Body Mechanics: Big Swords and Small People

I recently gave a cutting/body mechanics workshop to a group of students from our NYC branch who were struggling with cutting. Prior to the workshop, I assigned some prerequisite homework assignments, one of which was filming themselves doing basic cuts in the air. As I watched one video after the other, I noticed that all of them had, among other issues, one particular thing they were doing that seriously hampered their ability to cut successfully: they were slowing their sword early in the arc. It looked deliberate and was quite obvious. I then watched their unterhau, and something completely different was going on. They were failing to launch the tip (their cuts led with the hands and the tip dragged along behind) and their bodies were twisted and their cuts were scooped (not straight). 

Although I believed, prior to watching their videos, that they were using swords that were too big for them, I had no idea of the extent to which these swords were causing problems with their body mechanics. This blog post is intended to help instructors recognize the signs of some of these issues and then fix them.

There are four main ways to stop a sword from hitting the ground after an oberhau. The first is to let it keep going around for another strike, the second is to pull it in close to you as it stops so that you pull the tip away from the floor (or just cut with bent arms to begin with), the third is to stop it with your muscles and joints, and the fourth is also to stop it with your muscles and joints, but supported with structure. This last method is the only one that should be taught to students, at least at first. Of the other three, the first can be very useful and effective but cannot be done properly without first learning the forth, the third can be very useful and effective under limited circumstances but should not be used very often (for both tactical and joint health reasons), and the one where you pull your arms in is useless and detrimental 99.99% of the time.

The problem with stopping the sword without structure (aside from crippling joint injuries later in life) is that whatever you think you are doing to stop the sword and whenever you think you are doing it, you are actually doing it way too soon. For example, if your idea of Zornhau is cutting to the center, and you think your sword travels at full speed and stops dead as soon as it gets to the centerline, you don’t have a very good understanding of how the human body works (or physics, for that matter).

Imagine four points along the forward path of a sword—A, B, C and D.  You start at A, C is the target and B is the halfway point between A and C. D is the point you want to end at. Assume that you want to use your arms muscles and joints to stop it, unaided by structure. If you do it in the air, it may appear that you’re stopping the sword at point D. But if you measure the sword’s velocity, you will see that you are actually beginning deceleration at point B, slowing down considerably at C (the target) and coming to a complete stop at D. You can get away with this in the air, but not against a tatami mat (and especially not a person). If you are very strong you can achieve a measure of success doing it this way, but it will be far less than what you could achieve doing it the right way. If your chosen method of stopping is to pull the sword in close, then you will begin pulling it in a lot sooner than you think you are, and your cut will be a slice, not a hew.

For this same reason, if you don’t know how to properly stop a sword with structure and you want to let it come around rather than stop it, then the same thing will happen. You will begin that “coming around” way sooner than you think, and in a detrimental way. First cut first! Then let it come around.

If a student cannot stop the sword reliably using structure (arms stopping against the body, grip too tight to allow sufficient ulnar flexion for the point to strike the ground), then they will begin to slow the sword early in their cut to avoid the unpleasant feeling and accompanying embarrassment of striking the ground. This can happen for a variety of reasons, the simplest being that the student doesn’t know how to properly stop a sword after an oberhau. For such people, correcting their grip, centering or extension will resolve these issues. But if the student cannot stop the sword because either he or she is too weak for the weight of the sword they are using, or too short for the length of the sword they are using, then technique corrections will not help. Correcting such a person’s technique will result in frustration and little else.

It’s your job as an instructor to diagnose the reason for the problems each student is having and help them fix it.

It’s not easy to determine if a sword is too long for someone. A very strong person can easily stop a sword that a weaker person would be unable to control. Much of the ability to stop a descending sword relies on the strength of the student’s grip.  However, there are things you can do to give you an idea. A good basic evaluation is as follows: have the student stand with their right (reverse for lefties) foot forward and hold the sword with the point forward, arms pressed against the body, as though they had just completed a vertical oberhau. Have that student squeeze the bottom two fingers of both hands tightly while maintaining a good (and correct) grip on the sword. The point of the sword, in this position, should be about a foot off the ground. If it’s less, that sword is probably too long, at least at this point in this student’s training.

If the sword is not too long, but the student still strikes the floor (or stops it without structure to avoid doing so) then the student may not be strong enough for the sword he or she is using. Substitute the sword for a lightweight wooden dowel (or a much lighter sword) and see what happens. Do the problems go away? If so, tell that student to order a McBubba and get to work! He or she needs much stronger arms.

If the sword is too long or too heavy, then that sword needs to be replaced (at least for the time being) with a much smaller and lighter sword. Can’t find a longsword to fit the bill? Use a katana or other sword similar to a longsword. You can even let them cut with it in class. Once their mechanics are solid and their muscles (and muscle memory!) sufficiently developed, move to a small longsword, such as an Albion Squire Line bastard sword (which is an excellent choice for smaller students on a budget) or one of their short bladed XVa next gen longswords, such as the Mercenary. After that, whatever they can handle while maintaining solid mechanics. 

Using a sword that is too big also affects other cuts, particularly unterhau. Although unterhau can be executed in a variety of ways (e.g. hands high), the optimal starting position ( in terms of power, velocity, structure, etc.) is with the hands low and the blade pointing slightly behind you. Thus the hips provide lots of power and the axis of rotation remains far from the hilt. For this to work properly, the sword has to be short enough to start next to your leg with the point mostly down. If a student’s sword is too long, they will most likely start with it pointing out to the side and then attempt to adjust its path and straighten the trajectory. This seldom works, except in the hands of experienced practitioners. Another way to compensate for a sword that is too long is to leave the tip trailing far behind the hands (as launching the tip forward will hit the floor if the sword is too long and in a mostly vertical position). Most people do a combination of these two. Signs to look for are students twisting their bodies, using their shoulders and, of course, a trailing tip. Give such a person a shorter sword and the problems go away almost immediately.

Many of these issues can be corrected, to an extent, by skilled/advanced practitioners, and so they may not seem like much of an issue to some people. However, the more skilled you are, the more you’ll recognize that even with compensation/correction, you will cannot perform as well with a larger sword as you can with one that is the right size for you. At a certain size/weight point (e.g. montante), a sword becomes heavy enough that momentum will more than compensate for suboptimal body mechanics, but that is irrelevant to the topic at hand.

Your take-away from this, as an instructor, should be to keep a careful eye out for these issues so that you don’t misdiagnose it as a technique problem. Also, when your students ask you what swords they should buy, make sure that you take their size and strength into account when advising them.

As a student, your take-away is simple. Don’t get a sword that is too big and/or too heavy for you. It’s one of the worst mistakes you can make. I only wish that I recognized the full extent of the problem sooner, but better late than never. 

There is an accompanying video, which can be found here: