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Chuck Gross

Nutrition and Fitness Coach (Pn1, ACE-PT, OTC) at HEMA Strong
Fitness Mentor – Broken Plow Western Martial Arts
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“There is but one art of the sword…” Ms. 3227a

And just as there is one art of the sword, there is only one science of the body. That science and its underlying principles dictate how we can effectively train our bodies to excel at our art.

Why is cross-training a myth?

Cross-training’s general connotation is that training for any of the fitness domains is an “option” rather than a necessity for improvement of your martial art.

Is it a different connotation for you? No worries, then this article isn’t for you. 🙂

With that said, regardless of your reasons for being part of HEMA or any other martial art, you are learning a physical skill. And those who master their art, as well as their bodies, will have the best results, the best return on investment of their precious time.

The practice of the art alone will only improve your physical skill up to a point, especially if you are a beginner, or have had an extended break from regular physical activity. And much as martial arts are about the efficiency and economy of movement, so too is the training of the body. Both in efficiency and economy of movement and of time spent.

So why is the specific training of other fitness domains a necessity?

To quote Charles Staley in his book that partly inspired this article, “The Science of Martial Arts Training”:

“Martial arts mastery requires years, but those years yield far more results when sound sport science is used. Time is better spent developing a proper foundation than correcting long-entrenched errors from years of poor training.”

The Pyramid

In order to avoid entrenching those errors from our training, Staley references a training factor pyramid that can be used to determine where errors originate from, which allows faster correction of them in our art.

This pyramid in the context of martial arts breaks down as follows:

  1. Physical Preparation is the combination of your fitness domains. Strength, power, speed, balance, flexibility, endurance, coordination, etc.
  2. Technical is your martial art’s technique work.
  3. Tactical is your ability to combine your technical and physical skills together against another person. For example, making the correct decision of when to use a technique, and your ability to do so against an opponent that is trying to prevent that from happening.
  4. Psychological is your confidence and courage. To apply all previous levels of the pyramid together as one under stress.

Bring it together

OK, so let’s circle back to the point here that there is no cross-training. Working on your important fitness domains with the most effective way possible does not diminish your martial art at all, but instead vastly enhances it.

You are sparring at class, and you miss a thrust, cut, etc. You could shrug it off, or you can treat it as an objective learning experience. What happened? Use the pyramid. Can you reliably and technically execute said technique with good structure? No? Then go down to the physical level and look for things that may be preventing that. It might be flexibility, balance, strength…or all of them. Improving those fitness domains will help you more successfully execute that technique at a much faster rate than if you had just practiced the technique alone.

Where do you start?

Just train everything? Weight lifting, running, sprinting, flexibility, balance, etc?

Integrating all fitness domains successfully does not mean doing all of the things. It means cutting away the superfluous, ensuring that everything you do is necessary and justifiable. To do otherwise is to invite overtraining and injury.

To quote Bruce Lee:

“Training is not a process of adding on, but rather, one of chipping away at the inessentials until the essence has been revealed”.

How do we do that?

It means focusing on the aspects that you need to get better at. Each person’s needs will differ from everyone else, as well as at different points of time. You may improve on weakness, and as a result, find another at a later time. My biggest weakness was always my footwork, which stemmed from poor balance and ankle flexibility. Once I corrected those, another weakness (cardio) appeared.

Eventually, you may reach the point of physical mastery where your training time outside of your art has reached diminishing returns. And then your time is going to be spent on simply maintaining your fitness across the various fitness domains while improving on other levels of the pyramid. But the important part remains: what’s not used is not maintained.

Are you running out of energy during tournament bouts? Since they are 2-3 minutes, focusing anaerobic cardio with something like sprints will help you there. Are you not able to make it through a class before running out of energy? Then focusing on your aerobic cardio to build up your gas tank for a few weeks with minimal weightlifting would be a better use of your time.

As I mentioned earlier, a pure beginner or someone that’s entirely deconditioned will see physical improvements in their strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance simply by practicing their techniques and martial art specific drills. Given that our body is great at adapting to a stress/stimulus, after a while this will no longer be effective, and specialized training is required.

This specialized training is often referred to as ‘cross-training’, which unfortunately has the connotation that training for any of the fitness domains is an ‘option’ rather than a necessity. (Staley, 1999, p. 13)

Effective Specialized Training

Effective specialized training is about identifying individual needs and having a plan to improve them as much as needed while avoiding injury and overtraining.

And for most people, that means not solely relying on their martial art for the physical layer of the martial arts training pyramid. If that describes you, this is not a judgment of that decision. Instead, it is to inform you that there is a better way, supported by science and that HEMA Strong is here to help you with that.

If you need some help, join the HEMA Strong Facebook group and ask! Hope to see you there!

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If you’d like to learn more about the principles mentioned in this article and would like to dive into the science and physiology, I’d highly recommend reading Staley’s book.

Staley, C. I. (1999). The science of martial arts training. Burbank, CA: Multi-Media Books.