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Guest Column: Two Approaches to Training For Swordsmanship

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By Dakao Do


This article will briefly examine some attributes and training approaches beneficial to training for swordsmanship — primarily non-lethal, unarmored tournament fighting with simulated weapons. “Unarmored” is herein defined as using a reasonable minimum of protective sporting gear to protect against excessive blunt trauma. Unarmed fighting will also be considered as it relates to wrestling in armed fighting.

In general, fighting is a competitive physical activity, incorporating several factors. A well-balanced fighter will identify and address his specific strengths and weaknesses, as well as his preferred style of learning and adaptation. Fight training, as with any athletic endeavor, is highly task-specific. Setting clear and focused goals is essential to maximizing the benefits of training.

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) students primarily focus on weapon skills, but also with a strong interest in medieval wrestling techniques both armed and unarmed. Muscle-powered weapons are primarily force lenses — purpose-specific tools that both magnify and focus the user’s force via a lever arm into a smaller impact area (whether a point or an edge). A weapon thus enables the user to inflict more harm for less effort. Compared to unarmed fighting, fighting with a weapon proportionally requires less power generation to achieve a mortal wound. This indirectly has the effect of increasing the relative importance of other fighting attributes.
A starting point for valued fighting attributes might look like this, for armed combat:

  • Attitude
  • Skill
  • Speed
  • Strength

Additionally, these further attributes can also contribute to fighting performance:

  • Stamina
  • Flexibility
  • Nutrition

All of these attributes are highly context-specific and situational. A profitable focus on attitude or strength in unarmed fighting may give short shrift to skill and speed when considering unarmored weapon fighting. A strong emphasis on skill and speed may in turn disastrously neglect strength in armored combat with weapons.

Also, attributes often have complex interactions with each other. Strength and flexibility are required to move a weapon with speed and skill — the proper attribute balance depends on the fighter and his weapon of choice.

Strength, stamina, and flexibility all matter greatly in unarmed combat, where the fighter does not enjoy the benefit of any tools to magnify and focus his strength; here, attributes which enhance the fighter’s body all benefit his fighting performance. Skill is still very important.

Attitude is often known by other terms and concepts, such as having a proper warrior’s spirit. In many forms of fighting (e.g. street fights unarmed or with common weapons such as clubs or knives), a fighter with sufficient aggression can overwhelm a faster, more skilled, experienced, fit, and strong opponent by virtue of never permitting the opponent the opportunity to act.

In unarmed fighting, the relative difficulty of accomplishing a single, instantly incapacitating blow means that an aggressive fighter can take a reasonable, calculated gamble in dodging, blocking, absorbing, or riding his opponent’s blows while launching his own strikes. This same level of aggression becomes reckless when faced with e.g. a sharp sword, due to the increased risk of incapacitating injury as well as the additional speed required to traverse the increased effective range of the weapon.

Flexibility improves a fighter’s striking and fitness. A more flexible fighter will reach or step farther with ease. As well, greater joint flexibility promotes greater body range of motion, and helps protect against injury by mitigating the overextension of joints beyond what they can handle. For high-intensity activities requiring explosive power and movement, it’s best to stimulate circulation and warm up the joints prior to the primary workout with light, low-impact exercises. Serious stretching (whether dynamic or static) yields the greatest benefits and avoids stretching injuries when the body and joints are warmed up. Stretching has the effect of temporarily increasing the relaxation and slack in your connective tissues. While this promotes greater flexibility, it also decreases the springiness of your movements in the short term — yet another reason to stretch at the end of a workout.

Nutrition is absolutely vital for proper fueling and healing or recovery in the course of a rigorous training regimen. Proper nutrition replenishes the body’s energy reserves, permitting shorter rest periods between optimal intensity training sessions. Every training session that intensely exercises the body puts wear and tear on the body — microscopic tears and injuries in the muscles and tissues — which then requires protein and other nutrients to rebuild. While younger or more occasional martial artists or fencers may not perceive a physiological need for attention to nutrition, dedicated long-term practitioners will need to be aware of this attribute or else suffer higher fatigue and/or rates of injury in training.

Skill is an attribute a martial artist or fencer can spend a lifetime developing, yet never be satisfied. Judgment, timing, distance, footwork, lines of attack, and control of the fight are all skills each worthy of their own in-depth discussion. Bladework techniques alone make up the bulk of most medieval fighting instructional treatises.

Fighting techniques are often taught and best learned in slow and partial movement progressions that build complex actions from simple partial actions. However, actual fighting (whether in sport competitions or actual mortal combat) is neither slow nor a progression of step-by-step actions. Therefore a good training regimen will incorporate skill progressions that include incremental speed increases — always gauged to be as fast as possible while still permitting good control and precision skill training.

A well-balanced fighter’s training regimen should incorporate all the elements above, without neglecting any attribute. However, the particular balance of attributes in training is otherwise up to the individual fighter’s, fencer’s, or martial artist’s goals and interests.

A recreational fencer with an interest in history and no interest in tournament fighting might focus primarily on skill, and distantly on speed and flexibility. A tournament-focused fighter who is fast and prefers closing with his opponents may focus more on attitude and strength for wrestling at the sword, with secondary training in skill and speed to protect himself while closing with his opponents. In contrast, a lighter fencer who is interested in minimizing hits received may instead focus on skill and speed, with just enough strength to fence quickly and firmly cover against hits received.

Generalities aside, we will now design sample training regimens for two case studies: a typical HEMA tournament fencer, and a duelist training hypothetically for actual swordsmanship in a ritualized fight to the death (i.e. a medieval judicial duel). Bear in mind that another coach may well design substantially different regimens for these two cases, depending on the coach’s perception of the participants’ abilities and goals.

The tournament fencer requires excellent fitness conditioning and a solid skill foundation to put that fitness into action repeatedly. He wants to optimize his fencing performance for six to eight 3-minute fencing rounds in a tournament event (or whatever tournament format he’s expecting). The fencer needs good basic strength to hold stances without tiring and firmly against an opponent’s strikes. He also wants explosive strength for dynamic footwork and bladework. His an/aerobic endurance must last for each 3-minute round, though most tournament rounds are interrupted by pauses for the judges to resolve scoring. In such an environment, high-intensity interval training will most closely approximate the actual tournament conditions of extremely brief high-performance output periods alternating with very brief rest periods.

The fencer will want to train only as many skills and techniques as he is able to learn and use reflexively at full speed under intense fighting pressure. Additional skills are good to know for reference, and for future skill development. However, attempting to use too many skills at once when they have not each been fully learned and internalized will only distract and degrade current fighting performance. Furthermore, physical performance is highly task-specific, so fitness training activities should recreate actual fencing actions as closely as possible in terms of weight load, range of motion, and speed.

The fencer will alternate training days between technique drill sessions and conditioning drill sessions. The technique drill session serves as a lighter training day for recovery, as well as to learn new skills or refine existing skills for precise form and position, timing, and measure. The conditioning drill session uses a much more limited skill set — those skills which are more fully learned and internalized, or simply easier.

In a technique drill session, isolate a single action and drill it for 3-5 minutes, preferably with a partner. If the action forms part of a more complex technique, layer on additional actions until you have the minimum complete technique (usually 2-4 actions). Every 2 additional minutes, alter a single variable at a time to explore the technique for robustness (timing, distance, targeting, entry angles). Every 15-20 minutes, the fencer can break for a minute (avoid 5-minute water cooler conversations), then resume with the same skill, further variations, or completely switch to a new skill. In historical fencing, many techniques have one or more complementary techniques that cover each other’s deficiencies (e.g. a strong Absetzen complements a weak Durchwechseln); it can be helpful to take a rock-scissors-paper approach where each new skill complements the previous one.

An hour of drill can typically cover 2-3 skills.

In a conditioning drill session, choose a skill and a complementary action (typically a defense or other counter). Work the skill for speed, power, and precision either singly or in combination. Also, if a single action with a sword is a word, and a complex technique is a phrase of several action words, then a single action can be broken down into its component movement letters. Strength exercises such as woodchoppers, pull-ups, push-ups, and handstands can all benefit guard stances and sword strikes. Core exercises such as leg lifts and supermans will benefit both your striking and wrestling. Squats, skipping rope, box jumps, and sprints all improve lower body strength and speed. Running (jogging, sprinting, etc.) builds cardiovascular endurance.

Please note that only common exercises have been listed here as examples. For martial arts in general and swordsmanship in particular, complex and multi-joint exercises will provide benefits beyond basic strength and endurance improvement, such as improved proprioception (body awareness), stabilization, and strength in minor linear and rotational axes such as might be needed for fighting. For instance, kettlebell exercises are one good example of complex movements involving multiple joints.

In our example, the tournament fencer wants a balanced conditioning regimen for intense, high-output endurance for fencing bouts. While physical ability is highly specific to every person, the fencer likely has a roughly 1-minute timeframe of peak anaerobic effort before his aerobic endurance comes into play for the remainder of his 3-minute fencing bouts. Also, since one objective is to fence as intensely as possible, conditioning should rotate different muscle groups and focus (upper body, lower body, core, cardio) in order for the fencer to do every interval or exercise repetition with maximum available effort. As a counter-example, grinding through 200 squats all at once will train the body for familiarity with doing a majority of slow squats for endurance; doing those same 200 squats in sets of 20 with rest periods in between will enable the fencer to perform most of the repetitions at maximum speed. This will carry over into his fighting performance — more squats at once will help leg endurance but simultaneously acclimatizes the fencer to performing slower squat motions; shorter sets of squats done more powerfully, on the other hand, will increase the fencer’s speed more at the expense of not training as much endurance (an acceptable trade-off given the fencer’s expected activity).
The hypothetical fencer might train thusly:

  • 2 minutes skipping rope
  • Three 60-second sets of lunges with 10-30 second walking rest intervals
  • Three minutes of Superman exercise (alternating hold intervals with rest intervals; e.g. 30 seconds with 10-second rest)
  • Three 60-second sets of pull-ups with 10-30 second rest intervals
  • Three 60-second sets of box jumps with 10-30 second walking rest intervals
  • Three 60-second sets of push-ups with 10-30 second rest intervals
  • Three 60-second sprints or fast running intervals alternating with walking intervals (15-90 seconds, depending on fitness level)
  • 5-10 minutes of stretching for major muscles and body parts emphasized in the workout

That represents about 30-45 minutes of exercise, beginning with light warm-up exercises and ending with cool down stretches. Beginners may need to reduce each set by as much as half. The sample 30-minute workout alternates upper body, lower body, and aerobic conditioning. Athlete fighters can further vary up exercises to rotate or focus on parts of the body as they see fit. e.g. lunges can be performed with 2-lb weights in each hand, working alternating Fenestre or Ochs guards on every lunge step.

More experienced athlete fighters will find ways to increase exercise interval and repetition intensity, such as repeating the entire super-set of exercises for a 60-minute, or even 90-minute workout. Complex exercises can help to streamline the workout structure, as well as training full-body coordination and muscle recruitment. e.g. combine oblique knee raises with pull-ups, box jump burpees in lieu of separate box jumps and push-ups, or GI Janes in lieu of squats, push-ups, and pull-ups.

Varying training by increasing interval times or number of intervals can help to broaden the fighter’s physical performance. However, if the fighter is training for 3-minute fighting rounds, then structuring the training regimen on similar 3-minute rounds will keep the fighter’s development focused on that timeframe. An additional consideration is the time spent during a 3-minute round on scoring and deliberation by the judges. If the fighter does not expect to fight continuously for 3 minutes, then he may want to perform a higher number of 30-second high intensity intervals with shorter rest intervals (5-10 seconds).

Many recreational / amateur fencers have 5-15 hours available weekly for training. If the tournament fencer commits a serious but reasonable 10 hours weekly, that allows for, say, 5 hours of technique drill and 5 hours of conditioning. Depending on the fencer’s abilities and goals, this distribution may change by 1-2 hours in either direction. A highly athletic fighter may opt to drill only 2-3 hours on 2-3 techniques, while maximizing his physical attributes. A more rational fighter with a preference for tactical complexity may choose to drill techniques for 6-7 hours instead.

In our second hypothetical case, the serious duelist faces much more intense risks in as few as possibly 1-3 complex actions in a single fight. Strictly regarding swordsmanship, the duelist’s training might resemble a hyper-intensified and shortened version of the tournament fencer’s training. The duelist may want to train even higher peak levels of speed and strength output in 5-10 second interval bursts.

At the same time, the duelist also has a much greater need for precision at these more challenging speed and strength levels, because his fight can result in death or mutilation on a single action.

However, this need for heightened peak performance has to be balanced against the need for wrestling, and possibly dagger fighting, training. There, good strength, endurance, proprioception, and skill (including responsiveness to an opponent’s every movement) are necessary.

And above all, the duelist’s attitude must be trained. He will need to build enough spirit and aggression, confidence, that he can project it for his opponent to perceive and be intimidated before the two fighters even engage. And once they have engaged, the duelist must be absolutely mentally ready to fight harder, faster, more intelligently, and more fiercely than his opponent.

In training then, the duelist’s instructor or partners will alternate skill training and conditioning training with intervals of maximum effort assault (whether in a single, powerful strike or in a flurry of blows) aimed at overwhelming the duelist. Similar attempts can be made to overwhelm the duelist in conditioning as well. These intervals should be designed to just barely exceed the duelist’s abilities at that specific moment. Then rest just long enough for the duelist to begin to recover, and then again exceed his current abilities at that next moment. Even though the focus is more mental / emotional, training safety is of paramount importance since the goal is to partially and minutely exceed the duelist’s abilities.

Such overwhelming intervals may last a single action or repetition at first, and then build to a few seconds, and ultimately even to entire minutes. These intervals can act as planned or surprise moments to end another training interval.

In conclusion, fighting in general and fencing in particular are complex endeavors requiring a balance of numerous attributes: attitude, skill, speed, strength, stamina, flexibility, and nutrition. The relative priority of these attributes depends entirely on a fighter’s specific abilities, goals, and context for performance. As well, the training approach for each attribute depends on how the fighter intends to fight — marathon runners do not primarily train for sprints. Every aspect of training should recreate one or more aspects of an actual fight as closely as possible. In turn, every aspect of a fighter’s life should aid, complement, or at least not run counter to, the fighter’s fighting goals.

Dakao Do first took up the German longsword in 2000. He is the primary instructor at Schwert am Schwert – Houston. In 2007, Dakao began to take a serious interest in cross-training with other activities to develop fitness in general and specifically for fighting: baguazhang kung fu, muay thai, parkour, bodyweight strength training, and Argentine tango.


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