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.