Bodyweight: some lightweight wisdom from heavy work

A couple of weeks ago, I finally got back to squatting my bodyweight for 4 reps. This was a big deal for me – I mean, have you seen my legs? For your hardened gym rat, aiming for that defining twice bodyweight squat, my modest effort may not seem quite that heroic. I share it publicly as in achieving it I was reminded of two small life lessons that are often shared as inspiring images on social media, but are less easily followed.

A few years ago, I tore my right hamstring in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lesson, the result of  my poorly executed north-south hold and my newbie’s inability to go anywhere with it. Combined with the classic beginner’s overuse of strength, my body went one way and my hamstring remained where it was, caught in the wrong place between weight and momentum. Some good physio repaired most of the damage, but the hamstring eventually healed at about two-thirds of its old length. This put pay to my running schedule, as most of the stress went straight to my hip joint and muscles, with a considerable impact on my glutes to boot – not the kind of kick up the arse I really wanted.

More insidiously though, I didn’t realise that I was beginning to accept this new Iimitation. I began to tell myself that I was now unable to do the same things that I once could, or, if I wasn’t repeating that poisonous mantra to myself, it was the unspoken refrain in my training and indeed my daily life. You’re allowed to give up earlier. You don’t have to train as hard as you used to. you can miss today’s routine – you need more rest than you used to. Notice I wasn’t telling myself that I couldn’t do it; I was just giving myself permission not to or, worse still, permission to fail.

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Fast forward a year or so and my Ving Tsun coach, the highly knowedgeable and inspiring Ged Kennerk of Applied Body Mechanics Ving Tsun Manchester, suggested that I begin a strength and conditioning programme (amongst other endeavours) to complement my VT training. All started well and I made some modest strength and endurance gains. However, as the weeks turned to months and the gains in the squat came harder, if at all during some cycles, that old litany of excuses made itself known once more.

When faced with having to publicly move iron, though, something else, something unexpected made itself known: ego. Rather than solve this problem with good training methods, I used the wrong kind of brute force, attempting to push up the load come what may, with precious little regard for good form and body mechanics. I was squatting above my bodyweight, or at least fooling myself that was. My thighs were never parallel to the floor. My upper back, already disgruntled from a period with a seized facet joint, became positively rebellious and my lower back was threatening to join the revolution.

In short, my lifting was less than sustainable and I was heading for an injury.

A few timely conversations with the good Mr.Kennerk and a few (well, quite a few) T-Nation articles brought me back to my senses. I stripped back the squat weights to ego-shrivelling amounts and began to work on my lifting form and cues. I paid more attention to my mobility, dusting off old Fighting Fit magazine articles and Joe DeFranco videos, working them into my daily routine. I took my first tentative steps into the world of yoga.

Strength

lt took about three months, but I’ve made it back to a bodyweight squat, but this time with thighs parallel to the floor, back safe and now little bonuses like my hip extensors firing and getting a better workout.

Not only that, but my other major lifts have benefitted from the same detailed attention to form and cues, with a few equally modest but sustainable gains gracing the training diary. This approach paid a few minor dividends in my Ving Tsun practice, with improved proprioception playing a part in my efforts to improve line, structure and shape.

So, the Clinton cards moment, those social media memes and exortations. Don’t accept your limitations or, more clearly, don’t accept your own limitations – those you put upon yourself. Life will always throw limitations and constraints your way but very few can’t be overcome or worked around. The problem, perhaps, is that we spend to long looking at the obstacle instead of what is beyond it or the path – quite often a well-worn one – around it. You’re unlikely to be the very first person in history to encounter that particular obstacle.

It will take work, hard work, to get around, over or through it but don’t just hurl yourself wildly into the task. Focus and work intelligently to solve the problem. There is much to be said about the power of gut instinct but if you haven’t spent even a brief time considering options then you’re likely to end up in the same place – or somewhere that you’d rather not be or is even harder to work from. Accept also that you may need to take a few steps back in order to get that run-up right, to correct your past mistakes.

In Ving Tsun, we teach ourselves that position comes first, acquire the target then hit it with no further hesitation; don’t just hit out blindly. The strongest punch is no better than the weakest if it hits nothing. If the way forward is blocked we don’t just try to push through by force alone; reset, reposition and restart.

Enough of my back-of-a-fag-packet wisdom. That thing you’ve been telling yourself you can’t do? Go do it.

You put your whole self in: part 1

You put your whole self in,
Your whole self out:
In, out, in, out.
You shake it all about.
You do the hokey cokey,
And you turn around.
That’s what it’s all about!

Despite a year passing since my last entry, I’m pleased to announce, to greater or lesser indifference, that Phaseshifting is still here! I could talk about how life continues without the need for online validation, or how actions that aren’t commemorated in a status update or tweet are still worth taking, but all that may have to wait for another time. In the meantime, it’s a New Year, with cobwebs to be cleared and rust to be oiled. I’ll start with a diary entry, as this week saw our first VT session of the year at Combat Science 101. For now, this is still a self-defence and martial arts blog, so those of you who may want a larger lesson from this, such as it is, will have to wait for part two.

The session was simple enough, starting with a vigorous warm up based around sudden changes of direction, diagonal sprints and lateral steps. Moving through a collection of mobility drills, unearthed from my browser bookmarks and which built on previous drills the class had been practicing, we moved on to some crude stand up wrestling inspired, in true Vagabond Warrior magpie style, by a blog I’d read earlier in the day. One partner hooked his arms under the other’s and took a gable grip or similar at his back, with the second partner having to take the gable grip over the other’s arms. “Under arm” was designated Number One and the brief was for Number One to attempt to drive back Number Two, with the latter providing just enough resistance to make that task difficult and all this for thirty seconds at a time before we swapped roles. Much harder than it sounded – especially given free interpretation of ‘just enough’ – and while we entertained a new-found respect for wrestlers and caught our breath (with one student gasping “my tank is empty”), I debriefed the group.

Now, I know next to nothing about wrestling but it wasn’t wrestling skill I was hoping to develop. My aim was to show how a relatively simple exercise can develop and highlight many ostensibly disparate attributes. In this case, mindful of where we were, the one who had the under arm grip had a better chance of using “power from the ground”, a key VT principle, to unseat and move his opponent. Thirty seconds of moderately aggressive and physical work exhausted the group just enough to emphasise the need for us, as VT practitioners, to seek to avoid such a style of fight or nullify attacks before it became that kind of fight: the need to take the initiative, attack the attack and not let an attacker gain or maintain the advantage of surprise is paramount to effective VT. Finally, the key observation and learning point for me was how everyone put their all, physically, mentally and emotionally into such a simple exercise.

First through the judicious administration of a few pushups, squat thrusts, burpees and crunches – to reveal to the students that their tanks were not quite empty – and then via the subsequent analysis of fundamental VT concepts, this was the theme that we carried with us through the rest of the lesson. After a brief examination of VT’s basic structure and posture (2), we cast a similarly concise eye over the detail of the main VT vertical punch before bringing it all together in pad drills. What is often a throwaway drill or an excuse for exhibiting one’s ego, in the commonly accepted sense of the term, became an intensely demanding drill, even when performed with reduced intent or aggression. The intensity came from having to engage and distil all of one’s learning – about posture, structure, alignment, triangulation, aim, extension and more – to produce a repeatable, “right first time”, punch (3). Reducing the distance to the focus mitt to between six inches and a forearm’s length increased the demand on the student, by limiting the space available to develop speed and power.

As the VT punch trades off power for speed and closer range, the practitioner must bring all that he or she has to the punch, working on and developing the ABMVT idea of “full body geometry”. The ability to utilise full body skeletal and muscular engagement is, as my chief VT coach Ged Kennerk teaches, a skill to be learned, not something to be left to chance, so a quick full body plank helped bring that to the forefront of our attention before we returned to the punching practice. In the context of the VT punch, all the elements had already been taught in class before; the challenge now was to bring all those elements to bear at the right time, then repeat. In short, the student has to put everything into what he or she does to make their Ving Tsun work. (4)

In part 2: “You already possess everything necessary to become great”

Endnotes

(1) Ving Tsun, also known as Wing Chun

(2) Ving Tsun is, very roughly speaking, a structure-based, rather than a torque-based, striking system.

(3) Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt identify this as part of the scientific method. Ving Tsun was called Ving Tsun Kuen Hok – “the science of Ving Tsun gung-fu” – by Wong Shun Leung.

(4) For detail freaks, or dear readers who remain awake at this point, the remainder of the lesson was given to basic kicking practice, simple Dan Chi Sau and Lap Sau drills and a brief run through of VT’s first and second hand forms, Siu Nim Tau and Chum Kiu.

Order out of Chaos

As you may have seen, Ron Goin’s Practical Urban Martial Arts and Critical Thinking is one of my absolute favourite blogs out there. You can therefore imagine that I was chuffed to little mintballs* to be interviewed by him for his series on introducing randomness and chaos into training. For your reading delight, here it is. Once more, and not because of my own appearance in it, I can’t recommend Ron’s blog enough. As Jamie Clubb once commented, he should be selling out seminars worldwide and it’s a complete mystery of life why he isn’t.

* Note for non-UK readers: “chuffed to little mintballs” = very pleased.

Mixing it up, ramping it up

Inspired by talking to Ron Goin about training for chaos – more on which anon – I decided to share a little of that love and inspiration with the Ving Tsun (Wing Chun) class at Combat Science 101 last night. Had I thought about it, I might not have trailed it on the class’s Facebook page in advance as the turnout was modest, but I’m happy to ascribe that to seasonal festivities and a morbid fear of damp weather. My aim was to transition from fundamental, technical Ving Tsun (VT) training through functional, combative exercises to near-exhaustion, then introduce a final pressurised test which would draw on those fundamental skills.

We began the class with a run through of the first two free hand forms of Wong Shun Leung VT, Siu Nim Tau and Cham Kiu. After some free punching practice, static and moving, concentrating on structure and good mechanical advantage we moved on to Dan Chi Sau, a contact reflex exercise where the practitioner learns to punch along advantageous lines of attack when the limbs are in contact with another’s. Setting up good form, base and lines of attack we raised the pace in order to raise the heart rates.

After a round of dynamic stretching exercises followed by a few rounds of press-ups, crunches, squat thrusts and free squats, we arrived at the meat of the session, the Vagabond Warriors inspired functional ‘mental fortitude’ test. Working in pairs for two minute rounds for two circuits, the stations were:

  • Tyre flip and sledgehammer: one partner flipped the tractor tyre, approximately four foot high, jumped in and out of it then repeated the sequence. The other partner then performed five overhead strikes to the tyre with a ten-pound sledgehammer. Partners swapped roles half way.
  • Bag drag and carry: pulling a 30lb bag across the length of the hall, then hoisting it up on the shoulders before running two lengths of the hall with it. Partner repeats. The students added their own variation on the second circuit, namley that one partner sat on the bag while the other pulled. Naturally, this made this exercise hell on earth.
  • Sprawl and barge: a simple exercise which seemed to mainline lactic into the legs! One partner holds a large kick shield, the other performs a sprawl then shoulder barges the shield at full force; this also trains the shield holder to brace and absorb impact. Partners swapped roles half way.
  • Ball smash and sword cuts: this turned out to be the rest station, after a fashion. Using a wooden sword (bokken) cut down then diagonally down left-to-right and right-to-left continuously. Using an 8lb ball, squat, drive up then smash the ball with some gusto into the mat. Partners swapped roles half way. For the second circuit we substituted hitting press ups for the ball smash: press up then hit the mat once with each hand, second press up then hit the mat twice with each hand, working up to the tenth pressup with ten hits with each hand.

Then, it was on to the focus mitts. The brief was to hit full force but attempt to retain some technique despite the rapidly encroaching fatigue; one set of punches was with VT advancing footwork (seung ma), the other was with triangulating tracking step (sam gok ma). The pad holder then crossed his arms on his chest and allowed the puncher to shove him backwards.

Finally, we set up some VT-based milling to burn out (as if we needed it). Both participants wore head guards and light MMA gloves for protection, with the aim of punching continuously at the opponent, constantly attempting to use superior footwork to outflank him and gain the better hitting line. I was extremely please to see that all retained their composure and discipline, sticking to the game plan and driving forward throughout the drill, quickly recovering and adapting when it all started to get a little messy. And, despite the fact that at this point we were all sweat-soaked and exhausted, most wanted to repeat this drill but time ran out.

We finished by discussing and emphasising the fact that this kind of training gave us the context to our training, and gave us a small glimpse of the environment in which we would have to ‘go to work’. The smiles told me I may have to ramp it up even further next time …

Thank you to those hardy students of Combat Science 101 who gave their all for this session.

No students or tyres were harmed during training.

FAST: “proper self-defence”

I’m indebted to Graeme White for his recent review on his somethingdoing blog of a FAST Defence workshop I held at Bristol Kamon Wing Chun club in Bristol recently. A great session but more importantly, for those of you who are yet to take part in a FAST Defence session and are thinking of doing so, it’s an impartial review by a participant which sums it all up excellently. Thanks Graeme!

A thin list of things

FAST Defence Workshop, Bristol, 13 June 2012

After  a few last minute dropouts, a smaller turnout than normal for the regular FAST Defence Bristol South workshop gave me the opportunity after the opening circle to talk to the group about the significance of escape within one’s self-defence arsenal. It’s very easy, especially for those practicing a dedicated martial art as opposed to complete self-defence system, to forget that this should be the primary goal of all unwanted encounters, whether physically violent or not. We can easily get up in the all too human need to prove or test what we know, especially the male of the species. The drive to escape should be drilled to the same unconsciously competent level as our physical techniques; this is one of the drivers behind the ‘hands up, look around, go get help” coda to FAST Defence drills and scenarios.

“It is better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die. The very essence of self-defense is a thin list of things that might get you out alive when you are already screwed.”

Rory Miller (1)

We then broke off into pairs to work on keeping a working distance of roughly two arms’ lengths between you and your aggressor and, should this not be possible, the need to keep a physical barrier, a fence, between you and the aggressor, protecting one’s personal space. We added some verbal aggression into the mix and the group’s imaginations and creativity were a joy to behold and several members showed a real talent for this! It’s an important part of the method to be able to put yourself in the aggressor’s shoes, both to look at confrontations from the other side and also to help in fostering the ‘switch’, the switch from being an ordinary person to one who has to use the range of skills from assertiveness to violence in order to defend oneself.

After some lively and entertaining multiple verbal aggressor scenarios, breaking just at the point of transition to the physical, we turned our attention to our hard skills for the evening. This time it was dealing with an attack from the rear that would take us to the ground. As usual, we took two or three high percentage techniques to work on, in this case a rear palm strike to the groin, using a hip bump to create space, and the hammer fist strike to use once you’ve managed to turn and face the aggressor. (As the majority of the group were also Wing Chun students, we also considered the similarities between the rear palm strike and hip bump to the space-making rear strike of the second part of the Siu Nim Tao form of that fighting system.)

This is the critical part of the FAST Defence methodology: learn the mechanics of the skill, apply it at various levels of aggression to the pads, then pressure test it against a live attacker at full force.

Following some pad work with these skills we turned to the combat drill, with the defender starting with feet together and eyes closed – one of our favourite pre-stress positions – and me in the Predator Armour coming up behind them and taking them to the ground. This is the critical part of the FAST Defence methodology: learn the mechanics of the skill, apply it at various levels of aggression to the pads, then pressure test it against a live attacker at full force. The goal of the drill was to use the skills we’d just practiced – and any others that appeared in the mix – to escape from the floor, hurt the attacker and effect an escape to the designated safe place, emphasising that the will to live and survive was equally as important as the physical techniques themselves.

And this the group did excellently! We ran through it at about 80% intensity to allow them to make the emotional and mental transition from a training mindset to a survival mindset, then repeated it again at a more intense level. Never have I been happier to be in the Predator Armour with a few of the groin strikes coming within a hair’s breadth, even within the armour, of making my eyes water and the hammer fist strikes making the headpiece creak merrily. It’s worth noting that this month, as in the previous workshop, the new members of the group managed to deliver strikes which almost equalled the power of some of the more seasoned people. I have often found this to be the case and there’s another line of thought to be followed here at some point; is it the lack of preconceptions, the training methodology, or access to the will to survive uncluttered by thought of technique?

As always, we finished with a closing circle, which allows the group to decompress and bring the adrenaline levels down and say as little or as much as they want about the session.

Next FAST Defence Bristol South WorkshopContact me for more details or sign up to the newsletter to be kept informed.

References

(1) Miller, Rory Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence (YMAA Publication Center, 2008)

A Vagabond Warrior I shall be, or how I learned to love the Switch

Vagabond Warriors 2.1, Kyushinkai Martial Arts, Telford, 31 March 2012

“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training … what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
Socrates (c.469 – 399 BC)

PART ONE: DIARY ENTRY

I was struggling to catch my breath on the mats after attempting to fight off two determined opponents, and a question occurred to me: “why isn’t this seminar packed to capacity? Where are the enquiring minds, the desires to be challenged and tested?” I was at a Vagabond Warriors seminar, my third such visit, and given that the Vagabond Warriors approach had completely changed my approach to training and coaching in the martial arts over the last 12 months, it was a question that came to me many more times during the day.

For those that don’t know, Vagabond Warriors is the brainchild of respected martial arts, combat sports and cross-training coach and sceptical thinker Jamie Clubb, founder of Clubb Chimera Self Protection and Mixed Martial Arts. Stepping firmly outside the idea of styles and systems, Jamie encourages practitioners of all combat systems, whether they are practiced for fighting, self-defence, sports or self-development to view their system with clarity, scepticism and individuality. As he says on his explanatory page:

Our unique workshops and seminars develop training regimes with groups of like-minded free-thinking people to further the study of effective and efficient methods for self defence and combat sports.

The following three areas are the most lacking in the education of combative systems – be they for self defence or sport – and “Vagabond Warriors” uses them as guide for our training programmes.

C.S.I. – Clarification, Scepticism and Individuality

Clarification – Beginning with the objective in mind. Defining and addressing everything we do with a clear single short-term and long-term target. Objectives dictate the exercise from the warm-up movements you do to the classes you choose.

Scepticism – Rational critical thinking. We find flaws in training exercises in order to progress learning experiences and to reduce personal weaknesses. CCMA tests concepts and creates experiments to test claims.

Individuality – Interpersonal violence is personal, so above all else the single learner should be at the centre of all aspects of training.

So what does this mean in practice? The day itself was a combination of lecture and hands-on training. Following the opening lecture we warmed up using combative concepts – no jumping jacks and running round the gym here. Shadow boxing from all levels, standing, kneeling and on our backs we were quickly  warm enough to start co-operative grappling and sparring. Yes, from near-cold, in less than five minutes! As long as your partner is trusted and respectful there’s no reason at all why the combat practitioner should not warm up doing what he or she is meant to be doing, namely combative exercises and drills. This is intelligent training for the time-limited combat arts practitioner.

Following some functional fitness drills we moved on to two concepts which, alongside functional fitness, are at the core of Vagabond Warriors, specific training and attribute training. Specific training is the practice of the actual techniques that you will use in your combat system; attribute training is the use of other systems, schools, exercises and concepts to enhance the physical attributes needed to perform that technique as efficiently as possible. In this case we looked at two specific techniques. Focusing on the arm drag from a stand up clinch position, we used as heavy bag drag to enhance the performance of that technique. Focusing on the double leg takedown, we used tyre flips to improve both our technique and our leg strength, with Jamie emphasising the correct flipping technique needed to tie it in to the takedown.

Now while these are MMA or grappling-related movements, neither of which are particularly my forte nor norm, it doesn’t take long to start to apply this any style of fighting or self-defence. This kind of attribute training and functional fitness has a long and honourable tradition in FAST Defence and that comes as little surprise,as it’s a 40 year-old synthesis of world class practitioners’ own cross-training journey. In the more traditional martial arts, however, this approach is rare or absent. This is where the beauty of Vagabond Warriors lies, the chance to re-examine and improve the way you train and coach. Already during the double-leg takedown exercises I had thought of a way to adapt the approach to Yi Ji Kim Yeung Ma, the core training stance of Wing Chun and following this seminar, successfully integrated it into the functional warm-ups that I’d introduced to my Wing Chun students.

A further lecture segment followed and after lunch we tackled another important core concept of Vagabond Warriors, “quarrying”. Using a system where one person aims to create distance, by pushing, striking, evasion and so on, while the other attempts to close that distance by grabbing, grappling and capturing, both persons attempt to identify, under pressure, instinctive techniques or tactics. These techniques, once isolated, can be progressively drilled and tested. This time, we did the exercise two-on-one as well as one-on-one. It’s a very taxing exercise, quickly making demands of your combative fitness and your heart and spirit against a determined attacker. I was pleasantly surprised that this time, my instinctive techniques were split between the combative palm strike and the multiple straight punch of Wing Chun, no doubt brought to the fore by my current exposure to the Wong Shun Leung method of that fighting system. That’s another story, still in the making …

However, no time for complacency as Jamie moved the goalposts yet again to – a regular feature of these seminars – and asked us to repeat the exercise but this time switching from a combat sports mentality, limiting our techniques to those allowed in the MMA cage, to a self-defence mentality where anything goes, including controlled biting, finger breaks and eye gouge attempts, all carefully defined by Jamie for reasons of safety beforehand. This was defined by Jamie as ‘the Switch’ and it was both challenging, frustrating and enlightening in equal measure. The object of the exercise as I understood and applied it was to be able to go from zero or Condition White to a full-on fight, or to change gear or tactics during a fight or confrontation. In this respect, the exercise succeeded in spades and was easily – even beyond heavy bag drags and tractor tyre flipping – the most challenging part of the day, bringing to mind that quote by Patrick Swayze’s Dalton in the film “Roadhouse’, “I want to you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” It’s any serious self-defence practitioner’s challenge and state of cognitive dissonance to be able to switch from being a civilised member of society to a violent warrior in defence of his or her loved ones. Any system which doesn’t address this is in danger of producing either victims or uncontrolled violent thugs. I felt that this exercise at Vagabond Warriors addressed this issue, above and beyond the physical challenges and attribute training it tackled. Following a brief concluding lecture segment, we salvaged what was left of our brains and bodies and left, invigorated, challenged and inspired.

PART TWO: REFLECTIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

So, I return again to my question. Why are these seminars not packed to capacity? Why are combat arts and system practitioners not willing to engage in the invaluable and wholly essential process of examining their practice and training closely?

Paraphrasing Socrates, an unexamined fighting art isn’t worth practising. If you’re serious about your development as a fighter, combat art practitioner or self-defence then there are many things that you must do. Find the best way to support and enhance the techniques that you use and get used to thinking creatively of ways to do so. Put what you practice under pressure (you should be doing so already) and find ways to test your system outside of its bubble. Find the gaps and weak points in your system and address them, either by looking closely at what you have or using ‘outside’ concepts. Be combatively fit by challenging your body in a way that relates directly to how you move in your system. For the dedicated intelligent cross-trainer, this is the stuff of life. But for those who are less inclined or don’t have the time to deviate too far from their chosen path and goals, it’s still an essential and invaluable approach. Few systems have this kind of approach built in, though there are a few; most operate within their own belief system, whether or not that stands up to empirical and objective reality. Many, many practitioners lack the critical and practical tools to do this and this is where the Vagabond Warriors approach excels.

In short, it’s my belief that all dedicated combat art practitioners should get themselves to a Vagabond Warriors seminar. You’ll take away more vital concepts and information than you could unpick in a month and it will inspire you to look anew and critically at what you do. It may, as it did in my case, help you improve, re-focus and re-think your approach and direction. Time to throw that switch.

Contact Jamie Clubb for more information about Vagabond Warriors.

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