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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Why Exercise?

A question came up on a martial arts forum recently about how much time people spent on stretching in class. This led on to a discussion about exercise in general during class time.

There was strong feeling from some that exercise has no place in class. That students can exercise at home, when they come to class they should be “learning stuff” and that somehow a teacher who has exercises in class is short-changing their students.

I have some sympathy with this view, having been in classes that were as much as 80% solo training with little or no input from anyone else. I’ve also attended numerous classes that, whatever the style, had the almost identical “warm up” and “cool down” drills at beginning and end of class, you got the feeling they were there because “that’s what you do”.

My old pal Terry Shepherd dropped in on one of my Systema classes a few years back. He made an observation  “I see you do your exercises throughout the session”.  I don’t think I’ve done a Systema class anywhere that didn’t involve exercises at some point - the core ones being of course press-ups, squats, leg raises/sit ups and some type of breathing/stretching/tension work.   Why would this be when, as some say, exercises can be done at home and are really just a quick warm-up before the “real work”?

The answer is that there can be so much more to exercises than warming the muscles. Exercises can be preparation for work and can also provide the framework and attribute development  for your work.

So many times I see self-defence training in various forms which has people hitting pads, working techniques and so on. Now it may be that I’m not seeing it, but to me there is a vital factor missing - where is the power coming from for the techniques?  We all know that applied power comes from a combination of functional strength, good body mechanics and understanding of principle.  So, ok, you may be able to build strength by weight-training or doing some press-ups outside of class. But do you know how to feed that strength into your technique? Is your exercise training functional or because “that’s what you do”?

This is where the Systema approach comes in. Every exercise in a Systema class is multi-functional. A basic press-up can teach you a lot  about body structure, selective tension, breathing patterns, fist placement and more - if it is taught as such. Of course you can just blast out 30 reps, fast as you can, with no thought of form or structure. Seeing people do this badly with squats always makes me wince..... the knees are misaligned, the back arched, the head tilts back....people are doing the exercise without understanding what it is for and can end up doing more harm than good.

So in this sense doing the core exercises is one way of teaching your body to apply your technique or work efficiently and also giving you the strength, physical and mental, required to do so. I’ve said before that in a way the core exercises are Systema’s kata or form, they map your body structure and point the way towards natural movement. Running, walking, rolling, climbing, all are similar exercise activities that feed into our work, whether it’s for self defence or just day to day living.

Of course people should exercise at home too, in fact once you get the correct feeling from the exercises it’s hard not too - I find even a day without and the body start to feel rusty (especially at my age!) Some pressups, a few rolls, some breathing and things are back to normal.

That is solo exercises. Of course another feature of Systema training are partner exercises, be they bodyweight, with a stick, or other variations. These also have “educational value” beyond the obvious. They can be co-operative (leading into team work) or competitive (in the sense of one person being a hindrance or obstacle).

This is all on the physical level. There is just as much to be learnt on the psychological
level, once again even basic breathing patterns can teach us a lot about panic and self control. It is better at first that any new exercise is carried out under supervision - once you know how to check yourself and what to look at for you can add your own variations in at home to stop things getting dull!

So - should you exercise in class? Depends entirely how you view exercise and how it fits into your work. If you see little or no connection, thenexercise is largely worthless beyond being a quick stretch or warm-up. If you see it is a means of development it become a rich source of information

If you would like more information on how exercise relates to application, check out our latest Class Download, here's a preview clip

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