This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 25th March 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
I often hear the advice that you should train with a heavier sword, in order to improve your strength, balance, coordination, stamina, whatever. In fact, this notion is recorded as early as Vegetius, who wrote about Roman training methods.
In this article, I will argue that lighter swords are in fact more beneficial for beginners, and that people should not rush into using a heavier sword before they are ready.
When people first begin learning HEMA, they rarely have the right musculature or stamina for prolonged, high intensity training. This is normal and only to be expected. As they practise, they get better at fencing, and they also improve their strength, stamina, and coordination for the discipline that they are training.
However, until they have enough strength, until they have built up enough muscle around the joints to provide stabilisation, it is not helpful to use too heavy a sword. In fact, this can lead to a lower level of performance, since the beginner is struggling against the weight of the sword, rather than working to understand the lesson itself. This is also true of more advanced practitioners – there are many men and women who are not particularly strong, who would struggle to work with heavier weapons. Such people require something more suitable for their own stature, characteristics, and level of development. In other words, they need to learn to walk before they can run, and that means working with a lighter sword until they develop their physicality to be able to use a heavier sword.
A common argument in favour of using heavier swords is that many surviving examples of that type of sword are actually quite heavy. If you handle original swords in a museum, you may find that some of them are pretty heavy. However, if you handle enough swords, you will probably also find some examples that are surprisingly light and agile. For example, in the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, there are several hundred original swords. In terms of basket-hilted broadswords, there are some really heavy, awkward beasts, and there are some lovely, beautifully agile swords. The range of weights is from roughly 1.3 kilograms to more than 2 kilograms. Does this mean that all my broadsword students should be using 1.8 kg or 2 kg swords, because the majority of examples in the museum are of roughly that weight?
I would argue that no, it means that there is just as much justification for them to use 1.4 kg swords as to use 2.5 kg swords. Also, what survivor bias is present in the swords that are held in a museum collection? Were these swords supposed to be for new recruits, or were they the status symbols of professional, or well-trained, or just physically strong warriors? Of course, a fighter who has practised swordsmanship for twenty or thirty years since childhood will be better able to wield a heavier sword than someone who has three or four months of practice under their belts.
There are all kinds of horror stories from people who have screwed up their wrists, given themselves tennis elbow, or torn their rotator cuff in their shoulder from historical fencing or some other sword-related activity. Sometimes this is the fault of improper body mechanics, sometimes it is just that the individual has been too ambitious and has been using too heavy a sword for their current capability.
When I began to study the Scottish broadsword, I was making my cuts with poor mechanics. As a result, I had wrist pains for quite a long time, until I corrected my mechanics. Then, very quickly, my wrists recovered. My mistake was to train with incorrect mechanics, and by correcting these, the pains went away.
At some point a couple of years later, I decided to begin strengthening my left arm by practising broadsword left-handed as well as right-handed; I drilled the cuts with my left hand, using a steel sword. Unfortunately, the muscles around my left elbow were not quite well enough developed to stabilise the joint. As a result, I had pains, and had to stop practising left-handed for a while, to let my elbow heal. My mistake was using too heavy a sword for my current level of physical development. I could use a steel broadsword in my right hand without any problems, but even a limited number of repetitions of the cuts with my left hand caused problems with the same weight of sword.
If this can happen to me, it can most certainly happen to my students. As a result, I will not ask my students to use a steel broadsword until I believe they are physically developed enough to handle it without injury to themselves. When it comes to longsword, I would also prefer to see my students working with a lighter sword until they develop the correct musculature and body mechanics to be able to handle a heavier sword safely.
I believe this principle applies to all weapons and all disciplines: the best weight of sword for someone can use is one that will not damage them, given their current physical development. Any other weight of sword will be detrimental rather than helpful.
Of course, if an individual does possess strength and stamina for the discipline, and can use a 2 kg sword just as well as a 1.5 kg or 1 kg sword, then there may indeed be advantages in working with a heavier weapon. There may be physical advantages, it may mean working with a more authentic weapon, there may be all kinds of potential benefits – for someone who is already strong enough to handle it.
Just as a gym would not ask a client to lift a weight that was far too heavy for them to lift safely, given their level of physical development, neither should historical fencing instructors suggest to students that heavy swords are always better or more correct than lighter swords.
It is best to use an appropriate tool for the person in question.
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.