I hear, very frequently, that in other activities similar to Amtgard pell training is highly encouraged. Does pell training have value in Amtgard, and if so how should I go about doing it?
Fighter Practice Absentee
Pell training is an excellent addition to your Amtgard training regime. I use a pell myself, especially during times when I am injured and am unable to do any sparring. I encourage anyone who wants to improve as a fighter to put some pell time in. There are many ways you can use a pell to advance your fighting and many ways to get yourself a pell.
Getting and Setting Up Your Pell
The easiest way to get a pell is to buy one. I bought mine, which is an upright boxing bag, for about $75 from Sports Authority. You could probably shop around at Play-It-Again Sports or Craigslist and get something cheaper. You can also make your own. The cheapest solution there is to beat up a tree your don’t particularly like. (Be aware that continual abuse of the bark may make the tree more susceptible to parasites. Use a tree you hate.) I used to have an $8 fence post I’d picked up from Home Depot and sunk into the ground in my backyard and then build a box of scrap shield foam around. You’ll want to ensure your pell is padded, so you don’t destroy your practice swords as quickly. My upright bag is also wrapped in a towel to reduce the noise, since I use it indoors because I love air conditioning.
Once you’ve got your pell, mark it with duct tape. I put four bands of tape around mine, equally spaced apart, to help me choose specific target zones. I also recommend at least two swords, one fairly light, and one the same weight as your normal swords. If you are practicing Florentine, you’ll eventually need two of each, but you can put that off by using both the light and normal swords, and switching them between hands. Do not use your normal fighting swords for pell work or you’re going to wreck them much faster; your pell doesn’t care about cored out swords but your fellow fighters do. I also recommend something pretty heavy (which I will henceforth call the “Very Heavy Object”, “VHO”, or “Grix”), such as a length of metal pipe, that you can use for slow-motion practice of swings to work on your body mechanics.
Using Your Pell
There are several different ways you can use your pell. You can use it to practice new shots you have been shown or put some polish on an existing one you already use, you can practice attack patterns, or you can use it to do some general conditioning to improve your general shot coordination. You can also just go hit it really hard for the heck of it.
The most basic way to use a pell is to practice a specific shot. Perhaps your reverse wrap is giving you trouble, and you need to work through the shot and then practice it until it is smooth, accurate, and fast. For this sort of practice, you’re going to start with your Very Heavy Object. Get into your fighting stance, advance into strike range, and pick out your target on the pell. Then, very slowly, go through the motions of the shot. The Very Heavy Object will put some strain on your muscles, joints, and assorted connective tissue as you throw the shot. If there are motions where you have to muscle through something, or where your joints lock or resist the motion, that means you have a problem with your shot. Work through alternative motions until the shot motion is smooth and you don’t have to fight your body to do it. You *will* be able to muscle through or force the shot with a lighter sword, but that’s going to be hard on your body and make your shot slower. Use the VHO to remove those problems from your shot mechanics. This is worth experimenting with even for shots you already think you’re pretty good at. Make sure you’re returning to guard as part of the shot; the energy recovery part of the shot (returning to guard) is as important to get right as the “hitting the other guy” part.
Once you’ve worked out the shot mechanics, you can graduate to your normal sword. Get back in your stance and throw the shot, still at a glacial pace. Repeat. Again. After ten successful shots, increase the pace slightly. Go ten more times. Now throw the shot a little faster. Repeat this process until you are throwing the shot correctly at full speed. If you make a mistake or the shot doesn’t feel right, go back to the previous speed where you did get ten in a row right and try again. If you find yourself just botching it after a while, take a break. Tired muscles perform poorly.
The light sword is for building speed. Once you’ve got the shot down with your normal sword, you can intermix some practice with the light sword, going at your maximum speed. Practicing quickness builds quickness. Don’t devolve to only practicing with the light sword, though, or it will throw off your shot timing.
The second way to use a pell is to increase general coordination using your normal weight sword. If your off-hand is completely incompetent, this might be a good place to start with it. The general concept is to throw a variety of very simple chops to the pell, to get your brain used to moving your arm in the “swing a sword” type of way. This drill is either a 6×6 or 8×8 drill, depending on your level of conditioning and endurance. Divide your pell into three (or 4) equally spaced targets on each side of the pell, to represent thigh, side, and shoulder (or thigh, hip, side, shoulder) of an imaginary pell warrior. Number them 1 to 6 (or 1 to 8.) Strike location one, then one again. Then strike location one, then location two. Then one/three. 1/4. 1/5. 1/6. (1/7. 1/8.) You have now completed one circuit of this drill. Go back and hit location two and then location one. Then hit location two, then location two. Then two/three. 2/4. 2/5. 2/6. (2/7. 2/8.) Do this until you have done all six (or eight) circuits. Now do it in reverse, starting from 6/6 (or 8/8), then hitting 6 and 5 (8/7), then 6 and 4 (8/6), going all the way back to 1/1. You will have thrown 72 (or 128!) shots when you are done. I switch hands before reversing directions, so both hands do 1/1 to 8/8 before I do 8/8 to 1/1. You can also do this with your light sword at your maximum speed to work on your quickness.
The third way to use a pell is to practice an entire attack sequence. Start out of range, plan your footwork, the setup for the shot (feint, bait, or just your pre-shot body positioning), the shot itself, the recovery to guard, and your exit motion to get back out of range. Start slow, moving deliberately through each motion, looking for flaws, hitches, or difficulties. Just like practicing the shot alone, repeat it again and again, then increase the speed and try it again, until eventually you are doing it correctly at full speed. This isn’t as good as practicing it against a live participant, since pells don’t move, but most people won’t let you practice hitting them with the same shot 100 times in a row, either.
When using a pell, it is common to start working on shots single sword. Do not neglect the rest of the game, however. Practice your shots using your full set of normal equipment. Pick up a shield or a second sword, since this is going to change how you throw your shots.
There are several common mistakes people make when using a pell. The most common is starting out full speed and just swinging away at it. The purpose of the pell is to perfect your shots. Practice does not, it turns out, make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Make sure you’re practicing the right thing before you practice doing it a thousand times.
When you are using a pell, form is critical. Strikes should be a function of your entire body, not just your arm moving while your body remains motionless. This is not Bizarro Riverdance. Power comes from the feet and is channeled by the torso. Get your body involved. If you’re just standing there chopping wood by swinging your arm you’re not getting anything useful from your time spent at the pell.
A second common mistake is forgetting to return to guard when practicing shots. For the 6×6 and 8×8 drills, you do not have to return to guard. For shot-practicing drills, returning to guard is an integral part of what you should be practicing.
People also often make the mistake of using a pell for increased endurance or for strength training. If you want to increase the amount of time you can spend on the field fighting, pell training is the least effective way you can accomplish that. Straight-up cardio training, whether it is swimming, cycling, walking, or jogging, is going to do the most to increase your endurance. Fighting is all about body movement; standing at a pell for an hour hitting it isn’t going to dramatically increase your field endurance. Likewise, pell training is a terrible way to do strength training. Throwing the same shot at speed for 30 minutes with a heavy weapon is really just a great way to eventually give yourself repetitive motion disorder. If you need to build some strength, go hit the gym and do actual weight lifting. A well-balanced weight-training regime is going to do wonders for your fighting; whacking a pell with a ten pound sword is not. (As a side note, this is even more important for women, who tend to have less strength in general. As an additional note, if “I don’t want to get huge muscles like Tato” is a reason you avoid weight training, be aware that building those muscles takes intense training and a very specific diet. You can put that worry to rest.)
For further resources, there are a number of pell-training videos put out by the SCA. They can serve as a basis to give you more ideas about things you can practice with your pell. Pell work can be a great tool for advancing your fighting when no one is around to fight or to work on something that you’re just not ready to show off in public yet.
- My pell: http://www.shopeverlast.com/powercore-freestanding-heavy-bag.html
- Bane’s Pell Construction Tutorial: https://attachment.fbsbx.com/file_download.php?id=568044716607567
As always, if you have questions for Ask the Champion, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will answer them in my weekly column.