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Basic Physical Training Concepts for Fighting Artists, pt. 2

Stagnation: Too Much of a Good (?) Thing

Martial arts are often marketed and practiced as if they are a finished product with set training and methods. The entrenchment of this idea varies from circle to circle, but it is quite common. It’s very appealing to both new students and long-term students alike. Predictability and stability are things that we tend to gravitate towards in our choices of recreational activities, as can be seen by the guy who goes to the gym and does the exact same workout every visit, or the  karate sensei who plans each class to be a further exposition on the basic techniques that the last year’s worth of classes were based on. Stagnation of training activities can take the form of:

  1. repetition of specific skill-based activities: techniques or drills, especially elementary techniques
  2. repetition of physical conditioning exercises past the point of useful adaptation

For new students the appeal of a set training format is very strong, as it minimizes the new material that they have to learn on a given night, which reduces anxieties and confusion in front of more experienced students. A handful of things can be learned, whether that be a drill, technique or conditioning exercise,  and then repeated reliably in each successive class. This is a comfortable routine, and if it is tied to claims of efficacy or magical thinking, the new student may place an inflated value on whatever he or she has done the most, regardless of ability.

For the long term student, stagnation may be appealing due to one of two factors:

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Corrective Exercise Concepts for Striking

Regular feedback from practicing strikes against resistance (hitting bags etc.)  is essential in the fighting artist’s training regimen. As important as hitting is, it can be over done. In order to prevent muscular imbalances, that in turn lead to avoidable injuries and performance impairments, measures to counter or correct them must be included in programming. The following guidelines are designed to assist instructors and students in both improving performance and preventing injuries associated with training.

Conditioning Guidelines:
  • If you are conditioning the anterior (chest and shoulder) musculature, don’t neglect the posterior (back). These muscles form force-couples of agonistic and antagonistic action; if one side is chronically short and tight, the other will be long and spastic, and vice avers. Neither condition is very efficient, and will likely  lead to a more serious injury.
  • If you are conditioning the large prime movers (ie, pectorals), don’t neglect the smaller stabilizers (ie, subscapularis).
  • For every session of bag intense work,  consider including 2-3 days of active recovery for the chest and shoulder muscle and associated striking & conditioning actions (see below).
  • For every 3-4 weeks of regular striking, include 1 full week of active recovery into your training routine. Don’t worry about de-training in a week’s time- this takes up to 4 weeks of inactivity to become significant.

Tissue Quality:

  • Muscle and connective tissues remodel along lines of force.  Repeated actions, particularly forceful ones, will alter tissue extensibility, elasticity and mobility, and potentially effect nerve tissue mobility (especially in the case of the brachial plexus and it’s divisions).
  • Corrective exercise and self myofascial release are  recommended to provide the optimal length/tension relationships for the agonist/antagonist muscles, and break up fascial adhesions (“trigger points”, “knots”) within and between muscle tissues. This helps to promote efficient technique as well as protect the shoulder joint and cervical-thoracic spinal systems.
  • For SMR, hold sustained pressure on areas of tight and tender muscle for a full 30 seconds. A foam roller can be used for most exterior muscles, but a tennis ball or lacrosse ball is needed to access smaller, deeper ones. Avoid SMR in bruised, ruptured or acutely sore tissue.
  • For static stretching: hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, repeat x 2 times per day, especially after hitting bags/pads/makiwara.
  • Avoid extensive static stretching immediately before engaging in heavy, intense striking work. A light pendulum stretch can activate the rotator cuff muscles and mobilize the superior thoracic outlet and sub-acromial space, which may be tight from training/fighting in a “hunched” posture.
Stretching & Myofascial Release Techniques 
Prime Movers (these vary in their contribution or action according to the strike in question):
  1. Pectorals : Flex, internally rotate and adduct shoulder arm at shoulder, pec minor specifically pulls the scapula forward and down. Do one at a time, avoid the double arm “hanging” doorway stretch.
  2. Triceps: Extends forearm. This muscle is heavily used in straight-arm punches and strikes.
  3. Biceps: Flexes and supinates forearm. Used heavily in hooks and uppercuts, the flexion of the upper arm at the shoulder, as well on the return to guard from a strike. Counter intuitively, the biceps has a major role as both a mover and stabilizer for straight punches; it is often neglected because of the assumption that punching is dependent on the triceps (or momentum, in some circles).

Stabilizers (these vary in their contribution or action according to the strike in question):

  1. Subscapularis: Shoulder internal rotator. There are also ways of performing this using a stick or towel for assistance, but starting out in the lying position makes it easier to monitor the head of the humerus (upper arm) to ensure that it is not rotating forward.
  2. Teres Minor and Infraspinatus. Shoulder external rotators. Notice that she is not forcing her arm down. If the head of the humerus wants to bulge forward and the shoulder up off of the table, don’t push it past this point.


  1. Levator Scapulae: Scapular elevator and medial rotator,  neck rotator and lateral flexor. This muscle attaches the cervical vertebrae to the upper medial aspect of the scapula. The upwardly rotated, “hunched” position that many fighters adopt during bag work and fighting can shorten and tighten this muscle.
  2. Upper Trapezius: Assist in elevation and retraction of scapulae. This region of the trapezius may be tight from forward shoulder “hunched” posture common to fighting and training.

Primary Antagonists:

  1. Rhomboids: Retract and elevate scapula.  These may be lengthened and inhibited from the forward shoulder “hunched” posture common to fighting and training.
  2. Latissimus: connects the humerus to the lumbar and thoracic spine, adducts, extends and internally rotates arm at shoulder. These are often tight in people who kick a lot or engage in excessive “air punching.”  Hint: if you can’t do a squat with the arms stretched overhead and keep the hands in line with your ears, or can’t help but fold at the waist as opposed to the hips, the lats need serious  attention to restore mobility to your shoulders.

Relevant surface muscles of the back and chest

Deeper relevant muscular anatomy

Back to School, pt. 1

I’m in the beginning phases of a Masters degree in Human Movement science. This process will have a major impact on my knowledge of training practices and program design, and I anticipate that much of what I learn will spill over into this blog in the form of correlations to how training for fighting arts may be improved. The other students have diverse and impressive backgrounds, including karate/MMA, and I will learn just as much from them as from the course materials. I also owe Bob, Chopper, and everyone in our intrepid little group a tremendous debt of gratitude for opening my eyes to this path and providing some of the impetus for undertaking it.

One of the first tasks is to provide some information about how we ended up pursuing a degree in the HM field and what our specific goals and interests are are. So to kick off  what will essentially be a two-year geek out fest, here’s mine:

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Linked Video: Manny Pacquiao Training on the Bag

Absolutely beautiful- accurate, fluid,  fast, changing ranges and targets and in control of the bag the whole time. This is a guy who knows what he wants to do and has invested the time into getting there. We’re not all pro boxers but that’s no reason not to approach bag work with the same intent:

Fun With Duct Tape: Refurbished Chest Protector

The VA club has spent the last couple of weekends cleaning out the dojo space to make more room and get rid of  damaged equipment. Among the debris was a cheap old chest protector that had seen better days.  Fraying straps  rendered it a poor fit for some members of the group and the compressed padding really didn’t take anything off of impacts anymore.  But this thing has been around since my college days (a friend broke some of my ribs through it with a well-placed back kick, so there is a sentimental attachment), so I decided to see what some heavy luggage straps,  a sliced up cheap foam mat, a little patience, and plenty of duct tape could do for it:

$7.95 later and…viola. Refurbished chest protector. One of the advantages of the upgrade is that the slide-adjustable straps make it  a tighter fit. Each segment of added padding consists of a strip of heavy 1/2″ foam running in the direction of the musculature and ribs of the front and sides of the torso. There is a quarter inch of space between each strip so that they can move and flex to better distribute impact while retaining a firm shape. Cross-hatched reinforcements protect more of the upper chest area. I’m curious to see whether or not the orientation and structure of the padding makes a significant difference over the original,  a synthetic fluff.

It’s slightly more rigid than before, but does a much better job of dispersing blunt impact forces and keeping smaller weapons (point of the elbow, fists) from compressing single ribs. The side panels are now wide enough to actually cover the kidneys and a wider, heavier belt (visible) helps to keep this protection from shifting around during movement.




Some martial arts news today:

Homemade "gatorade"

If you are working out, you need to replenish fluids regularly for optimum performance. Water is great for this, but if you’re working out longer than 45 minutes to an hour, there’s good reason to drink gatorade, for the salts, for the performance-enhancing carbs, and because that slightly troubling fruity sweat flavour somehow transforms into the elixir of the gods once you’ve worked up a sweat.

But gatorade comes in suspiciously gummy colours, is expensive, and is usually bought in a new plastic bottle every time. And if you read the ingredients you’ll quickly see that Michael Pollan wouldn’t approve. What if you are the kind of karate-ka who likes to “eat clean” and fill your water bottle with tap water?

Then you are the kind who might appreciate this homemade “gatorade” recipe. It’s so easy that I blush to call it a “recipe” and the ingredients are things you’ll likely have lying around anyway, or be able to get in your dorm’s dining hall on the way to training:

Homemade “gatorade”

1/2 cup orange juice
Then fill your bottle up with water.
3/4 teaspoon salt

That’s it.

Don’t think you’ll make some kind of super-gatorade by doubling or trebling the salt content – I tried that, not good. Ideally you want both sodium and potassium, so check and see what kind of salt you have. There’s potassium in orange and lemon juice, so if you have ordinary sodium chloride for salt you’re good.


Fill your waterbottle with tea, add a little lemon juice and 4-6 teaspoons of sugar (or honey)
3/4 of a teaspoon of salt

Reducing the sugar gives you low-calorie “gatorade” but how useful that is depends on your goals, how much you’re drinking etc. The carbohydrate is an integral part of sports drinks and if you’re not using fruit juice you’ll need to get it from somewhere else.