Best of The Web 4/27/12

This week provided some excellent posts on training. Below I have rounded up some of my favorite blog posts from across the web over the past 7 days. Please feel free to email me if you have come across a great post that you would like to share.

Permission to Miss (pistol-training.com) – Todd at pistol-training.com makes some excellent points about working on improving speed. Sometimes when pushing your boundries you need to expect to miss now and again.

The scars of others should teach us caution (When The Balloon Goes Up) – WTBGU touches on a subject I feel very strongly about. Training scars – in other words bad habits that are created by the ways we train – have plenty of opportunities to form. Good training will mitigate the formation of these training scars.

Sandbags: Unconventional Tools for Functional Strength (ITS Tactical) – Jake Saenz wrote an excellent primer to training with sandbags. Functional strength is crucial to preparing for self-defense encounters (if you want to be well prepared that is). Sandbags provide dynamic resistance and get us out of the mechanical form of conventional exercises.

What Is Functional Strength?

Image by hectorir

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!

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.

Learn to Take a Hit

Image by KellBailey

In many martial arts, great time and effort is spent on body conditioning. Fighters in arts like Kyokushin condition their shins and sometimes forearms by rapping on them with bundles of chopsticks. They condition their legs by kicking each other, and learn to absorb body shots similarly by practicing taking punches and kicks.

These practitioners do not train to take hits instead of learning how to properly defend. It is usually better to avoid getting hit in the first place, but a wise student learns to accept that you will not always be fast enough to block something.

Fighters, especially full contact fighters (knockdown, MMA, etc) end up taking a lot of abuse during their fighting careers. A top level tournament fighter might have to fight 5 or more fights over a day or two in order to win his tournament. UFC fights are relatively long fights as well, with many long rounds. A great level of physical conditioning is required to be competitive.

What about those of us who don’t compete, but instead try to prepare for the fight that they hope never comes?

Should the student who prepares only for self-defense (and not competition) practice this way?

On the surface, no…

If you do not compete as a fighter, you aren’t likely to experience a long fight. Most self-defense encounters tend to be very violent, intense events but are also relatively short. I would not expect to be fighting for the 15 minutes or more that a professional MMA fight might take.

The average self-defense student is also unlikely to fight sequentially for days. He might fight multiple attackers, but not individually spread out over the course of a few hours.

Fighters also have other reasons to worry about conditioning. The purpose of most body conditioning is not necessarily to mitigate damage. Being hit can help build your body up and make it stronger against being hit in the future, but most conditioning helps serve to deaden nerves and make you impervious to the mental disruption that can come with being hit.

In any life or death encounter on the street, adrenaline will be a huge factor. You probably won’t feel most of the shots you take anyway. The first time I fought in a tournament in my youth I didn’t feel a single shot I took until about 30 minutes after the fight, at which point I couldn’t bend my leg and walking was… difficult. Conditioning has little effect on that first encounter.

The next time I fought, the first shot I took went right through me and I quickly realized something was different. Fighters condition because they won’t have the huge benefit of adrenaline at every fight. If you are jumped on the street, adrenaline is one advantage you can probably count on.

How to take a hit

If I’m too slow to get out of the way, I can position my body to mitigate the hit that I do take. Practicing getting hit means that when you are unable to block, you can at least take the hit on your terms. Generally this involves turning your body into the blow to brace yourself for the hit.

Face it, in a street fight you are going to get hit. If that is the case, shouldn’t we learn how to take the hit and not fold over like a cheap suit? Adrenaline can help you with pain and make you stronger, but it won’t keep the wind from getting knocked out of you. Learning how to properly exhale when being hit can.

While conditioning in itself might not make a huge difference, practicing how to get hit can. Your time is well spent learning how to properly take a punch or a kick. While conditioning can be useful as part of your routine, learning the best way to take a hit will give you much more bang for your buck.

Do you practice how to get hit?

“Hold That Thought, I Need to Warm Up”

In pretty much every athletic endeavor, the participants use some sort of warmup activity prior to participating. This warmup has two primary purposes. The first is to loosen up and ready the body to maximize performance and prevent injury. Second, the warmup allows the body to start getting into the groove that is used for that activity, helping to recall the body mechanics employed.

In martial arts warmups are often employed, and for good reason. Throwing a high kick completely cold is a great way to cause some major muscle and tendon tears. Injury can slow down even the most well-coordinated training plan. Mitigating the risk of injury through warmup is a good way to keep ourselves training.

Shooters often warm up before testing themselves too. By shooting or dry-firing prior to testing yourself, you generally improve your performance.

How could warming up be bad?

On the street you don’t get a warmup.

The problem with warmups is that you don’t always get one. Real life is unpredictable, and you cannot choose when you might get attacked. Similarly, you cannot stop your attacker and ask them to hold on a second so you can warm up. This might be a good defensive strategy if you think your attacker might die from laughter.

How can we address this in our training?

Training flexibility should be high on your priority list. The better your flexibility is, the less likely you are to get a pull while you are fighting sans warmup. If you are training for the purposes of self-defense, you need to know what your limitations are likely to be when you aren’t warmed up. Some part of your training should include training within those restrictions, even while warmed up. An example of this is by removing high kicks. High kicks are impractical on the street anyway, but even more so if you won’t get a chance to stretch before you get attacked.

When you are working on your shooting, test yourself ‘cold’ by simply starting without any dry-fire or warmup. Once you measure your baseline, you can now begin your normal practice. If done properly, your “cold start” might even give you ideas as to what you need to work on during your practice session.

Ultimately, when the adrenaline starts pumping, you’ll overcome most of these issues even if you don’t train specifically to mitigate them. I would still recommend stepping back and evaluating your training within the context of fighting without a warmup. Make adjustments so you are prepared for the fight that occurs outside the ring.

Beginning Training Series: Getting Your Fitness Off the Ground Level

Today I will be discussing improving your base level of fitness as part of my series on beginning training.

I am a big believer that if you want to train to defend yourself in any type of confrontation, then you need to work on your fitness. Fighting is a distinctly physical activity no matter what tools you may be using. If you expect to survive the fight (or want to have any hope of surviving for that matter) then you definitely need to work on improving your body.

 For the purposes of fighting, there are five main areas that you need to work on improving: flexibility, strength, agility, endurance, and speed. Without training in each of these five attributes, you are severely limiting your performance when you need it.

 Flexibility

The most overlooked attribute is flexibility. Flexibility helps prevent injuries, and also gives you better mobility. After all, your goal in a fight is to stay conscious and mobile. This past year when I took Southnarc’s VCAST (Vehicle Combatives and Shooting Tactics) course, I had many of my older classmates jealous because of the way I could move around on the ground around the vehicle. My advantage in this arena isn’t because I’m younger (though it helps), but rather is because of my time training in Kyokushin. Not everyone needs to know how to throw high kicks, especially since they have limited practicality on the street. Everyone should, on the other hand, have functional flexibility.

The very beginning of you work on flexibility should be to work on improving range of motion in a handful of areas. Think back to the stretches you may have learned in gym class. An easy way to fit this in to your schedule is to stretch a little when you wake up in the morning. Try a stretching routine like this one, it’s a good start for basic flexibility. Another great option is yoga. Don’t knock it just because it’s a popular group exercise class for women. Many great fighters and trainers swear by it, and have great results.

Strength

Strength affects all areas of your self-defense. A contest between two technically equivalent fighters can often be decided on strength. Muscle allows you to absorb more damage and, if used correctly, deal out more as well. There are many ways to approach improving strength. This will all depend on your own exact goals.

If you have the time and resources, a full weight routine can give you excellent strength gains. If you cannot spare the time or money to hit a gym, you can do quite a bit in your home without weights. At a minimum you should be doing some basic body-weight exercises like pullups, dips, pushups, squats and crunches.

Agility

Agility directly affects our mobility. Mobility is key in any life or death situation, so you can see the value. Better agility will allow us to change directions, start moving, or stop moving very quickly.

The basics for improving agility involve performing agility-requiring movements. Work on changing directions quickly and starting movement from a dead stop. Playing some pickup games of basketball or another agility-heavy sport might be a good way to work on agility while enjoying yourself. Here is an article on improving agility you might want to check out.

Endurance

Endurance is often trained in an ineffective manner. Many people that think they are training endurance for the purpose of preparing themselves for fighting or a self-defense encounter spend significant time hitting the pavement or running on the treadmill. The reason this is so ineffective is that no fight is ever that smooth and continuous.

Fighting generally involves short periods of extreme exertion followed by other periods of milder effort. If you are attached to your running, consider adding intervals to your training. Spend 20 seconds sprinting and 20 seconds jogging or walking. You can vary the times for each. This will better simulate a fight than running at a constant speed.

The other reason that distance running tends to be a poor option for training fighting endurance is that there is minimal load. Combining strength training and interval training is a great way to push your endurance. When lifting, try using lighter weights with higher reps and decrease the time in between sets. Another option is to run, jog, or shadow box in between sets. There are plenty of options you can experiment with.

Speed

Speed is a very important attribute for us to train if we want to maximize our potential in a violent confrontation. Being fast allows us to get our sights on target faster, and hit before our adversary. Speed also allows us to out-maneuver our adversary. Remember that mobility is key to staying alive.

Speed is the lack of all extraneous movement. Believe it or not, we can improve speed by training slowly. Work on removing all unneeded motions and taking the most efficient path to where you are moving. If you want more detail on how to do this, check out my post about increasing your speed.

Improving

When you sit down to put together your plan, set goals for all five of these attributes. Set measurable goals, and choose exercises and drills that allow you to meet them. Practice as often as your schedule will allow. The only real obstacle to achieving your fitness goals is lack of training.

Do you have any suggestions for improving fitness? Please post a comment!

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