HMA: Strength Training and Rapier   16 comments

It’s been observed before that rapier combat in the SCA, featuring minimal armor and positive-pressure calibration, may appear to be less physically demanding than “heavy” combat, and may suggest to the uninformed that less physical training is necessary for success. Popular culture may have ensconced similar memes in the public at large, vis-a-vis strip fencers and, say, football players.

This is absurd, of course; modern Olympians, certainly, are consummate athletes. On the historical side, it takes significant strength just to hold a rapier properly, stand in a reasonable guard, and perform footwork for a minute straight. It takes even more strength (and flexibility, and control) to perform Italian fencing with any consistency. This should be absolutely no surprise to anyone; the people who used this stuff in life-or-death situations were, by modern standards, paragons of fitness, and used their fitness to their advantage.

It follows that strength training is not only beneficial, but necessary, just to grasp the rudiments of historical fencing. And if we want to achieve excellence? Randy Packer’s observations, here, are difficult to rebut.

Not If, Not What, but How

Dante’s approach is “do lots of fencing, especially when you’re tired, and you’ll get stronger”. Which is true, but inefficient, and can lead to developing and programming compensatory patterns. The best way to get stronger is to do exercises that specifically increase strength; the same goes for stability, power, etc.

Those exercises are not difficult to identify, particularly with the knowledge and resources that I presently have available. What’s difficult is implementation.

I have unique freedom in that I’m running my own classes now, with a core of dedicated students. Eastern MA dojos often have a block of strength training before the main lesson. That’s certainly an appealing structure.

But some of my fencers have (quite rightly!) pointed out that they do strength training on their own time, and would like class time to include as much fencing instruction as possible, rather than losing time to squats and box jumps and the like that they can do on gym day. Fitness-stuff could also be a turn-off to newcomers if not very carefully managed, as I don’t yet have the skills to make it approachable. (I can barely convince newcomers that, yes, with time and effort, they CAN build the strength necessary just to stand in guard.)

There are counterpoints: performing exercises before class serves as an excellent way to prime the right muscles (absolutely key in historical fencing), and allows students to get feedback and corrections. Also, there’s the very elemental fact that, if you have to do strength training in class, it WILL get done, and fencers with less discipline or inclination to train outside of class won’t fall behind.


Also, Cardio

Catherine made an observation yesterday. After going dancing for the first time in years, she’s confident that an evening of dance is more exhausting than an evening of rapier.

Makes sense. Rapier fighting is interval training – short periods of intense parrying and attacking followed by rest periods after measure is broken or when fighters reset. Dancing is continuous activity for several minutes.

(Of course, this explains Pennsic. SCAdians, Atlantian or not, aren’t used to going full-bore for minutes on end (never mind in Pennsylvania summer heat), and when they get tired, they lose control. And then people get hurt. And then holds get called, and battles consist more of waiting than fighting, and Ruairc gets cranky and swears off Pennsic forever.)

Nonetheless, we can change this, and we should.

The first fix is completely on me as the instructor. Less talking, more stabbing. Right now I’m not confident enough, or experienced enough, in my teaching to know exactly what to say. I’m also very enthusiastic. So I tend to say everything that comes to mind, and answer all questions more thoroughly than necessary. That needs to stop. Enthusiasm is a good thing, but it needs to bleed through without compromising learning.

The next fix involves restructuring my practice paradigms. The vast majority of drills can be done at a lively pace. Solo drills can be done with continuous movement (when tired, switch hands) for several minutes on end. Partner drills can work the same way (salute, come into guard. Don’t break guard until you’ve done 20 reps, and saluted again to end the drill). Even sparring can be kept fast by adding time limits.

It’ll be tricky to find the line between fast, accurate, technical fencing and rushed slop, particularly with beginners. But I feel the gains to be had in control and stamina are too great to ignore.

So … what else can be done?

Posted August 4, 2015 by Ruairc in Italian Rapier, Musings

16 responses to HMA: Strength Training and Rapier

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