Teaching Historical Fencing – The Warm-Up Part I

Training sessions for modern sports typically start with a warm-up to increase the readiness of the athletes for the higher-intensity activity that will follow. Although we do not have substantial direct evidence of how fencers in the Middle Ages or Renaissance prepared for their training sessions, it makes sense for modern teacher of historical fencing to use warm-up activities for their students.

To design the warm-up portion of a training session, it is vital to understand the purpose for taking your students through generic exercise before starting the core of the training. Warm-ups serve two important purposes:

First, they increase physical readiness for physical activity. In simple terms they bring the body from a normal state to one in which the student can reach a higher level of performance for the challenges of the fencing lesson.

Second, they increase psychological readiness for physical activity. This is particularly important in historical swordplay because your students need to transition from the normal concerns and distractions of daily life to the focused state required to learn to handle large weapons effectively.

Notice that I did not say that warm-ups help prevent injury. There is substantial statistical and anecdotal evidence that a significant percentage of sports injuries occur in warm-up activity. Because your student is in a transition period in the warm-up, the exercises and activities you use have to be carefully screened for safety. Over the 40+ years I have been involved in modern and historical fencing, the worst injuries I have seen occurred in the warm-up portions of training sessions.

I also did not say that warm-up is for conditioning. Fencing specific conditioning to build strength, speed, flexibility, explosiveness, etc. requires more time than is available in a warm-up activity. Conditioning requires its own dedicated training time.

So what do we do to warm-up fencers who are learning historical weapons? There are some realities to consider in planning your training:

First, warm-up activity should generally not extend beyond 15 minutes. Current sports science research has identified longer warm-up as a fatigue generator that actually limits performance in competition. There is no reason to think that it does not do the same in training sessions. There are some situations in which you may want to train your students under fatigue conditions, but in general having the students leave the best of their performance in the warm-up is not desirable.

Second, most instructors who teach historical swordplay have limited time for teaching, driven by the time space is available, other demands on their students, their own personal schedules, etc. This means that general conditioning activities and non-fencing specific training fights for time with the core of teaching Long Sword or Rapier or Small Sword, etc.

Third, it is a generally accepted principle that the more closely warm-up activity resembles the actual movement patterns that are needed in any physical activity, the more effective the warm-up is. This extends to the degree to which you do aerobic (not fencing specific) versus anaerobic activity (more fencing specific).

With these constraints a warm-up program that uses exercises and games similar to those typically used in modern fencing will serve to meet historical needs. However, in the next part of this article, I will suggest exercises more specific to the movement patterns and tactical requirements of historical fencing that you can incorporate in your training sessions for an effective warm-up.

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