, the force passively travels through, you don’t need to resist it at all.  It can be easily felt when standing. Gravity is acting on your body’s mass, pulling it down into the earth. If your posture is good, your bones will handle that for you, and it feels like you don’t have to do any muscular work to remain upright. If you lean forwards, you will feel your muscles start to compensate for the pull that would send you toppling over. A grounded strike is one that is supported by your skeleton that is organised to direct the force coming back from the target into the ground. The route the force takes through your body is called the groundpath.

Very often there are small changes you can make to the arrangement of your skeleton that will radically improve the effectiveness of your strike, by just making the groundpath more efficient. If you think of the groundpath as a hosepipe, you want it to be free of kinks and leaks. One of the unsung benefits of body scan meditation is it that can teach you to feel where those kinks and leaks are, and so make the necessary adjustments.

Not all strikes need to be grounded: bullets work very well with no groundpath at all. Any strike you make with both feet off the ground (as is common in some arts) is necessarily not grounded; instead the force comes from the speed and mass alone. Grounding in this case would be connecting your weapon to your center of mass to get the most force behind it.

Think of pushing a car to start it. You get the most force by leaning your whole body into the car, so that as much of your skeleton as possible is aligned with the force you are trying to generate. Or think of a fencing lunge: you can draw an almost perfect straight line from the tip of the sword down through the arm, from the lead shoulder into the back hip, and down the back leg into the back foot. 

As with any arrangement of your skeleton, there are always compromises. In the fencing lunge, we have maximum commitment to that single line forwards. But to keep our opponent’s sword away, we usually have to have some structural stability from side to side. This requires some careful internal organisation.

Stamina

Can you make the correct movement under the necessary load at the required speed as many times as it takes to win the fight? Stamina is primarily a question of aerobic and anaerobic fitness, which is all about respiration (both the metabolic process and breathing technique). 

Once you are breathing properly, “fitness” is primarily a matter of in-cell metabolic processes going quickly enough, or for long enough, and while you might have some anaerobic respiration going on in some specific muscle cells, your body as a whole is dependent on aerobic respiration. Stressing your body through exercise encourages it to increase production of the enzymes and other structures that will increase your ability to produce ATP. If you look at the metabolic pathways it gets unfathomably complex very quickly, but from a get-fitter perspective it’s quite simple. You get fitter by making your body keep going when it wants to stop, just long enough to encourage this increase in production. 

Fitness training also increases your body’s tolerance for carbon dioxide. You can simply get used to higher levels of carbon dioxide in your blood. This gives you a bigger safety margin in energy production. I’ve done experiments on myself with a pulse oximeter, which demonstrated that even when I’m physically exhausted, there is plenty of oxygen in my blood. Except in very unusual circumstances such as being at high altitude, oxygen isn’t the problem- it’s carbon dioxide build-up, and lactic acid build up in the muscles, that are the problem.

Perhaps the most important way to prevent injury is to be really careful about getting these elements in order. Regarding training for these things, the rule of thumb is this:

• Range of motion is about the muscles and the joints. Will the muscles and the structures of the joints allow the movement?

• Strength is about the muscles and the nervous system. Can you recruit enough large motor units?

• Power is about the fascia, the muscles, and grounding. Can you store and release energy quickly, and route it correctly through the body, grounding the motion properly?

• Stamina is about efficiency in motion and the metabolism. Can you do the action as efficiently as possible, and generate enough energy to keep it going?

Joint Maintenance

Conditioning training must stress the body to have the desired effect, and wherever there is stress, there is the risk of breakage. Bones are strong. It takes bad luck to break a bone. Muscles are incredibly resilient. You can tear them up really badly and they will regrow, reorganise, and recover remarkably quickly. The weak links in the musculoskeletal system are the joints.

A joint is where two or more bones come together, in such a way as to allow movement. (There are joints between bones such as in the skull or the pelvis that do not allow movement, we can safely ignore them). The ends of the bones have cartilage plates attached to them, that work as Teflon-like anti-friction surfaces. The joint itself is held together by ligaments, which are like elastic bands tying the joint together. Tendons attach muscle to bone, and they are very inelastic, to allow for the efficient transfer of force generated in the muscle to the bone.

These three substances, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons, are collectively known as “soft tissues”, and they are vital to joint health, but because they are quite metabolically inactive, they have very poor blood supplies and so they change very slowly. It takes a matter of days or weeks to get stronger, and a few months to grow muscle. It takes a minimum of 9 months to make significant changes to the soft tissues. You can recover much more quickly from a broken bone than from a torn ligament.

This is why joint care has three main elements:

• Precise exercise: the stress of correct exercise stimulates the tendons to get stronger. Moving correctly puts all the stress on the parts of your body that are built to handle it: bones and muscles.

• Stretching: establishing and maintaining the necessary range of motion allows the joints to move freely, as far as they need to go and no further. Hyper-mobility is a problem for many people, where the joints lack support and can move too far. Learning to locate the stress in the muscles not the joints can be very helpful. Some exercises open up the joints by creating negative pressure, such as when a massage therapist pulls gently on your fingers, or when you relax your back by hanging from a pull-up bar.

• Massage: the purpose of joint massage is to increase blood supply to the soft tissues, to help them heal faster. To a lesser extent we also use it to reduce unnecessary tension in the muscles. We also use breathing exercises, and the application of heat and cold, to affect the blood supply. 

I have an entire training program for joint health, including massage, stretching, and exercises, which you can find free online at guywindsor.net/joints as well as specific training routines at guywindsor.net/conditioning 

So, your challenge this month is: get stronger in August!