Great fencers spend the most time practicing in smartest ways. Smart practice starts with finding the best practice methods, then honing your skills using those methods.
Shadow fencing is a practice technique that allows fencers to step up to their fencing no matter where they are. You can even practice if you don’t have a weapon! You might be shadow fencing already and don’t even realize it. The question is whether you’re doing it as smartly as you could be, and whether you’re getting the most out of your shadow fencing sessions.
Shadow fencing comes from shadow boxing
Shadow fencing is very much like shadowboxing. We’ve all seen boxers punching in the air in movies. They’re not boxing anyone – just hitting this imaginary person. Oh, and they can do it with gloves or without gloves. That’s just a movie thing though, right? It’s actually a real technique that’s just by boxers to improve their skill – and it works!
Muhammad Ali, the great boxer whose legend still lives on today, popularized shadow boxing during a television interview at the height of his boxing career. It was then that the idea of shadow boxing really took off in the imagination of the public. Bruce Lee further popularized shadow boxing in his martial arts movies, and he was famous for using the technique in the martial art that he pioneered, Jeet Kune Do.
Most boxers use shadow boxing EVERY DAY as part of their training methodology. That’s important, because shadow boxing helps fighters to hone and improve their rhythm, speed, style, and flow. It’s often done in front of a mirror at first to allow the athlete to better understand what they’re doing.
There are two styles of shadowboxing :
- Long shadowboxing – using the entire body
- Short shadowboxing – from the waist up
Shadow fencing is derived directly from shadow boxing, only it if course uses a fencing sword rather than just the fists and the feet. Just as in shadowboxing, shadow fencing doesn’t require the athlete to have anything in their hands. Just as in shadowboxing, shadow fencing can either be long or short. Long shadow fencing uses the entire body. Short shadow fencing only uses the arms.
The benefits of shadow fencing
Once you understand how fantastic shadow fencing is, you’re going to be keen to jump in and get going with it. This practice can become a core of your fencing routine, and it’s well worth it.
Here are eleven benefits of shadow fencing.
- Technical motion improvement
A key element that master fencers are able to work with are those tiny, technical movements that give them the control they need to outfox an opponent’s movements. What fencers have to do in order to improve those movements is to practice them again and again and again, analyzing them along the way and making small changes.
No matter what weapon you’re fencing, technical improvements are the best way to improve the outcome of a fencing match and to expand a fencer’s ability to match any opponent.
- Rhythm reinforcement
Another key component of fencing is rhythm. This is a piece of the puzzle that’s incredibly challenging for fencers to get a handle on just during fencing practice at the club. Shadow fencing allows fencers to repeat rhythm exercises over and over again outside of the club and without relying on another fencer to be there with them.
How can shadow fencing improve your rhythm without an opponent? Simple – you can learn to mimic the rhythm of any opponent. This can work really well if you’ve got video of past fencing matches that you can watch – you can shadow fence opponents that aren’t even there and learn their rhythm. Attacks and defenses are the backbone of fencing, so learning how to time your movements to varied opponents and different rhythms allows you to fence much more effectively.
- Aerobic exercise
That’s right – shadow fencing is a great workout! Especially if you’re doing long shadow fencing, which involves the whole body. A half hour session of full body shadow fencing pushes your heart rate up. Stamina is important for fencers, and the best way to build your stamina is through aerobic exercise.
Many fencers look to cross training like running or cycling to give them that aerobic workout they need to allow them to sustain their energy through long bouts. However shadow fencing can give you the same kind of workout as other forms of aerobic exercise, but while you’re working on your fencing, which actually helps your fencing technique.
Shadow fencing teaches fencers how to deal with missing strikes. So often when we’re sparring in the club, we get used to having that resistance there. With shadow fencing, there’s no resistance. That means that you can just fall out of the way, allowing your opponent the chance to take advantage of your misstep if you lose your balance.
Learning how to compensate for missed attacks and then quickly recover can be a make or break aspect of your training. The better your balance during a missed shot, the better your ability to recover in time to get a counterattack moving.
- Improved Visualization
The mental game of fencing is easily as important as the physical game, if not more so. Getting your fencing mindset better is a central part of getting your fencing physicality better. What’s great about shadow fencing is that it trains your mind to drop in to that mindset.
When you learn to visualize more effectively, you can better train for how different kinds of opponents will strike, how they’ll defend, and how they’ll react to your movements. Though shadow fencing is definitely removed from real fencing situations, it’s nonetheless an incredible tool. That’s all the more true because you can literally shadow fence anywhere!
- Muscle building
Shadow boxing workouts are literally all the rage right now. Flip on your television at 1 am and you’ll see the infomercials touting martial arts style workouts without bags or equipment. Why is this catching on? Because it’s an effective way to build muscle.
What’s double great for fencers is that shadow fencing doesn’t just build muscle, it builds muscle in all the right places for your fencing. You’ll get improvements in your muscle mass if you use shadow fencing as a workout, and you’ll also find that you build better muscle coordination. It’s a huge win all around!
- After injury workouts
If you do have an injury, shadow fencing can be an effective bridge between not fencing at all and jumping back into sparring. Remember, you can shadow fence with or without a sword, so you can choose not to put that weight of the sword on an injured hand for instance. You can shadow fence with just your upper body if you’ve got an injury in your legs or feet.
If you’ve got an injury that allows you some modicum of movement but not total movement, you can mix things up with some shadow fencing to fill in the gap until you can train at full strength again.
- Warming up and cooling down
There is literally no better way to warm up and cool down for a fencer than with some lower intensity shadow fencing. You’re using all of those same muscle groups that you’ll be using in your fencing training, so shadow fencing can give you exactly the targeted warm up and cool down for your muscles.
The trick is to dial up or dial down the speed and force that you’re using in your shadow fencing. Stair stepping your workout up and down works beautifully when you’re needing to get your muscles warm or cool them off! So often we see fencers who aren’t doing a proper warmup or cool down because they think that it’s a waste of time. It’s not! Taking care of your body means getting it to its optimum level from start to finish. Warming up and cooling down are two essential parts of your routine, and you don’t have to worry about wasting your time if you do it all with shadow fencing.
- Learning from mistakes
In order to get better, you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. But there just isn’t enough time in the fencing club to dig in and get all of them figured out! Or to practice them enough to really clear out big problems.
When you practice shadow fencing, you can do it in front of a mirror. That means you can see what you’re doing, and more pointedly what you’re doing wrong. Has your coach told you over and over again that you’re turning your hand in the wrong way? Shadow fencing can fix that. Have you been putting too much weight on your back leg? Shadow fencing can fix that. This is a technique that lets you dig down deep into what you’re doing and clear out longstanding mistakes.
- Hone skills your coach has taught you
During private lessons and classes, your fencing coach is telling you all kinds of things to do and to improve. With shadow fencing, you can actually work on those improvements! Imagine that!
Shadow fencing is perfect for reinforcing the things that your coach is giving you to fix. Imagine how impressed your coach will be when you come back in having really worked hard and improved!
- Muscle memory
We don’t just remember things in our minds, we remember them in our bodies. Shadow fencing builds your body’s level of muscle memory in a way that nothing else can. By practicing shadow fencing on a regular basis, you’ll be training your muscles to do those movements without thinking.
The lower your reaction time on the strip, the more effective you’re going to be at getting past your opponent for those points. You don’t have time to think! Give your fencing a leg up by teaching your muscles what they need to know through shadow fencing.
More than anything, shadow fencing allows you to step back and slow down as you work on your techniques. That’s where the huge value lies in this practice method!
Shadow fencing basics
How does shadow fencing work? Literally all it takes is doing it!
Here are a few way to practice shadow fencing.
- On a strip
Working on an actual fencing strip (or at least a makeshift one at home) with your weapon in your hand, visualize your opponent and respond to situations that you’ve imagined. This is the best way to work your balance and obviously your footwork. It’s also the perfect way to work rhythm. How smooth does your footwork feel? Are you opening up any patterns with your movement? Do you linger in a spot on the strip? Is your posture consistent?
On a strip, you can shadow fence full matches and practice big movements.
- Off the strip
You can work lots of movements off the strip if you’ve got limited space. You can use a weapon or not, but you’re going to focus less on footwork and more on lunges, hand and arm movements, and posture. The point here is to pull your movements down to where they need to be.
You can still move your legs here, but the focus isn’t on them as much as it is with long shadow fencing on the strip. This is perfect for your hotel room when you’re traveling.
- Off the strip – mirror shadow fencing
You’re arguably not going to find a chance to shadow fence in front of a mirror with space for a full strip, however you can definitely learn a lot from shadow fencing in front of a mirror. So often you’ll find that you’re doing things you don’t even see. Mirror shadow fencing allows you to see what you’re doing and immediately make changes.
- Off the strip – short shadow fencing
You don’t have to do full fencing in order to get the benefits of shadow fencing! All you need to do is to practice that arm and hand work. The biggest benefit of this kind of practice is that you can really, really do it anywhere. Literally – you can be in the seat of an airplane and shadow fence (and I am sure your saw your coach at least once doing imaginary parry ripostes on their way home)!
Short shadow fencing allows you to improve your grip, your coordination with the blade, your angles, and your structure. These are crucial parts of your practice!
Learning to juggle your thoughts along with your body takes time, practice, and patience. Shadow fencing gives you the best chance to get your fencing focused and improved.
Write down scenarios that you want to run through with your shadow fencing, then you can bring them to your practice. Don’t let things fall through the cracks! If you’re using a fencing journal at all, this is a perfect thing to track in your journal. It’s a fantastic method of working on your fencing technique while you’re out of the club.