Iron legs

I learned an essential lesson about fencing when I made my first pair of hardened leather greaves. It took a whole evening to cut, shape, and harden them, but when I was done I had a pair of greaves that covered my lower legs from just under the knee to the crease of the foot. The only gap was a wide strip across the back. They fit well enough to my legs that I could put them on easily, but they really didn’t need any strapping to stay on. I was very pleased with them.

I took them off and realized I could easily nestle one inside the other. One of my calf muscles was so much larger than the other that one fitted greave rattled loosely inside the other. I wasn’t that surprised. Fencing can do that to a body. It’s a damaging sport, and the damage comes from the practice, not the impact.

Fencing is known as a sport that builds good legs, but I find that most of the people I work with have crappy legs and footwork to match. It’s a neglected aspect of training, and not just in WMA circles. Strong legs are the last thing people care about…Abs and arms get all the attention.

Strength is the most important driver of athletic ability. Speed and even endurance all have some basis in strength. I can use myself for an example. My other sport is cycling. I’m older, overweight, and less trained than other cyclists. I’ve also got a cheaper bike, and ride with loaded panniers. I’ve also got a very un-aerodynamic beard. So I shouldn’t be passing the hot-shot cyclists, especially when the hot-shots have a head start on me. But I do pass them, every morning. They start about a kilometre ahead of me, but after half an hour of work, I’m pulling ahead of them with a cheery good morning. The reason I can pass the skinny little greyhound riders is because my thighs are thicker than their torsos. Thicker, and I’ve trained the muscles for maximum strength. My ability to contract my muscles rapidly means it takes less effort for me to go fast, and less effort means I can go long. Granted, the balance flips the other way at a certain distance, but it still serves to illustrate the advantage of strength.

People have misconceptions about what strength means, thanks to bodybuilders. Bodybuilders train to have big muscles, which is not the same as strong muscles. The strength we are concerned with is related to recruitment. Recruitment is your nervous systems ability to activate all the fibers in a muscle at once. Full recruitment never happens. Most people performing an exercise perceived as intense are only recruiting a small number of muscle fibers in any given muscle. Learning to recruit more fibers gives you more power in your muscles. More speed. More ability. Unfortunately, learning to increase recruitment is not an easy process.

In order to get stronger, we have to do exercises that force us to use more muscle fibers. To do this we have to get the nervous system as activated as possible. Intense, energetic exercise. If you are new to fencing, a few simple squats might do the job…For a week or two, and then they get easy. Once you can do more than 6-10 squats, the muscle start to slack out. They don’t need so much activation to do the exercise anymore. A regular, small recruitment of muscle fibers will do the trick. Doing more and more reps will not increase recruitment, but will instead increase the muscle’s efficiency at processing nutrients…endurance. This is wasted training for martial artists.

You need to make the reps harder, find a way to make them more difficult so you can only do 5 or 6 at a time, or less. Adding weights is one way. It’s important not to go to fast with the improvements. The tendons at each end of a muscle are actually the ends of the muscle fibers, narrow and stretched out. Strength gains in the belly of a muscle can take 6 weeks to propagate out to the ends of the tendons…and you don’t want muscles that overpower their own tendons. That’s what breaks people. So make improvements, and give them time to settle in before making the next jump in intensity.

I use three primary tools to build leg strength in fencers: Depth jumps, deck squats, and sprints.

Depth jumps are when you drop from a height, like a chair seat, and land. I make it harder for advanced students with higher heights, or by having them lunge or sprint after landing.

Deck squats are when you tuck up from on your back on the ground, and roll forward until your feet are on the ground, and explode up to a standing position. I make these harder with jumps or alternating single legs.

Sprints are short, sweet, and maximum effort. Ten strides or less, and I make them harder with hills or trying to cover more distance.

I have another fifteen or twenty leg exercises to use, depending on what the client needs. And I really try to make sure everyone puts equal work into both legs…

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