As a strength and performance coach, I have had the opportunity to work with more than 100 fencers, including members of the cadet, junior and senior national teams; and I am in the process of preparing two of my athletes for the Women’s Saber Olympic Team as the Rio Olympics approach. As the Games draw near, it is necessary to appreciate and recognize the diligent efforts required to compete at the highest level in a sport that may be unfamiliar to many Americans. To create effective programming for fencing, a coach must first have a thorough understanding of the sport and its demands.
Fencing consists of three different weapons: saber, foil and épée, all with different striking zones and fencing styles. Saber is generally the most aggressive, with “cuts” being administered with the edge of the blade, whereas épée and foil generally strike with the tip of the blade. All three weapons compete on a fencing strip, or “piste,” with a 4-meter box in the middle consisting of two en garde lines and a center line.
Both fencers start on the en garde lines and begin fencing on the referee’s command. In most bouts, the goal is to be the first to score 5 points or “touches.” Advanced bouts reach 15 touches.
Typically, fencing training consists of 5-6 days a week at a fencing club to improve footwork, tactics and technique.
Most sports involve a certain level of risk. In fencing, movement consists of advances, retreats and lunges, where a dominant leg leads. Picture a workout where you lunge on just one leg for 5-plus days per week. Although traumatic acute injuries like fractures and dislocations are rare, fencers are notorious for muscle imbalances and overuse injuries to the knee, hip, achilles and back. Strains of the hamstrings and adductors come in second, and a few ACL tears and concussions top it off. With a long fencing season, it’s crucial to incorporate muscle balancing and injury prevention to stay healthy throughout the year and prevent long-term injuries that can make or break your chances at an Olympic run.
A sound performance program for fencing training must address the following eight areas:
1. Injury Prevention/Eliminating Imbalances
To combat the repeated one-sided nature of the sport, it is crucial to work both sides of the body and incorporate eccentric loading exercises for common tendinitis areas and postural correction exercises that encourage proper hip positioning. In addition, a strong emphasis should be placed on core stability and transfer of force.
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Clock Lunge. Perform a Forward Lunge, Side Lunge, Reverse Lunge and Curtsy Lunge back to back, stepping with the same leg each time. Do 3-4 sets of 5 of each position.
Eccentric Side Lunge to Single-Leg Stance. Start upright in a single-leg stance with one knee driven up to hip height. Slowly fall sideways until the driven foot touches the ground, and drop into a Side Lunge before quickly pushing off into another single-leg stance. Establish balance before falling into the next Side Lunge.
Eccentric Calf Raise. Using a step or low box, stand on the balls of your feet and push up into a Calf Raise with both feet. Remove one foot and slowly lower for 3 to 5 seconds until your heel drops fully below the platform. Press back up with two and repeat for 8-12 repetitions each leg.
Posterior Pelvic Tilts. Many fencers suffer from lower-back pain due to hard fencing surfaces, lack of proper shoe support or poor postural stability. PPTs combat these stresses by properly aligning the lower back and engaging useful core musculature. To perform, lay supine (face up) with your knees bent 90 degrees and your feet flat on the ground. Place your fingers on the ground in the small of your lower back, feeling the space between your back and the ground. Rotate your hips backwards, flattening this space and pressing your fingers into the ground by activating and squeezing your lower abdominal muscles. You should still be able to breathe and talk in this position. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Try adding a Glute Bridge or Leg Marching exercises while maintaining the position in your lower back.
Plate and Chain Push-Pull Circuit with Bear Crawls: See video above.
2. Performance Testing
Athletes of any sport should be evaluated to track progress, determine current strengths and outline target areas. In fencing training, in addition to standard testing measures, testing should include a functional movement assessment to outline movement deficits and imbalances, a change of direction test, and a reactive power test.
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FMS. The Functional Movememt Systems screen consists of a 7-test, full-body assessment that highlights areas of muscle weakness, imbalance or instability. Findings should be taken into consideration when prescribing injury prevention and muscle-balancing exercises or during active recovery.
2-4-2 Shuttle. While the 5-10-5 Shuttle is commonly used to assess agility in anaerobic sports, the 2-4-2 Shuttle uses the dimensions of the box on a fencing strip to see how fast fencers can move in and out and control distance. To conduct the test, measure 4 meters and mark each end with cones, and place one cone in the middle. Starting with your front toe on the line of the first cone, use footwork to perform the following sequence: advance forward to the center line; retreat back to the start line; advance to the far line; retreat to the start line; advance to the center line; retreat to the start line; and finish with a fencing lunge. This test should be performed on a fencing strip or similar stable surface. Time starts on your first movement and finishes on foot contact of the final lunge. Use this test to track progress as you become more explosive, improve proprioception, and enhance deceleration ability.
Drop Jump Vertical. Measure both a standard Vertical Jump and Depth Jump off an 18-inch box to compare reactive power off ground impact. If your standard Vertical Jump is higher, focus on Depth Jump variations and repeated plyometrics in your power training.
3. Power Training
Although only a few fencers rely on vertical power production—seen in moves like the jumping “flunge” touch casually tossed around in the bouts of U.S. Olympian Daryl Homer—all fencers can benefit from improved muscle-firing velocity. Due to the nature of the sport and the outward turn of the rear foot, a fencing lunge should be looked at as more of a lateral than a forward movement. To improve closing distance on the strip, perform exercises that improve lateral power and reactive power.
Lateral Bound to Lunge. Set up two cones about 4-6 feet apart (depending on your height and jumping ability) and leap back and forth between them from one foot to the other. On your coach’s command, land and immediately perform a fencing lunge toward the opposite cone.
Lateral Hurdle Progression. Set up a series of low hurdles in a straight line. Facing sideways, bound forward two hurdles and back one until you reach the end. Finish with either a sprint or a fencing lunge.
Depth Jump to Catch. Drop off an 18-inch box and perform a Vertical Jump or Tuck Jump upon impact with the ground. Once you land, perform a sprint or fencing lunge to complete the drill.
Although significant “in-and-out” motion is discouraged with certain weapons, it is important for fencers to have stability on deceleration and the ability to control their momentum. Emphasize exercises that focus on rapid deceleration at various speeds.
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Line Breakdowns. Sprint to various lines or cones and perform 3, 4 or 6 steps on each line before sprinting to the next line.
Decel to Retreats. Sprint to various lines or cones and perform a double retreat (back up twice using fencing footwork) at each line before sprinting to the next.
Ladder Stepping Variations. Improve proprioception, foot speed and spacial awareness by performing 2-, 3-, 4- and 6-step drills, alternating starting body position and varying your lead foot.
5. Body Composition
As in most sports, optimal body composition implies lean functional mass. In fencing, the most successful competitors are tall and lean with long wingspans and significant reach. While genetics is a major factor, incorporate multi-joint, compound exercises with metabolic components and proper nutritional recommendations for an athletic figure in shape to perform.
As discussed, fencing training is a rigorous regimen that leads to an even more taxing competition schedule. To keep fencers on the strip, it is important to ensure full recovery using techniques like yoga, breathing exercises, SMR (self-myofascial release), therapeutic massage, and fascial stretch therapy. These treatments may not be available to all fencers, but those making an Olympic push tend to seek a combination of these therapies to prepare for each competition and recover from workouts.
7. Mental Acuity
Fencers only have a few seconds to reset between touches, and it’s almost always more difficult to score a touch after one has been scored against you. Because of the strong psychological components involved in the sport, it’s important to develop the ability to prevent mental lapses from presenting physically in the form of tense muscles or loss of fine motor movements. Similar to golfers, batters in baseball, and football kickers, fencers perform best in a relaxed start position, control over heart rate and breathing, and a narrow focus. Many elite-level fencers regularly see a sports psychologist, but you can strengthen your mind by performing regular meditation, introducing challenging exercises into your training (ones that incorporate failure and recovery from failure), or by following programs like 10-Minute Toughness preparation routine by sports psychologist Jason Selk.
8. Sport-Specific Exercises
As with every complete program, sport-specific exercises help tie everything together and improve your skill and confidence in your training. Although the efficacy of sensory perception exercises can be debated, I have found the following exercises incredibly useful for helping fencers stay focused and relaxed with their arm movements as variables like pressure, speed, and lower-body movement are manipulated.
Lunge and Catch. On any of the previous exercises where you finish with a fencing lunge, add a ball toss or bounce, forcing you to make a controlled catch while performing the lunge.
Precision Passes. Two athletes face each other, each holding a tennis ball in their lead hand. Start passing the balls at the same time and catching at the same time continuously. Once control is established, one athlete leads with footwork and the other follows, maintaining distance for a specific time duration. Cue the leader to vary his or her speed without dropping a pass.
Special considerations: Avoid strength exercises that tense up or significantly hypertrophy the shoulders, as they could limit the ability to quickly perform fluid touches without hiking the shoulder before the attack.