The movement starts with the front foot. The toes are lifted and the front swings forward with an extension of the knee. The front heel advances, skimming the floor, as the rear leg pushes with a vigorous extension of the knee.”
-Istvan Lukovitch, “Fencing, The New International Style” (1958)
If you’ve had a technical fencing lesson with almost any coach in the world, I’m prepared to bet you’ve been taught something along these lines. It’s near-universally accepted as the correct way to do footwork, and hours upon hours are spent on drills to train lifting the toe and flicking the heel along the ground.
If you’re like me, you probably struggled with this, and found it counter-intuitive and kind of unnatural. If you’ve ever queried it, you may have heard explanations like “You have to pick up your toes, so you don’t trip over them.”
You may well have then got on with your fencing career without really thinking about it, only to occasionally be pulled up by an indignant coach and told off for doing it wrong. Or, if you’re made of sterner stuff, you may have drilled it and drilled it until it became your default action in footwork, the toes lifting cleanly and the foot bouncing off the heel in snappy staccato actions. Lovely.
In either case, you may look with some confusion at the frequent action shots coming out of A-grade tournaments, which show things like this:
This is a badass athletic pose, but what is the action? If you ask an experienced fencer or coach, you’ll probably hear something like “He’s running” or “He’s about to cross his feet, like he always does, the fast little bastard” (actual quote). It’s certainly nothing that fits in the lovely classical cannon of toe first, heel second.
It’s also the the way a human body is built to move. This is how you put power to the ground to accelerate forwards.
So how does this apply to fencing?
We were running some drills with Kevin Moore, our visiting biomechanics guy. The aim of the drill was to destabilise your centre of mass forwards and allow yourself to start to fall, and then have the legs naturally do what they needed to do to stop it. While this was going on, I was snapping a few photos.
There’s that badass pose again. Dr Chow looks like he’s about to run off, like the fast little bastard he is. But what’s the next part of the action?
Let’s clean that up a bit so he’s not actually in the process of falling over:
Could that really be what Mr Kim is doing in the first photo above? I pulled up literally the first slow-mo video I could find of him launching a lunge where the feet were visible for the whole process:
Now, John Chow is a scientist at heart who is very happy to try out crazy things if they might work. Kim Junghwan is well known in Serious Coaching Circles as a hideous abomination against all that is good and right in fencing. They’re doing it wrong because, I don’t know, it might make them go 1% faster or something, and they don’t care if they make nice fencers cry.
Let’s look at Mr Perfect Lunge himself, Gu Bongil. Surely he does things properly.
Ok, ok, calm down. The Koreans are weird. Everyone knows that. They’re doing some kind of nutball thing that goes along with the bouncing and front-splits and god knows what else it is they get up to.
I went to have a bit of a dig around.
Show me the data
At this point, it’s more efficient if I just let the footage speak for itself.
And I warn you. What is seen cannot be unseen.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you see.
They’re doing it wrong. But what is “wrong”?
Nobody, and I mean nobody, does the toe lift thing in a real fight. Nobody. I went through close to a hundred lunge samples in men’s sabre, and I couldn’t find it once, even in cases where the lunge is launched from a stationary position. Everyone lifts the heel first, even if it’s only a slight lift.
If you ask these guys what they’re doing when they lunge, they’ll mostly tell you what they’ve been taught: that they’re lifting the toe first and the heel last. They’ve been drilled in it, for thousands of hours in some cases. But their bodies are overriding their minds.
And that’s OK.
In any fight between your brain and your foot about movement, your foot is going to win.
– Kevin Moore
Fencing footwork should be based on natural human gait, and natural human gait involves lifting the heel first and the toe last.
I have never been presented with any kind of real argument for why lifting the toe first provides an advantage in terms of speed, power, energy efficiency, injury risk or indeed anything besides possibly a slightly better chance of adjusting distance mid-action, which I’ve always found a bit dubious in the heat of a fight.
It is, as far as I can work out, a convention based on what the biggest and most obvious part of the action is when viewed with the naked eye. I can see why people believe it: I believed it for years too. The flick up of the toe is what jumps out at you when you watch the action, particularly if you’re already been told to look for it.
But it has no basis in science.
What we’re seeing in the video, therefore, is not the messy pragmatism of combat. This isn’t people’s nice technique falling apart under stress. This is athletes listening to their bodies, even if totally subconsciously, and moving the way that is most effective.
What these guys are doing in bouts is more correct, in a pure technical sense, than what they’re doing in footwork drills. It’s a better movement.
So who the hell am I to tell you what’s correct?
I am acutely conscious that as an amateur fencer from a new club at the ends of the Earth, I don’t really have what you might call an established position to be throwing around claims that everyone is teaching footwork wrong. I am, however, a scientist by training, and unfortunately we get raised to believe that stuff like established position doesn’t mean squat in the face of data, even though that can get highly uncomfortable at times.
Luckily, this is not one of those times. We are by no means the first to make this observation.
The origins of this sport are in combat, real combat. The guys who were trying to kill each other weren’t going to mess around with arbitrary training conventions about toes unless there was at least some kind of observational evidence for an advantage. Surely this practical attitude fed into fencing as an Olympic sport?
The right toes leave the ground last, the right heel touches the ground first.
-Aldo Nadi, “On Fencing” (1943)
And there you have it. You can argue with me all you like (although I’ve got a lot of data to wave at you). But you want to argue with this guy?
So what? What should we all be doing?
If you dearly love bouncing along on your heel in beautiful sharp staccato actions, eh, it’s probably OK I guess. You’re a bit of a weirdo as far as I’m concerned, but whatever floats your boat, I’m not here to judge.
But if you’re like most people and you struggle with that kind of thing, the good news is it’s almost certainly pointless and you can throw it out the window without losing a single thing. This frees you to spend your training time and effort on stuff that’s actually going to be effective. Make your footwork light and soft and springy. While you’re at it, go check out the most adorable training video ever (noting the light, soft, springy footwork from Mr Nazlymov).
On a more serious note, there may very well be much more important implications to all of this. We will develop this further over the coming months, as we continue our collaboration with Reembody.
But for now, my advice is to let your legs move the way they want to move, and stop feeling guilty for not conforming to some arbitrary movement standard from 1958.