Living the Creed: Assassin Training

First off: I’m aware there’s something inherently douchey about shirtless post-workout mirror selfies. This, however, is for science. As I design and refine video game based workouts, I will also practice what I preach and test them out on myself. Currently, my physique would be best described as scrawny: not a lot of fat, but not a lot of muscle, either. The goal of assassin training is not to bulk up, but to add definition.

Regardless of your opinion of the Assassin’s Creed franchise overall (I think it’s fairly middling), two things about the games are great: their historical fidelity and how cool it is to play a character who can do crazy parkour stuff. Yesterday I dug a little more into the real historical context of the story. Today I’ll talk about some real-life assassin training.

Designing the Workout

My goal here is to create something very basic inspired by the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed. It would be really cool to do crazy freerunning shenanigans like the assassins in the game, but this won’t get you there. Instead, I want to make something the average gamer could do to start developing the attributes of an assassin.

I’m by no means a fitness expert and won’t claim what I come up with is the best workout for anybody. For me, it’s about aesthetic. It’s totally irrational, but I’m more excited about going to the gym and more likely to stick to it long-term if I couch it in aesthetically pleasing terms like “assassin training”.

What makes an assassin? Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. They rely on swift strikes and retreats to overcome brute strength. That’s probably why they appeal to me. As an ectomorph, trying to outmuscle anyone is a losing battle.

Not that strength isn’t important. An assassin would have to be incredibly strong, but it’s a different kind of strength than we usually think of. Speed is in fact a factor of strength: striking someone swiftly with a hidden blade is tricep strength applied in an explosive burst.

There’s an interesting dichotomy in the strengths an assassin needs, actually. Explosive strength is key in battle, as their fighting style relies on both precise strikes to end the fight quickly and quick dodges to avoid damage.

Out of combat, they’re all about endurance. Well, mostly about endurance. Leaping between buildings or running up a wall also relies on explosive strength. These feats are impressive, but perhaps more important is the ability to keep running or to hold a position for long periods of time. The games skip over this because it would not be engaging gameplay, but in real life, soldiers wouldn’t give up the search after twenty seconds and assassination targets don’t always present themselves in the right place at the right time. An assassin may well find himself hanging from a windowsill or crouching on a rooftop for extended periods, patiently ignoring the burn in his muscles until it is time to act.

To sum up, assassin training should focus on explosive bursts of strength plus endurance conditioning.

The Split

For the reasons specified above, I think each workout should contain both strength and endurance training. At the most basic level, one exercise for each. The workouts will be broken up by muscle group. Each day should focus on one part of the body, incorporating one exercise for explosive strength and one for endurance.

On top of that, you should do some kind of  core every day. You probably don’t notice how often you use your core, but it’s aptly named: your core muscles are used for basically everything. Hiking takes core. Jumping takes core. Punching, if you’re doing it right, takes core. Increase your core strength and you increase your ability to do just about everything.

  • Chest + triceps: strength, endurance,  core
  • Back + biceps: strength, endurance, core
  • Lower body: strength, endurance,  core
  • Shoulders + traps: strength, endurance, core

If you’re comfortable in the gym already, you can probably stop reading right here and build your own workout based on that formula. Regardless of what anyone tells you, any specific workout is just an arbitrary collection of exercises they like to do. As long as your working the same muscles, the outcome is roughly the same (except at the highest levels such as Olympic competition where every fraction of a percent matters–but if that’s where you’re at, why are you reading this, anyway?).

As for my specific routine, my goal is to choose exercises that are easy for beginners and rely mostly on body weight. This isn’t some crossfit purist idea about how free exercises are inherently superior to machines. I don’t think there’s anything to that. Again, it’s about aesthetic. Assassins in 12th-century Jerusalem wouldn’t have access to modern gym equipment, so doing free exercises helps me maintain the immersion. That said, I do have a weird love for the lateral pull-down machine, so I break my own rule when it comes to that.

A nice bonus is if you are a complete beginner and don’t know if you want to commit to a gym membership yet, you might be able to complete the workout without one. The main things you’ll need are something to serve as a pull-up bar which you are absolutely sure can bear your weight and a box or other platform you can jump up onto. Playgrounds have both of these things in spades, but if you don’t have kids to bring with you, I’d probably only use that option at times you’re sure it’ll be abandoned (and school playgrounds are off-limits all the time forever).

Let’s Train

The practical application of the chest and triceps is pushing things. This includes striking with a fist or a knife, which is just pushing really hard and fast. As the name suggests, the push-up is one of the simplest and most effective workouts for building this kind of strength. For most exercises, I just stick to eight sets to failure. Do as many push-ups as you can, then rest, then do that seven more times. As you get stronger and can do more push-ups, your workout automatically gets more difficult, without you having to track a bunch of different numbers. Just remember how many reps you did last time and try to do more this time. For endurance, hold a plank until failure four times, then roll over and do four sets of sit-ups or crunches to failure, and you’re done!

Your back and biceps are key for hanging from a ledge or pulling you up over one. Mimic this activity with a pull-up bar, again performing eight sets to failure. As I mentioned earlier, I’m also partial to the lateral pull-down machine, so if you’re not a purist you can try that instead. For endurance, pull yourself up (or pull the lateral bar down) and just hold yourself there as long as you can, for four sets. Since you’re already on the bar, knock out your core with four sets of hanging leg raises.

If you get bored easy, you might want to mix it up for your shoulders and traps workout. For convenience, though, you can just repeat what you did for back and biceps with a different grip. Work your back and biceps by pulling yourself up with your palms facing you in a narrower grip, and work your shoulders and traps by pulling yourself up with palms facing out in a wide grip. Doesn’t sound like it would make much difference, but try it yourself and see. Again, get your money’s worth out of the bar and do hanging leg raises for core.

Now for everyone’s favorite: leg day. The main workout will be eight sets to failure of box jumps. Put a box or other elevated platform in front of you. Jump on it, then hop back off. You can very easily hurt yourself with this if you’re not careful, so start with a lower height than you think you can manage. For endurance–and fair warning, you will hate me for this–do an air squat so your thighs are parallel with the floor. Hold it there until you just can’t take the burn any longer, then do that three more time. Then collapse to the sweet, merciful ground, take a moment to writhe in agony, and knock out four sets of crunches.

This is obviously a very simple workout. If you’re just starting out, though, the best workout you can do is literally anything, so don’t over complicate it.

If you are ready for the next level, the first thing I would add is conditioning in the form of burpees and the like, as well as running, both jogging and sprinting.

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