If I could only ever do one thing to improve my fencing, it would be slow work with a competent partner. It’s the mother of all good technique, it’s the best teacher there is. In one bout of slow work, I can find my focus for my personal drills and exercise for the next week. I can learn where my posture is off, how my habits are leaving openings, and what things I should be developing as new attack skills. It’s simply the most important skill there is in martial arts, and it’s easily the one people screw up the most.

The things I’ve done to try and make people do slow work correctly are numerous…Forcing everyone to move on the same count, bringing doumbek’s to class and playing at different speeds to entice people to follow the tempo, rants, explanations, grabbing someone’s arm and physically moving it at the right speed, peer pressure, observation, grading, gentle touch feedback, yelling, dropping my defense and staring at my partner while they speed up and hit me…

The truth is slow work is hard. People that are good at it hate it, because we know, more than anything, it’s physically painful. What is easy at speed is excruciating when done slowly and deliberately. Lunging and recovering at one-tenth speed is an excellent exercise in posture and balance, as well as shoulder endurance. But mostly we hate it because of the people that try to win at slow work, the same way they try to win at working out. “I grunted louder than you! My sweat is more prolific! I win! Worship me!” Or whatever the thought process is…

I usually tell people not to try to win at slow work, because that’s what it seems like they are trying to do. They move slowly…until they decide there is something they want to do. When that happens, they go from exaggerated slowness to just a hair under full speed. It’s frustrating for both people, I’m guessing. For the person doing the drill correctly, they don’t get a chance to develop the range they were looking for, because the moment they start to work a slow parry, the other person has done a rapid disengage and planted the sword point on their chest. Any attack is met by a magically speedy block or evasion and another rapid thrust. I can only imagine it gets boring and confusing for the winner to be suddenly having the best fencing experience of their life, and wondering why it’s not like this when it’s at full speed…

What I’m trying to do now is change, a little bit, my language around this essential drill. Slow is a relative thing, I know I’ve had people in the past complain on occasion that I’ve sped up in the middle of slow work. It’s a thing we can all do from time to time. And often people don’t understand exactly what slow is, and may really believe they are going slow. Or they get frustrated about not being successful, or not really understanding what I, as an instructor, want from them in this drill. Frustration disconnects you from your body, and makes for jerky actions and reactions.

Tempo work is a phrase I’d like to start using more (separate from tempo drills, which are specific family of full-speed timing-based action drills). When I call for tempo work, what I want from the students is for them to work on moving every part of the body at a consistent tempo. If I’m going to throw a punch, as an example, I need to co-ordinate a number of actions. I want my left knee to bend ever so slightly, my right heel to start to lift and rotate. My shoulder will start to slide forward, my abdominal muscles will start to control my pelvic tilt while my butt muscles start some rotation. My lats tighten down to get the shoulders co-ordinated and to prep for hand rotation, the infraspinatus clamp to guy the spine for the coming weight shift, etc…

I want all this to happen in a proportional tempo. This is slow work, tempo work, this is my chance to work on how all these different actions time together.  If my hand outreaches the movement of my knee or hip, I’m losing part of my kinetic energy transfer chain. I’m losing efficiency and total power. If this is happening at slow speed, it’s probably happening during a fight as well. Why? I can listen to my body, get deep inside myself, and hear what is going on. Maybe in this case I find something feels off in my left knee. I deduce that I’m making an error in the placement of my left foot. I need to place it a little more forward. Now I know that I need to spend some time on footwork drills to increase my punching power.

And that’s just my first punch. It’s a partner drill, so while I’m thinking about all this, trying to listen and get my tempo down, my partner is reacting to what she sees. I can see her moving to block. Sure, I can pull back my punch and do something fancy, because I see what’s going on. But here’s the trick. If my tempo is correct, if I’m successful at moving each atomic element of my movement chain in proportional synchronicity…it’s not going to make sense to me to pull my hand back. Even at slow speed, I am as committed to that punch as I would be at full speed. That’s the key test. When you get to that point, you are doing slow work right.

And this is our second point of value in this drill. I’m committed to my punch, I’ve coordinated my tempos correctly, my punch is moving and my opponent is countering it. I can’t change the punch. I’ve got a million things to think about…and time to think about them.  I’ve got time to pay attention to my opponents counter, time to think about what’s going to happen. She’s going to block the punch, and I can’t stop that. And I can see that’s she got her right hand starting up on a nice big cross to my jaw. That’s gonna suck. But my weight is still shifting…if I pick my left foot up a little, and step just right, at the right time, I’m going to juuuust pull my jaw free from that counter. As a bonus, my left hand will be in a perfect position for an uppercut to her liver. Beautiful. Would I have seen this counter if I had pulled my right hand back? Probably not.

Of course my opponent will see what I’m doing and react, and that will be the start of our chess game. Done correctly, it’s going to play out just like a full-speed, full contact sparring session, with the difference of us having time to think about what is happening. We will both learn new things about our fighting style and our opponent, and walk away with things we want to work on. It’s a true cooperative competition. By focusing deeply on our own tempo, and being consistent with that tempo, we can try to beat each other, while giving each other opportunities to learn and improve. For my money, there is no better drill for fighting.



Join the Conversation


  1. I’ve always hated slow work…always. And for most of the reasons you’ve listed. Finding a partner that will not “try” to win is one of the hardest things to find. I find this issue in even basic repetitive drills with a partner, who after the third pass starts to bore and then starts screwing around (just as my body and mind are almost “getting” the drill I’m trying to practice). The perfect human pell pole is a hard thing to find.

    The closest I’ve ever got to having a willing partner not screw around is with a simple slow drill. Both people face each other and take their guards. Student A slowly executes their attack until it JUST touches Student B (who at this time has done NOTHING until the attack is complete). Student A then slowly withdraws the attack by about 6-10 inches on the same plane they made the attack and holds. Student B may now SLOWLY parry/void/whatever Student A’s attack and then may counterattack SLOWLY until contact is made. Student B now withdraws their attack 6-10 inches on the same plane that they made the attack and holds. Repeat at naseum.

    While this is not always ideal. It does tend to show the students there is almost always a way to get out of an attack and a way to counter it. And it’s one Hell of a good drill for in close brawlers. Again, this is the only one drill I’ve found where both partners don’t screw around (mostly because they BOTH get to win, even if it is at best temporary)

  2. This is what the Random Flow training my teacher (Sonny Umpad) spent most time on. It’s all about calibration …. slow … to medium …. to full speed even. Flow is not sparring, it’s training. Sparring is about winning, flow is about ‘seeing’.
    It is not easy to teach people to calibrate, I use everything from modern slo mo movie imagery to coming up with drills where each student has a different job, thus taking away the need to win.
    Sonny also used different weapons such as the sickle to teach staying connected and not moving too fast, because the sickle works in the same way that lock reversals, or sacrifice throws work – you give to get.
    Still hard though, and often needs the higher skilled to set the tempo … and bring the pace back to slow when things get exciting.
    Also not getting caught up if the other gets a hit, just tagging them on the retraction, or ignoring it completely whilst keeping tempo until the message gets across that it did not count for anything.
    I am always trying to move slower than my opponent, to get more efficient. If I can move once to their twice … I am ahead of the game. I also try to be as late as possible, stepping, evading, and parrying – bending and holding the notes of the tempo .. again for the same reason – practice getting in as tight a corner as possible … then try to escape …

    Rory Miller has a similar thing called The One Step Drill – same idea but anything goes – strikes, throws, chokes etc etc. One person starts, and the other can do one step for one step, as soon as the other is in motion (obviously best before they connect). What makes it successful is when both stay at the same tempo, and everything is done with absolutely proper body mechanics … and at a pace where each person can SAFELY gouge, grab, and follow through with hits – fists, hands, elbows, kicks etc – so if the action was speeded up … it would look real, as though both were using real power.
    He’s written alot about this, so just Google for more info. It’s an awesome drill when you do it with someone who is not speeding up … though again, very hard when people get excited. His reason for the ‘slow’, is that every drill needs to be done safely, so is essentially flawed … but under adrenalized conditions everybody speeds up anyway, so easy to mitigate it’s artificiality. (Better than pulling punches or practicing missing altogether).

    I agree, this type of training is superb ….. easy to misunderstand and do wrong, but fabulous when you ‘get it’.

  3. I can’t add much to what Maija said because she basically articulated what we aim for in training a lot of the time.

    The one thing I can say is that I learned to slow work from grappling range where the eyes are far less important and touch and balance become the senses of choice. Once the idea had cemented itself it was easier to move out to visual range and not try to speed up to ‘win’. The main criticism of slow work many people make is that it is not a realistic speed so you are training yourself to work slowly; my experience has been that when something happened outside of training at real speed my reactions were quicker than they had ever been and more precise and I was able to move just enough to deal with the perceived threat rather than making wild movements and over reacting.

    I will add a further ‘thumbs up’ for Rory Miller’s work (though I have not tried his drills as such).

  4. Like Maija, I have spent some time working slow and tight but against opponents at full speed. Green cords mostly, but forcing yourself to be slower then them makes you be tighter and control space better I find.

    My personal issue with slow work is that it often comes after a period of high intensity – from sparring to drills to Sharmila. So getting people / myself to drop the adrenaline to go slow can be very hard.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: