Getting fit for WMA (and for life)

I am not the fittest guy in Western Martial Arts – not even in the top half, probably. (Geez, I hope not, or we’re a sorry lot.) But, at other times in my life I have been in pretty good shape – I was into weightlifting 20+ years ago, and trained for and completed a marathon 10+ years ago. At both of those times, I ended up in pretty good shape.  Now I want to improve my fitness as part of trying to be the best martial artist I can be.

To do this, I think I need to define what I mean by ‘fitness’ first. I think that lots of arguments about differing approaches are really fueled by the fact that nobody in the discussion has bothered to define what they are talking about.  My thinking about this, and some of the items on the list below, are inspired in part by an old CrossFit article about the definition of fitness.

Note: I am not using CrossFit at this time, but there is much in that approach that appeals to me. Regardless of how you get there, I think all of the dimensions listed below are important for a Western martial artist:

Endurance. This refers to cardio-vascular capability – aerobic fitness. How long can you train or free-fence before you are winded?

Stamina. This refers to the ability of muscles to sustain activity over time. How long can I hold my sword up in a Destreza right angle? How many times can I execute a cut before my muscles are too tired to do it cleanly?

Strength. This is about the amount of force your muscles can apply. This is one of the easiest things to train, and is often confused for a broader definition of ‘fitness’, but it seems to me to be one of the least important factors for a martial artist (see next item).

Power. This is the connection of strength with speed. It seems to me to be vastly more important than just strength for a martial artist – it’s more important to rapidly apply sufficient force than to slowly apply a greater amount of force. (If I have greater power, and you have greater strength, I’ll hit you hard enough, and I’ll do it before your even-harder blow has time to land.)

Speed. This is how fast you can move. While this seems important, I think quickness might be more important that pure speed (see next item).

Quickness. This is how fast you can accelerate – how long it takes you to get in motion from a state of rest, or how long it takes you to change the direction of motion. Lunges, cuts, parries, footwork – it seems to me that real quickness beats pure speed for these kinds of actions. For example, I think being able to switch rapidly between advances and retreats is more important than just being speedy doing one or the other of these.

Coordination. This is being able to make multiple things happen at once or in close sequence. One example would be moving hands, body, and feet in the correct sequence for a lunge – do it where everything coordinates well and it’s an effective attack, do it slightly out of coordination, and it’s not.

Flexibility. This is having full range of motion in all the ways the body is designed to move. If your wrist doesn’t have full range of motion, you won’t have a fast or effective tramazzone, or if your lower body isn’t bendy enough, you can’t do a deep lunge. This one is also important for avoiding injuries – something near and dear to my heart as I get older. My only fencing injury (so far!) has been throwing out my back pretty seriously after a long session of over-extended lunges. Better flexibility would have helped me avoid that problem in two ways – with greater flexibility, my lunges would have been deeper, so less ‘need’ to over-extend; and with greater flexibility, my body would have recovered better from the damage done by over-extending.

Agility. This is being able to efficiently move the parts of the body. We often use the term “smooth” to describe a particularly agile martial artist. Agility has many benefits – it uses less energy, it provides fewer clues to your opponents about your intentions, and as the old saying goes, “…smooth is fast.”

Balance. This is being able to move without fighting gravity, without wobbling around, without being easy to knock over.

Accuracy. This is being able to precisely execute your intended motions. Can you consistently hit a button with a full-intent lunge? Do your cuts go exactly where you intend them to go?

Control. This is being able to control what you’re doing – not just flailing away. Can you switch from your 1st intention attack to your 2nd intention without pause if the patient responds to your first attack? Once you do a gaining step, can you launch into a left traverse or a retreat, either one at full speed, depending on how your opponent reacted? This should in no way be confused with being tentative – I’m talking about being in control while still performing committed attacks.

Obviously, many of these are connected. If you are not very flexible, you probably won’t be very agile. If you don’t have quickness, you won’t have power. And so on.

But I still find it useful to think about each one of these, and to have the goal of improving my fitness in all of these dimensions. I’m making progress! I still have a long way to go in all of them! I would be very interested in hearing how other martial artists define ‘fitness’, or if they see problems or omissions in the dimensions I list above. (I’m also interested in hearing what non-martial artists think about this, so everybody is invited to leave a comment.)

Dall’Agocchie and me

Recently, I’ve been working on Giovanni Dall’Agocchie’s treatise from 1572, Dell’Arte di Scrimia (The Art of Fencing). I’ve become slightly obsessed with this book, and my main personal martial arts goal at this point is really learning this art.

Dall’Agocchie is part of what is now referred to as “Bolognese Swordsmanship”. There are a small handful of books from the 1500’s, all from the region of Bologna, Italy, all describing a similar, but not identical, martial tradition.

It’s a fun tradition, too. Both cuts and thrusts, designed to work for sport, or battlefield combat, or self-defense, or duels on the field of honor. When I first joined the Sacramento Sword School a few years ago, this was what they were working on, and I was instantly hooked. We’ve mostly moved on as a school to other material, but I’ve tried to do a little work on the Bolognese material here and there ever since then.

In the early Bolognese treatises, the emphasis is on sword-and-buckler, with time spent on several other weapons as well. But unaccompanied sword sometimes seems like an afterthought. In Dall’Agocchie’s treatise, and other late Bolognese-tradition works, the unaccompanied sword is the main weapon.

Score one for me – while off-hand weapons are fun, my main interest is in unaccompanied sword.

Most, if not all, of the Bolognese authors include assaulti, or forms. These are the same idea as kata in Eastern Martial Arts – an assaulti is a pre-defined sequence that the student can use to internalize their art.

Score two for me – built right into the system are fun training sequences that are great for solo practice. I run through Dall’Agochie’s form for unaccompanied sword at the beginning and ending of my daily practice sessions, even when I’m working on something else.

Dell’Arte di Scrimia is written as a dialogue between Dall’Agocchie and his friend, Lepido Ranieri. Unlike some dialogues, they stay pretty much on-topic throughout, so the form of the work doesn’t add much overhead for someone just interested in understanding the content. However, for some reason I can’t explain, I find the dialogue, stiff and formal as it often is, utterly charming.

Score three for me – it’s a rare and wonderful think to have a historical fencing manual describe a cool system and be a joy to read at the same time.

Over time, I will be writing about my process of working through this system, and what I’m discovering along the way.

(Nod to my friend Pete since I’m riffing on his title.)

Chording Exercise

This is a good rhythm guitar exercise – it’s focused on getting you really smooth at changing between different chords. It can also help train your ear – you learn how different chords sound together.

First, create a bunch of flash cards with different chords on them. The more the merrier. Bonus points for not just naming the chords, but for putting the fingering on it – that way you can have the same chord several times, but with different fingerings.

(Click on any of the images to see them much bigger in a new window)

Here’s a pile of these flashcards that I made on the backs of blank matchbooks:
Don't play with matches, kids

Next, dump all the flashcards in a bag or a hat or something:
It's a trilby, not a fedora

Start pulling flashcards out. The first one you pull out goes on the top row, then the rest of them in the row below:
This exercise is not about sounding good

The exercise is to play through these, going from the chord on the top row to the first one in the second row, then back to the top row, then to the second one in the second row, then back to the top row, etc. So, using the layout pictured above, the chord pattern I would play would be:
Cadd9 – E11 – Cadd9 – B7 – Cadd9 – G13#9 – Cadd9 – D7sus4/A – Cadd 9

This may not sound all that fabulous, but after you finish, you will never have trouble going from that Cadd9 chord to any of those other chords.  Eventually, you should be fluid enough that you can flow from any chord to any chord.

As far as the rhythm goes, I’d suggest starting with a very simple pattern – downstrokes quarter notes in 4/4, changing each new measure. Then make your strumming patterns more complex, but never lose the groove. Keep the following in mind as you do this:

  • Timing is everything – use a metronome or a drum machine, and learn to be rocksteady as you go through the changes
  • Focus on making the transitions as smooth as possible
  • Make sure that each note in each chord is clear
  • Don’t speed up until you can do all of the above
  • If you discover some cool chord progression while doing this, write it down and use it in a song!

Bonus points if you record some of these random progressions, and then practice soloing over them. This can help you learn to play over crazy changes, and can also help you find interesting melodic ideas that you might not have found otherwise.  If it sounds terrible, well, do the exercise, then move on with your life.

Two Links Tuesday: Star Wars Reconsidered Edition

Link One: George Lucas’ Big Mistake

Link Two: The Star Wars Saga: Introducing Machete Order

I love Star Wars. A lot. Even the bad movies, like Episode One? Yes, I saw it multiple times on the big screen, then bought it on DVD. And then watched it a few more times. And the ones I actually like I’ve seen even more times.

In spite of all that, I couldn’t agree more with this quote from Link One:

And Yoda, the exemplar of the Jedi philosophy, is wrong about everything.

The reasoning behind that is presented quite well there.

There is a long-running debate among fans regarding viewing order for the saga – should you watch these in order of release, or in order of episode number? Both of these have problems, and Link Two proposes a new viewing order that resolves them quite handily. My wife and I recently went through them in that order, and it’s definitely the way to go. (It leaves Episode 1 out entirely, so that’s a big argument in favor of it right there.)

Three Thoughts: Relax

1) Wait as long as you can to move, then move as fast as you can, making as small a movement as you can.

2) Be relaxed – tense muscles are slow and unagile.

3) Being able to change directions quickly is more important than pure linear speed.

Two Links Tuesday: Out-of-Date Movie Review Edition

Link One: Why ‘Blue Like Jazz’ Won’t Save Christian Cinema

Link Two: Wouldn’t It Be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare?

Link One is a review in The Atlantic of ‘Blue Like Jazz’, and Link Two is a review in the NYT Magazine of ‘Anonymous’. I haven’t seen either of these movies, and while I’d kind of like to see ‘Blue Like Jazz’ (loved the book, but will wait for DVD), I have zero interest in ‘Anonymous’. But I thought both of these reviews were interesting in themselves, and worth reading.

Destreza thrusting forms video

So, here’s a video of me doing a Destreza thrusting form with one of my teachers, Maestro Puck Curtis:

Understand, this is a form, not free-fencing. (It’s a little bit harder for me to hit Puck when it’s not a form.) :) Click here for a description of the form, explaining what is going on here.

And here’s another video, showing Provost Kevin Murakoshi going through the same form with Maestro Curtis:


Alternate Picking Exercise

This is a cool finger exercise for guitarists that helps with alternate picking. Here’s the first part of the pattern in tab:
Remember that slow is smooth

Now, here’s part two, which includes a little bit of string-skipping:
And smooth is fast

A couple of notes to keep in mind:

  • Start the first pattern with an upstroke. As you play each four note sequence, keep the pick between the two strings you’re hitting.
  • Start the second pattern with a downstroke.
  • It’s way way way more important to be smooth, clean, and perfectly timed than it is to go fast. You will get fast eventually, but only go as fast as you can still do it perfectly.
  • The synchronization between your right hand and your left hand is crucial – if they aren’t together as you’re doing this, you’re reinforcing the wrong things. Go slow and get it right.
  • If you have a metronome or a drum machine, use that as you do this exercise. You want to do this as rock steady as possible.
  • Run through this a couple of times a day. Be patient – you’ll get super-fast sooner with patience than with impatience.
  • Finally, please remember that this is an exercise that uses geometric patterns on the fretboard – it is not particularly musical. Do practice this. Don’t put it in your song or your guitar solo – that would sound dumb.

If you have any thoughts about this, please leave a comment – I’d love to know whether this was helpful (or a waste of time). I’m hoping to post more guitar exercises over time.

By the way, the tabs are drawn on the back of giraffe-pattern napkins. I’ll leave you with a shot of the front of the napkin:
Yes indeed.

Three Thoughts: Strength

1) A sword blade is both a lever and a ramp – strong leverage but a bad ramp will quickly turn into weak leverage.

2) If your opponent parries you weakly, stay strong and hit them. If they parry you strongly, yield to their parry and either do a conclusion or hit them with a stramazzone.

3) There are at least three strengths one blade can have against another: using a part of your blade closer to your hilt against a part of their blade closer to the tip (Destreza authors called this “greater degrees of strength”); from above (in Aristotelian terms: natural motion against violent motion), that is to say, pushing down while they are pushing up; and using the true edge instead of the flats or the false edge.