Letters: Muscle tension in sparring + fighting weight

Muscle tension in sparring/fighting weight

23 August 2005

I’m glad that you have addressed elements of weight training. I have been studying your training pages recently as I have been very aware of how quickly people (me included) and more so strikers find themselves knackered after a minute or so of grappling, also I have noticed that when contact sparring is introduced even when using head gear and body vests (bearing in mind that we are not trying to kill each other so to speak) people tend to tighten up in the body disrupting timing and speed etc. Again people get exhausted quickly, I have been focusing on staying very relaxed during the sparring sessions in order to conserve energy and better manage adrenalin flow.

Here is the question Steve, when you are sparring what is happening with your musculature, are you very relaxed or am I on the wrong track here?

Also with regard to age (I have never witnessed any body of your age Steve move in the way that you do, that in itself is an inspiration) is there a need to modify training in any way? I am 47 and would probably be considered to be quite fit; do I simply push till I drop?

Finally I weigh 86 kilos at five foot eight, my weight and strength have often given me an advantage, but I’m not too sure now and wonder about dropping down to maybe 78 kilos. I noticed on a UFC how Cabbage Correira defeated Alvarez, it was amazing in the body sense that Cabbage looks fat and Alvarez has the body of a ‘Greek God’, that didn’t stop Cabbage from defeating Alvarez in a clear and decisive way. Would you give any advice on evaluating ones own body weight? I am aware that you personnaly have an ideal, weight wise. –Kenneth Milling

One thing you can’t do is avoid the reality of the fight; you can try to impose your will on it, and fight the fight according to your plan, but it ain’t always going to go that way. So you have to assume the fight’s going to be intense right from the kick-off and it’s going to remain that way until it finishes, and again, you don’t know when that is. Now you can’t just go and train hard for thirty minutes, and it’s pointless trying to fight at an easy pace and work up to it, because that’s not realistic. Don’t assume you can just step it up a gear, because you won’t be able to, physiologically or psychologically. You train as will you have to fight.

That’s why you need interval training, which I think I’ve covered elsewhere. Being relaxed is a misconception. The most fundamental thing is being able to remain unshakeable in what would otherwise be for many an overstimulating environment. And out of that environment, scanning for those cues that are pertinent to what you need to do. You have to have been in that environment, you have to train in it, and you’ve got to be able to act decisively within that without hesitation. You’ve got to get your mind in that zone.

With respect to the body, it’s not so much about being relaxed as about being interconnected. So that the body is already in a reactive state of response. As soon as it hits a cue, you’re off. Usually, the general rule is that the more explosively you do a move, the more successful you will be. And in order to do that the body has to be interconnected optimally. There can’t be any slack. It’s rather like a bow. Lots of people disconnect the bow and call that relaxation; then they connect the bow, and that’s loading, and then they release the arrow. And after every arrow, they disconnect the whole bow again. Now, that’s not practical. You have to remain connected.

Now, you will get various analogies about these connections. Chinese martial artists will refer to these connections as like a whip, like a reflex bow (i.e., loading against the curvature), and like rattan. The serial elastic component of muscle is comprised of actin and myocin as well as the muscle spindle, whose thresholds of response can be set via the gamma efferent system. Acting in combination, these muscle responses mean that the restitution of the body’s structure is analogous to the coefficiency of elaticity of a ball when it’s bouncing or being hit. A hard rubber ball bounces back much faster than a soft one, but the body is a variable bouncing ball. The restitution changes according to what you need to do. Those forces acting upon the body to change its shape, or internal stresses which change its shape (twisting, bending, compressing, stretching, tearing) are going to occur violently upon you and will be violently created by you. And you must remember that it’s these forces that you’re trying to transfer onto your opponent, suddenly and violently. That’s how the damage to his structure, externally and internally, occurs. To absorb these forces, or release them, you have to be familiar with how the body works. The body has got to be able to change its shape and reconstitute its shape reactively; that’s the gathering and releasing of energy, offensively, defensively and counteroffensively in various planes of movement. The interconnections have got to be set to respond instantly and with appropriate power. That’s what the muscle spindle is for.

Staying relaxed during sparring to conserve energy is pointless. It’s not addressing how most fights actually kick off. If you’re experimenting in playfighting, that’s one thing, but if you’re wearing all the gear then that’s an opportunity to go all out. To do otherwise sets the wrong impression of the fight as it’s most likely to be.

So what you have to do is break the fight up into intervals which might, added together, constitute 30 minutes of hard work; but you keep each burst short and intense. Use say 1-3 minute periods of exchanges, with the duration varying depending on whether you are on the feet, in open or closed positions, or on the ground. And you keep repeating that.

It’s not so much about relaxation, it’s about familiarity with the situation. The more you do something, the more efficient you’re going to get at doing it. But you mustn’t make assumptions going in about what the situation is going to require. Put yourself in an accurate replication of the fight situation, and let it shape you, not the other way around. You’ll find out what you have to do, by doing it.

If fighting were swimming, you don’t want to learn your strokes or your conditioning in a nice calm, warm pool. In karate, they don’t even go in the pool, they don’t even get wet, but even in other combative sports there’s a temptation to make it gentler and easier and simpler, to spoon-feed solutions before the guy has even understood what the problem is. Better to understand what the problem is, and then you’ll be motivated to look for the solutions. But equally, you don’t want to throw a guy in the North Sea to learn his strokes and abandon him there. So what you do, you chuck him in the waves, give him a brief experience of it, and pull him out. He’ll get the strokes he needs if you keep doing this. That’s the intervals of exchange that I’m talking about. You’ve got your safety factors, you know what to do. Let the process take care of itself. And each member of the training group adds to that process.

The best idea ever within groups is to break down the hierarchy and implant the idea, the concept, of what you need to do, and let the individuals work it. Pass it around. See what you come up with. You’ll be surprised the different angles people will come up with on the same idea. And that’s all I do when I teach courses. I’m not out to define a process. It’s a laboratory: experiment or die. And that’s why a lot of people find what I teach difficult. They’re not willing to take on that responsibility themselves; they want me to provide it. I can’t do that. I can only tell you how I’ve arrived at where I am.

On your other question: you will have already read my thoughts on age, condition, and training as I just answered a letter about this. The last thing you want to do is go out of your way to look like a Greek god, because it’s going to be wasted training time sculpting your body for appearance. When you train, you want to use total body movement, and weight training encourages the opposite.

Carrying extra weight, if it’s not muscle, is a liability. Your power to weight ratio will suffer. And if you’re overweight, to me it’s a psychological thing which suggests your lifestyle is too comfortable. Simplify your life a little, get a bit more frugal about things. A little more discipline on the wine or whatever. Don’t treat your martial arts like a recreation, and that will mean you get serious about your lifestyle, too. It’s part of the mindset. Always keep thinking: ‘I’m a martial artist.’

You’re the only judge of your best fighting weight, but I’d say that the older you get, the less extra shite you want in your system. If you’re going to carry that extra weight, carry it in a weighted vest, not in your gut!