Recognising the early warning signs of pain for HEMA practitioners

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Learning a little about how the body works can save us from large amounts of pain.

As martial artists, we tend to be no strangers to pain. Bruises, bumps, small cuts or grazes, general aches and tiredness – these are nothing so unusual! However, not all pain is equal, and sometimes pain is the body’s way of warning us that we are on the path to injury if we continue without changing something. The purpose of this article is to look at the idea of pain as an early warning system, and what we can do about it when we feel it.

Bruises and bumps

We can probably ignore these, to be honest. Yes, they hurt. Yes, they are an example of pain. Yes, they are a warning signal that you should probably parry better. But they are the physical result of being struck, they are not an early warning signal that you are pushing yourself beyond what your body is capable of doing safely and that you are running the risk of injuring yourself. For this reason, they are not the kind of pain that I want to discuss in this article.

Overuse and overtraining

If you attend one training session a week, you probably won’t run the risk of overtraining, of injuring yourself by overusing your body without giving it sufficient time to rest and recover. However, if you are fencing three or four times a week, you may easily begin to suffer from overtraining, especially if you do not vary your weapons, or if you always use and favour your dominant side.

When you use your muscles comfortably within their capability, this is not a problem for your body, and nothing really happens. When you push your muscles to the limit of their capability (in terms of strength, or endurance, or anything that leaves you feeling that you couldn’t possibly keep going), the tissue of the muscles tears a little, and then must knit back together; it is this process by which strength is built and capabilities are enhanced.[1] Tissue damage is of course something we want to avoid, and so it is of great importance that we rest the muscle after doing strength training, so that it can heal, and become stronger in the process of healing. However, if we do not allow the muscle to rest, and subject it to further stress and effort, then the muscle never heals, never quite becomes stronger, and suffers more and more little tears until a larger tear occurs.[2]

Therefore, if a muscle feels fatigued because it has been well-used, then we should heed this as a sign that the muscle needs rest. Ignoring the fatigue and pushing it to further heights of performance will run the risk of suffering a greater injury.

The solution may be as simple as taking a day off for recovery, or even just using the other arm for a little while. Alternatively, you may need several days without further training to recover fully from an intensive weekend event. Or you may be served better by reducing the intensity of your practice for a day or two, to reduce the load and demand on the muscles.

Of course, for any serious pains, or if you suspect any serious problems, you should speak with a medical professional. Having a slightly sore arm because you spent an entire day fencing is quite reasonable, and probably no cause for alarm; but if your arm is constantly fatigued, and you cannot escape the pain, then you should probably talk to a physiotherapist.

Joint pains and tendon injuries

In the HEMA community, pains in the joints (especially in and around the arm) usually indicate that there is a problem with how you hold and use the sword. For example, wrist pains are very common in those fencers who do not keep a straight wrist and who hyperextend the wrist every time they perform a technique.

Often, people who are more concerned about landing a touch and scoring a point than performing a technique correctly will run the risk of suffering joint pains. It is important to perform techniques in a way that can achieve the desired goals and have the necessary effect while also looking after yourself and preventing undue stress on your joints and on the tendons that are involved in the movement. Instructors should insist upon good mechanics, and not for the mundane reasons of “that’s what the book says” or “that’s simply the right way to do it”, but so that students do not injure themselves in practice.

There are many good instructors in the HEMA community who have a strong understanding of body mechanics and how to apply these to sword fighting. If you are suffering pains in a joint or tendon, speak with such an instructor and see if there is a problem with your performance that can be fixed, to prevent any further (or worsening of) pains. Needless to say, for the injury itself, a proper physiotherapist should be your first port of call.

All of the joint pains that I have experienced myself during my time practising HEMA have, without exception, been caused by incorrect body mechanics. By not doing what the source says explicitly, or by trying to land a touch rather than a proper cleaving cut, my mechanics were wrong and I suffered pains. By improving my mechanics, I have had no further joint pains, and the pains I suffered have disappeared.[3]

Using an inappropriate sword

It is a common idea that for HEMA purposes we should use swords of a proper historical design, of a proper historical weight. I agree with this. After all, if we use a 600 gram sabre to practise 18th century Scottish broadsword (during which time swords of 1.3 kg to 1.6 kg were not uncommon), then the techniques as written will make less sense, the mechanics as written will make less sense, and we would be better off following a late 19th century source for light duelling sabres. Context is important.

However, to use a 1.5 kg sword, you must have the necessary musculature to use a sword of this weight without sustaining injuries. If you do not yet have this musculature, then you should start with a lighter sword, and work your way up to the heavy item. In professional gyms, they do not ask beginners to lift 250 kg on their first day! They start with light weights, and increase the weight until they find the right weight for that particular person, and then they work to help that person develop from there.

We should do the same with swords. If someone has difficulty handling a 1.5 kg sword, then it would be foolish to say “this is what swords weighed originally, so you must use this”. Instead, the person should use a 1 kg sword, without risk of injury, then upgrade to a 1.2 kg sword, and eventually reach the 1.5 kg weapon when they develop the necessary musculature to handle such a sword without injury.

In my opinion, it is not “bad HEMA” to use a sword that is lighter than historical artefacts. In my opinion, it is “really dumb” to force yourself to use a sword that is too heavy for you at your current stage of development. No one is a master swordsman on day one; you start as a beginner, and you work up to a higher level of skill. Likewise, no one starts life as a powerhouse; everyone starts life by being weak, and everyone develops muscle as they go through life. So there is no shame in using a lighter sword when you begin practising HEMA (or even when you take up a new discipline that requires a different musculature from what you are used to), and working up to the proper weight.

There is definitely something wrong with using unrealistically light weapons to gain an advantage in sparring or competition, because then the focus is “winning at all costs” and not reconstructing a historical method of fencing with a historically accurate sword. But that is a completely different issue, and there is nothing wrong with using a lighter sword to avoid risk of injury until you develop the musculature necessary to be able to handle a heavier sword safely.

Conclusions

Pain is a useful signal from the body that something is not quite right and that injury could be on the way, unless you change what you are doing. The solution can be as simple as taking a day or two away from training, to rest and recover, or it could be as complicated as learning a completely different (but correct) set of mechanics to replace the (wrong and inadequate) mechanics that have led to the current problem.

Medical professionals such as physiotherapists are immensely important to the recovery process if you do actually injure yourself, and no blog article (no matter how enthusiastic or how well written) is a suitable substitute.

However, if you are just beginning to feel the twinge of pains, then you may still be quite far from doing yourself harm, as long as you take proper notice of the pain and behave sensibly as a result.

A good book for further information about this topic is A Guide to Better Movement by Todd Hargrove, as it is well-researched and extensive, and also well-written and easily accessible even for a normal person without a medical degree.

Footnotes

[1] John Leyva. “How Do muscles Grow? The Science of Muscle Growth.” https://www.builtlean.com/2013/09/17/muscles-grow/

Young sub Kwon and Len Kravitz. “How do muscles grow?” https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/musclesgrowLK.html

[2] Ann Pietrangelo and Kristeen Cherney. “Muscle Strains.” https://www.healthline.com/health/strains

[3] Keith Farrell. “Cutting Mechanics with the Longsword: Oberhaw.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McCd9lP5ZzI

Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.