Monday, 30 July 2012

David Quaile's Systema Seminar in Sydney, July of 2012

On the 14 and 15 July 2012 we were lucky enough to have a truly amazing Systema Instructor come to Sydney and share with us his understanding and love of Systema. David Quaile from Bundaburg Queensland. A former Australian Military Operative and a highly skilled teacher of Systema, David has always acted as a pioneer of the System in Australia and New Zealand.

It was an interesting weekend with many different types of people coming together to train and learn. We spent those 2 days together studying;
  • Systema Fundamentals,
  • Effective Moving and Breathing in Combat,
  • and Mastering the Psyche during Violent Confrontation.
The tone of the weekend was set by Dave's lovely wife Bronwyn, who gave a thorough introduction about Dave and his history with Systema, but one thing she said stuck out in my mind. She explained that although we would be covering the above mentioned topics during the seminar, they would not be studied independently of each other. These topics were to be learned not as separate components, but to be experienced as part of an integrative whole. These things are so inextricably linked that to try to separate them them from each other would not do them justice. As both Dave and Bronwyn were kind enough to remind all of us, Systema must be experienced as a whole, integrated and complete. Training must be wholistic.

It's one thing to see Vladimir, Mikhail and many other amazing Senior Systema Instructors who possess such a high level of knowledge and skill operate. However to see an elderly gentleman from a small country town in Queensland work with such awareness, sensitivity and control, and wield these attributes with such lethal precision.... And all with an Australian Accent, and a calm yet friendly demeanour... It inspires a combination of respect, humility, amusement and at other times terror. 

There was nothing very complicated about the work. It just required our attention, patience and honesty. One of the great things about Dave is his ability to take simple things, but go into them incredibly deeply, and from this develop an understanding that enables the simplest of things to have amazing ramifications to how you understand yourself and how you use your body in a manner which results in the preservation of your being and the “Handling” of your opponent. Through a series of simple exercises such as breathing with awareness, moving around on the ground with each other, walking, use of the knife, moving each others limbs and pushing to free the body, an amazing 2 days of Systema unfolded for us. As David is fond of saying “The System is you,” and it is yourself that you must understand, overcome, accept and continue to develop. Everything else occurs as a by product of this. With this focus and using these simple things, we taught our bodies to work, to respond to stimulus spontaneously and to protect ourselves.

The following is a list of things which stood our for me from the seminar. Simple things that we've all heard a million times, but are still very important:
  • Find Freedom. Freedom of the physical body, of the psyche, and the spirit. All movement comes from the body, and body moves for itself with minimal interference from your mind. The body must be able to move for you. The body must do this in response to stimulus. This can only happen when your very being is free of excess fear, tension, or preconceived ideas
  • The mind and body must be able to work independently of each other. The body must know how to, and be able to protect you whilst the mind is free to think about other matters (i.e. other opponents, your surroundings). This takes time, awareness, consistent hard work and honesty with yourself.
  • Study how fear begins to enter your body creating excess tension and inhibits this freedom.
  • Remember, a bit of fear will keep you alive, but too much fear will kill you.
  • Allow your body to explore.
  • Be aware of how a person or situation affects your being (i.e. breathing, tension, posture, thoughts amongst other things...) even before physical conflict commences. In doing this and learning how to keep fear from affecting your being, by way of breathing, you study how to be professional...Not emotionally involved.
  • Do not allow your adversary inside your head. This often occurs sooner than we realise.
  • Be mindful of the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing, how it connects your breath to your body and helps to keep you calm.
  • Use breathing to ensure that your body is soft and relaxed (not floppy), and free to move as required. In studying to do this whilst under stress you are already starting to work on your psyche.
  • Study Movement. Your own movement and that of your partner.
  • Never stay in the same place. Utilise continuous movement. But move with purpose. Eliminate superfluous and unnecessary movement. To the best of your ability allow your work to occur in one movement, defence and attack are simultaneous.
  • Again, allow your body to explore.
  • Sensitivity and awareness of your self, your partner and how you both interact is incredibly important. Rely on these things as opposed to brute force.
  • Sensitivity is more than just learning to work with constant contact (although this is part of it). Learn to feel something or someone before they reach you, or to feel something before it happens.
  • Do not give support to your opponent, whilst at the same time work from the support your opponent gives you (Sensitivity and Awareness).
  • Work with Intent. Whatever speed your work with, use committed intent. Otherwise the training is incomplete.
  • Remember: Slow is fast, fast is slow.
  • The study of combat needs to be simple. Complications in this process will get you killed.
  • Understand the way of the Soldier vs the way of the King.
  • Study the principles. Although they may at times be referred to in isolation, no one principle can function on it's own. In application they all work together and occur simultaneously as required depending on circumstance or situation. Remember Systema must be wholistic.
  • You can have many drills of value, or you can have many drills of no value. How valuable a drill is depends on you.
  • Utilise the Floating (Flying) Centre of Gravity.
  • When working remember to study how to attack points of pain and vulnerable areas of the body. It makes things much easier.
  • You are not there to play sport. You are not even necessarily there to fight. “Close and Finish”. There is no need to draw things out. But keep in mind “Finish” does not necessarily mean destroy. It may simply mean control.

Above all use what you learn to live well. During one of our lengthy discussions Dave pointed me towards this gem:

Many thanks again to Dave, Bron, and everyone who accompanied us that weekend and contributed to an amazing learning experience for us all. And a special thanks to our guests from New Zealand and Queensland. Thanks for coming all the way to Sydney to share the love guys.

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Sunday, 1 July 2012

High Tension, Building Strength, Managing Fatigue and Related Questions for Systema

The following Q&A dialogue is between myself and Nathaneal Morrison, Martial Arts/Military Combatives Instructor and Founder of The Morrison System of Physical Training.

Justin Ho:
I have something I am working on which I am asking numerous people about, whom I think may be able to shed light on the matter for me. Like many Systema practitioners I am working on creating a body that is incredibly strong with minimal excess tension, and as adaptable and as free from fear reactivity possible. In order to do this I have been employing a number of strategies; running, swimming, the 4 core exercises, tissue annealing, ground flow, breath work and the full scope of my Systema training.   

I have have been planning to incorporate the work off of Sonny Puzikas's DVD the Forge. I was very impressed with the work and explanations; unconventional 3D movement, strengthening of the connective tissues, creating a strong and adaptable core to serve as a platform to the primary and secondary movers etc.... But most of all the description of “creating a body that is incredibly strong with minimal excess tension”. I wanted to get the most out of the work that I would be doing so I started to consider how frequently I would perform the exercises, and when to alternate between them. A friend of mine mentioned Pavel Tsatsouline's explanation regarding “Greasing the groove, low reps, high intensity, high sets, staying fresh". Given your background I assumed that you were familiar with this gentleman's work. Then when reading the Naked Warrior I came across a photo of you doing a one legged pistol squat holding a kettlebell....Ahhhhhh sooooooo.....   

Anyhow, I acquired some of Pavel's books (Power to the people, Naked Warrior, Relax into Stretching) and began reading. Originally I just wanted to get a bit more information on “Greasing the Groove”, but I continued reading on and was fascinated by his work on developing Strength through “whole body tension” and getting the surrounding muscles to send neuro impulses to the main contracting muscle causing it to contract harder (cheering not cheating) thus developing more strength in less time. By the way correct me if I'm wrong about any of this, as the information at least in this format and description is new to me.   

The information and tools Pavel provided seem like an amazing way to increase functional strength at an incredibly rapid rate. To me Pavel's work and the work I have learned in Systema are 2 different sides of the same coin. Tension/Relaxation for strength i.e. The deepest relaxation can only be achieved in contrast to the greatest tension. However there were a few things I was curious/concerned about regarding integrating this kind of work with my general Systema Training and also the work that Sonny presented in the Forge. I was hoping you might be able to help me out here, as I am not as well versed in such areas:

Nate Morrison: 
a) In response to this: “The deepest relaxation can only be achieved in contrast to the greatest tension.” While this may be technically true at some level, it is not compatible with life and function. The highest tension yields unconsciousness. In a practical setting high tension is very difficult to turn off. Consistent high-tension training resets the resting tonus of the muscle so that it remains shorter (partially contracted). A highly trained athlete is able to functionally contract and relax the muscles further to both ends of the spectrum and up to 900% faster than the average person. This describes the efficiency of the nervous system.
b) Remember that a muscle recovers best when maximally relaxed. So carrying excess tension interferes with acute and chronic recovery. Recovery is required for the best possible second or 102nd rep. Relaxation in actual performance is a state of being in the entire organism.
c) Tension is only needed when you need it. Most of the time you don’t need it but when you do, be able to use it effectively.

Justin Ho:
1. With Pavel's advice using whole body tension such as in the pistol, one armed push up, deadlift or side press. Will this focus on developing predominantly muscle strength, and as a result neglect or reduce development of the strength of the joints, tendons ligaments and connective tissues? What triggered this question for me was work with the static holds, i.e. push up. It seems to me that staying there will result in the muscles fatiguing leaving no choice but for the connective tissues to take the load and eventually grow stronger. This lead me to consider this process in the rest of the material presented in the forge and the rest of my training. Conversely is strengthening of the connective tissues faster achieved by relaxation in the form of fatiguing the musculature?

Nate Morrison:
a) You cannot strengthen a joint. There is nothing to strengthen. 
b) You cannot strengthen connective tissue such as myofascia. While it has a contractile property, it is a chronic capability, not acute and it exerts no force on the structure. The tensile breaking strength actually reduces the more it contracts. 
c) Tendons and ligaments will increase their size, and thus their tensile breaking strength if properly loaded over a long period of time (years). This loading is most effective when it is passive. Active loading (high tension) has some effect but it is limited to the force under time of the muscle contractions. Passive loading such as that occurring during manual labor is the most effective. During manual labor the body is as relaxed as possible to be as efficient as possible. One does not unload a truck or a ship with maximum tension. 
d) It is not wise to attempt to load the tendons and ligaments by exhausting the muscles first. Exhaustion of the muscles will cause overloading of the tendons and ligaments and compromise the safety of the joint. You need muscular contraction, but just enough. A skeleton cannot stand without muscular contraction.

Justin Ho:
2. Through acquiring great gains in strength using whole body tension and the principle of irradiation (contracting the surrounding muscles so their neural impulses cause the main muscle to contract harder) is there a risk of acquiring excess/residual/habitual muscle tension through contraction of the whole body to perform the exercises? If so I figured I would counter this by performing various relaxation exercises between sets i.e. tension/relaxation exercises, gentle ground flow, walking, and even at the completion of a work out performing the 4 core exercises slowly with breath and relaxation to regulate the levels of tension/relaxation in the body. What do you reckon? Is there a risk of acquiring excess/residual/habitual muscle tension through contraction of the whole body to perform the exercises? i.e. Excess tension that lingers and thus impedes freedom?

Nate Morrison:
a) Yes. It is a very poor way to train for life in general. 
b) There is a Russian concept that does not recognize the difference between physical training and physical therapy. Top Russian coaches and athletes do not train into dysfunction and injury, then fix it and then do it again. The very idea is dysfunctional. Don’t do it. 
c) If you want to get brutally strong AND fluid, perform that ground work with a weight vest and ankle/wrist weights. In a short period of time you will literally have to throttle back for fear of tearing door handles off. 
d) Tension is important and should not be neglected. But it is better to know when and how to turn it on and off. One should not train in tension inappropriately. Tension is required when the loads are maximal, above 85-90% 1RM. That is when you need it and that is when you should use it. 
e) Always remember that you become what you do consistently. Period.

Justin Ho:
3. Through utilizing the principle of irradiation and tensing the whole body during the exercises is there the likelihood of developing an inability to selectively isolate muscles to get them to work independently (tensing or relaxing) when needed? i.e. using only what is necessary in a given action allowing the muscles not directly required a chance to rest? If so I thought this could be countered by using selective tension methods between sets. But what's your take on this?

Nate Morrison:
a) Yes
b) See #2

Justin Ho:
4. Would the strength developed by using whole body tension be only available by repeating and thus reinforcing whole body tension as a pattern? It's just that to my mind, to be constantly tense all the time would be incredibly tiring, and also would not allow for free and relaxed movement.

Nate Morrison:
a) Yes

Justin Ho:
5. Having so many awesome tools to use for strength development and only having so many hours in the day to use them. (i.e. The 4 Systema core exercises, Pavel's one arm push up and squat, the Work with and without kettle bells which Sonny presents in the forge, also my own groundflow work, not to mention swimming and running) it's like being a kid in a candy store. I know that generally less is more, and it's better to do a few things well than many poorly, but I can't give up any one of them without feeling like I've been robbed. Yes, I know it's incredibly immature, but I'm sure I'm not the first nor last Systema practitioner to have this dilemma. Any advice?

Nate Morrison:
a) You can do all of these activities but do them as relaxed and efficiently as possible. For example, kettlebell training should be performed in the manner it is taught in Russia. Relaxed, lots of breathing, etc… If you are going to do heavy weight lifting (bench, squat, deadlift) you need high tension for sets where the weight is in excess of 85-90% 1RM. Otherwise it is identical in the quest to do more with less and breath properly. Push-ups of all kinds and pistols are also exercises that should be done with relaxation and breathing.

Nate’s Final Thought: 
High tension is incompatible with anything less than maximal lifts, period. In some cases, especially in high fatigue states it is actually worse and will cause immediate failure or unconsciousness. This can be experienced in a max set of push-ups or 100 rep squats. So use high tension only when you are doing sets of 1-5 reps using weight above 85% 1RM.

Nathaneal Morrison

  • 18-year veteran of USAF & US Army Special Operations 
  • USAF & US Army Instructor in the following areas: Pararescue Instructor/Evaluator; Military Freefall Instructor; Mountain Warfare Instructor; Tactical Medicine Instructor; Physical Training Instructor 
  • Strength & Conditioning Coach 
  • Movement & Mobility Coach 
  • Martial Arts/Military Combatives Instructor 
  • Mountain Guide 
  • Founder of The Morrison System of Physical Training 
  • One of the initial cadre to introduce kettlebells into the United States. 
  • The first to introduce kettle bells to the US Military 
  • Internationally published fitness expert 
  • The leading expert on military fitness training 
  • Extensive work with wounded veterans in the area of mentoring and exercise based corrective physical training 
  • Currently works exclusively with wounded soldiers, world-class professional athletes and military/police recruits

For More information from Nathaneal Morrison visit:

Thankyou for your time and well thought out answers Nate. It is very much appreciated and has truly helped make things clearer for me :)

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Benevolent Fists

We have been playing with cleaning the body and psyche of excess fear and tension using striking. Something I took away from my time in Toronto was the quality of the strikes that were delivered amongst teachers, students and training partners. Whilst at times the strikes were both heavy and deep, they were always delivered in a way that were calming to the nervous system, to help cleanse the person of fear and agitation. It was also an awesome bonding experience, which fostered a great sense of community :)

For those of us that study Systema we have all heard that there are strikes with different qualities. Two such qualities which I am thinking of now are strikes which calm versus strikes which irritate the nervous system. I remember hearing a great explanation from Emmanuel Manolakakis of Fight Club in Toronto; Often people will come to a Systema class, and will often take many hits from many different training partners. When strikes are delivered that have an irritating quality or effect on the person over the period of the class it has a cumulative affect. At first it could be just a slight irritation which is unnoticed by the person who has been hit. However then he cops another strike with an irritating quality a few minutes later, followed by another and another. Over a period of the time often without the person realising it the level of agitation in the psyche increases and increases and then begins to effect how they maintain themselves, how they perceive situations and in turn then affects the work that they produce. 

There are times when it may be appropriate to deliver strikes which agitate or incapacitate a person, however within the realms of training, practitioners need to consider longevity and sustainability. If we are going to be hitting each other everyday regularly, it needs to be done in a way that does not destroy each other, but in a way that makes each other stronger and more relaxed, helping to clean the body of fear. In this way we are able to train and strike on a regular basis and do so in a way where we are able to do this today, tomorrow and hopefully well into our old age (some sooner that others....just joking).

What has helped me work on this for myself and convey this idea to people who I train with is to consider a few things  which will Irritate the nervous system vs Calm the nervous system. Some possible ideas are as follows:

Things which irritate the nervous system 
  • Surface impact with sharp but light pressure (likened to getting flicked in the ear)
  • Sharp, jerky and erratic movements
  • Impact involving bone on bone
  • Uncertainty or nervousness in the movement
  • An erratic or unpredictable rhythm (which will not allow the person to adapt and become comfortable with the strikes)
  • Strikes which cause jolting movements locking the person's body
  • Trying to dominate or coerce your partner
  • Trying to hit harder
  • Thinking of striking as competition
  • Striking or working with no awareness or care of the other person

Things which calm the nervous system
  • Deep pressure, a deep level of touch (likened to getting a deep comforting massage)
  • Smooth, not necessarily slow, but smooth movements
  • Impact involving flesh on bone, or flesh on flesh
  • Certainty and confidence in the movement
  • A constant rhythm (to allow the person to first adapt and become comfortable with the strikes)
  • Strikes which unlock tension and teach movements which give a person "somewhere to go"
  • Trying to relax or help your partner
  • Allowing yourself to learn how to hit well
  • Thinking of striking as massage
  • Striking or working in such a way that you are aware of the other person, considering there needs at any given moment

In this way a practitioner can learn to hit in a way that is conducive to sustainable training for everyone involved. As funny as it sounds it is a good thing to learn to have Benevolent Fists

Or perhaps to be able to "Hit with love", a more familiar saying amongst Systema folk :)

Somebody from across the seas recently told me: You can put the guy down and actually lower the level of fear and anger in this world rather than just shift it. It's a very nice skill.

Thanks Gene.

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Degrees of Good Form

The idea or principle of Form truly is an amazing thing when used naturally and explored as an idea or principle. However when the IDEA of the thing is taken and turned into a dogma or law adhered to without consideration, this can really cause problems for the Systema practitioner stunting natural movement. 

Form is so much more than inflexibly walking around, and transitioning from standing to the ground and up again with a rigid straight back all the time.

Good posture can certainly be the start of good form. But it's not all there is to it. 

Good form also allows you to distribute whatever natural level of tension that resides in your physical being evenly and proportionately throughout your physical being. This combined with the integration of continuous movement and use of correct breath allows you to function in the most efficient and least tiring manner, thus giving you the appropriate level of relaxation, using just the right amount of tension necessary to perform a task without resorting to excess tension.

With good form  you are way you are able to move naturally never occupying the same space and constantly changing shape (form) whilst still being able to maintain your structural integrity. Sensitivity and awareness of the body is key

As there are many different people with different body types, levels of tension and movement, perhaps a better way at looking at form rather than simply as "absolutely good or bad", would be to see the idea of form as a CONTINUUM, to be constantly observed in fluctuation and worked on by the individual on a daily basis.

There are degrees of good form and bad form. It's really amazing how we fluctuate along this scale from day to day.

The Work? Move baby. And pay attention to yourself

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art