Updated: May 5, 2022
In Broadsword, good hand, wrist and forearm strength is vital.
When we cut with the broadsword, we should be using our fingers to do most of the work. What this means is that the muscles of the forearm that support and move the wrist take on a lot of the stress and strain that I’m sure every Broadsworder has felt!
However, if the muscles are strained or overused, this can lead to some very painful conditions like Tennis Elbow. In order to prevent this, we have to make efforts to keep our muscles strong and flexible!
So how do we do this?
Broadsword masters of the past also understood exactly how important this is. Charles Roworth (The Art of Defence on Foot, 1804) stated on the subject of learning the cuts;
“The learner … must begin gradually. If he attempts to make the cuts rapidly and with force before he attains the proper turn of the wrist by which the weapon is to be recovered, he will be liable to unpleasant accidents”
He sensibly recommends slow and steady work, getting the cut right before adding any force. Beginning gradually, building up the strength, flexibility and muscle memory is exactly how we would still recommend learning a skill or exercise.
The masters each have their own exercises or movements that they recommend you do in order to avoid “unpleasant accidents” and build up your sword work. Roworth recommends flourishing the weapon;
“The practicing this figure (figure 8) alone with the sword, will tend much to supple the wrist, and to give you proper command of your weapon. It should be performed sometimes in the manner of cut 1 and 2 combined; at others as cut 3 and 4 only in a direction more horizontal.”
Here he describes moving the sword in figure of 8 motions by combining the cuts 1 and 2 or the cuts 3 and 4, the full rotation of the wrist aiding in keeping the wrist flexible.
Alfred Hutton (Cold Steel: A Practical Treatise on the Sabre, 1889) recommends “The Moulinet” to gain strength and flexibility. The exercise is similar to the figure of 8 described by Roworth except it can be done with a single cut repeated in a circle, a combination of cuts or through Roworth’s full cutting pattern.
Hutton describes things a little more precisely than Roworth;
“The Moulinet, as likewise all the other, must be performed at first quite slowly in order to ensure precision of movement; and afterwards the speed must be increased and the circle repeated continuously ten or twelve times”
So from Hutton, we get the method, the build up and the final goal of repetitions. To repeat all 6 moulinets 10 or 12 times as he says, it would be between 60 and 72 cuts! That would definitely condition the arm! However, it is vitally important that you build yourself up to these amounts of repetitions. To jump to doing 60-72 cuts all at once is just inviting injury.
The masters recommendations of the moulinet or this figure of 8 motion makes perfect sense as you are not only working the wrist through it’s full range of motion but you’re doing a type of resistance training due to the weight of the sword.
The masters have given their recommendations, and there are many more masters than I have mentioned here, but research has proven that if you only do the same things day after day, you may stop seeing the physiological benefits of the exercise.
So how do we make sure we don’t plateau?
You could continue to increase the repetitions and maybe even succeed at doing 100 reps of the Moulinets that Hutton describes but as we said before, performing too many repetitions actually has diminishing returns. Generally, if you’re succeeding at 100 repetitions of something, you will likely not be stimulating strength, muscle or power gains. Simply put, if you need to do something 100 times to feel like it’s been a workout, the exercise is too easy!
On the other hand, if you’re powering through lots of pain and discomfort to get to 100 reps, that will also give diminished returns because you’re putting too much stress on the joints and muscles and are likely to do yourself a mischief.
So what can we do instead?
It may not be a question of “instead” but more “in addition”. If you want to be good at a skill, you practice it! We don’t recommend stopping practicing your cuts, however if you only practice your cuts and don’t supplement this training, you are likely to see improvement stagnate and maybe have injuries creep in from overuse.
The goal of physical preparation is to supplement your training and increase your ability to perform. General Physical Preparation, at first glance, does not look sport specific and on instinct, many people think this is a negative. However only focusing on sport specific exercises, such as our cutting pattern, will result in overspecialisation which could cause injuries, inequality within the body (as with broadsword you are training each side of the body differently) and burnout. Performance wise, it is likely to cause a quick increase in performance followed by a stagnation that will be very difficult to improve upon. Physical Preparation involves increasing all of your fitness qualities and will ensure the individual’s movement dysfunctions and weaknesses are honed in on and addressed.
So we’ve put together a little list of 5 exercises that everyone can do at home, with minimal space and that can be done with equipment that everyone has easy access to – a tin of soup and a tennis ball! (But if you have a weight, feel free to substitute the tin of soup!)
1. Eccentric Wrist Flexion
Sitting with your wrist off the side of a table, can in your hand and palm facing upwards. Slowly let your hand lower towards the floor for five seconds. Pull it back up towards you for two seconds.
Make sure your wrist is moving in a fluid motion and not in stages. Also watch that your wrist is nicely aligned at all times and doesn’t wiggle around.
2. Eccentric Wrist Extension
Sitting with your wrist off the side of a table, can in your hand and palm facing downwards. Slowly let your hand lower towards the floor for five seconds. Pull it back up towards you for two seconds.
As in the first exercise, make sure your wrist is moving in a fluid motion and not in stages. Also watch that your wrist is nicely aligned and doesn’t wiggle around.
3. Pronation and Supination Strengthening
Sitting or standing, bend your arm up at the elbow to 90 degrees, can in hand. Without moving any of the rest of your arm, slowly turn your palm to the ceiling then turn it to the floor. For extra difficulty, this can be done with something longer with a weight on one side eg. A hammer. Make sure this is done slow and with control and that you’re not excessively squeezing the hammer or can.
4. Tennis ball squeeze
Holding a tennis ball in your hand, squeeze it for 5secs then let go. There’s lots of variations you can do here too in order to get different areas working. For example, you can squeeze with only the last two fingers and thumb or squeeze one finger at a time or in a Mexican wave!
For Broadsworders, pay extra attention to your pinky!
5. Chair Lift
This exercise will work the stability of the wrist. Hold the base of a dining room chair, elbow on the same level as the hand, and lift it up. Try to smoothly lift all four legs off the floor at the same time. Grab the back leg first and if you’re successful, progress to the front leg.
Try to make sure there are no wobbles as you lift the chair. This exercise is quite challenging but it should be good fun as well!
In order to best perform all of our cuts, we need to have flexible fingers and wrists. In addition, stretching and making sure you have good range of motion is one of the best ways you can prevent injury. Most stretches can be done in a variety of ways but here are four easy stretches that you can make a key part of your training;
Wrist extension – Grip the palm of your hand with your other hand, extend the arm away from the body, pulling the hand down so the fingers point at the floor. Hold for a good 45s and repeat if needed.
Wrist flexion – Grip the outside of the hand with your other hand, extend the arm away from the body, pulling the hand down so the fingers point at the floor. Hold for a good 45s and repeat if needed.
Finger Extension - Repeat the wrist extension exercise as above but pull on the fingers more than the palm. You can stretch all the fingers or one at a time. Hold each for around 30s to 1min depending on your needs.
As another option to the above, you can place your hand palm down on a table and pull up one finger at a time. Be gentle! Fingers are easy to overstretch and should be treated with care!
Active finger stretch – Simply try and get your fingers as far away from each other as possible! Hold for 10s at maximum and repeat this a few times as needed.
Adding these few exercises into your training regime will help to keep your hands and forearms healthy and happy alongside building up the muscles needed to best perform your cuts and guards. Quality is more important than quantity so the most important thing is to make sure you’re doing the exercises well and if your form is suffering, then you’ve had enough for the day!
So there you have it. A Broadsworder’s guide to wrist strength!
Many thanks to our good friend Paul Coyle for the help with the chair video. Paul is an expert in physical preparation and Victoria and Paul often work closely together developing athletes in various different sports. Thank you Paul!