Are your hips holding you back?

Working at the front desk of the world’s largest western swordfighting school for half a year has led me to observe something. When it comes to most weapons and styles, people have preferences that are based on a number of different factors, ranging from their training background to their childhood fantasiesGenerally speaking no one seems to particularly dislike one weapon, so much as prefer another. However, when it comes to rapier, often you come across people who either love it or hate it. With a passion. I hated it at first, but I stuck with what seemed to be an overly stiff and awkward weapon (compared to my first love, the longsword), because I saw value in it. I watched more advanced students sparring at lightning speed and I knew I had to just do the leg work (literally) if I ever wanted to get to that point. In class last night, however, I had a moment of clarity as one of my instructors corrected my formwhat if my aversion (and maybe a lot of people’s aversion) to rapier was simply physiological?

The problem

I mulled it over for the remainder of class (which was focused on posture) and I realised that my initial dislike of rapier sprung from a complaint I have heard many times from new students, which is that it feels uncomfortable and awkward. The question I ended up asking myself was, "Is this something inherent in rapier fighting, or something that is inherent in modern society?" When you consider the sedentary nature of the average person, one possible answer is that people really struggle with the rapier because their hip muscles are too tight and restrictive to properly enter and hold a stance. This would affect their enjoyment of the rapier and lead holding correct posture to feel, as one student put it, "wrong."

This was a problem I’ve encountered before, personally, in long distance running. What I had initially written off as a general dislike of the practice was actually to do with a tightness in my hips, which was causing a host of other problems as it pulled my correct running form out of shape. Increasing flexibility did a lot to prevent the numerous twinges I felt and rescued me from a number of injuries waiting to happen. I thought I hated running. It turns out I hated not being able to do it properly.

It makes sense really, when you consider the media’s focus in recent years on the danger of sitting at a desk, in front of a television, or on the bus for large chunks of the day (it’s pretty grim, as you can see here) that people these days generally have much less flexible hips, backs and legs than in previous generations. Tight, rigid hip muscles make transitioning through loaded positions like those in a rapier lunge difficult, and subsequently not very much fun to do.

Equally, unlike many practices that involve such movements, a perfectly executed rapier stance is not measured in comfort or flexibility, but safety, given that it is a martial practice. When we look at the elements of a correct posture and lunge, many positions, particularly when held over time, require good hip flexibility due to the feet being turned outward while one leg is loaded. I believe this means that for many students, myself included, a dislike of rapier can be connected to a lack of flexibility in the hips. That was my discovery: rapier fighting is not stiff and awkward, I am.

The Solution

So what's the fix? My initial gut reaction was to just not do rapier and avoid the issue altogether. That solution, however, does not stand up to one of the fundamental principles of learning anything new, namely: at first, you should expect to suck. The celebrated author Ernest Hemingway once famously said, “the first draft of anything is shit,” so with that in mind, I thought, best get to it. This meant addressing problems that were holding my training back rather than waiting for them to get better, and in this case, improving my hip flexibility will reap benefits elsewhere. Bending at the hips and flowing between postures is a basic, primal movement, so why not get good at it for that reason alone?

If you are a rapier aficionado similarly interested in improving your hip flexibility, here are three ways for to correct this issue. You may try any one of these approaches, although a combination of all three is probably the best solution (and definitely won’t hurt your practice):

  1. Work on your flexibility.  This hip opening flow is one I learned when prepping for a marathon a number of years ago and I still use elements of it today (though not as much as I should obviously, hence my struggle with rapier mechanics.) It works. Try to do it every day as best you can, and gradually you should find that the act of holding correct rapier posture will not be such a chore.

  1. Get stronger. Squatting below parallel with or without a weight is one of the most effective ways to improve flexibility, engage the posterior chain and get used to moving through loaded positions. Squat at least a little every day.  This will also help further down the line in everything from generating powerful explosive lunges to tying your shoelaces.

  1. Practice. Get time in everyday practicing lunging with good form and stick with it. Mobility and flexibility come from movement, and frankly, the best way to improve at something when you’re new to it is to develop habitual practice.

So there we go, a simple problem with some fairly easy-to-apply fixes. The problem itself, however, is symptomatic of a lack of mindfulness, one I often find in my own training. In order to excel at anything you need to be critical, and in this case being critical can be as simple as asking the question, "Do I really dislike this, or am I holding myself back?" If the answer happens to be the latter, by asking the question you've already taken the first steps to remedying it and becoming a better fighter. If not, you know that you genuinely do not enjoy the activity. Either way, you'll have saved yourself a lot of time wondering why something just isn't working for you in your training.

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
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