Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tools and Building Tools

A few years ago I was in a firearms training class, a level one defensive pistol course. The instructor used the phrase "tools to build the tools", meaning we were learning the drills in order to learn the skills necessary to properly and safely employ a pistol in self-defense.

This is a phrase that I've remembered since that class six years ago. It applies to many areas of life, in my opinion, but especially in learning new physical skills. There are fundamentals of each skill set and skill area that must be learned in order to progress to more advanced concepts. Call it what you want, such as crawl-walk-run, each phase must be learned before progressing.

For example, in the martial arts, learning to punch properly must be preceded by learning to move properly, both forward and backwards. Then the mechanics of a punch must be learned, such as how power is transferred and how the hand can move throughout the punch. Finally, proper position of the wrist must be stressed, and possibly the wrist must be strengthened through different exercises. These drills and exercises are all tools that are used to build the punching tool in a fighter's toolbox.

Once the fighter knows how to throw a punch, then the process becomes self-sustaining. The person in question now has a tool to use in training, at any time, any place, in order to further their martial-arts training. Learning the straight punch opens the way for the martial artist to learn, possibly on their own, several other punches, including uppercuts, jabs, hooks, overheads, and backfists. Thus, the fundamental skill drills have built the punch into a tool that can be used to further enhance a student's martial arts repertoire.

In exercise, we learn the fundamental movements such as pushups, pullups, dips, squats, and lunges, and then apply them to more advanced exercises. Bench press, back squats, shoulder press, deadlifts, and front squats are all what I consider to be intermediate exercises. From here, the athlete has the option of learning more skill based movements such as kipping pullups, cleans, clean and jerks, snatches, push jerks, split jerks, squat cleans, and so on and so forth. Once these tools are built, the athlete has a means of pursuing fitness goals in a variety of positions, and experimenting with different movements, and a combination of movements.

These are not new concepts, any coach worth their salt will tell their athletes that the fundamentals are the most important thing, and must be mastered above all else. This goes for basketball, football, baseball, and running. Master the fundamental, and master the skills.

For the athlete interested in cross-training, mastering skills outside of the athlete's primary sport can lead to great innovations in cross training, and shift the training paradigm. Weightlifting skills will add not only strength, but coordination to a runner's build. Yoga will hit many of the stabilizer muscles that weightlifting neglects, as will gymnastics practice.

This is of interest for the solo athlete, but also for the solo martial artist. I find it of great interest to create my own training routines, and mix different skills. I also believe that the greater skill set, the more complete athlete and martial artist I can become, and the more I can mix up what i want to do when I am not training indoors.

The other reason that I enjoy learning new skills and new skill sets is because I believe it makes the pursuit of my exercise goals much more fun, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. For example, after running around the loop at the park, I like to stop at the pullup bar and do some pullups. My brother-in-law and I were discussing parkour and free-running recently, and he pointed out that the playground at the park would make an excellent place to execute some of the movements and also add depth to my running.

However, before I can do that, I need to learn the fundamentals of parkour such as vaults and jumps. To this end, I have been researching gymnastics and parkour locations in my area, which is Traverse City, Michigan. Gymnastics coaching would also beneficial to my weightlifting and CrossFit training, in bettering my handstand pushups as well as enabling me to learn and properly execute a muscle-up.

In this way, going outside of my normal skill set enables me to develop additional tools to further enhance my athletic goals. The important part is to seek out someone with knowledge that one seeks. If a martial artist desires to learn grappling, they don't go to a boxing coach. Likewise, a runner seeks out a weightlifting coach in order to learn proper lifting technique. Then the athlete takes these skills they have acquired and applies them in the way that benefits his goals the most.

In this way many people can learn from different disciplines, in exercise and martial arts. The tools become something that the athlete or martial artist uses to further construct a deepening repertoire of movement, and expression. Building one's tools leads to a greater freedom from form, which ultimately leads to greater self-expression, which to me, is what martial arts and fitness pursuits are ultimately in search of.


  1. I hadn't realized that there are things that a runner can learn from a weightlifting coach, as you say they can.

    What would lifting technique have to do with running, if you don't mind explaining?

  2. The technique of weightlifting itself may not apply to running, but what a runner can learn from a weightlifting coach are exercises to correct muscle imbalances in his or her body caused by pursuing an "only running" routine, and how to properly perform these exercises in a safe manner. The runner can then take these skills and apply them to a more varied workout routine, that will help prevent over-development in just a few areas of the body. In addition, a good weightlifting coach, and I have known a few, can look at a runner on their beginning lifts and tell them where they're weaknesses lie, in their muscular development or lack thereof. The identification of these problem areas can then lead to an overall improvement of the runner's technique and ability.