Martial Arts

Thoughts on martial arts as well as videos, with an emphasis on Systema.

I didn’t notice much body changes or lose weight for the first five weeks, depressing.. But what a difference now! It seems like it takes at least a month for your body to realize something is going on and adjust to the new daily workload. I think of all the people who quit after phase one when they are so close to success..

My stomach is flatter, I can see my abs a little, along with small muscles showing on the sides. My biceps, which used to be nonexistent, are now slightly visible even without flexing. I can see the outline of the muscles in my shoulders. My whole body shrunk a bit, showing more muscles underneath. Sorry, no photos yet, I will take them soon or later..

This week is my phase 2 recovery week. “Recovery” is a relative term when used in P90X.. Two Core Synergistics and two Yoga X sessions, X stretch and Kenpo X, the latest I dropped all together and replace by whatever I feel like doing that day. I am also teaching the Systema class this week, until the 31st. which gives me three 1:30 workouts on top of P90X.

Ab Ripper X is still my favorite, and has become a bit too easy.. I completed it yesterday (replacing Kenpo), without batting an eye. I will need to add weights of some sort to feel more burn at the end.

If you are doing P90X, one word of advise: Don’t quit! It is hard, it takes time and dedication, and you most likely won’t see changes the first month, but wait a little and keep at it, you won’t be disappointed!

Update: I did finish P90X and kept on going! Almost did it twice. Unfortunately I then left for a long trip out West and didn’t keep up the work. I am back to where I started! It will be time soon to do it again. I did look pretty darn good!

One month done, two to go! I slacked off a bit during the recovery week, skipped a couple days because I didn’t feel well, but came back with a vengeance yesterday with Shoulders Back and Triceps, followed by a systema class (1:30), I was exhausted, but today I feel great. I am still a bit unnerved by not losing any weight, even though I am more toned. Bye-bye love handles! Now do I see slight physical changes in my body. After some research, it seems like this is normal. Your body goes through a 3-4 week period when it doesn’t know how to react to the shock and stores water. Most videos I found on Youtube show a certain pattern depending on body weight. Overly overweight people change the most during the first month, losing a lot of fat, probably because of the diet change. Those in a decent, though not perfect shape, like myself, see changes mostly in the second month. Skinny or already toned people progress rapidly throughout the program. That is my observation anyway. My slow metabolism might require a second round.

I have by the way replaced Kenpo X, which I find ridiculous, by my Systema class. If it doesn’t fall on the right day, I will then modify it to be more Systema-like. I mean constant and rotational movements as opposed to stop-and-go action.

Yoga feels better, since I am getting noticeably stronger. Still, 1:30 is a long time. At least I mostly do enjoy it now, but for a few poses.

One word of caution here.. The temptation to slack off and quit is great at this time. Fortunately or not, I am stubborn and hate not finishing what I set myself to do. I might even up the ante by going to two or three Systema classes per week, as opposed to one. I was able to complete Ab Ripper X without pressing the pause button on Sunday, what a great feeling! I have only one regret after one month, and that it not being able to do a single pull-up yet.

X Stretch which I had not tried yet turned out to be a great routine. No sweating here, just a nice, comfortable warmth and great stretches, some of them you would have already done in the warm-ups and Yoga X. I would definitely suggest anyone to do it during their recovery day every week. It is like a nice body massage, and leaves you with the satisfaction of doing something that day.

Core Synergistics is a very hard workout. You pretty much work your whole body. I was not able to do all the exercises, and don’t expect to, probably until phase three. I suggest you to watch any workout you haven’t done before actually going ahead, because otherwise you lose a lot of time learning the moves and your first session gets botched up.

Shoulders Back and Triceps: Lots of push-ups, some I could not do like the one-handed version. I had to go buy ten-pound dumbbells for certain moves. You end-up with a lot of weight above your head, working those shoulders and triceps. I hit the pause button a few times to catch my breath, but finished nevertheless.

One third of the way through, and I am still impatient. The changes I see do not come fast enough, but I am pushing myself hard, and can’t do much more.. I will take my 30-day photos tonight and hopefully there will be a visible difference. A couple people have noticed and told me so, but I can’t see it much. Maybe on a screen side-by-side, it will be more obvious. I just need to be patient and not give-up. Tonight I have Plyometrics, followed by a Systema class, if I’m not too exhausted. That will be another 2:30 exercise day in a row.

The Tori Tanto is a Chinese made replica of a Japanese tanto knife. Mine arrived today, and I have to say, I am impressed. It is one of the first 50 that were made with T10 steel instead of the Swedish powdered steel Hanwei uses. They were recalled, but this one got away.

My first impression was “this is a big knife!” The blade is 11”1/4. Overall length is almost 17”. I had to grab some junk mail on the kitchen counter and cut it.. Wickedly sharp is an understatement. The blade goes through paper almost like it wasn’t there. The mount is solid, with a very nice ray skin tsuka. That grip won’t slip, that’s for sure. My blade is not folded, like the new ones. The hamon is very prominent and looks artificially enhanced, something I wish Hanwei would stop doing.

Cutting palm fronds was very easy, as you’ll see in the video. The Tori Tanto cuts even better than my Cheness Kaze Ko Katana. I did not want to try it on bamboo. It would be a shame to scratch that blade. I know what the result would be anyway, given how sharp it is.

The tanto must have been a formidable weapon in it’s time. They were worn by Samurai inside as a backup, when wearing a sword was impractical. A skilled swordsman could probably chop a wrist clean off with one of those. It is still as formidable today as it was then, as far as self-defense goes. My interest in knives has always been about how such a simple tool can take so many forms, as well as metallurgical and historical factors. The Tori is a lot of knife for the money. Priced at around $300 new, I believe it would still sell at twice that amount. So, when I found mine at $230, I couldn’t let it go.

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[warning]A carbon steel blade such as the Tori Tanto must be cleaned and oiled after each use and you should never touch the blade with your fingers after that operation, otherwise, it will rust.[/warning]

Like I say in the video, if you are hesitating about buying one, don’t. I have no affiliation with Hanwei, but I recognize quality when I see it. Other than the enhanced hamon (hardness line), the Tori Tanto is close to perfection.

There is much debate about the use of protective gear in martial arts. Many styles only allow light or no contact, no strikes to the face, etc. and therefore do not require protections. What happens when a practitioner encounters violence in real life however comes at a surprise. You have a lot to learn in a second while getting pounded in the face by an experienced attacker.. Not the best time to learn taking hits. Aikido would be a very fierce style if it incorporated strikes, giving and taking. I attended a Kung-Fu (Wushu) class as a teenager. We were not allowed to strike the face. Actually, we barely touched each-others. After six months, I realized that I wasn’t learning anything useful and quit. My Karate experience (Shotokan) was a bit better. We had protections, but there wasn’t much control. The same was true for my full-contact and Taekwon-Do short practices.

My friend Phil recently stopped-by with a couple padded helmets he got at Goodwill for a few dollars. While Systema discourages the use of protections, it was too tempting to give it a try and see if it would affect the way we worked. It wasn’t really sparring, because Phil wore the helmets (he put on two!) and attacked, while I wore gloves and defended.

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Wearing protections seems to have two negative side-effects:

  1. You are not so affraid of getting hit.
  2. You tend to hit harder, with less control.

Taking hits to the body really isn’t much of a problem. Most people can not hit hard enough to cause internal damage. Proper breathing, relaxation and a bit of practice goes a long way to prevent injury. Getting hit in the face is a bit unnerving, but you get used to it and start to care a bit less.. In five years of Systema, I have been hit in the face countless times, hard enough to be really uncomfortable, but I never got a black eye or lost a tooth. I give credit here to our slow practice and control. Top Systema instructors are masters at precision and control. They know exactly how hard to hit someone and where without hurting them while inflicting a good amount of pain.

Add protective gear to he mix, and the psychology of sparring changes. People start to hit harder. The positioning of one’s fist becomes less of a problem. You can hit bone with a glove, it doesn’t matter. A slightly misaligned wrist is no longer a painful reminder to strike at the right angle. Precision goes out the window. Wearing a helmet might have you step into a position you would otherwise not occupy without it. The more protection you add, the more removed you become from reality.

I am not advocating giving up protective gear, mind you. Once in a while, going “all out” with protections is good, if only to get used to the speed. You can however go almost “all out” with good control, without any gear. This way, you actually do get hit and learn to deal with it properly. The key is to start really slow, and I mean extreme slow motion. It looks goofy, but you gain much in precision and timing.

If your martial art style does not allow much contact, you need to ask yourself why you train. If you have a good time and consider it more or less an exercise, great. If you want the extra benefit of acquiring self-defense skills, you need to be able to get hit hard by bare fists as well as deliver heavy strikes the same way. No-contact effective self-defense is a fantasy.

I just came upon an interesting article from the BBC about how men and women respond differently to danger. Nothing new here, women are more emotional than men, and that’s fine. Like we say in France, “vive la diffĂ©rence.” Our physical differences are obvious, and most martial arts consider them in training, more as precautions to be taken for either gender than anything else. Styles too rigid in their form unfortunately most likely cater to men. As a rule, women are not as physically strong as men. Training that relies on force only serves a small group of people, excluding women, children and elders. I can only think of Aikido and Systema as not relying on force but momentum and body mechanics. Force helps, but you can’t count on it. The strongest fighter can be injured or sick, thus losing most of his abilities if trained to win by force only.

The emotional response difference is what in my opinion constitutes a good argument in favor of a slightly different training approach, which actually can also benefit men. The Polish study I mention above found that a different area of the brain is triggered for men and women when they encounter danger; the left thalamus for women, the left insula for men.

Researcher Dr Andrzej Urbanik said: “This might signal that when confronted with dangerous situations, men are more likely than women to take action.”

The Biography channel has a great show called “I survived,” where people tell their stories of survival. The accounts are incredible. The men and women who make it through those horrendous life-and-death situations have a strong will to survive. You can however see a different pattern between sexes. A woman’s first response is more emotional while a men’s is immediate action. A man will not wonder why something is happening to him or if he is somewhat to blame. After a few seconds or minutes, it all comes down to survival and fighting. This emotional delay however can cost women precious seconds that might make a difference. Note that this can happen to men too, and that women do not ponder and waste time when it comes to defending their children. Training should take this difference into account. I have been a “bad guy” in a couple of women’s self-defense seminars, and we had to charge them yelling obscenities, which was hard enough for me to do! None of them could at first handle the pressure. They could take a man down if he just attacked them, but start yelling and be aggressive, and they could not. The motion was the same, but the emotional assault was too much. Eventually, they all got over it and performed well. This is where I believe training for the physical part of the assault is as important as getting used to the emotional one. This can be important for men too, as the “fight or flight” symptoms can be quite overwhelming. Rapid heart rate, shaking knees, tension, tunnel vision, the effects of adrenalin might be good in general for the survival of a specie, but not for the individual in our modern settings.

Another thing to consider is women’s reticence to hurt people. In training, I always have a hard time getting women to hit me hard enough. It takes a good amount of coaching to convince them that, no, it doesn’t hurt that bad, if at all. Most men without training can not strike hard enough to cause any significant injury, practically no women can do so. No offense intended here, it is simply a fact. It takes a lot to injure someone if you don’t know how. I heard so many times things like “Oh, I would just hit him in the nuts.” Sorry to disappoint, but first, what makes you think you will be able to strike that area? Assaults are not agreed-upon events. Most often than not, they will happen from the back. Kicking a man in the groin is certainly extremely painful, but it will not cause injury that can physically stop someone, like a broken knee. And boy, will that guy be pissed-off. Moreover, alcohol and drugs can dull the pain quite a bit. Real self-defense training should get women used to the idea of causing injury to their attackers, not only “hurt them.”

Men, while they have no problem hitting each-other, have a hard time hitting women. That is, the men I know anyway. Domestic abuse statistics prove that there are too many exceptions. I have a very hard time doing so myself in training. It is kind of going against a hard-wired directive. I have heard a few women complain about not getting a good enough training because the men in their classes barely hit them. I am not suggesting men to hit the women in their class as hard as their 200Lbs male buddies.. However, one has to be realistic to make training effective. The Yale University School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Health Care System have a study reported in the New York Times suggesting that women can take pain better than men. I am not surprised, as I can’t imagine going through the pain of giving birth, and wanting to do it a second time!

I will conclude by saying that the specific areas that women should assess in training would probably benefit men as well. I believe that it is important to consider the emotional part of violence when preparing for it, not only the mechanical aspects. Any real-life combat system should.