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'En Garde'
Fencing for Fitness
By Marian Jones   Fox News
  NEW YORK — The instructor lunged at us with her hand outstretched like a sword. We were supposed to lunge back at her.

Photo
William Tolan/Fox News Online
It's important not to overextend
the knee while lunging

Instead, we skittered forward on the rubber fencing strip like a pack of confused crabs, then retreated.

Before taking this introductory lesson at Metropolis Fencing in New York, I thought of fencing as a childish way for people to act out their Zorro fantasies. And it can be.

But I discovered fencing can be a physically demanding activity, and a very grown-up sport. Fencing works the quadriceps, the calves, the biceps and triceps, as well as helping a person develop speed, agility, and strategy.

"When you develop a [fencer] physically, you develop them mentally at the same time," Emmanuil G. Kaidanov, the head coach of Penn State’s NCAA 5-time champion fencing team, told me after the lesson. "The essence of fencing," said the one-time Soviet National Silver Medalist "is to control violence — and to understand the principle of the game."

All The Fight Moves

The en garde position is the basic stance of fencing: You stand with feet shoulder-width apart, front foot pointed straight out. Your back foot points sideways. Your dominant arm — the one that’s going to grasp the sword — is held loosely in front of you, and you hold your other arm behind you at shoulder height, with your elbow out like a chicken wing.

Photo
William Tolan/Fox News Online
Foiled again! Fortunately, it bends upon contact with opponent's chest

Once you’ve gotten into this unnatural but stable stance, you’re supposed to relax, bending your knees and keeping your upper body loose, instructor Reinhold Longenbach told us. In that way, fencing resembles yoga.

Then comes the fighting part. From the en garde position, you advance, front toe first. Then retreat, picking up your back foot. When you lunge, you thrust your hand straight out, jump forward with your front knee and lock your back knee, drop your back hand, and retreat back into an en garde stance before your opponent can strike you.

It’s not easy to get the hang of the lunge. Too often my feet wanted to go first, and Longenbach kept correcting me.

Gearing Up

The Gear
 
 

After learning the basic moves, we geared up to fence. When handed the first piece of protection, I couldn't stop laughing. A plastic breast plate with two molded bumps, it looked like part of a Barbarella Halloween costume. My fencing partner, Fox News Online Producer Jackson Kuhl, was offered a groin plate.

We each then donned a white fencing jacket, which is called a lamee and looks like a straitjacket with free arms. After the jacket came the head protection, a heavy mesh mask reminiscent of a helmet Sir Lancelot would wear. A single leather glove goes on the dominant hand — the fencing hand.

Photo
William Tolan/Fox News Online
Instructors teach novices how to engage blades

Finally, there's the selection of the weapon.

There are three kinds of fencing weapons: the foil, which includes a rectangular, highly flexible 35-inch blade that weighs less than a pound: the epee, a modified dueling sword, which is heavier, has a stiffer blade and a larger hand guard; and the sabre, a modern cavalry sword, which can be used to slash your opponent.

Each kind of weapon is used in a different type of competition fencing with different rules.

Foiling your Opponent

Fencing itself is a dance, where you carefully observe and respond to your opponent’s advances and retreats, trying to keep enough distance between you to avoid getting touched with a foil tip. At the same time, you sometimes want to advance strategically, "break distance" and lunge at your opponent’s chest with your sword.

There are two basic sword moves in foil fencing: thrust and parry. When you lunge at an opponent and attack, you thrust. When an opponent lunges at you, you parry, or defend yourself. Then you riposte — or launch your own answering thrust.

Longenbach showed me some simple parry moves — one where you move your hand across your body, pushing the opponent’s sword away with your own, and another where you move your hand out to push the opponent’s sword out of reach on the other side.

Photo
William Tolan/Fox News Online
 

Another move is the disengage, a quick flick of the wrist in which you circle your blade around your opponent’s.

In our introductory lesson, we practiced these moves in slow motion, attacking our opponent and allowing ourselves to be attacked — partly to get the hang of the moves, and partly to learn that lunging at your opponent with a foil is not going to hurt them. The blade, which bends upon contact, just feels like a finger poke.

We also practiced advancing, retreating, and keeping distance. This back and forth motion, combined with periodic lunges and parrys, works the quadricep muscle of your front leg, the back calf, and one side of your upper body (usually the right if you are right-handed.)

This uneven body impact is the major fitness disadvantage of fencing. Serious fencers usually develop a lopsided body, with one thigh and one arm noticeably bigger than the other.

"We deal with [this issue] by balancing our activities with physical conditioning," Kaidanov said of his training program at Penn State. "Every athlete is supposed to do twice a week conditioning and work with weights. I also encourage kids to fence with the other hand."

In other words, cross training — a good idea for any athlete — is de rigeur for the serious practitioner of this centuries-old sport.

At the end of class, Longenbach had us line up with our masks off, lift our sword handles to our chests, then back down. He shook hands with each of us — not only congratulating us on a good workout, but reminding us that fencing is still, in spite of the modern innovations — a gentleman's sport.