Monthly Archives: October 2012

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.)