“I, the tiger, am so quick at running and turning that I can’t even be overtaken by a lightning bolt.”Fior di Battaglia, Getty Museum, Tom Leoni translation
I love slow fencing and I think it is an essential part of training. However, slow alone does not prepare you for combat. Martial art exists along a continuum of speeds. Your capacity to both give and receive explosively fast action is a vital part of your toolkit.
Speed is trained along a number of dimensions and each dimension needs to be incorporated into your training.
The heart of speed is power. Power is your ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible. Power is required to throw a ball, jump into the air, or run up a flight of stairs. Power is trained through exercises that require that you move a load (an external weight or your own body weight) through a short and fast motion.
Plyometric training is a form of exercise where you improve your power through requiring your muscles to work hard in short bursts. Check out some of the types of plyometric exercises used for training olympic fencers:
When approaching power exercises you need to make sure the mechanics of your movement are correct and that you do not rush yourself to a weight that is overly challenging for you to move (i.e., you will strain yourself when doing it). Train a slow and precise version of motions first, gradually increase speed with a focus on mechanics, and if all is good move toward a plyometric program.
Premature overloading may not help you, but instead result in undesirable strain and injury. Be sure to consult a fitness expert to make sure you are using proper mechanics and using appropriate tools before embarking on this type of training.
Doing a movement in a mechanically precise fashion is not just essential to preventing injury but also to not wasting time in a movement. For an attack or defense to be as ‘fast’ as possible it must move directly from its starting position to its most effective destination position in a sound and effective fashion.
This is where slow leads to fast. If you jump to training at maximal speeds without first ensuring that your movement is as efficient as possible you’re wasting your time—literally!
In this mini-lesson I contrast the right and wrong mechanics of the rapier lunge. Note that there is an emphasis here both on order as well as correct joint alignment. Make sure you’re not making any of these errors!
Moving efficiently and in the correct order is also essential to hiding your intentions from your opponent as long as possible. Often your intentions have become apparent to your opponent earlier than you want because too early you’ve turned your body or stepped with your foot.
Note in this clip from DuelloTV’s Longsword Fundamentals on the fendente (downward cut) that the order of operations is very precise. By starting from the pommel, then sending the hands, turning the body and hip, then stepping you send the fastest and lightest parts first. The first indication you want your opponent to have of your attack is your weapon in their face!
Ideally every movement you develop is trained with expert consultation—someone who can help guide you and coach you as you learn the movement. This is what we endeavour to offer at every step of the way through our courses on DuelloTV. Once the movement is precisely defined, gradually accelerate your practice of that motion and use self-discipline to not move faster than you are capable of doing the motion properly.
Timing & Reaction
The appearance of speed can come by choosing a moment to attack when your opponent is least prepared to defend. Duello Armizare provides a set of shorthand terms for these ideal moments:
- Primo Tempo – During your opponent’s footstep into your striking range.
- Mezzo Tempo – While your opponent prepares to attack or otherwise changes position, all the while being within your range.
- Due-Tempi – Forcing your opponent to recover their weapon and at that moment strike them (such as beating their sword aside then striking as they attempt to bring it back online).
- Controtempo – Striking your opponent as they attack (but with greater control, defending simultaneously).
The Four Opportunities Form is a motion and position form that we use to both demonstrate and practice recognition and action within these tempos. Here you’ll see me “giving” each of these opportunities to strike me to the viewer.
Learn this form and explore how to strike in each of these moments with a partner. Good mechanics plus good timing equals speed.
A clever fencer is always closer than their opponent suspects. Suddenness and proximity are often mistaken for speed when really they’re all about position.
One of the most common pieces of tactical advice that I give to my students is to not use the first opportunity that they see to strike, but instead use it to gain further control and get closer. The closer you are, the shorter is your attacking action. The greater your control, the longer your opponent’s defensive or counter-attacking action needs to be.
Explore this idea by working from an attack, parry, and counter attack:
- Have your partner attack.
- Parry their attack.
- Immediately counter-attack them.
- Have your partner make a defense of your counter-attack.
Note the amount of time that your partner has in which to respond to your counter-attack.
- Have your partner attack.
- Parry their attack.
- Immediately step in with a short step to a greater position of control.
- Immediately launch your counter attack to them.
- Have your partner attempt a defense.
Note the distinctly shorter amount of time your partner has in which to respond.
What’s important in this exercise is that you don’t try to take too much at any moment. Great position is won through a series of little wins. Additionally, when you delay your counter-attack in favour of increasing your control you’ll find that many opponents throw their weapon directly into your control which wastes their time and makes your subsequent counter attack even easier to succeed with.
Of course all of this requires that you know how to capture powerful control of your opponent. I recommend checking out Approaching Gioco Largo with Longsword and Approaching with Rapier I on DuelloTV for a thorough study of this subject.
When you add acceleration to a given technique you are also adding force. It is thus paramount that you train techniques involving speed in a way that is safe for both you and your training partners. Though protective gear can go a long way to protect you the only true way to practice safely is by training for control.
Here are a few ways you can train speed responsibly:
Train speed on your own
Solo training is an excellent, and safe, place to practice adding speed and power. Remember to focus first on mechanics, then order, smoothness and finally speed and power while seeking to never lose your precision.
Think about how a musician learns to play a fast piece. It is through increasing speed without ever losing the rhythm or making it sound like garbage.
Bringing some higher speed action into your solo training can be a great workout and also can be revealing of what parts of your technique are falling apart under pressure.
Practice reactions from out of measure
If you don’t want to place yourself in the path of a fast strike that you may not be able to parry, place yourself out of distance from your training partner. Now you can have them conduct their attack at full speed and you can practice performing the responding action in the right moment.
This allows for you to build your ability to see fast actions and respond to them without needing protective gear — or without sustaining dozens of high speed hits to your helmet.
Increase speed within a controlled context
Take a single drill and scale the speed of that drill up from 1 (glacial) to 5 (top speed with high quality). Be sure to stay within the limits of your motor skills. This type of drilling can help reveal actions that are physically impossible to conduct in full speed combat because the timing of them is imbalanced. It’s important to note that any action that is done in response to your opponent is always going to be late because there is a delay in the time it takes to first identify and then respond to their action.
As you build precision you can add complexity to the action your practicing by stringing more movements together or adding choices for your partner (for example two different targets they might attack).
Always strike with control
Though speed is an important discipline to train, it is only one of the many components you want to be in control of in a fight. If you are relying on speed to win you a hit, you run the risk of being terribly out of position or striking without control. Your last thought when throwing a blow should never be “I hope this works!”
Use speed judiciously and always in a situation where you can do so with care. Any time you could strike your opponent hard, you should be able to choose to strike them well and in a way that doesn’t impact their long-term ability to train.
Study More Like This on DuelloTV
Learn the art of swordplay in a way that helps you build sound mechanics from the start. DuelloTV’s Longsword, Rapier, and Sidesword Fundamentals courses have helped students from around the world learn these ancient arts from the building blocks of foundational form to high level tactics and strategies.