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I Am Weak

I am weak. So I study strength. In martial arts, strength has little to do with the usual measures of muscular performance, and everything to do with grounding, structure, power generation and joint maintenance.

Given my choice of profession my naturally weak skeleton is a blessing. My petite 12 year-old niece has wrists about the same size as mine; I’ve had neck issues since I was 14; and I will generally get injured at the slightest provocation. This means I have always been looking for ways to win fights that did not rely on robustness, and that I have always been working through health issues of my own. So I am able to help my students, most of whom have some kind of physical imperfection. Indeed, about half my time in private lessons is spent fixing postural issues, knee or wrist problems, or similar.

My wrists, for example, have suffered from tendonitis since the early nineties. It got so bad when I was working as a cabinet-maker that I literally had to choose between swinging a sword and working the next day. Then I met a kung-fu instructor who in 20 agonising minutes did what the combined medical profession of Edinburgh had failed to do in 5 years: fix my wrists. The treatment involved massage (the agonising bit), very specific exercises with very light weights, and breathing exercises. I had gone a year without touching a sword, five years without push-ups, then suddenly, my wrists worked again. I can now do push-ups on the backs of my hands. So it is no wonder that I place massage, targeted weight training and breathing exercises at the core of the conditioning syllabus. If your body doesn’t work, you can’t use it. Striking targets, and being one, require that your joints can handle the impact of hitting and being hit.

Simply building up the joints is not enough: we have to minimise the impact they are subjected to. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: when you hit the target, the target hits back. That energy has to go somewhere: if it is not carefully directed, it may very well go into shocking your joints. So it is necessary to establish a safe route for the kinetic energy coming back from the target: it either moves the weapon (not ideal, usually), or is routed down into the ground through the passive structure of your skeleton. This skill can be refined for decades, but I find that even beginners can generate major improvements if we simply create the position of the moment of impact (the lunge, for instance), and apply very gentle pressure in the reciprocal direction to the strike. The student can feel the place where it takes most effort to hold the position (the lead shoulder, for instance), and create a correction to the position that allows the same pressure to be absorbed with less effort. Then we can apply the pressure at the beginning of the movement and establish that the entire movement is properly grounded. (This is much easier with thrusts than cuts, obviously.) Ultimately, we are looking for a structure which does not need to change at all to route the energy: when we add the pressure, there is no need for any kind of muscular reaction, any increase in effort or tension.

This sort of practice leads to all sorts of gains in efficiency: the starting position, the movement, and the end position are all naturally grounded, and so all the muscular effort being made is directly applying force to the strike. Muscles that are not working to hold the position are available for generating power. So, a deeply relaxed guard, and a deeply relaxed movement, allow for massive increases in power generation. We can see hints of this in Fiore's famous elephant: the only one of the four animals depicted standing on a surface (which is square, suggesting stability), the tower on its back indicating that your back should be straight, and balanced.

As the text says:

Ellefante son e un castello porto per chargo/ E non mi inzinochio ne perdo vargo

I am the elephant, and a castle I carry as cargo/ And I do not kneel nor lose my stride

Power is generated by muscular contraction, the difference between the relaxed state of the muscle and the contracted state. It pays to work both ends of the differential. Increasing the raw strength of the muscle is an obvious way to go: creating more efficient positions and movement is less obvious but generates much faster gains because it doesn’t require opening up new nerve channels nor building muscle mass. The stability drill is a good example of this kind of training. Of course, most beginners come to their first class woefully weak and unfit- it is necessary that swordsmen, especially in the early years, develop a decent level of core strength and fitness. This prevents injury, allows sufficient endurance for long-enough training sessions to actually learn the cool stuff, and makes precise postural adjustments much easier. As a basic guideline, if the warm-up shown here feels like a warm-up, not a workout, then you should have the basic strength and fitness level at which the fastest gains come from the kind of grounding training we are looking at here. Note that, compared to the average competitive boxer or wrestler, we are pathetically unfit, but then the sword is a labour-saving device, not an odd-shaped dumbell.

In many students the weak link in the chain between sword-point and ground is their grip on the sword. I don’t think I have ever come across a student in any seminar, regardless of experience, whose grip could not be improved. In most cases, the interface between sword and hand does not allow a clean flow of energy from the blade up the arm. The modern tendency to chunky grips exacerbates this; most antiques I have handled have very slim grips, which when you understand grounding, makes perfect sense. Indeed, after coming to a seminar on this topic, many students end up having their sword grip modified. The human hand is an incredibly complex and sensitive machine- but all too often folk hold onto their swords like they were carrying a suitcase.

I usually demonstrate the proper interface by hitting a tyre with a longsword with both my hands open, and by hitting the wall target with my rapier, again with my hand open. Simple beer-can-crushing grip strength has almost nothing to do with striking power with the sword. The role of the fingers is to direct the energy in the sword into the lifeline of the palm, and thence up the arm.

With thanks to Ville Vartianien on camera, and Janne Högdahl holding the tyre.

Having established a safe and efficient route for the energy to travel down, we can use the same pathway for energy to travel out. With a rapier, for instance, once the lunge position is grounded, we can find the same pathway in the guard position too. Clearly though, while the lunge creates a straight diagonal line from the point of the sword to the ground, in guard that line goes horizontally along the arm, and curves in the upper back to go down through the hips and into the (usually) back leg. If you can feel this line clearly, lunging is simply a matter of taking that curve and snapping it straight. A more sophisticated version of this works for cuts too (with any weapon). It is much easier to maintain the groundpath than to break and reform it in motion, so establish it in guard, and let the strike be a resistance-free extension of it.

As you become more efficient so you hit much harder, so there is more energy coming back down into your body, so you need to improve your grounding, so you can hit harder, so there is more energy coming back, etc. Given that you can break your hand by punching a concrete wall, it is obvious that you can generate far more power than you can withstand the impact of. So gains in power generation come from increases in your ability to handle the power, more than increases in the power itself.

When you practice like this, it swiftly becomes obvious that general carry-a-TV-up-the-stairs real-word strength has little bearing on the outcome of a sword fight, and so it is necessary (because real-world, TV-carrying strength is useful, just not so much in the salle) to do a bunch of not-sword-training to develop it. Push-ups, kettlebells, and the like. This is not to help us hit harder, but more an insurance policy against errors in technique, and for general health and fitness. Likewise, joint strength training and massage should ideally be a matter of maintenance, not cure.

P.S. added Dec 5th 2012: there is a very interesting article the use of strength training in HEMA here, which points out that strength training has added benefits that I have not addressed above.

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