HMA: Strength Training and Rapier

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?

16 comments to HMA: Strength Training and Rapier

  • Dante di Pietro

    Fwiw, I don’t *just* fence. I also do a lot of exercise outside of practice because practice isn’t something I do 15-20 hours a week like with school sports. If fencing practice were 3-4 hours a day, 6 days a week, supplementing might be unnecessary. We did conditioning for wrestling, but that was for essentially 2 minute sprints that weren’t just with legs.

    • Ruairc

      I should perhaps have been more specific. When in the past I have asked you about strength training, your response has consistently amounted to “fence more. You’ll get stronger.”

      Perhaps the thrust of that was meant to be “you’re not spending enough hours fencing for strength training to be worthwhile; you’ll make greater gains sword-in-hand”, but you never really seemed to elaborate in that direction.

      I can’t think of any combative sport that avoids the weight room entirely.

      • Dante di Pietro

        We did very, very little weightlifting for wrestling, but that’s because we were getting full body workouts on a daily basis and we didn’t want to add mass.

        • Ruairc

          Your experiences differ from my observation of HS wrestling. But whatever.

          Fencing. Strength training? The answer looks like “yes”. How?

          • Dante di Pietro

            Certainly not in season. I’m not sure I’d have had any energy left for it, but considering that I was absurdly strong at that point, I don’t know that it mattered or would have helped.

            In any case, yes. How? I tend to prefer the “doing a lot” method for endurance as well, but that’s because I tend to incorporate the sport itself as the strength training. If I wanted to have arm strength, I would hold my sword in guard and cavazione 100 times in either direction a couple times a day. Leg strength, 100+ lunges a day, etc., to make the training also a drill. I have nothing but anecdote defending that.

  • Wistric

    First, how long are your classes?

    Second, ye olde Get Shorty quote applies: “Don’t say more than you have to, and even then not if you can avoid it.” People don’t process words well (See: that old wives tale/principle of “You retain X of what you hear…”). Introduce concepts one at a time. “This is the lunge. Your hand goes, then your foot goes.” Once they understand that and can do that, and have started to feel it in their body, add whatever your next nuance is.

    For example, “Your foot goes one foot-length” Let them do that for a little bit, then ask them why that’s the best policy. Have them experience with lunging shorter and lunging longer and what the effects are. If you just tell them the answer, some of it might sink in. If you make them think about it, though, more will sink in (and they’ll develop the skills for figuring it out again if they forget).

    Coach Miller, at UNC, had a “monkey see, monkey do” thing which, without saying a word, led the student through assuming a good guard, checking the guard, advancing smoothly, and retreating smoothly. I think you’ve seen it done (that time one of his students showed up to practice). It’s an interesting didactic tool. No idea if it’s applicable to your needs, but it was an interesting demonstration of how much can be taught without a word.

    • Ruairc

      Classes are ostensibly an hour, but usually students stick around for another hour after that. Hour-long classes can’t include warming up plus all of meaningful strength training, solo work, and pair work, so if I wanted to work it in, it’d have to be on some kind of rotation. Or I’d have to increase the length of the classes.

      I do try to keep to stepwise instruction, adding as few details as possible and check that they’re at least understood (if not internalized) before moving onto the next ones. I’ve run into difficulty with the “try this ‘wrong’ thing. What happens?” approach, because 1, if they do the wrong thing but compensate by doing other things wrong, they might not notice what’s wrong; 2, if they have prior experience in something else (strip fencing), it may not feel wrong; and 3, if they haven’t developed much in the way of proprioceptive skills, they often can’t tell that something’s wrong regardless. This is particularly true when the consequences of wrongness only come about in sparring situations, and then, only against opposition sufficiently skilled to exploit the error. (This is a thing I could do; but if they haven’t even made the “right” thing automatic, there will be so many errors to exploit and so many things to correct that I don’t see it being a positive or useful experience.)

      I do encourage fencers, once they’ve got the basics, to start experimenting, and if they find something that feels more right or seems to work better, to try it out and mention it to me. This is partly because everyone-is-a-special-snowflake-with-slightly-different-proportions, partly to encourage them to listen to proprioceptive information, and partly because of a central tenet of our training (something I’ll probably write about soon) is to continue questioning and honing our understanding of the system.

      A word-less class could be interesting. Both student and instructor would have to pay more attention and think harder.

      I think it may help if I impose some strict limit to my verbosity. 30 seconds, or whatever. I’ll fail a lot to start, but it force me to think about shaving words, and will help me differentiate between the situations where I meet my goal (repeat) and where I don’t (avoid).

  • Wistric

    Classes are ostensibly an hour, but usually students stick around for another hour after that. Hour-long classes can’t include warming up plus all of meaningful strength training, solo work, and pair work, so if I wanted to work it in, it’d have to be on some kind of rotation. Or I’d have to increase the length of the classes.

    Yeah, an hour just isn’t time to work in everything. Can you do the unofficial half hour of cardio/strength training before class (like Kberg did)? There’s still value in having warmups during class, even if it’s just five or ten minutes, to avoid injury.

    • Ruairc

      Might be a thing, especially if my plans to move the location work out. That would give us all another 20-30 minutes of time.

      Another point that came up yesterday: when fencers are too fatigued to execute movement patterns correctly, there’s little point to continuing (since you’ll be learning the wrong thing). Rather than call it a day, we can do some strength training activities.

  • Wistric

    1, if they do the wrong thing but compensate by doing other things wrong, they might not notice what’s wrong; 2, if they have prior experience in something else (strip fencing), it may not feel wrong; and 3, if they haven’t developed much in the way of proprioceptive skills, they often can’t tell that something’s wrong regardless

    Do you have examples?

    • Ruairc

      Sure. Consider a lunge:

      1. One common example is the lead foot moving or turning to the inside during the lunge to compensate for poor balance, itself a result of an unengaged core, too little or too much anterior pelvic tilt, poor activation of hip stabilizers, or some combination.
      2. A strip fencer’s going to like a deep lunge with a big step and a finish with the center of gravity pulled back rather than over the lead foot.
      3. Lead knee tweaking in, using the upper traps and neck to hold the sword, pushing the chest up through the lumbar spine, rounding the shoulders … almost anything requiring a finer degree of control and awareness than “look kinda like this”. A big one here is not leaning forward enough. Human nature is opposed to the 22.5ish-degree lean (because that’s the literal tipping point, and your brain doesn’t want you to fall over) required by the historical lunge.

  • Blake Kirk

    A couple of points: I’m 60+ years old, with bilateral osteoarthritis of the feet, ankles, and knees. I fence because my undercarriage can’t support the additional weight of armor for SCA heavy fighting.

    That having been said, I also try to exercise daily, either with a resistance exercise to build strength, or an aerobic exercise for endurance. I rather like the rowing machine because it’s a whole-body exercise and does wonders for your grip and wrist strength. Am a bit out of shape at the moment because I had to take 7 months off to do chemo for leukemia, and I’m still a bit behind because I picked up a couple of nasty secondary issues due to a compromised immune system. But I and my doctors are now dealing with those, and I’m going to get better.

  • Terasu

    One thing I have considered is our lack of formality when we train people in the SCA. I come form a formal Dojo with a Sensei. Relationships are much different. There is more responsibility and authority placed on the Sensei because of the culture. You are also paying for their expertise and teaching time, this is how they make a living. When it comes to the SCA, we are volunteers often being taught by self taught or informally taught students. Expertise is much more rare and that information is not handed out as often. It is not a formal relationship so both “teacher”, in our case it is often Provost or Free Scholar, and student can walk away at any time with no more obligations or responsibility. I feel the American culture highly promotes Freedom and independence. It is noticeable through the SCA as people want to become better but dislike having authorities above them. They want an equal voice and this does not mesh well in the teacher/student relationship. There has to be a level of blind obedience and trust in the teacher and if the teacher has not earned this level of respect, through lack of accomplishments, skill, or behavior, it will not be given.

    When I competed in Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo do, and later free style competition, I was at the dojo five days a week. I consistently did exercises before and after class. My Sensei’s made sure I was building the correct muscle development to be successful. It was what I was paying them for. I was able to retain the knowledge they were giving me through the constant contact we had with each other. If I were going to him once or even twice a week, retaining knowledge would have been much harder and my progression much slower. Honestly, I would not have been able to compete.

    So, for our practices here in Stierbach, I expect our “students” to exercise on their own to advance their progression. I give homework assignments they should be doing during the week to advance their body. While we are at practice, we work on technique and application of techniques. If they don’t do the exercising then they cannot properly do the techniques and get the disapproving look from the “teachers”. If they continue not to do the exercising and homework, the “teacher” moves on to people who want to improve until the less diligent student turns around. We don’t have a lot of time during the week and “teachers” are giving up their time from improving themselves to help others at practice. This should not be taken lightly.

    One thing I have noticed is a relative time frame of improvement in archery and rapier. One practice a week will maintain skill with limited athletic ability. Don’t expect improvement. Two practices a week will put you above the standard practitioner and place you on a better path of understanding, provided you are getting proper instruction. Three practices a week gives you a strong ability for improvement, especially if you are at different practices and sparring against different people. You are able to retain much more knowledge and consistently work on improving on techniques that are fresh in your mind. I, personally, use the first two practices to work on technique and form while most others tend to just spar. The final practice I use to apply the techniques I have been working on through maximum efficiency. This is the only day where I am actually “sparring”. The previous practices I am working on specific techniques or strategies until I get them to an acceptable level. During the week, I have my own work outs designed to improve recovery, strength, stamina, and speed. I avoid doing those at practices because they take time away from the things I wish to work on there.

    • Ruairc

      The classes I’m running align much more strongly with the dojo model than the SCA model (although I’m not being paid, and my mastery is still developing), so that seems like a more appropriate direction to head in.

      One notable constraint is that the organization I’m teaching through doesn’t yet have a dedicated indoor space; we’re still meeting at parks and community centers. There’s a level of formality that can’t be achieved with this paradigm.

      I’m confident that we’ll find such a space eventually, and already have plans to make some significant changes when that happens.

  • Tibbie Crosier

    Terasu, I believe that the way the SCA partially replicates the sensei-student relationship is through the peer-associate or don-cadet system, based on medieval European models of the knight-squire and master-apprentice relationships. Knights, in particular, can and do demand unquestioning obedience from squires. Associates sometimes swear fealty to peers. In return for instructing the associate or cadet, the peer or don usually receives service to lighten his own burdens. Also, some knights run private, nonofficial practices in addition to local SCA practices.

    Atlantian rapier, of course, does not use this system for the most part. Perhaps this is the cause of the informality that you perceive?

    • Terasu

      To a degree. I feel that if anyone is going to teach someone a fighting art, they have taken on the responsibility of that student’s actions. This should adhere to all teachers, not just Knights. The informal way of teaching within rapier/cut and thrust actually slows down the student’s progress. I have recently been asked by someone to teach them the katana for Cut and Thrust. I gave that person some time to think about what he was asking and told him my demands should he accept this new relationship. He is to take on a Japanese persona when using the katana in C&T. He will adhere to the strict training I expect from him while he learns. His actions reflect upon me so he will act in a manner that I approve of. His weapons and garb will appear well taken care of and worn with pride. These are some examples and if he cannot or will not follow these guidelines, then we will end our relationship as teacher and student. These were the things I learned as a student and where I barely feel qualified to teach, I will do the honor of passing on the lessons my Sensei taught me. But, it is very rare that I take on a personal student.

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