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Wednesday, 17 February 2010


Thanks to everyone for the positive feedback so far! Brian H got in touch and  suggested I write about my training routines, so here we go!

As you can imagine my training routine has changed a lot over the years. This is very important for a few of reasons. First off, it's important to keep your training fresh and challenging. Secondly as your skills increase and deepen it's good to explore new areas of training. Thirdly your training should reflect your circumstances and aims

As a kid I was never that into playing sports but did a lot of running and a bit of football. I do rememeber being outdoors a lot of the time, climbing trees, throwing stones and generally being active, something that I'm not sure kids today get so much of

My "proper" training began in the Chinese style - which starts with stance training! Early training consisted of learning stances and form movements. This type of training can be very time intensive - and painful! Luckily at the time I was a budding musician so had lots of daytime free -  I can remember regularly spending at least an hour a day in practice, forms and stance mostly

As I progressed in the style that time had to expand to fit everything! For example, in terms of just that one style, I eventually knew something like five versions of the 15-minute long form, three two-person sets that could be practiced solo, weapons forms - sword, staff, sabre, various exercises, various kinds of  Qigong (with 20 minutes to an hour standing post), power/strength training, bag work, fa jing drills....  and this was all solo training before you even got into push hands, sparring, etc   It was quite easy to spend a few hours a day on training (which I eventually ended up doing after going full time).

Outside of that I was getting together with friends regularly - esepcially Rob Murray in his Hackney torture chamber! The routine there was a lot of pad and bag work  - we used to do anything from 30 seconds to three minute rounds , 150 kicks on the bag, etc, followed by sensitivity / push hands type work, then stick and knife, plus whatever application/sparring we were into.

Unfortunately some of that training stopped when I moved out of London - though the upside was I now had a large double garage converted into a training room. About this time I started researching into the more internal aspects of training, upped my conditioning work and also began work on accessing different mental/psychological states. This is a very interesting aspect of training, often over-looked, but it is fraught with difficulties. You need very good guidance to keep you straight and true. At it's most harmless it can engender feelings of false power and at it's worse it can have very negative effects on mental health (there is a term "qigong-psychosis" sometimes bandied around).  I've seen  cases of teachers building up a whole persona around this work and go off into almost cult-like directions. The Chinese Internal Art Festivals hosted by a teacher in Newcastle were probably the "finest" example of this in action and it was a  disturbing experience to see how students could be manipulated - but once you see how it works it's easy to spot and you can warn other people about it too
It was around this time I began hooking up with other people, such as Dave Nicholson and adding different things into my training. I was also training under Vincent Chu  at the time, which brought even more variations of form and exercise. In fact some of Vincent's exercises are among the few remaining taiji things I still train today.

Dave and I began exploring a lot more knife and stick work, getting into some silat and the work of people like Rick Hernandez. This all fed back into my solo training routines

However it's here that you run up against one of the problems (for me) of the CMA apporach. The Chinese arts have a concept of "eating bitter". The notion is that training is no good unless you are intensely suffering in someway. There's very little joy in it.  In principle it's not a bad approach - no pain no gain and all that. But I found that some people do like to wear their suffering on their sleeve, plus it all gets very serious and insular and perhaps a touch self-indlugent. This is perhaps a cultural aspect of those arts - which of course every art has and you have to be aware of what they are and how they affect the training.

There was also plenty of "tell but don't/can't show". I remember at one competition Dave was doing a little impromptu push hands. A Chinese "sifu" stood off to the side watching and made a loud comment. He didn't know one of Dave's guys was a Mandarin speaker and he translated  -  "that's rubbish, that's not how it should be done!" Red rag to a bull for Dave - he invited the guy into the circle and promptly pushed him ragged for five minutes. The look on the guys face as he tried to get away, only to be pulled back in for more "treatment" was a picture.  We did find that quite prevalent.We always wanted to feel first hand from the instructors we encountered but very few would give you any direct hands-on. This may have been a cultural thing again  but it was frustrating none the less, especially given the stories of "miraculous powers" these masters were supposed to have.

So my solo training routine at that time would be anything from one to four hours a day, incorporating all the kung-fu methods I'd learnt up til then, plus the general bag work, sledgehammer training, plus a bit of fitness - running and horse riding. On top of that I was teaching a few times a week, plus had the lads over regularly for sparring work

When I got into Systema and met Vladimir that all started changing - slowly at first, but eventually I'd drop virtually all the previous solo training.  The thing I trained most at first was the falling and rolling. Largely absent from before apart from a few breakfalls and just hoping for the best! I found the ground movement in particular opening up new areas - and new muscles! My emphasis became less on root and more on three dimensional mobility

Cutting out form work began to leave me a lot more time. I found I could get the results I wanted much quicker with the Russian approach. The exercises click exactly into place as applications, so I wasn't speding time working out possible applications for form postures. Instead the emphasis was on adapting to what was going on rather than trying a "technique. To be fair this concept is also present in the Chinese styles, but not to the same extent (perhaps again a cultural aspect of copying what has gone before rather than innovating?)

One of our guys asked Sergei Ozhereliev when he was over about how long he trained each day. He said something like if you are training on your own for more than an hour you aren't doing it right! You shouldn't be able to go beyond that point if you are really pushing yourself.  Again it flies in the face of "conventional" martial arts training, which is almost seen as a "polishing" process, of struggling hours and hours every day to perfect something (cue "training montage" from the movies!). Of course it depends on your training motivations but there can be perhaps too much emphasis on perfecting a syllabus as opposed to developing yourself
There is another inportant aspect I should metnion, which is health. I spoke about mental / psychological health already. Is four hours a day solo training really psychologically healthy for the average person? I used to know a concert pianist who played eight hours a day most days to maintain the standard required for a professional classical musician. However the difference is that he was actually playing concerts, whereas most martial arts people are involved as a hobby and never have the opportunity or need to actually use the skills they spend so long developing.

On the physical health side,  I feel the Chinese styles had some good benefits - general good health, posture, balance, strength. However I did start getting bad knee problems through the low stance work (the standard reply is "you were doing it wrong" but knee problems are not uncommon amongst top masters.).  Since I stopped forms  and worked more on my hips and legs the problem has gone. That's been one of the revelations of Systema work, along with the breathing.  I now find the same benefits from the breathing work as from the previous Qigong work - with a lot less time and none (so far!) of the possible problems. Things like cold water dousing also offer a quick and "easy" way to health!

So my solo training routine now is very different. For one thing I don't really have a routine. I tend to train in bursts throughout the day  - sets of press ups, squats, etc. some rolling, working with the sledgehammer (I've still not got round to kettlebells!), I run most days, do quite a bit of work with the stick, occasionaly re-visit some sword or staff work and now and then run through some qigong and Vincent's Three Circle Exercise. Of course the breathing work links it all together and can be practiced almost constantly, particularly in conjunction with the Jesus Prayer if you are so inclined

I like to join in as much as I can when teaching, though I'm always aware that I'm there to teach not to train.
Still it's good to work with the guys, there are plenty of them capable of making me sweat now!  It's always fun going up to see the  Leicester crew, getting back on a horse has provided new challenges! If there's one thing I've learnt from Systema it is that you have freedom to do and try whatever you like. You don't need a gym, don't need equipment, don't have to worry about getting something perfect, "the world is your gym", just get on with it.

It can be easy to get a bit lazy, but that's one reason it's important to get together with other people as often as you can. Even then it's important to have all those exercises in class, they really are the foundation of the work, not just something to get you "warmed-up" at the start of a session. There is a danger they can be dismissed as "just some exercises" but look beyond the surface. The group also provides a supportive / challenging environment - how many of us would try the "fall flat on your front" drill on our own?

I just want to add in something about developing "skills" here too. Solo you can develop some attributes - cardio, strength, flexibility. To develop real skills you need other people. That can be acheived in various ways, limited only by your ingenuity in devising drills. I think it is important to always be developing a new skill or improving exisiting ones. I never got this "lowest common denominator" approach to training - the one that goes in an emergency you lose all fine motor co-ordination and become a lumbering cavemen. With such an approach you learn some very basic techniques - chop this bash that - and that's it.  All well and good - but then what? Do you just practice that for the rest of your life?  In context it's useful - eg quick training for people going into a specific place. Outside of that is seems a bit limited. To my mind the greater your depth of skill and understanding the better you will work. It's a principle that works for jet pilots, racing car drivers and concert pianists....

For me it's the skill development that maintains my interest - I mean,  I do it but I don't much enjoy running round the field in the rain.....  Also skill stays with you, whereas as we know fitness goes so quickly! So as far as advice goes for your solo training (apart from "buy my Solo Training DVD" hahaha) - work all the things you can on your own, once you get comfortable with an exercise, change it some way to increase the challenge. Always be mindful of how your exercise can be applied - functional fitness! Take advantage of every opportunity you can and treat life as a learning experience. Alway always always treat your health as number one priority in training and balance your training with the rest of your life. It should enhance your life not detract from it.

Most of all - the biggest secret off all - find a way to enjoy everything you do.... Or to quote the legendaray Viv Savage of Spinal Tap - "have a good time all of the time"


  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on training. I agree that hip and leg exercises are important for the knees and that rolling around the floor stuff you do is great for the back!

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