Category Archives: Swordsman

Getting fit for WMA (and for life)

I am not the fittest guy in Western Martial Arts – not even in the top half, probably. (Geez, I hope not, or we’re a sorry lot.) But, at other times in my life I have been in pretty good shape – I was into weightlifting 20+ years ago, and trained for and completed a marathon 10+ years ago. At both of those times, I ended up in pretty good shape.  Now I want to improve my fitness as part of trying to be the best martial artist I can be.

To do this, I think I need to define what I mean by ‘fitness’ first. I think that lots of arguments about differing approaches are really fueled by the fact that nobody in the discussion has bothered to define what they are talking about.  My thinking about this, and some of the items on the list below, are inspired in part by an old CrossFit article about the definition of fitness.

Note: I am not using CrossFit at this time, but there is much in that approach that appeals to me. Regardless of how you get there, I think all of the dimensions listed below are important for a Western martial artist:

Endurance. This refers to cardio-vascular capability – aerobic fitness. How long can you train or free-fence before you are winded?

Stamina. This refers to the ability of muscles to sustain activity over time. How long can I hold my sword up in a Destreza right angle? How many times can I execute a cut before my muscles are too tired to do it cleanly?

Strength. This is about the amount of force your muscles can apply. This is one of the easiest things to train, and is often confused for a broader definition of ‘fitness’, but it seems to me to be one of the least important factors for a martial artist (see next item).

Power. This is the connection of strength with speed. It seems to me to be vastly more important than just strength for a martial artist – it’s more important to rapidly apply sufficient force than to slowly apply a greater amount of force. (If I have greater power, and you have greater strength, I’ll hit you hard enough, and I’ll do it before your even-harder blow has time to land.)

Speed. This is how fast you can move. While this seems important, I think quickness might be more important that pure speed (see next item).

Quickness. This is how fast you can accelerate – how long it takes you to get in motion from a state of rest, or how long it takes you to change the direction of motion. Lunges, cuts, parries, footwork – it seems to me that real quickness beats pure speed for these kinds of actions. For example, I think being able to switch rapidly between advances and retreats is more important than just being speedy doing one or the other of these.

Coordination. This is being able to make multiple things happen at once or in close sequence. One example would be moving hands, body, and feet in the correct sequence for a lunge – do it where everything coordinates well and it’s an effective attack, do it slightly out of coordination, and it’s not.

Flexibility. This is having full range of motion in all the ways the body is designed to move. If your wrist doesn’t have full range of motion, you won’t have a fast or effective tramazzone, or if your lower body isn’t bendy enough, you can’t do a deep lunge. This one is also important for avoiding injuries – something near and dear to my heart as I get older. My only fencing injury (so far!) has been throwing out my back pretty seriously after a long session of over-extended lunges. Better flexibility would have helped me avoid that problem in two ways – with greater flexibility, my lunges would have been deeper, so less ‘need’ to over-extend; and with greater flexibility, my body would have recovered better from the damage done by over-extending.

Agility. This is being able to efficiently move the parts of the body. We often use the term “smooth” to describe a particularly agile martial artist. Agility has many benefits – it uses less energy, it provides fewer clues to your opponents about your intentions, and as the old saying goes, “…smooth is fast.”

Balance. This is being able to move without fighting gravity, without wobbling around, without being easy to knock over.

Accuracy. This is being able to precisely execute your intended motions. Can you consistently hit a button with a full-intent lunge? Do your cuts go exactly where you intend them to go?

Control. This is being able to control what you’re doing – not just flailing away. Can you switch from your 1st intention attack to your 2nd intention without pause if the patient responds to your first attack? Once you do a gaining step, can you launch into a left traverse or a retreat, either one at full speed, depending on how your opponent reacted? This should in no way be confused with being tentative – I’m talking about being in control while still performing committed attacks.

Obviously, many of these are connected. If you are not very flexible, you probably won’t be very agile. If you don’t have quickness, you won’t have power. And so on.

But I still find it useful to think about each one of these, and to have the goal of improving my fitness in all of these dimensions. I’m making progress! I still have a long way to go in all of them! I would be very interested in hearing how other martial artists define ‘fitness’, or if they see problems or omissions in the dimensions I list above. (I’m also interested in hearing what non-martial artists think about this, so everybody is invited to leave a comment.)

Dall’Agocchie and me

Recently, I’ve been working on Giovanni Dall’Agocchie’s treatise from 1572, Dell’Arte di Scrimia (The Art of Fencing). I’ve become slightly obsessed with this book, and my main personal martial arts goal at this point is really learning this art.

Dall’Agocchie is part of what is now referred to as “Bolognese Swordsmanship”. There are a small handful of books from the 1500’s, all from the region of Bologna, Italy, all describing a similar, but not identical, martial tradition.

It’s a fun tradition, too. Both cuts and thrusts, designed to work for sport, or battlefield combat, or self-defense, or duels on the field of honor. When I first joined the Sacramento Sword School a few years ago, this was what they were working on, and I was instantly hooked. We’ve mostly moved on as a school to other material, but I’ve tried to do a little work on the Bolognese material here and there ever since then.

In the early Bolognese treatises, the emphasis is on sword-and-buckler, with time spent on several other weapons as well. But unaccompanied sword sometimes seems like an afterthought. In Dall’Agocchie’s treatise, and other late Bolognese-tradition works, the unaccompanied sword is the main weapon.

Score one for me – while off-hand weapons are fun, my main interest is in unaccompanied sword.

Most, if not all, of the Bolognese authors include assaulti, or forms. These are the same idea as kata in Eastern Martial Arts – an assaulti is a pre-defined sequence that the student can use to internalize their art.

Score two for me – built right into the system are fun training sequences that are great for solo practice. I run through Dall’Agochie’s form for unaccompanied sword at the beginning and ending of my daily practice sessions, even when I’m working on something else.

Dell’Arte di Scrimia is written as a dialogue between Dall’Agocchie and his friend, Lepido Ranieri. Unlike some dialogues, they stay pretty much on-topic throughout, so the form of the work doesn’t add much overhead for someone just interested in understanding the content. However, for some reason I can’t explain, I find the dialogue, stiff and formal as it often is, utterly charming.

Score three for me – it’s a rare and wonderful think to have a historical fencing manual describe a cool system and be a joy to read at the same time.

Over time, I will be writing about my process of working through this system, and what I’m discovering along the way.

(Nod to my friend Pete since I’m riffing on his title.)

Three Thoughts: Relax

1) Wait as long as you can to move, then move as fast as you can, making as small a movement as you can.

2) Be relaxed – tense muscles are slow and unagile.

3) Being able to change directions quickly is more important than pure linear speed.

Destreza thrusting forms video

So, here’s a video of me doing a Destreza thrusting form with one of my teachers, Maestro Puck Curtis:

Understand, this is a form, not free-fencing. (It’s a little bit harder for me to hit Puck when it’s not a form.) :) Click here for a description of the form, explaining what is going on here.

And here’s another video, showing Provost Kevin Murakoshi going through the same form with Maestro Curtis:


Three Thoughts: Strength

1) A sword blade is both a lever and a ramp – strong leverage but a bad ramp will quickly turn into weak leverage.

2) If your opponent parries you weakly, stay strong and hit them. If they parry you strongly, yield to their parry and either do a conclusion or hit them with a stramazzone.

3) There are at least three strengths one blade can have against another: using a part of your blade closer to your hilt against a part of their blade closer to the tip (Destreza authors called this “greater degrees of strength”); from above (in Aristotelian terms: natural motion against violent motion), that is to say, pushing down while they are pushing up; and using the true edge instead of the flats or the false edge.

Book Review: The Art of the Dueling Sabre

I just posted this over on SFI, but thought I’d cross-post on my own blog, too.


My wife gave me a copy of Chris Holzman’s new book, The Art of The Dueling Sabre for Christmas. While it’s been mentioned here on SFI, I haven’t seen a real review of it here yet, so I thought I’d write one. Short version: go buy it! Long version: keep reading:

The bulk of this book is a translation of Settimo Del Frate’s 1876 textbook on Maestro Guiseppe Radaelli’s sabre and sword method, but Holzman has added a wealth of supporting materials (more on that below). It’s a hardback, with a very stylish cover. This is a gorgeous book – I particularly enjoy the 19th-century feel of the fonts used, and how the design feels “old-timey” without being annoying or inconvenient. The crowning touch is that the the oversize fold-out plates from the original are reproduced here – there are ten 21.5″-long plates at the back of the book. These are fantastic – beautiful artwork, and also quite useful for the fencer studying the material.

One of the things I liked in Holzman’s introduction was his acknowledgement of the historical fencing community, and the reality that many in this community must practice without regular access to instructors. As we shall see below, it is clear that he kept this in mind while writing the additional materials for the book. The Historical Note does a nice job of putting Del Frate’s book in it’s historical context – some biographical information about both Radaelli and Del Frate, some context of who this was written for, and even a little bit of information about Maestro Parise, the great rival to this system of fence.

Continue reading


Every student has to determine their own path through the martial arts. Each one of us has different motivations and goals, as well as different strengths, weaknesses, and resources available to us. The unique mix of these factors will determine your path.

Some martial artists’ want to recreate something from the past, some time in history that speaks to them. This can happen in a variety of different ways: one Scottish-American may decide to learn the Highland Broadsword of Thomas Page as a way of connecting with his ancestors, while another Scottish-American may study kenjitsu because the mystique and romance of the samurai fascinate him.

Rather than recreating a dead art, other students may want to participate in preserving a living historical art, such as classical fencing.

Some people are motivated to be ‘competitive’ – they want contests and rankings and tournaments and opportunities to win. While some do this within the context of the traditional arts, some will change the arts to accommodate this better: so jujitsu becomes judo, or classical fencing becomes sport fencing. Somewhere in there, and I won’t try to draw too fine of a line, but somewhere the practitioners would be more accurately described as athletes, and not as martial artists.

The main goal for some is self-defense. Others just want to be badass. Some people just do it for fun, or for exercise. Some martial artists pursue the art as an art.

More often than not, I suspect that most people are mix of many, if not all, of the above motivations.

There is also a question of what they want to learn, which can work in many ways:

  • Learn to use one weapon, using all sources (for example, working on longsword using German, Italian, and English treatises)
  • Learn one complete art, using all weapons (for example, studying just Fiore dei Liberi’s L’Arte dell’Armizare, and learning all the weapons included in his treatises)
  • Learning the arts of one time period (for example, learning a multitude of seventeenth century sword arts – regardless of country or source)
  • Learning the arts of one culture (for example, working with all English sources, regardless of time or weapon – the Harleian Manuscript, Silver, Swetnam, Hope, etc.)
  • Learning one tradition (for example, learning La Verdadera Destreza, which started with sideswords, moved to cuphilt rapiers, and later encompassed sabres and smallswords, across a several centuries)
  • And so on…

When you see one martial artist critiquing another one online, it’s always helpful to understand where each of them are coming from. Personally, I’m happy that different people approach the arts in different ways – I think all martial artists benefit from there being a diversity of approaches. But a lot of conflict is created by people who are following the One True Path to Martial Skill, and who are therefore intolerant towards all other paths.