A Long History

Fencing was developed hundreds of years ago and is one of a handful of events that have been in every Summer Olympics since the first modern Games in 1896. There are three different types of fencing—foil, sabre and epee. The foil is the smallest blade and the epee is the largest, and the target area to land hits during matches increases as the blade size gets bigger. 

Modern fencing originated in Spain, where the first known book on fencing was written in the 1400s. Of course, until the 20th century, the reason for training in the art was not just for sporting purposes, but to prepare for the real possibility of being in a duel some day. Only since the end of World War II has it been simply viewed as a sport.

Do You Have What it Takes?

Fencing requires extremely high levels of quickness, agility, and mental and physical strength. Still, according to Soren Thompson, an epee fencer making his second trip to the Olympics the way an athlete approaches the sport depends on what their talents are.

“Some athletes are gonna be faster, they’re gonna try to use speed to their advantage,” he says. “Other athletes are gonna be stronger so they’ll use strength to their advantage. It’s really, once you develop within yourself how you try to maximize every facet of your game and try to minimize those of your opponent.”

Getting up to that point comes through plenty of practice, as well as a huge amount of conditioning.

Meet two fencers on Team USA >>

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Meet the Pros

“I think it takes an exceptional, incredible fitness level to fence at the level that we do it at,” says Tim Morehouse, an Olympic silver medalist attending his third Games this summer. “Especially what I do, sabre, is very anaerobic so I think it’s a lot like being a sprinter. We’re at a complete stop and then we have to ramp it up to full speed as quickly as we can.”

For Morehouse, a 33-year-old fencing veteran, it takes between four and seven hours of training per day, five days a week to remain in peak condition for competition. 19-year-old foilist Race Imboden, a young phenom who will contend for one of the top spots in London, puts in seven and a half hours of fencing and workouts per day, six days a week, plus one-on-one technical lessons, watching video of potential opponents and meditation. 

Imboden compares fencing at the highest level to boxing and tennis. 

“Boxing, because it’s one-on-one, physical,” he says. “You know, there’s very few sports where you’re actually hitting your opponents with something. So, it’s that kind of mentality. I mean, you’re not slugging the guy and knocking him out, but it’s still a physical game. You’re also using a lot of little movements and little signs just to try to trick your opponent and make them make a mistake so you can capitalize on it.”

Aside from practicing the sport itself, Imboden improves his fencing skills through four hours of cardio and suicides three times a week, and four more hours of lifting, kettlebells and core strength three other days out of the week, while making sure not to lift too much since quickness is so important. Leg strength is also an integral part of life as a fencer, according to him. 

“A lot of fencing is based on footwork and legs,” he says. “So if you look at any fencer, they’re gonna have massive legs. My thighs are massive. You know, basically we’re in a squatted position all day.”

Interestingly enough, that doesn’t mean he does a lot of squats. A lot of the leg strength he develops comes from fencing itself, sprints, certain other aspects of his workouts and yoga, for which he is a very strong proponent. 

The 2012 Olympic Games

This summer, Imboden, Morehouse and other US fencers will be looking to take down the old Olympic powerhouses in fencing, which has historically been in Italy, Hungary and especially France. Top fencers get better support from the government and from public interest in the sport in such places, but in the end, it doesn’t make much of a difference in competition—“just another chip on my shoulder,” according to Imboden. The US Fencing team is also looking to work off of a strong showing in Beijing, when they took six fencing medals, including Morehouse’s silver. Only Italy ousted the Americans in medal count in 2008 with seven. 

Check out Tim Morehouse and Race Imboden's workout schedules >>

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To get a taste of fencing training, Imboden and Morehouse each suggest doing plenty of sprints to build up leg strength and explosiveness, and Morehouse also recommends the Kinesis machine for weight training, stretching and full body workouts. He stresses the effectiveness of doing a workout that forces you to change directions for a more efficient and challenging workout.

“Any time you’re changing directions, which is a really key skill in fencing because you’re constantly retreating and advancing, it’s like 10 times the workout,” he says. “So if you sprint, stop and go the other way, you basically have to catch your entire body weight. You have to stop all of your momentum and go back the other way.”

Tim Morehouse's Weekly Workout

Monday

9:30 AM-11:30 AM Strength Training and Cardio Conditioning (PEAK FITNESS in New York)

2:30 PM-5:30 PM Fencing Practice (Manhattan Fencing Center)

Consists of an hour of footwork, drills, one-on-one lesson with coach on technique and strategy, drills for specific skills of a fencing match and practice matches with teammates

Tuesday

9:30 AM-11:30 AM First Fencing Practice

12:30 PM-1:30 PM Physical Therapist (Bodhizone Physical Fitness)

2:30 PM-5:30 PM - Second Fencing Practice

Wednesday (light day)

11 AM-12 PM Strength Training

2 PM-4 PM Video and Mental Training Preparation

5 PM-7 PM Fencing  Practice

Thursday

Repeat Tuesday

Friday

9 AM-12 PM Strength training and conditioning

5 PM-8 PM - Fencing Practice

Race Imboden's Weekly Workout

Monday

7 AM - wake, breakfast, email, watch video

10 AM-2 PM - lifting, kettle bells & core strength

3 PM - break

4 PM - one-on-one technical lesson 

5 PM - break

6:30 PM-10 PM - Fencing group class:

Stretching, footwork, drills, 

Open bouting (fencing matches)

10 PM - cool down (running, stretching & meditation)

Tuesday

7 AM - wake, breakfast, email, watch video

9 AM - mild jog

10 AM-2 PM - cardio, suicides

3 PM break

4 PM one-on-one technical lesson 

5 PM break

6:30 PM-10 PM Fencing group class:

Stretching, footwork, drills, 

Open bouting ( fencing matches)

10 PM cool down (running, stretching & meditation)

Wednesday, Friday

Repeat Monday - except round robin, full club bouting on Friday evening

Thursday, Saturday

Repeat Tuesday