While in general I love physical training, I do tend to get bored with the common workout modalities out there. For instance, I enjoy weightlifting and trail running for a few months, but then the monotony of it begins to tire me. I start to desire something more fun and stimulating, I yearn to grow in ways these common exercise methods can't provide.
For this reason, I've always tended to gravitate towards things like hiking, climbing, kayaking, parkour, calisthenics, and martial arts. All of these modalities provide ever changing scenery or ever-changing skill demands that keeps my mind stimulated and my heart driven.
One element of the martial arts that's always in particular really appealed to me is weapons training. Perhaps it's because I was a child of the 80's and 90's spending my time watching the Ninja Turtles every Saturday morning. Afterwards my brother and I would carry around makeshift weapons made of broom handles, cardboard and repurposed toys and drive my mother crazy jumping off the couch and destroying the living room as we battled the never-ending foot soldiers sent to dispatch us.
For me these are fond memories, and in some ways my inner child gets to relive that feeling when I engage in weapons training today. The main difference is now I'm old enough to train in a structured and serious way in order to build some real skill and fitness. And believe me this can be an intense workout when structured properly.
Starting Weapons Training
When first starting weapons training, I always suggest people begin by phasing it in to they're already existing fitness routine. This is for a few reasons:
Weapons take some initial time to develop basic skill with. Before this foundational skill is built the weapons are awkward to yield and can easily cause injury, especially to the wrist, elbows, and shoulders.
To use the weapons long enough to get the heart rate up and get some fitness benefits from it, you need efficient movement skills. It's common in the beginning to feel clumsy and to just not know what to do to fill the time other than swing the weapon around erratically.
Often there is a time period when you must go through a few weapons of differing style, size, or shape to find one that compliments your body and your interests well.
Because of these reasons I find it's usually best to start of just adding this into your existing workout and just have some fun with it. The skill will build soon enough and as it does the workout can progressively become more intense and take up more of your fitness regimen.
Choosing A Weapon
There are many variations of hand-held weapons and each has it's own benefits, challenges and unique attributes. Choosing the right one for you is key in keeping your interest up and maintaining a potentially life long fun fitness habit. Below is a list of potential options, their unique benefits and potential cost.
Bo Staff or Jo Staff
The staff is a classic weapon that has been used in all parts of the world all throughout history. It's simplicity makes it very appealing, basically any stick or pole that's long enough can become a staff. Many people have used a common walking stick which doubles as a staff when desired or needed. Staff skills also translate well to the spear which historically was a must have for warfare before the gun.
Variations- Bo Staff is a long staff usually 5' to 6' in length and can mimic spear training. Jo staff is shorter, 4' - 5' in length and can be used to train long bladed movements as well.
There are also differences in material. Some are made of heavier hard wood such as oak and are obviously stronger and less likely to break. While others are made with softer, lighter wood like rattan or even synthetic material like graphite. These are more likely to break if you are actually hitting things bit are easier to spin and handle.
There are also shape differences. The standard is round if looking at it dead on and straight down the length of the staff. You can also get staffs that are tapered at the ends, making the bow weaker but less heavy and the ends and therefore faster. And finally, there are octagonal shaped staffs when looking at them dead on. These are the strongest and hardest hitting staffs but often heavier and more difficult to handle.
Benefits- Staff movements really build up wrist and arm strength while greatly improving shoulder flexibility. In terms of combat the staff's length makes it equally as good as defense as it is offense, in fact it's probably the most versatile weapon on the list. Plus, staff spinning is an amazing proprioceptive muscle control builder and looks pretty awesome.
Buying or Building options- This is the simplest weapon to make. Cheapest way is to go to the hardware store and buy a dowel rod that's 4' - 6' long and 3/4" - 1 1/4" thick depending on your preference. You can also use a shovel or broom handle, I did this for years. If you want to start with something higher quality, you can buy from the options on amazon.com or an online weapons specialty shop.
Great Books for Further Study-
Escrima Sticks or Bokken Sword
Stick fighting is another age-old art and the escrima sticks, also called kali sticks, are the commonly used today. They are made rattan, a bamboo like stick that is light but durable. These sticks were originally used to teach sword fighting in a safer manner and indeed most the movements in stick fighting are interchangeable with sword fighting with some small grip changes.
There are many variations in wooden swords that can be used for training as well. The most popular being the bokken sword, a Japanese wooden samurai sword. These swords are usually made of strong wood so caution must be used if training with a partner. However the added weight to bokken creates a great workout.
Variations- There are enumerable variations of sticks and swords with other common variations being canes, the baton, the Irish Shillelagh, the French singlestick, the Japanese tonfa and numerous variations of wooden swords.
Benefits- Stick fighting is probably the most accessible and universally applicable weapons art. Sticks are short enough to be used inside safely, many things can be used as a stick, and the skills learned from stick fighting apply to most other weapons arts. Also creates very flexible wrists and strong forearms.
Buying or Building options- So many things can be used as a practice stick ehich makes it easy to get started. PVC pipe or a dowel rod of around 3'4" thickness and 2' in length is an easy place to start. Although escrima sticks are cheap and plentiful online. If your looking for a quality bokken sword you will likely have to go to a martial arts specialty shop either in person or online.
Great Books for Further Study-
Nunchuks have been an iconic symbol of the martial arts since Bruce Lee introduced them to the western world in his 1971 movie "Fists of Fury". They are flashy, dangerous, and an amazingly fun workout. The premise is simple, two sticks connected by a string or chain, allowing for high acceleration swings and the ability to tie up opponent's weapons.
Variations- Nunchuks come in many varieties of materials and lengths. Beginners usually get foam padded chuks in order to protect themselves during the early learning curve. The lightest nunchuks are aluminum and graphite making them excellent for noncombat skill building. The strongest and heaviest variation is hard wood shaped like an octagon instead of round, making it perfect for actual self-defense. A perfect in-between and probably the most common choice is a round light wood, as it can be used for tricks and self-defense if needed.
Benefits- This is probably the flashiest of the weapons on this list, basically it looks really cool when your good at it. It's also probably the most fun and controlling the momentum and the sometimes wild motions of the nunchuku make it a challenging workout and an excellent proprioceptive training tool.
Buying or Building options- A simple version of nunchuks can be made with some sections of cut dowel rod a few eye hooks and some thin rope. It will function good enough to begin training with. Many nunchuks available online come with a swivel which helps the sticks rotate freely and improves the spin. There are also simple string styles and dense foam practice nunchuks for beginners that still spin like a normal chuk. If your interested in learning advanced tricks I would recommend a graphite pair or speed chucks, though these aren't good for actually hitting anything with.
Great Books for Further Study-
Clubs and Maces
Clubs ad Maces are much heavier weapons and require a different type of conditioning to wield efficiently. There has even been a recent resurgence of these weapons being used as tools of fitness in recent years, especially in conjunction with kettlebells. In combat these weapons are strong enough to kill with a single blow and even cause damage through armor, however they are slower due to the increased weight. Of all the weapons on this list these are the most strength based by a wide margin and are actually pretty great at creating an impressive looking physique.
Variations- There are many variations of clubs with some being as simple as a small weight on the end of a wooden stick. The Irish Shillelagh comes in versions built heavy like a club, cudgels of many variations can be found online and even baseball bats have been used. The most accessible for fitness would be the Indian Clubs, heavy steel clubs and steel mace's which have become so popular recently.
Benefits- Clubs are excellent muscle and strength builders, they build the shoulders and integrate natural arm movements with the core creating a lot of power. Once the technique is learned properly they can be done for long sets, much like kettlebells, which work great for burning calories and building stamina. The smaller Indian clubs are great for rehabbing shoulder issues and developing good upper body mobility.
Buying or Building options- Though I've never built clubs or maces myself, I've seen a number of people creating them using concrete molds to make a concrete ball stuck to the end of strong stick. Done well they let you customize for any shape or weight you like. For Indian clubs, steel clubs, and steel maces there are quality versions produced by Onnit Academy and many off brand versions available on amazon.
Great Books for Further Study-
Hope this article inspires you to try out weapons training, it's a whole new paradigm of fitness to learn but the pay off is well worth. Thanks for reading and best of luck in your movement endeavors!