Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Single Sword Strengthening

Training with a single-handed sword can present some particular challenges for your wrist, forearm, elbow and shoulder. Newer fencers especially may find that their training time and capacity are limited by fatigue or discomfort. And ongoing or recurring complaints of fatigue or discomfort are ordinary. Below are exercises specifically for addressing this issue to improve training capacity, injury resistance and performance. 

I work professionally as an independent physical therapist and strength coach. If you are interested in my services you can email me at: Or, if you just want to support my blog you can buy me a KoFi.

This information is specifically for healthy individuals. If you already have pain or injury in the arm you should first seek evaluation from a physical therapist. 


These exercises are best done with some basic equipment. 

First is just a simple stick. I recommend 3/4” rattan or hardwood dowel, ideally 39” long. This is a standard length for single-sticks and readily available from my friends at Purpleheart. (No promotional consideration - I like them and their products). But you can also get a hardwood dowel from a home improvement store.

Next is some small dumbbells or hand weights. Most folks can start at 2# tho smaller folks may need to start at 1#. 1 and 2 pounds can usually be done with cans or water bottles instead of buying anything. 1 pound = 16 oz of water or soup = 473 mL. 

Higher weights are better achieved with purpose built equipment to ensure it is convenient and safe to use. These weights are usually available for about $2-3 per pound.

For the shoulder exercises - and just because it is useful for a wide variety of exercises - an adjustable dumbbell set is convenient and a good bang for your buck equipment. 


Stick Wiggle

This exercise should be done for sets of 10-20, with a focus on speed and not on increasing the number of repetitions. Because this is a speed exercise increasing the weight of stick or switching to your sword or other equipment does not help.

Stick Rotations

Start this exercise with the same singlestick. When you are ready to progress (see below) a saber is likely to be a reasonable step-up tho heavier sabers are a bigger jump than appropriate. As strength improves a broadsword, arming sword or side sword become appropriate. Yes these are generalizations based on sword categories and I know that there is substantial variation within each category. If you need something in between a singlestick and your sword you can use a longer or thicker stick both of which are readily available at a typical home improvement sword.

Longer term this exercise can be phased out and increasing weight beyond your sword is usually not necessary. 


Most folks can start this exercise at 5 pounds and adjust initial repetitions appropriately. Progression may be more awkward depending on what specific weights or adjustability you have available. 

Wrist Flexion & Extension

Start at 2 pounds and work your way up based on difficulty. Some folks will progress up to 5 pounds or more quite quickly and others will need to increase more slowly. Longer term you are likely going to be able to use more weight for flexion than extension.

Workout Timing

Between this training and your technical training you should be aiming for 4 to 6 days per week with this workout two or three times. The more technical training time the less of this workout you should do. 

These workouts should not be done on consecutive days and you should avoid doing this workout shortly before technical training. 

Repetitions and Sets

Progress thru the following sequence of number of reps per exercise.

  • 8

  • 10

  • 12

  • 15

  • 18 - only necessary for large jumps in next weight size up. 

Do the number of reps in a workout for one workout. Next workout try to work up to the next target number. If you can hit the target for all sets then go up in reps next workout. If you cannot then stay at that number of reps for the next workout. When you have hit 15 or 18 reps in a workout then go up in weight and drop the number of reps back down to 8 or 10. 

For instance: if I have 3 and 5 pound weights for wrist flexion and extension then I will progress from 8 thru 18 reps over some number of weeks before I jump from three pounds to five pounds. As a percentage that is a 67% jump. At 5 pounds I will start at 8 reps again.

If instead I have a 4 pound weight I would increase the weight at 15 reps. I may only need to drop down to 10 reps since the jump from 4 to 5 pounds is only 25%.

Number of repetitions and weight should be tracked individually for each exercise. If you would find an app a useful way to do that then I recommend JeFit. Steady and identical progress in all exercises is not typical. 

Each exercise should be done for at least 2 sets. Between sets you should either rest 30 seconds or cycle thru different exercises if you want to use the time more efficiently. If you feel like you could do two or three sets without a break then you should increase the weight instead.

I usually do three sets. More sets will help more with endurance but there are diminishing returns. Having lower (2 sets) and higher (3-4 sets) volume days may also be reasonable depending on the rest of your training schedule. 

Wrist Flexibility

If you think that you have a limitation in wrist flexibility please watch this video first.

Basic Strengthening

There are clear advantages in a basic and complete strengthening program. I discuss that here. With a complete program then the exercises can simply serve as a spot supplement as needed. 


A specific or complete strength and conditioning program will improve training capacity, injury resistance and performance.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Why I’m a Strength Coach

I think the New Year is a good time to remind myself, and inform my readers, of why I do what I do. I did the same for my Physical Therapy blog.

I am a strength coach. I have a B.S. in Exercise Science with a focus on training athletes for performance. I have earned the highest level of certification that exists in this field: a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). I specialize in training Historical Fencing/HEMA athletes and other combat sports and martial disciplines. I also work with general fitness clients. I am self-employed and if you are interested in hiring me then check here

Exercise is Important

Physical activity and exercise are important for human health. Helping others be more physically active reduces their likelihood of developing conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, amongst others. 

Helping folks be more active is also one of my motivations for Athena School of Arms. Especially for the nerdier folks we tend to attract, conventional sports and exercise were never appealing, so I’m happy for the opportunity to give others an exercise avenue that suits them.

Exercise is Fun

Or rather, I think, it ought to be. So I want to help folks find exercise that works for them, appeals to them and motivates them. This is part of why I do my AMAs on Facebook and generally engage folks in conversation on this topic. 

Strength Training in Particular

Strength training in particular I find to be more fun than other exercises. It’s not boring and repetitive the way that long-duration cardio is. It’s changes of activity every few minutes and a number of different things across a days’ workout. 

The technical lifts are especially interesting. Explosive actions like the clean, jerk and snatch, and variations, as well as the plyometric exercises. The other big lifts like squat, deadlift and bench press also have their technical components that are interesting. 

And it has clear, easily observable improvement that comes fairly steadily if you put in the work. 

Training for Performance is an Interesting Puzzle

I do enjoy training athletes for performance and sport-specific training. It’s more of a puzzle to solve. More pieces to understand. More variables to coordinate. It’s overall more mentally engaging for me. And I really appreciate that. 

People Improve

Lastly, I like watching my clients get stronger, more fit and more confident about the gym. I want people to feel able to do this and to continue on their own with a lifetime habit of training. 

If you’d like to help support me then you can contribute thru Ko-FI. Thanks.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Getting Medieval with Strength Training!

Children of the Sun

So I recently came across this cool video on YouTube of Medieval Strength & Conditioning exercises.

This is a fun topic. The creator of the video is a PhD student named Maciej Talaga and is working on “an embodied study of the martial system of Hs3227a and its corresponding physical-cultural context” for their dissertation. I, of course, am interested in the part that I italicized. Altho that may win the prize for best PhD research ever.

The video, and underlying dissertation work, is based on a variety of historical sources, but which are nonetheless limited. Talaga describes them further in a Patreon post. 

I see two basic ways of looking at this information. 

  1. Choosing to do strength training in a historical style for the purposes of better understanding and living one’s Historical Fencing training. This is essentially a living history approach. This is cool. And if that’s what motivates you to exercise (more) then that is awesome. 

  2. As inspiration for your personal training program using some mix of old and modern equipment or entirely modern equipment. 

I’m going to focus on option two here because it falls within my wheelhouse.

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So Let’s Talk About the Exercises Shown

Stretching and Calisthenics

Talaga starts with some basic stretching and calisthenics. My understanding of the history of exercise is that this didn’t start to become a specific organized practice until the 19th century and that it started in Britain. Talaga does not detail it in the accompanying blog post and notes that it was recommended by a modern exercise professional related to some pre-existing injuries.

A good warm-up is, of course, useful, but there’s no particular magic to any specific warm-up and there are lots of right ways to do it. 

Wrestling drill

During the warm-up portion of the video there is a picture-in-picture of what appears to me to be a modern looking grappling style of drill/exercise. Also not referenced and just as good as other warm-up options.

Windmill exercise

No historical source listed but still a good exercise for developing shoulder stability and strength throughout range of motion. Which is particularly good for historical fencers.


Categorized as activation by Talaga. This may be a terminology and/or language thing because I’m not sure what they're getting at. BUT it certainly is a historically attested exercise and there’s no reason not to do it.

Staggered and Hockey Deadlift

The rationale given for this one is questionable to me. There are historical images that look like these two exercises but Talaga concludes that they are actually in preparation for doing throwing motions. This is plausible to me. However, based on watching old-style throwing sports i.e. Highland games, I don’t think this part is a key element of the throwing itself. So I would hesitate to conclude that these were done as exercises themselves in period.

That being said I think they are good exercises and worth including on their own. They also help with equipment limitations since getting a really heavy deadlift is hard with rocks.


As the weight increased with the unilateral deadlifts Talaga transitioned to a Romanian style or straight leg deadlift. He calls it a regular deadlift in his write up but that’s a minor distinction here. 

Straight leg deadlift on the left, context suggests set-up for stone throw

Still a good exercise choice.

Single-arm Press

Very good exercise. Sport specific by being upright and unilateral. This is a routine thing for me to include with my clients currently.

Positioned for a single arm press

Zercher Squat

Best squat you can do with the equipment. But it illustrates one of the key limitations of using the period style of equipment - weight progression is limited by the arms, so the legs just don’t get as much as they could.

A modern front squat permits maxing out the legs instead of the arms being the limiter.


Eventually, while doing the Zercher squats they reach a point where it’s hard to keep the weight off the ground and they switch to doing an Atlas stone style deadlift. Again, good exercise selection. Equipment limitations are noteworthy tho.


Good exercise of course. But also not accessible for someone who doesn’t start with the strength-to-weight ratio necessary to do a pullup. Period equipment would make this a hard problem to solve, since the only strategy would be to do negatives. 

Inverted rows are within the ability of the time, but hard to progress just by finding branches of the correct height.

This then is an area that makes modern equipment shine. Substitute/combine this with DB and BB rows and you’ve got your pulling motions covered.

Javelin Throwing


I have wanted to incorporate javelin throwing into my regime ever since I learned it was a period exercise many years ago. But it’s hard to do while living in a city, in an apartment with no yard. Sigh.

But I get a similar stimulus from doing medicine ball throws. Light weight, high velocity, can be adjusted for movement specificity. 

Stone Throwing

Also great! Same trouble as the javelin tho, but easier to overcome. I throw sandbells for this instead.

Clearly about to throw the stone

Long/Broad Jump

Talaga calls this a long jump. English language usage would call it a broad jump - the long jump involves a running start. Also a great exercise. Normal thing for me to include in my clients’ programs. Altho I prefer the box jump because it’s easier on the knees and allows for clear progression and tracking.

What’s Missing?

Really, not much besides the pulling exercise limitation. 

We have all the basic categories covered: 

  • Lifting

  • Squatting

  • Unilateral leg exercises

  • Pushing

  • Pulling

  • Anti-rotation/oblique abdominal exercises

  • Explosive exercises

Those are the categories I look to include in each exercise plan. 


The other sort of limitation with this equipment is limited options for progression. And I suspect that the idea of a clear progression scheme may be missing from historical sources as well. At least based on the written sources that I am familiar with - that some folks in the era had an oral tradition of a progression scheme is of course possible. 

I think this was cool PhD work, a cool idea and an informative video. It’s an interesting way to think about one’s modern training program as well. Have fun with this.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

No, I don't need to Just Try It

 One of the common responses I get when I provide critical* feedback of a diet or exercise idea, is that I should, “just try it”. But no, I shouldn’t. And the suggestion that I should indicates a lack of understanding of science. Either the science underlying the specific topic or of scientific methodology in general and why it is the way it is. 

Science underlying the topic

For the topics of both nutrition and exercise science we have 70+ years of published research. The research is not all confined to ivory tower laboratory experiments and deals with people eating in the real world and athletes competing in their sport. 

We have enormous amounts of research to back our conclusions. Many landmark studies that exist have been running for decades. 

The basic findings of these research programs have all been repeatedly replicated with enough variations to demonstrate broad generalizability. Outcomes are clearly predictable. 

As such, no, some new (or old) exercise tool is not going to be some exception to these patterns.

And, no, some new diet is not going to show that actually, this, that or the other was actually the key all along. 

Nutrition is NOT always changing

The obvious comeback to me pointing out that there is more than half a century of research backing nutrition science would be the claim that it’s always changing. I even had a nutrition professor say that during the unit on the history of nutrition science. But if you look at the basics and broad eating patterns instead of focusing on details, there has been little change. 

  • Every US food guideline has said that Americans should eat more vegetables and fruits and fewer calories added with sugar and oil/fat.

  • Eating fewer calories than you burn is the key to weight loss - everything else is single digit percentage fiddling with details.

There are more consistencies than just this and there is more consistency than changes.

Scientific Methodology

My personal experience with an exercise or diet is basically irrelevant. When the published, replicated results and my personal experience disagree then the correct conclusion is that I am wrong. 

Personal experience with a topic is not an experiment. You are not controlling for confounding factors in any way. 

With dieting this usually just a matter of a person liking whatever diet was the one that they could best live with. When my friend uses a low carb diet with periodic fasting to get back down to a healthy weight then more power to them. But if they say I should do that they are going to run into the brick wall that I am miserable when fasting and really like carbs. 

Or the person has bought into bogus health claims. Your diet is not making your blood acidic. So if the low-acid diet** gets you to eat more vegetables and less high calorie density foods then your improvements are from the fiber and better calorie balance. You didn’t control for confounding factors and you are attributing success to the wrong thing. This is exactly why understanding the basic science and doing controlled experiments are so necessary. 

Ye Olde exercise tool is not great for everything. No tool is. But if adding that tool got you to actually do more than you were doing before you will see some improvements. It is basically true (for most things) that more exercise will produce some improvements even if they are modest or inefficient. 

If your shoulders are getting tired from holding your sword up then sure, gada exercises will help with that, but that doesn’t prove they are good for anything else. Or that they are cost-effective. Or safe.

I will, however, reserve the right to get grumpy about specifically dangerous diets and exercises.

The history of this

The history of what was learned by humans who “just tried it” is well illustrated by the history of medicine. Because there are a staggering number of medical treatments documented in historical sources that just don’t work. But some humans tried them and became convinced that they worked. And then it ended up being written down by somebody called a doctor (or equivalent in their language). 

In short, humans have hyper-active pattern recognition; it’s hard-wired into our brains. This is useful in many basic life situations but can also go badly wrong. We think that A caused B when they are in fact unrelated. 

Good reasons to do things

There are of course plenty of good reasons to do something that don’t have to do with optimal outcomes. Where I get grumpy is when a person is really just describing their personal preference as if it were the best idea for everyone.

Exercise plans that fit your circumstances, equipment and motivation are great.

Eating patterns that are sustainable for you and improve nutrition are great.

But don’t insist that I need to just try it.

*critical here in a technical sense, not just destructive criticism

** the low-acid diet I’ve seen actually recommended eating oranges which are the most acidic food that humans eat :-D

Monday, March 4, 2019

Basics of Progression

When I'm working with personal training clients and preparing people to be independent one of the common questions I get is on how to continue progressing the program.

This is a basic guide to that. It is not the same approach I use with in-person training and is intended instead to be a somewhat more conservative approach that is safer and easier to do without direct supervision.

When to progress

When you can do more than the target number of reps for the last set on an exercise. Beating your target when you are fresh doesn't count. It's the last set that we are looking at. If the target was 10 or more reps then you need to do 2 more reps. If the target was between 5 and 8 reps then you need to do just one more rep. If it's under 5 reps then one more rep may be too big a jump - see below.

How much to progress

For major exercises, and in particular lower body exercises, then 10-20% is a reasonable increase. Major exercises are the compound movements involving multiple joints like squat and deadlift, and for some folks bench press.

For upper body exercises and ones that are single joint exercises, then 5-10% is reasonable. This includes single leg or single arm exercises, and accessory exercises.

Depending on equipment limitations then you may need to wait for more reps before going up in weight. If you are doing an overhead press with a 20 pound dumbbell for 10 reps, and your gym only has 25 as the next available weight, then 2 more reps probably isn't enough. You'll probably need 3-5 more reps before you can handle the increase. And you may need to drop down the number of reps the number of reps at first, maybe doing just 8 for a week or two at the new weight.

Slow is fine

Going up 5 pounds a week in your major lifts is just fine. If you actually kept that up you'd add 250 pounds in a year! Don't feel the need to rush. The strength will come if you put in the time.

For major lifts where you are in the 5RM or fewer reps range then just 2.5 or 5 pounds a week is just fine, even if you can't do one more rep yet. Maybe you hit that new weight and maybe you don't. If you don't then just drop back to the last weight. It's not worth stressing about - every week can't be your best week.

Progressing the Program

The above advice is geared towards progressing weight for an exercise while targeting the same number of reps. The program should also progress by increasing intensity, which means more weight at fewer reps. I discussed intensity levels, and progressing them in a previous post.

As always, feel free to reply with questions.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

I'm a Physical Therapist Now!

And so I've expanded the areas covered by my blogging to reflect that. Most of my blogging will now be over at

This new blog will reflect my increased training, education and interests. In addition to continuing material on Strength & Conditioning training for HEMA, fencing, martial arts and other combat sports, I will also be writing about:
  • Physical Therapy – these posts will fall into to categories:
    • Patient oriented articles
    • Therapist oriented articles, that is content intended for fellow physical therapists and related professionals
  • General Fitness – while I had a few of these over at my old blog I will get more into this topic here given my expanding work
  • Strength & Conditioning  – for non-athletes and those in sports other than combat sports, as well as strength & conditioning for non-traditional athletics like dance, rock-climbing, circus etc.
  • Nutrition – now part of my formal certifications as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
  • Science, Skepticism and Science-Based Medicine – my true love/obsession, which underpins everything else I do.  Based in large part on what I’ve learned over at SBM and Neurologica.
Thanks for joining me.

Bad News Everybody!


On How I Continued Strength Training with a Broken Finger

About a month ago I broke a finger. My right index finger, proximal phalanx. Yes, I'm  right-handed.
I broke it sword-fighting. (For those who don't know I do Historical Fencing at Athena School of Arms.) My opponent's sword hit a gap in my protective gear. The hit split my skin all the way down to the tendon. There was a visible, longitudinal defect in the tendon - that I got to see in the ER. And there is a diagonal fracture along the length the bone. Minor as far as fractures go - not displaced or open.
And so I was put into a heavy duty splint. It immobilized me from the tip of the index finger down to the carpal bones. With the middle finger included in the finger splint, almost like buddy taping the fingers. And it wrapped around the base of my thumb. I could barely get my thumb and pinky finger to grip.

But I Did Strength Training Anyways

I'm not convinced the OT who created my splint would have really approved of my exercise routine, but . . .
There was no chance I was going to stop unless it was impossible.

Lower Body Strength Training

Squats, and variants thereof, were alright, it was just harder to grip the bar solidly to stabilize it. I've just been concerned with the fail state - if I had to ditch the weight I can't move my hand out of the way as easily as usual.
Deadlifts are right out because I can't generate the grip strength necessary. So I replaced them with barbell hip thrusts. It's possible to move a surprising amount of weight with this. I'm up to almost 300 pounds with this. Single-leg deadlifts were still doable because the weight was light enough to grip.

Upper Body Strength Training

This is where it got interesting. I couldn't do any pushing exercises because the splint came down across the heel of my palm by the thumb. And of course I had trouble gripping for pulling exercises!
I solved this with a lifting hook. This is like the more common lifting straps, but I went for something more intense, these: Lifting Lab Weightlifting Hooks. These put almost all the pull into the strap around my wrist letting me do pulling exercises pretty close to normal. I even reached a point where I could do pullups!
The other workaround I used was to put an ankle strap around  my wrist and use a cable column machine for flyes, reverse flyes and front raises. This allowed me to target both the pecs with the flyes and the deltoids with the raises. Thereby covering the same muscles I would work with typical pushing exercises. This preserves the muscle performance.
When I got back to bench press last week my plan had worked and I had maintained nearly 100% of what I was at when I broke my finger (5 pounds away from finally benching 2 plates!)
And the reverse flyes hit the mid-back muscles until I was able to return to doing rows instead.

Olympic Lifts

. . . were right out. Boo. But I continued with box jumps to keep up my lower body explosive power.


At my follow-up appointment last week the splint got reduced to just a finger splint, freeing up most of my hand and allowing me to go back to doing regular pushing exercises. Hooray!
Finger splint
After a few weeks like that and now I can even take the splint off and type normally.

The Physical Therapy Attitude

I didn't let my injury stop me anymore than absolutely necessary. I kept up with every exercise I could and adapted those that were not doable in the usual manner. A big part of what I see physical therapy as being good for is this concept of maintaining function and adapting instead of stopping activity. We keep people moving. No matter what (almost).