Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Agility Ladders and Speed for Martial Arts

Every martial artist wants to be fast; the faster you are, the better you're going to be at hitting the other person while not getting hit yourself. The questions are, what is speed, and how do you train for it? Martial arts speed is not the same thing as speed for a marathoner or for a 100 m sprinter.

I was listening to two podcast interviews about speed training and realized that part of the problem is people thinking the wrong way about speed - seeing one attribute and thinking that it means the person is fast, when in fact it doesn't.

The first interview was with Mike Boyle on the Strength Coach Podcast (which I love). I can't remember which episode, but he was talking about training hockey players, and how he introduced a test where he timed how fast they could skate across the rink. What was interesting was that his results didn't match what the coaches thought of their own players. There were players who seemed slow but actually got across the ice quickly, and players who seemed fast but weren't actually getting across the ice fast.

What was the difference? The players who were thought to be fast but weren't tended to have fast, quick movements with their feet. Their feet were moving around a lot, but that wasn't necessarily translating into higher velocities in the rink.

Think about hockey - you want players who can get from one side of the rink to the other quickly - move their bodies along the ice quickly - not just move their skates fast. But fast moving skates makes someone look fast, so that's what the coaches were thinking about. Until someone came along with a stopwatch and actually timed how long it took to get from blue line to blue line (or something like that, I'm not a hockey guy).

The second enlightening interview, this one on the Just Fly Performance Podcast but I can't find the episode, was with a track coach talking about how useless agility ladders were for speed training.

Agility ladders are a common tool for speed development. They look like a ladder made of ropes or thin chains, laid out on the ground, and people either run through them or do little drills - hopping side to side, trying to get their feet to move faster and faster through the squares set up by the ladder.

The coach (again, sorry I forgot his name) found that players who did a lot of agility ladder work didn't actually get faster at moving their bodies, just their feet. In fact, the ones who did the most on the agility ladder got slower. What do I mean? They got good at having their feet dance around, left to right, in intricate patterns, but worse at actually accelerating their center of mass.

Watch some video of agility ladder training. In a LOT of the drills, the trainees are moving their feet really quickly, back and forth, often changing direction really quickly. Now watch the video again, and pay attention to the center of their body - somewhere around the sternum. Is that part moving fast, or are the feet just dancing around?

Having quick feet isn't a bad thing, but it's not that valuable to a martial artist (or a football player, or a soccer player, or really almost any kind of athlete). What you WANT is to be able to quickly accelerate and decelerate your center of mass - get your body moving fast, then stopping, then moving back the other way. If your feet are all over the place but your chest stays relatively still, your'e not going to be able to escape an attack or get yourself into position to counterattack. Imagine someone coming at you with, say, a front kick to the solar plexus. What's important there - having fast feet or getting your torso out of the way?

But, being able to fly around an agility ladder LOOKS impressive. It looks fast. And that's the problem.

I do not want to recommend a complete speed training program at this point - I have some ideas, but nothing definitive. I'm pretty sure that something like kettlebell swings and some work with minibands will do a lot more for your combat speed than running through an agility ladder routine.

If you are thinking about an exercise, and wondering if it will help speed, here's a quick list of things to think about:
1. Does the drill involve moving your body (the center of your torso)? It should!
2. Does the drill involve more than two steps in any direction? It shouldn't! Fighting speed is how fast you can take one or two steps, no more.
3. Are you doing the drill at maximum speed and force, or does it last so long that you pace yourself? Speed drills should be done fast an explosively. If you're pacing yourself to get through it, it's not going to make you faster (though it might be improving your endurance).

In short, agility ladders might be good for a warmup or a supplement to speed training, but they shouldn't be your primary tool. To get faster, get better at putting larger amounts of force into the ground, quickly.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

6 things you're probably (maybe) doing wrong in your training

I've had a lot of posts lately going over some details about training. Details are important, and a big part of why I write this blog is to organize my thoughts about some cutting edge ideas. Lately, almost all I've been talking about is aerobic development, largely because that's where I'm learning the most new stuff over the past year or so.

But not every reader of this blog has read every post, and the biggest take home points I'd like to make are probably buried a year or more back in the archives.

I don't mean to insult anybody - it's possible that you, dear reader, are training according to principles much better than mine, in which case this blog post is going to be worthless. But I have seen a lot of martial artists make some or all of these mistakes. So here are my big take home points:

1. Your strength training is too easy. Trying to get stronger? Build more muscle? (These are not the same thing, but they're related). If you're counting on pushups and deep stances to do it, that's probably not going to be effective for long. To get stronger you must do an exercise that is loaded in such a way that you couldn't do more than 10 or 12 reps or 30-40 seconds worth of that exercise. If 10 pushups is a real struggle for you, then great, doing sets of 8-10 pushups will be strength training. If you can do 25 pushups, then no number of pushups will get you stronger effectively. You have to either modify the pushup (take an arm away, change hand position, elevate your feet) or change the load (wear a weight vest, have a friend sit on your back) to make it a strength training exercise. Holding a deep horse stance for several minutes sure is hard, but it's not going to make you significantly stronger than doing it for 30 seconds.

2. Your practice techniques too hard and for too long too often. We train to kick and punch. What better way to get better at kicking and punching for a long time (i.e. improve our endurance) than to punch and kick until we're exhausted, right? Except that's probably not a good idea. Sure, doing one of those super hard challenge workouts where you're falling over at the end once in a while is probably a good thing, but you should be as fresh as possible for almost every repetition of your basic techniques during practice. Why? Because when you're tired you're slow and sloppy. Practicing while tired means practicing slow, sloppy techniques. And your nervous system adapts to what it practices. So MOST of your repetitions should be done fast, hard, and crisp. If you need to do improve your endurance, add a few sets of burpees or sprints to the end of your practice, when you're tired. After all, your goal isn't to be good at burpees, it's to be good at karate techniques.

3. You don't think enough about recovery. Do you even own a foam roller? Do you get massages? Do you measure your protein intake? Do you plan rest days and deloads into your practice? It's probably okay to stretch and so some light skills practice almost all the time, but your harder work can't be done every day. If you do your hard workouts every day, either you'll be doing them hard enough, and you'll break down and get hurt, or you are not actually working as hard as you think.

4. Too much static stretching. Don't do static stretching (getting into, and holding, a stretched position) for long periods (holding for 20 or 30 seconds or more) before training. Static stretching may be beneficial, or at least not detrimental (the research is mixed) if you do it AFTER training, but do NOT do it before training. You'll just make your muscles less powerful and impair your practice. Warm up carefully, stretching dynamically, and only do your long static stretches at the end of your workout (24 or more hours before you plan to work out again).

5. You eat like crap. Yes, nutrition matters. And it's confusing - paleo, low carb, keto, vegan, vegetarian, mediterranean... there are lots of diet plans out there. Not sure what to do? Let's make it simple. A. Eat less (ideally no) simple sugar. I'm NOT saying eat no carbohydrates, just little or no simple sugar (look for sucrose or high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients). Soda and sweets are the biggest offenders. B. Eat no hydrogenated vegetable oil. Trans fats are bad. C. Use little or no seed oils. Don't cook with corn oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil. Use olive oil, coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, walnut oil, or butter. D. Eat way more vegetables and fruit. E. If you're fat, eat a little less every day. If you're too skinny, eat a little more every day. 

6. You train  your core muscles the wrong way. Your core - the set of muscles that work together to either move or prevent movement of the spine - are super important. Lots of martial artists train their core by moving it, doing things like crunches (flexing the spine), back extensions (extending the spine), or windshield wipers (rotating the spine). This is probably wrong, and you should either never or rarely do these kinds of exercises. The thing is, you don't really want your spine moving much when you perform techniques. You don't want to rotate your spine to generate punching power - you really want your spine to NOT rotate when your hips twist, so the power from your legs can be transmitted through your arms. How do you train your core to keep your spine in place? Train it to! Think planks (hold the spine steady while gravity is working to try to extend it - anti-extension) instead of crunches (flexing the spine). Think one arm planks (gravity is trying to rotate the spine, your core has to work to keep it straight, so it's anti-rotation) instead of windshield wipers (rotating the spine to move your legs while your shoulders stay in place). Your back will thank you for it, and so will your performance.

I tried to make this post as generic as possible. We don't have all the answers to every detail around training. Think about #3 above - what exactly is the best way to enhance recovery? Should you ice sore muscles? Well, the science around that has gone back and forth, and I can't give a definitive answer right now, but I bet almost all of us could benefit from a little more quality sleep and a massage now and again. What's the optimal diet for performance? Again, it's unclear - but I know it's not centered on Corn Flakes and McDonald's.

This is the kind of advice that every strength coach in high level training for things like football or soccer would take for granted, and it's also the kind of advice every martial artists should be incorporating.