Fencing exercises for speed, strength and flexibility
by Jason Rogers
The best fencers use a blend of speed, strength, technique and tactical thinking on the strip; hence, the sport is often nicknamed “physical chess.” In this article we are going to focus exclusively on the “physical” aspect of fencing, and how we can incorporate targeted strength training into our fencing workout routines to get to the next level. For insight on this important topic we have spoken to Dr. Scott A. Weiss (DPT ATC CSCS DMQ*) who spends a lot of time and energy helping athletes from all walks of life, young and old. He has extensive experience with elite, Olympic-level fencers such as Miles Chamley-Watson, Daryl Homer and Daga Wozniak as well as Modern Pentathletes Nathan and Lucas Schrimsher and Isabella and Margaux Isaksen. He’s also worked with globally known athletes such as Andy Roddick, Michael Phelps and Brandi Chastain. On a personal note, I was lucky to work with Scott in the years after the 2008 Beijing Olympics at his Bodhizone health center in New York City. He’s not only a fantastic sports medicine professional, but also an amazing educator working hard to spread knowledge on important and timely topics in his field.
Table of Contents
General Principles for fencing exercises
Before we get into the specifics, Scott and I first want to share some important considerations.
Common Knowledge Isn’t Common Practice
Strength and Conditioning is a dizzying topic because there is a lot of conflicting information out there. Scott’s approach builds on some very foundational exercises, many of which you will already be familiar with. Don’t be fooled, just because they seem basic does not mean they are not extremely effective. It can be easy to get distracted by the constant deluge of trendy, well-branded workout approaches, but we suggest that you try these recommended fencing exercises, as they can have real impact on your performance. Ultimately, the key to improvement is good form, mindfulness and consistency. Scott has worked with us to perfect a routine of straightforward exercises that have been modified for fencing**.
Fencing Specific Exercises Vs. Fencing Transferable Exercises
To make sure this routine best utilizes your time and energy, we will look at four of the most critical fencing actions where improved strength can have a big impact on your game. Scott then recommends a tailored set of exercises specifically for the movements involved in these actions. Those exercises fall in two categories, “Fencing Specific Exercises” and “Fencing Transferable Exercises.”
Fencing Specific Exercises help you develop and improve your strength by doing movements that are similar to an actual fencing movement. For example, if you want to work on your lunge, the exercise will simulate the movement of a lunge while also increasing resistance and/or difficulty to improve your strength, speed or balance.
Fencing Transferable Exercises help you develop overall strength by doing non-fencing movements, such as those you might see your average person doing in a gym, with increased resistance or difficulty; however, the strength gained is transferrable to a movement that is important in fencing.
Why are both important? Fencing is an asymmetrical sport, meaning that when we train and compete, all movements are performed on one side of our bodies – either right or left; accordingly. Over time we develop more strength and flexibility on our dominant side. This is common, but can also increase our risk of injury, and thus, it is very important to work at keeping your body in balance.
Fencing Specific exercises are excellent at helping your body improve movements that it is already accustomed to doing. Fencing Transferable Exercises challenge your body to learn new and different movements. A good balance of both helps to avoid injury by preventing overuse and overtraining of the same muscles again and again.
If you want to learn more about injury prevention, we dove deeply into this ever-important topic in a previous post and discussed in detail what you can do to both avoid and recover from pesky injuries.
Training Strength Vs. Power In Fencing Workouts
Most exercises you will be familiar with focus on increasing your strength. However this is not the only important consideration when it comes to your body’s ability to perform. For example, you may have strong muscles, but if they aren’t accustomed to working under the challenging conditions presented in a fencing bout, that strength isn’t going to be very helpful to you. When we fence, our heart rate is often very high, causing your muscles to create and consume energy in a different way than when you are lifting weights at the gym. Under these conditions (when our heart rates are elevated), we use a different term: “Power.” Scott breaks down the difference between training exclusively for “Strength” versus training for “Power”:
“Strength is defined as how much mass you can move with a particular movement. Power is an explosive application of force and is defined by how well you move that mass in a specific period of time. In physics terms, it’s how much ‘work’ (Force X Distance) you can do in that time frame.” – Scott Weiss
If you have ever watched the World’s Strongest Man competitions, you will be familiar with some of the basic challenges in which they compete. The standing dead lift is an event in which the competitor simply must lift as much weight as possible off the ground by grabbing a bar and lifting the bar to a standing position. This is an example of muscular strength. However you will also remember events in which competitors must carry the weight a specific distance in as little time as possible. This is muscular power at work. We all understand the importance of developing strength, but how to develop Power is a lesser known skill, and is vital for elite athletes.
When we do exercises to build strength, we must push ourselves past the point which our body is comfortable. To do this, we want to complete as many repetitions as we can to make the exercise challenging because it is in the final, and most difficult, repetitions that our muscles receive the greatest benefit. Forcing out those final repetitions ensures the proper stress needed to create the desired effect on the muscle. Additionally, the more sets of each exercise we can perform, the more overall strength can be built in one session. Each person is unique and so while we have suggested the number of repetitions and sets for each exercise below, you must evaluate this for yourself or your team to determine how best to optimize the exercise for your individual needs.
Power is developed by taking a strength exercise and placing a time restriction on it, such that your goal is now to complete as many optimal repetitions as possible within that time frame. It’s very important to note that not all exercises can be adapted to develop Power. Many exercises rely on significant attention to technique and thus trying to perform repetitions quickly detracts from the value of the exercise. Where appropriate, we’ve incorporated progressions for recommended fencing exercises to help you train power, thus conditioning muscles to generate as much force as possible, as quickly as possible.
Optimizing Exercises with Eccentric Motion and Plyometrics
Many of you will already have your own strength routines that you do on a regular basis, which is fantastic. The advice we provide in this article is intended to help supplement what you are already doing with new or different exercises tailored for fencing or to help you get more out the exercises you are already doing.
We want to point out that there are certain physiological tricks you can implement to maximize the exercises we recommend as well as those that you may already be doing. For our exercises, we set out guidelines for specific progressions. However, we also believe it’s worth reviewing these types of progressions as general concepts to help optimize any exercise.
Most traditional strength movements contain two different components: the concentric (+) motion and the eccentric (-) motion. The concentric motion tends to be the part of the exercise where you feel the most exertion. For example, in a push up, the concentric motion occurs when you lift away from the floor, straightening your arms from a bent position (the “pushing up” part). The eccentric part occurs when you bend your elbows and lower yourself down.
Scott helps us understand why this is important. If you walk into any gym and watch the way that the majority of people perform strength exercises, you will see that they typically neglect the eccentric aspect of the exercise. They do not control the eccentric motion, often lowering weights down very quickly or, in the example of the push up, dropping down rapidly so their chest nearly touches the ground. The reason for this is that most people mistakenly think all of the benefit comes from what they think is the hard part: the concentric motion. However, research shows that performing the eccentric part of the exercise slowly (and mindfully) actually loads the muscles more than the concentric part, leading to better strength results! In other words, if you focus just as much on the eccentric motion of most exercises, you will get stronger faster. You will be interested to know that you are already stronger in the eccentric motions by a ratio of approximately 1.4 to 1. That means that if you can lift 100 pounds concentrically, you can lower 140 pounds eccentrically. One very important caveat to mention is that eccentric exercise has been proven to cause more muscle soreness, so be warned and proceed cautiously!
Another, often neglected, technique for enhancing explosive strength involves incorporating “plyometrics” into your exercise. This is a fancy word for something that our body does naturally: the preloading of a muscle with a quick stretch in order to enhance our strength output. Scott explains that our muscles have certain properties which allow them to store potential energy (sorry, back to the physics terms) which it then converts to kinetic energy. In a real world example, imagine the movement your body makes when you jump up to touch something above you that is out of your reach. You don’t just jump straight away. First you bend your knees slightly, loading energy into your calf and quadriceps muscles as they stretch, and then spring into the air. This is plyometrics at work.
In some exercises you can take advantage of this property to enhance your strength training. For example, let’s say you are working on your vertical jump and typically practice jumping as high as you can, over and over. You can improve the effectiveness of this exercise by first jumping off a bench, and then immediately as you land, springing into your standing vertical jump.
By first jumping off of a bench, you force the muscles in your legs to deal with more pre-loaded energy than you do by simply jumping from a standing position, thus earning greater rewards on your effort. Imagine doing the same exercise but instead of the vertical jump, you explode into a lunge. This is a great example of a fencing transferable exercise.
In this article, we have noted which exercises can be progressed by using plyometrics. Plyometrics are not appropriate for all exercises, so be sure to do some research or work with a medical or fitness professional before incorporating them into other fencing workout routines.
Back to table of contents
Now let's look at the the 4 key fencing actions and accompanying fencing exercises.
Without question, the lunge is the most critical action in our sport. It is unique to fencing and serves as the core enabler for a successful attack. A perfect lunge requires not only explosive strength, but also flexibility and balance. It’s a highly technical movement that fencers start learning during their very first lesson but continue to perfect over literally tens of thousands of lunges executed during their career.
The Lateral Broad Jump
The explosive nature of a lunge originates in the coiled power of several critical muscles and tendons in the back leg: the calf and achilles, the gluteus maximus (your butt), the quadriceps and your adductors / groin. When you push off your back leg, all of these muscles work together to accelerate your body forward enabling you to reach your opponent and score the touch. The lateral broad jump is a fencing specific exercise in which you perform the same explosive motion that your back leg makes during a lunge without the use of your front leg at all.
Lateral Broad Jump – Quick Guide:
- Get into an en garde position
- Lift your front foot off the ground and hold
- Using your arms to help propel you, jump as far as you can
- Focus on “sticking” the landing with the back foot landing facing the same direction as when you jumped
- Once you complete the full set, repeat on the opposite side
Lateral Broad Jump – Full Explanation
Get into an en garde position as you normally would, then lift your front foot off the ground and hold it in the air. By simply hovering the front foot off the ground, you force your back leg to take on additional load while it performs the exercise. Using your arms to help propel you, begin your jump with the objective being to jump as far forward as you can. Your front foot should remain in the air as you land on the same back foot that you jumped off of. The back foot should land facing the same direction as you jumped (and in your en garde position). As you land, focus on “sticking” the landing and regaining your balance before completing the next rep. It can be helpful to start on a baseline and use a cone or chalk line to measure how far you go with each jump. Once you complete the full set, repeat on the opposite side to make sure you are creating balanced strength in both legs.
Lateral Broad Jump – Sets & Reps
How many you choose to do in a session depends on your fencing level. If you are a beginner, start with two sets of five repetitions and gradually work your way up. If you are more advanced, you can work up to three sets of 12-15 repetitions, or more if that is not challenging enough.
Lateral Broad Jump – Progression – Adding Resistance
There are two ways to make this exercise more challenging. The first is carry more weight while you are performing the lunge movement. For example, you can hold light dumbbells (2-5 pounds) in your hands or, as Scott prefers, wear a weighted vest. Another method is placing a source of resistance behind you, attached to your waist. This can be done with a large resistance band or bungee cord looped around your waist and then attached to a stable wall or door. Of course this can also be accomplished with a trusty friend or partner willing to hold the resistance band for you. The strength of the band and how far away you stand from it determines how challenging the exercise will be.
The Standing Long Jump
A powerful lunge is based on the ability to overcome the forces of gravity while propelling your body forward. The standing long jump is fencing transferable exercise which is a simple, but effective, for supporting pure acceleration.
Standing Long Jump – Quick Guide
- Stand with feet hip distance apart
- Bend your knees and swing arms backwards
- Swing arms forward and jump and land with both feet at the same time
- Maintain balance and try to stick the landing
Standing Long Jump – Full Explanation
Stand with both feet about hip distance apart. Bend your knees as you gently swing your hands backwards. Then, as you bring your hands forward again, jump forward with both feet at the same time. Your goal here is distance, and you want to get your feet out in front of you to cover as much ground as possible. Be careful not overextend to the point that you cannot maintain your balance when you land. Try to “stick” the landing and then completely reset your starting position before you proceed to the next jump.
Standing Long Jump – Sets & Reps
As with the previous exercise, if you are a beginner, you should start with only a few jumps, working your way up to the number of repetitions and sets that are challenging for you. If you are advanced, work up to at least three sets of 12-15 repetitions before you move to any progressions on the exercise.
Standing Long Jump – Progression – Add Plyometric
One way to make this exercise more challenging is to begin each jump with a plyometric start. Find a low, stable box or bench which allows you to stand safely above ground level (approximately 12-20 inches). Begin with your feet close to the edge, feet about hip distance apart. With a small jump, drop off the box, landing on both feet (same distance apart). Then immediately launch into your long jump. You will have to work out the proper coordination for this so that you can still use your swinging arms to propel you forward but also not resting too long before launching into the jump. You want to imagine that your legs are like a rubber band; when you first land, your muscles stretch out, and when they snap back into place, that is your long jump. If you wait too long, the plyometric effect is lost.
If you have ever watched Apollo Ono move at blistering speeds across the ice, you will agree that speed skaters have incredible strength in their legs. Today, we take a page out their training book. The speed skater exercise is fencing transferable, benefiting the overall strength of our legs, and thus improving our lunge.
Speed Skaters – Quick Guide
- Stand with feed hip distance apart
- Lift one leg and leap in that direction
- Land only on the foot that started off the ground
- Alternate back and forth, ensuring that only one foot is on the ground at a time
- Ensure you are moderately balanced before moving onto the next jump
Speed Skaters – Full Explanation
Standing with your feet approximately hip distance apart, lift one foot so that you are standing on one leg. Using your arms to help you balance, leap in the direction of the foot that is off the ground, while continuing to face forward. You have two objectives: the first is to gain as much distance as you can. The second and more important goal is to land on the other foot (the one that started off the ground) and “stick” the landing. The exercise benefits you not only by challenging the jumping leg to propel your body through the air, but also by demanding that your other leg absorb the impact of the jump and stabilize your landing. To continue, make sure you completely regain your balance and then launch back in the direction you came from and onto the foot that you started on in the first jump. For the duration of the exercise you will leap from side to side. Each time you land, it can be helpful to let the leg that remains in the air slide out behind the standing leg (for example, the way a bowler lets his inside leg slide behind the balancing leg, only keep it in the air). Your arms play a critical role in helping you balance, and many find it helpful to allow the arm which is opposite from the landing leg, to cross in front of the body as it rotates to help absorb the lateral momentum of the jump.
Speed Skaters – Sets & Reps
Beginners should start with 1-2 sets of 3-5 repetitions and focus completely on performing the elements correctly. More advanced can work up to three sets of 12-15 repetitions before adding the progressions below.
Speed Skaters – Progression
This is quite a technical exercise so being able to complete a balanced landing is essential before proceeding. Once you are confident that you can, the way to progress this exercise is to make the landing a little more challenging. You can do this in several ways. The first is to complete the exercise without shoes on a forgiving surface like grass. This forces you to work a little harder to hold your balance as you land. The second way is to do the exercise on a surface that absorbs some of the impact of your landing such as a gymnastics fitness mat that is used for tumbling (because the mat compresses as you land, your muscles will have to work harder to control the weight of your body). Yet another way the exercise can be enhanced is to do it barefoot on a less stable surface, like sand. In this case, when you land, the surface actually moves slightly under your foot which means you have to really challenge yourself to stay upright (this will also build ankle strength). The good news is that if you fall, you’ve got a softer surface below you to cushion the impact. You can also try the exercise with light dumbbells in each hand, but leaping with your own body weight is preferred so you don’t compromise your technique. This is one of the exercises that shouldn’t be done in timed intervals (for Power) because doing so could compromise your ability to land the leap properly before beginning the next jump.
Here is a scenario that all fencers can relate to: your opponent begins the final stage of their attack, and you are trying to pull the distance. There is a brief, harrowing moment when it’s unclear whether you’ve just managed to escape their blade or whether you are...ahem...skewered. This game of cat and mouse depends heavily on the defenders ability to control the overall distance during the opponent’s attack, especially the very last retreating step. To help you with this, we’ve looked at exercises which can enhance this final, critical step which is a powerful jumping motion created by the front leg pushing the entire body off the ground and the fencer landing solidly on both feet and in control (often leaning backwards, pulling their target area away from their opponent’s hungry blade).
The Reverse Long Jump
The reverse long jump is a fencing specific exercise for actions which rely on propulsive leg power. In contrast to the standing long jump (which utilizes the back leg), we focus here on the front leg which drives the getaway.
Reverse Long Jump – Quick Guide
- Start in en garde position
- Raise back foot a few inches off the ground
- Use your front leg to leap backwards
- Land on both feet at the same time
- Maintain balance and technique
- Complete set and repeat on other side
Reverse Long Jump – Full Explanation
Think of this exercise as almost the opposite of the lateral broad jump, as outlined above. Get into the en garde position, and instead of lifting the front leg, hover the back leg a few inches above the ground. The toes of that front leg should be facing forward, not out to the side. Then, with as much power as you can, thrust off the front leg, launching yourself backwards as you would in a real bouting scenario. After pushing off, both feet should be in the air before landing solidly on both feet. Your goal here is distance and, like with other exercises, you want to make sure that you don’t compromise your technique. Always be sure to regain stability before beginning the next repetition.
Reverse Long Jump – Sets & Reps
Beginners should start with one to two sets of 3-5 repetitions and focus on performing the elements correctly. More advanced fencers can work up to three sets of 12-15 repetitions.
Reverse Long Jump – Progression - Change the Landing
To make this exercise more difficult, you can switch up the landing. But before you try the advanced progressions, first try pushing off your front foot and landing on only your back foot. Like the speed skater leaps, you should pay close attention to your balance and make sure you are completely stable before you begin another repetition. Once you have mastered this you are ready; proceed to an advanced progression which is to push off the front leg and then land only on the front leg. This will shift your balance forwards, and because you have momentum going backwards, places a lot of strain on the muscles of the front leg to control your landing (recall what we mention about eccentric motions being very important in strength training). Do not, however, modify this exercise to train Power (by adding a time limit). Trying to perform this variation at speed will compromise your ability to maintain your balance, risk injury and diminish the value of the exercise.
The Pistol Squat
Most leg exercises only focus on challenging the leg when the knee is bent to a maximum of 90 degrees (a squatting position). However, the pistol squat is a fencing transferable exercise which challenges the leg beyond this normal range of motion, thus adding dynamic strength and balance which can help you cover more distance in your last step.
Pistol Squat – Quick Guide
- Stand on one leg
- Slowly squat without your raised foot touching the floor
- Maintain control and balance throughout
- Start with a 45 degree bend, and work your way up to 110 degrees
- When you finish the set, do the same on the other leg
Pistol Squat – Full Explanation
The main objective of this exercise is to go from a one-legged standing position to a squat position without losing your balance and then returning to your standing position. The deeper you squat, the more difficult the exercise; going beyond a 90 degree bend becomes very difficult. Scott recommends beginning with a 45 degree squat and then increasing incrementally to 90 degrees. Once you have mastered this comfortably, you can progress to a maximum 110 degree bend (more than this risks injury). The exercise requires a lot of mental focus and your technique is extremely important, so at first, you may need assistance. It is easy to fall if your leg muscles aren’t strong enough to fully support you throughout the full concentric and eccentric ranges of this movement. There are few ways you can modify the exercise when you are getting started. If you place a bench, (approximately knee height) behind you, you can always just sit down on that surface if you start to lose your balance. You can also use a broom stick or foam roller held vertically (like a cane) to stabilize yourself as you descend and come back up. Similarly, you can hold onto a railing or rope hanging from the ceiling which also takes a little weight off of the exercising leg. Lastly, you can ask a partner to hold one of your hands as you go up and down.
The exercise relies on good technique and so progressions are not advised. For those who find it difficult, building overall leg strength can help you to perform this exercise more easily. One simple way to build that strength is to use a standard leg press machine to challenge your legs to bear extra weight as you go from an extended (standing) position into a bent leg position (squat). This is, in essence, an eccentric contraction. To build on this, do one leg at a time, thus simulating the pistol squat exercise above, gradually increasing from a 45 degree to a maximum of 110 degree bend. Only use as much weight as you can handle as you slowly lower your body into the squat with focused control, then reverse and press up without bouncing.
Pistol Squat – Sets & Reps
Using the modifications above, beginners should start with 2-5 repetitions on each leg focusing completely on controlling and performing the elements correctly. More advanced levels can work up to three sets of 12-15 repetitions per leg.
Pistol Squat – No Progression
It’s best to focus on increased repetitions at the maximum range (110 degrees) without support.
The Vertical Jump
The vertical jump is a fencing transferable exercise which works on your overall ability to spring off the ground. This explosive strength can support a very strong final step as, in that step, you often spend a short amount of time airborne.
Vertical Jump – Quick Guide
- Start in a standing position with feet slightly wider than hip distance apart
- Bend your knees and pull your arms behind you
- Swing your arms in a pendulum motion upwards as you jump
- The goal is to get as high as possible
Vertical Jump – Full Explanation
The objective of this exercise is simple. You want to put as much distance between you and floor as possible. The starting position is with your feet a little wider than hip distance apart. Like the Standing Long Jump Exercise, bend your knees and, as you do so, swing your arms from behind you in a forward pendulum motion to give you extra momentum as you jump as high as you can. The key is to try to create as much vertical acceleration as possible which increases the amount of lift you get off the ground. For some it’s helpful to have something above you that you are reaching for, such as a hanging string or doorframe. Scott recommends using some chalk on your middle finger and, as you jump, touch a wall or doorframe to track your vertical progress. If you use this method, be especially conscious that, as you reach for your target, you don’t lose focus on your vertical lift or your landing. Many have a tendency not to jump completely vertical and when they land, one foot comes down before the other.
Vertical Jump – Sets & Reps
As this is a common movement, you can begin with as many repetitions as you feel comfortable with. More advanced fencers will want to work up to three sets of 12-15 repetitions before moving on to progressions of the exercise.
Vertical Jump – Progressions – One Leg & Time Based
A vertical jump typically relies on explosive power in both legs, however the main action we are training for (pulling distance) relies primarily on the strength of one leg (your front leg). For that reason, it can be very beneficial to also do this exercise on one leg at a time. You will find that it’s much more difficult to coordinate your balance and the height that you can reach is significantly reduced. The landing is especially important when you are jumping and landing on one leg; you will want to be careful and safeguard your foot and ankle from awkward landings. It’s important to do this exercise on both legs to balance out the strength you are building.
If you are able to comfortably perform three sets of 12-15 repetitions then you can progress the exercise by introducing a time limit and trying to do as many repetitions as you can within that time frame. Start with as many vertical jumps as you can do in 30 seconds using both legs. Then work your way up to one minute. Then try this with the same time limitations using one leg at a time.
Arm Extension (Thrust & cut)
A fencer lives or dies on their ability to effectively strike their opponent. An effective thrust (or cut for sabre) relies heavily on proper technical skills; hence, why we spend thousands of hours over the course of a career drilling in lessons and in front of a target. However, focused strength and conditioning can make your final arm extension both faster and stronger.
The Theraband thrust is a fencing specific exercise which improves strength and speed by adding resistance to arm motions you are already doing; thrusting or cutting.
Theraband Thrust – Quick Guide
- Attach resistance band to stable object
- Face away from stable object
- Hold on to other (knotted) end
- Perform simple fencing extension at normal fencing speeds
- Retract your arm slowly, counting to three in your head
- Perform on both arms
Theraband Thrust – Full Explanation
Pick an extension motion that you do on regular basis. For a foil fencer this could be a thrust to the chest. For an épée fencer this could be a flicking motion to the wrist. For a sabre fencer, this could be a cut to the head. In order to add resistance, you will need to get some resistance bands. I personally like Therabands because they are light and portable. Attach one end of the band directly to something stable such as column or door handle. Don’t loop the band around the object by tying one end of the band to the other as this doubles the resistance and makes controlling the band a little trickier. Tie a knot or two at the other end of the Theraband, this is what you will hold on to. Then, standing in the en garde position and holding the band so the resistance comes from behind you, start by extending your arm back and forth in one of the extension actions you have chosen. On the extension, you want the action to be quick, so imagine counting “One” in your head. Then as you retract your arm back to the starting position, pay extra attention to controlling the movement, counting “One, Two, Three” in your head. This eccentric control is especially helpful for strengthen the stabilizing muscles in your shoulder (your rotator cuff specifically) which holds your arm in place. Make sure to do this exercise on both sides (even though you only fence with one arm) as having balanced strength on both sides is important to overall health, symmetry and injury prevention.
Theraband Thrust – Sets & Reps
For beginners, start with two-three sets of 5 repetitions. Advanced fencers can work their way up to three sets of 12-15 repetitions.
Theraband Thrust – Progression - Use Your Weapon & Power
To make this exercise better simulate actual fencing, it can also be performed with a handle or weapon. You can either attach the resistance band to a small handle (e.g. the last 12 inches of a broom stick) or directly on your weapon itself. If attaching it to your weapon, you will have to get a little bit creative, either tying it around the foil or épée pistol grip or the base of the saber guard. Make sure it’s secure before you begin the exercise and then practice the same movements as above with a target in front of you. This helps the action feel more realistic, thus integrating it deeper into your fencing muscle memory.
Over time, you might be tempted to add additional resistance to the exercise, however, this has a tendency to compromise your technique. For example, additional resistance can cause you to roll your shoulder slightly inwards to bear the extra weight. So rather than adding weight, it’s better to convert the exercise to train Power by adding a time limit and performing as many as possible within that period. Start with 30 seconds, then work your way up to one minute on each side. You must be especially attentive to your technique. Quality is always more important than quantity!
The Medicine Ball Toss
The medicine ball toss is a fencing transferable exercise to build explosive arm strength. One of the greatest aspects of a medicine ball is that they are versatile, durable and can be used for exercises where typical weights cannot. You can throw them against any stable surface without much concern for damaging the ball or the surface.
Medicine Ball Toss – Quick Guide
- Use a medicine ball you can comfortably toss up in the air and catch
- Find a wall, and stand a distance away equal to your height
- Face the wall in an en garde position
- Holding the ball in your back hand, twist and shove the ball towards the wall
- Try to hit the wall with as much force as possible
- Repeat on both sides
Medicine Ball Toss – Full Explanation
Medicine balls come in many weights and sizes, so pick one that you can comfortably control, but also feels a little challenging to throw straight up in the air and then catch in front of you. Usually this would be in the range of 3 to 10 pounds, depending on your level. Find a sturdy wall and stand about as far from the wall as you are tall (for example, I’m 6’0” so would stand 6 feet from wall). Also, be sure to check that there are no bystanders that might be surprised by a stray toss (ouch!). Get into an en garde position facing the wall holding the ball in your back hand (e.g. your left hand if your left foot is back, or vice versa). The motion you want is a twist and shove, with your truck rotating with your arm to thrust the ball forward towards the wall. The objective of the exercise is to throw with as much acceleration as possible so that the ball strikes the wall with significant force. Then recover the ball and repeat. It is helpful to do the exercise with a partner who can collect the ball and toss it back to you, so that you don’t need to leave the starting position. The motion can feel challenging at first, but if you keep at it, your coordination will improve too. As with all one-sided exercises, be sure to do this exercise on both sides.
Medicine Ball Toss – Sets & Reps
For beginners, start with two-three sets of 5 repetitions. Advanced fencers can work their way up to three sets of 15-20 repetitions, increasing the weight of the medicine ball if this becomes too easy.
Medicine Ball Toss – Progression - Eyes Closed, Time-based, More weight
You can enhance this exercise several ways:
When you are very comfortable with the basic exercise, one variation is to close your eyes during the toss. This overloads the body’s system and challenges your proprioceptors (your sensory receptors focused on balance), muscles and tendons to work harder.
You can also place a time limitation and try to do as many throws as possible in that period (if you have a partner to help by recovering and tossing you the ball as it hits the wall). Focus on catching, twisting and releasing the ball as quickly as possible without losing any acceleration. Beginners should start with 30 seconds; advanced fencers can work up to two minutes.
Any of the above progressions can also be done with a heavier medicine ball. However, if you feel like you are compromising the technique (e.g. you need to take an extra step to throw the ball) then you are using too much weight and should return to a lighter ball.
The Bench Dip
Using your own weight and creative body positioning is an effective way to build significant arm strength. The bench dip is a fencing transferable exercise that can be done pretty much anywhere.
Bench Dip – Quick Guide
- Face away from stable bench
- Place palms on bench with fingers facing forwards
- Grip the front edge of the bench with your fingers
- Extend your feet in front of you with your legs bent at 90 degrees
- Bend your arms and lower your body while your feet remain in place
- Straighten your arms to return to starting position
- Do not dip past 90 degree elbow bend
Bench Dip – Full Explanation
Find a stable ledge or bench that is approximately 18-36 inches in height. Turn your back to the ledge/bench and place your palms down with your hands facing the same direction as you are and your fingers gripping the edge. Then carefully support your body weight as you extend your feet out in front of you with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Your objective is to use your arms to lower and raise your body weight while your feet remain on the ground. Think of it as a reverse push up. Watch your form and be careful not to dip past a 90 degree elbow because it can place too much strain on the front of your shoulders.
Bench Dip – Sets & Reps
Beginners should start with one to two sets of 3-5 repetitions with focus completely on performing the elements correctly. More advanced fencers can work up to three sets of 12-15 repetitions.
Bench Dip – Progression - Change foot positioning
All you need to do to make this exercise more challenging is change the position of your feet. The first progression is to extend your legs until they are completely straight. This will increase the body weight that your arms must lower and raise. Then, to make it even more difficult, find another bench or stable object of similar (or lower) height to put in front of you and place your feet on it. By changing the angle of your legs, your arms will need to carry even more weight to complete the exercise. The final progression is to introduce an element of instability which forces your arms and core to work even harder. For this you can use a physio ball or a chair with wheels on the bottom (like you would use in an office). Place your feet up on the ball or chair and carefully complete the exercise as before. You will notice that it’s very difficult to do more than a few repetitions with both the extra weight and an unstable surface supporting your feet!
All fencers can relate to this experience: you come together simultaneously with your opponent, and when you look back at the scoring box, there’s only one light on...and it’s not yours. It’s endlessly irritating to feel like you hit, but then be unpleasantly surprised to learn that your opponent managed to find an advantageous position with their weapon and close you out. Some close outs are intentional. However, the vast majority are an unintentional by-product of having learned (over time) the best angle to strike your opponent. Strength, however, also plays an essential role in these touches because, if your opponent is more forceful than you, they can muscle their way through even if their blade is poorly positioned. Let’s look at some exercises that can help focus on the muscles that stabilize the arm as it extends towards the target.
The Trunk Swivel
Resistance bands are a fencer’s friend because they can be applied to many sport-specific movements. The trunk swivel is a fencing specific exercise which helps strengthen important stabilizing muscles in the shoulder that are critical to a sturdy arm extension.
Trunk Swivel – Quick Guide
- Connect one end of resistance band to stable pole or column
- Face the column in an en garde position
- Hold onto the with your front arm mostly extended
- Move your feet backwards until there is a little resistance
- Pull the band to the side by rotating your trunk
- Hold for a moment, and return to neutral
- After you finish the set, repeat the exercise rotating the other direction (same arm)
- After you finish both of these sets, repeat with the other arm
Trunk Swivel – Full Explanation
Connect one end of the resistance band of your choice (I prefer the Theraband) to a stable surface such as a pole or column. Stand facing the band and hold on to the other end with one arm. Get into en garde position with your arm mostly extended (approximately a 20 to 30 degree bend in you arm). Move backwards to stretch the band until you start to feel some resistance. Now, imagine that you have a straight line from the top of your head, through your trunk and directly to the ground. Then also imagine that your arm is fused to your trunk and cannot move from side to side. The objective of the exercise is to swivel like a top on that axis with your arm moving along with your trunk, but without changing the angle of the bend in the elbow. The more you turn, the more the band will stretch and provide greater resistance. Begin by swiveling to the outside (to the right for right-handers, to the left for left-handers). Once you hit the point where your arm is really challenged, hold briefly, then return to the starting position, slowing controlling the eccentric movement as you return to center. Once you have finished this set of repetitions, change your foot position so that you can perform an inward turn using the same arm. To get the right amount of resistance for this opposite motion, you will need to rotate approximately 45 degrees inwards (to the left for right-handers, to the right for left-handers). Then perform the same exercise rotating inwards (left for right-handers, to the right for left-handers). Again, pause at the point of maximum rotation and then control the return to the starting position. You will feel this exercise throughout your arm and all the way to the muscles deep inside your core and shoulder (the rotator cuff muscle). Make sure you repeat both extensions with the other arm as balanced strength is important to preventing injury and creating a complete athlete.
Trunk Swivel – Sets & Reps
Beginners should begin with light resistance and perform two sets of 5 repetitions. Advanced fencers should work towards three sets of 12-15 repetitions.
Trunk Swivel – Progression - Stronger resistance & fencing motion
Because this exercise is optimized when you maintain strong control over both the concentric (first part of swivel) and the eccentric motion (return to center), Scott does not advise doing this exercise with a time limit. Instead, a better progression is to increase the resistance and work to really control the motion under more challenging circumstances.
The Anterior Plank with Arm Extension
Readers of our injury prevention article will be familiar with this exercise, which is excellent for improving core stability. The anterior plank with arm extension is a fencing transferable exercise which is modified slightly to target arm strength.
Anterior Plank with Arm Extension – Quick Guide
- Start in pushup position, and move arms to directly under shoulders
- Bend elbows 20 to 30 degrees
- Keep the rest of your body as straight as possible
Anterior Plank with Arm Extension – Full Explanation
Start in a typical pushup position, then reposition your hands so they are directly underneath your shoulders. Unlike the version of the exercise in the injury prevention article where you would lower to your elbows, remain on your hands. Then lower yourself slightly so that your elbows are bent at a 20 to 30 degree angle. The rest of your body should remain completely straight. The objective of the exercise is to hold this position. Make sure that you are using the muscles in your chest, core and under the shoulder girdle to stabilize your upper body. You do not want your chest to sag (causing you to crunch into the shoulders) or to arch your upper back (taking the hard work of the exercise out of your abdominal muscles and core). There should be a straight line between the top of your head and your feet and your tailbone should be tucked under.
Anterior Plank with Arm Extension – Sets & Reps
This is an muscular endurance exercise so beginners should start with an amount of time that they are able to complete successfully. This can be as little as 15 seconds. If you are finding it difficult to complete 15 seconds, then modify the exercise so that you are on your knees instead of your toes. Advanced fencers should work their way up to three sets of holding the position for three minutes.
Anterior Plank with Arm Extension – Progressions - One arm plank with balance
This exercise challenges your whole body (and mind) to work to keep your body in a straight plank. If you want to make the exercise more challenging, you can do so by adding an additional element of balance. To do the first progression, spread your legs slightly, allowing for a wider base. Then lift one arm off the ground, balancing only on the other and your two feet which remain on the floor. Make sure that you don’t shift your hips to compensate. The lifted arm can be out along side you or behind your back. Then, if you want to progress the exercise further, lift and hover the opposite foot (right foot if the left arm is in the air, or vice versa) an inch above the ground. Hold that position for 15 seconds before you return the arm and foot to the ground. Then repeat with the opposite arm and foot. Continue alternating for whatever time period you have chosen.
The Reverse Fly
Strong muscles in the chest and upper back can help to make your arm even stronger which, in turn, can help you maintain your position, especially if your opponent is coming from an outer line. The reverse fly is a fencing transferable exercise which focuses on exactly this.
Reverse Fly – Quick Guide
- Use adjustable workout bench set to approximately 30 degrees
- Lay face down with chin over the edge of the elevated edge of the bench
- Grab dumbbells in each hand and slowly lift to the ceiling without bending your elbows
- Reach shoulder level, then slowly lower dumbbells back down
Reverse Fly – The Exercise
This exercise is best performed on an adjustable workout bench with a set of light dumbbells. Set the angle of the bench to about 30 degrees, then lay face down with your chin just over the edge of the elevated end of the bench. Pick up a dumbbell in each hand and use your toes to stabilize yourself on the ground. Without bending your arms, slowly lift the backs of your hands towards the ceiling. When your hands reach the level of your shoulders, slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.
Reverse Fly – Sets & Reps
Beginners should use very light dumbbells (two pounds) and try two sets of 8 repetitions. More advanced fencers can increase the weight of the dumbbells to five or even ten pounds and work towards three sets of 15-20 repetitions.
Reverse Fly – Progressions
There are two ways to progress this exercise. The first is to introduce a brief pause (this is called “isometrics”) to increase the strain on the muscles. While you are performing a repetition, pick a point (usually this is when the weights are at the highest point off the ground) to simply hold the dumbbell in place for 5-10 seconds. Then resume the repetition. You can introduce this element sporadically into your sets, including more and more until you are performing this movement in every rep. Another way to progress the exercise is to add a time limit and do as many as you can in that period (e.g. five pound weights for 30 seconds). Work your way up to one minute if you can! If you choose this progression, you would not want to use the isometric progression described above since your objective is to do as many reps as possible within your time frame.
Recovery & Nutrition
This one is pretty simple: you must give your body days off to recover from your hard work. Your body is not a machine and it needs time to restore itself. When you do prolonged exercise, what you are actually doing is creating small injuries (i.e. little tears) to your muscle fibers, causing your body to fuse muscle fibers together to form new muscle strands. However, your body can’t do its work effectively unless you give it the chance to do so.
You want to be performing the recommended fencing exercises three to four times per week for optimal results. It is equally important to set aside one to two days for total rest per week (including fencing) depending on your training intensity. You should also include complimentary elements such as stretching and massage into your recovery days, especially if you have been training especially hard over the course of the previous week. Also a “rest day” is slightly open to reasonable interpretation and preference. For some, a day off may include an activity where you break a small sweat. For example, going for a light 15-20 minute jog during which your heart rate remains between 130-150 beats per minute (which helps improve your heart’s ability to pump blood and your muscles’ ability to utilize oxygen).
The Importance of Protein, Carbohydrates and Vitamins
There are a number of studies that suggest athletes need more protein throughout the day than the average person to prevent their bodies from having to break down and metabolize muscle for energy. A simple guideline is to aim for one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (however if you want to be fancy, just Google “Protein Calculator” to calculate your personal intake). One way to make sure you get enough protein is to have protein bars to keep your protein intake at the correct level. You can also find more information in our injury prevention article where we discuss this in more detail.
Also, when you challenge your body significantly, your muscles burn up their stored natural energy which is called glycogen. You need to replace this energy by eating healthy carbohydrates to make sure that your muscles are ready to be challenged again the next time. Your brain and spinal cord use mostly carbohydrates for fuel and so their replacement is doubly important for any athlete. Some great sources of easily absorbed carbohydrates are dried fruit and smoothies. You can also find lots of other ideas for pre and post fencing workout snacks here.
You also want to make sure that you are getting all the vitamins that your body needs to properly repair itself and prevent illness. Scott suggests a one-a-day vitamin as a minimum. If you are injured, Vitamin C and magnesium are especially important; Vitamin C because helps to reduce the inflammation, magnesium because it is is involved in about 600 chemical reactions in the body ranging from muscle and bone health to nervous system regulation. You can read more about vitamins in our injury prevention article, but for Vitamin C*** we suggest ten milligrams per pound of bodyweight (in divided doses). So if you weigh a hundred fifty pounds, you should take approximately five hundred milligrams, three times a day,
Younger Athletes Need Modified Routines
The bodies of many adolescent athletes are still developing and should not be put under the same muscular stress as adult athletes. In the earlier stages of a child’s development (pre-puberty), it’s best if children avoid adding additional load (i.e. extra weight) to exercises. Their strength is best developed using their own body weight. The majority of the recommended fencing exercises above can be done without added weights or extra resistance. As a child gets older (puberty and later) you can slowly introduce more difficulty to their routines, starting first with resistance bands to make familiar movements and exercises more difficult. If they are just beginning to use weights (e.g. dumbbells), start slowly with very light weights and then increase the number of repetitions as they get stronger. This is important, you should always seek the advice of your doctor before allowing a young athlete to do any kind of heavy weight training!
The majority of the exercises we’ve discussed can be done without any special equipment at your fencing club or gym. When I was competing, I liked to bring a little bag of training goodies with me to help get the most out of my fencing workouts. I also took many of those items with me when I travelled so that could do my exercises whether I was in a fencing salle, gym or my hotel room. Below I’ve listed some my (and Scott’s) favorite workout tools including those that are mentioned for the exercises in this article****.
Therabands Resistance Bands & Accessories
The first time I encountered Therabands was in physical therapy when I injured my shoulder and was prescribed rehabilitation exercises. They are a physical therapist’s best friend because they provide a light resistance that injured or sore joints and muscles can tolerate. They come in a variety of colors to denote their different strength resistance. Yellow, Red and Green are the most common as they are on the lighter end of the spectrum. They also come in Blue, Grey and other colors which are thicker and create greater resistance. All of these bands are lightweight and easily stuffed into a backpack or fencing bag. While Therabands are often used by simply tying one end to the other or by attaching one end to a stable object, there are also accessories that can help you perform certain exercises. Adding a small handle with a carabiner makes it much easier to hold onto the end of the band while performing arm extensions or other similar exercises.
Bestope Resistance Bands
These bands operate under the same concept as Therabands, however, the resistance provided by these heavier bands is greater due to their weight and thickness. These bands come as a loop (compared to Theraband which is usually a length of stretchy rubber), which means that they are easily placed around a sturdy object. They come in a range of resistances and, like Therabands, each color is a different weight. Red is the lightest, providing approximately 15 pounds of resistance, and green is the heaviest, providing up to 85 pounds of resistance. We mentioned these bands as useful in the standing long jump since they can be looped around your waist to provide resistance to your jump.
The medicine ball is a great tool for adding extra weight to create more dynamic exercises. It’s durable, easily gripped and comes in a number of different weights and sizes. They are commonly found in most gyms, but not as often in fencing salles. The medicine ball toss we talk about in this article is one good way to use them, but there are many other applications, such as holding one in the air while you do abdominal exercises to challenge the core muscles. If you are a beginner, start with a lighter weighted ball (six or eight pounds). If you are stronger and more advanced, grab a heavier ball (ten to twelve pounds). Amazon makes a great, affordable medicine ball, and I highly recommend you pick one (or more) up to work with at home or to keep at the fencing gym.
The weighted vest is a lesser known tool for maximizing your training results. Many of the exercises we’ve discussed in this article use your body’s own weight and specific movements to challenge the muscles. By strapping extra weight onto your body, you can make the exercises more challenging. Also, because that weight is attached directly to you without needing you to use your hands (as you would with dumbbells or a medicine ball) you don’t compromise any of the movements of the exercise. We mentioned this tool in the lateral broad jump exercise but it’s uses are numerous. I would often use a weighted vest during footwork sessions to give my legs an extra challenge. Many vests are designed to add a specific amount of weight (e.g. eight pounds), however, they also make vests where the weight can be customized by adding or removing small weights stored in pockets inside the vest. The link to the vest below ranges from 0.5 pounds up to ten pounds which is ideal for adding just a little extra resistance to any bodyweight exercise you might be performing.
The physio ball is versatile tool which is most commonly known for use with abdominal exercises. However, the ball can also be used to make many exercises more challenging (such as the bench dip mentioned above) because when you place any bodyweight on the ball, its spherical shape forces you to control it from moving. It’s also a great stretch tool, and I still use mine often to work out the tension in my lower and upper back muscles by lying over the ball and extending my hands above my head. Most physio balls are inflatable with a hand pump and so they also make great travel companions, perfect for a good stretch after a long flight. Amazon makes a great, affordable physio ball, and I highly recommend you pick one up to work with at home or to keep at the fencing gym.
The foam roller is primarily used for recovery and warm-up, which we talk about in our injury prevention article, but can also be used for certain exercises (especially abdominals). It’s a cylindrical piece of foam in variations of one foot to three feet in length. I brought one to all of my competitions and it was my ‘go to’ cool-down partner. I was mercilessly made fun of by my teammates while I happily rolled on it on the floor in a random spot in the venue. Despite the snickering, I credit the foam roller with helping me manage to escape major injuries during my competitive career! This is a highly recommended tool to have in any serious fencer’s bag.
This is another great recovery tool that simulates the effects of deep tissue massage and helps tight muscles release tension. It’s easy to operate solo anywhere by simply gripping the handles on each side and dragging it across the belly of sore muscle(s). This was so helpful for me, especially after long flights to competitions during which my muscles would always become very tight and sore. Another life saver for the serious fencer!
Ma Roller & Massage Balls
These are two more great tools to help fencers release tight muscles in hard to reach places. The first is the Ma Roller which is a hourglass-shaped, wooden cylinder used primarily on the back. Towards the center of the roller are two raised protrusions designed to put pressure on the muscles that run up and down the spine, without touching the spine itself (to protect it). By lying on the Ma Roller and letting these protrusions melt into the muscle, you can loosen up these muscles, increase circulation to the area and relieve your back pain. Massage Balls work in a similar fashion. They come in a number of different sizes which you can place directly under sore muscles. Then, you use your own bodyweight to put pressure on the spot (similar to acupressure) and subsequently relieve the tension. Massage Balls are available in different densities and with and without small spikes to provide different levels of stimulation.
Just a few last words for all of you fencers out there. Ultimately, the key to your improvement is good form, mindfulness and consistency. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it will take time to build some or all of these exercises into your routine. As you do, little by little, you will begin to notice small improvements in your strength, stamina and fencing results. And these improvements provide the positive feedback you need to keep the cycle going.
A big thank you for reading this article from both Scott and myself. Your questions are always welcome and your feedback greatly appreciated.
* More detail on Dr. Scott Weiss’ degrees and certifications – Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Doctor of Medical Qigong Therapy (DMQ)
** Always consult a certified fitness or medical professional before you make any significant changes to your strength and conditioning or nutrition plans. If you have an injury, you should always seek the advice of a medical professional first.
***(if you already get a lot of Vitamin C in your diet through vegetables and fruits such as oranges, then you might need less.)
****Some of the links to products are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase, I will earn a commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you. Please understand that I have personal experience with and have used all of these products and recommend them because I believe that they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy. Please do not spend money on these (or any) products unless you feel that you need them and that they will help you achieve your goals.
Pulling Distance Image - Tasnim News Agency / Creative Commons 4.0
Close Out Image - Dimi15 on Flickr / Creative Commons 2.0