The specific type of physical training you select will vary according to what you think you need to work on most. But, I would say this: Workouts are not a substitute for practice sparring, and sparring is not a substitute for actual tourney experience. The craftsman who spends all his time sharpening his tools but never puts them to work, will not produce anything but a tidy workshop and some metal filings.
In general, weight training is an excellent way to keep the body in shape between practices. The better shape you’re in, the longer and more often you can spar and the faster your skills will increase. Preparing for Crown, I tend to favor light weights, mostly dumbbells, with lots of reps done as fast as I can. I tend to concentrate on the upper body, abs, obliques and arms, with special attention to forearm and wrist exercises. Usually the heaviest weight I pick up is about 25lbs. for forearm curls. The lighter weights allow more reps, and lessens the likelihood of injury. I’ve had good recommendations for the use of “powerbands” (Big rubber bands that give an increasing resistance workout like the rods on a Soloflex machine) and I will vary my workout with things like medicine ball work with a partner. I’ll also include some high tension tai chi like isometric exercises that replicate certain basic fighting movements.
Pellwork is also an excellent way to work the appropriate muscle groups for the specific task of fighting. However, be careful what you think you’re practicing when working on a pell. Too many misguided beginners will work out extended combinations on the pell and then find they are impractical when the intended target has the temerity to move. Don’t worry about hitting it as hard as you can either. Instead, practice precision. Put a mark on the pell and use the same blow over and over to hit that mark. Go as slow as necessary to hit the mark every time. When you can hit it 20 times at regular speed without missing, move it. And I mean move it all around; up, down, both sides. If possible, use an older, heavier sword and wrap it with lots of extra duct tape. Pell work is hard on swords and the pell. Adding the tape will cushion and preserve both and add a little extra weight for training purposes. With the extra tape, the weight and cushion will change the way it “feels” when you’re impacting. This makes it difficult to judge how much power you need to put behind each blow and will be different from your actual fighting weapon. Be aware when working combinations that momentum and body dynamics may make the same blow more difficult to throw successfully with a lighter sword. This why I stress using it to practice precision, not power.
Sparring is paramount preparation for any tournament, especially Crown. It spans the gap, overlapping both physical and mental training. Sparring against another fighter allows you to work on timing and range while building strength and stamina. However, practice sparring is where you are most likely to get injured. A smashed finger or strained shoulder a week before Crown can adversely affect your performance. Even a small annoyance can undermine your concentration. The adage I have gone by is “one week to rest, two weeks to heal”. That is, I don’t do any sparring less than two weeks before a Crown, and I suspend my workouts for the week leading up to the Tourney. This way, I can be pretty sure of being as close to 100% healthy as possible without being sore or fatigued.
For Crown and in general, it is worthwhile to try and vary the conditions of your practice as often as possible; inside, outside, turf, tile, carpet, sunlight, low light, etc. Consider wearing different footwear for different conditions, and bring them along.
However, as you prepare, there are certain things you should NOT vary in your sparring routine. I believe this is important: “Wear what you wear, use what you use.” If at all possible, practice with the weapons you will use in Crown. This may seem obvious, but it happens all the time that one will use a beat up, old piece of rattan for practice in order to “save” a nice, crisp new stave for the Tourney. For Crown, this is a mistake. A slight difference in weight or balance from what you’re used to may cause an otherwise good, familiar blow to glance when done with a different weapon. If you’re planning on going to new rattan for the Tourney, switch it in for the old 4 to 6 weeks before. This will give you time to get accustomed without significant breakdown.
This goes for all your equipment; if you make any significant changes, or plan to, give yourself sufficient time to incorporate them. Don’t hope that your shield will meet the standards, make sure it will two months before the tourney and modify it accordingly if necessary. Make sure that your armor is in good repair early. There is always the chance that something will break right before or during the Tourney. Minimize your variables. Will restrapping your body armor change the fit? New chinstrap? Replacing the padding behind your cuisse? All of these can change the way your armor works and feels.
Also, and this may be less obvious, take into account new decorative elements that may affect how you feel or deliver blows. It is admirable and encouraged to have smart new heraldic display for Crown, but be careful if the overall design varies significantly from what you are used to. New surcoats look great on the field, and if we get them beat up at practice, likely our ladies would do the same to us. Or, as likely, they’re not done in time to practice in anyway. If they are longer or fuller be careful how they interact with your armor. This is especially true for things like torses and mantles. A padded torse can completely absorb an otherwise good blow. Drapey bits also tend to tangle and absorb weapons. You are responsible for feeling and reacting to your opponent’s blows. It will be embarrassing to you and frustrating to your opponent if the fight must be stopped to help you “interpret and recognize” a good blow. Here’s some practical advice: If you have plans for something like a new design surcoat, make up a plain “mock” version first out of similar material. This will be useful for sizing and patterning, and you can wear it at practice before and after Crown to help you stay accustomed, cover up the less period bits, and preserve the nice one for tourneys.
Crests are another order of problem. I hate to discourage the use because they look so splendid and the craft of building them is admirable. But, they place a huge limit on some sword techniques, (Prejudicial comment: Some will argue that if it can’t be done using period equipment it’s an invalid technique anyway. That’s as may be, but if we were to limit ourselves to period techniques, we might as well choreograph it, and we’d go home with more broken bones regardless.) and they confuse the issue of a good blow. The way our rules are set up, the armor is, effectively, YOU. If it lands on your armor, with sufficient force, and doesn’t glance, it’s good. We do not recognize ablative armor as it does not conform to “conventions of combat”. Under our rules, the crest is indistinguishable from the helm. If your papier mache lion’s head gets knocked off, even if it’s 6 inches above your head, your opponent has every right to consider that a good blow. He probably won’t insist, but do you want him to have to think about it? So, either forego it, or take it on the “chin”.
As I said before, sparring bridges the gap between physical and mental preparation. While you are working on physical skills and refining your techniques, you are also refining your timing, range and calibration. I should probably go into more detail about what I mean regarding “calibration”. This may be a touchy point and I want to be absolutely clear in what I mean about it.
Most of us fighters, when we compete in tournaments during the course of the year, call and throw blows within a “range”. This range runs from too light to too hard. We try not to hit too hard, but the line between good and light can be kind of blurry at times. Most of us tend to accept anything that falls within this gray area as good, giving our opponent the benefit of the doubt. When I, and many other fighters who have reached the finals, am preparing for Crown, I begin to pay very close attention to what I call “good”, ”light”, “glance”, etc. The idea is to sharpen the line between “not quite” and “just enough”. This is not increasing the calibration, it is just becoming absolutely clear in your mind what is “good” and what is not. This goes for the blows you throw as well. In practice, demand tough calibration from your opponents, and don’t allow your opponents to take less than absolutely good blows. When in Crown, this is actually a service to your opponent and yourself. When a blow lands on either of you, and the decision is whether to stand or fall, you can speak with conviction and act without second thoughts. Most Martial’s huddles are not brought about by stubbornness, but by indecision and obfuscation on the parts of the combatants.
Part 3: Preparing