Do you even lift?

It has been asked “what would you recommend for a beginner to become conditioned for heavy?” A good question and one that is worth a bit of discussion.

Firstly SCA tournament combat is an activity that does not require a high level of fitness. It is an activity (like many sports and martial arts) technique is the main determinate of outcome. Yes big strong people are going to get a good head start as they can shortcut the basic techniques, but they often only go so far before the lack of good form prevents their further progress. The average duel really goes more than 10-30 seconds of actual physical effort and most people can do this.

Having said this I think that improving your strength and conditioning is a very good idea. I talked about some general conditioning and training ideas previously. Improving your fighting endurance is good for training. The longer you can stay in harness swinging a sword then the more you will get out of a practice session, the more experience you will build. An example of this is person A, who can only deal with 10 or so bouts at a session and person B who can fight 20 bouts in a given practice. It is obvious who will gain in experience at a faster rate. Having good ‘armour fitness’ also will make tournament combat a more enjoyable activity. It is a lot more fun doing this if you are not on the side lines gasping for breath every other bout.

In addition to general endurance some strength is also desirable. This is mainly because being general stronger just makes doing anything physical easier it also helps in the prevention of injuries. However strength cannot replace good technique.

So where does someone start? The answer is largely dependent on what your current state of fitness is and how much time and effort you want to devote to this part of tournament combat. I’ll assume you do not smoke. If you do, stop. Smoking is not good for you health, you will have difficulty breathing, it does not make you attractive, you will small like an ashtray and to will die early with a horrible disease…

Anyway – even reasonably fit people will have some difficulty when they put on armour. They are often not used to having to carry and move that sort of weight about. Remember when I wrote about the concept of Specificity? This is the idea that to get better at something you need to work at that specific thing.

So it follows that one of the best training methods for improving your combat endurance is to be in armour a lot. So when you are at your regular practice session keep going to were you would normally get tired and stop. Now do a few more passes with someone. Make sure that you maintain your form and do not get sloppy. The idea here is to push a bit more into your fatigue levels each time, not to break yourself.

You could also do some interval session while in armour. These are variations on attack and defence drill. Working with a partner one of you attacks continuously for 10 to 20 seconds (good luck, this is a long time) and then swap roles. You get a rest while you block your partner’s attacks. A good idea is to do this fast but no power.

From this point there is a lot you can do. Remember that specificity is important. Training for a marathon will not help that much (but would be cool anyway). No one ever lost out working on their general fitness, so try running, riding a bike, go for a hike or take the stairs. Go outside and get your heart rate up and you body moving.

Strength or resistance training is another aspect of combat training and conditioning. While there is a lot of information out there a lot of it over the top and aimed at those people who want to do body building and massive arms. Ignore most of this.

For people new to all of this basic body weight exercises are an excellent place to start.  You cannot go wrong if you do some squats, push ups, dips and pull ups. Primal Fitness is a good book to down load and have a look at and it is fee. Another excellent website is Nerd Fitness. Follow the links, read and try some stuff out. Like I said previously, no one ever regrets getting stronger and fitter.

If you are already going to the gym on a regular basis then you are on the right track. Just step away from the machines and pick up some free weights. This goes double for woman combatants. I have my students focus on the main lifts; dead lifts, squat, bench-press, shoulder press and bent over rows. You could probably drop the arm and shoulder stuff and substitute pull ups if you want. The important thing here is that you need to left heavy things. For most people one session a week is more than enough as long as you work up to the edge of your capacity. Make sure you have good form and maybe get some instruction from a qualified person. Working with big weights does carry a risk of injury if done poorly.

So to go back to the original questions about what can a beginner do. Get in armour and stay there as long as you can. Push yourself that little harder every time. Do some resistance work, body weight stuff is fine and squats are king.

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Show me the child at seven

I have been asked to provide some thoughts on how we can ensure the retention of those new people who have just begun their first steps in learning swordsmanship.

Our experience has been that for every ten people we get starting training such as the Beginners Classes only 20-40% will get to free sparing in armour. Of these, 50% drop off before too long. What then can we do to increase these retention rates?

I will start by admitting that SCA combat is not for everyone. It can be hard to get the basics down and it takes time. Compare this to Foam weapons groups were you will be out there wielding a sword in your first session.

My feeling is that we have to provide a range of attractor’s in order to keep people coming back. So here are some of my ideas. I would suggest that these are not in any order of importance as different things will appeal to different folk.

Training and progression

The first thing we need to do is provide new combatants clear and progressive training beyond authorisation. This can be difficult but I am sure most groups could easily together training sessions or seminars on different weapons forms, war fighting, different shield types.  This gives new people a clear path of learning and also means they are not dumped in a tournament facing something that they have no idea of what to do.

I think a grading system would be a useful thing. I am not convinced that we can be able to introduce such a thing on a Kingdom wide scale. However we often do have the awards system and the various guards such as your local Baronial Guard. Make this recognition of progress for new combatants. Something to aspire to and maybe work towards. It trick always is to pitch such acknowledgements at a level that requires some effort. No one wants an award for attendance.

What is important is to give people progressive and achievable goals within the tournament arts.

A place to belong

The social parts of the SCA is often one of the things many people tell me keeps them coming back. Ensure that your new people are bought in to the social activities of the group. Get people to go to events and participate. Invite the new people to the pub after training.

War Units are a good group building activity. Getting your newly authorised combatants to be formally inducted into your group’s war unit can be both good theatre as well as groups building. Call a newly authorised person up in court and hand them a tabard and shield.

Pageantry and romance

Even though I have not talked about this a great deal on this blog, pageantry and romance are one of the big excitements for me. The entire image of banners flying the breeze, gorgeous ladies in the gallerie and heralds calling you to the field to swear an oath to the King, is in many ways what the SCA does best. It is important that we get our new people to be able to walk that stage as well. In their first tournament make sure they are carrying a favour. Make sure this means something. Point out all the good moments. Reward and acknowledge, but again this should be for real achievements and not so every kiddie gets a prise.

This is not for everyone

The final point I would like to make is that the activities of the SCA, LARP, HEMA, Metal Weapons, Battle of Nations, whatever group is not for everyone. Different people will have different levels of interest and involvement. Some things will appeal to differently. There is no shame in this.

I tend to start off by telling my beginning students that this is not the easiest of activities. It can be hard work, painful and bruising, frustrating and costly. But for those who put in the time effort and passion, you can get a lot out of this. Be honest with what it is we do, but also let people know that in all of this there is great friendships to be made, adventures to be had and victories to be won.

Preparing for Crown Redux

It is looking like Elizabeth and I are planning on entering the next May Crown Tournament. While this is not an absolute I have started planning out my preparations for this. Some of you may think that 7-8 month lead in is a bit much I would argue that depending on what you are wanting to achieve it may not be enough.

Anyway, just as I have done previously I am splitting my time into blocks with specific preparation and training to be done. I am also following my previous advice of looking at what gear and equipment I may need. So my training plan will break down into several slightly overlapping phases. I will be looking to have most of this done by Rowany Festival and then use the few weeks after that to rest and get ready for the tournament itself.

Physical/conditioning

I have about six months to get physically prepared for the tournament. I am currently working on both stripping fat and maintaining basic strength. By body fat percentage is now at 23% and I would like that to be comfortably under 20% by Christmas. This is going well so far but there is always the issue of also loosing muscle mass while dropping weight. After Christmas I will probably not focus on the fat loss and this will mean changing my eating a small degree.

Gym work at the moment is a tricky balance. I have cut back on the number of workouts and have been upping the intensity. I am focused on maintaining muscle mass during the fat loss process. I am just running though the five principle lifts of squat, dead-lift, rows, bench press and shoulder press. These are done to failure with high weights and very low reps. What I am finding is that this does require a few day of recovery so I am only doing this once a week at the moment.

This is also complicated in that I am also training for a 100km charity ride at the end of this month, so I need to spend time on the bike doing a lot of climbing work. This sort of training does not mesh well with a pure strength building program.

In a month or so I will be able to increase volume and intensity, moving to a more generalist program to build  across several areas of fitness. This will take me through to February and is working out three times a week, three recovery days (60 min runs/ride) and a rest day. From there the focus will be on developing power and endurance. This will all taper off around Easter and I will just be in a maintenance phase. I also will need to incorporate a lot of stretching in all of this as I need to develop greater range of movement in my shoulders as this is very poor.

Combat Training

The idea is to spend the first few months just stepping back and refining technique. I am playing with a mace to develop a better control of distance and timing. I am also working on refining all my basics. All my sparring time during this period needs to be focused on clean correct technique. Besting opponents is not the goal here. In fact I should cut down my in armour time and concentrate on drills, the pell and focus mitt work.

After Christmas I will start upping the armour time and look at getting as much exposure to opponents with different styles and weapon forms as I can. This is mostly about still being in a learning phase. I will be looking at getting an understanding of the timing and options of what I will be facing in Crown.

Then several weeks out armoured training is cut back again. Here you just run through ‘mock’ crown fights. This is just working though everyone at training (with their understanding) and doing either a single or best of three pass only. The idea here is to build the ability to end the fight on your own terms and in your own time. It is to replicate the mental pressures of the tournament. Every bout must count for something.

The last bit I would throw in here is Festival will be for getting in some fighting and having some fun with it all. It would be silly to break myself at this stage.

Gear

I need to make a fair bit of new kit. I will have to replace my helm. I am looking at making a new one out of 3140 spring steel. It will be a copy of my current helm as I very much love it but ithe poor thing is now about 14 years old and is need of repair or replacement. I also need to make a new vambrace. My current one is way too big and is causing me issues in gauging the hits. This is not good.

I am also planning on making a new arming doublet along the lines of the pourpoint I am currently using to secure the leg harness but with collar and sleaves. A heraldic will then go over this.

So all of this is in the planning stages. We have lot of things that will have to happen before we do enter Crown but at least the training starts now.