Strength and Conditioning for Fencing

Turner, Anthony MSc, CSCS*D1; Miller, Stuart BSc (Hons)1; Stewart, Perry MSc1; Cree, Jon MSc1; Ingram, Rhys MSc2; Dimitriou, Lygeri PhD1; Moody, Jeremy PhD3; Kilduff, Liam PhD4

Strength & Conditioning Journal:
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31826e7283


Author Information

1London Sport Institute, Middlesex University, Wales, United Kingdom

2English Institute of Sport, Manchester, United Kingdom

3Sport Science, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Cardiff, United Kingdom

4Sport and Exercise Science, Swansea University, Wales, United Kingdom

Anthony Turner is a strength and conditioning coach and the programme leader for the MSc in Strength and Conditioning at the London Sport Institute, Middlesex University, England, and the lead strength and conditioning coach for the British Fencing National Academy.

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Stuart Miller is the head of Biomechanics at the London Sport Institute.

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Perry Stewart is a lecturer and coach for the London Sport Institute.

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Jon Cree is a strength and Conditioning coach and a lecturer in Sport Science and Sport and Exercise Rehabilitation at Middlesex University, London.

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Rhys Ingram is a strength and conditioning coach with the EIS where he leads the British Fencing program.

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Lygeri Dimitriou is a senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology in the London Sports Institute, Middlesex University.

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Jeremy Moody is programme director for the MSc Strength and Conditioning at the Cardiff School of Sport, Cardiff Metropolitan University and Performance Director for Judo, Sport Wales, Cardiff.

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Liam Kilduff is a senior lecturer at Swansea University.

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Fencing is one of only a few sports that has been featured at every one of the modern Olympic Games. It takes place on a 14 × 2 m strip called a “piste,” with all scoring judged electronically as a result of the high pace of competition. The winner is the first fencer to score 5 hits during the preliminary pool bouts, or 15 hits should they reach the direct elimination bouts. During the preliminary pools, bouts last up to 5 minutes, whereas during elimination, each bout consists of 3 rounds of 3 minutes, with 1-minute rest between the rounds. There are 3 types of swords used in Olympic fencing, and these are briefly described in Table 1. The sword with which a fencer chooses to specialize in is likely based on what is offered at their local club or the coach who first introduced them to the sport.

In general, fencing involves a series of explosive attacks, spaced by low-intensity movements and recovery periods, whereby perceptual and psychomotor skills prevail (i.e., the ability to quickly and appropriately respond to an opponent's actions). There is a great need to repeatedly defend and attack and to often engage in a seamless transition between the two (counterattack). This can be facilitated by an appropriate strength and conditioning (S&C) program in which strength, power, and power-endurance qualities (including economy of movement) can be enhanced. However, one common practice is that coaches favor the more “traditional” low-intensity, high-volume training, which is often contradictory to the scientific literature describing the development of these skills.

The aim of this article is to rationalize the use of S&C. A significant challenge stems from the lack of primary research conducted within fencing. Therefore, a combination of anecdotal observations (which include personal communications with the Great Britain coaching team) and evidence derived from empirically similar sports will need to be used. To complete this article, a fencing-specific S&C program will be suggested.

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As with any sport to which S&C interventions are to be implemented, the S&C coach must first undergo a needs analysis to identify the biomechanical and physiological requirements of the sport and its time-motion characteristics (TMC). After this, the S&C coach must construct an appropriate test battery to measure the strengths and weaknesses of the athlete against these variables. In addition, it is fundamental to identify the mechanisms of injury and rehabilitative strategies.

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Fencing tournaments take place over an entire day (often lasting around 10 hours) and consist of approximately 10 bouts (the majority of which do not require the full bout time) with a break of anywhere between 15 and 300 minutes between each (20). Roi and Bianchedi (20) have reported the TMC of the winners of the men's and women's epee and men's foil during the elimination bouts of an international competition (Table 2). In general, results reveal that bouts and actual fight time consist of only 13 and 5% of actual competition time, respectively, with a bout work to rest ratio of 1 to 1 in men's epee and 1 to 3 in men's foil. On average, a foil fencer will work for 5 seconds, whereas an epee fencer will work for 15 seconds (much of which is at a submaximal intensity) before each rest period or interruption. During the elimination bouts, a fencer may cover between 250 and 1000 m, attack 140 times, and change direction approximately 200 times. Also of interest, Roi and Pittaluga (21) reported a significantly greater number of directional changes when comparing female fencers of high- and low-technical abilities (133 ± 62 versus 85 ± 25, respectively; p < 0.05), which is to be suggestive of different tactical levels.

Although TMC within sabre have not been reported, anecdotal observations suggest that the average work phases are shorter (approximately 3 seconds), with a bout work to rest ratio of 1 to 5, covering a distance closer to the 250 m end of range, with significantly fewer changes in directions and attacks.

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Fencing uses an “on guard” position (Figure 1a) in which the fencer “bounces” in preparation for action. This position enables rapid manipulation of the base of support relative to the center of mass, whereby the fencer can quickly transition from attack to defense and vice versa. This ability is fundamental because to cope with an opponent's attack, a fencer must be able to quickly move from a current or intended action to a new one that can accommodate this attack. Although this is determined largely by perceptual and psychomotor skills, a fencer must have the physical requisites to capitalize on this. Current concepts within S&C would relate these to factors such as rate of force development (RFD) and stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) augmentation, which to some degree are both dependent on muscular strength (2,15).

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The lunge (Figure 1a–c) is the most common form of attack. Others include those derived from in-stance counterattacks (following a parry/block for example) and the fleche. With around 140 attacks in the elimination bouts alone (Table 2), the significance of the lunge and the need to optimally execute this repeatedly is evident. Quantitative data describing the kinetics and kinematics of the lunge are yet to be determined. However, qualitative observations reveal that the rear leg must produce a powerful concentric action (Figure 1b), whereas the knee extensors of the front leg must produce a rapid braking action at landing to stabilize and prepare the fencer for subsequent actions (Figure 1c). Generally, the back foot maintains its position while the front foot moves forward. Of note, the braking forces experienced by the lead leg are likely to be very high. Therefore, the lunge dictates the need for both concentric strength and braking strength (eccentric and isometric strength).

Because the lunge is an attacking movement, its success is largely dictated by the speed of execution, which emphasizes the importance of having an enhanced RFD and the ability to generate high power outputs. Finally, because this movement is often initiated after the “bounce” of the on guard position, it is likely to use the SSC mechanism, so this also needs to be targeted.

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To attack, fencers will use their leg musculature to explosively push against the ground and strike their opponent from an out of range position. Unlike other upper-body combat strikes that use the same method (26), the striking arm is first to move in the attacking sequence. Therefore, the power generated by pushing against the floor is used to reach and strike their opponent as quickly as possible, rather than to strike them with force. When lunging, because it is generally desirable to keep the back foot in contact with the ground, and perpendicular to the plane of attack, extension at the ankle and hip is limited. Despite these differences, leg (especially knee) extension force (or rather power as this move is time dependent) appears paramount to a successful hit in fencing.

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Assuming a fencing lunge occurs as quickly as a punch (e.g., in boxing or Tae Kwon Do), total movement time may be approximately 300 milliseconds (1). This duration does not provide the opportunity to develop peak force, which may require up to 600 to 800 milliseconds (7). This emphasizes the need for these athletes to train power and RFD. Both of these qualities are a function of neuromuscular activation (4,22), leading many authors to recommend ballistic (explosive) training to improve them (22,10,27). Although heavy resistance training improves the final height of the force-time (F-T) curve (Figure 2), ballistic training improves the slope of the initial portion of the F-T curve, specifically within the first 200 (11) to 300 milliseconds (17) when the strike of a lunge is most likely to occur.

Plyometrics and Olympic-style lifts are some of the most effective forms of ballistic training because in addition to their ability to be adapted to the specifics of the sport, they encourage full acceleration through the entire movement. In addition, Olympic-style lifts produce some of the highest power outputs of any exercise modality. It should also be noted that a high and positive correlation exists between power and maximum strength (r = 0.77–0.94) (2), illustrating the significance of strength training as a prerequisite to power development.

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Roi and Bianchedi (20) reported that although the aerobic capacity of fencers (52.9 mL/kg per minute) is greater than that of the sedentary population (approximately 42 mL/kg per minute), it is clearly lower than that of aerobic endurance–based athletes and may be suggestive of the relatively small role a high V[Combining Dot Above]O2max has to fencing. Further support may be gleaned from the existing data within empirically similar sports, such as wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts (19). It appears that fencing relies predominately on anaerobic metabolism; aerobic energy system contribution may be small and predominately involved in the submaximal movements of the “on guard” position and during recovery periods (interbout and intrabout). Furthermore, although the energy system requirements of each sword will inevitably differ (see Table 2), it is in the opinion of the authors that none will significantly tax the aerobic system to the extent that training need directly target its development through the traditional methods of long slow distance (LSD) running. Further support for this notion, as well as defining the predominant anaerobic system, originates from reports quantifying the blood lactate concentrations of fencing bouts. In men's foil, for example, blood lactate concentrations (measured 5 minutes after bout) averaged 2.5 mmol/L during the preliminary pools and then were consistently above 4 mmol/L (and as high as 15.3 mmol/L in the winner) during the elimination bouts (6). Therefore, although foil fencing is undoubtedly an anaerobic-type sport, it appears that the preliminary bouts rely more on the alactic system, whereas the elimination bouts rely more on the lactate system. Currently, no data are available for the other 2 swords but following what is reported herein, sabre is likely to predominately tax the alactic system across both types of bout, whereas epee may use more of the lactic acid system during the elimination bouts (similar to foil).

In summary, LSD running is likely to be disadvantageous to the fencer. The article by Elliott et al. (8), summarized in Table 3, and the schematics of Bompa and Haff (5) (see Figures 3 and 4) support this argument.

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In the authors' opinion, low-intensity aerobic endurance training is detrimental to fencing performance and unfavorably alters energy system adaptations and muscle physiology. Consequently, metabolic conditioning may be best derived from high-intensity interval training. Anecdotally, sparring provides the most specificity and optimally adapts the energy systems for the purposes of competition. However, it is not always reasonable to call on this intervention, and oftentimes, athletes need to engage in less sport-specific activities to appropriately and consistently increase and manipulate the intensity. Therefore, again anecdotally, it is suggested that coaches use work to rest ratio and average work duration specific to their sword. For example, in men's foil (work to rest 1:3, average work duration of 5 seconds), fencers can complete a 2-4-2 m shuttle (to encourage multiple changes in direction across varying and fundamental lengths; Figure 5) over a 5-second period (speed/fatigue will determine how much of the shuttle is completed) before resting for 15 seconds. Because the TMC reported by Roi and Bianchedi (20) were recorded over 6 elimination bouts, adding approximately 174 attacks (Table 2), the repetitions of the proposed drill can be arranged in 1 of 2 ways: The drill can (a) be carried out over 3 sets of 3 minutes with 1-minute rest between sets or (b) be completed ≈29 times (174 divided by 6) split into 3 sets of approximately 9 repetitions, again with 1-minute rest between the sets.

Of course, it should be noted that these data were collected from an international competition, and therefore, these athletes were of a high standard (and presumably fit) and were adult. When applying these guidelines to novice, intermediate, and younger fencers, both intensity and repetitions should be adjusted accordingly. Table 4 suggests training drills appropriate to all fencing disciplines including across gender and are based on the data of Roi and Bianchedi (20). These guidelines should be treated with caution until similar data are collected across multiple competitions of all abilities, gender, and age. It should also be noted that although men's epee contains average work periods of 15 seconds, this is not all performed at maximum intensity.

High-intensity interval training additions such as these may be a beneficial to training as Hoch et al. (13) reported that fencing training sessions rarely evoke blood lactate concentrations above the anaerobic threshold and thus do not always replicate competition bouts. Finally, anecdotal experience reveals that also completing these drills using their nondominant stance will help fend off the highly prevalent (and visually obvious) muscular imbalances between legs.

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Perhaps the most insightful research to investigate injuries in fencing was conducted by Harmer (12), who collected data from all national events organized by the U.S. Fencing Association over a 5-year period (2001–2006). In total, more than 78,000 fencers (both genders) between 8 and 70 years of age and across all swords were investigated. Throughout this period, all incidents that resulted in withdrawal from the competition (i.e., a time-loss injury) were documented from which the incidence and characteristics of injuries were calculated. This value was determined as the rate of time-loss injuries per 1,000 hours of athlete exposures, with 1 athlete exposure equaling 1 bout. The results of this study are summarized in Table 5.

Harmer (12) concluded that the risk of injury in fencing is very low with the chance of injury in football and basketball being 50 and 31 times greater, respectively. Furthermore, the authors are of the assumption that many of the fencers from which this data was gathered were not undertaking efficacious S&C programs. With this assumption in mind, strength training may have reduced the incidence of these injuries through its positive adaptations on the structural integrity of all involved (3).

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Testing enables coaches to identify the physical capabilities of their athletes, monitor the efficacy of their S&C programs (and adjust accordingly), and makes predictions on competition performance. Based on the needs analysis conducted above, a suggested battery of tests has been identified (Table 6). It is important to conduct the tests in the order described above because this will reduce the negative effects of accumulated fatigue as the athlete progresses through the testing battery. Also, despite agility being defined as the ability to change direction in response to a sport-specific stimulus, agility is largely tested via closed skills; the reactive element is difficult to test without compromising reliability and incurring significant expense (24).

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Periodization may be defined as a training plan, whereby peak performance is brought about through the potentiation of biomotors and the management of fatigue and accommodation. The traditional periodization strategies such as implementing a biomotor emphasis (e.g., strength and power) for approximately 4 weeks and using a 3:1 loading paradigm should be adopted for fencers during the off-season. During the in-season, competitions occur every 2–4 weeks (Table 7), and thus, this approach may not always be possible. Here, it may be advisable to use a nontraditional approach, which alternates between strength and power training on a session-to-session basis; in this context, it may be possible to perform 2–4 sessions of each before changing. Table 8 provides examples of 4 strength sessions and 4 power sessions, which may be appropriate to fencers.

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It is highly recommended that fencers use strength and power training because it is likely to increase both the speed and (energy) efficiency of striking. Athletes should be critical of some traditional training methods such as LSD running because of their counterproductive effects on performance. Instead, exercises and conditioning drills, such as those identified herein, that focus on the physiological and biomechanical prerequisites of competition bouts should be used. In summary, a more scientific approach to performance training is required for these athletes, and more objective data are required within the sport of fencing.

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fencing; combat; strength; power

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