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Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Tag: fitness

In “Following my own advice” I described how I try to get something important done every day before checking emails. In that post I rather blithely referred to concentrating on ‘creating assets’, and loosely defined assets as “anything that adds value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.”
I’ve had a lot of interesting feedback on the post, mostly through my mailing list (feel free to join below), and one point that came up more than once is that I didn't define ‘assets’ clearly enough, so I thought I’d go through in detail what I think I should be spending my time on.
You spotted how I carefully did not say “you should be spending your time on”, right? As ever, take my advice with a sceptical mind, and discard anything that doesn’t work for you. One big caveat: being self-employed means I have a dick of a boss who never gives me time off or a raise, but I can choose literally anything to work on. That's both a blessing and a curse.
Here is the Master Asset List, my top three assets, in order of priority.

1) Mental Health
Every experience you will ever have is mediated and experienced by your consciousness. There is no experience so blissful that you can’t be miserable during it, and no experience so awful that bliss is impossible. Perhaps the best single resource on this is Sam Harris’ book Waking Up, closely followed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. The key elements to my mental health are:
1. My relationships (primarily wife and children, other family and close friends, everyone else).
2. Meaningful work. Like writing this blog post. Or the next book. What makes it meaningful for me is its ability to transform other people’s lives for the better.
3. Meditation. I meditate every day, and have been doing so (with more or less regularity) for many years. The last year or so has been especially difficult (see here for an idea why), and one of my coping strategies has been to get a lot stricter about doing my meditation every day. It helps. I’ve written a short guide to getting started if you want to try it out.
4. Fun. Much underrated, but it is critically important to kick back and have fun often. Never underestimate the power of silly.

All the rest of these assets listed below are only relevant or useful because they affect my state of mind. It’s easier to be mentally healthy when you’re physically healthy and not worried about money.

2. Physical Health
“If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” Count Rugen was a villain, but he spoke truth here. Physical health rests on two foundations: what you eat and how you move.

Diet: I’ve written up my approach to diet in lots of places, including here, here, and here; and it can be summed up as:

  • learn to cook
  • avoid sugar
  • eat lots of vegetables
  • pay attention to high quality fats, and
  • fast every now and then.

That's a very big topic dismissed in a few lines, so do check out those links if you're interested.

Exercise: How you move… hmmm, I wonder what kind of exercise a professional swordsman would recommend… ok, start with looking after your joints (here’s a free course on knee maintenance), and carry on by finding any physical activity that you enjoy, and do it regularly. That could be walking the dog, ballet, rock-climbing, trapeze, anything. Some activities are better adapted for long-term health than others, but if health is your priority you can probably avoid most of the damage that might be done during the less conservative activities. I’m a big fan of breathing exercises, as you probably know; they are the foundation of my movement practice, and they are specifically designed and intended for promoting health.
An imperfect plan that you actually follow is way better than a perfect plan that you abandon, so it’s much more important to find something fun that keeps you moving, than it is to find the ‘perfect’ health-giving exercise. Moving your body should not be a chore.

Sleep: The best single source on sleep matters (and sleep does matter!) is Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. In short, the more and better you sleep, the longer you live. Good sleep is really the ultimate time management strategy because it a) buys you more time because you live longer and b) makes your waking hours vastly more productive.  There are so many factors affecting sleep that it would take a whole book to go into them (like Dr. Walker’s!), but I’ll summarise the main things that have helped me:

  • Avoid caffeine for at least 12 hours before bedtime. Yes, 12 hours. I only drink coffee at breakfast. Caffeine kills deep sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, or at least get it all out of your system before bed. Alcohol kills REM sleep.
  • Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Stop eating at least 3 hours before bed. A full stomach affects sleep quality.
  • Nap, but not too long or too late. eg 30-60 minutes at 2pm.
  • All screens off at least an hour before bed, and screens after 8pm are set to ‘Night Mode’, cutting down on blue light.

I could go on, but you get the picture. As with everything, experiment to see what works for you. I track sleep with the OURA ring, but you can use other tools, or just notice how you feel in the morning. Top tip: if you need an alarm to wake up, you haven’t slept enough.

 

3. Money
Once your mental and physical health are being attended to, then the next big thing is money. Money worries are truly toxic to your mental health, and can poison every aspect of your life. Think of those bankers jumping out of windows during the Great Depression, all because some numbers on a bit of paper were not the way they wanted them. Weird, huh? But real. Just choosing not to worry is an option, of course, but it's much easier for most people to actually do something to reduce expenditure and increase income. Incidentally, my favourite money blog is Mr Money Moustache. He's refreshingly unapologetic.
I should point out that I am by no means rich- I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of months since I became an adult in which I had enough cash in the bank to cover the next month’s bills in advance. This is because I have always, always, put time-rich ahead of money-rich, on the grounds that you can always make more money but when time is spent, it’s gone for good. My first salary as a cabinet maker was £6000 per year. I learned fast enough to double that in two years. Woohoo! And swordsmen these days don’t make much cash either.
In Finland, people’s tax returns are actually in the public domain- you can literally walk into the tax office and for a small fee get a copy of anybody’s. Let me save you the bother: here’s mine from last year in case you’re interested.
But, and here’s the big BUT. Since the beginning of 2015, I’ve been effectively living off passive income. My books and other assets generate about enough money to live on, month by month. People buy my books and courses while I’m asleep. And, given that I’ve never made a lot of money, I’ve never become addicted to a large and regular income, so it took relatively little time or effort to get to the point where my assets were generating enough income to cover all normal expenses. This means that I am now much freer to choose the things I spend my time on. Like taking all day Wednesday off this week because it's my daughter's birthday and she has stuff planned from dawn 'till dusk.

In short, my work priorities are:

  1. do I think it's important, in terms of serving the art?
  2. will it be good for my reputation?
  3. will it force me to acquire new skills?
  4. will it produce passive income?
  5. is it scalable?

Let's take those one at a time:

1. Serving the art: In my experience, every single time I've tried to be ‘businesslike' and put what should be a sensible business move in place it's gone horribly wrong. But when contemplating a course of action if I can look into my heart and say ‘yes, this will serve the art', then it's always turned out ok (even if it hasn't made any money).

2. Reputation: Not every asset generates income: some generate opportunity. When The Swordsman's Companion was published in 2004, it made me no money at all (there’s a story there, but after suing the publisher, part of the settlement included a mutual non-defamation agreement. Make of that what you will). But that book put me on the map as an instructor. I suddenly started getting invited to events to teach, which massively broadened my horizons. Students from all over the world started to get in touch, having heard of me because they found my book in a bookshop somewhere. My Singapore branch came into being because Chris Blakey and Greg Galistan stumbled upon my book in the Borders Bookshop there. And when the rights reverted to me in 2012, I self-published it, and now it pays the mortgage.

3. Acquire skills: Time spent working on skills is never wasted, especially skills that you learn for their own sake rather than for a specific objective. Because whatever skill you are learning, you are simultaneously learning how to learn, and, more importantly, if you’re learning for its own sake you are putting process over outcome. Let’s say I learned to speak German because I wanted a job in Germany. If I learned German but didn’t get the job, the time would have been wasted, and I wouldn’t take full advantage of being able to talk to Germans in their own language, to read German books and watch German films. But if I learned German for its own sake, and it happened to lead to a job, well that’s a bonus.
A skill become an asset when they add value to your life. I really cannot think of a single skill I’ve ever regretted learning. And I can think of several that I learned ‘just because’, that then turned out to be professionally useful. Martial arts being the obvious example- I didn’t even think of turning professional until 2000, and I had about 15 years of training under my belt by then!

4. Passive income: There is nothing wrong with being paid for your time. And nothing wrong with being productive. But even in the classic model of employment, you’re supposed to retire at some point and live off your pension. Your pension is created by investments that pay you a passive income. This is how people in professions like dentistry can end up retiring in comfort- they make a good income per hour, being paid by the hour, but use a big chunk of that active income to buy assets (such as stocks and funds) that produce a passive income.
A passive income is defined as income that requires no work on your part whatsoever. If you are packing and shipping your own books, that’s not passive income. If you have to be in a specific place, or awake at a specific time to get paid, that’s not passive income. When I am faced with a choice between producing something I can get paid once for (a woodworking commission, a writing commission, private lessons, seminars etc), or producing something that will generate a passive income stream, even a small one, then I will tend to choose the latter.
Perhaps the most outrageous examples of this choice comes from the original Star Wars movie. Carrie Fisher sold her image rights outright for a sizeable chunk of money. Over a thousand dollars, I think, way back in the 70s when that was worth something. Alec Guinness got paid royalties. Guess which one did better? There was a lot of luck involved, but if you don’t have passive-income producing assets that might go all Harry Potter on you, then it cannot ever happen.
Let’s put some numbers on this. The Swordsman's Companion makes about 10,000 dollars a year in income for me (it’s my best-selling book by a margin!). To generate similar returns, I would need at least 200k in traditional assets. Here’s an article on how that would work. If anyone wanted to buy that book off me outright, I’d therefore ask for at least 200k. Nobody in their right mind would offer me that much, so the book stays with me. Folk might stop buying it tomorrow. But folk might still be buying it in 50 years time. There is no way to know, and that is true of any asset. Stock markets crash like Italian drivers. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe investment- even cash loses value over time. My mother in law saved for a pension for 30 years- and just before she was due to retire, the fund (Eagle Star) crashed and she lost the lot. Nothing is safe, so the only sane course is diversification, which is why you can buy my books on any platform, in any format- so long as people still want to read about how to train with swords, they will be able to buy my books on the subject.

5. Scalable: A scalable asset is one which you create once, and can sell an infinite number of times. I have spent most of my working life producing non-scalable assets. Back when I was a cabinet maker, I would work for hours and hours on a piece of furniture, which was then sold. As a martial arts teacher, I would teach a class, which existed only in that moment. I got paid for that moment, but that was it. There is nothing wrong with this model if you have the energy to work full time forever, and never get sick. A non-scalable asset might produce passive income, but you can still only sell it once. A house that you rent out is a good example. It can be an excellent passive income stream, but you can only rent the house out to one tenant or group of tenants at a time.
A book is scalable- you write it once, and when it’s published people can buy as many copies of it as they want. You don’t have to write each reader a new book. An online course is scalable too; create it once, sell it as many times as you like.

Ideally, my most productive time is spent serving the art, building my reputation, learning skills, and producing scalable assets that produce passive income.

So, that's how prioritise my time; how do you prioritise yours?

This will be my last post this year, so let me close by wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a happy, mentally, physically and financially healthy New Year!

“If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything!”

Truer words were never spoken, certainly not by Count Rugen anyway.*

Way back in the dawn of time when I began training martial arts, I was enraptured by the idea of martial arts training being a balance between breaking people and fixing them, by the notion of the martial artist as a healer as well as a warrior. This is one of the reasons I was drawn to T’ai Chi; it is usually associated with healthy practice. And it’s why I was so taken by Tai Shin Mun kung fu (you can read more about that here). I literally owe my career to the not-so-tender ministrations of their instructor, Num, who fixed my wrists for me back in 2000.

This is the background behind my obsession with mechanics and correct movement. Not so much for martial efficiency, though it certainly does that, but more because I want to be able to train until I die (sometime in my early 100s). I am blessed with a crap skeleton, which creaks and breaks and sends lances of agony up my spine if I fail to keep up my practice, or if I practice just a little bit wrong. Blessed because it has forced me to learn absolutely correct movement, which has in turn allowed me to share that knowledge with my students, freeing many of them from long-term pain, and undoing, or at least halting, the damage caused by poor mechanics.

I cannot abide the idea of anyone who needs this knowledge not having free access to it, certainly not for such a poor reason as lack of funds, so I have extracted the essentials from my footwork course, shot some extra footage, and put together a short ‘keep my knees working forever’ course. The course is 100% free and without strings attached. I want you to be healthy. Go, be healthy.

http://swordschool.teachable.com/p/free-course-knee-maintenance

I am also planning a weapons-handling course, which will include forearm conditioning and maintenance. I’ll release the essential health component of that course free too, so you can keep your arms working properly despite the depredations of computers and couches.

It was my birthday yesterday, and I intended to launch this then (I approve of the Hobbit custom of giving presents on your birthday), but I was sadly too busy opening presents, drinking wine, and generally having fun, so it's an early Christmas present instead.

*if you don't know who Count Rugen is, you very badly need to drop what you're doing and watch the Princess Bride. See here:

 

SQG7 Breathing Cover

Everybody breathes, but some do it better than others. Breathing training is the foundation of my martial practice, and as with everything else I do, I'm happy to teach it to you. The topic for the latest instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide  was chosen by my student Cecilia Äijälä, and she picked Breathing Training. I was delighted when she did so, because it forced me to get on and write up my training methods.

This book comes in three packages:

1.The Book, with Video

This package includes:

  • the book in epub, pdf and kindle format with links to the videos,
  • plus a separate download of all the video clips to teach you the exercises,
  • plus an embedded epub with the video clips built in.
  • It also includes a £10 discount voucher for the course.


I want this book

2.The Book with Audio and Video

This package includes:

  • the book in epub, pdf and kindle format with links to the videos,
  • plus a separate download of all the video clips to teach you the exercises,
  • plus an embedded epub with the video clips built in,
  • plus the audiobook,
  • plus mp3 recordings of the instructions for the individual exercises,
  • plus two bonus exercises (video).
  • It also includes a £25 discount voucher for the course.


I want this one!

3. The Breathing Course

The course is a carefully designed progression of exercises, spread out over six weeks (you can pace it as you wish, and do it faster or slower). Each week begins with a lesson, in which you will learn the exercises for the week. The week then continues with a shorter practice session, which you repeat ideally every day for the next six days. In the final week, you will learn how to create 5 minute, ten minute, and twenty minute practice routines, so that you will always be able to find time to do some practice.

The course material  includes everything in the other two packages, so all of the book, audio, and video files. The course is available now, but the lesson and practice routine videos are not completed yet. Week one is ready, and all of the book with all of its audio and video material too. Weeks 2-4 have been shot, and I'm editing them right now. The rest of the course material will be uploaded by October 1st.

http://swordschool.teachable.com/courses/breathing-basics

I released this to my email list yesterday (they get just about everything first!) with a healthy 50% discount. If you would like the same treatment, you can sign up to my list below, and I'll send you the same discount links. These links expire on Friday 9th September, so if you're interested, now's your best chance to save a packet.

 

Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of my School. I date it to the first demonstration and class I gave in a small room in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on March 17th 2001. While going through the accumulated paperwork of the last 18 years or so, recycling most of it, scanning and shredding some of it, and keeping only the very few bits of paper that have value as artefacts in their own right (my eldest daughter’s first signature, for example), I came across this:

This is (I’m pretty sure), my green belt certificate. It’s dated July 3rd 1987, and I’d been doing karate for three school terms at that point. So this year marks my 30th year since beginning to walk the path. In that time I have dabbled in many arts, and trained relatively seriously in a few, and gone deep into a very few. I’ve liked at least something about every art I’ve practiced, and I’ve had issues with at least something in every art too. Here follow my top five martial arts, in reverse order:

5. Shooting

Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!

Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!

This trumps all other arts. A person with a few hours training and a handgun can take out just about any martial artist on the planet- unless they have also trained with and against guns. One of the major attractions of moving to Finland was that I would be able to take up shooting, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve handled lots of different firearms, and can use a pistol tolerably well. So why only #5? Because to me it  feels like a fun activity, and a practical skill, but it doesn’t feel like martial arts. Which is nonsense, of course, but there you have it. Also, in most civilized countries, carrying a gun is seriously illegal so it’s not actually as practical as it seems. Draw a gun in self defence in Finland, the UK, Italy, anywhere really outside the US, and you’re going to jail. If you don’t understand why I don’t support the notion of the right to bear arms, then read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. But this is not the place to go into it: some of my best friends do open-carry.

4. Tai Shin Mun kung fu.

When I moved to Finland, one of my closest friends (whom I actually met in a gun club, and who gave me my first proper shooting lesson) was teaching this very traditional martial art here in Helsinki. I have always believed that martial arts should include the health and medicinal side, and this was the first time I came across an art that explicitly included massage, breathing exercises, and herbal medicine as part of its core curriculum. In 1999 I had been intermittently incapacitated by tendonitis in my wrist and forearms, thanks to my cabinet-making job. That same year Num took me to his training hall and showed me some things, and I mentioned the problem. In 20 horrendous minutes he did what the doctors of Edinburgh had failed to do, and cured my tendonitis. He also gave me a set of exercises and taught me how to massage my arms, and lo! I have been able to keep the demon at bay ever since. This literally made my career in the Art of Arms possible. When I moved to Helsinki in 2001, Num and I trained together Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 7 to 9 or 10, six months of the year (he was in Asia training the other six). The Crane, and the Breathing Form that are in our Syllabus come directly from there, as does some of the massage and conditioning exercises (like the push-up-twisting-squat-jump-burpee). So why isn’t it #1? Because, being a traditional Chinese art, it came with a lot of traditional Chinese cultural baggage, including a kind of god-worship of the grandmaster, a very set hierarchy, and did not seem to encourage the actual personal growth of the students.

3. Aikido

I took up Aikido the instant it became available to me, in the summer term of 1994. Rod Biddle, who had trained in Honbu dojo, was doing a degree at Edinburgh, and started a class at 8am on Wednesday mornings. At this time, I would normally set my alarm to wake up in time for Neighbours (an Australian soap opera) at 1.30pm. So getting up at 7am was a serious matter. But I loved it. It was super-quiet; no talking at all, no explanation, Rod just showed us the move, murmured its name, and we would practice it. This went on for a few months, but the class petered out because not enough people wanted to practice at 8am on a Wednesday. Fools. I took up Aikido in Helsinki that same September, and trained a couple of times a week while I was here as an exchange student. It was lovely, but not the same as our quiet morning training. So I didn’t keep it up in Edinburgh, but on moving back here, the legendary H.P. Virkki came and watched one of my classes, introduced himself, and we trained every now and then, him throwing me around, me teaching him some swordsmanship. But when that came to a natural end, I let Aikido go altogether. Still, though, my absolute top favourite unarmed sparring session ever was with Jim Alvarez, an Aikido teacher in California, when we met for the second time at the Dallas WMAW event in 2006. Oh my, that was fun.

But Aikido suffers widely from the fact that most of its practitioners don’t seem to know what it is actually for. It was founded as a misogi (cleansing) practice, an entirely spiritual pursuit. Which is why most aikidoka I’ve met can’t handle a jab or a kick to the nuts. It does produce some astonishingly good fighters, but that’s not actually its purpose. Don’t argue with me on this, go read the outstanding Hiding in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur.

If I trained just for fun, it would probably be Aikido.

2. T’ai Chi Chuan

When I arrived at Edinburgh in September 1992, I went to the Fresher’s fair, walked past all the stalls until I found the T’ai Chi club, and asked where do I sign.

“Oh, T’ai Chi is an ancient martial art…”

“No, where do I sign. I’ve been wanting to do this since I can remember”

“We do a lot of forms …”

“Goddam it, where do I sign???”

Something about T’ai Chi has always drawn me; the gentle, flowing motions, the long-term view, it’s just beautiful. And, quite frankly, it is the single most vicious and direct way of hurting people you don’t like I’ve ever seen. That may sound odd, but it’s true. The form is not a set of techniques strung together, unlike most other martial arts forms. It’s the physical embodiment of a set of principles and a way of moving. We did the Cheng Man-ching short Yang form, and my teacher, Steve Fox, taught every step of the form bit by bit, getting us to test why, for example, at this point we turn the foot, or here we tuck the tailbone. Literally every movement was tested against gentle pressure, and that training formed the foundation of how I teach all martial arts. The advanced class trained at 6pm, the beginners at 7pm, so after the first week I started showing up at 5.45, and watching the advanced class. After a couple of weeks, maybe a month, Steve gestured me over and said “join in”. So I did. It’s been twenty years since I last had a lesson, but I still practice the form every now and then to keep it available.

In my first year at Edinburgh my average week looked like this: Monday night: fencing. Tuesday night: T’ai Chi. Wednesday night: fencing. Thursday night: T’ai Chi. Friday night: kobudo (Japanese weapons stuff. Get me started talking on that one day. It was great fun, with blistered bleeding hands). Saturday afternoon: karate (I joined the karate club to carry on where I’d left off after Prep school). Sunday afternoons: if there were no extra classes scheduled, or tournaments to attend, or the termly T’ai Chi weekend seminar, then nothing. I have really no idea how I ever got through my end of year exams.

I guess the only reason that T’ai Chi didn’t become my core art was that the sword stuff is just not very good if you compare it to…

1. Historical European Martial Arts

You guessed that it was coming, right?

I’m not going to kick off an internet cat-fight about which master, style, source or system is best. But what we have going for us is beyond anything any other martial art can touch. Because we can learn from any tradition, but are not tied to a single one. We can experiment with group and school structures to our heart’s content. We have the best swords on the planet, and the best armour too. No metallurgist or engineer would disagree with that. We have a gigantic library of sources, and an emerging academic and practical approach to them. We have forms and tournaments, test cutting and bag punching, sharp swords, blunt swords, big swords, small swords, long swords, short swords, knives, daggers, improvised weapons, concealed weapons, longbows, crossbows, and even cannon.

I got into historical swordsmanship when I met a beginner fencer at a tournament in 1993, and we both bemoaned how unrealistic fencing was. We were looking for “real swordfighting”. Almost by accident, we set out to create it, beginning with my grandfather’s first edition of The Sword and the Centuries and working from there. By the beginning of 1994 we were actively seeking out more people to fight with us, and in June we founded the Dawn Duellist’s Society together. It’s still going today.

That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.

That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.

Of course, the lack of an established tradition does lead to a lot of posturing, vanity, foolish claims, errors, accidents, and that’s just me. Lots of others fall into the same bear pits every now and then. Because we can’t just ask the grandmaster, we get into foolish arguments and forget our common purpose. Which is very natural and human, but a shame nonetheless. There is also absolutely nothing preventing crooks and charlatans from taking advantage of gullible students, but every martial art has that problem.

But (this is the real reason why this is my core art) just about anybody, starting right now, could plausibly make a real and long-term contribution to the art itself, in a way that is just not possible for 99.999% of practitioners of established tradition or sport based arts. In T’ai Chi, for example, the best contribution I could make would be to become a really good teacher and train a lot of high level students and future teachers. I could help spread and maintain the art. But I couldn’t add another step to the form, or rewrite the sword syllabus, or do anything that would materially change the art for the better. Besides, I don’t want to follow someone else’s path. I want to blaze my own. And in HEMA, that’s not just possible, it’s normal. There are hundreds and hundreds of people now who are researching and developing the art itself, and therefore can reasonably expect to add to the sum of human knowledge. I just don’t see that in any other art. So that’s why it’s number one.

So, what are your favourite martial arts, and why?

Everybody gets sick or injured every now and then, and I’ve had a pretty rough winter so far in that regard which has got me thinking about how I train when sick. In this post I’ll lay out my general principles for dealing with the problem and let me apologise in advance if it ever comes across as me whining about the flu. I really don’t mind getting ill, and I’m generally very lucky with my health.

Let’s start with the overarching principle: health comes first. This is directly drawn from one of my Seven Principles of Mastery: “no injuries”. If training makes you worse, don’t do it! (You’d be amazed how often that rule is broken by people who should know better.) I train for the long-term benefits, not for the short-term buzz.

Injuries

With injuries, the trick is to modify your training to encourage recovery. My latest injury, just before Christmas (of course!) was yet another round of problems with my thoracic and cervical spine; every time I pressed even a small kettlebell above my shoulder, the right side of my neck would seize up in agony. No fun. So I went to the physio, and together we worked out a series of mobility and stability exercises that should restore mobility to the stuck bits, and restore stability to the hyper-mobile bits, and after three weeks of not being able to lift so much as a tennis ball over my head, I was back in business. So I immediately starting hoisting my biggest bell over my head, and the problem came right back. Or, that’s what I would have done when I was younger and stupider. Instead, I stalked my strength like it was a skittish colt. I very, very gently made sure that the full range of the motion was available, then slowly, slowly, added weight back on, all the while paying attention to keeping up the exercises that had restored the movement. The slightest twinge, and I’d stop. Now, three goddam months later, I’m back where I was three months ago.

But if I’d rushed it, I’d still be injured.

For impact injuries and soft-tissue injuries, the goal is the same but you need to pay attention to the difference between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’; good pain you ignore; bad pain, indicating that the injury is being aggravated, you avoid.

The mnemonic I use here is “fuck it, but don’t poke the bear”. Specific neurological pain (such as my neck issue), or pain that indicates an injury is getting worse, is like a sleeping grizzly: the goal is to keep it asleep until it dies of starvation. But all the rest? Fuck it.

Sickness

So what about sickness? I have a very strong sense of the difference between a “walking cold” and a “systemic cold”. A walking cold is one with local symptoms; I might cough, or have a sore throat, or a headache, or whatever else, but the rest of me is basically ok. A systemic cold is when I can’t distinguish the boundaries of the illness, my whole body feel wretched. My goal with a walking cold is to prevent it becoming systemic. Here the principle I follow, along the lines of “no injuries”, is to pay close attention to how I feel right after doing any particular activity. Energy up is good, energy down is bad. “Avoid fatigue” might be another way to put it. So a little light stretching to preserve range of movement, leaving me feeling a bit better is ok; but if doing a push-up makes me feel tired, I’ll stop doing push-ups.

You read that right. Yes, there are times when I stop doing push-ups. Rare, but it does happen.

My first indication that my bout with tag-teaming viruses this winter was something I should pay attention to was when my cold shower in the morning left me feeling chilled to the bone, not invigorated. And yes, I did stop doing them, and gently worked my way back to them.

I’ve noticed that when my system is under attack from some horrid virus I do best by avoiding anything that elevates my heart rate more than a few extra beats per minute. So I might do one light lift, and stop. Swing a sword for a minute or so, and stop. Over the last few months when I’ve been hit by virus after virus (I’ve not been 100% well a single day since Christmas), I haven’t touched the deadlift bar. But I’ve been practising my deadlifts for a couple of minutes about three times a week, using just a stick. So the technique and range of motion is there, and, just last Friday, started back by picking up about half the weight I maxed out on last time I did them properly (before Christmas). Don’t poke the bear.

Most of the time, when I’m ill, it’s a walking cold; I can move around a bit, do light stuff, and not get sicker. But when or if it goes systemic, I have to be super-careful, and usually I don’t train at all, just the very lightest of moving about so my spine won’t seize up completely. Specific symptoms respond differently to different exercises. For example, I had a really bad cough for about three weeks in February; during that time, my Wim Hof breathing had to stop because it made me cough. But I could manage the Crane ok. When the cough morphed into a sinus nastiness, the kind where your entire skull becomes completely filled with nothing but snot, Wim Hof breathing was ok and so were some light kettlebells, but some of my meditation practices brought on bad headaches so I cut them out.

The last time I was at WMAW, in 2013, I had a bad walking cold; I was sick as a dog, coughing and feeling like shit, but I could move around. I had travelled all the way to America to fence with my peers. But I didn’t have a single bout with anyone, because I could feel it might trigger the walking cold to become systemic. That’s how seriously I take this.

Health comes first. As Count Rugen says to Prince Humperdinck, “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything”.

And if you don't know who they are, start here.

You can't eat too many vegetables...
You can't eat too many vegetables…

I am not a doctor. And even if I was, I’m not your doctor. If you have any kind of medical issue, don’t get your info from the internet, still less from swordsmanship instructors. Do some research, then go talk to your doctor. Clear?

I dropped 10kg from round my waist, almost by accident. Here’s what happened. I’ll go back to the very beginning, so you can see the process.

In the beginning:
In the late nineties, the metabolism I inherited from my father started to kick in, and without my really noticing it, I had to let my belt out, notch by notch. I got this belt from my sister when I was 21, so I’ve had it round my waist for about half my life. It tells a sorry tale…

 

See the grooves?
See the grooves?

Back when I was 21, I wore this belt on its fourth or fifth notch from the end. By the middle of 2000, it was on the third. Then, after coming down from the mountain and deciding to open my school, I started training at dawn every day, on the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh (I do love my traditional martial arts training tropes). In about three weeks, I lost 7kg (15 lb), from round my waist. 3 weeks later, the weight was back, but round my shoulders. I had to get a new jacket because my old one was suddenly too tight. I was 26, with all the metabolic advantages that gives.

When I got to Finland in 2001, what with the stress of starting the school, and lots and lots of training, I ate what I wanted and stayed skinny. On a normal day, I was training for two or three hours and teaching for two or three. I had to eat every three hours or so, or Hungry Guy would appear and make everyone’s life miserable. The closest I have come to murder was probably when I hadn’t eaten for four hours, went to a Thai restaurant for an emergency feed, and the waiter seemed to dilly dally about getting the food on the table.

I (mis)diagnosed the problem as too-low body weight. I was about 73kg at that point. I ate like crazy to try to put the weight on, but was too stressed and training too much to gain an ounce. Then I met Michaela in 2005, and chilled the fuck out. One of the ways I knew she was the One was that within a few months of meeting her, I’d put on the 4kg (9lb) I was looking for. That did help with Hungry Guy, but only up to a point. I still needed to eat every four hours or so. At this point, my weight was up to 77kg, so I instituted a rule: if my weight got up to 80kg, I’d cut out sugar and alcohol until it was back below 78. Then I could eat what I want. This very often (maybe 5 times a week) included an entire 200g bar of chocolate after dinner, ‘shared’ with Michaela (she’d get maybe one row, so, an eighth of it).

What with one thing and another, by April 2014 I was seriously considering adjusting the rule to anything below 80kg is fine, over 82 cut out sugar and alcohol. (Self-indulgent bullshit is a specialty of mine.) I was at 83kg, and my belt was on the penultimate notch. As you can see, it still has the deepest groove; it had been there for a long time. I had already read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, so I should have known better. But sugar, oh, sugar; sweet heaven.

The Slow Carb diet

Then, on a flight to Melbourne, I read Tim Ferriss’s The Four Hour Body. It was the final straw. There was just no way I could justify the level of sugar I was eating, especially given my family history of high blood pressure, my father’s serious weight problem, and everything I had ever read on the topic of metabolism, nutrition (not counting the junk science rubbish that occasionally made it onto my reading list; I highly recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre to help you distinguish the good from the bad), health and longevity.

When I got to Australia, I decided to try the Slow Carb diet. Let me summarise it for you.
1) No fast carbs; no sugar, no starch. No potatoes, no rice, no bread, no biscuits, no pasta, no white food except cauliflower, in other words.
2) Eat the same few meals; perhaps half a dozen different dishes.
3) Don’t drink calories. Avoid alcohol, sweet drinks (especially sodas, obviously, but less obviously also fruit juice).
4) Cheat one day a week. On that day, eat and drink whatever you like, as much as you like. But just one day a week.
You can see the blog post that started it all here.

If you think about it, rule 3 is really just the same as rule 1, and rule 2 is a bit boring, and rule 4 should be optional. What I ended up doing is basically just rule 1, and I was reasonably strict about it.

On the day I arrived in Australia, jetlagged to hell, and about to teach a 4 day intensive seminar, my metabolism was still demanding to eat every 3-4 hours. So obviously, I never went anywhere without back-up chocolate. I arrived on Friday morning and started Slow-carb right away, and taught Saturday-Tuesday, five or six hours a day. Up until this point there was no way I could get through a 6 hour seminar without a sugar hit in the afternoon. I’d crash about 3pm, sugar-up to get me through to the end, then need dinner, large and fast.

On the Monday, after teaching for three days straight, I was digging through my bag for something, and found my chocolate stash. In three days of teaching, in the most energy-demanding situation (jet-lag, long days), I had forgotten to eat in the afternoons. I was astonished.

This was because I was not spiking my blood sugar at any point, and so was not crashing. Cutting out starch and sugar proved to be a complete game-changer, because it evened out my energy demands. Please note though that I was not cutting out carbs, only fast carbs. I was still eating about eight tons of vegetables every day, and a lot of meat (the food in Australia is superb!).

Slow Carb, Low Carb, and Ketogenic: 
Let's take a moment to define a few things:
1) Slow Carb v. Low Carb. They are very different. A classic low-carb diet gives you most of your calories from fat and protein. A slow carb diet gives you a lot of carbohydrates, but all with a low glycaeimic index, so you avoid the blood-sugar spike. I think any diet that tells you to steer clear of vegetables is fundamentally dangerous.
2) Ketogenic versus Low Carb. A ketogenic diet, as the name suggests, is a diet that keeps your body running on fat. It is very high fat, and obviously restricts carbs, but it also restricts protein. This is because protein is easily broken down into glucose, and so your body will switch back to a glucose based energy delivery system, rather than stay in a fat based energy delivery system (a state called ketosis). Ketogenic diets are mostly used medicinally to treat children that have drug-resistant seizures. I personally would not recommend long-term ketosis, because it is very hard to do in the modern world, and there is no evidence that any human population has ever subsisted long-term on a ketogenic diet (the Inuit may be an exception, but probably not). Ketogenic diets should be further subdivided into calorie-restricted (less than 1000 per day) and unrestricted. The best-known proponents of the unrestricted ketosis diet are Dom D’Agostino and Peter Attia (both medical doctors). Their podcasts and websites are well worth a listen/look.

Bye-bye Hungry Guy
What I was doing in Australia was a not-terribly-strict Slow Carb diet; after class, at dinner, I quite often wolfed down a bunch of fast carbs in the form of beer, and chips with my steak, that sort of thing. But breakfast and lunch were fast-carb-free. The difference in my energy levels was enough to sell me on the idea. But when I got home less than three weeks later and trod on the scales, I got a shock. I was down from 83 to 74kg, and had not once, even once, gone hungry. I ate like a pig, just not starch or sugar. I was so pleased with the results I decided to keep it up. I now hover around the 72-73kg mark.

Most incredibly, Hungry Guy has disappeared. To test this, in September 2014 I decided to see what would happen if I missed a meal or two. I had lunch on Monday at about 1pm, taught class on Monday night, ate nothing when I got home, had one cup of coffee instead of breakfast on Tuesday, missed lunch, and ate dinner with the kids at 6pm. So, about 29 hours of not eating anything. And I was completely fine. Not even that hungry. Certainly no dizziness, or feeling of weakness. Nothing associated with low blood sugar problems. It's also why I wrote “avoid sugar” as one of my top 3 stay-sane-and-healthy tips for modern living.

Fasting
This has lead me to do some further research on fasting; it comes in all shapes and sizes. The simplest is just don’t eat for a while. I would not try that without preparation, if I were you. The health benefits of at least occasional ketosis are well-documented; I think of it as a metabolic spring-clean. But you can fast for a couple of days and not get into ketosis because your body breaks down your muscles to produce glucose. So if you don’t want to a) feel too hungry and b) lose muscle mass, it’s a very good idea to get into ketosis before you fast. Here’s how.

1) Be very strict about fast carbs for a week or two. This gets you off any sugar-high rollercoaster. When you fast your blood sugar will probably fall a bit, so make sure that it’s not a dramatic drop.
2) Follow a ketogenic diet for a couple of days. Use pee-sticks to make sure it’s working. Not everyone can handle a ketogenic diet, so if it makes you feel ill, stop. Try step 3 instead.
3) You can dose yourself with exogenous ketones to speed up the process of switching over. Exogenous ketones or ketogenic foods that I have used successfully (as measured by pee-sticks) include medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and raspberry ketones. When your pee-sticks tell you you are in a moderate state of ketosis, such as about 2-3 mmol/L, then stop eating. See how 24 hours feels. If you get really hungry, or dizzy, or your blood pressure drops, or anything like that, then BREAK YOUR FAST. With breakfast, obviously. But unless there are some odd medical issues, 24 hours should be no big deal. Just remember to drink plenty of water. Tea and coffee are also ok.

Just to test this, last Thursday I skipped breakfast, and ate lunch at about 2pm. At 11am I had a ketone level at or close to 0. Lunch was a small salad, with a tin of smoked mackerel in oil, and two teaspoons of MCT oil, and a splash of olive oil. I also took 2 125mg capsules of rasperry ketones (Hi-tech Pharmaceuticals brand) and a 6.33g dose of BCAA's (USPlabs “ModernBCAA+” brand). At 4pm my peesticks told me that I was in ketosis at a level of 4mmol/L. Easy enough!

I am currently about 73kg, stronger than I was in April 2014, and my belt is wearing a new groove at notch 5. If I fasten it at the deeply-worn second notch, there is enough room under my belt now for two bottles of wine.

current notchwine carrying

Further thoughts on fasting:

1) I got all of my weight-loss done without fasting. It’s not necessary for that purpose, but there is a ton of evidence to suggest that it is good for you to fast occasionally. Here are a couple of articles on it: one very pro: Mercola  and one from the UK National Health Service, specifically about 5:2 intermittent fasting, which I don't do, which is more measured: NHS.)Whether the benefits come from being in ketosis (which can be achieved without fasting), or from the short-term calorie restriction, or some other mechanism, is not clear yet. But it is abundantly clear that throughout human history, we have had to be able to function for short periods without food, and indeed many traditional cultures (including Christianity’s Lent and Islam’s Ramadan) incorporate longer fasts into their yearly calendar.

2) There is nothing inherently virtuous in not eating. It’s just a training tool, like push-ups and meditation. Do it because it generates specific benefits.

3) Don’t overdo it. Fasting gets much easier with practice. These days, I routinely fast for 24 hours with no preparation, about once a week. It does wonders for re-setting my metabolism. After Christmas I was so full I didn’t eat for 48 hours. No biggy. I’m planning a 5 day fast for later in the year; it takes planning because eating meals with the children is a big part of family life. If you don’t have kids, then it’s probably much easier.

5) For me, the point of fasting is to reap the metabolic benefits and to test that my diet allows me to be free of the need to eat for 24 hours or so. I never feel deprived when fasting, so I don’t feel any need to ‘make up for it’ with a stupid blow-out. I do stupid blow-outs every now and then just because I like them, and because my habits seem to be good, I can get away with the occasional splurge.

6) I think that as a martial artist I just jolly well ought to be able to work fine without food for a short time. Not eat for a day or two, and still fight. In feels simply unmartial to me to be slavishly dependent on a totally reliable food source for my effectiveness. An army marches on its stomach, yes. But I don't think there has ever been an army in combat that didn't go hungry at least occasionally.

Some further thoughts:
If you are trying to control your weight, try changing one thing a time. The first big thing I would is add vegetables. A decent serving of green vegetables at every meal will do wonders all by itself to make up for any dietary deficiencies, and fill you up a bit, which will reduce the amount of other stuff you eat. Also, the fibre in the vegetables will slow down sugar absorption, at least up to a point.

Then, the next thing to try is to cut out fast carbs. Cheat once a week if you must, but make sure you are always eating lots and lots of vegetables, and some decent high-quality fat. So fry your vegetables in organic butter 🙂 If this is too hard, then do it for just one meal a day, ideally breakfast.

The scales are a very blunt instrument. You might drop a bunch of weight, and actually be getting fatter, if you are losing muscle mass instead of the lard. I would take waist measurement over weight as an indicator of progress (see that belt?). I would also take all measurements at the same time of day, on the same day, once a week and not more often. This is much more reliable and less depressing than watching your weight fluctuate from morning to night (as it invariably does).

Systems are better than goals (as Scott Adams says in his interesting How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). If you are trying to get your weight down to a certain point, every day that you are not at your target weight, you are a failure. This is not good. Better to try a different system (such as replacing your starch intake with extra vegetables) and just see what happens. Systems are sustainable. Goals are less so, because when you reach them, then what?

So, that’s how I lost 10kg without really trying. Will it work for you? I’ve no idea. But you can try it without risk, because all it requires you to do is eat lots of vegetables and cut out one type of food that you don’t really need: fast carbs.

You might also like this post: Eat Right for Fight Night

And let me reiterate: I'm not your doctor. I believe in trying things out sensibly, and building healthy habits. This worked for me; we have a lot of DNA in common, so it's probably at least worth trying for you. I wouldn't put it more strongly than that.

Incidentally, this post appears as part of the “Nutrition” section of my new book, The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts.

Balls of steel. Literally.

There is a rather stupid convention common in the upbringing of boys and men: because we are supposed to be strong, we ought not to acknowledge our weaknesses. As any weight-lifter could tell you, that is totally counter-productive. If you realise that your biceps are not as strong as they should be, you can adjust your training to make them stronger.

Obvious, huh?

Towards the end of last year, I was flirting more closely than usual with complete breakdown. I had a persistent cough, exhaustion, and my elbows hurt. I went to the doctor about the cough (I have a deal with my wife: I go to the doctor when she tells me to. Which means about 8 times more often than I would if left to my own devices.) While there, I didn’t mention my elbows. My wife was horrified and sent me back.

The doctor examined them, could find nothing wrong, so sent me to an ultrasound.

I’d never had my elbows ultrasounded before, and frankly, it scared the shit out of me. But I went, and you know what? It was fine. Didn’t hurt a bit. I was way more scared of that than I was of eg training with sharp swords, or fighting Lois with a pollax.

They found nothing wrong, and then I was off to Italy and a complete rest. That fixed the cough, the exhaustion, and the sore elbows.

Now, go back through this post and replace “elbows” with “testicles”.

See? It is totally illogical, but totally normal, for one body-part to be ok to talk about, and another not. Especially illogical when you’re talking to doctors. Dammit, any part of the system can break down. And their job is to help you fix it.

But it’s really hard to do. Cultural conditioning and all that.

I say bollocks to cultural conditioning. Two of my friends, Phil Crawley and Bill Ernoehazy, have recently survived testicular cancer. I can’t imagine how much more difficult their treatment was than my piffling little ultrasound, and it was their example that really pushed me over the edge and made me drop my drawers and show my doctor my nuts. Bill recently got the all-clear, which inspired me to write this post.

So, on the principle that one good example deserves another, here’s me, a bloke, telling the world that once upon a time I had sore balls, and went to the doctor. If I can do it, so can you.

That shouldn’t really be necessary, but observation and experience suggests that it is.

So, Bill and Phil, I salute you both. Balls of steel, gentlemen, balls of steel.

One of the great advantages of being a professional swordsman in the 21st century is that nobody can reasonably expect you to be normal. As you might imagine, I engage in all sorts of odd behaviour, in the name of good physical and mental health, above and beyond simply swinging swords around in a historical and martial manner. Of course I do meditation and breathing exercises, nothing unusual there. And all sorts of physical jerks, push-ups and whatnot. That’s not odd, really: million of people do those. But these three habits are the ones that our current culture is most skewed against, and so by that standard count as weird.

My top three bizarro practices, from a 21st century perspective, are:

1) Avoid sugar.

Reading up on the effects of refined sugar has lead me to believe that after smoking, our addiction to the sugar high is probably the worst thing we do to ourselves. Why is it that we can control and tax alcohol and tobacco as legal luxury drugs, and not do the same to sugar?* Since cutting the sugar high out of my daily routine and relegating it to occasional treat status, I have tightened my belt by two notches, and most importantly, have stopped crashing in the afternoons. It used to be such that when teaching all day, I would have to dose up on sugar in mid-afternoon to function. Now that does not happen; nor do I need a sugar fix to teach in the evenings. We just got through the week-long Fiore Extravaganza, the most exhausting seminar of the year, and I went from start to finish without ever getting seriously physically tired. That’s absence of sugar for you. It was my one most serious cause of chronic fatigue. And it’s in everything! Read the labels on your food; maltodextrin is one of the very few chemicals with a higher glycaemic index than glucose; high fructose corn syrup does not belong in the human body at all; sucrose, dextrose anything with -ose on the end, it’s all poisonous shit.

And starch is sugar too, sort of.

About 5 years ago I found out that I am allergic to wheat, which lead me to naturally cut out a lot of starch; (until I found all these excellent wheat free breads, beers, pastas etc.). It is very hard to eliminate wheat from the modern diet; our entire economy has been based on wheat for three thousand years or so (much like the USA’s is based on corn). Simply cutting wheat did wonders for me, if not for the ease with which I can find food I can eat. Cutting out all other starch sources (pasta, rice, potatoes etc.) has also been hugely helpful; I don’t avoid them the way I have to with wheat, I just don’t eat them that often; about once a week or so. Starch breaks down very quickly into glucose, and thus behaves much like ordinary sugar. I eat enormous amounts of proper vegetables instead, usually fried in olive oil and garlic, often with bacon…

Recommended reading: Gary Taubes; also Tim Ferriss on the Slow Carb Diet.

2) Squat.

Squatting on a rock. Note, not actually having a crap.
Squatting on a rock. Note, not actually having a crap.

Really it’s astonishing when you think about it; about half of all my beginners cannot squat on their haunches. In other words, can’t take a dump properly. For millennia, mankind have crapped in the woods and fields, and squatted down to do it. Now we enthrone ourselves in porcelain splendour, and grunt and strain to do what should be easy.

Squatting should be a natural rest position. The human body is built to stand, lie down, and squat. I often squat down to play with my kids, read a book, wait for a bus, whatever. Any time my legs or back are tired, I squat. People look at me funny. I don’t care. Chairs are a recent, very welcome and excellent in their place, invention; but healthy they ain’t. Inability to squat is a modern phenomenon, with hard-to-measure consequences. But I always find a bin or a block to prop my feet up on when having a crap; it puts my legs in a much more natural position. One of the advantages of having little kids is that  there are standing blocks in our bathroom anyway, so the kids can reach the tap; these do double duty as footstools in the bog.

Recommended reading: an amusing article in Slate magazine

On a related note, I have played around with flat-soled shoes for years; heeled shoes are needed for riding with open stirrups and not otherwise. Though they can be gorgeous, modern heeled shoes are simply bad for most peoples' back, legs and feet. Barefoot is better. And on a recent trip to Verona to see my friends fight in the Tourneo del Cigno Bianco, I tried out my medieval shoes in the medieval town, and found them to be a perfect compromise between the ghastly modern barefoot shoes, and decent leather ones. With thin flexible leather soles, they are now my normal footwear in all non-freezing weather. I have yet to find a good flat-soled winter boot, and this being Finland, WINTER IS COMING. Any advice?

3) Unplug.

Outside. You can't beat it.
Outside. You can't beat it.

When I was working as a cabinet maker, and more so now as a hobbyist, I use machines to do the grunt work, and hand tools for the interesting and enjoyable stuff. Machines get the job done; tools make the work a pleasure. For some people, using an electric drill is a step too far towards mechanisation (see Tom Fidgen, for example); for others, they love the roar as the planer starts up. I am making the distinction not on the grounds of the machine itself, but on the user’s relationship with it. Machines to save labour, tools to enhance it. Can you imagine a woodworker who allowed remote access to his table saw? To allow his customers, or friends even, to determine when it’s on and when it’s ok to turn it off? No, me neither. So why do we feel that our friends, co-workers, or clients should have any say in when our own personal pocket phones are to be on or off? Or how often we should check our emails? It’s madness! When I feel like my phone is a tool, a pleasure to use and a thing that is making it easier for me to achieve my ends, I have it on. Otherwise, I turn it off. I check my email when I feel like it; every hour or so when I am eagerly awaiting a message from an old friend about something I care about; every day or so just to check in on whatever things other people might want from me. But sometimes not for a few days, or even a week. And you know what? As nobody’s life depends on my work, nobody has yet died for want of an email from me. Your situation may be different, but ask yourself this: what's the worst that could happen?

There are some people for whom I am always on call. My wife, my kids, my siblings and parents, and maybe five or six close friends. They can demand my immediate attention at any hour, though with the exception of my kids they wield this power with commendable restraint. The rest of the world, even those lovely people who buy my books, come to my classes, those on whom my livelihood depends, of which group I assume you, as a reader of my blog, are likely a member? Nope. Sorry. There is nothing truly urgent in the world of swordsmanship. By all means contact me, I'm happy to hear from you. Just don't expect me to reply immediately.

Recommended reading: none. Go outside and play instead. Or pick up a real book.

So, there are my top three. Bear in mind though, that these are habits, not laws. I don't expect hosts at a dinner party to cut sugar for me; I do sometimes wear my utterly fab and lovely heeled shoes; my favourite armchair has an imprint of my arse deeply worn into it. And I have been known to check email when I should not. Part of my approach to life is the idea that habits have deeper consequences than one-off or rare occurrences; in swordsmanship training, in health matters, and in general. One cigarette won't kill you, but smoking probably will. I never follow any training routine religiously. For some people, whatever behavioural changes they try need to be thought of as laws, or they find they slip back into bad habits too easily. Do what works for you, and let healthy habits be their own reward. I don't know who's reading this, but I'm pretty sure you're a decent person who deserves to be healthy.

You can’t make a living by cutting sugar, squatting, and turning off your phone. You can just make your life much, much healthier. Which makes for a better living.

So, what are your top stay-sane-and-healthy tips?

*In Finland, sugar in candies is taxed as a luxury, but not in doughnuts, cookies etc. And taxed at the point of sale, not at the point where the food companies buy it. I'd like to see sugar-containing food of any kind sold separately, and all taxed like single malt or cigars. It would be too damned expensive for food manufacturers to get us hooked with the white stuff. We'd all be healthier for it. And the taxes would pay for the insulin, cardiac resuscitations, cancer wards and other medical expenses that our illnesses from our sugar fixation require. Let sugar be the new nicotine!

sword-school-studioset2-56

For many of us, there is no need to even think about why we would train in the Art of Swordsmanship. It is simply an irreducible desire, like the way many people want to have kids. But we all know someone for whom our passion for the sword is inexplicable, just as we all know someone who does not want to be a parent. I thought I would write this rather difficult post so that you know why I have chosen the path of the sword, and if it resonates with you, you can direct the baffled in your life here for enlightenment.

Let us begin with a wide focus: why martial arts at all? Some have practical uses, sure: those living on meaner streets will have use for self-defence skills. But most martial arts, if they convey those skills at all, are very inefficient at it. Some martial arts, or combat sports at least, offer a career path that includes fame and riches. An Olympic gold medal, perhaps. But that is not true of ours.

I train martial arts because they can offer moments of utter transcendence. The ineffable made manifest. This is traditionally described as “beyond words” or “indescribable” but as a martial artist and a writer, that would feel like a cop-out. I will take this feeling and wrestle it down onto the page, or at least give it my best shot:

It is a moment when every atom in your body is exactly where it should be. Every step you have taken on life’s path makes sense, is part of a coherent story. The pain of every mistake is made worthwhile by the lessons they contained. There is a feeling of physical power without limit; strength without stiffness; flow without randomness; precision without pedantry; focus without blinkers; breadth and depth; massive destructive capability but utter gentleness; self-awareness without self-consciousness; force without fury; your body alive as it has never been, all fear and pain burned away in a moment of absolute clarity; certainty without dogma; an overpowering love, even for your enemies, that enables you to destroy them without degrading them. It is, for a religious person, the breath of God within you. For an atheist, a moment of attaining perfection as a human being.

And I can, in theory at least, get that feeling every time I pick up a sword. In practice, I've been there a dozen times. And a lesser version of it, a breath or a hint of it, almost daily.

It is, of course, an illusion. Even in that moment of grace, you are not perfect, or invulnerable. And this is where the discipline of a serious art saves you from the wishy-washy hippy shit of some other “spiritual paths”. It is so easy to slip, to believe your own hype, and simply essential that the moment you do so, reality comes crashing in like a sword to the head. The rigour of a true martial art contains at its heart a continual examining of your skills. This can come in all sorts of forms: I tend to use pressure drills and freeplay, but the critical component is the existence of an objective external test: “Does this work?”,  with a clear yes/no feedback mechanism in place. In many ways, the books from which we draw our art are that mechanism: the benchmark against which you measure the correctness of what you do. This academic aspect is I think unique to historical martial arts, and it requires that we are able to articulate in reasoned argument why we do anything a particular way. This adds a mental dimension, a way of thinking clearly and logically, making arguments supported by evidence, that is the antithesis of the “feel that energy, man” hippy shit I refer to above.

There is also the question of morality. The moral dimension to swordsmanship comes from the lethal nature of the art. It is, originally, for killing people. Some systems emphasise self-defence, but the knightly arts were for professional warriors. You kill people because that’s your job. Much like a modern soldier, who must only distinguish between legal and illegal orders. If the order is legal, and obeying it means killing people, well, that’s what they train for. I’m not suggesting that any part of that is easy, especially distinguishing legal orders from illegal ones, but at base, it is simple. Do, or do not. But for us, training exists in an artificial space that allows us to deeply examine the morality of the martial arts. (I’ve written elsewhere about training as a holo-deck for the philosophy of ethics.)We are training a killing art, so we must ask ourselves this question: in what circumstances, if any, is it acceptable to take life? This is why I have no interest in non-lethal arts. They simply lack this moral aspect. Especially combat sports, where your opponent has chosen to compete with you in a fair fight, and so long as you both follow the rules, there is no question of right or wrong at all.

Bodily health is also an issue. We have no choice but to live in this carcass until it stops working. There is just no way round the fact that you either figure out how yours works, and get the best out of it (it is a stunningly fabulous machine) or you ignore it until it fails.  I don’t train to stay healthy— I stay healthy so I can train. All of my students know that I put maintenance and conditioning at the heart of our training, and I spend about 90% of my own training time, and about 40% of my teaching time, working on mechanics. Most of my students come to me a bit broken in the beginning. Poor posture, bad wrists, a dodgy knee, excessive weight, whatever. We work together to develop good habits, mostly by paying attention to posture, breathing, and joint strength training, and of course, diet. This has a way of both preparing the student for the physical training, and of keeping them grounded when the magic starts to happen. For many students, the sword has hooked them out of physical lassitude and ill-health and into a more active, healthier life. It is certainly part of the core mission of the School. Our the training is healthy— our one golden rule is everyone must finish class healthier than they started it. And because we are interested in process, not outcome, it is literally irrelevant how fit a student is when they start. Only the attitude they bring to training matters.

(And this is another reason why I am not interested in combat sports. They have a pretty high threshold for physical fitness, which means that you have to start quite fit (and young!) if you wish to get really good at them. There is a genetic lottery (every sport has an ideal body type) and luck plays a huge part too. Read Bounce, by Matthew Syed, for more on this. Combat sports also have a very high risk of injury. So the students who need hooking off the couch and into a healthy life are barred from admission. The ones who need it least are the only ones who can have it.)

So why the sword? All of these spiritual, mental, moral and physical benefits can be accomplished with other weapons, or with no weapons at all. There is no good reason, though I could rationalise it at length. We could talk about flow states, ala Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: swordsmanship practice is most certainly a way to bring “order to consciousness” (as opposed to entropic chaos). We could talk about the social aspect, how good it is to find, coming to the salle, that you are not the only sword-obsessed loony out there. But fundamentally, some people are just drawn to the magic of steel. It resonates in them. Many students remember the first time they heard the clash of blade on blade, and how their heart leapt.

I train because I feel it. Oh Lord, I feel it in my very bones. But how I train is utterly rational. Together, the martial and academic truth-testing keep me from flying away with the fairies. The physical training keeps my body strong and agile. The mental training keeps my mind clear and focussed. The moral aspect leads me to consider the meaning and value of every part of my life.

So when someone asks you “Why practice Swordsmanship?”, perhaps the best answer is “how the hell do you manage without it?”

So, that's my reason. What's yours?

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Grb3wgBk7Zs

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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