I walk into the old barn. One side, the side where my old kick bag hangs, is part occupied by hardy animals. The other side, the side where my multi-gym stands, is a makeshift garage. The bag was a Christmas gift I received in 1993. It has hung in several different places, but it has remained in its current location for the longest period of time. It now hangs from a ton strap, which enables me to climb the bag and practice movements associated with groundwork. It strengthens the muscles used for the guard and gravity puts extra strain on all techniques practiced from this position. The multi-gym has four stations. It is nothing special. In fact, it contains items that I really don’t have a lot of use for; the speedball for example. However, for the convenience of space and time it serves a purpose.
Training on your own can be the toughest thing you do. If you are good at deluding yourself then this might not be the case, as can be seen by the people who enter gyms and go through a routine that never really changes, never brings them out in a sweat and after a year provides no visible changes. Nevertheless, the person doing the routine doesn’t see it that way. They are putting in the hours when others aren’t. The concept of quality doesn’t enter their heads. Solo training should be hard, as everything is down to you. You don’t vary things here to keep your attention and interest, you do it to trick your body, make it work harder and to give your mind tougher challenges. Your time might be short – in fact, intensive training is better done in a short period of time – but it should be all about quality. There is no need to pad things out here.
This is the place to do your homework, your revision, to help refine the techniques you have quarried from personal experience or to give what has been taught to you a fair go. This is the place to go over things ad nauseum until you have “owned” the technique. It is not a place for excuses – no one will hear them. However, it is the place to raise your inner-voice. Like a type of self-imposed state of schizophrenia the dedicated student invites this negative inner-voice. Like a medieval monk you fight the voice of temptation. When you train along the most tempting and attractive personal demon is that of quitting and taking short cuts. There are no pats on the back, words of congratulation or encouragement in this gym. Instead you get a metaphorical negative coach. His excuses become more valid, more logical and more seductive. Your only defence is the knowledge that by obeying him you are inviting stagnation or regression, keeping you from your objective to improve.
The multi-gym gives me a degree of variety, as four multi-purpose stations should, but it is no match for the single kick-bag. I am a martial artist and there is no getting away from this instrument’s purpose. This single tool offers a huge range of possibilities, all of which are for the perfection of combat. I have numerous different ways to use this piece of equipment and I am always finding out new ones.
There are other benefits of training in a barn. Living on a farm converted into a zoo means that there is a fair amount of junk hanging about. Such junk provides heavy and awkward objects useful for developing core strength muscles and functional fitness.
It can be very cold in the winter, unless you are a well bedded down animal who has their own inside sleeping den, plenty of straw and a coat of fur. I hate the cold. Travelling on a circus and being based in one of the highest points of the Cotswolds, I have got used to it, but got to like it. Nevertheless, the cold is the best conditions to train in if you want environmental motivation. Facing a kick-bag covered in ice can be quite daunting and perfect to get the old inner-opponent nattering at you before you have even begun your workout. The advantage with the cold is that you cannot hang about. It constantly motivates you. Obviously you have to be careful that you do not pull muscles, but often you will find the secret with this is to keep the motion going and keep the blood pumping. On a very cold day the first 10 minutes are complete hell. However, once you have got through that you enter into a different world. The cold actually provides a degree of relief, although you only get it for a very brief period between rounds or sets.
Solo training can change considerably when it is done in a public place. You have to respect the rules of a public gym and work within these confines. Further restrictions can be put in place by the equipment provided. On the other hand the gym may contain some different equipment that adds a different dimension to your training. I have trained in a wide range of gyms and always enjoyed the challenge of making the most out of what the place provided. I have trained in many gyms that were clearly being pushed towards the more commercialized recreational route of TVs, huge numbers of treadmills and cardiovascular machines, fixed position weights machines and the like. At the other end of the scale I worked in a converted slaughterhouse filled with free weights. However, the biggest thing that can affect your training in a public gym is not the equipment but the people.
If you go with a training partner he or she can have a dramatic impact on how well you train. A good workout team should support each other through health and safety, e.g. “spotting”, and motivation. Furthermore, training should be looked at as a progressive project with both people actively contributing towards the regime with new exercises and ideas, constantly pushing forward to achieve higher standards. The said ideas then need to be brought under scrutiny and scepticism with both trainers having a shared idea over what the ultimate goal of these workout sessions should be. This should ensure that training doesn’t go off track for long, as at least one partner will speak up when exercises become too abstract. A degree of friendly competitiveness also helps, as it does in partner training or sparring. It’s great to have one person chasing the other up the ladder of achievement.
A less obvious problem in a gym environment comes in the form of what I ended up calling “gym rats”. These are people not involved in your workout and often not directly involved in anyone’s workout. They hang around gyms to socialize. One would expect that they would normally haunt the comfortable, aesthetically pleasing and commercialized gyms, but I have seen plenty of them in the hardcore gyms as well. In fact, the lure of being associated with these grittier establishments not to mention their cheapness and lack of physical distractions, such as TVs, actually makes the socializing easier. I was once told that solo training, particularly that involving strength work and conditioning, should be strictly time managed. You should train with weights like you are in a hurry. The gym rat can ruin that for you. He is your inner-opponent’s best friend. He lengthens your rest periods and makes your workouts less intensive. His distraction softens the challenge. It all depends on what you want from your workout, but my attitude has always been that its purpose is in its name. We “work” at the gym. I train to get stronger or faster or fitter or to better develop a certain skill set in order to better demonstrate or exemplify the skills I teach. It is no more of a social activity to me than an open heart operation is to a surgeon. If you want to chat about anything other than something that is directly related to the workout and will have an immediate beneficial effect on your performance then save it for the post-workout drink.
In conclusion solo training is a relatively short regular activity that we need to engage in if we wish to acquire large benefits from our chosen physical activity. It shouldn’t be comfortable, as you are pitted directly against yourself. Instead it should be seen as a project for refining your skills and physical abilities through a personal battle. The Control Governor theory is certainly worth considering. As Mo Teague described it to me:
“Central Governor Theory holds that the brain or a memory within the central nervous system limits the amount of muscle fibres being contracted at any one time in order to protect the body from damage. That limit is set as a result of perception/experience of training intensity. By exceeding physical effort beyond that level re-sets The Central Governor memory so that training performance can be increased”.
Solo training is all about re-setting our standards and accepted levels of performance. It is the place that excuses can be met head-on and worked against. I solo train at as many uncomfortable times as possible. Training on Christmas Day has been something of a tradition with me. As Geoff Thompson puts it, hard and uncomfortable training makes all of life’s luxuries or even necessities very sweet. Training on Christmas Day is very uncomfortable, especially first thing in the morning, but the rest of the day becomes exceptionally sweet. Having said this, there is no real point in training at uncomfortable or unconventional times if you don’t regularly train anyway. Don’t be one of those annoyingly sanctimonious people who holiday trains when you only train a couple of times of week back home. Anyway, training is much like charity, if you have to tell everyone about the work you do then you remove all its worth. And on that note I better shut up.
This essay was later re-adapted into a chapter for my book “Mordred’s Victory and Other Martial Mutterings”.