Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why I train at home (despite being lazy by nature)

This entry falls under 'Stating the obvious in as verbose a fashion as humanly possible'.
I want to get this down while I'm thinking about it.

I write this because, due to time and health limitations, I can rarely go to more than one night-time training session with my peers each week.

The obvious penalty to this situation is that, if I relied upon a single training session each week, I would make little progress at all in my studies of the sword for two reasons: 1 - lack of physical practice and resultant conditioning; 2 - less chances for the brain to make the necessary neural connections to allow learning to take a hold.

I'm a big believer that, if you go to bed soon after focusing on an area of study you will have a better chance for the knowledge to sink in, take root, and consolidate.

For those of you with the occasional interest in reading scientific articles, here is one on the subject of sleep and motor skill learning, and an experiment conducted to see if sleep improved motor-skill learning: http://learnmem.cshlp.org/content/10/4/275.full

An excerpt for those who DON'T want to click the link:
"...subjects were trained either in the morning or evening and retested at subsequent 12-h intervals following wake or sleep. Although practice on the motor-skill task improved performance within the training session for all groups equally, regardless of time of day, subjects trained in the morning demonstrated no significant improvement in speed when retested after 12 h of wake. In contrast, they showed an average 20% improvement by the next morning, following a night of sleep."

So, according to the above article, each night spent training and thinking about fencing before a decent night of sleep is going to give me a boost in my knowledge/skill retention.

Therefore, if I only think about fencing one night a week, and practice the physical skills one night a week, then I am missing several opportunities to push along my quest for improvement.

In conclusion, and stating the bloody obvious: it makes every kind of good sense to spend some time training each night before having a shower and going to bed, so much so that even a lazy man such as myself cannot help but give into the demands of logic.

I may go into what exercises I currently use in a later entry.

Benedictions all,

James O'Dwyer

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Exercises I use for developing strength in the arms

One thing I noticed very quickly when I first started training with swords was how rapidly my arms and shoulders wore out and became too fatigued to safely or successfully execute any fencing techniques.

(Quick background: when I was in Uni, I was quite weak in the torso and arms due to malnutrition, although my legs were fairly reliable from several years of lengthy walks and bicycle rides)

Now, whether one trains with a HEMA group or a re-enactment group, chances are you generally don't spend enough time in class each week to develop the requisite strength quickly. At least, such was the case for me.

Now, you could go to the gym, true, but you may not have the time, money and/or inclination to do so. Personally, I prefer a method which is cheap and doesn't require me to leave home.

The method I ended up going with is simply this: Handweights.
Pop down to your local Sports Equipment Store (eg. Rebel Sports) and fork out between 5-15$ for a couple of light handweights.

Ideally, you'd want 2 of the 1.5kg or 2kg weights - however, if at this time you are having difficulty holding a rapier in extended guard for more than a minute, then start with the 1kg weights, but get the 1.5kg ones as well (which you can use to test how far your strength is coming along).


1 - The Spanish Guard
This exercise is ideal for getting used to having your sword arm extended in guard for lengthy periods. You can do this while standing in front of the television, or at any time when your mind is otherwise engaged but your body and arms are doing nothing of use.

Simply hold the weight in your hand like you would a rapier's grip, feet approximately shoulders width wide, and hold your arm at length (as per image to the right). Do not lock in your elbow.

Periodically change your hand position from fingernails facing down, to fingernails facing to the inside, and then with fingernails facing up. When one arm gets too tired, swap arms.

(Image from Pacheco's The Book of the Greatness of the Sword (1600) with thanks to the hard work of Mary and Puck Curtis)

2 - The Cuts
Now, simply holding your arm out with weight in hand isn't going to work all of the required arm and shoulder muscles. So, when boredom with the first exercise sets in (and it will, trust me!), switch over to this one.

This exercise is fairly intuitive for anyone who has watched any swashbuckling movies (Pirates of the Caribbean included). Without damaging your household or those you may live with, perform a sequence of cuts with arm extended and weight in hand.

NB: Do not lock the elbow in, but make sure that at the point where you imagine the cut has 'connected' your arm should be almost straight if you want to be working the arm and shoulder well. Remember you can cut with finesse and panache using movements of the wrist and elbow. Not every strike has to be a 'Conan Special'.

3 - The Guards
This exercise presumes that you have been taught a range of wards and guards for your particular style of bladework.

This exercise simply consists of moving from one guard/ward to the next with the weight in hand. Try different speeds, ranging from slow and deliberate to fast (but only as fast as you can maintain the correct guard position). Make sure you hold your arm in the guard/ward position for at least 5-10 seconds. Make sure that, at some point, you hold each guard for a lengthy position, as you did in Exercise 1 - The Spanish Guard.

HOW TO GAUGE PROGRESS and push it forward more.

This is relatively simple to do - all you need is a timer of some form.
Let us assume for arguments sake that you started with a 1kg handweight, and could only have it extended in the Spanish Guard for 1 minute before you had to drop your arm.

Every time you subsequently hold the guard for longer than 1 minute is a sign of improvement.

When you can hold it for 5 minutes or more at the current weight, increase the weight (to 1.5kg, for this example).

You will find that you may once again only be able to hold the new weight for around a minute or so. However, when your arm gets too tired for the 1.5kg weight, change it immediately to the 1kg (without taking a break). You should find that you will be able to continue the exercise for a couple more minutes.

As time progresses you will find in much the way that I have, that when you pick up the rapier at training or in the fighting lists, your arm will not tire out so quickly and you will be able to get in a lot more quality fencing for your time and effort.

Benedictions all,

James O'Dwyer

The perils of choice for a beginner

As a novice of the European sword, one of the hardest things to come to grips with can be 'Where do I start?'.

Due to the dedicated efforts of many groups and individuals over the past years, the re-creation of the medieval and renaissance martial arts has become a lot more accessible to the novice.

Want to learn the Italian Rapier style of Salvatore Fabris? Tom Leoni has made an excellent translation. German Longsword? Christian H Tobler has produced translations and instructions. Capoferro? Agrippa? Sword and Buckler? English Quarterstaff? Polearms? There are people around the world making it possible to learn a lot about these weapon styles.

It all sounds so fun, right? But where to start, and more importantly, where to STOP?

It is the latter point which poses the greatest difficulty for me. Because everything is still so new and shiny it is very hard to keep focused on any one style or weapon.

Now, keep in mind that every style has its merits, and learning about each will give a better overall understanding of the blade.
However, the peril lies in this: If one doesn't apply themselves to develop a basic level of competence in one style, constantly style-hopping with the frequency of a moth choosing between bright lights at a fireworks display, well, it all becomes a bit of a mess trying to keep all the information orderly in the old grey matter.

Regretfully, I cannot say that I have found an adequate answer to the dilemma yet.
However, I am trying to limit myself to the following areas of study:

Single Rapier, according to Capoferro.
(I am also dabbling in the Spanish approach, particularly the footwork, but my knowledge is too limited to be able to study it properly as a seperate thing.)
Sword and Buckler, following the Bolognese school.
Longsword, according to the German traditions.

It is my hope that by limiting my initial interests to these areas, I will gain a decent overall understanding of how technique and footwork variesy with the nature of each weapon style, whilst at the same time not overwhelm myself with so much information that my studies suffer overall as a result of lack of focus.

Benedictions all,

James O'Dwyer

A Scholar's Diary: Introduction

The purpose of this project is to keep a record of my thoughts and experiences as I re-engage in the study of Historical European Martial Arts.

This will largely serve as a mnemonic device for me - a way to ensure that I am not undone by the sieve which is my memory.

However, as time passes and I gain some skill and knowledge in the field, I may end up having something more worthwhile to add here beyond those experiences I gain in my studies.

Benedictions all,

James O'Dwyer