Week 12: Lunge


I learned to lunge by kicking a coin across the floor of a school hall.

A dozen other kids on either side of me did likewise, sending the Australian 20 cent pieces careening off at wild angles. All of us were now planted on the ground: sword arm extended; back arm unfurled from its arched pose above our heads; and our legs stretched apart, front knee at right angles, back leg ramrod straight, both feet flat on the ground. No sliding.

The Matron released us to retrieve the coins. We placed them under our front heels. Then at her command, we lunged — pulling our front toes up first and switch-blading our legs apart. Our goal was to slide the coin in a straight line across the hall to the opposite wall; that way the Matron would know we lunged straight. Then she could examine our finishing poses; she subscribed to Nadi’s dictum that at the end of the lunge “then and there, at the peak of its speed and power, the whole movement must instantly stop.”

Not that the Matron would have known what the famous Italian fencer had said, or cared much for his words even if she did. Australian fencing, she would tell us, was French and foil. She had learned her craft from the Anglo-French masters who had made the odyssey from a ruined Europe after the Second World War. They were imperious men, with the bearing of those bred to serve King and Empire, their fervour undimmed by their former masters’ fall. They were gentlemen of profession, doctors and lawyers and mandarins, who indulged their hobby in wood-panelled salles tastefully tucked into the better sulci of the City.

The city salles were gone now; we practiced in a hall rented from the one of the underfunded-yet-prestigious public schools on the far side of the Harbour. But even if our circumstances had fallen, our standards would not. The Matron refused to concede to the sport’s decline. Straight-backed, she led us through drills that probably hadn’t changed in a hundred years. She insisted that we learn the basics without blade, clip-clopping our footwork through advances, retreats, and lunges — toes up first, then heel down, land both feet at the same time — without distracted by the sword.

When she could withhold weapons from us no longer, The Matron issued us with French grip foils, a leather-bound slip of a blade that was difficult to hold and which — according to the Matron — forced its bearer to learn proper bladework with their fingers. But before that, the stance: enguarde in sixte, feet at right angles, heels in a line. Then exercises to thrust and disengage and counter-disengage and parry and counter-parry and, of course, lunge. The French foil was frustrating to use for drills, and worse to use for bouts, especially against older kids wielding pistol grip foils that gave them the leverage to disarm you with beats and to whip their blades over your shoulder in a ‘flick’ — the über move being spammed back then.

I was at a small club that catered mostly to young children. Or, more accurately, young children were its main demographic. The Matron loved her charges, in her way, but we didn’t always love her back. Her methods, old-fashioned even then, required uncommon patience and dedication to bear fruit. Otherwise they would crumble in the face of the more brutal techniques taught in other clubs.

It usually only took a couple of competitions before kids would defect; their parents, seeking victories, would take them off to other clubs with coaches who would smile condescendingly and mansplain how the Matron was well-meaning but wrong. Those few of us who stayed had to bear the withering insults of our former club-mates, who would flaunt their fancy new moves that we could not do, and only with difficulty could counter.

The problem lay in the way the sport had changed since the end of the War. Fencers used to wear chunky leather shoes and scored only when they hit slow enough and obviously enough that the hovering hand judges could see them. Now they wore sneakers and electronic scoreboxes replaced the judges. Fencers moved faster, hit quicker, and did things that simply weren’t possible before.

If anything, foil was the least affected. Epee’s electronic cutoff was set so tight that single-light counterattacks and sneak shots — sometimes to the toe — gained unprecedented prominence. Sabre became completely unrecognisable; where once men bragged that as a master of foil they were master of all three weapons, and even the Matron would sniff that a good foilist could use their superior bladework to crush any sabreur, by the time I arrived such boasts already sounded hollow, if not downright delusional.

Of all the things that had changed, the lunge was the most obvious and controversial. About the only thing that most fencers could agree on was that the lunge was still the “most important fencing movement” of Nadi’s day, or at least the most iconic. But exactly how to lunge was and is the subject of bitter debate. As far back as 1943, Nadi wrote that “there are not ten fencers in the United States who can lunge correctly”. He declaimed against the kind of lunge I was taught, half a century later, calling the coin-kick motion “something hardly in tune with the traditions of fencing” and the ban on sliding the back foot “one of the greatest pedagogic mistakes in the science of fencing.” He wasn’t a fan of the French foil either.

Instead, Nadi promoted a version of the lunge that “shoots out like an arrow” in the manner of a cobra’s strike. Instead of flicking the front foot forwards, toes up first, Nadi’s lunge had “the right [front] toes leave the ground last”. He sprung his back leg straight to power the lunge through the air, sliding his back foot along the ground at right angles such that “the ball of the foot should slide a little more than the heel, pivoting slightly on the latter, thus bringing the toes a bit forward of the heel at the end of the lunge.” Nadi leaned forward with his lunge, his trunk straight-backed and bent at the waist, so as to strike his opponent at the moment of greatest momentum just as his lunge was about to land.

The coin-kick and heel-first pedagogies of fencing footwork are more or less evenly divided between sabre coaches to this day. But pro fencers universally use the heel-first method; Frances wrote an article and compiled a video about this as recently as 2015. Not that those fencers necessarily knew what they were doing, because at least half of them had been taught — and continued to be coached in — the coin-kick method.

The Paladin was amongst the most insistent that he lunged toe-first, until he saw himself in the video. “Ah shit,” he texted back. “Well, obviously you are right.” Compared to others, he took it rather well. Another pro ranted at friend of ours in a Budapest bar about how we were stupid. For an hour.

It’s obvious why the pros lunge this way despite being trained to do so completely differently — physics forces them to. As you advance forwards, weight goes onto your front foot. You need to lift the foot before you can kick it forwards to lunge. There are only three joints in your leg: ankle, knee, and hip. When in stance, your front knee can only extend your leg forwards, not up, so you have to use either your ankle or hip to raise your leg and foot off the ground. Using the hip to do so throws your momentum backwards, against the direction of your lunge, unless you’re moving so slowly that its impact is insignificant. You’re left with using your ankle to lift your foot off the ground, and thus your heel lifts first.

Everyone does this by instinct. You can override it with conscious control, but the moment you stop paying attention to it or start moving fast enough, instinct takes over. “In a contest between mind and foot,” said Kevin Moore, a friend and foot nerd of Reembody fame, “the foot always wins.” But the pros don’t even lunge Nadi’s way. Other instincts are to blame for that.

Lunging hurts. Take an athlete and chuck them forwards at an appreciable fraction of a racehorse’s speed. The resulting kinetic energy is substantial enough to do quite a bit of damage — as anyone who has crashed off an icy piste can attest. The energy has two vectors: forwards with the lunge, and downwards with gravity. Both have to be dissipated on landing.

In classic lunges, coin-kick or heel-first, forward energy is mostly taken into tension by stretching the tendons and ligaments over the front knee. The rest compresses the bones of the front leg. Downward energy is mostly dissipated by compression, by slamming the front heel and leg straight onto the ground, with the remainder taken by tension across the groin by the hamstrings and medial quadriceps. Of the two vectors, the forward vector is more problematic to handle; the front knee isn’t well-adapted to absorb this type or magnitude of forces. To compensate, even Nadi allowed his back foot to scrape along the ground as his lunge landed, to bleed off some of the forward energy before absorbing the rest into his knee.

But lunges were slower back then, especially compared to those in modern sabre. Most people can manage impact forces from Nadi-style lunges from a standing start, but only the most athletic can do it from an advance-lunge, and I have never seen anyone land a full-speed double-advance-lunge in that way. The impact forces involved are simply too great.

Your body knows this, and stops you from launching any action that it does not think you can land without injury; try forcing yourself to double-advance-lunge and stick the landing classic-style, scrape or no scrape, and notice yourself slowing down at the last moment each time. Your body will let you go faster with squishier shoes and bouncier floors, and it will hold you back when you are barefoot on metal pistes. But it will always subconsciously stop you from doing anything it thinks will harm you, at least in part based on what you consciously “tell” it you will do to avoid being hurt. It is like considering whether to jump face-first onto the surface in front of you: if the surface is concrete, your body resists any suggestion of a command you might issue it to jump; but if the surface is that of a swimming pool, your body’s resistance is much diminished. The same applies when you jump off a high platform with a bungie-cord attached, or out of a plane with a parachute. The first time, your body screams and locks — only with madness or a well-timed assist can you launch yourself into what your body knows will kill you. Then if you survive, and survive again, your body’s resistance fades. You have convinced it that you won’t get hurt.

What this means in fencing is that the limiting factor for how far and fast you can lunge, and thus attack, is almost always about how well you can handle the impact and pain of landing. It is not how about hard you can push your legs to launch yourself into the lunge. The heavier and faster you are, the more this matters. It’s like landing a plane — you can’t just stop on a coin, you need a runway. How long the runway has to be, and how good its surface needs to be, depends on how hard you’re planning to land.

The easiest thing to do is simply not stick the lunge. This is a perfectly sensible and orthodox thing to do — “recovering forwards” — so long as you use it to absorb the lunge impact and not just awkwardly stagger back into stance after landing. This how fencers land flunges and fleches; they launch and attempt hit their opponent in mid-air, then use about the same distance as their flight to slow down afterwards.

If you don’t want to recover forwards — and there are many reasons why you might not — you can allow your back foot to bend on landing and scrape it along the piste. This is what most of the pros do. They might have a perfect extended lunge while in mid-air, but come the landing they crumple it into a compact stance, scraping off the excess kinetic energy into their shoes. Most of them flop their back foot and allow it capsize onto its side; they are the ones with holes in their shoe uppers. This is why fencers duct tape their shoes and stick bits of leather onto the sides — fencing shoes are expensive. The Paladin just bought budget handball shoes in bulk, going through a pair every month (while accumulating a pile of pretty pristine front shoes). As long as the shoes are robust enough to survive a couple bouts’ worth of being dragged over a metal-grater piste, and bouncy enough to cushion your feet from impact, they can be used for fencing.

I’ve used Nike Ballestras ever since they brought out them out in 2008 for the Olympics, but I don’t like paying for them. So if I have to scrape, I scrape along its sole — the shoes last longer that way. Nadi recommended keeping the back foot at perfect right angles, but this doesn’t work at higher speeds; the inside edge clips the ground and rolls the foot. So I took inspiration from Master Shifu and pivot on the ball of my back foot instead. This swings my body and heel forwards during the lunge, leaving my back foot pointed backwards and the sole of my foot dragging on the ground as a brake. My personal contribution was to stand in stance with my back foot pointed mostly forwards, so that the pivot would give me an extra few centimetres of range during my lunge.

Scraping isn’t the only way to bleed off energy. An enterprising Korean coach taught his students to swing their back legs like a pendulum mass dampener at the end of the lunge and crook it against their bodies. That transferred the forward kinetic energy into the swing and the bending of the leg like a spring, energy that could be released back the other way for the fencer to jump back to recover. Other parts of the body could be used as springs as well: stretching the lower back muscles by leaning forwards; and twisting the torso like a pitcher to squeeze the abs. The overall effect is like a tiger pouncing on its prey, then standing on its carcass to pin it down. Its landing position doesn’t look much like a classic lunge, but it does all the same things — full extension mid-air, immediate stop on landing, and recovery backwards into stance.

But what if you wanted to land in lunge position? There’s a few reasons for why you might want to. One is that the lunge position makes it easy to counter-parry in the event that your attack is blocked. Another is that the position trails your back foot behind you like a bungie cord, ready to yank you back if you miss your attack. This is particularly useful when you launch attacks upon an opponent who is pinned to their backline. Finally, sabre is a refereed game — and referees like to judge things that look like lunges as valid attacks, or more importantly, attacks-in-preparation.

Gu Bon-gil figured out how to lunge at modern sabre speeds and stick the landing in the same position. The solution is to land almost in splits. This places the front leg almost straight on landing, taking a significant portion of the forward landing energy in the form of compression against the leg bones. The rest of the energy is absorbed by the long ligaments and tendons of inner thighs and groin, which are more capable of handling the strain than their shorter counterparts over the front knee.

Those biological cables in Gu’s undercarriage also absorb the downward impact from gravity. As J E Gordon noted in his masterwork Structures, the same principle is used in aviation, where “light aircraft, which have to be designed for bad landings on rough ground, often have their undercarriages sprung by means of rubber cords.” The residual energy is dissipated by the tension of Gu’s back muscles as he leans, the torsion and compression of his abs, and the scraping of his back foot along the piste.

The net effect is for Gu’s lunge to hit the opponent at full force with his body low and straight from sabre tip to toe, like a hoplite’s spear planted into the ground. His body is so low that his opponents have been known to miss their ripostes over Gu’s head; those who don’t, quickly find that there isn’t much of Gu’s body left exposed to hit and what little remains is protected by his counter-parry. The only drawback of the technique is the extreme flexibility that it requires, which is why I normally only teach it to cadets.

If you can’t land in splits, you can’t do Gu’s lunge. But that doesn’t mean you can’t lunge well. Learn to land without pain, pick your flight trajectory, and go. “The primary reason for lunging is to send the point of the blade as far as possible with maximum power,” Nadi said. “Never withhold anything.”

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