The Gun

Some martial arts are built around a particular weapon. Kendo is built around the sword. Eskrima is built around the stick. Bojutsu is built around the staff. I like to think that Systema is built around the needs of the gun and the knife, the two fundamental tools of the modern soldier. Fight Club’s second-most-recent seminar, held in January, helped me to develop this idea further. Both the gun and the knife require a stable, calm body capable of finding comfort in awkward positions and erratic motions. These are precisely the capabilities and skills that Systema imparts.

Until you place a mock gun into the hands of a Systema practitioner, they may not even realize that they’ve been training this whole time to be comfortable with a gun. I’ve always suspected this was the case from previous experiences with a mock gun and from watching gun-related Systema videos, but I wasn’t ready to draw the conclusion in full. After this seminar, I think that I may be.

Much of the seminar was spent performing the very same skills that we would practice in a normal class, except with a gun in our hands. Moving on the ground, jumping towards objects laying on the ground, moving behind bodies, and keeping our eyes fixed on our targets as we went forward. What was most striking to me was, for the most part, how intuitive these drills were after having studied Systema for so long. With the gun in my hand, my shoulders were relaxed, my body loose by stable. I could keep the gun steady yet remain on the move. It was like I had been practicing with a gun for years.

I guess I had been.

As a consequence, when our group went downstairs to practice working with fake pistols (spring-loaded and CO2 cartridge pellet guns), I felt very comfortable aiming and firing the weapon while someone jostled my body from behind, shaking my shoulders or kicking the back of my leg. The gun rested at the end of my arms as if on a gyroscope, balanced on a sea of sharp motions.

Of course there is still a lot of work to be done with the gun. I won’t pretend to any level of proficiency with a weapon that I have never truly fired. Fake guns are fake. I won’t feel confident asserting that Systema was ‘built around the gun’ until I’ve had more experience with the real thing.

That said, what was most interesting to me about this seminar was that it inspired me to want to learn more about something that I generally abhor. Beyond my sympathy for realist approaches in foreign policy and the belief that some animals are too mad or too plentiful to let live, I see no use for guns. Like most progressive-minded liberals, I’ve never been comfortable with ‘gun people.’  Nonetheless, whatever my misgivings, I see that there is a lot for me to learn from the gun.

For now I can say that the gun is a wonderful tool for teaching yourself the skills which Systema most prizes: efficiency, grace, and stability of movement, the capacity to bring your attention to multiple things simultaneously, and to know how to trust your instinct when it comes time to take action. Whether it has anything else to teach me has yet to be seen.

toronto systema training


A month or two ago, in circle, I was reminded of  something Nick Crossley wrote. Nick is a circuit training enthusiast who happens to also be a sociologist. One of his many insightful observations about circuit training, an exercise regimen involving ‘circuits’ of exercise—two minutes swinging a kettle bell, rest, two minutes holding a plank position, rest, etc.—is that this ritual involves a “lived temporality.” Participants in class learn how to gain a feel for the effort required and how to distribute that effort over time. This is called ‘pacing yourself’.  To know how to pace yourself, you need to know three sorts of things. You need to know how to perform an exercise, you need to know how much effort it takes to perform that exercise, and—just as importantly—you need to know how much effort you are capable of exerting overall.[1] To ‘find your pace’ is to divide your total capacity for effort according to the precise needs of the exercise in question so that you are never doing too much or too little.

The class prior had resembled a circuit. We had alternated ‘sparring’ and wrestling over a forty-five minute period. It was a lot of work. Then, after that difficult circuit, we had some time to do ‘free work’ involving grabs. At the end of class, during circle, many fellow students expressed frustration at their performance during the final drill. They were breathing heavy, faces still reddened by elevated blood pressure. Their frustration, so far as I could see, was not due to a lack of skill or general ability, but due to a lack of pacing. They had done too much during the circuit and now their bodies and minds could not find comfort.

Keeping your pace, in my experience, involves being able to remain yourself when presented with a conflict. While sparring, for instance, I sometimes feel that I am exceeding my overall ability. My breathing starts to get away from me and a wave of something resembling panic begins to flood the system. During such moments I have to be willing to throttle back even if it means expending less effort than my partner. I have to let him ‘out work’ me. Similarly, with wrestling, I try to find relaxation and efficiency even while my partner tries to smother me with their higher effort. I let myself lose so that I can win a more important contest. This is finding and keeping your own pace.

When you learn how to find your pace and to keep it, to give yourself over to it as a discipline, everything is less frustrating. Moreover, learning goes deeper because you can ‘stay inside yourself,’ not letting the exercise steal your consciousness.

Try this: next time you are sparring or wrestling with someone and you start to feel your breathing get away from you or start to hear your heart beating in your ears, take a moment to turn down the volume of your effort. Make it your goal to keep working but recover at the same time. You may find yourself at a momentary disadvantage in some sort of mock combat scenario, but that’s okay. You’ll be learning a much more valuable skill. You’ll be learning how to endure.

Learning how to endure is probably the most important thing anyone can do in the contest of life.

[1] Nick Crossley, “The Circuit Trainer’s Habitus: Reflexive Body Techniques and the Sociality of the Workout,” Body and Society, 10.1 (2o04): 48-48

toronto systema training

Knife Demonstration from Years Ago…

Some knife work from years ago…. (my hair was so dark back then) Great training times and memories for me.

toronto systema training

SYSTEMA as Stretching


Analogies are helpful because they allow you to transfer learning from one domain to another. When you understand the relationship between two things in one area of your life, and see that the same relationship applies elsewhere, it provides a new perspective, and an opportunity to learn something from a new angle.

Understanding something from many angles is a way to understand something deeply. It helps clarify what you are learning, and what the underlying essence is.

I recently remarked that in the warm-up, Emmanuel had us performing a task (e.g. 2 times 4), but then in the applied work, it seemed completely different (4 times 2). Same problem, different format. The quality of the work, and how we all perceived it was changed.

Why is this? Perhaps because we are focused on the specifics, and not the global characteristics of the system we are learning. While there are specifics to every permutation of work (knife/gun/stick/chain; grabs/strikes; static/dynamic; breathing/not breathing; standing/kneeling/ground; etc.), we need to understand the underlying essence of each, and work directly on those. These are the hardest to learn, but have the most leverage in the learning process.


I’ve been thinking of the following analogy lately.

Imagine you are a sketch artist. I suspect the Systema approach is not to have you accumulate many new shapes in your drawing repertoire, but to repeatedly consider how you are holding the pencil. Changing the grip forces you to have to re-experience drawing all the shapes you know, yet again.

I think Systema takes a long time and a lot of commitment because of this process. Every time you change the grip, it requires so much exploration and rebuilding of yourself because we have to forget what we know, and see if we like the new way better this time. Konstantin made a strong statement in his book that the unlearning process is very challenging, and I feel it acutely. Having to give up habits that I felt took me so long to acquire, in the pursuit of a new way of understanding, is very hard. You’ve come to rely on certain ways of doing things – of striking, of breathing, of wrestling. To throw it all out the window and start again? It almost feels like you’re throwing away part of your identity, but it’s actually the only way to be true to the path.

Some people may be able to draw many shapes, but those who are comfortable with the pencil, who feel its weight and can vary the angle they press the lead into the paper, will have a world of possibilities and creation. Those that learn many shapes may be competent artists, but may not have understood the true beauty and capabilities of the tool. Easier to learn a good grip as best you can, THEN master the shapes. Going the other way will only extend the process, because the process of rebuilding takes longer. In practice, we learn the global through exposure to the specifics, but I think it’s worth looking at the global as much as possible.

Our shapes are simple – breathing, pushups, squats, body raises, strikes, grabs, wrestling, mass work etc. They are not techniques or “real” drawings as of yet… they are components of real drawings (some other arts or approaches may have you practice drawing specific things from the beginning and get better at those directly). It may take a couple years to understand these basic shapes. In fact, many people can draw these shapes from the beginning. But to refine them… that will take the rest of your life.

Watching Systema masters at the top of their game, it seems like the refinement is at a level that is beyond us – we have no framework for understanding it as of yet. Somehow though, we can see the shapes are better. Their circles are somehow more elegant; their squares, crisp and symmetrical. The weight of the pencil seems defined and yet not overbearing. Some add shadows which are aesthetically pleasing, but those with stark unfettered shapes also provide a clean minimalist beauty. The pace of the drawing is easy; unrushed and not prolonged. The pencil seems to have a life of its own. Then you watch them draw “live”, and it’s simply a pleasure to watch and experience.

John Gardner has said that “life is the art of drawing without an eraser”. Whatever you want to draw, I think Systema will help it be incredible.

toronto systema training

Consistency is as Important as Correctness

Consistency is as important as correctness. How can you ever be true to your word if your actions are constantly inconsistent? 

Inconsistency is inherently sketchy and causes people to believe you have an alternative motive. This is both a factor in personal relationships, as well as business, and even fitness routines. Essentially, consistency can be attributed to any aspect of life.

“I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work.”– Louis C. K.

Inconsistency is a terrible attribute that far too many people nowadays possess. Throughout my life, I’ve strived to stay consistent about consistency. Even the best plans will fail without a dedication to consistency. 

If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. If I say I’m going to be somewhere, I’m there. In my experience, consistency is a must as you build and grow.

Here’s why:

1. Consistency allows for measurement.

Until you have tried something new for a period of time and in a consistent manner, you can’t decide if it works or not.  How do you measure effectiveness if what you are measuring isn’t performed consistently? I typically give new initiatives, processes, or training regiment at least six months before judging it’s success or failure. 

2. Consistency creates accountability. 

Be accountable for your goals. I put a priority on making time for and being the catalyst that moves an initiative along to a successful end.

3. Consistency establishes your reputation.

Growth requires a record of success. You can’t establish a track record if you are constantly shifting gears or trying new tactics. Many efforts fail before they get to the finish line, but not because the tactic was flawed or goals weren’t clear. 

4. Consistency makes you relevant.

You need a predictable flow of information. All too often I see people adopt only to end it before it gains traction. When you try something over and over the results develop a pattern – which quickly become very true and real. It’s relevant! 

5. Consistency maintains your message.

Consistency in yourself serves as a model for how you will behave.  

When something doesn’t work, I look back at what happened and ask some serious questions. Did I shift gears too quickly? Did part of me not deliver on a commitment? Or was the expected outcome off base from the start? Most of the time, the reason tracks back to lack of consistency.

Be Consistent in your SYSTEMA training at FightClub!

toronto systema training
systema blog systema video archery systema store


FC Club News


Subscribe to FC Club Newsletter

toronto systema training