What Is Functional Strength?

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Discussing strength in the self-defense world often veers to a discussion of functional strength. Functional strength can have many meanings depending on who you are discussing it with. Let’s define what functional strength is for the self-defense enthusiast.

Why train strength?

Why do we train strength at all? Most martial systems claim to be effective against opponents of much greater size and strength. More importantly, why would I need to train at all if I have a gun?

Most fights happen at bad breath distance. Since there is no magic gun that will hold an attacker at arm’s length, this means we should be prepared for a physical encounter. While strength alone doesn’t make you a great fighter, it can only aid our fighting abilities (so long as we don’t go to the extreme of limiting our overall mobility; we’ll touch on that in a moment).

Being strong increases our chances of survival in a self-defense encounter.

Functional strength

Functional strength is geared towards whole body and compound motions. These compound motions better mimic real world movements than working on targeting certain muscle groups. To me functional strength is centered around bodyweight. For me to be functionally strong, I want to be able to successfully perform exercises like pullups, pushups, and bodyweight squats for reps.

I emphasize functional bodyweight training because in life I’d rather be able to manipulate my weight to a maximum effect than be able to lift my refrigerator over my head (and probably look like a refrigerator myself). I would describe the ultimate fitness condition for a fighter to be lean, strong, flexible, and agile. I want to be all of those things, not big and bulky.

Massive muscles can have a detriment on range of motion.

I once trained with a guy who was massive. He probably weighed around 300 pounds, but he was a strong guy. So strong the he could probably lift me over his head and spin me comic book style. One day we were working on breakfalls in class. His mobility was so limited that he could not extend his arm to breakfall, and would instead smash his elbow into the mats. His limited range of motion directly impacts his ability to fight.

If you do train for strength, never forget to work on flexibility or you will end up in a similar situation.

Why I prefer bodyweight training

My opinion is that if I can do many pullups I am not only strong, but I must also be fairly lean. You won’t see many 300lb individuals doing high reps at the pullup bar (although exceptions exist). I would rather be strong for my size rather than just strong. Strongman competitions certainly aren’t in my future.

Training for self-defense and functional strength are one and the same. Train like an athlete, not like a body builder. Work on explosiveness, speed, and functional strength so hopefully you’ll be functional when you need to be.

What kind of strength training do you do? Post a comment below and let us know!

The Carpenter’s Tools

The past few weeks I have written some posts on the subject of why one tool is better or worse than another. More specifically, you may have noticed my low opinions of shotguns and revolvers. The arguments that are typically fired back in favor of these firearms (or any firearm as the ultimate tool above all others) are the result of flawed logic. The same is also true of the individual who argues that his high capacity pistol or his tricked out AR15 will solve all his problems.

Skills solve problems; tools only help you to solve them.

Take for example carpentry. Having a hammer doesn’t make me a master carpenter. I have a garage full of saws, drills, and hammers, but I am far from what one would consider a carpenter. Sure I can throw some scrap wood together or build myself a workbench, but the quality of my output doesn’t compare to that of someone who spends their career working with wood. I can buy all the best tools, but a top of the line saw or drill won’t make up for my limited skills.

The biggest difference between carpentry and self-defense is that a carpenter’s skills aren’t used in life or death situations. I could spend my time trying to become a master carpenter, but since I probably won’t have to rely on my carpentry skills to save my life, I prefer to train. Just like with carpentry, we have many tools at our disposal for training. What many people fail to realize is that in the end, training is not about the tools, it’s about you. The carpenter may use tools to get the job done, but tools have no value without a skilled practitioner.

Rather than fixating on finding the perfect tool to solve a problem, we must all invest time and energy into training the skills we will need. You must practice.

Shotguns can in fact miss, and revolvers aren’t really that easy to shoot. Semi-auto pistols, even high capacity ones, can require reloading or can malfunction. Even an AK47 can malfunction. The list goes on and on. No tool you can use is magical.

Before someone expects to go out and earn their living as a carpenter, they go to a vocational school and or spend time as an apprentice. They spend probably thousands of hours practicing before they put their skills to use to pay the bills. Even after these skills start paying the bills, through working every day a carpenter improves and gets better at his job.

Self-defense is somewhat unique in that the entire investment in skills may come down to be used in a single moment. We cannot choose when or where this moment will occur, or if it ever does occur. We certainly need to invest our time up front beforehand to be ready. We cannot rely on the use of our skills in our day to day life to necessarily improve them. Instead you must practice consistently.

The carpenter prepares in order to do everyday jobs, but he also prepares for the less common special requests a job might require. If he prepared only for the common tasks, he limits the opportunity to find other work.

Don’t rely on any tool, whether it is a certain type of pistol, rifle, knife, whatever. Take that tool, and learn to be effective with it. Master its use so that if you are ever called upon to use a weapon to defend yourself, you aren’t relying on the weapon so much as your training.

Quantity vs Quality

A few months ago when I started this blog, I used the blog’s launch as a way to boost my own training. I have always enjoyed training in various ways for self-defense, but with this new mission in life to encourage others to train, I gave myself a great reason to take a look at my own training regimen. I have (happily) found ways to increase my own training time, and do so on a more regular schedule. One significant area of my training that has dramatically increased is my dry fire practice.

I knew dry fire was something I should be practicing, but I never seemed to have the time. Now I dry fire 5+ days a week. My sessions have been fairly long (30+ minutes at a time) consisting of dozens of reps for various skills. Depending on the day and my particular routine, I might end up practicing hundreds of repetitions.

What I’ve noticed recently is that after the first 10 or 20 reps my practice seems to start going down the drain. Each rep becomes less perfect than the one before it, and the focus dissipates. The part of my brain that knows about the one million other tasks that need to be done that day takes over and tries to influence me to get done sooner.

Over the past few days I’ve started changing up my routine, and instead of working on a few skills per day for many reps, I’m working fewer reps on a larger variety of skills. I notice that I get less fatigued with any given skill and I maintain interest much longer. Instead of 50 or 100 reps for each skill I practice 10 or 20.

This observation of mine has led me back to the question of quantity vs quality. Is it better to practice many imperfect reps or fewer reps that are closer to perfect? I have discussed on this blog the topic of perfect practice makes perfect.

Where exactly do we draw the line between quantity and quality? Would practicing one perfect rep a day be better than 10 mostly perfect, or are we better off doing 200 far from perfect reps?

One Take

Like all things in life, training is a balancing act between quantity and quality. The guiding factor for determining how much quantity we can handle is fatigue.

When we train we all suffer from fatigue eventually. We might have fatigue in our focus, our bodies, or our interest. To get the most out of our training, we need to maximize how much we can train before fatigue overpowers our gains.

Focus

For me focus can be one of the first things to go. The more reps I practice the more diluted every rep becomes. It is easy to focus on a single rep with the intention to make it as perfect as I can. Ten reps are a little harder, but provide more benefit than practicing something once. Try focusing for 100 reps, and you’ll be more likely to lose your focus on at least one.

Body

Muscle fatigue can set in with just about any physical activity. Even dry fire can cause fatigue in the arms from holding a pistol up, working the trigger, or practicing presenting the pistol. As fatigue builds it gradually introduces more error into your practice. Just as with focus, it’s easy to do one rep, but 100 might tire you out. When you get tired, expect to make mistakes.

Interest

Finally, interest wanes the more you practice. Like focus and your body, interest will become fatigued with time. If you practice the same skill for hundreds of repetitions, will you bore yourself? An uninterested student is less likely to put in the optimal effort. How many reps can you do before you get bored?

When you train, balance your fatigue with the gains you want to make. Find the point at which you can train enough to have the number of reps improve your skills while not fatiguing yourself to the point of practicing incorrectly. Make every rep perfect because you are focused, interested, and not exhausted and you have a higher likelihood of improving than if you are unfocused, disinterested and dead tired.

Where is your balance between quantity and quality?

Revisit Your Gun Handling

Photo by DrJimiGlide

If you practice any aspect of shooting, whether it be for self-defense or even pure enjoyment, you need to periodically take a look at your gun handling. Safety is always a top concern around firearms, and we all know that familiarity breeds contempt.

The more you train or practice with a given firearm the more familiar you become with it. This can be a good thing – operating it under pressure should ideally be second nature. It is better to know where the controls are instinctively then have to figure it out every time you need to use it.

But increased familiarity also has a downside. The more familiar you are with a given firearm, the less you will be thinking about “the little things” when you are using it. This will be particularly true of things like firearm safety. If I build a bad trigger finger habit into my draw stroke I might not notice because of my familiarity and comfort level with the gun.

Clearly this is not a good thing.

My suggestion to you is to stop every once in a while and take a careful look at your gun handling and watch for these kinds of mistakes and habits. This is where using video in your training or working with a training partner can be helpful. If you do use either of these methods, then there is no need to wait to do this periodically, your eyes should always be open for safety issues, and no safety issue should go unchecked.

What should you look for when you are checking your gun handling?

There are two main categories of safety issues to watch out for in your own gun handling: muzzle and trigger.

Muzzle issues can come in a variety of flavors:

  1. Muzzling yourself on the draw-stroke

  2. Muzzling yourself when re-holstering (I once saw a woman at the range re-holster into a retention holster and muzzle her arm repeatedly holding the holster open. When called on it she said it was the only way…. Oh yeah? What about bringing the gun around your arm?)

  3. Muzzling yourself during any other manipulation (keep your hands behind the muzzle)

  4. Muzzling anyone else ever – watch where you are pointing that thing.

Trigger issues are also in abundance:

  1. Trigger finger in the trigger guard when drawing

  2. Trigger finger in the trigger guard when re-holstering

  3. Trigger finger in the trigger guard during any other manipulation (you don’t want to squeeze off a round while your hand is on the slide clearing a malfunction do you?)

Watch out for these safety issues when you train. If you don’t have the means to check yourself every time you are at the range, pay special attention every once in a while to make sure you don’t lapse into being unsafe. If you find a bad habit, fix it. Safety is of the utmost importance around firearms. Don’t let familiarity cause an accident.

What do you do to make sure you continue to safely manipulate your firearms at the range?

Train in All Wardrobes

When you train for self-defense, the goal is to be ready to defend yourself whenever or wherever you may need to. Part of ensuring this preparedness is to train in the entire variety of clothing that you may wear. Drawing a pistol while wearing a vest for concealment is far different than drawing from underneath a t-shirt. Still harder is drawing from underneath a variety of winter layers. Unless you live somewhere warm and tropical you will probably be wearing multiple layers at some point during the year.

Image by frankh

Adapt

Self-defense is all about adapting. In this case you need to either adapt your training to work with what you wear, or adapt what you wear to meet the criteria of what you train for. If option two is available for you, take it. The narrower your set of wardrobe choices, the easier it will be to train for each possible scenario.

The rest of us need to be just as prepared for the day we wear a t-shirt as we are for the day we conceal in a tuckable holster in a suit. Take some time to practice at least occasionally in all modes of dress that you use.

Go to the range in a suit, you say?

I would rather not dirty my best suit at the range, so the way I achieve this type of practice is through dry-fire. Each day I take some time to dry-fire wearing whatever clothing I happened to wear that day. If it is a weekend, I’ll be drawing from beneath a t-shirt or a sweatshirt. During the week it might be a polo or a button down shirt. If I want to practice drawing from a suit I might need to set aside a special day to do so – I don’t wear suits very often.

Not just pistol training

The same training concept applies to more than just training to use a firearm for self-defense. You should practice any self-defense skill in the type of clothing you typically wear. Many martial artists spend their time training in various dogi and other uniforms. These uniforms are usually designed for maximum mobility. Compare this to most business wear and you’ll find many differences. Most business attire will hamper mobility to some extent, so it is a good idea to consider your limitations if you need to defend yourself while going about your day. You aren’t very likely to be caught in a life or death situation while wearing a dogi.

Training occasionally in your street clothes can be enlightening. You will find that different articles of clothing all have different effects on your mobility. It is better to know you can’t throw that kick or punch now while you are training than to discover it at the worst possible moment.

Wardrobe choice is just another aspect of train like you fight, fight like you train. In order to be truly prepared for self-defense, we must identify the scenarios we are most likely to encounter and practice accordingly. Our clothing is a big factor to consider when envisioning these possibilities. Make sure you understand your limitations in all modes of dress – and then figure out how to minimize them.

How Far Do You Take Your Training?

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If you want to survive a life or death encounter with an assailant, you need to invest some time training. How far you take that training will depend on a variety of factors, but ultimately it is up to you. Everyone has different requirements for what their training must prepare them for. And we all have different amounts of time, resources, and even physical ability to train.

Here are some factors that impact those decisions.

Risk

When I discuss risk in reference to training I am describing the risk of a threat of physical harm to your person (or the persons you may protect). Obviously a soldier or police officer will encounter far more risk day in and day out than I will on my daily commute to and from work. As a result, if risk were to be the sole basis for deciding how far to take your training, then clearly our soldiers and police officers have a greater need to take their training to a higher level.

Time

Time is another factor that distinguishes how we must train. The busy individual who works late and has many activities on their plate might not have the time to train as hard or as often as someone with a huge amount of free time. Some of us train for enjoyment as much as to be better prepared, so investing time in our training will not be as painful as it may be for the person who trains only to mitigate their risks.

Resources

Whether it is taking martial arts classes, heading to the range, or attending a class or seminar, training requires resources. To train we often need equipment or instruction, and that usually comes with a price tag. We can’t all financially afford to spend thousands of dollars a year to invest in our training. If you enjoy training, you’ll be far more likely to invest in classes and equipment. If you train because you need to or purely to mitigate risk, you might be less apt to spend so much.

Fitness

Some of us physically can’t train as hard as others. I wouldn’t expect a 70-something year old grandmother to be be taking a carbine class and running around with her rifle. Some people have physical disabilities and still others are just out of shape. All of these factors can dampen the level to which we take our training. One exception that should not limit your training is fitness. If you are out of shape and enjoy being out of shape that might affect your training; otherwise it’s a matter of effort to fix that condition.

Interest

Finally, where you take your training is directly related to how interested you are. I’ve touched on this before, but ultimately all of these other factors can be almost ignored if you have the interest to train. There is no reason not to push yourself to a higher standard and to train more if it is something you enjoy. Sure you might hit the point of diminishing returns, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy use of your time.

Not everyone can become a Delta Operator. Your level of training may be limited, but ultimately you decide how far you want to go. Identifying the reasons you want to train can help you decide what your goals will be and how to achieve them.

Why do you train and how does that affect your level of training?

Pistolcraft – The New Way of Strategy?

Miyamoto Musashi was a great swordsman who lived in the late 1500’s into the early 1600’s. He excelled in the use of the sword, but also as a tactician. As a practitioner of swordsmanship, Musashi like many other swordsmen was considered a strategist. And more so than studying the sword, these men practiced the way of strategy.

Picture by MShades

For them the sword was a tool. They needed to have the raw skills to manipulate that tool, but it was just one part of the big picture. Over the course of his life, Musashi defeated many men in duels. He has been credited with defeating a large group of warriors sent to kill him, and he ultimately lived his life undefeated. Musashi didn’t win all of these encounters purely based on his raw technique being better than his adversary; instead, he was a master of strategy.

During this time period it was common for the members of the warrior caste to carry with them their swords at all times. These strategists were always armed, and always ready for whatever threat might lay before them.

Translating the Sword to the Pistol

If you fast forward to today, it is uncommon to see anyone carrying a sword. The sword is in many ways a classic weapon, but not one that is considered part of the modern stable of fighting weapons.

In its time the sword was the weapon of choice for the armed citizen. Today the weapon of choice for the armed citizen is the pistol. We carry pistols to protect ourselves in the same way that the sword was carried in feudal Japan. The pistol has replaced the sword as the preferred implement of combat.

You could break the study of Musashi’s way of strategy into two parts: the study of the sword and its techniques and the study of the strategic and tactical use of the sword. We could similarly break down the study of pistol strategy.

Pistol as the New Way of Strategy

As with the sword, we can spend an eternity perfecting the use of the pistol. Marksmanship takes dedicated effort to master. Drawing the pistol and getting on target, recoil management, reloads, malfunction clearance, and retention merely scratch the surface of all of the skills that come along with studying the pistol.

Learning how to manipulate the sword does not make you a strategist, and neither does learning how to manipulate the pistol. To be tactically sound with the pistol there are a variety of skills and tactics that need to be mastered. Moving through structures and making best use of your environment to maximize cover and concealment both immediately come to mind.

The modern strategist goes above and beyond simply studying and perfecting the manipulations of a weapon. He learns to use that tool as part of a broader strategy. Raw skills are worth the investment of time and effort, but without strategy they will always remain just skills.

Stop Trying To Shoot Better

When I went shooting a few days ago I came to a familiar realization. Like many times before, I realized that when I try too hard I tend to screw things up. The more I ramp up the pressure on myself, the less smooth my actions become, and the more mistakes I make in my efforts to perform better.

Last weekend I was at the range working on improving my draw stroke and slide-lock reloads. To practice these skills I was using a 1Reload2 drill (draw, fire one shot, reload and fire two more). I was doing this drill with my shot timer in an attempt to measure how I was performing and push myself towards a faster time. What I found was that the harder I tried, the more often I would flub the draw or screw up the reload. My actions became jerky and not the smooth and calm movements I had emphasized in my dry-fire practice. Ultimately this hurt my time instead of improving it.

The same problems occur in my marksmanship training. These days I spend much more time teaching others how to shoot rifles than I spend shooting them myself. I’m trying to change that, but whenever I do get a chance to shoot a rifle I feel like the pressure on myself to do well is a huge barrier to success. I often start with a decent shot group, but the problem is knowing that I can do much better. I push myself to the point where my performance just gets worse, causing me more and more frustration. Eventually I have to pull myself back from the stress of trying too hard, and force myself to simply relax.

Rifle marksmanship, especially when you are talking about shooting using a sling, is ultimately about being relaxed. Let your bones and the sling do the support work while you align your body so you can make the shot. As they say, shooting is very much a mental game at this point. The harder you (or I in this case) actively try the more likely muscles are to become involved. I fuss the shot and as a result of trying too hard my groups open up.

Relax

If you find yourself having this problem yourself, go back to the basics. Be calm and collected and stop trying so hard. You’ll usually find that going a little slower and not making mistakes is actually faster than going as fast as you can and struggling the whole way there.

We put pressure on ourselves to do better with every shot, to increase our speed and get tighter groups. This pressure ultimately serves to do nothing other than to make things more difficult.

Personally I shoot the best when I have no expectations for myself. A couple years ago I had a chance to shoot my AR15 out to 600 yards. I was having trouble seeing the target through my iron sights and figured my rough elevation adjustment would be off anyway, so I really didn’t expect to even hit the target. I relaxed and shot a carefree group by the basics, and I was totally shocked when I saw the great group on my target.

I am fastest and most efficient when I worry less about speed and instead just worry about being smooth and practicing the fundamentals. You too may be surprised at the difference when you stop trying so hard to shoot your best. Focus on the technique rather than trying to make each shot perfect.

Remember slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

Does self-imposed pressure negatively impact your performance? Let us know and post a comment below!

Training as Insurance

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One way to look at your training is from the perspective that it is an insurance policy. I take out an insurance policy on my car because I don’t know what the future holds. I could get in a car accident on my way to work after writing this post, or I could go through the rest of my life without getting in a single accident. Insurance provides some peace of mind should an accident ever occur.

Similarly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to go through the rest of my life without ever needing to employ force to protect myself or my loved ones. I live in a nice area, so I don’t expect a break-in to be likely, but it could happen. I could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and have someone attempt to mug me. Just like I would buy insurance for my car, I insure against these scenarios by training.

Just as car insurance can’t prevent an accident from happening, most training won’t prevent an attack. However, awareness training and verbal skills can prevent a confrontation from escalating. Insurance and training both serve to mitigate risk, reducing the chance of an undesirable outcome.

Another parallel between insurance and training is that we can choose our coverage levels and decide how much we spend. For my car I have the choice of adding theft or fire coverage to my vehicle, knowing that these are both less likely to occur than say a fender bender. I can decide not to buy those coverages and gamble that I won’t need them.

The same thing happens with training. By deciding to work only on square range shooting skills, I can save myself time by not training my firearms retention skills or my ability to handle malfunctions. One could argue that the most likely defense scenario would only involve needing to pull out my gun and hold someone at gunpoint. When I make decisions like that I am taking a risk. I must acknowledge that I will not be covered under different, though less likely, circumstances.

You decide what risks you are willing to take, and the coverage level you want to have. The better the coverage you have in your training, the more costly it will be (in actual cost of instruction but also in training time). We don’t all have thousands of hours a year to dedicate to our training.

Sometimes with insurance we can base our coverage decisions on who we are. Are you a safe or reckless driver? How safe are the neighborhoods you typically drive through or park in? Similarly, we can make educated guesses at our training needs. The men and women who sign up to risk their lives serving our country are willingly putting themselves into harm’s way. As a result they know more coverage is probably worth their time. The average citizen can avoid bad areas and make smart decisions to mitigate risk and decide how much coverage is warranted.

Ultimately we can never know exactly what will happen to us or what situations we may encounter. We must weigh the tradeoffs and understand the risks and rewards of the level of training we decide to pursue. I believe just about everybody should invest in basic coverage (shooting skills and basic hand to hand skills). Some will consider and invest in high coverage levels (gun grappling, vehicular skills, etc).

Make sure you aren’t skimping on your insurance, keep training.

What level of coverage to you enjoy? Do you have all your bases covered or do you only have basic coverage? Post a comment and let us know.

How I Doubled My Hamstring Flexibility In 4 Weeks

Image by Dan4th

Flexibility is a hugely important attribute for anyone who is self-defense minded. Not only does it decrease risk of injury, but it increases our overall mobility. Mobility is key to surviving a violent assault. If you ever find yourself in a gunfight where you need to maneuver around cover or concealment or even find yourself entangled with your attacker, flexibility will certainly come in handy.

My own flexibility has always been above average. Training in karate from my youth has given me the skill and flexibility to kick to my own head height without too much difficulty. Despite my relatively good flexibility, on a good day with a great warm up and a lot of stretching, I might do a little better than just touching my toes.

When I sat on the ground and attempted to touch my toes, if I was lucky, I could barely touch my toes with my fingers. Embarrassingly, I couldn’t even sit straight up with my legs outstretched, instead I naturally needed to lean back.

One of my goals for 2012 was to improve this stretch. My measurable goal was to be able to comfortably place my palms on the floor out in front of me stretching from the standing position. As a corollary to this, I wanted to be able to reach my hands past my feet when sitting, and outright grasp the balls of my feet.

How I got there

I was quite surprised to reach my goal much faster than I had expected and with relatively little effort.

I started my path to improve my flexibility by following this guide with a three minute stretching routine. It offers several tips for loosening up and boosting your stretch. I found very quickly that by elevating my heels, I was able to add several inches to my stretch. This quick improvement that occurred literally in a several minute period was a huge boost and helped me get psyched about improving. With all goals, seeing measurable progress is one of the best motivators.

This short three minute workout would become a part of my warmup for the next week or two, and served as a great starting point to get me moving in the right direction.

So how did I really reach my goal in only four weeks?

Surprise, surprise – I stretched.

Every chance I could get, I worked on this stretch. At least a half-dozen times a day I would get up from my workstation, turn to face outwards in my cubical, and work on touching my toes.

For anyone unfamiliar with good stretching practice, here is what I would recommend:

  1. Take a deep breath, relax, and hang.
  2. Exhale on the way down.
  3. Hold for 5 seconds and then press gradually and try to get a little further.
  4. Hold for another 5 seconds.
  5. Bend your knees and then stand up.

Rinse, and repeat a few times each session. That is really all it took. Five times a day, five days a week for four weeks is 100 sets. Push yourself a little further each time. You only need to make a 1% improvement each session. If you are trying to add 6 inches to your stretch, you need to improve only slightly more than 1/20th of an inch per session.

For me the results were incredible. I achieved my objective. I went from just being able to touch my toes to getting my palms completely on the floor. Stretching on the floor, I can now more than just touch my toes, but get my hands entirely past my feet. No small improvement, and it took just a little diligence over a short period of time.

Give it a try, and tell me how you do.

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