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In a previous question I asked whether it is better to start out with a light weapon, and then move on to a heavier one. I got the answer that yes, it's better to start with a lighter one and strengthen arms, wrists and fingers while practicing with said light weapon.

So, my question now is quite simply a follow up to my previous question: Are there any exercises that are generally good for strengthening arms, wrists and fingers with the intent of sword use?

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Squeeze a tennis ball. It is one of the simplest and most effective hand and forearm strengthening exercises ever. –  Juann Strauss Dec 30 '13 at 20:50
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@DaveLiepmann No, I am actually not. I've been planning to start, though, so thanks for the pointers! –  Psyberion Jan 2 at 10:22
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@Psyberion Cool! Consider the different kinds of lifting and martial-arts-oriented general S&C training. –  Dave Liepmann Jan 2 at 21:54
    
@DaveLiepmann I'll take a look at your links! Thanks once again! –  Psyberion Jan 2 at 22:24
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5 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

It all comes back to the question: What are you trying to do? If you're training in sword fighting, then use a sword. Just repeat the same sword cut over and over again. Try to go as fast as you can without losing accuracy. Repeat.

In some amount of time, your forearms will tire. When they tire so much that either you're starting to slow down or you're starting to see your accuracy decline, that is time to end practice and/or move on to something else. Come back in two days when your forearms have recovered. Don't come back the next day, because it's not enough time to recover, and you need to be recovered in order to improve both your strength and your form. You always want to train fresh, or else you're training poor movement.

That's an improvement over the traditional method, which just has you repeat something until your arms feel like they're dead. You don't improve as quickly that way. You always need to be fresh, or else you're going to drill into your mind / body an incorrect and inaccurate way of performing the technique. Sword training requires a high level of accuracy. You must keep your mind focused. Don't let yourself get sloppy.

If your goal is to make as forceful a strike as possible with your sword, that is another thing altogether.

First of all, strength isn't what you should be targeting. You can be strong and slow. You don't want that. You want speed and accuracy primarily, with strength secondary. Also, strength with speed equals power.

You might reason that adding a weight to the end of your sword or simply making sword heavier is the way to go. It is not. Think about it. What does that achieve? Sure, it makes you use your muscles more, and that could make certain aspects of your sword technique stronger. But it results in muscle imbalances when you go to use your sword without weight.

Why is that? Because, gravity is a force that always acts downwards. But what you really want is a force that opposes your sword cut in whatever direction you happen to be cutting. So for when you're slashing the sword left to right, you want a force to push against your sword from right to left. And vice-versa. Simply adding weight will just increase downward force instead. And so the muscles on your arm, shoulders, back, traps, etc. will merely work harder to keep your sword up, rather than trying to increase strength in the direction of the sword cut.

That's not ideal, and it will only lead to imbalances of strength. The muscles that hold a sword up are different from the ones that pull the sword through a lateral slash.

There really aren't many sword cuts that will be directly improved by merely adding weight to the sword.

A better way to train is use some kind of a pulley system, attaching a rope to the end of the sword, and the other end of the rope attached to weights through a pulley. Then complete the slash so that the rope is constantly pulling against your sword in the direction that it is slashing.

But that's kind of hard to setup properly, since you're talking about multiple pivot points and a high level of complexity.

Instead, get rid of the sword altogether. Just grab the rope in your hands and perform the sword cut motion in such a way that it feels like the rope is pulling against you continuously throughout the cut.

For lateral sword cuts, you'll work the obliques a lot this way. In fact, a lot of sword technique requires a strong torso. You can work obliques and the "core" part of your body using other exercises as well. But the rope pull is a great way.

For overhead straight down sword cuts, get right under the pulley and pull down. This is actually a pretty standard weightlifting exercise called, oddly enough, the "pull down".

If it seems like the resistance is good for only 1/2 the sword cut, that's because the rope can't change its angle as you're changing your angle. That's a limit to this kind of equipment.

So to get around that, you want to just perform that part of the movement that the rope / pulley system can resist against uniformly and continuously. Stop the movement when it begins to get off track. And just train that part of the movement over and over again.

Then isolate the remaining part(s) of the sword cut movement, and practice that/those separately with some other configuration of the rope / pulley system.

You can also try bungee cord or rubber bands for resistance. My only problem with them is that they're hard to position properly and safely, and they only give you a fixed amount of force. In other words, you can't add weight to them as you get stronger. But maybe you don't need to add weight. It depends on what you're trying to get out of it.

One other thing. Before you start doing any of these kinds of rope / pulley exercises, you should consult a personal trainer in a weightlifting gym that's equipped with rope / pulley machines. You want them to show you the proper form, so that you don't injure yourself or develop bad habits. You can even tell him what you're trying to do with the sword cuts, and see what he says. He might not know a thing about martial arts, but he does know proper movement. And that can really help you.

Alternatively, a lot of the sword fighters of the past used to practice sword cuts using a short wooden staff (hanbo or boken). They would practice the sword cut using the staff against a hard object, like a tree or a wooden post wrapped in rope or something. This is a less optimal and less direct way of improving power (strength + speed). It makes the sword cut feel light and easy until you hit the target hard, and then you suddenly have a huge load on your muscles. That works sub-optimally, because it's actually a kind of isometric exercise. Isometric exercises are different from dynamic exercises like I described with the rope and pulley. They have different benefits, but dynamic is superior for sword cuts, in my opinion, because it gives you resistance throughout the entire cut rather than just at the end. And this method of hitting a rigid object can lead to injury pretty easily.

Anyway, hope that helps. Good luck!

EDIT:

Just to clarify, what I'm saying is that whenever you actually use the sword to practice sword cuts, make sure your primary goal is accuracy - accurate to the form. You want to go as fast and strong as possible (as powerful as possible), but without sacrificing one bit of your form. Your goal is not to gain muscle from sword cut exercises, but to drill proper technique into your muscle memory (working on your body's nervous system). This is especially true because you should NOT be doing these cuts to complete exhaustion, because going to exhaustion will cause your form to become messed up, and that will just drill into muscle memory the wrong form. So pay attention to form primarily, whenever you do sword work.

Your grip strength will only increase a little bit this way when you do the sword cuts, so it's unsuitable as a way of gaining real strength.

To gain strength, you use the weighted supplemental exercises with the rope and pulley that I mentioned. When you do these exercises, you do not have to pay attention to sword form. You're not holding a sword, and you're not performing a sword cut. You are merely working the muscles that you use during the sword cut.

You still want to utilize the whole body when you do it. Do not isolate one muscle group. You want the whole body exercised at the same time (a complex weight lifting exercise).

When you do these supplemental weight exercises, make sure you do them after your sword practice, not before. Whenever you work with the sword, your muscles should be fresh and non-fatigued. That also means never working on a sword two days in a row. Put a rest day between the two days.

Some other good weight training exercises for sword work are: the dead-lift (great for building forearm strength and a whole lot more), the bent-over row, the pull-up / chin-up, dips, oblique crunches, the plank / flip-flops, and the lat pull-down.

When you're doing sword work, your instructor will correct your form and will point out problems. Some problems to watch for: 1) Being off-balance, 2) Over-extending yourself in some direction or over-rotating, 3) Allowing antagonistic muscles to get in the way (don't tense areas of the body that are not directly involved in the sword cut), 4) "Winding up" before a strike (you never want to telegraph the start of your cut), 5) Blinking, clenching teeth, grimacing, etc.

Anyway, just wanted to clarify those points since my message. Didn't know if I was making myself 100% clear.

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Thanks a lot for the increadibly elaborate answer! –  Psyberion Dec 30 '13 at 9:11
    
No problem! Glad I could help. Please note that I have added an important edit at the end. –  Steve Weigand Dec 30 '13 at 17:19
    
Yes, I Can see that. I will take a look at your edit. Thanks once again! –  Psyberion Dec 30 '13 at 17:30
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Discalimer: I'm a novice in strength and conditioning, and I know just about nothing about sword training.

General Strength First

Activity-specific strength training is not a good idea until the student has already attained a basic level of whole-body strength. Therefore, instead of focusing on sword-specific strength training for specifically the arms, wrists, and fingers, you should direct your strength training towards mobility and a basic beginner's program.

First, determine if you are capable of doing basic strength exercises through the whole range of motion without pain. You want to make sure you have proper mobility in the hips, shoulders, and back in order to do basic strength and martial arts exercises. Can you do a dead hang from a pull-up bar? Do a perfect plank and push-up? Support yourself from a dip station in good posture? Touch your toes? Do a third-world squat? If the answer to any of those is no, then congratulations! You have a goal.

Assuming you can do those, you should start a basic program with a barbell, kettlebell, or set of dumbbells. The primary exercises should probably include calisthenic/gymnastic exercises like pull-ups, dips, Hindu push-ups, squats, as well as some kind of squat, and deadlift with resistance. Key points are lifting heavy but maintaining proper form. Add weight regularly but not prematurely.

Sword strength

Practicing sword work is the best method of getting good at handling a sword, if you have the requisite strength, conditioning, and mobility. But after you attain a basic level of whole-body strength through the use of general resistance training, it wouldn't be a bad idea to look at the specific requirements of sword work. Heavy lunges would probably be a good idea at that time, as would Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk. I imagine that a great variety of shoulder-centric functional exercises like pull-ups, ring support holds and then ring dips, and eventually muscle-ups, and perhaps front and back levers would be helpful for developing the qualities of strength, control, and mobility in the shoulder girdle.

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Practising sword play will improve your strength. Other exercises will help too.

In the past I have found the most beneficial for hand strength to be finger tip press ups, pull ups and kettle bell use. All of these rely on hand strength. It is important to remember your body as a whole, bearing in mind that for for every contraction there is an expansion and that every thing is connected. A full body exercise will do you no harm.

As very few people ever perform at full strength full speed the relevance of strength is sorely underrated. Strength will enable you to react more quickly and more precisely, and obviously with a lot more power.

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Very well said. –  Dave Liepmann Jan 16 at 8:38
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Yes a heavier sword. I've tried some training swords at places like Leeds armoury and they're a dead weight but it's like a boxer switching between a heavy punch-bag and a speed-ball. use the heavy one to build your muscles and the lighter one to build your skill

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I disagree with the above responder in regards to adding weight to the end of the sword, as that is a traditional method in gung-fu, especially tai chi sword training for well over 1000 years, because it works.

He gave a lot of good information, but in regards to having to have a force directly opposite to the intended cut, that sounds reasonable, but it doesn't work that way in reality because there is much more to actual power and strength than just the simple vector physics being proposed.

This is why almost no martial arts today has attained the kind of speed, power, strength and discipline technique power that Gung-fu experts and Masters have attained over the centuries and even today, though extremely few in number.

That is because training techniques to gain various levels of destructive force and power are often counter intuitive to what you would think, as in the example above regarding vector physics.

In Gung-fu there are training drills for power as simple as tearing pieces of paper on a daily basis, washing dishes in a certain way and many other esoteric and seemingly silly methods that when done correctly and over time, develop seemingly almost supernatural strength and power, but it's true and it works. These things have been closely guarded secrets for obvious reasons over the centuries and today, when those techniques are no longer as valued as they once were due to the advent of modern weapons, those that used to know them either don't teach them or have since died, or been killed off.

This is why even practicing your sword techniques and forms slowly with basically no counter directional weight or resistance, STILL develops great striking power. This is one of the main reasons why tai chi is practiced slowly, because slow motion movements take FAR more muscles to control the movement, more concentration and because the muscles are in a relaxed state, they allow for greater chi flow, which equals and increase in jing or expression of power.

If you are looking for some good information on sword fighting, check out Dr. Yang Jwing Mings book called "Taiji Sword, Classical Yang Style: The Complete Form, Qigong & Applications" http://www.amazon.com/Taiji-Sword-Classical-Yang-Style/dp/1886969744/ref=pd_cp_mov_1

Here is a complete list of all Dr. Yangs books; http://www.amazon.com/Yang-Jwing-Ming/e/B000APA9LA/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1

Even if you are not training in Tai chi sword, it will give you a lot of great information on sword fighting, history, techniques, movements, how to train, strengthening and more which you can apply to any type of sword training that you wish to train in.

His books are well written and some of the best available in English.

In regards to other exercises, those that will strengthen the shoulders, biceps and triceps, finger strength and wrists such as straight arm lifts to the front and side with a 10-15lb weight with a 10 second hold at the end of each set, wrist curls with a 20lb dumbell with your palm facing up and down known as reverse wrist curls, bicep and tricep extensions, push ups and some bench pressing will help to give you the basic strength to wield a sword with more accuracy, speed, power and control.

Then there are other specific exercise and drills such as the aforementioned adding weights to the end of the sword which will further work the forearms and wrists as well as the grip, along with overall body toning because utilizing a sword, especially if you ever happen to use it in actual combat, requires a lot of muscles that don't normally get worked out because you will be stopping a strike from another person that either has a sword, a staff or perhaps a heavier weapon than you. This means that you'll need to have good technique, positioning to know which part of the sword to use to increase your own leverage and not waste your energy, along with having sufficient strength and endurance so that doesn't become a factor which can possibly cost you your life.

Granted, this is not an old kung-fu movie and the chances of ever actually having a sword fight are about the same as winning the lottery. But those skills can and do translate into many other facets of life that can make a difference in your quality of life on a daily basis and may even save your life some day. For once you know how to use a sword well, you can pick up almost anything and use it for self defense should it ever be necessary, things such as a metal flashlight like a Maglite, pipe, any kind of stick or pole, or just about anything because the basic general techniques and movements will be the same.

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Thanks for the answer! I'll keep this in mind as well, and also check out the book(s) you mentioned! –  Psyberion Dec 30 '13 at 11:13
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No offense, but we know a lot more now than we did in ancient times about how to improve strength and accuracy in physical exercise. To improve power, for example, you do not perform the technique slowly with no weight as you suggest. That's a misunderstanding of what Taiji practice is about. Taiji does it slowly, because you're training internal mechanics, which requires juggling a lot of variables in your mind. Going slowly is required in Taiji just so that your mind can control these variables, until such a time as you can do it at speed. That comes later in Taiji. –  Steve Weigand Dec 30 '13 at 17:38
    
Steve- I've practiced slow tai chi for decades as well as tai chi sword and slow does work because it develops the muscles in a different way, as well as the aforementioned chi flow. Yes, part of the reason it's done slowly is to coordinate the breathing with the chi flow, but the slow movement itself also works different muscles that do add to striking power & strength. Fast is also necessary for more explosive power as well as fighting speed application. But slow motions movements when practicing anything is one of those little known secrets to strength & power most think is useless. –  JediWitness Dec 30 '13 at 20:09
    
Steve - Today only the basic physics or kinematics of strength are specifically known over the ancients, that doesn't mean that using basic weight training is more effective than the old methods as I've mentioned and I know from experience over decades in training with body builders and those that focus on weight training. I've always been significantly stronger and had far greater striking power than those that were 3 times my size because I use the old methods of training. They were all shocked at this & always asked how was I so much stronger than they, my above response is the answer. –  JediWitness Dec 30 '13 at 20:11
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Taiji has very little to do with "chi flow" and breathing. Those are secondary aspects of Taiji that are typically added or concentrated on for health benefits and meditation, not for martial arts. Going slow is required by Taiji in order to learn the fundamentals of internal mechanics. If you've been told you're guiding chi to places with your breath, and your instructor hasn't told you what's going on with internal mechanics, you're probably not doing a martial form of Taiji, or your instructor doesn't know it or doesn't teach it. Power is speed and strength. It doesn't come from being slow. –  Steve Weigand Dec 30 '13 at 20:26
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