When I suggest strength training for fencing I frequently hear, "speed is more important" or even, "it's not about strength". A lot of this objection comes from a misapplication of the concept of specificity. Specificity is not just one thing - there are different components to be specific about. And different aspects of training will focus on these varied areas.
This is why fencing training is not just a bunch of free fencing. Different kinds of drills allow the fencer to focus on footwork, bladework, timing, distance etc. The same must be true of the physical conditioning side of training. We can focus on anaerobic conditioning, recovery, acceleration, power and so on.
But Squats and Bench Press Aren't Very Specific
It's true that the movement pattern for the squat and press are not specific to fencing actions. (However, they are specific to grappling actions and historical fencing finds it's roots in grappling.) But the movement pattern is only one aspect of specificity. The movements are bilateral, well-balanced and stable.While fencing actions usually involve powering off of one leg and the arm motion is either unilateral or the arms move differently from each other.
The benefit of these basic exercises is that they allow maximum force production. By taking instability out of the exercise you are not as limited by the failure point of the stabilizing muscles.
As I've discussed before, force is the determinant of acceleration in our muscles. So increasing force production increases acceleration. Maximizing force is the specificity of basic strength because it will maximize acceleration.
Acceleration is of supreme importance in historical fencing - just as it is with any other sport. Acceleration will put attacks on target faster. Acceleration put your parries in place faster. Acceleration will move you around faster - retreats, advances and voids will all be more effective because of greater acceleration.
Of course, it is also the case that exercises with greater specificity in movement pattern and requiring more stability are a necessary part of a complete program. This is why basic squats should be supplemented with exercises like: split squats, RFE squats, single-leg squats, lunges and lateral variants. Similar kinds of variations exist for bench press, deadlift, rows and pull-ups, but those are a topic for another day.
Basic Strength is the FoundationTraining must begin with foundational exercises. Just as fencing training begins with basic footwork exercises, so strength training must start with basic exercises. And just as footwork exercises never stop in fencing training so must basic strength training always form the core of the S&C program.
To build up our various sport-specific attributes we must do so upon a foundation of basic strength. This allows us to produce the best results. The maximal force production from strength training is refined to sport-specific actions with additional training and varied exercises. Joint strength supports the development of maximum power and agility, while minimizing the chance of injury.
Historical fencing can put significant strain on the body and a variety of training injuries are possible. Most non-impact injuries can be prevented or made less likely with strength training. Furthermore, full recovery from injury requires rebuilding the strength of the injured joint.
Strength/Power Should Be About Structure and the Core
This is another common response that I get in discussions of strength - that structure is more important or that core training is key. Of course structure is important to the application of strength. And of course the core is an important part of link in the chain. But it is a chain. And as the old saying goes: a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link. So we need to strengthen all components to achieve optimal results.
Stronger legs from squats will produce more force that can be transmitted to the arms through a strong core. And stronger chest & arms from bench presses will supplement good structure to transfer power to the target.
When a cut is parried, the defender must absorb all the force that the attacker can direct into their weapon. If not the parry will fail and my collapse entirely. As the opponent's sword hits the defender's sword they must essentially perform and isometric press outwards against the force of the attack. That upper-body press must be accompanied by pushing back with the anterior core, driven by the legs pushing into the ground. All of this requires both structure and strength.
Furthermore, basic strength training exercises will develop good structure. The best results with these exercises will come from developing good structure as well as basic strength. Additionally, the core is well engaged with these exercises and contributes to the amount of weight that can be lifted.
And certainly, core specific exercises should be included as well, as discussed previously.
What About Plyometrics?
Plyos, jump training, medicine ball training etc. are frequently included in a fencing program. And plyos will help develop strength it's true. Because plyos focus on speed, power and explosive movement they are more specific in certain ways. As such many in martial arts and fencing see them as superior to conventional strength training for their application.
Plyometrics are a broad category of exercises ranging substantially in intensity, so there is not just one reply.
At the low end of intensity you have plyometric exercises like hopping. These are useful, especially for styles that have bouncy footwork. But their low intensity means that they are not primarily strength training. They will help develop the "bounce" reflex (formally known as the stretch-shortening-cycle) and appropriate conditioning. But they cannot replace strength training.
At the high end we exercises like hurdle jumps and drop jumps. These are very large stresses on the joints. Doing them safely requires a strong foundation in basic strength because basic strength training will reinforce the joints. Squats will ready the knee joint for the forces needed to land a high jump without injury. Ultimately, high intensity plyometrics are a useful program component that will benefit performance, but they must come after appropriate strength has been developed.
The effect of combined strength and plyometric programs is a synergistic one. Increased force production and acceleration from strength training can be reinforced by high-speed exercises which focus on rate of force development (RFD).
A well executed attack will take around 300 milliseconds to complete. This is faster than the time necessary for a muscle to reach maximum force production. This fact emphasizes the benefit of acceleration from force increases; as well as illustrating the benefits of a combined program.