Friday, December 31, 2010

Cross-training 2: extra training

Members of the Butoku Washinkai who visited Nanseikan in Oct 2010,
practicing a special drill we use to develop upright posture. It was a lot of fun as you can see!


Cross-training is where you regularly do some other kind of exercise in order to help your main activity, in this case kendo. Usually it means doing something completely different such as weigh-training, running or swimming. However I think extra solo training in kendo movements such as suburi and footwork can also count as cross-training.

Why do cross-training?
In previous generations it is likely that people were, on average, physically stronger than we are now. They may have not lived as long due to poor diet and lack of modern medicine, but generally they would have done more physical exercise either because they walked more as transport, or they did more physical labour because they didn't have machines to help them. They also didn't have so much free-time.

In the case of Japanese people, they would have been very strong in their legs and lower body from sitting on the floor. A lifetime of sitting right down on the floor rather than half-way down onto chairs and couches can make a big difference. This is one of the reasons why kendo has evolved the way it has. There is a great emphasis on legs and feet in kendo, maybe because this was naturally a strong point of the Japanese. This difference has been noticeable even up until recently.

Different reasons for cross-training
  • Basic — If you find that your natural strength or energy levels are always being tested by kendo training, in other words, if training leaves you feeling wrecked, then it can be helpful to do some other kind of exercise to build up your basic fitness. This is for people who are fairly new to kendo and who maybe have not done any other sports or martial arts before.
  • Technical — Another reason may be to help with technical issues, such as using too much right hand when cutting. This kind of training uses kendo movements done by yourself to help develop strength and skill, e.g. left-hand only suburi to develop left hand and arm strength.
  • Elite — Lastly, if you are aiming to improve your level of kendo and feel you are ready for intensive training, such as if you are preparing for a high grading, or if you want to do well at a major competition. This kind of training is for people who are already quite fit and ready for kendo, but want to be even more powerful and be able to develop stamina to last for a greater length of time. This is kind of training is similar to that used by elite athletes.

Principles of cross-training
If you want to get really serious about cross-training there is a lot of info on the net such as Caleb linked to in his previous Shugo-Nanseikan article on cross-training.

In the meantime, here are some basic pointers as to what to consider before starting a regime.

Age
(5-11 y.o.) Cross-training does not really help you if you are still in primary school.

(12-14 y.o.) If you are in year 7-9 then some cross-training can be useful, especially if you are a bit unfit and having trouble lasting until the end of training. But in general just regular attendance at training is enough. You may find that some basic training, or some technical training might be helpful.

(15 y.o. +) If you are in years 10-12 in high school or at university, all three kinds of training can be beneficial, depending on what your needs are. It is at this stage that elite training really becomes possible for the first time.

Working out a program - amount
Exactly what you choose to do depends completely on what you want to get out of your cross-training, your age and your current level of fitness and experience. This needs to be worked out between you, your sensei, and in some cases a qualified fitness consultant

In principle, someone with little fitness who is new to kendo does not need to do very much extra training to notice a big difference.

On the other hand, someone who is quite experienced and who is already quite fit will need to do a great deal more cross-training than the beginner in order to see a difference. However at this level, the difference between winning and losing is tiny, and almost entirely dependent on how much you train. There is an old saying used by sports coaches, "When two competitors of equal skill meet, the winner will be the one who has done the most training."

What to do?
This is a question that can only really be answered in talking with your sensei, however I have some personal guidelines that might be helpful.

One thing to keep in mind: it is necessary to exercise the right muscle groups. Exercising the wrong ones can have at best no effect and at worst, actually be bad for your kendo. For instance doing chin ups to make your arms stronger won't help your kendo as your biceps (muscles on the front of your upper arms) are not so important for swinging the shinai correctly. You might even start swinging your sword like Arnold Schwarzenegger—eurgh!

  • Lower body (legs, stomach and hips) - in my opinion, developing fitness in these areas is most important for most people. This is why all Nanseikan training starts with zokin. If you come to training you will know already what that is! Running (as Caleb mentions in his original post) is very good of course, as is cycling, my personal favourite. Other static exercises (ones you can do in one spot) like lunges and burpees are also very good, and there are many, many different kinds. Also swimming that focuses on kicking can develop overall leg strength. Finally, practicing ashi-sabaki (kendo footwork) in your own time is definitely good, as it develops the correct muscles.
  • Upper body (shoulders, arms, chest and back) - in my opinion the best upper body exercises are all based on kendo movements. Weights should only be used by those aged 16 and over. Free weights are best so that you swing them like a shinai. However shinai or suburi-to (extra heavy bokken) are best. Hand-grips are good for improving hand-strength but again, only for upper high school or uni students and older.
Non-strength training
So far all my cross-training tips have been to do with developing strength and/or fitness. But there are other kinds of less physcial cross-training you can do.
  • Meditation - helps to calm and focus the mind. The benefits of meditation are hard to describe, perhaps because they are a little bit different for everybody, but it is certainly very beneficial for kendo. If you do it, you don't have to do it for long. A solid 5 minutes is enough at first. But you must do it regularly. Every day, and at the same time each day, is excellent. Just do the same as mokuso. The aim is not to think about anything at all. If you find that hard (and you probably will!), try listening to every sound around you, no matter how small and hear the direction that it comes from.
  • Tai-Chi - this is an ancient form of Chinese exercise that is a bit like moving meditation done standing. The focus is on breathing and moving the whole body in harmony and the movements are based on kung-fu (or is Kung fu based on Tai Chi? I'm not sure... :D). Of course you need to have an instructor for this, but it is probably the single best martial art to cross-train in for kendo.
  • Yoga - is an ancient Indian form of exercise that's very popular and like Tai-Chi focuses on breathing and harmonious movement of the body into many different positions that stretch the muscles and stimulate energy. Again, you would need to go to separate classes for this.
  • Image training - this can be done anywhere and you don't need to go to separate classes for it! You simply imagine yourself doing the kind of kendo you want to do. A good way to start is think of someone whose kendo you admire and then imagine yourself as that person, doing that kendo. This is sometimes called visualisation. You might already do it and think of it as day-dreaming! Well it's pretty much the same thing.
So, a pretty long post, I hope you made it to the end. Happy cross-training!

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