Strong enough?

I’m not sure when strength became a swear word to the historical fencing community. The knee-jerk reaction is to comment that weights slow you down. I’ve been told a few times online that strength training would ruin my fencing, making me into a lumbering beast, presumably with shortened arms to match my primitive approach. I sometimes feel like I’m alone in actually taking the time to keep up with sport science.

The usual refrain is that speed, finesse and control are the hallmarks of good fencing, and those are things that can only be destroyed by lifting weights. Which is total nonsense. You cannot be fast without muscles to make you go fast. Speed is nothing other than the result of an intense contraction of muscle. Strength training is training a muscle to contract as quickly and strongly as possible. Weights are most commonly used for this, but they aren’t the only tool.

Anything that loads a muscle up, and makes it exert more force than it’s used to, helps to promote strength. I use a carefully designed progression of athletic exercises…sprints and gymnastics…because I don’t have access to adequate weights and facilities for my students. I also resent the time weight training takes, when I can achieve what are equal, and in some ways superior, results in shorter time with no equipment.

Strength is key for any martial art. You must be able to explode quickly in any direction, including up and down. You also need to be able to stop that acceleration instantly, which can require even more force than accelerating, as the body mechanics are usually not so well balanced. Being able to make a rapid parry, disengage, beat and extension attack requires a well trained, tuned and strong muscle system. A weak person moves slowly.

Strength radiates out from the core. The spine has to be strong, the muscles of the back powerful and lively to support the shoulders, and deeply rooted into the hips and legs to take advantage of the push-back from gravity to give us impetus. The quality of that support structure directly relates down to our fingertips and out along the blade. If you build strength all along the chain, it will show in the precise and technical actions of your swordwork. Strength training cannot be neglected. It must be a part of your training program if you really wish to claim swordwork as your art.


  1. You have to remember that the average martial artist is stupid. And that they have never been involved in enough real violence to truly understand its dynamic. Anyone who says that being bigger and stronger are disadvantages in a fight is not worth listening to. Of course, size and strength are not the only things that matter or, indeed, the most important ones either which is why relatively small and weak people like me can still prevail against bigger and stronger people. Personally speaking there is no value in me trying to become really strong because I am always going to encounter bigger and stronger people (unless I get really serious about weights at the expense of other parts of my life) so going after strength and fitness as a primary focus is as much a dead end as is ignoring them entirely.

    Keep doing what you are doing.

  2. “Anyone who says that being bigger and stronger are disadvantages in a fight is not worth listening to.”

    Indeed. Being stronger and bigger is such an advantage in martial arts that there is basically no competition without weight classes.

    Strength coach Dan John speaks of strength standards in terms of what sort of strength is “expected” of someone doing athletic pursuits and what level of strength is a “game changer”, which certainly makes a great deal of sense in a martial arts context. For instance according to him, going from being untrained to a body-weight deadlift represents a minimum strength standard you might expect from someone with an athletic bent and will certainly change the way you move and how you can perform. Once you reach a “game changer level” such as a 2xBW deadlift you know that your strength in that movement pattern is not the thing that is holding you back.

    Gaining strength means you gain not only power (force over time) but that you also gain stability: if you are weak in one aspect you will have muscle imbalances which will present themselves as posture problems and problems in movement patterns. Getting stronger means you will be equipped to start tackling these issues as well.

    Strength alone is not enough – you need power, mobility, movement quality, flexibility etc, but strength is the foundation upon which all other athletic qualities are built.

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