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