Training for the future


Keith Farrell with a Polish hussar sabre. Photo by Miroslav Zaruba, 2013.

Keith Farrell with a Polish hussar sabre. The shoulders are set properly, the back muscles are engaged, the head is upright, and this position is well-structured. Photo by Miroslav Zaruba, 2013.


I am currently 28 years old. I have been practising HEMA for around 6 years, although I also have 14 years of experience in karate. As I approach my 30s, I feel that I can no longer rely on my body and my physical attributes in quite the same fashion as I could when I was 18; I can’t just push myself to my limits and then expect to be without aches the following day, nor can I shrug off injuries in the knowledge that I will heal within a week. I have been lucky enough to have spent a total of 18 years practising martial arts without taking any long term injuries, but I’m aware that they could be just around the corner if I don’t pay attention to what I am doing.

A large part of my current training and research is body mechanics. I’m not very tall, nor particularly strong, and many of my training and sparring partners are larger and stronger than I am. Yet, with proper application of body mechanics and structure, and by making correct choices in my fencing, I can often perform well against such people. In a previous article about the myths of the short person, I argued that shorter people have no option but to learn to do things properly from the beginning, otherwise failure will be the likely outcome.

However, there is another important reason for studying body mechanics: if I do things properly, then I am less likely to injure myself in the process. I would quite like to keep fencing until I am 68, or 88, or even 128 years of age (might as well aim high!), and I simply won’t be able to manage this if I tear my rotator cuff a couple of times, or blow out the ligaments in my knee, or give myself permanent wrist pains. So, by studying body mechanics and learning how to perform motions without hurting myself, I can work towards ensuring the longevity of my body and my involvement with martial arts.

There are many factors to consider. For example, my stance and posture while holding the sword in guard positions, so that I don’t place unnecessary stress on my back or on the joints in my legs. Or alternatively, the precise placement and structure of my feet and legs while stepping, to avoid hyper-pronation of the feet or inward collapse of my knee. The stability of my core is important no matter what I find myself doing, and utilising the muscles in my back is an easy way to improve my strength and structure in almost every action. There are many things to consider before even looking at how the sword is moving!

In every single motion with my sword, I am paying attention to my mechanics to avoid giving myself tennis elbow or tendonitis in the wrists, and to avoid overworking the shoulder to the point of injuring one of the muscles surrounding it. I need to make sure that not only am I protecting myself (against my opponent’s sword and against my own eagerness and motion) whenever I strike, I am also able to control the end of the technique and either stop the motion instantly or redirect the motion elsewhere, without injuring myself. It would be all too easy to reach too far and to suffer the physical consequences of exceeding my ability to control both my sword and my body.

How do I go about practising correct mechanics and good structures in my fencing? Quite simply, I set my focus on the long term, rather than the short term. I don’t really care one way or another if I win this particular sparring match; at the moment, I find competition to be valuable to my development but not of such great interest otherwise. Instead of seeking to land touch after touch, I challenge myself to do everything as correctly as possible, within my limits. Sometimes I could land my hit if I just reached out an inch or two further, but then I would be off-balance, I would be putting unnecessary and unwanted strain on my various joints, and I probably couldn’t use an over-extended technique to cut through a target with a sharp sword. This is not a trade-off that I am willing to make, just to land a touch. After all, what does it really matter if I land 50 or 53 touches across an evening of sparring? But comparatively, does it matter if I stop doing things properly and give myself three more opportunities to tear my ACL or hurt a tendon in my wrist, in that single evening of sparring? These are two different ways of phrasing exactly the same question. If I could land three more hits by over-reaching, then I could do myself some serious damage three times by over-reaching.

I realise that this does lead to limitations on what I can achieve with my sparring, and I often lose training fights with people who expect me to win against them. It means that in tournaments and competitions, I don’t always place as well as I know I could, if I were to compromise on the standards I set for myself.

However, I know that by studying body mechanics, and by developing the self-discipline to act within my limits without taking risks to land just one more touch, I will be more likely to continue my study of historical fencing and martial arts in general without injuring myself by performing a movement incorrectly at high intensity. There is a better chance that if I play the long term game, by sacrificing my “wins” in sparring and in competition right now, that I will still be able to fence in 20, 40, 60 years from now.

If I’m still able to train martial arts and enjoy the experience when I’m in my 80s, I will count that as my “win”.

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One comment

  • This article caught my interest. As a late comer to HEMA I’m likely to struggle with the younger whippersnappers and the physical challenges (hobbling around after a class from plantar fasciitis being the latest). So the comments on judgement and ways to avoid risk resonate with me and I tend to want to learn from fencers who use economy, who manage their opponent and who (to me) seem to use guile and cunning. Wisdom before brawn.. the challenge then becomes inviting as much wisdom in as I can accept.