Fencing: Engarde!

Fencing evokes images of swashbuckling movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Three Musketeers and even Star Wars and its flashy light saber duels. Yet, fencing seems to be a sport that that isn’t accessible to the average person. “Fencing suffers from stereotyping,” says James Williams, an Olympic and British fencing gold medalist. “It’s seen as an elitist, snobbish sport, out of reach of ‘normal’ people.”

Physical Activity - FencingBut fencing is a sport for everyone regardless of age and can boost your body’s health and fitness through a mentally demanding, yet fun exercise.

Fencing is the “European martial art” and is essentially sword-fighting without the risk of death or catastrophic injury. The United States Fencing Association describes the sport as fast, exciting and athletic like “active chess” focusing on speed, coordination, balance and flexibility, making it an ideal way of keeping fit for all ages and abilities.

Even though it looks dangerous, fencing is a safe sport. If the correct equipment is used, even minor injuries are uncommon. According to the Athletic Trainer’s Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the rate and severity of injuries for fencing is similar to tennis or golf and much safer than soccer, basketball, or football. Of course, fencing should never be tried unless supervised by a qualified teacher and the correct clothing and correct equipment is used!

The emphasis is on speed rather than strength, so the sport is good for both sexes.

Health Benefits of Fencing

Each fencing session is a full-body workout and challenges every major muscle group. The sport develops fitness, agility, speed, strength, coordination, balance and timing. A strong mental edge is just as important as physical ability. Fencing involves strategy, tactics and psychological control, as well as mental awareness, coordination, strength, balance, dexterity and aerobic fitness.

The art of fencing requires quick responsive movements to counter attacks from an opponent and to place the opponent on the defensive. It emphasizes agility, alertness, and endurance. Fencing is a great cardiovascular exercise, using several sets of muscles at a demanding intensity level over an extended period of time.

With its complex physical maneuvers, fencing helps develop muscle strength, flexibility, and coordination. The positions and movements in fencing must be precise to be powerful. And in order to perfect that precision, the body must become flexible and strong.

Research has shown that a mind regularly challenged is less prone to degenerative diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Anaerobic Fitness.  Boosts anaerobic fitness because fencing is an explosive start/stop sport where periods of high intensity activity are interspersed by periods of recovery.

Cardiovascular Fitness.  Fencing requires nearly constant lower body motion to advance and retreat while also utilizing the upper body for defensive and offensive moves. This aerobic exercise is beneficial to the body’s heart health, endurance, and lung capacity and reduces the risk of heart disease. Practicing fencing can help to regulate cholesterol levels, improve circulation and also decreases your risk of developing coronary artery disease by increasing your good cholesterol levels and decreasing your low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol.

Burns Calories.  As with all aerobic exercise, as well, fencing burns calories, helping participants to lose weight and maintain their ideal weight. An hour’s active fencing burns over 400 calories and a competitive nine minute bout can use up as much energy as a 1 mile run! This type of exercise can also be effective at lessening the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Coordination and Flexibility.  The sport of fencing is built on coordinating attacks and defenses that focus on sword movements and footwork. Fencing requires you to move your body in a multitude of ways. Arms and legs have to work together in a harmonious fashion as you attack, defend and counter attack.

Increased flexibility is a key benefit of fencing which requires the use of a wide range of motion to respond and deflect opposing attacks.

Strength and Endurance.  Fencing involves constant footwork. You need good muscle endurance to avoid becoming fatigued during a match. A fencing match consists of forward and backward movement so lower body muscular endurance is critical a constantly moving sword arm (while bearing the weight of the weapon) requires upper body endurance too.

The core and stomach muscles are largely responsible for balance, posture and stability, all of which are vital in fencing. A weak core means that a fencer will be unable to maintain balance and have trouble executing movements properly.

Mental Agility. One of the most intriguing benefits of fencing is the mental benefits. Fencing has also been called physical chess due to the logic and strategy tactics behind the movements. Fencing requires split-second physical and psychological observations of your opponent’s skills and fencing style to win the bout.

Relieves stress. Fencing also helps relieve stress and is a great way to let off steam and frustration.

Enhances math performance. It has been discovered that fencing enhances student’s mathematical performance and improves perception of geometric shapes. The analytical and abstract concepts of fencing heighten mathematical skills.

Other Benefits of Fencing

Although growing in popularity, the lack of fencers provides a unique opportunity for competition in sports in international events including the Olympics.

Again, citing a lack of participants fencing can leads to scholarships at great schools!

Fencing is also a life-long sport with some competing into their late 70s and early 80s. It is also the only martial art that allows men and women to compete against each other.

Competitive Fencing

Fencing has been part of the Olympic Games since 1896, and fencers are among the fittest of all athletes. Fencers learn the skills of attacking and defending with three types of weapons the foil, epee or saber. Each weapon targets different parts of the body for scoring. Physical Activity - fencing weapons

  • The foil is a light thrusting weapon that targets the torso, including the back, but not the arms.
  • The sabre is a light cutting and thrusting weapon that targets the entire body above the waist, excluding the hands.
  • The epée is a heavier thrusting weapon that targets the entire body.

The Fencing Moves

  • Lunge — this is the basic attacking move. The sword arm is extended fully, while the back leg remains stationary as the front leg moves forward.
  • Parry — a defensive action where the fencer blocks the opponent’s lunge. When parrying, only the blade should move, while the arm should be kept as straight as possible.
  • Riposte — a counterattack by the fencer who has blocked the opponent with a parry.

In Olympic fencing, weapons are fitted with electronic equipment which indicates the validity of a hit. The action takes place on a ‘piste’ which is a rectangular area 45.9 feet long and 4.9 feet wide. At each end of the piste is an out of bounds area. If the fencer steps into this area they forfeit a point to their opponent. The piste has a strip covered with a metallic mesh which is grounded so as not to trigger the electric scoring system.

The fencing bout

  • Fencers salute their opponent, the referee, and the audience at the beginning and end of each fight.
  • Fencing begins when the referee calls ‘fence’ and stops when he calls ‘halt’.
  • Each fencing bout consists of three rounds of 3 minutes, with a minute interval between rounds. The winner is the first to achieve 15 valid hits or the greatest number by the end of the bout.
  • They begin each round in the center of the piste about 13 feet apart behind an en garde line.
  • Fencers move back and forth on the piste. At each end is an out-of-bounds area, which if the fencer crosses, leads to the deduction of a point.
  • After each hit is scored the fencers return to the center of the piste.

Scoring in fencing

In bouts using the foil and the slightly heavier epée, hits are scored by hitting an opponent with the tip of the weapon. In sabre, hits are more commonly scored with the edge of the weapon. Epée allows both fencers to score at the same time, while foil and sabre have rules of right of way and timing that mean only one fencer can score a hit at a time. The referee determines who had the right of way and awards the point.

How do you get into fencing?

Due to the skills and equipment required it is important to take a class. A large number of fencing clubs now exist throughout the US and all offer classes. Here’s a link to find a club in your area.

Most clubs charge a membership fee which normally includes the cost of tuition and use of equipment.

Fencing is a fun way to get fit and stay healthy. With all of the potential benefits of fencing it is no surprise that the US National Institute of Health has a Fencing Club!


UK National Health Service

US Fencing