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The Hypermobile Fencer

Updated: May 16

Hi, my name is Victoria Clow and I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome aka EDS. It is an inherited condition that causes abnormal collagen function and can affect all the soft tissues in the body.

One of the main symptoms of classical EDS is hypermobility and while I have a good few other challenging symptoms, in this blog I’m going to focus on hypermobility.

Hypermobility is very individual. It can affect just the fingers and feet, only the arms or all over the body. Due to this, it’s hard to come up with one fool proof way to help people with hypermobility in HEMA but I’m going to try give some advice and context both to those with hypermobility and those instructors out there that have a hypermobile student.

By writing this blog, I hope to help other fencers and instructors understand what hypermobility is and give a little advice in how to manage it.

So first off, what is hypermobility?

Well exactly what it says on the tin, extra movement!

Many people see extra flexibility as a gift, and it can be. Being “bendy” or “double jointed” is often useful and it could be an advantage in many sports. For fencers, it can help with any source that demands deep lunges, overhead shapes or twisting shapes. Plus, sometimes it’s a cool party trick or a fun fact about yourself.

The problem is not the flexibility of the joints but rather the stability. If the joints are unstable, it can lead to sprains, subluxations and dislocations and often can cause both acute and chronic pains that affects much of the persons life.

So what does that mean from a HEMA context?

Well joint instability combined with extra motion means that there’s a higher likelihood of that person accidentally moving past the normal pattern of movement, putting more force into a joint and getting injured from this movement.

Often, to add to the difficulty, it isn’t one event that does it but a series of overuse and overextending and finding that moment of overextension is often a challenge!

Here’s an example.

A person is working through learning a Cut 1 in broadsword. They have been told that when they cut, they should have a straight arm. However, they have hypermobility in their elbows and as they cut, their arm hyperextends each time. Due to the length of the lever and the extra weight of it (the sword) they are putting extra force into their elbow each time they cut. This extra force is likely to cause injury, especially after many repetitions.

But unless you were looking for it, that elbow hyperextending may have escaped even the beadiest of instructor’s eyes.

If you are an instructor and you are wondering how to help your student in this case, it will depend on how much time you have.

If you only have a short amount of time or are in a big busy class, my advice is to make it clear to the fencer what they are currently doing, what the goal is with the movement and why. Helping that student to build awareness and learn to recognise the points they are overextending is going to be the most important skill for that fencer going forwards.

What this could mean, in a busy class, is that this fencer may benefit from using lighter tools, working slower, working with specific training partners that will give them a perfect feed.

Best case scenario, you can grab them before or after classes to talk through a game plan to best help them. It may go without saying but unless you know they’re comfortable with it, do not point out their need for any accommodations publicly. Everything should be done on the level with them and with the goal of working together to find the best way to help them while the instructor has to split their attention in a busy class.

If the instructor has more time in the session, you can get into it right then and there. Slow the movement down and work with the fencer to identify the hyperextension, help them understand the move mechanically and work with them to figure out why that motion is coming through. Is it momentum? Is it a muscle weakness? A misunderstanding of the word “straight”? Or are they unaware of the hyperextension?

In a 1-1, you can really go in depth on that movement and you never know, working out that movement could be a major lightbulb moment for that fencer!

In the example above, reducing the hyperextension in the elbow isn’t just good for the fencer’s joint health but it will likely increase their cut speed and recovery into a guard in the long run, leading to less hits on them. It also will likely improve their aim and will create better foundations to build on so the student can learn to use that cut in more interesting and complex ways.

This seems to be a good point to say that this does not mean hypermobility is bad, only that it does make it difficult for the body to take the best and quickest route!

To backtrack a little, many of you may have asked yourself how a person could be unaware of their hyperextension.

Well, they’re not seeing themselves from the same angle you are. They could just be resting on their bony structures and that means their knees hyperextend. The hyperextension could be small or smaller than their normal extension so they don’t think it’s there.

There could be a lot of reasons but one I want to touch on is that people with hypermobility can have poor proprioception. Proprioception is the ability to sense where different body parts are without having to look.

So why is this poor in hypermobile people in particular?

To simplify this answer for ease; in order for the body to process where everything is, we have proprioceptive receptors in our muscles, tendons, joint capsules, ligaments and skin. All of these structures contain collagen which the hypermobility often affects the function of. The result is that the receptors are not being stimulated enough to accurately transfer the information to the brain.

One of the reasons why this might be is that in a hypermobile person, the ligaments can stretch before their muscles tighten so this can lead to inaccurate messages reaching the brain. Another is that repeated injury to joints can cause damage to receptors leading to inaccurate messages or the feeling that a joint feels “odd” or not right. Other causes could be things like swelling or pain – both things that are common in people with hypermobility.

What it may feel like to the fencer is that they are unsure, clumsy or unaware of a body part’s structure when they’re not focusing on it. It could take them a while to understand or learn a move. You can’t take it for granted without looking that when you “straighten” your arm, it will look the same each time.

An additional struggle is that, there isn’t a bony structure to let you know when to stop. A person without hypermobility will know when their leg or arm is straight because the bones will lock and with hypermobility this locking point is often 10 degrees or more past there.

Often it’s one of the biggest barriers to a hypermobile person’s learning as with poor proprioception it’s hard to hit the targets, get the correct angles, make the right choices for guards, keep things small and subtle and yeah … essentially … fence. But it’s also a completely hidden impediment.

To the hypermobile fencers reading, proprioception is a skill and it can be improved on just like anything else.

My main advice is to add proprioceptive training into your exercise schedule.

Unfortunately, as this is a blog and hypermobility is so individual, I’m not able to tell you the best exercises for you. But what I can give you are some examples of what proprioceptive training is and this could help you find your own exercises.

Proprioceptive exercises are balance and control exercises. They will challenge your systems to adapt and improve and they will have the added benefit of challenging the musculature of your joints and improving stability.

These can include; terminal knee control, stork standing, single leg Romanian deadlifts etc.

Often a partner or a Personal Trainer will be very useful when completing them as they can advise on when you’re moving correctly, when your body is trying to make it easy and take shortcuts in the movement and also to describe what the movement looks like from the outside without you looking.

The key to all of the exercises is being slow and controlled.

And I’d take that essence through to the fencing; focus on the movement you’re struggling with and make it as simple as you need to. Split the movement into sections if it’s particularly challenging and repeat the exercises slowly and with control.

An example could be using the arm to thrust a target.

You can divide it into sections;

Finding the target with the point.

Extending the arm to the target to touch with no bend in the sword

Extending the arm to target with a slight bend in the sword.

Note I have split the two final moves into two sections. This is because on the first, the attention must be on extending the arm and on the second, maintaining the structure of the arm and wrist when it now has to deal with the force of the thrust.

I often find it helpful to touch the area I am trying to work on if I am by myself. For example, if I think my elbow is hyperextending, I use my off hand to touch a finger to it to bring my awareness to that joint.

Proprioceptive training will build up your awareness without looking so remember mirror training will still rely on the eyes. Try to record yourself and make adjustments from what you saw on the recording instead of adjusting from what you see in a mirror.

Doing the skill to a high quality, slowly and paying attention to each part will let you build the foundations of your thrust. Then you can add your components back together, build speed, add footwork, add another person’s sword, add them trying to stop you and before you know it, it’ll be something you use all the time. You’re just always building on those good, careful foundations.

For the instructors, you will likely not have the time to do this in class. You may have many students of varying capabilities and need an exercise that will work for everyone.

Slow motion drilling can benefit everyone as it checks everyone’s alignment, posture and weight shifts and serves as a good opportunity for you to make sure your students all have a good base to build on. You can also allow the hypermobile student to go at their pace through drills and classes while making sure they’re not skipping themselves forwards to a point they can’t control the momentum.

If you have students who are ready to move on, you can always give the same drill but split through the class. Some working in slow motion and some working in a competitive constraints based game.

In addition, allowing for breaks, giving regressions and allowing the student to step out of a drill is something I’d advocate all fencers are allowed to do – hypermobile or not!

To the instructors out there who don’t like it when someone steps themselves out of a drill; don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s not a personal affront or attack. Everyone needs breaks sometimes. Everyone can be overwhelmed. Everyone can have injuries or personal problems affecting them. Letting them step out is better for them and wouldn’t you want what’s best for your students?

Which brings me to the final thing I’d like to highlight – fatigue.

For me, fatigue is the most difficult because whether I want to do it or not, it doesn’t matter.

The reasons for fatigue are not well understood but some suggestions for what’s behind it are; chronic pain, muscle deconditioning, nutritional deficiencies and central nervous system fatigue.

In hypermobility, the person may need more strength to stabilise their joints and control themselves from collapsing into their end ranges as they don’t have the ability to rest on bony structures as much so it makes sense that fatigue could be an issue many people face, especially in fencing which is full of high paced, explosive moves.

To expand on this slightly, many hypermobile people have a large gap between their active range of motion (how far the joint can go when they move it by themselves) and their passive range of motion (how far it can go when assisted). The larger this gap, the more likely people are to injure themselves.

A fencing example – take the lunge. An active range of motion is where the fencer can comfortably come into a lunge position and recover out, not using momentum or any cheats or shortcuts to get there. A passive range would be where they can lunge into and not necessarily get out of!

We’ve all felt it I’m sure, that extra deep lunge that’s just outside our ability to recover from. But for the hypermobile fencer, there’s so much more movement there that, coupled with the momentum and explosivity, is often a recipe for injury if they’re not careful.

For the hypermobile fencer, everything must be active, there is no sitting on the skeletal structures and therefore very little rest in their movements. Plus, they could be dealing with high levels of pain and stress or anxiety on top of that.

The existence of fatigue makes sense but it’s the hardest for me to mentally accept and it can be the most upsetting for me.

I have a little story for you.

I was at an event recently. It was a few hours away and one of the few times a year I get to fence certain people who I love to fence. On Day 1, I was fine. Full of energy and fencing well and was able to teach my class and have a great day. We then went out for dinner, a few drinks and a catch up with people. A lovely day.

Then Day 2 hit. And it hit hard.

It took me about 20mins to get up the energy to sit up and leave my bed and as I did, I was greeted with pains from my feet all the way to my hips. It felt like my bones were tired and I couldn’t move anything without feeling like it was a fight.

I started the day fencing okay. Not my best but well enough that I was still feeling capable and like I could manage myself. But as the day went on, I very quickly started to feel that capability slipping away. The brain fog set in and I was struggling to make decisions, having conversations with people started to be challenging and I knew my posture when standing was awful but I didn’t feel I had the strength to spare to hold myself in good positions when I wasn’t fencing.

At the sparring at the end of the day, I tried to have a few last fights long after the point I really should have stopped. My fencing partners were kind and patient and none took advantage of my (what I now know to be) clearly disadvantaged position. I can only thank them for this and say it speaks to their characters that they worked with me but I found my legs would no longer carry me and I ended up on the floor while trying to lunge to get a hit.

As someone who tries very hard to hide what effect the EDS has on me, it was incredibly difficult to have it be made public like it was. At the worst point, I was feeling that I didn’t have the right to teach there if I couldn’t even show I was a capable fencer.

Fatigue, for me, comes with stress and anxiety and the fear of being judged and I know I’m not alone in this. Others may fear being judged as clumsy, slow learners, uncoordinated, lazy and many other hurtful words that come alongside an invisible problem. Even worse are those that call your body disgusting or say it makes them sick.

I’m sure everyone can recognise themselves in this story I’ve just told. A moment when you punished yourself because you weren’t at your best because of factors outside your control. Maybe it was injury, fatigue, stress or just life - these issues unfortunately affect our body and so they will be brought into our fencing, no matter how hard we try to leave these problems at home.

The most important thing, is the thing I thankfully received from everyone who spoke to me at that event; kindness.

Kindness and understanding go a long way to creating a culture and an environment everyone can thrive in. It leads to people helping, it leads to discussions without judgement, it leads to people striving to improve and, eventually, it will lead to support, happiness and knowledge and better fencers!

And isn’t that the goal for everyone?

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