Monthly Archives: July 2011

Leverage

To begin with, I will say that I have not touched any free weights in the better part of a year. Despite this, I have gained more muscle mass than ever before, and acquired more of an actual increase in strength – all of which I have received through the practice of rudimentary gymnastics. When I use the term ‘gymnastics’ I am not referring to the kind of actions you see a gold medal Olympian performing, but the basic strength and co-ordination exercises that build the skill necessary to progress to the more aerial techniques. That said, these basic positions are more challenging and frustrating than any other work out I have ever attempted.

There are several advantages that gymnastics has over weight training. First of all, there is the fact that it does more than simply strengthen your muscles; it teaches you how to balance and move. While using weights may make you stronger, the majority of lifting routines are essentially teaching you how to stand still. Some forms of lifting involve a step or pivot, but for the most part the person lifting is performing a static manoeuvre that is contracting only a few muscle groups at one time. Gymnastics, on the other hand, trains a person to move from one position to another with perfect poise and balance, while also stressing the maximum amount of muscle contraction possible.

Gymnastics also using another technique that makes it more challenging – many of the positions are performed at increasing angles of disadvantage. That is to say, the better a person gets at the exercises, the more they move into a position which is putting as much leverage as possible against them. So while building strength in this way will not make you significantly larger, as seen in bodybuilding, it will make the muscles significantly stronger and denser. It will also build the ability to use your muscles in conjunction with each other more efficiently, building more agility.

I’ll use a planche to demonstrate what I mean. (I like using planches as examples, because I still can’t do the bloody thing.) First of all, there is the fact that the hands are placed at the centre of balance, just above the level of the hips. If you imagine bench pressing your own body weight by lifting the bar from your hips, that would be fairly challenging in of itself. However, that is only the beginning of what makes this relatively basic move so difficult. The second point is that you are lifting yourself up in the air, as opposed to lifting a bar while lying on your back. This means that your upper back and shoulders are now required to contract just as much as your chest and arms. Finally, there is the fact that the body and legs are held straight out behind you. Now you have your abs, lower back, and legs struggling to contract into a solid position as well. So, if anyone thinks they can gain this kind of strength and co-ordination from weight training alone, feel free to give it a try and let me know if I’m incorrect in my assumptions.

Even though learning how to perform moves such as a planche is a long process, the time you spend slowly building up to it is still an incredible work out. Using a scale of 1-5 for the difficulty of these basic routines, I average at around  a 2 for most of them. (Planche being my weakest, some days all I can manage is about a 1) Despite my novice status as a gymnast, the difference I have seen in my strength, agility and performance while fighting has been remarkable. This especially impresses me because I am only spending perhaps three hours a week actually performing these positions. When you compare that to the results a person would get from three hours a week of casual weight training, gymnastics seems to come out on top.

Level 2 Manna

Level 5 Manna (Maybe some day, but I won't hold my breath.)

So if you are looking for a work out that is good for muscle tone, co-ordination, core strength and durability, (Not to mention time efficient and relatively inexpensive) then basic gymnastics with give you more immediate results than weights or calisthenics. Think of it like Yoga times twenty.

For those interested, I think I might start to write some instructional posts on how to do the simple beginner positions.

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Picture Perfect

In working with Western Martial arts there is no denying that half of the interpretations of the old manuals come from studying the plates and illustrations. (The other half being deciphering the arcane grammar…) I feel that there is something that many people overlook in regards to the pictures and their co-relation to the attached description – they are hand drawn. That means that the artist had to sketch the subject while the fencer did his best to hold still. This is why it is important to ‘filter’, as it were, the images through the descriptions in the text. The person drawing the plate is, unless I am mistaken, rarely a fencing master himself. So while the image may be a static and technically correct demonstration of a technique, it is most probably not how the manoeuvre would look when executed during combat. One has to imagine the moment AFTER the plate. The fencer would not pause as he finished his attack, he would recover immediately to guard without any pause.


Take modern boxing as an example. If I were to take still photos of a champion boxer demonstrating a perfect jab and cross then I would indeed have an illustration of a perfectly sound technique.  However, the dynamic and athletic way in which the fighter transitions between those positions cannot be captured in posed illustrations. The pictures of the techniques would come nowhere near doing justice to the graceful way the person actually moved when fighting freely.

Therefore it seems like folly to try and PERFECTLY replicate the plates in renaissance fencing manuals, since they are intended as a scientific demonstration of artful techniques as opposed to a captured moment of elegant combat. You have to take into account that the illustration displays someone who is doing their best to hold still, as opposed to someone who is actually moving quickly and lightly on their feet. For instance, I have sometimes seen interpretations of such masters as Marozzo (depicted above) that seem to step statically from one guard to the other, rather that throwing cuts that facilitate a smooth transition between guards. It is quite possible to throw two dynamic cuts that pass perfectly through four guards without pausing in between each motion. When I look at the illustrations of Marozzo I notice his wide stance, and that his body weight is held over the lead leg. To me, that bespeaks of someone who is moving quickly and prepared to angle and sidestep without having to pause and shift his balance. Fencing is like all martial arts; when it is done at full speed it should be dynamic, fast and efficient. It should be a constant flow as opposed to the steps of a clockwork soldier.

So by all means, study the academic side of these historic fighting styles. However, do remember in your studies that they ARE fighting styles. Like any skill; the academic side isn’t everything, you need experience making it actually work in your own way.

Manners

I have noticed more and more how often people abandon basic politeness whenever they interact with strangers or customer service staff. At what point did it become the norm to only bother with good manners when dealing with friends, relatives and people who you want to impress? I’d like to think this isn’t happening all over the world, not that it is much of a comfort to think of it as a local phenomenon. There is no denying the fact that Vancouverites, one considered an amiable lot, are becoming insufferably gauche.

One example comes from the lengthy annals of my experience in customer service. While working at the theatre, people have often asked me if I can adjust the temperature in the cinemas. However, ever single person who has done so has begun by walking up to me (usually with their arms tightly crossed over their chest) and snapping out an angry demand attached to some grand hyperbole. “I’m FREEZING, I can see my BREATH in there, There should be penguins in there it is so cold.” to quote a few. They begin with anger and self-righteousness right from the start. Why? It is no problem for me to call upstairs and get the air conditioning turned down, so why not just ask politely? A simple “Excuse me, it’s a bit too cold in the theatre, could you turn up the heat?” would be perfectly sufficient. And they always look so annoyed when I tell them I can fix it right away…

The recent hockey riot is another prime example of the growing immaturity as well.

Old and young, I have seen a huge increase in the amount of self-obsessed arrogance in this town. Sadly, in term of general rudeness, it’s actually the older crowd that seems the most crass. As a stoic, I regard ageing as the process by which you become more self-aware and obtain a greater sense of tranquillity and calm confidence. Apparently the Kitsilano crowd disagrees. People see something they don’t like and respond by immediately lowering themselves to the point of blind, preaching anger without ever attempting to complain or suggest in a reasonable way. It’s like watching an entire population dissolve into a pack of stubborn, spoiled children.

So, if you don’t mind, do remember to use such handy phrases as “excuse me” and “thank you” when conversing with your fellow humans – even if you don’t agree with what their doing. In fact, if you really want to make a point, try being courteous ESPECIALLY if you don’t like what someone is doing. Civilised discourse is the defining feature of human society. So be proud to be a well-mannered human and not an angry, barking dog.

Wednesday

Yesterday went swimmingly, I thought.

I was most impressed with the adeptness I saw in the performance of one of my favourite knife-fighting drills. The drill itself is quite simple; it is slow speed sparring with one partner armed and the other unarmed. The drill begins inside of attack distance and the intention is to have a constant flow of motion. If one person gets cuts or disarmed the drill just keeps right on going. Eventually both people will end up taking the knife away from each other constantly, trading it back and forth as they exchange slipping, grappling, parrying and counterattacking techniques. They move and circle around each other, never backing off and re-engaging. (That’s a different drill.)

The problem most students have with this drill is the same as with most slow work with weapons, especially knives. People have a tenancy to try and speed up to ‘beat’ the other person, or they fall into the habit of flinching and trying to shove or muscle their way out of difficult situations. When that happens the learning stops and it just becomes a desperate attempt to win. I also put an emphasis on aggressive sparring, but practice drills such as this are a different thing all together.

Slow, free form exercises that use a constant flow of motion help to teach the student to think quickly while moving, rather than jumping back out of measure to try and come up with a new plan. They get the brain and the body moving together at a relaxed pace so, when the tempo is increased, they can work together just as well at full speed. They are also a chance to practice specific techniques that have previously been taught in a way that lets the student figure out how to make it work for them.

And last night it went perfectly. For nearly ten minutes straight Holly and I were performing the drill at a constant pace. What was more exiting was that she started to pick up on things I was doing and apply them back to me. I would shove me knee behind hers to force her to the ground, and a few minutes later she would return the favour.

Learning is fun!

Website Headaches and a New Beginning

I am not a computer person, let me say that right from the start. Physical skills, a certain amount of logical problem solving, a basic grasp of gears and levers, the structure of a good story, a wide vocabulary,  a shocking amount of fictional trivia – sure. Stuff that only exists on a screen and often in code – no. There is a reason I am a writer and a martial artist. For three days now I have had trouble getting the new sub-page for our website up and running, to no avail. I’m still not entirely sure what a Google API key is, but apparently I always need a new one no matter how many times I enter it in. Sigh.

Anyway, so now I am ‘teaching’ martial arts on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in Coopers park. I use the quotation marks because we haven’t finished designing the new posters yet so we haven’t brought in any new students. This week will be the time for that, putting up ads every place we can around the west end/seawall area. For now it’s just me and Holly working on the material I want to focus on, which is fine really – I need to get my confidence back in my own abilities. Starting over again from scratch means I need to assure myself that I actually have something of value to teach.

I do have faith in the system I intend to adhere to. I feel pretty good about the combination of kickboxing, vicious self-defence, medieval wrestling and graceful sword work. It may not be the grand unified system of all martial arts, but it’s still a damn fine one. Simple, direct, fluid and technically sound – I know that in any kind of fight that these techniques will work effectively. In terms of self-defence and fencing, what more can you ask for? Well, some terrifying space monkeys might help…

So now it is just getting comfortable with the material, which shouldn’t be too bad because I chose things that I am already very familiar with. I just need to get the point where I can run through the whole system in my head without having to think about it. Shouldn’t take too long. Part of me wishes I could get the techniques down to 97 essential moves. (Good for you if you got that reference.) However, with all the weapons I want to incorporate I don’t think I can make it less that 150-200. Even so, I think that is a good, boiled-down approach.

 

Plan B

Ok, new plan.

I think I have decided to abandon the New West location and concentrate on getting a regular martial arts practice going here in Vancouver. It does mean going back to teaching in covered parks for the time being – but what the hell, lots of impressive schools have started that way. When I first started at Academie Duello there were four of us in an un-used outdoor ice rink. The situation may have changed, but I still have all the experience of the last five years of experimenting. I have also made a lot of progress in my plans for putting together a whole new approach to mixed martial arts.

We needed to draw in a batch of new students anyway, and relocating to a busier city sounds like a good way to go about that. (Not to mention the fact that I won’t  have to commute for two hours every week.) Taking over classes on Tuesday was going to be a fresh start anyway, so why not go all in?

This means it’s time to start the energetic advertising campaign. It’s not easy to attract students when you don’t have a building with your name on it, but it can be done with the proper marketing. (It’s ok, I’ve been watching a lot of Mad Men lately and I’m sure that means I know what I’m doing.) I just need to find that one catchy phrase that sums us “martial arts style that blends modern and historical combat both with and without weapons.”

No problem…

Snap.

I was planning to write a post on the advantage of gymnastics over weight training in regards to its use of kinetic leverage. However, that will have to be postponed pending recent developments…

As I had previously mentioned, this month I was slated to take over running the main class at SCG on Tuesday nights. We had decided that dividing so that I could use the hall space for more of the weapons work would be the best way for each of us to focus on our own areas, since rain and rapiers don’t mix well. This left me in charge of the three-hour sessions that made up the bulk of our class time.

I had my insecurities about stepping up as the sole instructor, but I was determined to do the best I could to keep class as fun and energetic as it had always been while moving in a slightly different direction. There was only one problem with this theory – it required students. Fifteen minutes after the class had started Holly and I were still alone in the hall. Holly had injured her back the previous day, so I found myself working out alone. One of our part-time students who usually just participated in the work-out portion of the evening did eventually show up, thinking she was late and wondering where everybody else was.

With no students at the beginning of the month, that meant no money to pay rent for the space. I was later to learn that some of our core students had decided to train elsewhere, though as of yet I don’t know where everybody else was.  Therefore, for the time being, it appears there will be no Tuesday classes. One cannot help but feel a bruise to one’s ego in such circumstances.