The Art inherent in every action

Just because we don't proclaim it far and wide every step we take, doesn't mean we aren't heeding it. This is the beginning of the art we use every moment we train.

Note, this is the first lesson of the long sword: That you shall learn to make the cuts[27] properly from both sides, that is, if you otherwise wish to fence strongly and correctly. Understand it thusly: When you wish to cut from the right side, so see that your left foot stands forward. If you then cut the over-cut from the right side, so follow-after the cut with the right foot. If you do not do that, then the cut is false and incorrect, because your right foot remains there behind. Therefore the cut is too short and may not reach its correct path below to the correct other side in front of the left foot.
The same when you cut from the left side and [you] do not follow-after the cut with the left foot, thus the cut is also false. Therefore note, from whichever side you cut, that you follow-after with the same foot, so you may execute all your plays with strength and all other cuts shall be hewn thusly as well.
(trans. Christian Trosclair)

Other masters and sources will tell us that we may use such false cuts, or false times, in order to gain certain situational advantages, mislead the opponent, etc. But in order to choose when to break these basic principles of the fight, we must first grasp them well.

11 Whoever goes after cuts,
 They permit their art little joy.
12 Hew nearing, whatever you wish:
 No change comes in your shield;

More sound advice with multiple meanings in different situations. If you go to strike after the opponent begins his strike, you will suffer for it -- you'll be pressed, it's harder to parry, etc. But line 11 of the original Merkverse has another meaning as well: don't chase after the opponent's sword. This basic advice is at odds with the concept of Nachreisen, but that's a case of "i before e EXCEPT AFTER C." The fencer must understand how to preserve his shield, i.e. maintain good cover of his lines, before he can venture out to travel after, striking in the Nach instead of fencing soundly in the Vor and in cover.

Fence only from the Vor, and you might do well until someone more clever exploits your sound but basic fencing. Even so, your sound fencing may serve you well if they attempt to be overly clever and neglect their basic fencing. A number of our own club's fencers stick with exactly this approach.

13 To the head, to the body,
 Do not omit the harassing-strikes.
14 With the entire body fence
 Whatever you desire to execute strongly.

It's no coincidence that these two lines are paired together. Many fencers take note of the admonishment to fence strongly in every action they take. But harassing strikes are necessary in order to make the opponent uncertain about which of your strikes carry your true intent to strike. All strikes, false or true, must be executed strongly so that they pose (or appear to pose) genuine threats to the opponent. But if you only commit 100% to every strike, you become predictable. You can strongly execute quick strikes at the hands, or slow strikes slightly out of distance to the leg, or all-in strikes to the opponent's head just when he thinks you're not serious about your next strike.

But we are warned by the masters about this: just be careful about truly making a false attack, b/c every such action creates an opening, a vulnerability for the opponent to exploit against you. Some of them argue against making false attacks. Others use false attacks extensively. And the remainder stress you must know your times of the hand and foot (and those of your opponent) very well.



Ringeck's road map

It turns out that 170 pages compiled over 15 years are not so easily distilled into digestible lessons. It's taken 3 years and 4 major iterations to get the total list down to 55 lessons, each of which has evidently required 2-3 months (4 hrs/wk) of emphasis for new students to grasp and achieve practical competence in open fencing and sparring.

Doing the math, I suppose that makes sense, since by the time they reach the end of this list alone, it will have taken them 9-15 years -- which is about as long as I've spent pursuing it.

So this blog post is a very, very flimsy springboard from which to begin diving into this deep and subtle art. May it serve you more than hinder you.

Ringeck's topics, a partial and basic list:

  1. Wrath strike - Zorn haw
  2. Crooked strike - Krump haw
  3. Thwart strike - zwer haw
  4. Squint strike - schill haw
  5. Scalp strike - schaittel haw
  6. Four guards - Vier hütten
  7. Four parries - Vier verseczen
  8. Following-after - Nachraisen
  9. Running-over - Überlauffen
  10. Setting-aside - Abseczen
  11. Changing-through - Durchwechßlen
  12. Pulling - Zucken
  13. Running-through - Durchläuffen
  14. Slicing-away - Abschnÿden
  15. Hand-pressing - Hend trucken
  16. Hanging - Hengen
  17. Winding - Winden

Concepts he uses throughout his system:

  • Before - Vor
  • After - Nach
  • Instant - Indes
  • Strong - Stark
  • Weak - Schwech
  • Feeling - Fühlen

This list represents one experienced schirmmeister's perspective on a lifetime of experience, as he viewed it at the time of writing. It does not necessarily capture what he had to learn in order to become skilled and recognized for that skill, nor even what he may have taught 5-20 years earlier in his established career as a fencing master.

Notice he doesn't strongly describe footwork, balance, joint stacking and structure, decision-making, or fitness conditioning. It'd be folly to assume that the absence of those topics means they're not necessary. People spend years on just those topics alone in any physical art, never mind the ones explicitly listed above. It could take 3-4 years just to grind through Ringeck's list item by item, never mind the foundation topics he doesn't list.

But fortunately, we don't have to and shouldn't isolate any single topic. Any one of these topics will often incorporate several others, even if we don't explicitly call them out in the exercise at hand. This more holistic approach ends up helping a student to begin subconsciously framing and contextualizing the focus topic in terms of the overall framework.

After riding the merry-go-round of focus topics a couple times, the whole cluster begins to take on some semblance of order. And eventually, we may latch onto one of the key principles which defines how we view the rest of the system.

For example, I see everything in terms of strong versus weak; 5 years ago, I would have said explosive strength training. Everything else requires it or feeds into it, by my choice of perspective. Someone else might see the system in terms of opponent psychology, fitness, or decision-making.

So whether you're learning, self-training, or teaching, it's important to recognize what skills you already have (or not), what you need to work on, and want to work towards. Then pick one active topic to work on at a time, while doing your best to passively not fail too egregiously at any of the other topics.

A sample thought process:

<Picks striking in the Vor>
"Gotta strike early, strike fast!"
"Aw, crap, I'm rushing with poor form and I'm telegraphing with my hands leading first."
"OK, no big deal, just strike a little slower, get that blade and point out first. Good, hands don't lead anymore."
"Back to picking up the speed."
"Ah, crap. I'm rushing and now my target precision is off. That was a way flat horizontal strike, not a good Oberhau. Still not a big deal. Slow down again."
"Strikes are more vertical, back to speeding up!"
"Aw man, now I'm reaching too far and putting all my weight over my lead leg. I'm literally balancing on one foot."
"No prob. Slow it down again, keep the weight grounded on the balls of both feet."
"Now pick it back up again."
"Nuts, everything else is fine, but my sword isn't covering my line adequately on the strike."
"Slow it down again..."

And so on. Eventually, our dauntless HEMA trainee may realize it's just better to practice everything slowly, cleanly, with good form, until all those foundational failures are cleaned up.

...And then s/he realizes that the whole point of striking into the Vor early, earnestly, and swiftly got lost in the shuffle of getting everything else right.

NOW it's really time to pick up the speed a bit at a time! ...Until something falls apart at that higher speed. Then slow it back down again, fix, pick the speed back up, and so on.

There are many ways to practice. You could just deemphasize the athletic component until all the foundation skills and body awareness are in place. Structure, timing (at a slow pace), balance, lines, distance, angles, etc. Or you could emphasize the athletic component and just hope that, with enough reps at max speed and power, your tired body will figure out how to most efficiently fall into the right places.

Both have clear problems, but can also work for different people. With the scholar's approach, you need to make sure to reality-check your skill training with stress-testing on a regular basis, so that you don't build up slow reflexes for doing things that aren't as easy or even possible at desparate life-or-death speeds.

"Of course I can zwer haw him 3 times in the head while he takes 1 full second to launch an unchanging ober haw at my starting position!"

"Wait, now HE'S going to get to strike the ober haw as fast as he can? Hrm, maybe I should focus on really nailing that first zwer haw for immediate and reliable cover."

And with the athletic approach, it's important to structure the drills to make sure that they DO in fact subconsciously hammer in the right lessons.

"Aw, yeah, it's totally cool that I'm coming forward to teeter-totter on one toe and overswing wide into the Wechsel without any consideration for covering myself safely."

"What, my partner gets to take a potshot at me before or after my strike? But now I have to actually stay balanced with my weight so I can retreat a pace. And maybe keep my followthrough tight, point forward, so that I can more immediately cover if he strikes in my Nach."

That's all for now; training fighting principles and fitness principles are already sketched out, plus a final grab bag of 18 more random detail topics.

But next up: finish out the practical, lowest level of ideas and suggestions for programming your HEMA training WRT sport-specific and physiologically specific considerations (part 3 of my blog series on individual differences in athletic performance, impact on swordsmanship.)



Individual differences in athletic performance, impact on swordsmanship (2/3)

[Note: this entry addresses primarily upper body development, but aerobic fitness conditioning and leg/core strength/speed/coordination training will provide better overall fencing results long before upper body training becomes a primary issue. Open to revision.]

Training harder requires 1) a strong understanding of your CURRENT physical/mental capabilities and limits, b/c 2) cutting down your safety margins against your ultimate human limits.

Doing work at only 20-30% of your joints' and muscles' capacity is what we usually call trivial. It's walking up the stairs, or carrying groceries from the car for most of us. This is the level at which our ability to lift or swing a sword needs to ultimately be in order for us to focus our effort on when and where to swing or place the sword, and not constantly struggle with merely holding up or starting/stopping the sword. As our muscles fatigue, the weight of the sword can go from 30% of fresh capacity to 80% of tired capacity -- at which point we have transitioned from skill training to fitness/strength (often without realizing it). Therefore, we should learn to become aware of when to drills for skills and when to drill for fitness. For new people, this can happen within 5-15 repetitions per set. Rest 10-30 seconds, then start with skill focus again, changing to fitness conditioning by the end of each subsequent set of reps. By the 5th set or so, pretty much the entire set will be focused on conditioning.

50-80% work is where we begin to stimulate muscle growth in response to stress (i.e. minute tearing of individual muscle fibers). Anything over 100% is where we tear too many muscle fibers at once, tendons, break joints and bones, etc. The error of margin for people with high proprioception might be 2-5% (Olympic caliber), 10-20% (high performance athletes), 30-50% (recreational participants). This ballpark schema only roughly indicates why someone new to an activity might pick up a 10-lb weight and pull a muscle, when someone else doing it for 9 months can sling around a 15-lb weight in explosive (plyometric) exercises as a regular (but grueling) workout.

For an elderly person or someone just out of hospital/physical rehab/etc., this may not be the case, and such tasks may represent 70-150% (or worse) of their current capability.

So in the same sense, if using a 3-lb sword at slow speeds is 90% of a person's upper body/core strength capability, that is a lot of work for that person -- well within their potentially dangerous error of margin, if they underestimate the strength needed to stop or start a particular swing, and end up going over 100% of their current strength.

How can a 3-lb weight be so dangerous, if we pick up and move a gallon of milk (8 lbs) all the time? Usually, the gallon of milk isn't on a 4-foot long lever (effectively feels like 16-40 lbs, depending on where it's attached to the lever) accelerating from 0 mph to 40-80 mph at the tip in 0.2-0.5 second (roughly 6x to 15x faster than a Porsche 911 flooring it). The 3-lb sword accelerated like a Porsche (0-60 mph in 2.9 s = 27.7 m/s^2 = 2.8 g-unit) would momentarily feel like 8.4 lbs in the hand, though the greater acceleration of the sword's point can put torque on the wrists/elbows comparable to 12-30 lbs perceived. This only very crudely accounts for the unequal distribution of mass over the length of the sword-lever (it would have been 50-120 lbs perceived if the sword's entire 3 lbs were at the end of a massless 4' lever).

Please feel free to check my numbers:

In this regard, training takes several stages which can overlap. Basic strength training is the most useful to new participants, to build up their proprioception and slow-twitch strength. This allows them to hold a sword up longer and begin to understand at an instinctive level where their spine, joints, center of mass, and mass of the sword are in a three-dimensional space. Rushing or abandoning this process leads to risk of injured joints, sore or pulled/torn muscles, falling over, and putting yourself off-balance in mid-action.

As a rule of thumb, you must be able to lift a weight of 3X before you can BEGIN to safely train explosively with a weight of X. Long jump training for a 150-lb participant includes building towards a 300-lb squat. Sure, you can train long jumps far earlier, but the scope of the training is advised to be limited to less than maximum effort in order to protect the joints and muscles from injury.

Clearly, however, just being able to squat 300 lbs does not magically imbue the participant with the ability to perform 12' long jumps.

The second stage begins the explosive training, with the athlete working faster reps at 1/3 maximum weight.

The third stage works the target activity: the actual long jump.

The HEMA-specific lesson to take from this is to work a progression from light to heavy, slow to fast. Specific programming will vary from person to person. These are sample notes for someone who starts out with the ability to lift a 10-lb dumbbell 20x. In the exercises below, full weight would then refer to 10 lbs, and half weight is 5 lbs. If you can handle 8 lbs 20x, that's your full weight and 4 lbs is your half weight.

Rotate through exercises, across multiple sessions; focus on the ones you want to improve most, but don't ignore any completely. Perform smoothly and controlled with a single dumbbell, with each arm separately to build core stabilizer strength. Alternate starting arm each session to avoid favoring a side due to fatigue. Keep good form, elbow relatively close in to body (neither crunched in tight nor flung wide to the side), don't throw or hunch the shoulder into any action. Keep lower body in a wide stance with knees bent, weight centered and back straight, as when in guard. Timeframes are not given, but exercise sessions should be spaced out with rest days in between, and most people will benefit from spending 2-4 weeks at a particular superset level. Some variation to a lighter set is good for resting periods, or to a lower-rep heavier set to try out what's next.

On a per-set of 20x basis, reduce your reps to 15x, 10x, 5x, or whatever, based on the fatigue and strain you are feeling IN THAT MOMENT. Don't push too hard, just to stick to some predefined number that you "could hit just fine last week." Maybe your other workouts were more intense this week. Maybe you missed two days b/c of work and life. Maybe you didn't have breakfast. Slept wrong.

These numbers and exercises are all just suggestions. Look at what they target, adjust for what you need and are currently capable of.

Full weight exercises (all single arm):

  • row
  • chest press
  • clean and overhead press

half weight exercises (all single arm):

  • snatch
  • corkscrew
  • chest fly
  • lateral raise
  • bent over lateral raise
  • front raise
  • external rotation

Normal superset 3x (per arm):

  • 20x 10-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise

Speed superset 3x (per arm) in same time as 1x Normal superset:

  • 20x 3-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 3-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 3-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 3-lb half weight exercise

Normal superset 3x (per arm):

  • 20x 15-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 15-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise

Speed superset 3x (per arm) in same time as 1x Normal superset:

  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise

Normal superset 3x (per arm):

  • 20x 20-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 20-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise

Speed superset 3x (per arm) in same time as 1x Normal superset:

  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise

Normal superset 3x (per arm):

  • 20x 25-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 25-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 15-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 15-lb half weight exercise

Speed superset 3x (per arm) in same time as 1x Normal superset:

  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise

Progression can continue up to 20-lb half weight exercises for speed supersets (meaning you are capable of slow, careful, 40-lb full weight versions of the exercises -- this is NOT a casual level of training and performance, for most people, so do not take this lightly :D ), at which point the actual weight is roughly comparable to the perceived weight of a sword at full swing. The process should take months if not a year for a new person to SAFELY build up to. Many people ignore the awareness/proprioception, stabilizer strength, and joint/connective tissue benefits of working many reps over time at a rate of progression that would be considered well below optimal for rapid muscle/strength gain. Good swordfighting requires an understanding of the blade verging on walking and breathing. We walk and breathe thousands of times every day; how could such awareness with a sword be developed with only a few hundred repetitions per week? And just as with qigong (chi kung) and yoga, most people don't realize how unaware and inefficiently they may be standing, sitting, or breathing until they mindfully do so with purpose. So just because you decide to go out and swing a sword 3000 times (roughly a minimum to achieve sufficient neuron myelination for what people call "muscle memory") won't make you amazing with a single sword action. Doing so with careful attention to each swing at full speed, precision, and intent will. Then you just have to do it again for each of the dozen or so guards, two dozen skills or actions, and so on.

All that said, what can people at different points in their lives, abilities, and levels of interest do to work towards the same common goal of swordfighting?


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Individual differences in athletic performance, impact on swordsmanship (1/3)

This is in response to a recent discussion on a recurring topic in historical European martial arts (HEMA) as well as in sports and martial arts in general. Open to revision.

1) I reiterate my long-standing assertion that cultural norms far outweigh the real and not insignificant physiological differences between men and women with regards to overall and upper body strength.

This view is far from a mystery to most sports psychologists or coaches, but it bears repeating for audiences that have not yet made their peace with the nuances. Rather, it's much easier for people to cling to a singular idea: "We are all the same, with the same potential!" (clearly, we are not all the same) "Men and women are different. Just face the biological facts!" (clearly, we are all human with the same chemistry and principles of physiology; no men from Mars or women from Venus here. Sorry, Dejah Thoris.)

(Bear with me; I'm going to quantify this to frame the next steps in discussing appropriate training approaches for manly women, womanly men, couchly potatoes, and every permutation thereof.)

This abstract indicates that men and women have roughly the same number of muscle fibers and same joint strength (elbows/knees). However, the study found that women were 52% strong as men (upper body) and 66% strong as men (lower body). This appeared to be due to the 32% greater Type I (slow-twitch) and 90% greater Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fiber area/size.

HOWEVER however, the strength generated per same unit size of muscle was roughly the same between men and women. So in a sense, men and women are fundamentally equally strong, by nature. HOWEVER however however, aided by another part of nature (testosterone) but a lot more by nurture, men can more easily develop strength and are encouraged to do so by societal norms. Women, OTOH, are often implicitly or explicitly discouraged by older family members, school peers, and coworkers -- as well as by discussions such as this one.

Many PEOPLE new to activities (particularly physical ones) internalize negative attitudes, fixating on the tangible fact that they can't do a certain exercise the same as someone else in the class -- ignoring the less tangible discrepancies in prior time spent in HEMA-specific training, prior lifetime sports participation, physical activity, etc. You wouldn't expect to pace Lance Armstrong on a bicycle without training; why assume you can pace the person next to you in your first training session when they have 6 years of football conditioning or whatever? Yet I observe this behavior all the time across multiple areas of new/unfamiliar activity.

Such people project "I can't currently do this" forward into "I'll never do this." Instead, the statement should be revised to "I can't YET do this" and projected forward to "I will incrementally progress my training towards this." I spend the majority of my time on adjusting those attitudes. Once they choose to do something about it, their training skyrockets. It's how I got hundreds of parkour students gradually from gassing out on a half-mile jog to doing hundreds of 8' jumps. Jogs led to hops led to small jumps led to running jumps.

Then they hit their first plateau. At that point, the attitude process restarts, at least until they realize the adjustment pattern required for continued growth -- and that all athletes are constantly putting themselves through this process again and again. None of us are invulnerable to these doubts, even if some of us are tested less often by them.

I say "people," b/c I get both men and women who are overly self-critical or lacking in confidence. In a completely different topic, our society instills a lot more insecurities in women (just look for the articles on pay scale variation, women in CEO positions, management/celebrity positions as chefs/movie directors/etc., engineering fields, and so on). And THAT needs to be concurrently addressed as a societal issue, even as we as HEMA trainers and trainees strive to provide an egalitarian and supportive environment for each other regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, fringe group affiliation, favorite way to prepare squid, or what the hell ever.

Anecdotally, I have trained with over a dozen women who were just as committed as me to our shared activities. A few of them (but not all of them) could squat, lift, push-up, or pull-up more than me. I currently room with a friend who went for Marine OCS, and her workouts rountinely see more pull-ups than all the 40+ people in my fencing club do -- combined!

Barring specific personal medical/physical conditions, all men and women are generally capable of striving for and achieving similar or better results.

It would be rule-of-thumb true to say, "Men are statistically nearly twice as strong as women in every way that matters."

It would also be true to say, "0.0006% of all American men (the top 1000 out of 97,000 male competitive MMA fighters in the US) may have a reasonable chance of lasting a round with Rhonda Rousey." (this is being generous to American men, since Rousey has demonstrated handily throwing Bas Rutten!)

Or for the historically inclined to state the absurdly evident, "No modern person will ever have the time to spend an entire recreational lifetime in wrestling and stick fighting, as well as a working lifetime of casually harder physical labor than even most of our laborers today will see, thanks to power equipment and vehicles replacing the need to haul hods of brick, sink fence posts, ride horses for 4-8 hrs a day and weeks at a time, dig up 110 lbs of potatoes a year, or dress out 400-lb wild boar." Even groups like the Amish today benefit indirectly from technology, so no one in an industrialized country is off the hook.

Such statements are eminently unhelpful for training and motivation, however.

That is not the same as saying that there are no differences, or that differences don't matter -- just train harder. Those are two equally inappropriate blanket statements, born of frustration with overly wrought discussions like the current one.

So how should we individually tailor our training methods?

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