The Paradox of Strength

Over many years of teaching body mechanics, I noticed that small framed people tend to have problems with the application of body mechanics, specifically cutting. This made me realize that the way people think of strength and power may not be optimal for applying to historical fencing.

When we think of power or strength, we tend to think of the upper body—the biceps, triceps, lats, etc. Students of historical fencing learn early on (or should) that the upper body should not be were power comes from. Power should come from the core, provided mostly by the hips and legs. But this is only part of the picture, and ignoring the rest of it can result in unrealistic expectations and unfulfilled potential, particularly among small framed people.

The reason you cannot use most of your upper body muscles for power is because to use a muscle you have to tense it, and tensed muscles are slow muscles. Slow muscles lead to slow hews, and slow hews don’t cut. Also, some parts of your body, like your shoulders, distort the trajectory of your hews, which makes them ineffective. But before you can effectively bring your core to bear, you need to develop your upper body strength. In particular, forearms and shoulders, but all the other muscles too.

This may seem confusing—you don’t use upper body strength to hew, but you need upper body strength to hew effectively. A simple way of looking at it is as follows: you need enough upper body strength to make holding and moving the sword almost effortless. Once you have that, you can effectively utilize your core power. If you don’t have that, you can’t.

Consider this: if tense muscles are slow muscles, and your arms are so weak that holding the sword strains them, then you will tense your arms to apply what little strength you have to control the sword. And that will take whatever power your core develops and nullify it almost completely.

How do you know if you have this problem? Put away your sword and get a wooden dowel. It should be about the same length and it should weigh as little as possible. Then, with your dowel, go to your instructor and show him/her your cutting mechanics. Take a few swings, etc. If you suddenly look and feel great and seem to do everything right (or at least more right than before), then your problem is upper body strength. If you don't have an instructor handy, you can self diagnose using a mirror or just being aware of what your body is doing. Recording video of yourself can also help.

Here is a good diagnostic technique: hold the sword in various positions with one hand and use the other to feel where the working arm and shoulder are tense, and how much. The more tension in a muscle, the more you need to work on that muscle. 

So if you are having a problem generating power, and this information resonates with you, you have work to do. Build your upper body strength! You won’t need a lot. You don’t need to get swole or build huge hulking muscles. You just need enough so that you don’t strain holding your sword.

Although specific instructions are beyond the scope of this article, here are some suggestions:

1. Work with a heavy trainer, such as a weight bar, wood splitting axe (be careful!) or similar object. My battodo dojo has "Bubba," a 4x4 with a handle. You can make one at home, or buy something similar.

2. Various weight and/or kettle bell exercises. Farmer’s walks, forearm curls, etc.

3. Pull up bar exercises. Just hang on a pull up bar for as long as you can, repeat, etc. Slowly build towards full pull ups, but don’t stop hanging. While hanging, loosen and tense your hands to pull yourself up by your fingers. Focus on the bottom fingers.

Whatever you end up doing, do it until your sword feels like air. Then whatever problems you had with cutting will disappear. Good luck! 

The Five Hews: A Fight for the Center

In its purest distilled form, Liechtenauer's art is a fight for and around the center. You have the center when your point is before your opponent’s openings, and you do not have center when it isn’t. Similarly, you have center when your edge can reach the opponent through the bind, and you do not have it when it can’t.  The center is not your center, which is important in body mechanics, but the center between you and your opponent. If your opponent is facing sideways (perpendicular to you) with his sword sticking out to your left or right, and you stab him in the side of the head, you have center against him, and he does not have center against you.

Leverage is a tool with which the KDF fencer takes the center-line from his or her opponent, either through winding, hewing or stabbing. Winding either re-captures the center with force (leverage—inside wind) or by snaking around force to return to the center (outside wind or Duplieren). Mutieren is an exception, as it recaptures the center from a Hard bind (your opponent being Soft) by snaking around his sword with you having control throughout the action—it is distance that necessitates the winding (you are too close to stab despite being in control of the bind). The Five Hews—Zornhau, Krumphau, Zwerchhau, Schielhau and Scheitelhau are integral to this philosophy.

When it comes to the fight for the center, there are only two basic options to actions in the Krieg (meaning there are exceptions). The first is to take center and act, usually with a stab, either using leverage or by snaking around. The second is to surrender center and take the long way around by hewing. The second option is inferior to the first as it places you in great danger by surrendering the center to your opponent for the entire length of your action, which is the longest possible action in the Krieg as it must travel all the way around from one side to the other. The Five Hews are based around this concept.

Zornhau: The Zornhau captures the center with structure.

It does not require a Strong on Weak bind, which means that it does not rely on leverage. The word used in the Danzig, Ringeck and Lew Glosses is Soft, rather than Weak.

The Zornhau takes the center directly and forcefully, when successful (if it fails, you will need to retake center), and keeps your opponent’s point outside of center. This gives you an advantage in all follow up actions, since your opponent will need to retake the center prior to any action that can threaten you, or he will have to hew around to the other side, which will give you sole presence in the center for a significant period of time and will allow you to easily stab him while parrying his hew. The only way for your opponent to retake center without this is with winding, which is specifically designed for this purpose.

Krumphau: The Krumphau surrenders the center so that you can deny it to your opponent.

When someone hews or stabs, you step off-line and hew to his hands, or hew against his sword without a step. In this manner, you take away their control of the center.

In the hews to the hands, you deny your opponent center by leaving it (and also denying it to yourself) and then hew at his hands without recapturing center—this is the significance of the “crooked” hew. Normally, when you do not have the center, you must either regain it before acting (either with force or by going around the opponent’s sword), or take the long and inefficient way by hewing around, which gives your opponent control of center for the entire duration of your hew. However, by stepping offline and hewing at your opponent’s hands, you strike at your opponent without retaking center, which gives you the advantage (initiative).

In the hew to the sword, you do not strictly surrender the center because you can reach your opponent with your edge through the bind. Your opponent’s weapon is pushed out of center, leaving you in a superior/dominant position on top of his sword and allowing you to strike or wind safely from there.

 In Liechtenauer’s pedagogy, the Krumphau is taught so that fencers can deal with attacks they cannot predict, and therefore cannot reliably control.

Zwerchhau: The Zwerchhau takes the center with the hilt.

When he hews at you from above, you step well out to your right side and strike the Zwerchhau so that you catch his hew on your hilt. This action gives you control of the centerline by placing a barrier between it and your opponent’s hew and giving you superior leverage in the resulting bind. It is the strongest leverage you can have, in fact, without half-swording, assuming it counts as a bind since it’s not really blade on blade. If your initial hew is not successful, your control of center gives you an advantage to all follow up actions. Understanding this advantage is critical for proper understanding of actions from Zwerchhau.

When used as a vorschlaag, the Zwerchhau forces a bad parry, which makes your opponent leave center, allowing you to retake it from an advantageous position.

Schielhau: The Schielhau takes the center with leverage.

It positions your sword in the hew so that the strong of your sword makes contact with the weak of your opponent’s sword in the bind. It is designed to break point forward guard and to defeat anything the Buffel hews or stabs. A Buffel is someone who does not fight with Fuhlen, and therefore knows nothing of the art. The actions of a Buffel attempt to succeed without allowing the feedback of Fuhlen or resulting decision making and an action in Indes. For example, an interpretation of Zornhau as something that lands the thrust before the bind is felt is the action of a Buffel. Such a fencer will attempt to land the thrust regardless of the bind by fully committing to it with both hew and footwork. Such an action is by definition defeated by Schielhau, which breaks it with leverage (ironically without using Fuhlen). In doing so, it forcefully takes the center, if successful, regardless of the power of your opponent’s attack.

Scheitelhau: The Scheitelhau takes the center with timing and efficiency.

It starts in the center and stays in the center and forces your opponent to either take it out of center in order to prevent himself from being struck, which is difficult to do without the opponent also surrendering his center, or to use a bad parry. It offers the shortest and most direct path to the closest target for a hew, the top of your opponent’s head. When used against the guard Alber, it eliminates the possibility of a counter by out-timing your opponent’s actions, resulting in the forcing of a bad parry, which makes it similar to a Zwerchhau (when used in this manner).   

Understanding how the five hews, and all actions in Liechtenauer’s art, relate to the fight for the center will provide a valuable perspective and useful context for using these actions and their associated techniques.