[Note: this entry addresses primarily upper body development, but aerobic fitness conditioning and leg/core strength/speed/coordination training will provide better overall fencing results long before upper body training becomes a primary issue. Open to revision.]

Training harder requires 1) a strong understanding of your CURRENT physical/mental capabilities and limits, b/c 2) cutting down your safety margins against your ultimate human limits.

Doing work at only 20-30% of your joints' and muscles' capacity is what we usually call trivial. It's walking up the stairs, or carrying groceries from the car for most of us. This is the level at which our ability to lift or swing a sword needs to ultimately be in order for us to focus our effort on when and where to swing or place the sword, and not constantly struggle with merely holding up or starting/stopping the sword. As our muscles fatigue, the weight of the sword can go from 30% of fresh capacity to 80% of tired capacity -- at which point we have transitioned from skill training to fitness/strength (often without realizing it). Therefore, we should learn to become aware of when to drills for skills and when to drill for fitness. For new people, this can happen within 5-15 repetitions per set. Rest 10-30 seconds, then start with skill focus again, changing to fitness conditioning by the end of each subsequent set of reps. By the 5th set or so, pretty much the entire set will be focused on conditioning.

50-80% work is where we begin to stimulate muscle growth in response to stress (i.e. minute tearing of individual muscle fibers). Anything over 100% is where we tear too many muscle fibers at once, tendons, break joints and bones, etc. The error of margin for people with high proprioception might be 2-5% (Olympic caliber), 10-20% (high performance athletes), 30-50% (recreational participants). This ballpark schema only roughly indicates why someone new to an activity might pick up a 10-lb weight and pull a muscle, when someone else doing it for 9 months can sling around a 15-lb weight in explosive (plyometric) exercises as a regular (but grueling) workout.

For an elderly person or someone just out of hospital/physical rehab/etc., this may not be the case, and such tasks may represent 70-150% (or worse) of their current capability.

So in the same sense, if using a 3-lb sword at slow speeds is 90% of a person's upper body/core strength capability, that is a lot of work for that person -- well within their potentially dangerous error of margin, if they underestimate the strength needed to stop or start a particular swing, and end up going over 100% of their current strength.

How can a 3-lb weight be so dangerous, if we pick up and move a gallon of milk (8 lbs) all the time? Usually, the gallon of milk isn't on a 4-foot long lever (effectively feels like 16-40 lbs, depending on where it's attached to the lever) accelerating from 0 mph to 40-80 mph at the tip in 0.2-0.5 second (roughly 6x to 15x faster than a Porsche 911 flooring it). The 3-lb sword accelerated like a Porsche (0-60 mph in 2.9 s = 27.7 m/s^2 = 2.8 g-unit) would momentarily feel like 8.4 lbs in the hand, though the greater acceleration of the sword's point can put torque on the wrists/elbows comparable to 12-30 lbs perceived. This only very crudely accounts for the unequal distribution of mass over the length of the sword-lever (it would have been 50-120 lbs perceived if the sword's entire 3 lbs were at the end of a massless 4' lever).

Please feel free to check my numbers:

http://www.unit-conversion.info/acceleration.html

In this regard, training takes several stages which can overlap. Basic strength training is the most useful to new participants, to build up their proprioception and slow-twitch strength. This allows them to hold a sword up longer and begin to understand at an instinctive level where their spine, joints, center of mass, and mass of the sword are in a three-dimensional space. Rushing or abandoning this process leads to risk of injured joints, sore or pulled/torn muscles, falling over, and putting yourself off-balance in mid-action.

As a rule of thumb, you must be able to lift a weight of 3X before you can BEGIN to safely train explosively with a weight of X. Long jump training for a 150-lb participant includes building towards a 300-lb squat. Sure, you can train long jumps far earlier, but the scope of the training is advised to be limited to less than maximum effort in order to protect the joints and muscles from injury.

Clearly, however, just being able to squat 300 lbs does not magically imbue the participant with the ability to perform 12' long jumps.

The second stage begins the explosive training, with the athlete working faster reps at 1/3 maximum weight.

The third stage works the target activity: the actual long jump.

http://www.coachr.org/spst.htm

http://www.sport-fitness-advisor.com/power-training.html

The HEMA-specific lesson to take from this is to work a progression from light to heavy, slow to fast. Specific programming will vary from person to person. These are sample notes for someone who starts out with the ability to lift a 10-lb dumbbell 20x. In the exercises below, full weight would then refer to 10 lbs, and half weight is 5 lbs. If you can handle 8 lbs 20x, that's your full weight and 4 lbs is your half weight.

Rotate through exercises, across multiple sessions; focus on the ones you want to improve most, but don't ignore any completely. Perform smoothly and controlled with a single dumbbell, with each arm separately to build core stabilizer strength. Alternate starting arm each session to avoid favoring a side due to fatigue. Keep good form, elbow relatively close in to body (neither crunched in tight nor flung wide to the side), don't throw or hunch the shoulder into any action. Keep lower body in a wide stance with knees bent, weight centered and back straight, as when in guard. Timeframes are not given, but exercise sessions should be spaced out with rest days in between, and most people will benefit from spending 2-4 weeks at a particular superset level. Some variation to a lighter set is good for resting periods, or to a lower-rep heavier set to try out what's next.

On a per-set of 20x basis, reduce your reps to 15x, 10x, 5x, or whatever, based on the fatigue and strain you are feeling IN THAT MOMENT. Don't push too hard, just to stick to some predefined number that you "could hit just fine last week." Maybe your other workouts were more intense this week. Maybe you missed two days b/c of work and life. Maybe you didn't have breakfast. Slept wrong.

These numbers and exercises are all just suggestions. Look at what they target, adjust for what you need and are currently capable of.

Full weight exercises (all single arm):

  • row
  • chest press
  • clean and overhead press

half weight exercises (all single arm):

  • snatch
  • corkscrew
  • chest fly
  • lateral raise
  • bent over lateral raise
  • front raise
  • external rotation

Normal superset 3x (per arm):

  • 20x 10-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise

Speed superset 3x (per arm) in same time as 1x Normal superset:

  • 20x 3-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 3-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 3-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 3-lb half weight exercise

Normal superset 3x (per arm):

  • 20x 15-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 15-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise

Speed superset 3x (per arm) in same time as 1x Normal superset:

  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 5-lb half weight exercise

Normal superset 3x (per arm):

  • 20x 20-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 20-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise

Speed superset 3x (per arm) in same time as 1x Normal superset:

  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 8-lb half weight exercise

Normal superset 3x (per arm):

  • 20x 25-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 25-lb full weight exercise
  • 20x 15-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 15-lb half weight exercise

Speed superset 3x (per arm) in same time as 1x Normal superset:

  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise
  • 20x 10-lb half weight exercise

Progression can continue up to 20-lb half weight exercises for speed supersets (meaning you are capable of slow, careful, 40-lb full weight versions of the exercises -- this is NOT a casual level of training and performance, for most people, so do not take this lightly :D ), at which point the actual weight is roughly comparable to the perceived weight of a sword at full swing. The process should take months if not a year for a new person to SAFELY build up to. Many people ignore the awareness/proprioception, stabilizer strength, and joint/connective tissue benefits of working many reps over time at a rate of progression that would be considered well below optimal for rapid muscle/strength gain. Good swordfighting requires an understanding of the blade verging on walking and breathing. We walk and breathe thousands of times every day; how could such awareness with a sword be developed with only a few hundred repetitions per week? And just as with qigong (chi kung) and yoga, most people don't realize how unaware and inefficiently they may be standing, sitting, or breathing until they mindfully do so with purpose. So just because you decide to go out and swing a sword 3000 times (roughly a minimum to achieve sufficient neuron myelination for what people call "muscle memory") won't make you amazing with a single sword action. Doing so with careful attention to each swing at full speed, precision, and intent will. Then you just have to do it again for each of the dozen or so guards, two dozen skills or actions, and so on.

All that said, what can people at different points in their lives, abilities, and levels of interest do to work towards the same common goal of swordfighting?

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