With the fencing season in full swing, I thought it would be a good time to return to the topic here. Today I’m going to point out how strange fencers’ bodies are, how that may lead to injuries, and how it may influence any fictional fencers you are writing about.
For a beginner, fencing presents some unique challenges that can be encountered before one even picks up a blade. The en garde stance, the movements forward and back, and the lunges are not a movement that most people would encounter in day-to-day life. Compare this to a sport such as soccer, where anyone can start play on a basic level because you already know how to run. There are certainly rules to learn and techniques to practice, but even a newbie can run across the field. Many beginning fencers that I have watched over the years have a lingering level of awkwardness that will persist for a month, six months, even longer, depending on their development.
Lunging fencer. (c) Sylvain Sechet, reposted under Creative Commons license
Fencing is also asymmetrical. It might be fun to swing one sword in each hand, but for now that isn’t in the rules for the sport. This will lead to more muscle development in the dominant arm, although fencers don’t typically grow “big” arms from their sport. The weapons are all lightweight, but the repetition will eventually lead to some disparity between your limbs.
This asymmetry extends well beyond the weapon arm. All that footwork practice builds muscle in the quads, hamstrings, gluteals, calves… really the entire lower body. Most fencers will find that as their footwork improves, their front leg grows larger than their rear one. Even the muscle on the front of my right shin is larger than that on the left. If you are writing about a character who is new to fencing, that person will be SORE when they are learning the footwork. I remember feeling this mostly in the quads. Nowadays, if I return to practice after a break, I will feel it more in my hamstrings and gluteals.
In my own experience, I have found that I can lunge all day with my right leg forward. After so many years, it feels like a natural movement to me. However, switch to the left and I nearly fall over if I try to lunge with any sudden force. (I also run into walls at home, though.) Switching from the use of your dominant hand to the opposite one will also require that your footwork reverses itself. This is more challenging than it sounds.
A few years ago, I strained a muscle in my side. I stood in front of a mirror and tried to figure out what exactly I had done. I raised my shoulder, poked at my ribs, and in the process, I discovered that I had weird muscles on one side of my body that weren’t present on the other side! Okay, that’s not completely accurate. The muscles existed on both sides, but on my right side (I’m right-handed), they were more developed, and thus more visible because of the nature of my fencing movements. Fencing requires a lot of strength and coordination in the core muscles – the abs and back. The legs propel a fencer, but the core muscles allow the fencer to remain upright and coordinated when changing the direction of movement suddenly.
Even more experienced fencers may struggle with long hours of footwork practice. That lunge is never quite good enough, and there are patterns of footwork that must be repeated in practice so that they become second nature in a bout. Most fencers would rather fence practice bouts than drill footwork, but good footwork translates to good distance, which is critical to putting all your skills together to score the touch. For more about the importance of distance, read my earlier post here.
Graphic by Jen Christiansen, Illustrations by MCKIBILLO; Source: Lars Engebretsen, University of Oslo
In terms of injuries, fencers will be more likely to have bruises on the side that faces their opponent. For example, a right-handed fencer will tend to get more bruises on the front of the right leg, the right elbow (ow!), and the right shoulder. I have over-exerted myself and developed a minor strain in my right hamstring more times than I can count. I have jammed my toe into the front of my shoe on my front foot and had my toe nail fall off months later (also multiple times). I’ve had tendinitis in the elbow of my weapon-arm. I’ve had blisters on my right hand and thumb (and not my left). I don’t know that anyone has studied the incidence of front-leg versus rear-leg injuries when looking at more serious incidents. I have torn ligaments in both ankles. Overall, fencing is still an extremely safe sport. For those interested though, I go into more detail about other types of injuries here.
Has anyone seen a truly ambidextrous fencer? I have, and there are rules about how often you can change which hand you use. What other sports share the same type of asymmetry? Does anyone else have any experiences or injuries that might be related to this asymmetry?