Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rules of engagement

This my last blog for this year, and I have decided to tackle the topic that has too often been disregarded and ignored, although more important than any gear review or technical piece of advice anybody could ever give you.

We have all heard, numerous times probably, that in a street fight there are no rules, referees, time limits etc. While that sounds very true and common sense at the first glance, things are actually bit different if are able to see beyond the most obvious, seemingly random and chaotic appearance of such altercations. If we analyze them critically, most so-called real fights seem to share many things in common, which means that in effect they can be taken as rules. Then, the real question is whether one knows the rule at play, although many people will adhere to some rules even on a subconscious level.

Fist of all, what is commonly termed a street fight can belong to one of two main categories – social and asocial. Some matter experts and authors will have different terminology (fight/combat, altercation/assault etc.), but it boils down to either being involved in a fight over an insult, petty differences, some sort of grudge etc. (shortly, bruised ego); or being subjected to a criminal assault (mugging, robbery etc). For those interested in a more detailed analysis of each there are many fine books out there, but I particularly like and recommend Rory Miller’s “Meditations on Violence” (you gotta like his term Monkey Dance for the social category of street fights), although you would also do well with some works of Marc “Animal” MacYoung, Peyton Quinn, Bill Kipp and Rich Dimitri and others…just do your homework.

So, what are those rules we have in play here? Essentially, I could divide those in two broad categories – social and personal. Now, the social rules of engagement, in this case, could be institutionally imposed (i.e. local or state laws), or maybe take the shape of certain actions being frowned upon in various degrees, even if not legally discriminated (eg. hitting another man or another woman, a young buck or an elderly man; fighting over a parking place or over a woman). The interesting thing here is that various people will reason differently over various criteria in this regard, so as a consequence what seems like a mindless and stupid fight to one man will make perfect sense to another. This in itself was/is and will be the cause of many a brawl among the members of different strata of the society, so it deserves some consideration.
Ready to be frowned upon?

The legal rules apply just as much to the asocial type of fight, i.e. even if you do emerge “victorious” from an assault, but after the use of physical means on your part to make it happen, you better be sure to deal as affectively with the possible judiciary aftermath. Invest some effort into learning about the local criminal laws and penal codes of your place of residence, as your ability to understand them might have some ramifications later. Namely, there have been more then a few occurrences of a thug pressing civil charges against a person who had defended from the attempted mugging or robbery, but failed to justify their acts. Do not let yourself be a victim of that. Again, do your homework and have some backup – as much as I detest the profession, it is better to have a good lawyer on your side.

Training-forged, street-lethal...court-proof?

Self-imposed rules (sometimes more appropriately called personal issues) often stem from the social ones, from the way you were raised by your family and how you were treated in life, but sometimes it is a matter of deep personal stands (religious beliefs, ethical stance) and/or trauma. For example, you will sometimes see people taking classes in weapon based martial arts, or being computer “tactical” game aces, while getting sick from seeing a chicken or a pig slain. Well, do you think that a human being, even if a lowlife thug, will not bleed and scream after being stabbed wit ha knife or wacked with an iron pipe? On the other hand, we have the opposite type – a hoplophobic person who would not touch a gun or reach for a knife even if their very lives were at stake. To me, neither makes sense, but it’s just me… Everybody has got to take a good, honest look inside themselves and ask some serious questions.

In this regard, it is much better to be clear about things up front, because those answers will certainly not be easier to find when facing a bully in a bar, or even worse, an armed robber in your own house. What are you willing to do, and what price are you willing to pay for your choice of actions is very important, as it makes the foundation for the development of the proper mental state and attitude you will need to deal with these kinds of situations… One thing is for sure, complacency is neither an answer nor attitude. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Role of biomechanics exercises in Russian Martial Arts

During my years of practice in Russian Martial Arts, one of the areas of work that really has become vital for my approach to training and teaching it is the study of biomechanical body work on the ground. In certain Russian schools this type of work is referred to as “lower acrobatics”. Now, this kind of work, in general, is not unique to RMA, but the role it plays in the training methodology there differs to similar areas of curricula in BJJ or other, predominantly grappling, systems.

Namely, in those other styles and systems this field of practice is mainly treated as part of the overall conditioning and physical attributes development. In the Russian systems that do feature this kind of training, the function of the “solo groundwork” is somewhat different. Of course, the study of biomechanics is not limited to the ground work and techniques employed in that phase of combat; the scientific study of biomechanics can be (and is) applied to any human physical endeavor, for two primary reasons – technical efficiency and injury prevention. In that sense, it is also present in RMA, regardless of the “level” of work, i.e. standing (either striking of grappling) or on the ground, usually called “structure maintenance/breaking”, depending on whether you focus on yourself or the partner/opponent.

So, what are the specific features of the lower acrobatics in RMA? Well, for one thing, this is one of those rare instances where one can work on achieving what is commonly known as flow while working solo, i.e. without partner(s). In this case, the goal is fluid transition from one movement to another, with the overall appearance of softness in work. This emphasis also carries over to working from the grounded position against an opponent, i.e. when you are down and he is standing.

The most important aspect, nevertheless, as I see it, is the awakening of the body awareness in the lower section (below the waist), and the control of one’s own movement. Normally, in the daily life practices common for the cultures of the western world, the lower portion of our bodies is rarely moved in a deliberate way, which leads to frequent lack of awareness for this section of our bodies and resulting diminished ability and freedom of movement there. Once we get engaged in the movement on the floor, it requires the new perspective on this part, as well as the related training of the torso, which takes over the guiding role in many of the exercises. Pay close attention to the video below to see an illustration of what I mean.

Finally, the perspective of control. How many times have you heard teachers in all kinds of martial arts talking, or at least mentioning, the need to control your opponent? Do you see the difference between what they mean by that and what they mean by “controlling yourself”. For some reason, controlling the opponent is always physical, while the self-control tends to be in the mental or even “metaphysical” realm. Well, guess what – you need to be able of controlling your own physical expression just as well!

One of the first problems encountered by a practitioner when starting the ground work we are discussing here is the spatial orientation. Over time, you should be able to know and govern your movement in such a way to know which way you want to face upon completion of any individual movement, or the entire chain of those. We start with basic front, back and side rolls and their combinations, and later branch out into more advanced moves, but always with spatial awareness and corporal control. A simple way to test the degree of the control you have is trying to do the exercise as slow as possible and as fluidly as possible at the same time, with proper breathing and without unnecessary strain. A common symptom most beginners experience when doing this is the habit of holding their breath during the rolls (I call it the diving syndrome, as if doing the exercise under water), and consequently difficult breathing afterwards.

OK, let us conclude this introduction here, and maybe I’ll get to some more specific work in a future post.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

DVD review - John Jacobo's "Keep it Combat" series

Admittedly, the videos reviewed in this post are not of the “freshest” production, but since many people may not be aware of them, I have chosen, nevertheless, to try and point to their worth. The author says that his own training and performance has changed since, under the influence of GM Topher Ricketts, but these products are of very good informational value, hence my decision to proceed with the review.

Those of you who are involved with the world of Filipino martial arts (FMA), widely known as eskrima, arnis or kali, probably are aware of the term Bakbakan, which was probably the most prestigious FMA organization in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century. Under the skillful guidance of grandmasters Rey Galang and the late Christopher Ricketts, both renowned as the students of the legendary Tatang Antonio Ilustrisimo, Bakbakan was widely renowned for its training methodologies and ability to produce skilled fighters consistently. 

Guro John and GM Galang

Possibly the peak of Bakbakan’s fame were the two seminal books on FMA, edited by Rey Galang – Warrior Arts of the Philippines and Masters of the Blade (if you do not own those, then get them!). While fair amount of space was dedicated to several members of then Bakbakan HQ in New Jersey, it was obvious that one name was in the forefront as the representative exponent of the new generation of masters – that of guro John Jacobo.

 Even back then, his focus on the combative features of martial arts lead guro John to seek instruction with other acknowledged authorities in this domain, but his home system was certainly that of Bakbakan Kali Ilustrisimo. However, all the other influences and training experiences had Mr. Jacobo establish his own school to teach his view/philosophy of the martial training, under the banner SWACOM (School for Warrior Arts and Combatives). It is under this banner that he has published the two DVDs presented here.

Volume 1 – The Combat Principles of De Cuerdas.

In my recent conversation with guro John, he mentioned that in teaching he prefers to present fewer techniques/concepts and then focus on demonstrating their versatility and adaptability, rather than going over countless individual moves or principles that are then left unexplored. This DVD certainly is a good example of this approach.

It opens with a couple of nice clips of the author’s fights in FMA competitive events, clearly indicating that the instruction to follow is not purely theoretical, but tested and proven instead. While it seems that guro Jacobo was not too comfortable in front of a camera at the very beginning, once the action gets going he moves in a confident and authoritative manner.

The first chapter is Escalera De Cuerdas, and provides the basic pattern of movement that should have the practitioner cover and easily retain all the basic targets and movements of the De Cuerdas technique. We are shown a symmetrical exercise, to ensure that both forehand and backhand variations are included in the practice. Interestingly enough, almost entire video is shot with the use of metal training blades, and not sticks as frequently seen on other FMA videos.

Next, the video moves to the Offensive Applications of the techniques learned. Here, guro John takes each of the individual particles of the escalera exercise and shows how it is used in offense, mostly in the form of feint/bait and the following attack to connect through the opening thus created in the opponent’s defense. Another important point covered here is the integration of proper footwork with the weapon techniques, which is especially important with the use of blades, in order to allow for the precision and angling required.

In line with the philosophy of versatility, guro Jacobo then advances to the Defensive Applications of the material. It is in this chapter that the foundation of Kali Ilustrisimo shines through most clearly, as all the techniques are direct and economical, again with precise footwork and positioning in relation to the opponent.

In the chapter on possible Counters and Re-counters the author touches upon some of the concerns a practitioner should have in mind when applying the De Cuerdas tactics. This section is brief, but points to the direction that one should then take in doing their own exploration of the material.

The last technical chapter features the exercises called Walo-Walo (translates from tagalong as “eight for eight”), which is essentially a cyclical flow drill that has both partners doing eight predefined techniques in sequence. The particular value of this drill is illustrating the contextual application of previously presented techniques with integrated footwork and other lines of attack and defense, this reminding us of having a bigger picture in mind, i.e. being aware that De Cuerdas is not a be all and all method on its own.

Guro John concludes the presentation with some closing remarks on the way to train, and although very short it is very important. Namely, he uses the example of footwork in pointing to the importance of training with a wider context in mind, i.e. with appropriate upper body mechanics and technical work in place. In this regard, his teaching reminds of the pedagogical approach of Luis Preto, which confirms that truth in combat knows no ethnic and/or geographical differences.

The DVD ends with some archive footage of Kali Ilustrisimo masters Tony Diego and Topher Rickets training in Manila. I would say the footage is well chosen to depict the right atmosphere and most productive way to approach this kind of training.

Volume 2 – Dos Manos Methods

OK, I have a confession to make. While the previous video is very good, and in line with the name of this blog, I really like this one even more. The reason for that is twofold – first, it seems that while doing the De Cuerdas DVD guro John grew accustomed to working for a camera, so his demeanor is even more fluid and enjoyable; second, I just love the primordial appeal of fighting with a staff.

That said, the author mentions that the origins of the techniques shown lie with the two-handed kampilan sword of the Philippines, the material is demonstrated by using a rattan staff, which in my opinion makes it more versatile for the modern day environment.

The video, of course, opens with some Fundamentals discussed, more specifically how to measure the length of your staff to best suit your individual, then showing basic ways to grip the weapon, the stance and four main footwork types you will use with the staff. In order, those are retirada (shuffle footwork), equis, lutang and salisihan. What struck me particularly (again) was that guro Jacobo demonstrates the equis footwork, being probably the most specific of the four, in conjunction of the staff technique it is mostly used with, thus putting both in a more understandable context.

Another thing that really pleased me is that this is the first time I have seen someone actually being able to transfer the skills acquired with shorter, single hand weapons almost directly to the two-handed one. What do I mean by that? Well, other fighting systems that I respect, and which deal with wielding staff (such as Jogo do Pau and Dog Brothers material) favor the off-leg lead in their work (although in they JdP will have the practitioner hold the staff with their off-hand in the upper position, while DB will use the dominant hand, as if swinging a baseball bat), but guro John works from the strong side lead and with the dominant hand in the upper position, and he does so in a very convincing manner. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that with his measuring guidelines the staff will be almost a foot shorter than in Jogo do Pau, but that does not change the reality of his ability to move very well.

We are then shown soma basis Strikes and Flowing Attacks, which actually serve as the reference points for further work, as the main body of material builds off of it, and is covered in later chapters. Nevertheless, if practiced properly, these strikes should build your stance structure and develop your balance and footwork.

The main body of the technical material is then demonstrated in the chapter on Defense Methods. This is where we get to see and learn some of the specific techniques, tactics and maneuvers that actually make this specific style, and if you have some previous experience, you will recognize again some of the characteristic movements of Ilustrisimo here.

After getting a grip of the techniques, we need to learn some Training Methodologies in order to make the performance as fluid and seamless as possible in the right context (yes, this is a major concern in my eyes – out of context everything is possible, and it is the environment that will show what is actually probable and functional). Essentially, guro Jacobo shows two main training methods:
  • Escalera de Cuerdas – that’s right, he reverts to the material from the first DVD, which again underlines his belief in working thoroughly on understanding a smaller number of principles and tactics, as opposed to being sloppy with the smorgasbord of cool moves.
  • Short skirmish scenarios – I really liked this one, as it requires one of the partners to act as in a real fight and attack with some attitude and commitment, thus offering their partner some realistic energy to work with. While I do believe that sparring is essential in the practice of any functional martial system, it also bears some side-effects that should be kept in perspective.

Again, the DVD ends with some archive footage, this time of Tatang Antonio Ilustrisimo himself. For me, it is a real gem, since he is filmed working with a stick in the susi (reverse) grip, which may be puzzling for many of us, but it is evident that with a firm grip and understanding of the core principles of integrated footwork and body mechanics, it can be a very functional method.

I would like to add that both DVD are packed in just a bit short of 40 minutes. However, do not be fooled into thinking it is short. Guro John is able of bringing his point across very efficiently and succinctly, while making the videos dynamic, with little fluff and mindless repetition. Sure, as such these videos are not aimed at the raw beginner, but if you already have some background in weapon-based martial arts, and particularly FMA, then they are highly recommended.

Finally, at the end of the second DVD guro Jacobo mentions “following videos of the Keep it Combat series”… Seeing these two, and some of his training footage of the later date, I certainly hope there will be more.

You can find more info and order the DVD from

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Torqueblade - addendum

Damn, I keep forgetting things...Holdsworth is very caring of his clients and will be glad to help you in training. More information you can find at

Monday, October 31, 2011

Torqueblade - martial fitness with an edge

I have been enjoying this particular type of exercising for some time now, so the next post will be a bit longer, for which reason I have divided it into "chapters" for easier reading. Be patient, as you should read it all. With the "warning" stated, here we go...

Myself with a pair of torqueblades


In the modern world the flourishing of the fitness industry is an indication of ambiguous occurrences. On one side, it shows that man has become aware of his detachment from the natural way of living, thus losing some of his inborn, God given abilities and the joy of movement; on the other hand, however, the short-lived popularity of most “fitness fads” and fast-changing trends[1] point to the inability to find the “right” method of exercising.

In my opinion, this problem stems from the initial approach to starting a program of physical activity, i.e. the very definition of what fitness is. Namely, most theoreticians and instructors start with an attempt to make things as scientific as possible, thus bombarding the potential client with numbers and statistics relating to any particular isolated physiological processes and their values. Not only does this intimidate the budding exerciser, but it also clouds the idea of what should be one’s priority in engaging the system of physical training.

Interestingly enough, in order resolve this conundrum, it suffices to take a look at the basic evolutionary meaning of fitness, as underlined by Charles Darwin – fitness is the ability of adaptation to the constantly changing demands of the environment. In the specific case of living in the world as we know it (on the daily basis at least), it means the capacity to move in any of three planes of motion, as dictated by the 3D space around us, and even more so to change the plane of motion while “on the go”.

When looked at this way, it becomes clear why so many fitness methods are doomed to failure. Having in mind the human fascination with technology (after all, machines are supposed to make life easier, right?), it is no wonder that so many of exercising regimes are revolving around the motions that actually mimic the functioning of machines – repetitive, single plane, one directional movements, which have no intrinsic meaning to possibly relate them to one’s daily life.

The last remark brings us to the notion of functional fitness. Although rather widely (over)used, the term is usually not attached to any specific reference, thereby making it meaningless.[2] If we look back to our definition of fitness in the first place, the word functional (as ascribed to fitness) will glean its meaning from that – the method of exercising that helps the body develop its ability of multi-plane movement. We see that in our approach, the phrase functional fitness has nothing to do with statistic data or aesthetic dictum of the commercial fitness magazines. Instead, it is directed at the personal feel of moving with confidence and joy, as well as the ability to perform the chosen activity on a higher level… And the “cosmetic” changes will follow as a side-effect.

New generation - retro blades
Origins of the Torqueblade

With the outlook of physical training as described in the previous section, Michael Holdsworth has distilled the years of experience in fitness, martial arts and his military service, to come up with a regime of exercise to address the aforementioned problems and needs, as well as the tool to maximize the effects of such a regime.

The torqueblade is an implement that has been deliberately constructed to feel awkward in one’s hands. That way it constantly engages the proprioceptive mechanisms and neural network, hence making the practitioner aware of the movement in all its phases, along with the spatial relationship of his or her body parts. Coupled with the specific motions in exercises, which may unfold in more than one plane at the same time, Holdsworth has come up with a true holistic system of exercise – one that delves with the body as a whole, instead of focusing on isolated muscle parts or joints, and then just hoping for the best regarding the integration of the results.

To explain the inspiration for the unusual shape of the torqueblade, we should have in mind Holdsworth’s military service in the British Royal Navy. Without going into detail suffice it to say that he was struck by the looks and functioning of some “ethnic” weapons and exercising gear, so he tries to merge the finer points of those. The over-sized front part of the blade and its “belly” come from the shape of Gurkha kukri knife; the elongated shaft or the “neck” of the blade was motivated by the form of the Indian clubs, used for physical training and education for centuries; finally, the “pistol” grip, i.e. its angled profile was influences by the kris dagger of the Malay people.

The blades used in training can be optionally modified with the addition of the companion blade, thus changing both the weight and balance of the tool and further challenging the body once advanced stages of fitness are reached.

The method

As any fitness method worth its salt, the typical TB session opens with some warm up. For this purpose, one can use some generally known exercises of this type (or some of the movement methods covered in the tribe totem exercises of the overarching Torquebrave way of active living), then followed with a more specific work, i.e. basic torqueblade exercises, but carried out without the blades. From there, one may proceed to the main body of the workout session, known as the regime.

All of the exercises performed in the torqueblade system of fitness can be divided into four categories:
  1. Milling – some basic calisthenics-type exercises, but done with the torqueblades. They are used as pulse-raising movements, as well as to introduce the body to the feeling of wielding the tools used and teach the basic body posture and safety measures (flex in the knees, fixed pelvis, correct path of the motion, to avoid self-hitting).
  2. Footwork – being that the milling exercises are done so that they use mostly the upper body, and in the stationary position, they are followed by exercises that stress the motion of the feet and legs. For this aim, the regime uses certain footwork types characteristic of Filipino Martial Arts, but with the wide range of possible applications and adaptations.
  3. Circling – the kind of exercises that obviously points to the influence of Indian clubs. These movements will add complexity to the foundation set by milling, thus involving the nervous system more. It is worth saying that this type of exercises really brings out the “core” workout effects, achieved by the way of moving blades that tend to pull the body out of balance, thus stimulating the fast twitching stabilizing muscles of the trunk.
  4. Full Body Exercises – as the name implies, these are done to address the coordination and conditioning of the entire body, with the addition of multi-plane motions.

In order to keep the workout session holistic in nature and make sure that the effects are felt evenly, these four types of exercises are laid out in an alternating/cyclical fashion, i.e. in the sequences of four (one of the each type), and going from simpler for execution, to more complex ones. With this approach, it is ensured that the practitioner is reaping the benefits of core exercises (whenever shoulders cross), functional motion (stepping and direction changes), as well as the general body conditioning (with outstretched arms and balancing movements). 

Benefits to martial artists

In the domain of martial arts based on work with impact and edged weapons (especially eskrima/arnis and similar systems), the models of fitness that would address the development of the specific attributes required to excel in those arts has been pretty much non-existent before torqueblades. However, now there is no more excuse for cutting your training short of its maximum potential. Owing to the shape and particular design of the equipment, you will develop strong grip, wrist alignment and flexibility, awareness of the edge orientation, dexterity, explosive footwork, while at the same time raising the overall fitness level.

Mike Holdsworth trained in several FMA styles, but most extensively with Roger Agbulos and Carlito Bonjoc, so his competence in that field is indisputable. To have a glimpse of the exercises, look at this video.


While the torqueblade exercising regime will provide the aerobic workout and the functional muscular development, its main effect is the vibrant sense of elation that one is almost certain to feel after completing the session. That way, it offers internal motivation to get back to doing it again, because it makes one fell good about the activity itself, instead of measuring the results through some images or numeric values imposed from without. In the long term, this shows to be much better and efficient approach, as its effects to practitioner’s health will be authentic and well-rounded, i.e. will include the emotional and psychological levels to match the improving physical and physiological ones.

From inside out, from function to form, from sedentary clerk, trapped within the confines of his or her nagging physique, to thriving human beings that fully enjoy the potentials of their God given bodies… Torqueblades will deliver!

[1] Including the failure of the grand majority of fitness methods to keep the exerciser interested, which in turn means failure to accomplish long-term results.
[2] Not unlike the term tactical in the military or survival gear market ;-)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Challenges in training - intent.

Recently I have offered some criticism on a video clip that a friend had posted online, dealing with empty handed work against knife in Russian Systema. Of course, some people did not agree with my point of view, some did, but in the process I have noticed something that I am going to discuss here. Namely, while most comments about martial art demos, either live or on video, are geared towards the performance of the defender/trainee, I usually tend to pay attention to the attacker/feeder. The way I see it, it is the latter’s approach to work that will directly impact the overall quality of the work in training.

If you have done any serious reflection on how you (or other) drill and practice their material in training, it should be clear that practitioners cannot really grow much further in their work than the level of challenge presented in training. In view of drills, critics frequently address the points such as the speed and force of the attack, implying that anything but full-speed, full contact work is meaningless. I strongly disagree with such attitude, especially in certain domains and certain levels of training. The slow and/or soft work definitely has its merits, as long as it is done in proper context.

OK, this is where we reach the guiding theme of this post – INTENT. That, in my humble opinion, is the decisive element in drilling, if it is meant to prepare one for actual, live combative performance, be it in the sportive arena or in the streets and back alleys. Basically, the intent boils down to actually trying to connect, i.e. place, the technique one is feeding. In case of striking it means connecting the tool and the target, while in grappling it would mean obtaining the dictated position.

We see therefore, that full speed attacks, if kept short, or missing the target “for the sake of security” are just as prone to ingrain bad habits and grow illusions in training (maybe even more so) than slow ones. Rory Miller in his Book “Drills” (highly recommended) observes that every drill has a built in flaw that acts as a safeguard of sorts, and adds that the flaw of timing (doing the drill slowly) may be the least detrimental, because nobody is really inclined to act slowly, due to such training, in a realistic combat situation. Of course, the main tendency to screw up the value of slow training is one side speeding up (usually the defender), which enables them to do stuff that would not be doable in the real time, on the account of not being able to be that much faster then the attacker. This for example happens rather frequently in the Systema circles.

Honesty, then, is the best policy when doing the slow work. If approached in that manner it offers a lot of good things. Probably among the most important ones is finding new possibilities to experiment with later at more intensity, in order to find out whether those could be included among the probable repertoire of responses (please, see thispost).

The same objections stand for one-step sparring in karate and taekwondo, or all those cyclic drills found in arnis/eskrima (hubud, sumbrada etc.), and which even happen to be the staple of some schools and styles. The very nature of those drills is such that they contain possible bad habits, and if done without proper intent from both participants, than there will be no good habits to compensate. How often have you seen people do hubad and sumbrada in a way that looks like patty-cake sort of exchange? Unfortunately, more often than not – both actors standing in place, attacking from a wrong distance (the neuralgic point of one-step sparring practices), not even seeking to place the technique, reckless in defense… Now add actual intent to that drill, even at slow or medium tempo and lo and behold – they start moving around, realigning to keep the proper posture, being attentive of their defensive techniques etc.

The intent reminds one of the actual purpose of the work and the context in which the drilled material is likely to be applied. It brings to mind an excellent observation by Charles Staley, in his book “The Science of Martial Art Training”, saying: “[…] without the bigger picture in mind, someone is not really training, but rather, simply exercising. This distinction reveals the significant differences between an athlete (in our case fighter – D.M.) and a fitness enthusiast”.

In conclusion, be sure to which category you wish to belong (refer back to this post for assistance), and train accordingly, with the right INTENT. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Effectiveness and efficiency

There are two words that tend to be widely used (or abused) as more or less synonymous in the martial art circles, even though they really are not. Those are effectiveness and efficiency. Without going into too much linguistic fuss, the former denotes the capacity/ability to achieve a desired goal, while the latter means that the same goal is accomplished with the least possible expenditure of energy and/or time. In other words, using a wheelbarrow to take a bag of cement from your house to your shed would be effective AND efficient, but using a 16-wheel truck to do the same could be effective, BUT highly inefficient. Now, this difference has implications on a couple of levels in one’s training and performance.

First and foremost, we see that the efficiency is only measured in relation to effectiveness, i.e. there can be no efficiency if the effect is not achieved in the first place. That in turn, if though about with an open mind, might mean the entire paradigm change in certain arts/styles. Namely, there are plenty of schools around teaching the arts that base their entire identity or uniqueness (marketing as well) on being very efficient and requiring little strength, hence “ideal for both sexes and all generation”. However, if you take a look at the technical material they teach, you will easily see that it is utterly unable to first do what it is meant to (stop and attack, immobilize the threat…), so the whole efficiency gimmick is just that, usually translates as “we offer gain without pain”.

When analyzed from the standpoint of training methodology within any single fighting system, this dichotomy implies certain chronology in training. Basically, it says that we first need to make sure that our techniques (or drills, training methods of any sort) are effective, i.e. accomplishing the predefined goal (so, you need to think it out and actually define the results you wish to achieve), and only then work to “streamline” the performance and make it as efficient as possible”.

Now, let’s move on to a higher level of looking at things (self defense in this case) and take a look at what does it mean strategically and tactically. One of the basic shortcomings of working on efficiency is focusing entirely on a single move or technique and its motor components, i.e. physical characteristics. So, if one is working on a punch or kick, they will try to transfer the greatest possible amount of power into the target, while wasting the least possible amount of time and energy. In case of blocking, the thing is pretty much the same. However, we really need to consider at least one more aspect – all the techniques in a fight/match should be taken in their context; the strikes (attacks of any kind) should also be such to not expose us to a counter, or at least such that we receive as little damage in return as possible. Same with the defensive maneuvers, they are more efficient if leaving us in a position to counter effectively. Of course, it would have been more efficient to have had deescalated the situation verbally, or maybe run away…

By the same token, single direct attack is more efficient than a faint followed by the real attack, but only if both manage to actually achieve the goal, that is, to place the technique properly.

Just to see how relative and dynamic these notions are, take a look at the following video clip:

If we assume that the “attacker’s” goal was simply to hit the victim in the head, then one might argue that it was achieves, so the chosen technique was effective. However, if he had punched him, instead of kicking, it would have been more efficient. But, if we assume that the goal was to knock the other man down, than the attack was both ineffective and inefficient…

As a final observation, in the context of putting together a curriculum for a self-defense course, it would probably be both most effective and efficient to disregard the efficiency! That, of course only applies to hose coursed that are limited in duration, because, you want your attendees to get out of it with some effective stuff, while the efficiency may not be that important for those circumstance. However, in a martial art club or a regular training group, I have to agree with the words of Systema instructor Kevin Secours, who says “there’s no excuse for being inefficient”. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Probable vs. possible

Probably the most frequent question I have been hearing over my years of practicing martial arts is something along the lines of “what if..?” Sometimes, the question comes from a person and in a manner that clearly indicates some background and legitimacy of raising it, while on some other occasions it only shows the cluelessness of the one who asks. However, sometimes even the people with considerable empirical background will ask about the situations that strike us as odd.

While personally I am not the one to rely heavily or even like statistics as the source of one’s information on any given topic, the fact remains that certain occurrences in the domain of fighting are more probable than some others. How does your training reflect this?

Obviously, some styles and systems are utterly not concerned about either the possibility or probability of some practical modern day self-defense situations, since those study some very traditional arts that were implemented in a very different time and very specific environment. We might argue that back then, those practiced methods were addressing the probable situations of the era, but still, it is essentially historical/ethnic/cultural study.

GM Caballero of De Campo 1-2-3
Krav maga

It looks like there are two main methods of tackling the problem. One is focusing on the most common types of encounters and formulating a relatively small and condensed format to deal with it. For example, in the world of FMA it would be De Campo 1-2-3 Orehenal, or in the contemporary “militarized” milieu Krav Maga.

On the other hand, one could try to come up with an all-encompassing system to try covering all the bases, so again we have Pekiti Tirsia or Russian Systema. Now, both approaches have value, but the critical point is the emphasis in training.

Grand Tuhon Gaje of Pekiti Tirsia


Namely, the instructor should have enough insight and honesty to tell his/her students what is the material, they are working on, meant to achieve. While the case of streamlined instruction may suffer from not including all possible types of combative scenarios, the instruction should then provide enough of the attribute work to at least offer some ability of improvisation. Contrary to that, the “complex” systems should acknowledge that some things are more probable than others and use the training time accordingly, i.e. invest more work in probabilities, while adding the remotely possible applications more as illustrations and kind of references.

In the latter case, some students might happen to enjoy more the aspects that are possible but unlikely to happen, so the instructor will have the obligation to make sure they have the basics under their belt, i.e. no neglecting what could be a live saver that same night.

Another thing that I have noticed as a weakness in the expansive systems (but not exclusive to them) is the failure to recognize the proper progression in training, which would facilitate the progress of the student. For example, they will work on speed and agility before addressing power and flexibility, or talk in detail on (counter)knife drills without first developing strong deployment skills or footwork.

Ultimately, the performance of a practitioner will depend on the quality of the instructor and, of course, their own intelligence and rational thinking on the material offered in training. Any training method, minimalistic or expansive, will produce both excellent and unsatisfactory exponents, but the fact remains that the probable MUST be stressed, while the possible needs to be at least mentioned and glanced at, in order to be recognized as a threat. After all, we all know that in MMA the fighter who does not know how to sprawl against a shoot or parry a jab is not going to last long, but then again, we have seen some spinning backfist knockouts as well, even against the top-class competitors.

Spinning backfist

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Roger Agbulos: addendum

I have to admit that I am very happy about the reactions that have followed my previous post. However. it dawned on me, at one point, that maybe some of the readers would like to see how it all looks in action, so if you are one of those, check the following video clip, also edited and put together by yours truly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Roger Agbulos - bridging the generation gap

With the unfortunate and premature death of Punong Guro Edgar Sulite, his Lameco system of eskrima seemed to have taken something of a back seat in the world of FMA. However, there have been some of his close students, members of what is know as Lameco SOG (Sulite Original Group) who have continued to train hard and tried to spread the knowledge of their beloved teacher.

SOG - the backyard days


One of those is guro Roger Agbulos, a true exponent of all the qualities that Lameco stands for. Even though the passing of PG Sulite has left his backyard group in sort of a vacuum, some of them have continued their training and research of the roots of Lameco. Guro Agbulos was one of those, and he turned to some of the predecessor styles of Lameco, specifically Eskrima De Campo JDC-IO, under professor Ireneo Olavides, and Ilustrisimo under the tutelage of late GM “Topher” Ricketts and GM Reynaldo Galang.

With late GM Christopher Ricketts


Through this training, guro Roger was able to develop a thorough understanding of the principles of edged and impact weapons combat, especially in the tradition of functional approach, as this striving for the functional means of fighting were installed in him during his formative years under PG Sulite. The constant effort to develop the best ways possible to deal with a weapon wielding attacker in the real time and under pressure lead to the dedicated and committed research and practice of techniques and principles that had shown to satisfy the criteria of functional performance in combat.

After a few years of such work, guro Agbulos has devised his own teaching progression and training methods, aimed to bring the trainee to the desired level of performance as quickly and efficiently as possible. Due to the nature of such working ethic in training, this system of teaching and training was named Astig Lameco, where astig is the Filipino word with the meaning of “hard core” or “diehard”. In the best tradition of his teachers, guro Agbulos has kept his focus on functional combative performance and has been teaching a group of students with the zeal to train in this manner, thus honoring the name of the system. However, despite the tough training and hard work, the atmosphere during the sessions and among the group members is familiar and relaxed, which in turn enables the students to ask questions and look for the answers, in order to bring their progress up to speed. Ultimately, although the work in Astig Lameco is focused on tried and tested principles that hold for the grand majority of situation that combat might present before its practitioners, it is still meant to be one’s own personal expression of those principles, in line with personal characteristics and requirements of the particular situation.


Essentially, Astig Lameco is a training methodology. Namely, in my view the main feature of this system are not its techniques as such, but rather the training method and learning progression that makes those techniques work in a real-time environment.

The Astig method uses pretty much the same techniques as many other FMA and other weapon-based combative schools, but instead of emphasizing the smorgasbord of possible technical maneuvers and combinations for their own sake, the accent is on the development of practitioners' personal physical attributes and proper MECHANICS of DELIVERY. In practice it means working on a limited number of tried and tested functional techniques in such a way that a trainee is able to develop an "internal", corporal understanding of the essence of those techniques, hence being able to use them under constantly changing environment of live combat. From that standpoint, one might say that the training methods of Astig Lameco are more in line with boxing than other, more traditional styles of martial arts.


As a result of this methodology, guro Roger is sought after in those martial art circles where a functional and readily applicable ability in weapons use is required, so he has been providing consulting and advisory services in various combative circles, among the reality-oriented schools and methods (KAPAP, BASH etc).    

With Avi Nardia and Albert Timen of KAPAP

Besides excellent training methods, guro Agbulos has also worked out an equally good teaching progression. Unlike with many schools where the technical material is presented and demonstrated, more or less randomly, rather than actually taught to their students in a systematic and meaningful fashion, in Astig Lameco the material is actually presented in a unique order – according to the chronological needs of the trainee. Namely, when one wishes to learn about combat (and not theatrical versions of it), he or she needs to learn some things in certain order. The first thing you need to be able and do is get out of the harms way, when on defense, and actually reach and inflict damage on your opponent, when on offense – hence the need for solid footwork, and a stance that enables most efficient delivery of that aspect.


 Next in order, you need some tools to use on your opponent, so basic striking angles are taught, either with a stick or a knife. At this point, another landmark of Astig comes in, i.e. the approach according to which the offense and defense are really one and the same. Namely, guro Roger teaches us to make our opponent feel the pressure even when attacking himself, which in turn is achieved by using our striking to defend, but it is only possible with well-developed footwork. Really nice thing about guro Roger’s progression is that each block of material acts as a foundation for the next one, thus making it easier to acquire and apply, if worked on diligently. 
Sparring is a regular part of training sessions

With his unique dedication to preserving the true nature of the FMA legacy and enjoyable personality, supported by the excellent teaching methodology, it is no wonder that guro Roger Agbulos is getting rave reviews of his seminars and workshops. It is therefore no wonder that his Astig Lameco is spreading, so currently, besides the central school in Los Angeles, one can find chapters in Texas, Canada, Philippines, Central America and Europe. If you ever get a chance of joining the training of Astig Lameco, jump on the opportunity, you won’t be disappointed. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book review: Jogo do Pau - The Ancient Art and Modern Science of Portuguese Stick Fighting

Over the past 23 years that I have been actively involved with martial arts (never as a professional, but most of it as a full-time practitioner), and some thing of a book lover alongside, the number of books relating to various aspects of martial arts that have passed through my hands are innumerable. Many of them were good, many not really, but a few have proven to be excellent. It means either extraordinary in their attention to the fullest possible coverage of a more or less narrow subject, or outstanding in the completeness of their treatment of a subject.

Luis Preto’s Book “Jogo do Pau – The Ancient Art and Modern Science of Portuguese Stick Fighting” falls in the latter category. Since the first reading of the book (and I still read it regularly, at least couple of times a year), I was very impressed with Mr. Preto’s clear and well thought out presentation of the material in the book. Sure, his expertise in the subject is unquestionable, and his enthusiasm and love for the art he practices/teaches is almost radiating from the manual itself, but there are other authors like that, too. In my view, the thing that makes Preto stand out is his craft in intertwining all the various aspects of Jogo do Pau and making them flow really well in his presentation.

The book is divided into three sections, each with several chapters:
Part I - History and some technical notions, i.e. terminology and gear used in practice.
Part II - The “meat” of the manual, explaining the techniques and strategies/tactics of this approach to fighting. The chapter on Single Combat is brilliant and offers excellent advice with regards to tactical preparation and understanding of any combative encounter, regardless of the martial art you practice, but especially pertinent to any armed method.
Part III - Covers the author’s approach to training methodology, based on his extensive study of modern training science. It is this segment of the book where Preto really shines. He pulls no punches in criticizing the outdated and inferior training methods (but never for the sake of being rude). On the other hand, his arguments in favor of the methods he offers are rock solid and well explained. It is also this particular section of the book that I believe is a must-read for everybody seriously interested in training martial arts, especially so if you plan to teach as well.

                                                     Luis Preto with his teacher Nuno Russo

Mr. Preto has somehow managed to cram a lot of excellent instruction in this manual, and cover a lot of ground – technical, physical, mental/psychological. Still, everything is composed and illustrated so well, that it all fits together superbly. As a result, you don’t get the feel that corners have been cut in some parts, in order to make other ones more fully explained. Another thing that I was stunned with in the end is that all this has been achieved in a book that spans barely over 200 pages in volume! A true miracle, if you ask me.

In conclusion, this is not the perfect book on martial arts, but it is the one closes to the optimal I have found so far. I am not going to say that it “belongs to every martial artist’s library”, because it really does not belong to a bookshelf – instead it should be in your training bag or always on your reading peace of furniture. It really is a practical manual, in the best sense of that word, and so you should use it. I did and I am glad to have done so. Today, my training and even more so teaching is largely influenced by the material from this book.

It is worth saying that Mr. Preto has recently started out a series of books on individual subjects in martial art training and I am looking forwards to reading to those as well eventually. The one I will dare recommending even without seeing it first (yep, that confident!) to everybody reading this review is his book of progression in training, i.e. “How to Sequence the Teaching of Technique and Tactics”.


With my next post I will start reviewing various martial art products and events, so a few words about it are due in advance. Being utterly uninterested in the materials that offer little value and adequate information, my reviews will be covering only the material I find recommendable. It means no bashing and thrash-talking about certain products (even if well deserved), simply because it will be a waste of time. However there MIGHT be two exceptions to this rule: 1. if particularly requested by at least a few of the blog readers; and 2. if I feel it is specially important to warn about the crappy "quality" of the subject at hand.

That said, if something is not reviewed here, it does not necessarily mean I consider it unworthy, but may simply be the matter of time constraints (not getting to it yet) or that I do not have it for consideration.

With the ground rules set - see you all in my next post!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What do I want out of it...

In the light of my previous post, I guess that some of my handful of readers might ask: “What do you look for in a martial art”? It is a fair question, especially since those criteria will have major impact on all of my future articles, rants and reviews that will hopefully appear here.

Before going into more detail about my own preferences, there is one thing that, I believe, has to be present in any case, i.e. whichever of the previously mentioned motives you have to join a martial art group. Consistency is what will be the decisive factor in my decision to either go for something, or just skip it. By consistency I mean the inner logic of the fighting system at hand – the coherency of its ideas, concepts and principles. There really should not be any colliding and/or opposing principles in a martial art, otherwise it would be confusing for the students and probably ineffective in its desired combative goal.

In traditional martial arts and systems, if the instructor is offering contradictory advice it usually means that he or she does not really have a full grasp of what they are doing, so maybe they should reconsider being an instructor in the first place, or at least the curriculum they are teaching. One thing is for sure – you should be reconsidering continuing your training in that environment and with such an instructor.

When any of the modern and new, especially eclectic methods are at issue, it could be one of the two things: one, the system itself is not worked out properly; two, the instructor is inadequate, just like with the traditional school. Of course, some of these modern schools are still very much work in progress, so if the leader/founder/creator is an able performer and can even teach the technical part of the material well, maybe he is just still looking for the right way to organize his teaching, hence the occurrence of “gray areas”. If so, it might be worth staying around and seeing the whole thing grow…or move on, if your needs are more pressing and urgent. Ultimately, it is your choice.

OK, so we come to my own criteria. Essentially, I am sort of a martial art junky, so it is possible to see me doing various things for various reasons (again, see my previous article), but there are still come common denominators that I will seek. For starters, healthy atmosphere is a big thing. While I could sometimes learn somewhere despite the instructor’s deviated personality, rotten relations among the practitioners etc, it is bound to be short-lived, even if the technical material itself is good.

Secondly, good training method is also held in high regard. It means that if having to choose between a great master in performance, but utterly unable to teach, and just a solid guy who has good training methods with consistent results, I will end up with the latter. Training methodology is a big thing in my book, so I will not settle for those who refuse to improve on their work due to laziness, ignorance, insecurity, ego and other personal reasons that only hinder their students’ growth. All that said, sometimes there are those master performers who do not even care to teach others. When stumbling across one of those, I will try to glean as much as I can and then attempt to organize the knowledge on my own, while maybe even finding some adequate training methods myself along the way.

Next, I prefer teachers/coaches who do their best to explain what they do in the simplest and most understandable way possible, in opposition with those who reach for pseudo-philosophy and mystical quasi-explanations to actually keep their students in the dark.

 Naturally, sometimes those of higher education will use the terminology that could throw off some of the inexperienced students, but if it is in the function of making the instruction more focused and dense, I am all for it…and the students should take additional effort to understand. Warning notice is due, however. Some people will just use big words and gobbledygook for the sake of sounding smarter, while actually saying nothing of substance so beware of those. See, you should have paid attention in school – it would have been easier to discern between the two kinds.

Finally, whichever art I might choose to get involved with, has to contain some direct combative value and relevance. Ideally, it should offer a good balance of effectiveness and efficiency, because the former will make the goal clearer, while the latter will keep me challenged and stimulate me to stay with it for longer periods of time. Now, my personal preference is that the direct combat applications need not be spoon fed and all laid down for me. In my experience, if I have to work on my own on interpreting things and exploring the possibilities, the findings tend to stay with me more readily and with quicker integration into my toolbox.

In the end, currently my longest lasting “love affairs” in martial arts are the systems of South East Asia (Filipino, Indonesian, Thai) and western methods (Russian Systema, fencing and MMA). That said, I am always trying new things out with an open mind, but at the moment, these form the lion’s share of my interest and research.