Conditioning for Beginners

 A while back someone asked me what a good set of exercises would be for someone starting out in armoured combat. I am a bit late in responding to this request as the person was looking to get into some shape for Easter (and this is next week). Anyway if anyone is interested you can always come and find me at an event.

So beginning conditioning.

Most SCA combatants do not come from a sporting background. I was defiantly typical in this regard. Role playing games and painting miniatures do not prepare you for the physicality of armoured combat.

One of the most important aspects of fitness you can work on is your short to medium term endurance and recovery. I wrote post about this here. While I think high intensity intervals are awesome for armoured combat you do need to have a minimum level of fitness to not totally kill yourself doing these. Remember this is supposed to be enjoyable…ok…mostly.

So look to building up a base level of aerobic capacity first. Rowing machines, bikes, elliptical machines and treadmills are all good. If you are capable of running then this too is good and the “couch to 5km” program is an excellent place to start. Be able to sustain 20-30 min of constant effort. Your breathing should be such that you can talk but not sing. This is a heart rate of about 50-70% of your maximum heart rate.

From here you can start doing some HIIT or sprint training. Or a very effective way of building your fitness is to stay in armour as long as possible. Go to the stage you would normally stop. Have a short break and then fight 3-5 more bouts. Just make sure you are able to maintain form and not cause injury.

I would also suggest doing some resistance work. This is more about building up flexibility and your joints to protect them from injury. Body weight exercises here are fine. Squats are king for fighting. So make sure you warm up, just get your heart rate up and your body warm. Now do one complete round of the following. If you can have a break and do another round. Aim to be able to do three rounds.

  • 20 Squats – make sure you are not leaning forward and the weight is on your heels.
  • 10 push ups
  • 20 walking lunges (that is 10 leach leg)
  • 10 dumbell rows (use a big milk container as a weight) or 10 incline pull ups
  • 20 second plank
  • 30 star jumps

Do this two or three times a week but not on consecutive days. Once you can get through this three times then you should be moving onto other routines.

So this is probably a good plan for those wanting to work on their fitness for fighting.

What I do however need to mention is that any conditioning work MUST be backed up by a good diet. Quit smoking. Do this now. Stop drinking all that coke. Eat a lot more vegetables. Avoid processed food. What you eat and drink is the main contributor o your long term health.


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.

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.


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.


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.

Going the Distance

There was a short conversation last night about what sorts of training are useful for tournament combat. There is a growing trend of combatants hitting the gym and this is an excellent trend and we should all be doing this. However I feel that too many people are not using this time wisely.

Working on strength is a good thing but it is often over emphasised and done poorly. I will write more about this soon because what I would like to talk about here is endurance issues.

Being the strongest person on the field is not that useful (and in my experience often leads to poor technique). A good level of strength is important but it will not help you if you gas out after a few rounds or halfway through your bout. What is important is a level of endurance and the ability to recover quickly.

Now for some science.

This is going to be the very light version. If you want more details then please ask me or do some research.

Remember that nearly every part of you is trainable. While genetics give some people a head start, most skills and abilities are developed over time and with constant work and effort. The body and mind will adapt to the demands placed on them. So if you keep doing a particular sword cut you will get better at it just as if you keep doing a particular lift the muscles responsible will get stronger. This is referred to as Adaptation.

Another important thing to understand is that all training is specific and we refer to this as Specificity. Adaptations brought about by any particular mode of training are highly specific to the physiological demands of that particular training mode. So if you want to get better at throwing a wrap, then practicing a pendulum will not help you that much. Or if you need to develop your leg strength then you need to work on exercises that target these muscle groups (squat, lunge, dead lifts) as all the bench presses in the world will not build the legs. This is why not many things beat being in armour for preparing you for being in armour…

The last principle I would like to mention is the idea of Progressive Overload. The principle is that it is necessary to expose your muscles or energy systems to a level of stress beyond the point to which they have become accustomed. So to get constant improvements you need to constantly work harder, lift more etc.

The big thing I do not want to talk about here is the mental aspect of physical training. Training the mind to do what you need to do is critical. It has been said that “the mind is primary” and it is critical. This is something we can talk about in another post.

OK we now know about the concepts of Adaptation, Specificity and Overload. Good. We need a bit more science.

Energy Systems.

Again I am keeping this at a very basic level. Things are a bit more complex than I describe here but this should give you the basic idea of the principles involved.

In order to move, we need energy. Just as a car requires fuel that it burns to create energy our bodies use a molecule called Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP. Energy for muscles to work is released when ATP is broken down. There is a store of ATP in all muscles; however this is only enough to last for about one second of activity. ATP must then be constantly resynthesised for further energy needs.

There are three systems that are responsible for the resynthesise of ATP. All three of these systems resynthesise ATP in a different manner and are dependent on the duration, power and speed required for the muscle to work.

The first of the three systems is the Phosphate System. This uses the available ATP in the muscles and Creatine Phosphate. Basically this allows a very high output of energy over a very short period of time. Think a 100 metre sprint or a single Olympic lift. The Phosphate System will provide energy for up to ten seconds.

The Second system is the Lactate System. This is used when the activity is of high intensity and short duration. The issue with the Lactate System is that it produces Lactic Acid. As the levels of lactic acid accumulate muscular fatigue will result with a loss in performance. The Anaerobic Threshold is the point where the lactic acid build up produces significant deterioration in performance, fatigue, loss of form, spiking heart rate, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth. All the fun!

In an unfit person this threshold can be reached in about 30 seconds of work at between 60%-70% of age predicted heart rate. In a fitter person this can be about 60 seconds or work between 70% and 80% of max heart rate. So a fitter person can operate longer and harder before the lactic acid build up begins to affect them.

The third energy system is the Aerobic System. The aerobic system is the long term low intensity energy s system. It can produce energy over a long period of time but not at a high intensity. Think here of long distance runners and cyclists.

Generally as you first start to move the phosphate system is in action. This runs out after about 10 seconds and the lactate system kicks in. After about one to two minutes this in turn runs out and your body switches to the aerobic system and you can go for a while albeit at a slower pace. Again this is a gross oversimplification (because all three energy systems are in operation but at different rates) but I want you to get the general idea.

Trainign for Combat Endurance

Ok – that was a lot to take in. Hopefully you are still with me. So we want to train with the idea of Specificity. We need to think about the type of activity were engage in during out tournaments. Most bouts do not last for more than around 60 seconds. Yes there is often a bit of initial carefully moving to test the defence or gain a good moment to strike, but our bouts do not last for very long. We are mostly using the Lactate System for your energy needs so it follow that this is the energy system we should be focusing on improving in our training.

Lactic anaerobic training sucks. There is no way around this. It will not be pleasant. Time to suck it up and get one with it. The form of training required here consists of short strenuous bouts of activity spaced between low intensity recovery periods. Remember the idea of specificity? We need to not only replicate the physical demands of a tournament bout; we would also need to push above these levels in order to force the body into Adaptation.

So the main training protocols here are High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) which alternates from short bursts of high intensity anaerobic training followed by even shorter recovery and less intense recovery periods.

Examples of HIIT would be Tabata and Fartlek. Tabata training is normally done with 20 seconds all out effort followed by 10 seconds active rest (you slow down rather than stop) for eight rounds. The work period should be at your absolute maximum effort. If you feel OK after a Tabata session you have not done it right. This may be the worst four minutes of your life.

Fartlek is similar except the work periods are randomised and over a longer period. So a possible session would be a jog for 60 seconds, followed by a hard run for 30 seconds, followed by a jog for 30 seconds, followed by all-out sprint for 10 seconds, followed by a walk for 30 seconds. This would then be repeated for a total of 20-30 minutes.

We also need to go back to the idea of Specificity. The training effect here is muscle specific so you need to do a routine that has the maximum of full body movement. We use elliptical machines as they are readily available and easy to use. You could also do HIIT style stuff in armour. Using either a pell or a training partner go all out for 20 seconds, slow down for 10 and then go again…

Now the nasty bit. As you get fitter in this regard you will have to step up the intensity of your workouts. As your body adapts you will need to progressively up the work load. However if you are at a level that is satisfactory (and almost none of us are) then maintaining that level still requires some work but not the same level that building it does.

The last thing I would like to mention and this is very important. Please make sure you have a reasonable level of general fitness before doing lots of HIIT sessions. These should be hard work and will place a lot of strain on your cardio vascular system.

Right that was a rather long post. I hope some of you find it useful. Fitness and training is much more complex than this but we need to start somewhere.






And now for some standards

There are a lot of general benchmarks on what can be described as fitness. I am not that keen on getting to too much detail, as I like the idea that fitness can be defined as ‘being able to do what you want to do’. Ok this definition has its issues, particularly if your thing is sitting on the couch but it is a straight forward standard when it is almost impossible to define.

One easy bench mark is the Army Physical Fitness Assessment. This is the minimum standards for recuit entry. For males this is 45 sit ups, 15 pushups and a shuttle run/beep test at 7.5 (about 1,120 meters in 6.5 minutes). For females this is the same except the pushup requirement is 8. I would suggest that this would be a reasonable level for most people. I would also suggest that this would be a minimum level for those serious about tournament combat.

The next useful benchmark would be the Armys Basic Fitness Assessment (BFA). Thanks to Liam for sending me the link. The BFA is an excellent benchmark as it is scaled to age and gender. This is probably the scale I would use to rate someone who is serious about their combat fitness. For an old person like me this is 20 push-ups, 50 sit ups, 2.4km run in 13:12 minutes and a 5km walk in under 44 minutes. This is not that hard to do (although the run is work) and I would like to make it the standard for all my squires…

For people getting a bit more serious about health and capacity I would point to the standards set by the Gym Jones people (this is for males).

Deadlift 2 x bodyweight One of the most fundamental exercises for strength in any sport.

Front squat 1.25 x bodyweight Squats are one of those essential moves.

Overhead squat 1 x bodyweight A fundamental move that tests your flexibility and core strength.

Clean 1 x bodyweight and Jerk 1 x bodyweight

Pull-ups x15

Row 500m in 1:40 and Row 2,000m in 7:30

“Jones Crawl” 3 rounds of: 10 Dead lifts 115% of BW, 25 Box Jumps 24 inches under 5:30 minutes.

“JonesTown Sprint” Push Press @ 30kg + Burpee/ Pull-up combo, 20-20-10-10 reps of each in under 4 minutes.

Yes, this list is a bit scary. No I am no were near this standard, yet. But here is a standard to work towards.

The Friday Sessions

This is just a follow up on the training theme. I am trailing a more dedicated training session for a small group of people. The sessions are every fortnight at this stage and are all out of armour.

The first part of the session was circuit work were everyone rotates around various exercises. You perform the exercise for one minute with a 20 second rest to change stations. We went through this twice.

The stations were:

  • Boxing
  • Turkish get-ups with a 2kg weight 
  • Squat presses with either 2kg or 5kg weights depending on your level
  • Step jumps/step up
  • Kettle bell swings

Most of us simply do not do enough physical training outside of running around in armour. This little circuit is not going to do much but a number of people were talking about having to do some extra training.

We then did some basic pell work, running though all the basic cuts with a focus on maintaining good form, distance, flow and foot position/balance.

The main part of the session was working though thrusts. Firstly I explained about direct thrusts and then cut, rolling returns and thrust.

We worked though these on the pells first and then paring off, worked though the basic forms and then a number of pays involving thrusts.

The idea of the session is to focus on only one or two ideas and do a LOT of repetitions to ‘hard wire’ the movements in.

As the students get used to this format I will probably make the starting work out harder (skipping rope is your friend) and up the repetitions.

For the pell drills we used our usual training swords of rattan with a cross hilt and the training round shields. For the partner stuff we moved to soft swords (Action Flex, expensive but they work well) and shields. The use of the soft swords means we can do a lot of striking without armour and waring people out.

Now looking forward to the next session.

The Play’s the Thing

Last time I talked about the beginnings of an encounter. It is on the edge of measure that the combat begins in earnest. I spoke about maintaining a phasic stance, always applying pressure or making sure your opponent is very much aware of the threat you pose. You want to either draw your opponent into committing to an action that allows you to strongly counter.

It is here that some good solid training will serve you well. Too often we do not train in any meaningful way. We have an almost total dependence on free sparring and I have mentioned before that this is not the best way to advance in the tournament arts. What we are progressing towards in my group is a lot more reliance on formal drill work and exercises.

At our indoor practice session about 1/3 of our time is formal training in armour. I think some of you may find what we do as useful, so here is a quick list of some of our drills and exercises.

In any given session we will start with some easy drills and work up the complexity or intensity as we go. I use the terms Squire and Knight with the Squire talking the active part in the drill. I use these just as terms of convenience.


Hitting the Gap

The Knight and Squire start in measure. The Knight controls the movement and will drop their shield to expose the head. The Squire must cut 1 as soon as the opening appears.

The next stage of this is the knight lifts the shield opening the leg and the Squire must cut 3. You then progress to opening the offside head and then leg in turn.

This is a beginning drill to get the Squire to identify a gap and then strike the target.


Opening Cut

This drill is to get the student to keep moving on the edge of measure and also always be in a position that they can launch an attack. This is useful for new combatants as it gets them to always be looking for an opening and to attack.

The Squire starts on the edge of measure against Knight. The Squire must apply pressure and keep repositioning for possible opening attacks. On a shout (cut!) or a whistle they must launch their attack. They then must come back into a guard position ready to attack again.

Vary the timing of the whistle so the Squire cannot relax.


Parry Repost

This is the next step from the Opening Cut Drill. This is a core drill as it is mimicking the beginning of a combat pass.

Knight starts on the edge of measure against the Squire. On the whistle the Knight cuts to a given target (start with 1). The Squire must block this cut and throw a counter cut. Always get the Squire to step with the block or counter.

To start with it is useful to set this up in a predetermined sequence, e.g. Knight cuts 1, Squire blocks this, ½ steps to the right and cuts 3.

There are several variations to this drill;

  • Do not let the Squire know when the initial attack will start;
  • The Squire must block and then throw two counters;
  • The Squire must block, faint then cut/thrust; and
  • The Knight makes two (or three) attacks before the squire can counter (but she must block these attacks).


Flourishes or Plays

 Like the Parry Repost Drill these should make up the main part of your training. The core flourish is the Perfect Circle and this often forms a major part of warm ups and basic exercises and will be the subject of a separate post.

In these the Squire is the active participant with the Knight defending.

Set up a sequence of fakes, attacks and other moves and repeat them. Do not make things too complex.

Some examples:

  • Squire ½ steps to the left, faking 6, Knight moves to cover this threat. Squire now steps to the right cutting 3;
  • Squire cuts ear-to-ear 5, ½ steps right cutting moulinet 1. • Squire cuts 1, performs a rolling return, steps right thrusting to 1
  • Squire fakes 6, tilts the Knights shield and wraps 3
  • You can also work in attacks by the Knight – Squire cuts 1, Knight blocks and cuts 1. The squire blocks the Knights cut with their sword, stepping though to the left and then cuts ear-to-ear 5.

Do not do too many of these in any one session. It is better to do a few different plays many times.


The Tower

 This is similar to the attacking drills many groups do. The Knight makes series of continuous attacks and the Squire must try to block these. Start slow and concentrate on good form, facing the weapon and staying in measure. Do some of these with shield only defence and some with both sword and shield blocking.


Robot Drill

Here someone holds the field as the Knight and everyone else forms a line (get more lines going if you have enough people). As the Squire steps in just inside measure the Knight makes a predetermined cut. The Squire must block and counter this attack.

While this is very similar to the Parry Repost Drill it has a few differences. We do not predetermine the actions of the Squire. You should have the lines moving very quickly. This also give the Knight an opportunity to work on their defence to the repost.


Attacking Drill

Start with the Squire attacking. The first run though the Knight only defends. Then allow the Knight three counters. Lastly both the knight and Squire both must attack. This is more of a conditioning/ high intensity hart rate exercise than anything. See if you can run for 10 seconds flat out with good technique.


So there are the core sets of drills we use. You will always need to strike a balance between keeping the training sessions interesting and doing the high amounts of repetitions need to imbed the technique. Almost all of these can be done both in and out of armour and should be done at medium speeds.

Try not to do too much at full speed and power. The task is to hone good technique, so keep the focus on performing every move correctly, with good posture, stance and movement.

I would even suggest using some form of soft swords or boffers as this allows you to do multiple repetitions without trashing your training companions.

 It is also important that both Knight and Squire work together on the exercise given. The Knight must allow the Squire to succeed in the technique being worked on and can shift the degree of openings and tells etc depending on the level of the Squire.


I hope these drills will add to your training session and make better combatants of us all.