A Guide To Happy Sword Bodies
Back in the spring of 2018, I woke up one morning to find that my left arm didn’t work. I’d suddenly lost an overwhelming amount of the range of motion in my left shoulder. The culprit was likely something at work; I hadn’t injured it while fencing. As I slowly rehabbed the shoulder, I started hearing about more and more Longsword fencers suffering strain injuries and tendinopathy in the shoulders. In most cases, the critical moment of injury was not while fencing, but rather while performing some other sort of everyday task.
As I healed over the course of the following year (imagine a year-long Leg Day), it became clear that I needed to figure out what we were all doing wrong with our shoulders. This led to a fascination with bodies and movement, particularly as they pertain to two-handed swords. I wanted to look at this in ways that were inclusive for as many body types as possible. I’d seen plenty of advice that worked for some people but not for all. I came up with a collection of ideas that I felt were crucial for healthy movement patterns. And they made sense, but I needed to arrange them in an order that made sense and come up with a catchy acronym. So I did! The result is SHMeW.
So what the hell is a SHMeW? It stands for “Shoulders, Hips, Meridian, Wrists.” It’s a self-diagnostic system for checking form and improving body awareness. Here’s the quick and dirty rundown for those of you who just wanna know what the damn thing stands for so you can go back to doing something else:
Shoulders: Are my shoulder blades engaged? Watch out for shoulder blades sticking out, pressure in the shoulder joint itself, shrugging shoulders, and upper back rounding.
Hips: Are my hips open? Watch out for your toes pointing in while you fence. While you’re at it, watch for your knees caving inwards while you move.
Meridian: Is the space between my hands aligned with my center-line? Watch out for your hands drifting to one side or the other beyond your centerline. This is the one point in this system that needs adaptation for one-handed weapons. In that case, find the limits of the range of motion at your shoulder (arm straight) and stay within that range.
Wrists: Are my wrists straight? Watch out for bending in the wrist in any direction. One way or another, you need to adopt a grip that allows you to form a straight line between the bones of your hand and the bones in your forearm.
Cool, now that we’ve got that, let’s dive into it.
I chose the shoulders as the first point because realistically, they’re the joints at the center of this system. I don’t worry too much about the feet because most issues with your feet can be solved by adjusting your hips. So we have the hips at one extreme, wrists at the other, shoulders in the middle, and the meridian running through all of this.
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate our friend, the Shoulder Girdle. The humerus (upper arm) connects to the scapula (shoulder blade). A horn at the top of the scapula (called the acromion) connects to the clavicle (collar bone). The clavicle then goes on to connect to the sternum (breast bone). That’s right. The only place where your arm actually connects to the rest of your skeleton is at the top of your rib cage, right in the middle. Every last bit of structure in the shoulder girdle comes from a complex system of muscles and fascia that work together to keep your damn arm from falling off. The system is capable of amazing force output if everything is working together, but if we’re regularly swinging three-pound objects without taking enough care of ourselves, we find that some parts of this system are incredibly fragile.
Big muscles are made for moving lots of weight. Small muscles are there to stabilize and make fine adjustments. Things go wrong when small muscles start trying to pick up the slack for the big muscles. A hugely important part of making sure this doesn’t happen is called scapular engagement.
This can be described as “keeping your shoulder blades close to the rib cage.” A common cue for this is “down and back.” Which is part of the picture, but not all of it. This misses its counterpart, which happens due to the fine work of our friend Serratus Anterior(SA). This “saw-tooth muscle” is the one you see really prominently on boxers, just below their armpit. The SA is an important muscle for swordsfolk, as it ultimately keeps the scapula engaged. Seriously. Train this muscle and your shoulders will thank you. I won’t get into how to train it here, but it’s easy to find information on this.
There are a couple of telltale signs that you aren’t engaging your scapulae. One is shrugging the shoulders. This is a common thing with all sorts of people, from guys that are really muscular to smaller people who normally have to fence people much taller than they are. This can happen for a number of reasons:
It sort of feels strong.
If you’re someone with a lot of upper body strength, you may well associate this shrugged position with strength and therefore safety. You might just plain spend too much time on chest exercises and shrugs. Your shoulder blades may stick out while in a relaxed state. Here’s where stability work is your friend. Overhead work like kettlebell presses and windmills will do a lot to get your traps to stop taking over.
You want a little more range.
If you’re someone who’s on the smaller side, you may find that you have a tendency to shrug your shoulders in an attempt to get more reach out of your actions. This is normal and reasonable. However, it tends not to be very helpful, screws with your movements, and puts you at greater risk of injury. Keep the scapulae engaged and find the positioning that works for you. Hip-hinging will go a long way here.
It feels like your chest is getting in the way of your arms
Fencers who have a large bust may habitually do things like shrug their shoulders as an adaptation for getting around it. They’ve likely been told that the only way to cut all the way through into a low position is to do so with perfectly straight arms and with the word “structure” getting thrown around a lot. So, adhering to the “arms must be straight” advice, they adapt their bodies in ways that conform to this admonition, which often ends in frustration and uncomfortable positions, and possibly in eventual injury.
Fortunately, you don’t have to cut with your arms dead-straight. In fact, that’s one of the really cool things about Longsword. See, here’s the thing. Structure can appear in a couple of ways. Let’s think about tables. On one hand, you have a trestle table. It’s supported by two wide, thick legs, which are further supported by a “trestle” which keeps the table from racking and swaying. It gets its structure through rigid, straight lines that transfer force.
On the other hand, we have what we call a “tensegrity table” (tension-integrity). This table derives its structure from chains that pull against one another in harmony. The tension that exists within the table gives it its structure. Intuitively, it looks like something that shouldn’t exist. But sure enough, they can support plenty of weight.
Bodies work the same way. It’s how you can punch without your wrist flopping around (more on this in the “wrists” section). It’s also how you can cut “short” (that is, with arms that have a little bend in them) and still have everything structurally sound. What’s unique about longswords is that you have both hands on the sword and therefore can provide tension by rotating externally.
Hold your (not sharp) sword out in front of you, palms down, and bend the sword as if you’re trying to make your elbows touch. Do this with your scapulae engaged and with your arms only as extended as much you find comfortable. You should feel this throughout your back. Sit with this feeling and become comfortable with it. What you’re doing here is externally rotating your shoulders. This is an important part of functional strength. One cue when bench pressing is “bend the barbell in half.” This is of course not feasible, but the tension generated by doing so is a big part of moving as much weight as you possibly can.
Now do this with your sword. Hold it out as far as you’re comfortable doing so, and apply that same external rotation. With your lats engaged (the big slabs of meat that run down either side of your back), you can hold a position really well. And the best part? This is not a rigid position. If you need to wind in either direction, all you need to do is release tension on one side. Try it out. Stand in Longpoint, arms however you need them (as long as your scapulae are engaged). Apply tension, and then let go with your left hand. You immediately wind to the left, complete with the turn of the sword. Reset, apply tension again, and let go with the right hand. You immediately wind to the right. This is some martial arts juju that’s all about moving by releasing tension rather than applying it. Truth is, we do it all the time. Play around with this.
Now suppose you do want your arms straight. This is still feasible. You just need to hip hinge. More on this is the next section. Figure out how low you can get your arms while keeping them straight. When you can’t comfortably go any further, you’ve reached your limit. With your arms straight, as low as they can go, hinge at the hips until your arms are parallel to the floor. Everyone has to do something on this spectrum of movement to keep their arms straight. Whatever it is that you have to do is your own personal movement trait and it is just as fantastic as anybody else’s.
Another tell-tale sign that the scapulae are not engaged, is a rounding of the upper back (thoracic flexion). This is a direct result of the scapulae not being engaged. Note that when you pull them into place, your back straightens out. Not only does this help your fencing, it helps your overall posture! Thoracic flexion leads to things like hitting the floor with your sword. Because of the tension that’s lost by not having that engagement, it gets harder to keep your wrists straight as well, all of which ties into hitting the floor with your sword. Correcting this problem corrects the problem of over-swinging, as your body forms its own “brakes” on the cut. Getting the sword someplace like Alber can now happen with a hinge at the hips, while a more upright posture will make it easier to get the sword into Longpoint instead of going all the way through.
So SHMeW really starts at the shoulders. Really, this encompasses most of the thorax, but the shoulders themselves are where problems arise, and they’re just plain good as a reference point. From here, we move on to the hips.
I don’t tend to think of footwork as footwork. I tend to think of it as hip-work. Your feet matter, of course, but they don’t go anywhere on their own. Your feet move because your hips move. Your hips are the real stars of the show (they don’t lie). And our biggest question here is “are they open?”
Let’s zoom out and talk about stance for a second. Stance ought to be discussed in relation to the hips. “Shoulder-width apart” is a mnemonic that works well for one body type: people with broad shoulders and narrow hips. It just so happens, that when a person with this build stands with their feet shoulder width apart, they wind up with their feet a little wider than their hips. Use the hips as a metric for stance. It’s entirely possible that you’ve been keeping too narrow a stance for a long time.
Back to hips.
If you stand, and your knees are pointing towards each other a bit, your hips are closed. If your knees point away from each other, your hips are open. You can also say that your hips are externally rotated. If you were to look at your right leg, the whole thing would be rotating clockwise. Having open hips gives us the freedom to move wherever we’d like. We can step in any direction we’d like, including across the line.
It helps prevent another two really common injuries: ankle rolls and ACL tears. An ankle roll usually happens when you land on the outside of your foot. As fencers, this most commonly happens to us when we’re fencing with our toes pointed in a bit. Keeping our hips open as a general rule helps to correct this problem for reasons similar to how scapular engagement helps to keep our wrist structure from collapsing. In this case, it helps to keep your toes on your lead foot pointed towards your opponent, if not a little to the outside (Slightly to the outside is fine. To the inside is bad)
Open hips also help to prevent ACL tears. This can happen when the knee meets lateral force from the outside. This of course can happen if the knee is struck, but it often happens when the knee is buckling to the inside when a landing takes place. Developing strong hips will save your knees.
There’s another component to your hips that affects your posture; we call this “pelvic tilt.” The pelvis is capable of tilting forward (anterior) and backward (posterior). It does this to facilitate the wide range of movements and positions that humans need to perform in order to function. But when fighting or working under load, pelvic tilt can cause problems. It disrupts the smooth force transfer that happens with well-aligned joints (similar to what happens when you cut with bent wrists). It can also affect your ability to reliably keep your hips open. When you have anterior pelvic tilt, the part of your hip that attaches to your adductors (groin muscles) sits further back than it normally would.
Since the adductors are there for bringing your legs towards your body, making them start out in a position that’s already shortened a little bit makes it harder to keep your hips open.
Posterior pelvic tilt, on the other hand, can result in rounding the lower back. This is the sort of thing that, when under load, can cause lower back dysfunction.
How do we figure out where our hips are at? Imagine your pelvis as a bowl of water. Tilt your pelvis anteriorly, and water will spill out of the front of you. Tilt it posteriorly, and water will spill out the back. Neutral pelvis is the point in which the bowl is not tipped.
Something of a sidebar here is the hip hinge. This is a movement that describes bending at the hips while keeping a neutral spine. Deadlifts (and particularly their Romanian cousins) are an example of a hip hinge. When we fence, we can expand our range of motion by employing the hip hinge to get our sword into positions that we otherwise can’t reach, and to do so with stability.
Note how Roland Warzecha bends at the hips (not the waist) and keeps his scapulae engaged. By doing this, he’s able to comfortably hold his shield at extension in a way that doesn’t put too much strain on the small delicate muscles of his shoulder girdle
The Meridian is the imaginary line that runs down the body and separates left from right. For us, it serves as a guidepost having to do with where we can put our hands. So, what does this mean and why is it important?
Let’s start with that range-of-motion assessment from before. Stretch your arm out straight, parallel to the floor. Keep your thumb facing up. Keep your shoulder blades engaged. As you move the arm towards the front, you’ll probably find that once it gets perpendicular to your shoulders, you start having to work to push it any further. Your arms don’t like going past the middle of your body; not while they’re straight.
Now take your sword in two hands. Hold it straight out in front of you. Notice that the space between your hands is in line with your center. Now go train. Do some cuts, do some flow work, and pay attention to where your hands end up. Are they drifting to one side or another of your body? If so, it’s because your hips aren’t where they need to be.
When I teach cuts, I teach them initially as perfectly vertical actions. Oberhaw starts off straight down the middle like you’re chopping wood. Unterhaw starts off as just plain raising your arms. These things become cuts that travel laterally because we are turning our hips.
Think about absetzen. Starting in right pflug and intercepting a cut by winding up to left ochs. It’s the hip turn that gets you there, not your arms. All your arms did was move up and flip the sword over. Think about twerhaw. That cut is not a whole lot more than extending your arms out in front of you with the sword pointing to your right. It’s your hips that turn it into the devastating lateral cut that it is.
Drifting past center has a couple of effects. One of them is that one shoulder tends to shrug as you attempt to maneuver your hands into a space that your body is not quite prepared to deal with. This is a break in your posture. It’s the sort of position that a wrestler looks for when they want to execute a throw. Keep the scapula engaged and you won’t drift past center. Move your hips and your action will go where you need it to go.
Another is that it tends to affect your hips–especially when you deviate from center with your scapulae engaged. Our hips and shoulders are connected in a pattern that we call the “spiral line.”The left hip is connected to the right shoulder and vice versa. When you over-extend past center, it pulls on one side of the hips, which in turn affects your knees, as this tension is then applied to the knee ligaments.
Take the example of a right-handed fencer, standing in right-side vom tag at the shoulder with their right foot forward. They reach directly in front of them to strike their target with an oberhaw. Their hips are open, their wrists are straight, and their scapulae are engaged. The only problem is that their hips are already pointing past their opponent. The space between their hands now aligns with the right hip instead of the meridian. This engages the spiral line that connects their left shoulder to their right hip. As they do this, the hip starts wanting to rotate even further to the left than it already is. This tension continues down the leg where it gets stuck in the weakest point in this chain: your ACL. Fortunately, there’s a way to relieve this tension: take the weight off of your heels and let your right leg rotate externally. This will turn your hip to the right, which (albeit an awkward position) will relieve the tension in your knee. Coincidentally, it will also put your hands in line with your meridian.
Okay, so a few terms here. Put your hand out, palm down. If you lift your hand up at the wrist, that’s extension. If you lower your hand at the wrist, that’s flexion. If you move your hands towards the pinky side, that’s ulnar deviation. If you go towards the thumb side, that’s radial deviation.
Cool. So we got that. Wrists are ridiculous things. They’re a pile of rocks sitting on top of two bones and the things that make hands work start up near your elbow. The forearm muscles are what keep your wrists stable. Different fingers are controlled by different muscles, which stabilize your wrists in different ways. Maximum stability is in the form of a fist. All of the fingers are tensed, which means that the muscles which pull on different parts of your hand are balanced, all of them working to stabilize your wrist in all directions. Now if we let go and just squeeze with the index and middle finger, something happens. The wrist is stable and won’t flex or extend, but there’s almost no resistance if we go to deviate the wrist. Likewise, if we squeeze the pinky and ring finger, we have loads of stability towards deviation, but almost none for flexion and extension.
This is why we’re advised to squeeze with the bottom two fingers when we cut. They are the ones that are connected to the muscles that keep our wrists from collapsing while cutting. And yet, wrists still collapse. Let’s look at some reasons for this.
Trying to reach further
This comes up in a couple of places: Longpoint, thrusts, and cuts. One root cause for all three is just plain trying to reach too far. Your regular old vanilla Longpoint will always form a little bit of an angle between the sword and the rest of your arm. That’s just how wrists and hands work. Just as you’ll always have a bit of an angle with cutting as well as while thrusting. Ask yourself what you need and what needs to happen for you to get that. You probably need to either move closer or change your grip.
Bottom hand is too tight
This comes up early on and usually works itself out, but it’s worth addressing. Grip is dynamic. When winding, one hand needs to loosen a little in order for the wind to work.
Grip does not match goals
If I need to give an oberhaw, I need one grip. If I need to give a high lateral cut to the head, I need a different one. If I need the sword to project in a straight line with my arms, I need another one yet. The correct answer for “what grip should I use” is “the one that gets you where you need to be while keeping in with SHMeW.
Tying it all together
It should be clear by this point that all of these things are connected. Your hips and your shoulders work together to generate torque. Your shoulders influence how much tension you have in your wrists. Your hips decide where your center line is which decides where your hands belong, which decides what your grip needs to be. The list goes on. The connections between these points as well as the connections with their intersections make SHMeW a comprehensive and holistic system that helps you to move better, fence better, and look better doing it. It can be as simple or as complex as you want or need it to be. Most of all, it’s fun. Taking joy in movement is easily one of the simplest pleasures in life. Cheers, friends, and happy fencing.