A question came up on Reddit recently (thread) about fencing with synthetic or steel swords, and I made my usual reply that I don’t think it matters much from which material the swords are made (from the perspective of safety), but that it is much more important how you act with sword in hand, the intensity at which you train, and how much protective equipment you wear.
This developed into a conversation about how to train at different intensities. While it may seem clear and obvious to some people how to modify or control the intensity of a sparring bout, it maybe is not quite so clear or obvious to others. Therefore, I would like to offer some thoughts and examples about this from my own experience.
Thinking about intensities in training
Sometimes while training, it is appropriate to keep things light and gentle. Sometimes it is appropriate to hit harder. Sometimes it is good to go slower, sometimes it is good to go faster.
Very simple examples would be when sparring with a beginner who is having their very first experience, compared with competing in an international tournament. It should be pretty obvious that there is good reason to modify and control how you fence in such different situations.
I would say that “low intensity” sparring tends to be relatively gentle in terms of how hard you are hitting, and probably also not going at full speed. Furthermore, the overall intent of the bout is probably going to be relatively friendly and not very competitive – you are probably “playing” with your partner more than trying to beat them. You maybe do not need much protective gear beyond mask and gloves because you are not trying to do the techniques and behaviours that are likely to hurt another person.
“High intensity” bouts would be much more like competition. You are moving fast, striking hard, working with strength and explosiveness, and trying your best to make your techniques work against a very uncooperative opponent. You may well be exploiting your partner’s weaknesses, and deliberately working in a fashion that they don’t enjoy very much. You are certainly not giving them any opportunity to try things against you, and you want to shut them down as much as possible so that they have few options. Needless to say, this kind of fencing carries much more risk of injury, so you have to wear an appropriate amount of protective gear to keep it safe – or rather, to keep the risk to an acceptable level.
It is all well and good to explain these concepts with words. But what does it look like in practice?
I have had the good fortune of fencing with my good friend Federico Malagutti on several occasions over the years, and we recorded a few bouts on camera. It just so happens that these bouts showcase a few different levels of intensity!
Example of low intensity
This is one of our low intensity bouts, with minimal gear and plenty of control:
In this first video, because we don’t wear much protective gear, we keep the intensity low and are mostly just “playing” with each other. This is a kind of sparring that anyone can do relatively safely as long as the focus remains squarely on keeping the intensity low and friendly. There is nothing wrong with this kind of fencing – it is great for your development, but it cannot be the only kind of training you ever do, otherwise it will lead to bad habits, because too much of any one sort of thing leads to bad habits.
Example of mid-to-high intensity
Now, this is one of our mid-to-high intensity bouts, with much more protective gear, but still not going “full blast” at each other:
In this second video, the intensity has gone up a bit, so we wear more protective gear and try to make techniques work in a less compliant situation, meaning that our fencing is stronger and faster. This is still quite safe to do with people who aren’t yet very experienced, as long as everyone has appropriate protective gear. Attempting this kind of sparring without sufficient protective gear (or without sufficient skill and preparation) will be unsafe, regardless of whether you do it with steel or synthetic swords. (Padded boffers may be the exception to this rule, because they tend to be so well padded that you can hit pretty hard without damaging anyone!)
I believe strongly that it is important to do some low intensity, minimal gear fencing (such as in the first video) AND some mid-to-high intensity sparring with more gear (such as in the second video), in order to have a well-rounded training and experience.
Example of higher intensity
And finally, this is one of our higher intensity bouts, where we tried to push ourselves (and each other!) quite hard:
In the third video, the exercise was that of high intensity sparring, so we put the focus even further onto strength and speed, and being able to handle things in an increasingly difficult situation. This is not the sort of sparring I would do with beginners or even intermediate fencers, because I would rather not expose myself to more risk than is necessary, but I am quite happy to do it with skilful people who can demonstrate their skill and control of themselves even at this kind of intensity.
All three videos show friendly sparring, as opposed to competition. They each feel quite differently, though, and have a different energy.
The risk in the second and third videos is greater than in the first because we are trying harder to make our blows connect with more strength and speed. We mitigate this increased risk by wearing more protective gear. We also mitigate this increased risk by ensuring that we are up to the task of keeping ourselves and our partner safe during this bout – it would be a mistake to take a complete beginner and give them this kind of task, because they would not have the skill to keep themselves safe nor to keep their partner safe.
In the third bout, the intensity is sufficiently high that we could not be entirely on the lookout for our partner’s safety. At a certain point, you have to trust that the protective gear will do its job sufficiently, and you must also trust that your partner will be able to keep themselves reasonably safe without punching your incoming cuts or walking face-first into your thrusts. Just because you are wearing some kind of protective glove does not mean that you can engage safely in this kind of practice; you need to be wearing the right kind of protective gear that offers sufficient protection, otherwise you are not wearing sufficient protection.
In my experience, anyone who trains just one single way will set themselves up with all kinds of bad habits that might work well for them in that one situation, but that do not always carry across very well to other types of training or testing. By far, the best way to train is to allow yourself a mix of different exercises, so that you tick all the boxes and cover all the bases.
Do some low intensity, light contact sparring. Do some mid-to-high intensity sparring to make sure that you can handle it when a partner goes harder against you. Do some very high intensity sparring (when you are able to handle it safely) to see how well you can deal with the least cooperative kind of opponent.
At the same time, do some non-sparring training to ensure that you are improving your skills in other areas. Play a variety of games, so some solo drills, so some exercises designed to improve your mobility and movement skills and your flow. Do some exercises with related weapons or disciplines to see what you can learn from related systems. Get your brain involved and challenge yourself to do things that are outside your comfort zone, so that you learn to think through different situations and work out novel solutions to these problems.
If you train better by incorporating all sorts of exercises at different intensities, then you will become a better and more well-rounded martial artist who can solve a wider variety of problems with greater ease and security.
If you would like to talk to me about how to incorporate different exercises and training challenges into your practice, I am more than happy to offer online coaching and private tuition. Get in touch and let’s see what I can do to help you!
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 teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.