Thursday, September 10, 2015

Forearm, Wrist and Grip Strengthening

One of the biggest challenges for many new students of the sword and other combat sports is forearm/wrist strength. This is especially the case for single-handed sword work, smaller people and those with limited upper-body strength. There are two areas of problem that emerge from limitations in forearm strength: 1) the risk of injury is higher, both for repetitive stress and sudden injuries; 2) the student will be limited in the number of repetitions of an action they can do, especially those they can do with good quality - which limits how much training they can do.

The first and most basic strategy for creating a foundation of forearm strength is going to be basic lifts. In subsequent posts I'll discuss ways to focus, refine and increase the specificity of the program.

Lifts, Pulls and Pushes

Of our basic categories of exercises the ones that will apply most to forearm function are lifts, pulls and pushes.

Lifts - lifting exercises, like deadlifts and any of the myriad related variants, are the most basic way to put a demand on the forearm muscles. All of the forearm muscles are used in grip. And lifting exercises put the most weight in your hand to grip. It is not uncommon for a person's deadlift to be limited by grip strength more than anything else.

Pulls - pulling exercises, like rows and pull-ups, can impose a similar demand to the forearm but usually these are actually a lower demand, but may be higher number of repetitions (since you shouldn't be doing dozens of deadlifts but you can do dozens of dumbbell rows). As such they frequently improve endurance more than maximal strength.

Pushes - pushing exercises, like bench and overhead press, will use the forearm very differently. The forearm now has to actively stabilize the weight. It is easier, when pressing a lot of weight, to let the wrist bend back, but it is better form, especially for us, to maintain a neutral wrist.

Dumbbell exercises especially will force you to develop the muscles that stabilize the shoulder, arm, forearm and wrist. Overall these will help you insure that the whole arm is straight, and therefore minimizes the bending forces on the wrist. As well as backing up your wrist with solid, useful structure.

All of these exercises have the limitation that they are isometric for the wrist and forearm. As such they will transfer best when the wrist is near neutral. However, that's most of the time in sword work and striking, so it's a good foundation.


To achieve the benefits described here the weights moved have to be big, big enough that you are usually limited to 6-8 repetitions, or less. The reason for this is simple, impact is a brief moment of very high stress. Low weights and many reps simply do not require the muscles to contract with the strength and intensity needed for impact.


None of this strength training changes the fact that technique is vitally important to a stable, injury free wrist when fighting. If you find that you are frequently ending up parrying with your wrist bent, or punching the bag with your wrist crooked then the important thing that you need to do is study and improve your form.

Don't just keep doing it wrong. Talk to your coach and modify training to improve this problem. The technical side of how to train this is it's own huge discussion. And also beyond the scope of my strength training blog.

Wrist neutral

In fencing I see two situations in which beginning students frequently fail to maintain a neutral wrist when they should.
  1. Over-extending a cut. At the terminus of a cut their is the natural desire to continue extending the wrist - to just reach a little bit farther. This creates a weak position and structure. It may not be a problem when landing a tip cut without opposition, but if you do it when coming to a strong bind you are going to have problems.
  2. Not keeping the wrist straight when parrying. And related, not keeping the edge aligned with the forearm. The straight, aligned position creates the optimal structure for your skeleton and for the sword. Against any strong attack the parry can fail without this position and their is the potential for wrist injuries as well. I've seen several myself.


Are you already doing a basic, comprehensive strength training plan? If not, then start there. And if that is not enough then watch for the next post.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Value of Fun

In reply to a comment on another post I brought up the idea of the value of fun in training. And I think it's important to expand on this, in large part because I think a lot of people have the wrong idea from me.

Fun can be incredibly important in exercise and training.
It's preferable to enjoy what you do.
It helps generate and maintain motivation.

My blog is not generally geared towards finding something for everybody though. And I realize that it often comes across as: there is one correct way to do things.

To be more clear though, the blog is about best practices for HEMA and fencing specific training. It's about what methods produce optimal results. There are plenty of different ways to produce results and improvements. But they aren't all the same, especially in terms of safety, efficiency and maximum results.

But from a public health standpoint anything is better than nothing. And if there is stuff you just don't like doing then that shouldn't be a reason to avoid the training approaches you do prefer.

That being said, I will keep emphasizing the value of a complete program that includes strength training. Specifically because of the value of such an approach.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Agility Ladder Training

I think I promised this post back in October. Well, I'm on Spring Break right now, so I've got time to catch up on things.

 Principles of Agility Ladder Training

Agility ladder drills serve three basic purposes:
  • Conditioning
  • Elastic response
  • Agility & Quickness
From a conditioning standpoint the ladder serves the same basic role as a jump rope, it gets you moving in a basic bouncy activity. As such there's a good reason to keep your ladder drills going for a few minutes. Ladder drills are easier to learn than jump rope for many folks, plus they are more interesting. The basic pattern of a group ladder drill is alternating between waiting your turn and moving quickly through the ladder, which is the kind of energy usage we want to be training.

The conditioning aspect can also serve as a nice warm-up. 

Any kind of bouncy exercise will help develop the elastic properties of our musculature. This is the principle underlying big plyometric exercises like box jumps, hurdles, and depth jumps. However, the ladder drills are much lower intensity. This lower intensity means that they are suitable for just about everyone. This will also benefit quickness in the various smaller reactive actions involved in swordplay.

Agility is primarily change of direction and is determined by the ability to put force into the ground. Ladder drills have a limited ability to improve agility because they do not often use the large, intense actions that are the defining aspect of difficult changes of direction.

Instead agility ladder drills can be thought of as increasing quickness in the sense of reacting to the environment and performing many small changes of direction. The environment is fixed not random but there is tactile feedback from stepping on the ladder.

Overall, the ladder is not the best tool for any single component but serves as a multipurpose tool in the movement prep part of a training session. The body is made more ready for the various kinds of training by doing lower intensity exercises first.

I also like to use the ladder to instill and reinforce the idea of mindful practice. You can always mess up a ladder drill - step on the rungs, kick it out of position and so on. But I demand that my athletes pay attention and do the drill right. This brings me to one of the most common instructions I give in training, both basic physical training and fencing training:

"Correct is more important that fast or number of repetitions"

Alternately, you can call this quality over quantity.

What it Does Not Do

The agility ladder does not improve speed, though they are sometimes called speed ladders. Speed is distance divided by time. Putting a ladder in the way of your feet won't help with that. Only dedicated speed, strength and power training will. However, raw running speed is not directly related to swordfighting (unless you're losing), so it doesn't matter.

Also, ladder drills do not improve your dexterity. Coordination is not a general purpose trait that can be trained. The body and brain's ability to produce smooth, coordinated action requires specific practice, there is no way around this.

Permutational Analysis

One of the ways I conceptualize the value of ladder drills is with the idea of permutational analysis. This is an idea I got from Scott Brown a few years ago, which he applies to handwork drills. The basic idea is that if I get into a new situation I cannot produce a useful action in the moment - whatever I do will be uncoordinated and slow because it is untrained. As such it is useful to dedicate a part of training to a wide variety of arbitrary variations, specifically to make it less likely that your feet will end up in a truly novel position. This is also the reason to switch up the drills every few months.

Categories of Exercises

I will not attempt an exhaustive list of exercises here, nor even much in the way of specifics. Instead I want to look at broad categories to guide decisions about what to include and how to organize the workout.


Intensity levels are roughly as follows:
  1. Stepping - one leg moves at a time and one leg is on the ground. This starts with simple exercises like Quickfeet and moves up through a wide variety of exercises like In-In-Out-Out. More complex patterns include Ickey Shuffle and Carioca. Also includes the fencing actions of Advance and Retreat, as well as Doubles etc.
  2. Double-leg actions - both legs move at the same time. The prime example is Scissors. Hopscotch can be roughly put in this category as well.
  3. Double-leg hop - basic is both feet in the same box. Alternatives can include Skiers and variations on direction of movement etc.
  4. Single-leg hop - one leg bouncing from square to square, same leg throughout
Skipping squares - in general, exercises can be made more intense by skipping squares of the ladder. This is most useful for double-leg hops but can be applied to a wide variety of exercises. It would be a bit much for single-leg hops for all but the highest level athletes.

Direction of Movement

Ladder drills can also be characterized by direction of movement.
  1. Linear - forwards and backwards. The amount of linear you need depends on the type fencing you train.
  2. Lateral - side to side
  3. Medial - this distinction only matter for single leg actions, lateral is to the outside of the leg but medial is towards the inside. That is, if I am standing on my right leg then medial is a jump to my left.
  4. Diagonal - a mix of linear and lateral while facing down the ladder. For a lot of fencing training this is more relevant than lateral.
  5. Rotational - changing the direction you face from one action to the next. Easiest is 90°, 180°+ can be done as well.
  6. Crossover - one foot crosses over the other. Most often part of drills that are otherwise diagonal
  7. Backwards - any of the above categories can also be done backwards; presenting a higher coordination requirement.
Some exercises don't fit well into any of these categories, so this is only a rough guide to get you started. For instance the Shuffle Wide and Stick goes: two feet in the box, one foot out - leaping as far as you can, stick that landing and leap back to two feet in the next box.

Designing the Workout

Start at low intensity and work up progressively. With athletes new to the drills do not incorporate the most intense drills to start with. In particular single-leg hops are very intense for anyone unused to such actions. Even double-leg hops may not be a good starting exercise depending on the population you are working with or what the rest of the day's training will be like.

Include all directions of movement in a given routine, with an emphasis on those most relevant to the style. This goes back to the permutational analysis idea from earlier.

The number of exercises to include will depend in part on the objective of the workout. As a quick warm-up before fighting, maybe just four exercises. As part of a conditioning routine, do 8 or 10. For general movement prep before a class I usually do 6.


1Quickfeet*Double-leg Hop*Single-leg Hop* (incl. Medial)
2Double Advance-Retreat**same with SwordCommand drill
4Front Crossoversame with ReverseRear Crossover
5ScissorsSkiersSkiers with Rotation
6Snakesame with ReverseSnake Skipping boxes
* Forward, Backward and Lateral
** Each leg leading

Progression in Agility Ladder Training

There are two basic modes of progression in agility ladder training. First is intensity and the other is complexity.

Intensity is easy, and the intensity guide above directs that type of progression. Increases can also be made in the number of drills or the speed demands of the drills.

Complexity increases are part of making this more directly applicable to fencing training. First, insist that the athletes not look down. When they start they have to look just to avoid stepping on the ladder but they should be pushed to keep their eyes up early and often.

Another method of increasing complexity is to hold your sword while doing the drills, and specifically to hold the sword in a well-formed guard.

Additional complexity can also come in the form of actions after or in-between the ladders.
  • Set-up two ladders in a row about 5m apart. Sprint from one ladder to the next with a smooth transition from the run into the ladder drill. 
  • Set-up two ladders side-by-side at least 3m apart. Side shuffle from one ladder to the next while facing the same way and then do the next ladder backwards.
  • Have a coach stand at the end of the ladder with a focus mitt or target and execute an attack at the end of the ladder.
The variations are endless - just make sure you understand how the exercise you design helps the people you are training.


Ladder drills are fun and serve a variety of purposes from warm-up to movement prep to footwork quickness. They are also cheap and easy to use. You can use them to reinforce mindful practice and hone proprioception and kinesthetic awareness.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Shopping Trip!

Who doesn't like going shopping?

I don't.

But that's not the point. Normally, when I run a one-off training session with a group they ask me for a shopping list of the equipment I brought with me. I bring a lot of toys to these sorts of training sessions.

None of the equipment I'm about to list replaces having a basic weightlifting set-up and program. And some of the material I present is best used and safest when done in conjunction with a complete strength training plan - it's not all basic material.

Also, feel free to shop around but keep in mind the reasons for why I recommend the products that I do.


Medicine Balls - I recommend these particular medicine balls because they bounce and the bounce is helpful for a variety of drills. For HEMA I suggest 4 or 6 pound balls. For smallsword and later period fencing, including modern fencing, a 2 pound ball is best. Our objective is for the ball to be no more than double the weight of the sword - this allows us to train velocity of action.

Sandbells - No one else makes a version that is as durable, though you can usually get a better price on Amazon than on their website. Great for a wide variety of throwing drills. The appropriate weight is going to be around 30-70% of bench press max. This is quite a wide range and so you have to get a number of different sizes to work best.

Sandbells only go up to 50 pounds but there are good reason to keep going higher. To do that I put multiple sandbells into these sandbag trainers. Again, the product I pick is based on our durability needs, we are going to be throwing these as hard as we can at the wall and floor etc. However, you can usually get a better price on Amazon for these as well.

Everyone starts at 10 pounds so that they can get the form right before they go up in weight.

At beginner levels these can be replaced with Dynamax balls.

Hurdles - Adjustable hurdles and other variations exist and each is a trade-off between flexibility, durability and cost. Individual choices are going to depend in large part on expected use. But start small, big hurdles are hard on the joints.

Plyo boxes - I'm not going to recommend a specific product here, because their are so many facility specific factors that go into a purchasing decision here - mostly space concerns. Plyo boxes are an important tool though. They are much safer on the joints than doing other jumping exercises.

Everyone should have plyo boxes.


Agility Ladders - basic tool, so basic that a lot of folks already have them. There are spiffy versions that do niftier things and cost more, but those are really only going to matter for high-end athletes and even then only after they have mastered all the lower intensity stuff. Probably not worth spending extra money on fancy ones.

Rings - another basic level tool. The advantage of items like ladders and rings is that they force the athlete to pay attention to their footwork - you can't just put your foot anywhere with these drills. Which is why I recommend rings, even though you could do the associated drills without anything special.

Dots - These are a minor tool that are all about forcing accuracy in footwork. 

Reflex ball - aka Z-ball (which is the brand I originally got). These are for proving to your athletes that you wish to torture them. It's fun. But not a lot of tools actually allow you to create random stimuli for training reflexes, so these are pretty unique in their utility.

Core Training

Heavy Bar - Functionally similar to various sledgehammer workouts except safer. Safer than swinging a hammer head past your legs at speed. Not only are they safer for the user, they are also safer for the floor and walls. These are also similar to Indian clubs in terms of the workouts that you can do, but they are cheaper and more versatile. I start adults off at 6 pounds.

Mini-bands - Primarily for hip strengthening exercises. Color coded for resistance level. Adults can usually start with the green bands and work their way up. Adolescents and smaller folks should start with yellow.

Sandbags - these are useful for a variety of core training exercises as well, which makes them a nice multi-purpose tool. Plus it means that you don't need to buy conventional weights as well.


Everything I've shown here is usually also available at Perform Better, with minor variations existing. Check their before purchasing to see if they have a better deal or suit your needs better. Or it's available in a prettier color.

My  start-up level kit would include the following as a minimum:
  1. Medicine ball
  2. Agility ladder
  3. Mini-bands
  4. Z-ball
The next most important component is plyo boxes, but they are expensive, heavy and take up a lot of space. Which makes them not easy for a lot of clubs. They really can't be beat for utility though. And they are still safer than the alternatives.

I would love for all the useful things to be free. However, a well designed program will have overload and progression, both of which are hard to do without tools. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Geeking Out - Part 3: Estimating Calories Burned

This is the third part (part 1, part 2) of my series on geeking out about your exercise. Geeking out about your exercise isn't necessary. But it can help you become and remain motivated and it can help you achieve your goals.


The simplest way of estimating calories burned in exercise is what's known as METs which stands for metabolic equivalents. At rest a person is at 1 MET. Exercise will be some multiple of this amount.

1 MET is approximately 1 calorie per hour per kilogram of bodyweight. I weigh about 85 kilos right  now, so I burn about 85 calories per hour doing nothing.

Martial arts training, like HEMA, is going to be 5-8 METs. Most of the training is going to be around 6 METs, and using that as a baseline value is a reasonable estimate. While high-intensity training or sparring can get up to 10 METs, this is typically alternated with rest periods so over the course of an hour it will average out to something lower - like 6 METs.

At 6 METs, 1 hour of HEMA would be 85x6 = 510 calories. This is consistent with my own values from my heart rate monitor.

The Compendium(pdf) is a resource that estimates METs for a very wide range of activities. This can then be used to help you estimate calories for all of your exercise and fitness endeavors.


Lot's of different methods exist for estimating calorie expenditure in exercise - apps and online calculators and so on. But for something unusual like HEMA there aren't such resources. As such a heart rate monitor or METs estimate are your best tools.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Geeking Out - Part 2: General Fitness

My last post was about heart rate and calories burned in HEMA training - as determined by a heart rate monitor. In that post I talked about how this informs training for athletic development and performance improvement. Now I'm going to talk about what these numbers say about general fitness, because I know that many folks use HEMA as a part of their approach to general health.

Moderate versus Vigorous Exercise

The basic guidelines for cardiovascular exercise for general health recommend either 60 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Or some combination of the two - basically every minute of vigorous is equivalent to 2.5 minutes of moderate exercise.

Over the course of a 1-2 hour class my typical heart rate was in the moderate exercise range. The only part of my practices that boosted my pulse into the vigorous range is the intense warm-up that is a part of training at Athena School of Arms. However, most groups warm-up is only going to equate to a few minutes of vigorous exercise.

Good motor learning, just like learning anything else, happens best when you are alert and refreshed. Exhausting exercise will impair motor learning. As such, a large amount of vigorous exercise is not appropriate for for a technical training session.

In other words, HEMA training should be moderate exercise, and we shouldn't be pushing ourselves to make a significant part of it vigorous.

Physical Activity Goals

150 minutes per week of HEMA training is a perfectly reasonable objective. I suspect that everyone who isn't already doing that much would like to be able to.

If you are endeavoring to reach a complete program of physical activity for general health and wellness, then your HEMA training, a few times a week, is sufficient for cardiovascular health and fitness. While HEMA training is simultaneously neuromotor exercise - good for balance and agility.

As such you can dedicate remaining available time to strength training and flexibility.

The ACSM guidelines go on to say that greater cardiovascular health benefits are seen at double these amounts. This becomes more time consuming but can be met more easily with the inclusion of vigorous, dedicated cardio work in addition to HEMA training.

Calories Burned

HEMA training burns calories, of course. However, HEMA does not burn calories at an intense rate, as is to be expected from moderate exercise. I will go into details on estimating calories burned in my next post in the series.


HEMA training is a good way to meet both the cardiovascular and neuromotor training goals of a complete approach to physical activity for health. And, well, that's convenient and fun.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Geeking Out about Heart Rate

Late last year I got a new heart rate monitor watch. And it let's me geek about my exercise even more. The watch I got was the Polar FT7. Like my last one it uses a strap around the chest to measure heart rate (but this one is cleanable). The chest strap is a good, accurate way to track pulse.

But this watch does more; it tracks pulse throughout the workout and calculates calories burned. I've been using this to track just about all my training and exercise for a few months now. And there are some clear patterns.

What does this mean for HEMA?

Now, I'm not going to pretend that my personal experience and numbers are data. That would contradict some key points that I've made previously. Instead I'll point out that my results show generalizability of other research. A reasonable amount of research has been done on the cardiovascular aspects of martial arts. So far, I have just assumed that our martial art is similar to others in regards to metabolic demand, like here.

My own numbers have been in line with other martial arts studies. This makes sense to me because a 3lb. sword is not going to add much to moving my full bodyweight around.

Heart Rate

It takes time for the body to react to intense exercise and raise the heart rate - this process is mediated by hormonal factors that have to be made, enter the bloodstream and then reach the heart. As such short bursts of high intensity activity will produce only a limited increase in pulse. The muscles being used are therefore primarily acting anaerobically and using their stored glucose (glycogen) and creatine-phosphate for energy.

My heart rate got up to about 155-160 at most. Which is 82-87% of my max. Hitting 90%+ of my max requires much more intense training, like interval sprints.

Most of the time my heart rate hovered around the 125-130 mark. Around 65-70% of my max. But this was only when I bothered to look at my watch, which was usually after doing some particular drill, to see what effect that drill had on my heart rate. One of the great things about the watch is that it gives me a breakdown of how much time I spent above or below 65% of max. And in reality I spend about half or more of my time below that threshold.

The 65% threshold is based on the silly notion of the 'Fat Burning Zone' versus the 'Cardiovascular Fitness Zone'. However, and importantly for exercise planning, these two zones do correspond reasonably well to the definitions of moderate versus vigorous exercise, which I've discussed before. And I'll cover this in more detail for the next post in this series.

So don't expect to get your heart rate up all that high with HEMA training.

Furthermore a quick recovery to baseline is a good trait to watch for. It indicates good cardiovascular fitness and will benefit your ability to do repeated bouts and training. If my pulse was over the line when I looked at my watch, but averaged below that line then I must have been recovering quickly. This is encouraging.

On the flip side, while your pulse doesn't get that high while training it will stay elevated for a long time after you finish. I've continued wearing the strap for a couple hours after exercising a few times specifically to observe this phenomenon. This is when the body goes through the aerobic process of replenishing the resources used while at high intensity - a phenomenon known as Excess Post-exercise Oxgyen Consumption (EPOC). Additionally, this is when the body is literally burning fat as a result of your exercise - the fat is metabolized to fuel the replenishment of your muscles.


I burned about 10 calories per minute for a typical training session. Some parts of training were higher, and some parts were lower. On the days where I was mostly coaching the rate was about half that. I weigh 85 kg (190 lbs) so your personal expenditures will be different based on your own bodyweight.  I will go into more detail about calculating that (using METs) in another post.

This is in line with the previous research I linked to above about calorie expenditures. Of note is the fact that high-intensity sparring is a higher demand than actual competition.

Overall the calorie demand for HEMA training is comparable to many other common modes of exercise.

How does this inform training?

Make training harder than fighting and fighting will be easier.

Hard sparring sessions can be a component of training max cardiovascular output and recovery. But this must be done intentionally. It is much easier to slowly dial down the intensity of training than to push all out and stay there. And you will do this unconsciously.

Instead I suggest doing flow drills or parry-riposte drills at high intensity for conditioning purposes. Training to exhaustion is bad for technique and strategy so such training should be done with the simplest actions.

And the really intense cardio training needs to be non-HEMA stuff. This is one of the reasons why running is used so extensively in many sports - it can be done with very high intensity and form doesn't break down, and you are not training bad motor patterns for technique.

Really though, we want to keep most training below the threshold for vigorous training because this will facilitate good motor learning. The primary objective of the HEMA class time should be focused around motor learning. The cardio training should be separate - that way each can be done well.

How hard are you training?

This isn't a competition and I'm not saying this to brag or anything. I have visited plenty of schools and talked to plenty more folks about how they train in their classes. And the conclusion is this:

I run the most physically demanding HEMA classes.

I will amend that statement by saying that I believe there are numerous European clubs at a similar level and that I'm comparing myself primarily to US clubs.

This has to do with my objectives for HEMA training. If your club's or your personal objectives are different then do what matches your goals. And I hope that my blog helps you meet your goals.

I'm not saying that my way is only 'good' way or the best way or any other such BS. It meets my goals, though, so it's what I do and how I run my classes.

But this does mean that almost all of a typical groups class time is going to be moderate intensity, as far as cardiovascular response goes. And that just means that the conditioning for performance improvement has to be done separately.


I'm a geek. I obsess about these things. I got one degree in the field and I'm working on another. You don't need to do any of this kind of tracking if you don't want to.

But if you find it helps you meet fitness or performance goals, then by all means, go for it.