With holidays approaching, it can be useful to know some training games so that you can keep up with your training even while clubs are closed. I quite like to use a normal pack of cards because they lend themselves to endless variation and opportunity!
In this article, I would like to share a very simple approach and structure for creating training games that require nothing more than a pack of cards (and a sword, if you want to practise your sword work).
Physical training with cards
Keeping up with physical training is quite difficult for many people, because it is often really boring to do push ups, squats, or whatever by yourself. Using playing cards can turn physical training into a bit of a game, and anything that can improve your motivation to exercise has to be a good thing!
Decide on your rules
In a standard set of cards, there are four suits: hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. Choose one exercise to assign to each suit. For example:
Next, choose a multiplier. This means that if you draw the 4 of hearts, you would do 4 x (multiplier) push ups. A multiplier of 1 keeps things very simple, while a multiplier of a number such as 4 or 5 can make it quite difficult if you draw a card with a higher value, especially if you are not used to doing so many repetitions at once.
My advice is to keep your multiplier low, something like just 1 or 2, for the first few times you play. If your fitness and endurance are already quite well developed, then challenge yourself and pick a multiplier of 3 or 4. Of course, you probably know yourself and your capabilities best!
The modifier is really just there to make things a bit more challenging once you have improved a little. Doing just a handful of push ups might be more than enough in the beginning, but might be trivial once you have better physical development. You can set this however you wish, and you might even choose a different modifier for each kind of exercise.
How do you want to handle aces and face cards (jack, queen, king)? You might decide that jacks are 11, queens are 12, and kings 13. You might decide to play “aces low” and count 1 as 1, or you might play “aces high” and count them as 14 or 15.
You might equally decide to do something different with them, and say that any face card counts as 15 seconds of sprinting in place followed by 10 repetitions of the exercise, or you might decide that any face card means “do it as fast as you possibly can”, or you might decide that aces mean “10 repetitions as slowly as you possibly can”. This is definitely your opportunity to add something a bit different to break the monotony of simple exercise repetitions!
Jokers could also be counted as face cards, or you might assign them something even more different. You might say that a joker means “go to failure”, or that it doubles the value of the next card that you draw, or whatever takes your fancy.
Playing the game
To play the game, just draw a card! The suit will tell you what exercise to do, and the value (combined with multiplier) will tell you how many repetitions to do.
There’s not really any end point to the game. You can keep playing until you exhaust the deck, or until you get bored, or until your muscles give out.
You might decide that doing a whole deck is unrealistic for your current state of physicality, so maybe cut the deck, and take roughly a third of the cards, or roughly half, or whatever portion of the deck you think you might reasonably be able to accomplish. This will have the advantage of surprise, because you won’t know what exercises and values will be present in your partial deck!
If you run a club, especially a relatively new club or study group where you are not yet entirely confident in your role as instructor, this can also be quite a good fun game to do with your students. You can join in the exercises with everyone, and so you can all do your physical training together without anyone needing to be “in charge”.
One final thought: it is much better for everyone if physical training can be seen as something fun than if it is seen as a punishment. Giving out push ups for misdemeanours is not the most effective way to do anything, but playing games like this can be quite an effective way to help people start to enjoy incorporating more exercise into their lives.
Technique training with cards
You can play a very similar sort of game to train your techniques instead of doing bodyweight exercises. You can probably use this game for training just about any martial art, although you certainly need to consider the issues of space, partners, and general safety – especially if you are playing these games at home.
Decide on your rules
In a similar fashion, assign a technique to each suit. For example:
|Hearts||Oberhaw||Lunge, cut 1||Oi tsuki|
|Diamonds||Underhaw||Slip, cut 2||Shuto uchi|
|Clubs||Zwerhaw||Feint and cut||Mae geri|
|Spades||Wechselhaw||Slip, parry, lunge, thrust||Mawashi geri|
Choose your multiplier as before, decide how you are going to handle aces, face cards, and jokers, and then you are all set!
If you want to make it a bit more interesting still, then you might assign a starting position to each suit, so that you might practise the techniques from different stances or guards. For example:
|Hearts||Vom Tag||Hanging guard||Zenkutsu dachi|
|Diamonds||Ochs||Outside guard||Kiba dachi|
|Clubs||Pflug||Inside guard||Kokutsu dachi|
|Spades||Alber||Middle guard||Sanchin dachi|
You can make this as complicated or as simple as you like. You could decide to handle special cards separately, or you might just look at the suit and nothing else in order to determine your starting position.
There might be temptation to make it ever more complicated, but my advice is to keep it simple and then START PLAYING. Games are less fun when they are too complicated, and you will get much better results if you spend your time playing a simple game rather than trying to design a more complicated game that you then run out of time to play.
Playing the game
Draw a card to determine your initial starting position. Draw a card to determine the technique and number of repetitions, according to your rules. Play the game!
In a similar fashion as before, you might decide to go through a whole deck, or just part of a deck. If you really want to challenge yourself, take a second deck, and then draw from one deck for starting positions and from the other deck for techniques. Needless to say, this will give you the greatest number of repetitions of everything!
Alternatively, you might decide to use a smaller portion of a deck, but to practise on both sides. So, if you draw the 4 of hearts, you will do whatever that demands of you, starting with your right side forward, and then do it again on the other side, starting with your left side forward. This is an ideal way to address any imbalances you might have due to training one side more than the other in the hall at club sessions.
If this game forces you to do some actions or combinations that seem awkward and unusual through lack of familiarity, it might be a signal that you need to practise some of these things more often!
If you have been playing both of these games for a while, and want an even more intensive training session, then combine them.
Draw a card from the deck, and do the physical training described in the first game. Stand up, draw another card (or two) from the deck, and do the technique training described in the second game. Go back and forth, doing both the physical training and the technique training.
Setting jokers to mean “double whatever the next exercise is supposed to be” can suddenly become quite a powerful rule!
Of course, this is just one way to use a deck of playing cards at home to structure some training time for yourself. There could be lots of other ways to use the cards, you might decide to use dice instead, or you might make yourself some other tool for random selection.
Some people might not need any such tool, and might be happy enough just to decide on a training regime and then stick with it. However, if you would benefit by turning your training time into more of a game, then this might be a good option for you.
Remember, it is better to spend your time training than it is to spend time designing a game about training. As a result, after writing about training in this article, I’m off to do some actual training!
Do you play any other games to make training by yourself at home more interesting?
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.