One of my students mentioned tendonitis problems in his wrist on the Swordschool Discord server this week. It’s probably caused by holding his sword incorrectly, which forces the small stabiliser muscles to do more work than they evolved for. He is by no means the first student I’ve seen with this problem. It has been my experience that almost every sword student at any level in any style is either holding their sword incorrectly, or at the very least, there was room for improvement. This is partly due to most modern sword makers producing handles that are a bit too big, or a bit too round; and partly due to most people simply not understanding how the mechanics of sword holding is supposed to work.
In essence, your grip strength and wrist stabilisation strength should be acting as back-up systems only: the sword should stay in your hand with almost no strength being used at all, and when you strike, the force coming back from the target should be routed through the bones of your hands and wrist, and thence through your body to the ground, with no need to tighten up on impact at all.
Seriously. Not at all.
Have a look at this video of me hitting the wall target with a rapier, and bashing the tyre with a longsword. My hand is not just relaxed, it’s actually open, to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that grip strength is not required.
I have been banging this drum for many, many, years now (I first posted that video in 2012!), and have written this up in many places, and posted endless video content about it, and yet still the sword world has crappy sword holding skills. This is for three reasons:
1. the sword handle is too big
2. because this is very counter-intuitive
3. and also because most people are strong enough to fake it for a while; they think it’s correct, when actually their muscles are faking it for them. Until the pain in the first joint of the thumb kicks in. Or in the elbow. Or indeed anywhere along the chain from fingertip to toes.
So how should you hold the sword?
That depends on what kind of sword it is, and what you want to do with it.
Generally, the sword is either held back in the hand, like so:
Or extended in the grip, like so:
This is also how most chefs hold their kitchen knives when chopping and slicing.
There are exceptions: we do sometimes support the flat instead of the edge, like so:
The sword is usually held back in the hand when it’s also held back near the body, and extended in the hand when the sword arm is extended from the body. Some longsword folk have half-understood this concept and hold their longsword in the extended grip even when the guard is chambered (such as in posta di donna). Some swords are almost always held in the extended grip; rapiers, foils, smallswords are good examples. The basic rule still applies- the sword is supported by the bones, not tied in place by the muscles.
The extended grip does not depend on grip strength; you can perfectly well hold the sword with one finger, if it's aligned correctly, like so:
I'm not recommending fighting like this, but it's worth making sure you're not depending on grip strength by opening the thumb, forefinger, ring finger, and little finger, and seeing what happens.
One common error is to extend the wrist, rather than extend the sword in the grip. You need to be able to distinguish between at least three positions of the hand relative to the forearm. Three-knuckle, two-knuckle, and one-knuckle. The easiest way to learn the differences between them is through “Eurythmic push-ups”. You can do them on a mat if you prefer, and you don’t actually need to do the push-up bit; just getting the feeling of the different wrist positions is very helpful.
Cocking the wrist between the ‘three-knuckle’ and ‘one-knuckle’ positions instead of allowing the sword to shift in the grip between the ‘chambered’ and ‘extended’ grips is another common cause of wrist problems.
Please pay attention, this may save you a lot of pain, as well as massively improve your general sword handling.
For my Medieval friends:
I introduce the basics of how to hold a longsword in this video borrowed from my Solo Training course
For my Renaissance friends:
This footage from a rapier seminar I taught in 2012 goes into the correct grip for the rapier in some detail; you can watch the whole thing of course, or skip to about 22 minutes in, where we get into the grip.
If you are already having wrist problems, for any reason, you may find my Arm Maintenance course useful. It’s free, and bundled in with my Human Maintenance course.