Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

For some time now, I’ve wanted to find a simple, effective way to get some exercise at work. While one could sacrifice lunch hours, try to squeeze showers in, and do other such shenanigans, I didn’t think this was a great solution. The harder it is to exercise, the easier it is to quit, and thereby remain flabby.

One could also bring in equipment and keep it nearby. The issue with this is that most exercise equipment is big, bulky, and not friendly to the cubicle spaces so many of us work in. For me, I have an open-backed cube that’s about the size of a prison cell, and is generally filled with computer bric-a-brac. I couldn’t really have a barbell in there.

I did, however, have a kettlebell kicking around. Hmm…

Kettlebells are very compact, and they have a flat bottom, so they don’t roll around. They’re a solid workout tool, and don’t require a lot of changing weights. You can just up the intensity by choosing harder exercises or doing longer sets.

Thus, I came to my current plan. I have the 24 kilo ‘bell. I’m going to be doing snatch, clean, and press exercises with it in the afternoons between telephone calls and projects.

To begin, I started with five sets of five reps on each exercise. Each week, I’ll increase one rep per set, until I get to 5 sets of ten for each hand in each exercise. If that feels comfortable, I’ll jump to the 28 kilo bell, going back to 5 reps per set. I figured this out, and if I can keep this ascending scale going, I’ll be doing 48 kilo lifts in less than a year.

Now, this doesn’t count in the minor injuries, sore joints, time away, and plain-old stick points, but it’ll be an interesting journey. I’m about to switch up to seven reps on Friday this week (three exercises a week is what I’m feeling comfortable with, as more tends to give me a sore elbow).

Anyhow, that’s what’s going on. Cannonball in the cube.

More details to follow.

Writer’s Guide to Bows, Part Four

Posted: February 13, 2013 in Archery, Articles

Last time, I put forward a list of terms and definitions. This time, we’ll bat cleanup and see if I can leave you with a fair understanding of archery, such that you can portray it convincingly in your stories.

If there is one thing that I can stress before the end of this series, it’s that nothing I can say will teach you as much as actually trying out archery. Do yourself a favor and go down to your local archery club. Chances are, they’ll have a bow to rent and an instructor who can give you a few pointers. If you’re not lucky enough to be near a place like that, it’s possible a friend or relative might have a bow you can try.

Failing that, there’s always my article about how to shoot an arrow on this site. CLICK HERE to check that out, as it goes through a step-by-step process of a typical target shot with a bow. If you’re a little handy, you can also build your own bow out of PVC pipe. I have an article about that, as well. CLICK HERE to check it out.

Finally, if you want to see some footage of bows being shot by yours truly, please look in the Videos section of this site, and you’ll find me shooting a variety of different bows in all manner of ways.


Last time, we talked about the usage of bows as both hunting tools and weapons of war. This time, I’ll be discussing terminology. As I wrote this one, it became clear that I’d need at least one more segment for the “thoughts” element of the series, so this one turned into an extended list of terms and ideas.


Riser: The fixed portion in the middle of the bow, where the bow’s grip area is located. On a traditional longbow or flat bow, these grips are often very simple. They may be bare wood or have leather, fur, or cloth wrapping.

Limbs: The bending portions of a bow. If, at rest (unstrung) the limbs are bent away from the direction they’ll be moving in use, this is called a reflex or recurve, recurve being a much more pronounced bend. The reflex is usually applied by steaming wooden limbs and pressing them into a form. It should be noted that any excess weight added to a bow’s limbs decreases efficiency. The highly ornate bow designs that are sometimes seen in fantasy art are unrealistic. Some of those designs would likely not function at all in practice. Functional bows are fairly plain.

Limb Tips: At the point where notches are cut into the limbs, such that the string is retained, you have the limb tip. Because this area is subject to a lot of stress, it sometimes reinforced. Animal horn, antler, or even bone can be used to reinforce this area.

Arrow Shelf: Primitive bows do not have this feature, instead using the archer’s knuckle to hold the arrow steady. If an arrow shelf is cut into the bow, it serves to be a channel where the arrow travels. Arrow shelves serve a few purposes. One is normalizing the point at which the arrow sits, rather than using the hand, which can be variable. The other is to protect the knuckle from the fletching, which can cut skin as it passes at speed.

Nocking Point: In order to fit the arrow to the string (nock the arrow) at the same point each time, archers often affix a small demarcation point at the middle of the string. This is most frequently done by tying a small amount of thread onto the string at the place which will put the arrow at the appropriate orientation with the riser of the bow. An archer can tune the arrow flight by raising or lowering this nocking point. When they find the best position, they can drop a dab of glue onto this string loop to hold it in place.

Brace Height: When a bow is strung, there is a measurable amount of space between the string and the lowest point of the grip. This measurement is called brace height. To string a bow is also called “bracing the bow”. In longbow history, an appropriate brace height was called a “fistmele”. To test this, make the “thumbs up” sign and place the bottom of your fist into the deepest part of the bow grip. If the string is touching or slightly above your extended thumb, you have sufficient brace height. Different bow designs require more or less brace height to shoot their best. In most cases, a recurved design requires a higher brace height than a longbow.


In the first segment, we talked about how bows operate and the materials they’re made from. This time, we’ll dig into how they have been used through history.

The bow as a tool:

As humans, we need tools to get many things done in the world. From the first heavy stone that let us smash open a seed pod and get something to eat, we’ve been coming up with stuff to help us out. The bow occurs in almost all historical cultures, and its most familiar role is that of a hunting tool. After all, we might fight from time to time, but eating is mandatory.

The most primitive cultures found that a spear was successful at hunting game, provided that you could get near enough to throw and hit it. Even we modern folk, with our lack of skill at basic survival, can grasp how to make a spear. Find a stick, sharpen the end or affix something sharp to it, and boom, you’re ready to go. As a tool or a weapon, it’s about as simple and effective as you can get.

Spears, though, have pretty limited range, as well as having a logical limit to the amount of them that can be carried around. Many game animals are wary and difficult to approach. The kind of animal that will actively attack you or fail to run away, such that you can fight it with spear in hand..well, that type of animal is probably not the kind of beast you want to tangle with in order to get through the day.

Enter the bow. With a simple bow, even a very light one, it’s possible to hunt small game like rabbits and ground birds effectively. With a bow of greater power, hunting larger animals becomes viable. The Native Americans used a variety of bow designs, some of them quite intricate, to hunt with. Even an animal as large as a bison could be hunted successfully, if a good strategy was employed.


It occurred to me recently that many people who write historical or fantasy stories could benefit from some information about how bows actually work, as well as how to speak knowledgeably about them. This series of articles is the result.

Part I: How bows work and what they’re made of

A bow is a fairly simple machine. In essence, it is a spring with a string attached.You may also hear them termed “a bent stick and a string,” which is not altogether incorrect for most types of bows.

The bow itself can be broken down into two distinct elements. The first is called the Riser. The riser is the part of the bow where the grip is taken. In most types of bows, this element is rigid, and does not flex during the action of the shot. Some longbows “flex through the handle”, but even those only deflect a few degrees within the span of the bow grip.

The active part of the bow, the element that flexes during the shot, is the limb. There are two limbs, and they are usually symmetrical in resistance and dimension. Some bow designs, specifically the Japanese Yumi, are quite asymmetrical. Modern theory dictates that a bow’s limbs should be within certain tolerances in terms of degree of flexion during the shot, but archaic or primitive designs would often diverge from this.

When a bow is strung, the material of the limbs is put under pressure. This is often called “preload.” As the bow is drawn back, this load increases. With a bow of traditional design, the draw weight should increase at somewhere between two and three pounds per inch. Any limb design has a finite amount of flexibility, however, and as they reach that point, the draw weight will climb rapidly. This is termed “stacking”. Stacking is generally to be avoided, as it tends to put extra stress on both the bow and the archer.


By Patrick M. Tracy

As summer approaches, a familiar refrain rings through the halls of offices, school rooms, and workplaces everywhere. “I need to lose some weight,” says Bill. “I’ve got to cut down on the candy,” says Alice. Maureen looks in the mirror and chides herself about getting back into the gym. These are the things that our resolutions at New Year’s, on a momentous birthday, or just when we can’t fit into our “chubby pants” anymore are made of.


How to Shoot an Arrow:

Posted: April 21, 2012 in Archery, Articles

By Patrick M. Tracy

For thousands of years, the ability to fashion and use a bow and arrow served as one of mankind’s most valuable skills. Whole civilizations were founded upon and preserved by their skill at archery. While our age of technological innovations has given us tools of far greater power and complexity, the allure of archery remains. Physics and geometry can explain the mechanics of an arrow’s flight, but they cannot do more than hint at the wonder of loosing an arrow and watching it fly to the target.

Many people have never held a bow or experienced the enjoyment (and sometimes tribulation) of trying to hit the bull’s eye. Outwardly, it is a very simple motion. One simply draws the bow back and releases, sending the arrow on its way. Beneath the surface, however, a lot is going on. Let me take you through the sequence of events.

1) Take your stance. In target archery, you generally stand perpendicular to the target, such that a line drawn from you to the target would go across the middle of your feet. If you raise the arm that will hold the bow and point your finger, you should be pointing at the target. Depending upon an archer’s body dimensions and flexibility, she may want to rotate her back foot slightly in order to “open” her stance, thus making it more comfortable to get her bow arm into position.


Now we’re down to it. The last of my little articles is here, and we’re ready to talk about raw, plain old forearm strength–the thing that is obvious enough that many athletes and gym rats actually deign to acknowledge its presence.

The mechanism we’re training when we talk about forearm strength is the one that twists the accelerator on a motorcycle, the one that helps us wring out a dish rag. Essentially, we’re moving the hand up or down at the wrist, flexing it or extending it along the line parallel with the radius and ulna.

Gym Exercises:

You’ll see people training the forearms from time to time in the gym. The most straightforward method to do this is to grab either a dumbbell or barbell (for one or two hands at once), and to lay your forearm(s) against your thigh(s) while sitting down. With your palm up, you hang your wrist off the ledge of your knee and let your wrist break downward to begin. From here, curl your wrist upward, then let it fall back. Repeat this move, which is a high-rep move, from twelve to twenty times. It’ll burn. If it doesn’t, get more weight. The curl movement trains the big, meaty area on the underside of your forearm. To train the top of your forearm, you’ll just flip your hand over and bring your knuckles up and down in the same way you forced your palms with the curl. Easy-peasy.

The Stick and the Rope:

The other classic method, known to football coaches and the like, is to find a sturdy bar of some material (wood or hollow aluminum pipe is common), drill a hole in the middle of it, and run a knotted rope through said hole. The rope should be short enough that, when holding the stick at shoulder-height, whatever depends from the rope is held off the ground. What is hung upon the string? In a weight room, it’s frequently a ten pound plate or the like.

For us, we can do something cheaper and easier. Let’s say that you have a canvas shopping bag, for the sake of argument. Put a few food cans in the bag. Tie the rope to the bag’s handles, adjusting for length until you can get it off the ground when you hold the stick at arm’s length. With your palms down, hold the stick as we’ve discussed, and twist in one direction. Do this until you run out of rope, then let it down and go in the other direction when you hit bottom. When you get to the top again, rewind. You can see where this is going. If the number of food cans makes it too easy, put another one in there. Anything that is sufficiently heavy to challenge you will be fine. A six-pack of drinks, a small and well-behaved pet, whatever.

What can you make your stick out of? Well, about a foot of material sufficient to bear up under the strain will be needed, and a thick (1” or better) length of PVC or dowel rod will surely do it. If you happen to have metal pipe and a drill capable of making a hole in said pipe, that’ll do fine, too.

The One with the Dish Rag:

Finally, and most easily, you can do the following. Find a dishrag or small towel, put it in a bucket, and fill the bucket with whatever temperature water you like to put your hands in. Take it either outside on the lawn, or into a shower, or over the tub/sink. Fish the rag out, ring it as dry as you can, then put it back into the bucket. Keep going, ringing the towel and thereby removing the water from the bucket. When the bucket’s basically empty, you’re done. Great for hand and wrist endurance. It’ll make people nearby think you’ve taken leave of your senses, too. To me, that’s a plus. If they ask, tell ‘em you’re learning kung fu. Remember, when you’re wringing, “lead” with each hand equally, so you’re training things symmetrically.

Cinder Blocks Again:

Before I go, I have to put in my vote for my favorite of the weird workout objects, the humble cinder block. You can use ‘em for a whole lot of things, not the least of which is to strengthen your forearms directly. Here’s how: get two cinderblocks, put them at your feet in their “tall” setting. Reach down and grasp them in a hook grip, with your fingers inside the top apeture of each block. Pick the blocks up and stand straight, with them hanging at your hips. Using only the leverage of your wrists and lower arms, force them to cant forward, then hang, then backward. Don’t drop them on your feet. As with anything you do with cinder blocks, it’ll hurt a little. Also, it’ll require a sturdy set of gloves, and protective shoes are also a good idea.

Well, that’s about it. I’ve given unto you, oh Internets, the wisdom I have on this subject. I hope you got some ideas, and that you might use them to get your grip strength up where you want it. I’ll be working on getting some videos together to demonstrate some of these things. Depending upon when you come upon these articles, they may already be available. If not, please have patience. Staging my foolish stunts can, at times, require a certain amount of effort and time.

Thanks for reading!

Grip Training Tutorial, Part Seven

Posted: February 22, 2012 in Articles

This time out, we’ll be talking about what I term “hammer strength”. This is not, however, to be confused with the exercise machines marked under that same name. Those, while interesting in their own right, are not what we’ll be talking about today. No, we’ll be talking about methods to strengthen our wrists and forearms in the axis and functional method that is most easily understood by looking at the rise and fall of a hammer.

Hammer Strength:

First thing, let’s just make the thumbs-up sign with one of our hands (well, I’m typing, so I’ll have to do this with some interleave, but rest assured, I was following along at home). Now, with your wrist in a neutral position, push your wrist downward, such that you’re pushing the thumb outward without actually moving said digit. That’s the extension phase of this movement. From there, bring your wrist back, beyond neutral and to its fullest upward flex, such that your thumb comes nearer to you. That’s the movement. It can be trained by moving the wrist willfully through this arc, or by holding the wrist static under load going one way or another.

What is involved here? Primarily, there’s the tendon and ligament strength of the wrist itself, the large muscle of the forearm, and the biceps brachii on the upper portion of the forearm. This is the sort of movement that manual laborers do, and the reason that people who chop down trees, swing a pick axe, or dig ditches for a living are not to be trifled with.

It may come as a shock, but the most straightforward way to build hammer strength is…with a hammer. Depending upon your initial strength level, the size and weight of the hammer can vary. If your wrists aren’t yet made of whipcord and spring steel, perhaps a 16 ounce framing hammer with a long handle will suffice. A step up from there would be a mini-sledge, as these often weigh around 4 pounds. Full length sledgehammers are a great way to go, especially if you’d like to work on generalized strength while training your grip and wrists. Full sledges are available as light as 6 pounds and as heavy as 24, without going into massive, loadable sledges that are available from places like Your “hammer” of choice doesn’t have to be a hammer at all. As long as it’s heavy and somewhat long, and you can grip it and hit with it, you’re good to go. Maces, splitting mauls, baseball bats, clubs, sturdy tree branches, and the like can all be used in this way. Some are just less robust than others.

As with any long-axis, weighted object, you can “choke up” on your hammer at the beginning, and gradually add to the dynamic load by moving outward to the end of the handle. If a sledge gets too easy using both hands, try just one, and you’ll find that the challenge comes right back.

The easiest way to train with a hammer is to hit stuff with it. Bereft of a job that requires driving lots of spikes into rail ties or the like, we’ll want a springy, tough medium to hit. Old truck tires are great for this, but you could swing away and hit anything that’ll blunt the force of your swing and not blow into shards, and you’ll be fine. Remember to swing while “leading” with both hands, to give you a symmetrical load. You can also swing from various angles, if your target will stand this. Please don’t hit your foot or lower leg, and think seriously about steel toed boots to do any ground-based hammer bashing.

Swinging a hammer is not the only way to go. A slower, more controlled movement can also yield dividends. This is often referred to as “levering” with a hammer. To do this, take a comfortable grip on a full sledge and hold it, straight up, at arm’s length. Now, let the hammer come backward under muscular tension until it touches your forehead. The object here is not to move your upper arm or let your elbow “break” upward during the movement. This should be all wrist, if possible. Only grab with the whole arm if you’re about to lose control of the hammer. At the touch, drive the hammer back to being perpendicular to the floor, steady it, and go again.

At the beginning, if you’re a little scared that you’ll give yourself a shiner, choke way up on the handle, so that the hammer head won’t reach to anywhere near your face. You can work up to longer lever arms and heavier hammer heads as you get more confident. What about the other direction, you ask? You can to the very same movement, except moving the hammer head outward beyond your wrist, to the extent that is a comfortable extension, and bring it back to perpendicular with the ground in the same way. You may find that you’re not as strong this way, as a smaller muscular complex drives this action.

Other Ways to Train:

One of the exercises you may see in the gym from time to time is to do a biceps curl with the wrist in the neutral position. This, the Hammer Curl, is a good exercise for the flexing phase of the hammer movement, and will certainly pack beef onto the top of your forearm. It is possible to train, indirectly at any rate, the extension phase of this movement by doing dumbbell triceps extensions, as well. These, however, are probably not as efficient at targeting the wrists and forearms directly as using a sledge.

Exercising with sandbags or lifting odd objects like stones will work the muscles and connective tissues in the wrist, as will work that involves ropes. As with many of these things, there’s a crossover, and any one exercise will generally target multiple elements.

What’s It Do?

If there’s anything that this specific measure will allow you to do, it’s open jars, bend or rip objects, and hang onto things at odd, challenging angles. Often, we think our wrists are as strong as they need to be, but I will submit that I was surprised and disappointed the first time I tried the reverse bend or “Terminator” bend of a nail. There’s a lot that traditional gym exercises do not do. Training your wrist to work against extreme loads is certainly one of them.

Next time, we’ll be finishing up with good, old fashioned forearm strength.

Grip Training Tutorial, Part Six

Posted: February 20, 2012 in Articles

Last time, we finished up with our look at hand strength. But what’s the use of a good grip, if our wrists and forearms won’t bear up under the strain? Although there are various phases and measures of strength in our lower arm and hand complex, none of them operate alone. Everything we do will, to some degree, effect the whole system. That said, my goal here is to provide an exhaustive and understandable series of exercises, such that all the mechanisms at play can be tested and improved. Enough dithering, let’s get back to it.

Wrist Rotation Training:

The human wrist is a complex little monster. There’s all sorts of things going on in there. Thus, there are a few different ways to go at training the wrist. Now, more than a few of your traditional gym exercises, and certainly many “work” tasks will stress our wrists, but we can go beyond that and into the realm of specific wrist training.

What we’re discussing here, the wrist rotation, is easily understood. It’s the thumbs up, thumbs down movement. The two bones of our forearms are rotating from the elbow through the wrist, and the small bones of the wrist itself (as well as the hand beyond) are just along for the ride. At least, until there’s a load on the movement. Then, the dynamic part of the movement (creating the power), is happening in the forearm, and across the radius and ulna bones. The static element is in the wrist itself, and the hand, where the hand must maintain grip (we’ve been through that already), and the wrist can’t cave in and fail to support the action.

The most familiar movement along these lines is the turning of a screwdriver or a door knob. The most commonly done exercises in the gym that target this area (supination and pronation of the wrist) are the supinating biceps curl, where the dumbbell rotates from thumb-up to thumb-out position during the movement, and the rope triceps pushdown, where one grasps a rope with knots on the end and extends the arm while flaring the hands outward from thumbs-up to thumbs-in position. Now, neither of these movements is specifically targeting our rotational strength on purpose. No, they’re rotating the wrists for the purpose of putting additional torsional stress on the big muscles upstream, the biceps and triceps. Nevertheless, they do give us something to consider, and a possible rationale to do the much-maligned “vanity” exercises.

It takes a little bit of imagination to figure out how best to stimulate this movement with simple and inexpensive household items, but I have a few thoughts for you. This particular entry will almost have to be backstopped with a video at some point, so be on the lookout for said video, when I have the time and energy to make it.

A Trick with a Towel:

The simplest way to train wrist rotation is to find a towel that is thin enough for you to easily grasp the gathered ends of said cloth when it’s folded over a railing of some kind. Once a suitable towel can be found (it should be tough terrycloth, nothing that might rip if put under pressure), find a STURDY railing or bar that is in a solid emplacement, and, with the towel rolled up in a fairly tight bundle, fold it in half around the railing. Grasp both ends, with one hand grabbing it around the end. Sort of like the end of the towel were a door knob, if you catch my drift. Now, use both hands to twist the towel until it is taut and difficult to twist any further in that direction. Holding the towel with the hand you want to train, twist the towel further, hold for a few seconds, then go back to your initial position. Keep doing this until your forearm and wrist start to really burn. Now switch hands, turn the towel in the opposite direction, and train the other wrist. You’ll want to do both wrists, and in both directions. It’s quite possible that your off hand will fatigue more quickly, and that you will find you have more strength twisting in one direction than the other. The wrist isn’t symmetrical, and we often have significant disparities between our favored and clumsy hands.

It will probably take no more than three turns through our rotations and hands before we’re tired. This one, since we have to hold hard on the towel, is also going to give us some grip benefits. Don’t be surprised if the towel is a little tougher on your hands than you would have thought possible. If it gets easy, get a thicker towel, and give it more twists to preload it with more resistance.

The Bendy Stick:

If we’re willing to look around the house a bit, or perhaps buy something of low cost, we can do things another way. The idea here is to flex a rod or pipe that will deform and then resume its prior shape. So…

Find a pipe or bendable stick/rod, hold it at arm’s length in front of you, at about chest level. Your hands should be spread as far as you’re comfortable with initially. This will give you the most leverage on the stick in question.

There are two hand alignments possible with this one, palms up and palms down. With palms up, we’ll bend the rod by twisting both wrists from thumbs-out to thumbs-up, resisting the temptation to bring the stick inward. This is just wrists, not chest and shoulders. If you can’t budge the stick without pulling the stick toward you, find something more pliable.

The idea is that you bend the stick as far as you can (or should, if it has some limit of elasticity), then ease it back to straight, then do it again. This can, and should be done with both the palms up and palms down for full coverage.

A set of stick-bends goes until you either can’t bend the stick, or have a lot of blood rushing through your forearms and wrists, and find it uncomfortable to go on. It probably will only take a few times through for most people to tucker themselves out on this one.

Ideas for things that you might use as bendy sticks include fiberglass driveway marker rods and lengths of PVC plumbing pipe. Remember that the closer you grip the stick (distance between your hands), the higher its stiffness will be, so you have a certain level of variability for any given stick. A method for increasing the challenge of a given stick would be to start at a particular distance between your hands, and come in a half an inch every few sessions.

Although common sense would dictate that certain materials (most wood, some plastic, anything that might shatter and put an eye out), aren’t suited to being your stick for this exercise, I will mention it here anyway. If you have ANY reservations about the structural soundness of the stick you’re using, please don’t use it. PVC, for instance, is literally a few dollars for ten feet of the stuff. There’s no reason to put yourself in harm’s way.

A Metronome Made of Hammers:

A final thought on this one is to hold a hammer out at arm’s length, then move it back and forth on the axis, like the arm of a metronome. In other words, going from thumbs-in to thumbs-up to thumbs-out, to whatever level of flexibility is comfortable to you. The heavier the hammer’s head, the harder things get. The longer the handle, the more leverage and effective strain. With a long handed hammer or mini-sledge, you can gradually increase your rotational strength from, “honey, can you open this pickle jar,” to, “I don’t really need that oil filter wrench.”

Next time, we’ll talk about “hammer style” wrist training.