The Loneliest Swordsman: Part 1

I have no friends, and I must fence

Some traditions of HEMA, as I mentioned in my last article, come with inbuilt solo drills. Others do not. This article is for those who complain: “I’m marooned on a desert island with a copy of Wiktenauer and a training sword”. I assume you know what you want to train, although I don’t care what that is. There’s some advice about what and how to train when there’s no-one to cross blades with.

First Get Fit

I’m going to assume you didn’t read the last article, so to repeat myself: if you have a choice between using your spare time getting fit and trying to teach yourself swordfighting, I recommend getting fit. Go lift. Go swim. Get strength and conditioning. It’ll be really useful when you get a chance to train swordfighting with others, plus you’ll look good in the club rashguard. While you will never get in a swordfight, you’ll probably be asked to help move furniture sometime. There’s a technical term – General Physical Preparation (GPP). Shout out to Markus Koivisto for referring me to the awesome Easy Strength where I was re-introduced to the concept. It basically means “be physically capable” for whatever task you might do. Unless you’re a powerlifter, this means the 3RM deadlift is GPP. They’re preparing your body in general, rather than being sport focused.

As an aside, I wouldn’t bother with making your physical training HEMA-specific (aka Sport-Specific Physical Preparation or SPP). Firstly, HEMA is a skill sport, and it’s much more important to be strong enough, fast enough, and conditioned enough to fight than it is to be stronger etc. than the opponent when you fight. Physical superiority is helpful but not necessary to win, physical adequacy is necessary. Plus you won’t break or drop out exhausted in training. Secondly, if you concentrate on some set of “HEMA muscles” along with HEMA training, you can do something counterproductive. You can build a HEMA-specialised but imbalanced body. For a typical example, consider a cyclist who struggles to stand up straight and walk. They’re very specialised, but it’s clearly come at a cost to their general physical well-being. You’re likely to be training for the demands of HEMA enough, by training HEMA! <I don’t agree with Peter on this, but it’s his article, and he’s i better shape than me – Chris Bear>

Now, let’s talk about actual skill training. There’s a logical order of what to train. “Fundamentals” and “basics” are treacherous and nebulous terms, but there’s definitely dependencies in the order to train things. Imagine trying to practice parrying incoming thrusts when you’ve never experienced giving a thrust or receiving one. To throw a good attack needs good chambering and stance.

Fundamentals List

My list is in order of a) decreasing critical importance to learn and b) increasing difficulty in training alone.

  • Stance
  • Movement
  • Guards
  • Attacks
  • Covers
  • Double-Time Counters
  • Feints and Compound Attacks
  • Single-Time Counters


This list is designed to be system-agnostic. It’ll apply to your system of choice, whatever that is. A quick explanation of each:

Stance is how you stand. As I said celebrities wearing love cartier bracelet
before, I don’t care what you train, but your system probably tells you how to stand. Foot position, weighting, height, torso lean etc. If you can’t adopt the basic stances of your system, due to mobility or strength issues, then fix that before you continue.

Movement means stepping, and associated stance changes and weight shifts. Once we can stand, we start moving around. Controlling distance is key to fencing. What that footwork comprises – passing, leaping, lunging, shuffling or what have you – is a matter for your system.

Guards are your weapon’s positions. Where do you put the blade before and after actions, and why? In most systems, such guards are the chambered positions that you are ready to strike (or parry) from. They may or may not be the same as the parries themselves.

Attacks are the first thing to train – simple and direct attacks. Sharp thing goes straight from A to B. Cut, thrust, slice. Whatever. It doesn’t require the opponent to do more than be a target, so it’s the easier to train alone than counter attacks and compound attacks.

Covers are defending yourself by using your weapon, rather than by managing distance and timing. Since you’ve been drilling attacks already, you’ll have some idea what attacks are like, which will be necessary. Still, helps a lot to have someone attack you.

Double-Time Counters means you defend first, and then you attack. Parry then riposte, void then attack, that sort of thing. Hard to train without incoming attacks, but not much harder than just training covers solo.

Feints and Compound Attacks have been lumped together. One means faking or half-making an attack, then attacking elsewhere. The other means making an attack then attacking elsewhere once it’s been defended. The difficulty is always in keeping the earlier attacks good (or the feints convincing) when you’re thinking about the follow-up. This is a lot harder to train without a partner to give feedback.

Single Time Counters are those where you defend and attack simultaneously. They’re quite hard to train without an incoming attack. Heck, they’re hard to pull off with such training. So I leave them until last.

There is a paradox in this, in that later techniques still constrain earlier levels. For example, our stance is a good one IF we can launch good attacks from it. Our attacks are poor IF they’re easily parried. Our double-time counters are poor IF they’re easily feinted out. This is where the knowledge of others – whether live coaches, or dead masters – comes in handy, to tell us what we need to be doing before we’ve really experienced why.

“Get your hands up! Do you wanna be knocked out?” – every boxing coach to every beginner.

While practicing solo, we can’t get external feedback from coaches or partners. There are some substitutions you can make. Three great kinds of feedback for solo training are:

  1. video yourself – for later review
  2. a big mirror – especially as it gives you the “opponent’s view” of your actions, helping to spot telegraphing issues
  3. a pell, heavy bag, X duct taped on the wall or other striking/thrusting target – to feel how your strikes hit and how your body structure handles that force

Above all, though, we have to depend on proprioception. That’s the fancy word for “awareness of our own body”.

The second half of this article will suggest a sequence of drills (or types of drills) that can be practiced solo to build skill.

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Author: Chris Bear

Chris got into HEMA in 2015 when he joined School of the Sword Reading. The main focuses of his training are sidesword and rapier, but he also enjoys fighting with sabres. One day he will take the plunge and start training in longsword.

Chris is the owner and editor of AfterBlow which makes it all his fault.

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