The Hierarchy of Training

Years ago I read an online martial arts discussion regarding limited training times. A martial arts student had written in with a problem. He only had an hour a day to train and wanted to make the best use of his time. The responses came in thick and fast. However, to my astonishment all of the programmes suggested consisted of mainly doing long callisthenic exercises and stretching before a small amount of time was dedicated to doing actual martial arts movements whether it was against a bag or shadow boxing or forms. This intrigued me and over time I began to notice this preoccupation with weight training, callisthenics and general conditioning in discussions where forum members compared their regular martial arts training regimes. Many considered their formal classes to be enough to sharpen their skills and their home training was dedicated to improving flexibility, strength and cardiovascular capacity. Furthermore, when details were shared on what exactly the exercises were they often had a very abstract relation to their martial arts activity. In essence, they just simply believed it was important to keep fit in some shape or form and gave little thought to how exactly their exercises might contribute towards their martial arts training. Oddly enough the solution for someone who felt his stamina was letting him down in sparring was not to simply do more sparring or, if this was not possible, do more work on the punch/kick bag or shadow sparring, but to go for a run.

img_1040-web.JPGYet, it is in this belief that martial artists seem to be pretty much alone. No other physical activity devotes so little time to actually training the specific activity. Swimmers swim, tennis players play tennis, yogis practice yoga and climbers climb. Even writers are advised to write every day. Whereas martial artists well, they stretch, they run, they lift weights and sometimes they practice martial arts, if time permit of course.

scramble-drill-small.JPGThose who feel that their formal lessons are enough might have a vague point if these lessons did concentrate one hundred per cent on training martial arts. However, this is often not the case. A typical martial arts lesson begins with a run around the gym followed by press-ups, sit-ups and so on. This is then followed by a lengthy period of stretches. Other classes just begin with stretching. Some of these warm-ups can take up to thirty minutes, mind you I have known classes that spend even longer and back in 1999 one instructor proudly stated in a public interview that he did not allocate more than ten minutes to actual martial arts activity. With children’s classes we have an even worse situation, as instructors not only have the lengthy warm-ups, but also have sandwich the actual martial arts training with abstract bribery games to “keep the children’s interest”. Yet martial arts are discussed as being “a way of life” and the practice of them supposedly trains instinctive responses that can be applied under pressure. The mind boggles as to how either of these statements can ever be true with the lack of importance this subculture often places on the practical training.

strategy-1-vs-strategy2-b-small.JPGA key problem I have found is that martial arts, more so than most other forms of physical activity, are rarely taught with a clearly defined goal for the lesson. This is little surprising with the wishy-washy way martial arts are promoted or written about. Are they for self-defence? Sport? Spiritual enlightenment? Health? All of the above? In modern times there has often been much talk about martial arts being about a journey. However, without a clearly defined destination, how can anyone make a worthwhile journey?


attacking-the-cover1-small.JPGThe way the martial arts world get around this is through something I call the “by-product myth”. This is the assumption that very important skills can be acquired without the student realizing it. Although this can happen to a small degree, it makes sense that the most productive results are going to be when a student completely embraces the full purpose of their training. Therefore what I propose is that serious students of martial arts adopt a strict time management policy with their training. This should involve obeying robust principles that are in line with modern coaching methods. At CCMA (Clubb Chimera Martial Arts) we call this “The Hierarchy of Training”.

luke-in-multiple-pad-drillsmall.JPGAll training programmes should be done with the end in mind. This idea is reflected in all three groups I have listed in The Hierarchy of Training, but it is more evident in the most obvious in the first group: Specific Training. This is the specialist area where you concentrate your attention on achieving a clear goal. It is where you work on one tactic or even an individual technique in isolation and then test it under different conditions and ranges. Often at CCMA we try to bring out individual techniques by beginning with a form of pressure test, where the students will find naturally efficient methods they instinctively use to pre-empt or counter-attack an aggressor. Then we isolate these effective tactics and techniques and use different methods to improve the body mechanics, the reaction speed, timing, execution and the overall delivery.

img_1050-small.JPGA way to train a striking method, for example, might be to first restrict a student to striking in a pressure test situation either as a pre-emptive drill or as a defence against a grappling attacker. Then take the strikes that served the student best into a pad drill, where he will work to hit the pad as hard as possible. Other pad drills can be used to simulate a realistic or sparring environment with the pad-coach feeding the student with attacks. This gives the student the opportunity to replay the resistance-based situation, but this time he takes a more empowered role and is actively prompted to take advantage of openings. With an idea of what improves the strikes confirmed in the student’s head, the stage might be to shadow the strikes he has used both against a fellow student and also the pads. Shadowing is a great way to record data and then be used as a type of physical reference book or diary. My belief, at the time of writing, is that this was the original purpose behind the kata, forms, patterns and solo drills of traditional martial arts. To keep a progressive training circle going, a student can then do another form of pressure-testing or resistance based partner work to assess improvements, building up to specific sparring.

rear-naked-choke1-small.JPGSpecific Training has a natural place in grappling. I have never seen its practice more prevalent than in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Submission Grappling and Wrestling, where students will spend up to a month completely absorbing all aspects of a certain position or even a single technique. Like other areas of training, at CCMA, a student first derives his basic grappling methods from ”live” encounters with other students. Because we naturally grapple from an early age, as a means to assert dominance over another individual without seriously harming them, “Primal Grappling” is pretty easy to initiate. From Primal Grappling we find natural positions that work efficiently and then isolate them with some compliant training drills. The pressure then can be increased back up to specific sparring. They then can be integrated back into different conditions, bringing in striking, weapons and multiple aggressors.

talking-hands-small.JPGOther examples of Specific Training include role-play and escape drills. In fact, if we are to take this type of training into the realm of realistic self-defence these elements are pretty vital fundamental components in our drills. This means that realistic dialogue that incorporate verbal aggression and distractions should be implemented to create the right atmosphere and inherent social disadvantages found in a real-life situation. Equally escape is the number one priority in the majority of self-defence situations and fundamental Specific Training drills that are geared towards self-defence should have this as the clearly defined goal of the student being coached.

Braulio versus VictorAttribute Training is a term I first heard from the World Combat Arts founder, Mo Teague. He used it to describe valid areas of training that are not immediately relevant to realistic self-defence. This is not to say that it is not a worthwhile area of training for someone interested in self-defence, but that its purpose is not as well defined as Specific Training. I define Attribute Training as being combat methods that are more geared towards developing will than specific self-defence tactics like pre-emptive striking and escape. Therefore most forms of full contact sparring, where the object is to win rather than survive, falls into this category of training. When you Attribute Train you are effectively stepping off a self-defence path and into the wilderness of combat research, where you condition yourself to adapt and then return with new knowledge back to the severe restrictions imposed by self-defence training. This is where intelligent cross training comes into the plan.

richard-barnes-demonstrates-a-downward-strike-with-a-knee-pin-small.JPGIf you have a clearly defined goal in mind, you will learn the rules in a mind to break them. You will learn Western Boxing to gain the experience of working with your hands in an environment that specializes in hand-striking. In the grappling arts you will learn how to position yourself and become familiar with fully resistant people who will be using restraining methods against you in a manner that is not far removed from an unarmed abductor’s tactics. In Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts you will get the feel of grabbing in conjunction with striking from several ranges, which harks back to fighting at its most primal. It is this familiarization with these areas and the hardiness that consistent training in them cultivates that we are after when undertake Attribute Training. An intelligent cross trainer will look past the complex shapes that the individual arts and styles take and will look to the universal principles that underlie the most efficient tactics. He will then sceptically dissect even the highest percentage methods and investigate their origin in the fight and, crucially, what their flaws are when he brings the tactics back to the self-defence path.

amba_9_9.jpgFunctional Fitness is the title I have given to the third type of training. This area deals primarily, but not necessarily, with solo training methods that are bit more abstract from the other two groups of combat training. They vary from heavy bag training to weight training. Methods should be geared towards developing the muscle memory and muscle groups involved in your martial art. As a general rule, martial arts Functional Fitness training should involve compound and combination exercises, including super-sets and shock training. Martial artists need both stamina training, to handle the tiring stress the body can experience when feeling the effects of adrenaline, and explosive training to deal with the rapid delivery of heavy force in a short length of time. Compound exercises involve big body movements and bring in the use of more than one muscle group by moving the body through more than one joint movement. A lot of free standing exercises, such as squats are good examples of compound exercises. I define combination exercises as exercises that work two muscle groups in the same rep. Press and clean are brilliant combination exercises, roughly combining dead-lifts with squats and the military press. Super-sets are two or more different exercises done immediately after each other without a rest in-between to make up a single set. Shock training “ or shocking the system“ is the practice of training one area of the body so that the blood rushes there and then switching to another part to ensure it receives more stress. Apparatus worth looking into include resistance bands and versatile crossover cable machines for more specific Functional Fitness, that drill striking and throwing applications, unbalanced weights, secure yet unstable equipment such as trapeze bars or roman rings, kettle-bells for free movement and awkward shaped weights such as tyres.

In conclusion, I advise that in order to get better at something, train that particular something. Then investigate intelligently into what methods best support the skills you need the most and develop your attitude to be adaptable yet resilient under stress and tiredness. Finally develop your body, in addition to your spirit, in a manner that will best serve you in your chosen activity.

Developing a hook strike by use of a resistance band

Developing a hook strike by use of a resistance band


Final Note:


Condition your mind to be creative yet sceptical. If you are training for real-life self-preservation then ensure that your Specific Training reflects this. For example do you routinely drill running from an attacker that draws a weapon? Okay, do you then continue drilling the running when you are forced to engage and subdue the threat or do you get seduced by the lure of the physical fight? In Attribute Training are you looking towards the robust fully restrictive combat sports that are transparently interested in developing efficiency or are you drawn towards those that reward low percentage flashy techniques and offer quick fix solutions or mysticism? Do you then look for principle links between the robust sports/arts and are you brave enough to question their limitations? In Functional Fitness, do you look for exercises that will test your whole being in a short length of time or are you more interested in cultivating your biceps and going through the motions as if it were a chore? When you do work an exercise geared toward combat efficiency do you then look at how the body mechanics directly relate to the execution of high percentage techniques and how you can improve this particular exercise to enrich the integrity of the technique?

Gym Jones.comThese are all questions worth considering if one hopes to continually progress in a productive and relevant fashion. A final note on “The Hierarchy of Training”: many martial arts speak of a “higher art”. In fact, I went through many schools and spoke to many martial artists, many who fancied themselves as scholars, who looked at me as if I were some sort of philistine if I dared to discuss the subject of combat efficiency. Well, so far my historical research has led me to the current conclusion that virtually all of the world’s most established forms of martial art were originally created for this purpose. They weren’t even invented with the philosophical notion that you train to fight so that you don’t have to fight. No, they were originally designed for self-preservation or the domination of the enemy, and many were designed to kill. Such revelations – to my shame – made me become disparaging of the “white suit” arts that preached about peaceful and spiritual martial arts training, especially when too much of it seemed to a) be represented by bogus claims and outright mystical charlatanism and b) be taught by bullying hypocrites that took advantage of other’s insecurities. Yet, somewhere in my consciousness I knew this disparaging attitude was also a type of cop-out on the reality of the situation. Luckily I was able to meet, read about and train with real traditionalists that helped me understand that all aspects of training could not simply be divided up into white suit bad, no suit good.

Civilians should not dismiss all notions of becoming a better person and influencing a positive environment. In fact, I would encourage this strongly even if this is just for selfish reasons to reduce the chances that you and your loved ones will be victims of assault. However, my theory is – and this appears to be routinely backed up by most people who train hard and intelligently in the combat arts – that a better appreciation of life and other people comes from pushing yourself to your physical limit, facing fear and continually getting to your feet after each defeat. It wasn’t long before I found that those people I considered to be at the top of the realistic self-defence ladder or who excelled at the full-contact sports, were often very peaceful and good natured people who, having been “through the forge” were now working on “holistic self-defence” or, as my good friend Geoff Thompson likes to say, “defence from the self”. When your body is forged through heavy forms of resistance, be it from a training partner or a dead weight, your mind is tested too and so is your character. You just seem to value everything more, making you become more philosophical and this is where you develop your own personal higher art.