Thursday, December 13, 2018

"Must Haves" of Training for Combat and Protection, Part 1: Physical Preparation

Training for combat whether for ring fighting, law enforcement, military or just practicing traditional methods can be split into three must have categories: physical preparation, skills and simulation.  These aspects tend to be trained in their respective order, however they are also revisited on a regular basis to continually maintain or improve each one.  All combat training emphasizes physical preparation at the beginning.  This is for good reason as combat training requires general and specific physical attributes.  General attributes are overall stamina, agility, coordination and strength. Specific attributes would be leg flexibility in kicking styles or core strength in wrestling and jiu-jitsu.  These are attributes that vary depending on the style or intent of the combat training. There various methods for accomplishing this across all disciplines.  Many methods are shared, but there are unique methods specific to each discipline as well.  Here’s comparison of ring fighting, traditional martial arts, law enforcement and military methods of physical preparation.  This is just a sampling of the wide variety of training methods used.
Boxing and and other combat sports commonly use running and skipping rope to build stamina.  There are videos of almost every well known boxer out on morning runs and doing intense jump rope workouts.   Here’s a few videos of famous fighters skipping rope.  An old school exercise for building striking power is to chop wood or hitting a tire with a sledgehammer.  Although it’s thought as an old school training method, Floyd Mayweather included chopping wood as part of his training for the Pacquiao fight.  In this video, you’ll see Fedor Emelianenko running, performing body weight exercises, hitting a tire with a sledgehammer and doing some unique exercises (holding weights in hands, spinning in circles,etc.)  In the early days, many trainers were against lifting weights as they thought it would make the fighter slow.  Although there are some that still feel this way that mindset has changed and most fighters include weight training in their training regimen to build strength and power.  A well-known case of switch to the modern method is when Michael Spinks trained to fight Larry Holmes.  Here's an article from the LA Times showing some of the reactions to his training methods which are now standard in combat sports today.  
Traditional martial arts use their own varying approaches to physical preparation.  Most schools include a fair amount of basic calisthenics (jumping jacks, push up, situps, squats, etc.) to build strength in addition to stretching for flexibility.  A method that is unique to traditional martial arts is stance training.   Stance training is commonly used build up leg strength in various positions and ranges of motion.  There is also a secondary aspect of building mental toughness since holding a deep stance for a length of time can be quite intense.  There are many other unique training methods across all the various martial arts.  Shuai Jiao is a great example of a style that has many unique exercises and tools for its training.  Karate for a long time has been associated with physically intense training.  Here’s a video of some Karate tools and exercises that are quite similar to those in the Shuai Jiao video.
A common misconception is that intense physical training is not a requirement for internal martial arts, however I would argue that physical training is even more important for internal martial arts.  However, the type of exercises is very different from other martial arts and combat sports.  Internal martial arts have a number of unique exercises for increasing strength and flexibility particularly in the waist and legs.  In addition, internal martial arts include many exercises to improve circulation, massage the internal organs and control the breath.  These are all critical to internal martial arts and are many times neglected or perceived to be only for health and relaxation.  Diligently training the body using both types of exercises is critical for executing techniques with the proper body requirements of internal martial arts.  A well known strength building exercise used in Xingyi and Taiji is pole shaking .  This Taiji video shows a number of additional strength building exercises some which use weights but in a manner to build internal strength and power.  There are also various qigong methods for improving breath control, circulation and increasing range of motion.  All of this gives internal martials arts a large foundation of physical preparation.
Military and law enforcement have standardized physical tests and requirements for all new recruits.  Both have a training period that emphasizes physical training (“boot camp”).  Typical requirements are mile runs, situps, push up, chin ups and other exercises used to demonstrate strength and stamina.  An example of unique training methods in the military and law enforcement are the use of obstacle courses for agility training and long hikes with heavy loads for endurance and mental toughness.  
As we see all combat training places heavy emphasis on physical preparation.  Although the training methods are varied, the intent is the same.   In addition to being a critical phase at the start of training it is also something that cannot be neglected afterwards.  Ring fighters must stay in top physical condition or risk being out worked or simply overpowered by their opponents.  Active-duty military have ongoing physical requirements to meet and police need to maintain a level of fitness to protect themselves and others.  If you train martial arts for self-defense this requirement is no different.  Technique is not effective in the absence of the necessary physical attributes.  The fact that putting physical training at the forefront has endured from the old traditional methods to modern day military training shows its importance.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sparring and Levels of Contact

Sparring is an essential part of training in martial arts, however there are many ways to approach it.  Let’s start off by defining what sparring is intended to be.  First, sparring is not a “real” fight.  There’s two ways to interpret “real” fight.  It can be either a competitive match or a self-defense scenario. Street fights and self defense situations tend to be surprise attacks which can potentially involve more than one assailant or an assailant with a weapon.  In such a case, your goal should be to avoid harm and escape and not to defeat all the assailants.  Competitive matches are two people testing their skills and trying to defeat one another. Sparring on the other hand is intended to train skills and strategies against a live opponent who provides resistance and possibly a certain method of attack/defense.  Sparring is used to prepare for a fight but is not a fight itself. 
So now that we’ve defined what sparring is and what it isn’t let’s talk about how to use sparring in training and the benefits of it.  Sparring develops a number of skills that are difficult to develop using other means.  One of the most important of these is is distance management.  Being able to judge and move between ranges with a live opponent is critical in a match.   Sparring is the best way to practice closing, maintaining or creating distance between your opponent.  You need a person attack and moving in order to learn the proper methods of moving while maintaing proper defense or creating openings for offense.  Timing is another aspect that can only really be worked in a sparring context.  Timing not only is simply judging when to what rate to execute a attack or defense but also when and what to use.  It takes timing to a land a front kick on a moving a opponent, but there’s also the aspect of knowing when to use a front kick.  This skill can only be developed in sparring.   Another key aspect is working fighting strategy, there is no other way to execute fighting principles other than in a changing environment against a resisting opponent who is has their own strategy.  Knowing how to adapt to opponents of different sizes and abilities using various strategies and principles is a skill that is necessary to become a good martial artist.  Getting this type of practice brings a greater understanding of the techniques due to having to apply it in various situations.   Sparring is a excellent way to reinforce fundamentals as you have to use them instinctually and while under pressure. 
The next important element of sparring that is somewhat disputed is the level of contact that should occur.  Some people think only hard, full power sparring is worth doing.  Others only do very light “touch” sparring.  Let’s go through each and mention possible benefits or downsides.  Light sparring is a useful tool for learning as it allows people to experiment with a low risk of injury.  When trying new techniques or strategies it is helpful to work out the idea at first without having to worry about being clocked.  Light contact is great for training frequently, as there is a low risk of injury.  You can spar everyday and work on all aspects of your art without concern about recovery.
Next is what I would consider moderate contact.  I would define this as just enough to sting or hurt a little.  This is a good compromise between heavy and light contact.  It’s enough contact that you really want to avoid it.  Also, it provides good feedback to both people.  The person who lands successfully know that they could have hit harder and the defender clearly knows it as well.  Sometimes, light sparring can become tag and a false sense of what a real strike is can develop.  Adding a little bit of “pop” helps avoid this and ensures that the fighters know they can defend against and execute an attack with real intent to make contact.  This is good once both people are comfortable with their skills and can demonstrate good control.
I’ll define heavy contact as full power with potential (or intent) to drop someone.  This type of sparring should be used sparingly and I honestly think it should be reserved for professionals only.  For everyday people who aren’t into competition it’s really not worth it.  There is a high risk of injury and it takes time to recover from full contact.  One benefit, however, is that heavy contact offers a very close simulation of real fighting in and outside of competition.  Good padding can reduce the risk of injury but heavy contact to the head is damaging regardless.  Contrary to popular belief, taking heavy blows to the head doesn’t make you tougher.  In fact, it makes you more likely to get knocked out.  Take a look at many fighter’s career’s and you’ll see that once they’ve been KO’d once they tend to get KO’d more often.  Most of what makes a fighter tough is psychological.  Often a tough fighter is referred to as having a lot of heart.  This shows an understanding that It’s the fighting spirit and not necessarily a hard head that makes a tough fighter.  Also, there are other less destructive ways to test your will (think long runs, long stance training, intense workouts, etc..).  If you still want to do heavy contact I would keep it to the body. In reality, it takes a lot more toughness to shrug off a hard body shot.  Body shots are the type of strike that make fighters curl up into a ball and quit.
Since we practice outside with limited equipment, our group uses mostly light sparring to train various techniques and fighting strategies.  We occasionally do sparring with more force using heavy duty chest pads and restricting to only body attacks.  Our focus aligns with the idea that sparring should be treated like an experiment and is a tool for trying out what you’ve drilled in a freeform, unpredictable environment with an opponent who is actively resisting.  Some form of sparring needs to be a part of training to aid in grasping the ideas and strategies in martial arts.   When used properly as a training tool sparring will not only help your fighting skills but will better your overall form and technique as well.  Just remember it’s not a real fight, you don’t have to try and knockout each other and you’ll find sparring useful and more enjoyable.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Duels or Ambushes?

Sometimes I see arguments between traditional martial artists and sport fans when comparing sport martial arts and traditional martial arts.  Usually it’s pretty biased on either side, where your side is cherished and the other side is trashed. 

That Old Argument

People in favor of sport arts often claim that traditional arts are useless and better off forgotten about; then a MMA fighter pulls off a traditional technique in the cage and all of a sudden they have to grudgingly admit that move at least has some merit.  At one point MMA fans even thought striking in general was useless, but thankfully that was like 15 years ago.  More recently, there’s been a resurgence of solid striking, including the jab, the backfist, the front kick, the oblique kick, the axe kick, and really for kicking in general.  Jon Jones pulled off a traditional shoulder attack against Glover Texeira, where Texeira’s shoulders were damaged enough that he couldn’t throw power strikes anymore for the rest of the match.  The traditional Karate stance made a comeback with guys like Machida and McGregor; McGregor even used his Karate stance to fight Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match and actually fared ok.

Likewise, traditionalists often disparage sport fighting because it isn’t ‘real’ and because there are rules.  Usually if these guys try out a sport fight themselves they get a reality check; turns out it’s real enough if you’re in there.  A really weird thing I’ve seen from traditionalists is this attitude that sport fighters are all meatheads or something because they don’t have the calming mindset and meditative aspects of traditional arts.  But then if you see a match between a traditional guy and a sport guy on Youtube, it’s usually the traditional guy who’s really nervous and flying off the handle because he has something to prove.  The sport guy’s usually been through enough that he doesn’t have to get worked up over a simple match.  Often the sport guy shows more calmness under pressure and is a pretty good example of the ideals espoused by traditional martial arts (please keep in mind that it’s often the case, definitely not always).

Sport ‘versus’ Tradition
Both sides do have valid criticisms of each other, but really I think they each miss the point when they frame the comparison as an argument.  The main difference between sport and traditional martial arts (or at least traditional martial arts as they were originally conceived) is that sport arts are all about preparing for duels and traditional arts are all about preparing for ambushes.  A duel is a 1-on-1 match that has an even playing field so you can see which person’s better at the end of it.  An ambush is a surprise attack, usually with the purpose of taking something, like a predator killing prey so it can eat.

Dueling is easy for everyone to picture in their minds, and it’s emotionally satisfying.  Two people square off and we find out once and for all who’s better.  A key feature of duels is that both fighters have agreed to engage.  If the duelists keep fighting better opponents, they’ll keep improving.  Eventually the best fighter gets through everybody else, and has become the best by going through the best.  The whole concept is easy to understand, and I think it’s hard-wired into the instinctual part of our brains.  Sport fights, schoolyard brawls, bar fights, and backyard BBQ shenanigans usually fall into the dueling category.  (A quick side note:  people usually think of fighting bullies as a type of duel because a guy being bullied often wants to face off with his bullies to prove he’s better.  But there’s a disconnect here because the bullies aren’t dueling, they’re just having some fun.  I’d say bullying uses ambush tactics and social humiliation to freeze prey in place so they can be pawed around with; in some ways bullying resembles dueling because the bullies are trying to engage with their prey instead of just smashing and grabbing.) 

Although you can learn a lot from duels, the traditional critique against them does have some merit because real-world attacks are hardly ever duels, they’re usually ambushes with unfair odds.  One example is criminals, who usually try to attack people by surprise.  They break in at night when you’re asleep, they distract you from the front while a partner attacks you from behind.  From the outset, they want you to have no options to fight back.  The reason I say ‘real-world’ attacks though and not just criminal attacks is because this mentality holds true for most real-world engagements, not just for criminals.  The military calls this type of attack ‘asymmetrical’; the violence is all going in one direction.  When police detain a violent criminal, they use pepper spray, handcuffs, batons, stun guns, superior numbers, squad tactics, and body armor.  In my own personal experience, when a client was escalating he’d often focus on one staff member, which allowed another staff member to sneak up and subdue the client from behind.  Having a head-on fight was actually the least desirable scenario, for a number of reasons.

Another critique that traditionalists have against dueling which does hold true is that in the real world, since there usually aren’t agreed-upon rulesets a duel can easily turn into an ambush.  A guy who’s losing a duel in a bar or in the street might pull out a knife to ‘even the odds’, but really they aren’t even anymore.  Somebody who lost an argument or a duel on the street might leave the scene just to grab a gun so they can come back and shoot people.  They might grab some friends, too, and they might follow you home.  They’ve stopped ‘playing fair’, they’ve stopped dueling.

Goals in Training
The goal of a duel is to win, and the goal of a person being ambushed is usually just to escape without suffering much damage.  These goals really factor into strategy, and strategy determines how you train.  Somebody who’s training for self defense or for a dangerous job probably won’t find much direct use in a lot of dueling strategies just because the goals of each are so different.  A lot of dueling revolves around a back-and-forth give-and-take where over time you get your opponent to think you’re about to swing left, but then you swing right.  An ambush by its nature is a trap that’s sprung, so back-and-forth strategies don’t factor in as much.  (Sometimes there are lulls in an ambush where you find yourself temporarily squaring off though, and these moments could be where dueling strategies might come in handy.)

But really, how do you directly train for a random ambush that could come from any number of criminals or wackos in the world?  I don’t really think you can, and it’s kind of a source of frustration for me to be honest.  The reason I started martial arts was to use something that would keep me safe at my old job, and self defense is still in the forefront of my mind when I practice, even now.

The Best Answer I’ve Found, So Far
Several years out from when I had my old job, the best answer I’ve found (so far) in training for self defense is actually to use different types of dueling to train your techniques as well as you can.  The main goal, though, isn’t to win the duel but to learn from it; to view dueling as another training method instead of as an end goal.  Our group’s primary form of dueling practice is free-form push hands, which is basically grappling in a standing clinch.  I used this training tool to stay safe at my old job, so I’ll stick with something which I know works.  In addition to this, we’ve practiced light sparring without equipment and harder sparring with pads and gloves. 
I think the most important thing to keep in mind for self defense is that whatever you’ve learned, practiced, or studied, the best tools for self defense will always be paying attention, listening to your intuition, and leaving the area.  Everything else in martial arts is just cool stuff heaped on top of those three things.