I took a sword fighting class. It's not the workout you think it is.

Yes, my arms and abs ached. But focusing my brain on the task at hand proved to be the most challenging work.
Image: Sword fighting Class
The HEMA: Longsword class focuses on the knightly martial art of the German longsword, developed by Johannes Liechtenauer, a 14th-century fencing master. Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Jen Glantz

After graduating from college and entering the workforce, I found myself putting exercise high up on my to-do list. The reason? I went from running from class to class, to spending eight or more hours sitting down at a cubicle, staring at a screen. My body began to crave it.

After years of trying every workout class out there, from HIIT to naked yoga, I grew bored and found myself wanting something new — something that challenged my body and was different from lifting weights or riding a stationary bike, and made my mind focus (other than just pretending to do that in yoga class when really all I was thinking about was getting to that final Savasana).

One quick Google search led me to a new option: sword fighting. I've seen people in Central Park practicing with their swords and I always wondered what it would be like to give it a try. Not only did it seem like something that would exercise my body and my uncoordinated feet, but my mind, too.

I tried it: Sword fighting

I signed up for a beginner's class called HEMA: Longsword at Sword Class NYC, which according to their website, focuses on the knightly martial art of the German longsword, developed by Johannes Liechtenauer, a 14th-century fencing master.

While I had imagined donning a face mask and padded suit, I was instructed to simply take off my shoes and enter the studio in my gym shorts and a tank top. Our instructor explained that we’d focus on the basic principles of footwork and winding with an emphasis on proper body mechanics and cutting alignment.

In the corner of the room were nylon swords. I huffed a sigh of relief. There's only so much damage a person can do with a plastic sword in their hand (aside from a few bruises). I couldn't wait to get my hands on one and start swinging it around. I was eager to get to the workout part of class but quickly learned that what I was in store for was not what I imagined.

There wouldn't be any actual fighting or duels. We wouldn't be running laps or jousting. We weren't going to rehearse a victory dance of any kind. We were going to learn form, begin to master it, and above all, appreciate it.

I worried I was wasting my time. But as we picked up our swords, and officially started class, it took less than a few minutes for me to feel the burn.

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We learned how to grip the sword with our hands and hold it up in different positions, each time spending minutes with the sword raised. My biceps, triceps and shoulders began to ache. It reminded me of the slow burning pain of a Pilates class.

We practiced fighting with the air, learning different cuts that involved squeezing our abs and turning our hips, in a similar motion to someone trying to hit a hole in one. Each cut with the sword had to be done with pure precision to get it right. After going through the motions again and again, muscle memory kicked in and very soon it was easy to tell if my hips weren't rotating as much as they should or if my elbows were bent too much.

The class lasted a little under an hour and when it was over, I wasn't sweating. My heart wasn't racing. I didn't feel the same dizziness or exhaustion that I do after a bootcamp class. But I did feel an aching soreness in my arms, abs and legs that ended up lasting me the rest of the week.

Is sword fighting a good workout?

OK, so I wasn't sweating, but Nick Rizzo, fitness director at RunRepeat.com, says that sword fighting is a full-body workout that targets your entire body.

“The constant footwork, quick steps, lunges, and active balancing provides your lower body with an intense workout,” says Rizzo. “How you maneuver your upper body and swing your blade of choice requires a great deal of muscular activity from your core, arms, shoulders, back and chest. Even just properly maintaining your stance with the weight of the sword or remaining on guard is activating your muscles in the same way an exercise like wall-sits engages your quads.”

Rizzo says that while sword fighting won't help building muscle like strength training does, it will help you to consistently build lean muscle mass over time, and is a great option for cardio, especially for people who aren't fans of more traditional cardio options like running.

The verdict? It's a physical and mental workout

Despite those benefits, it wasn't just my cardiovascular system and my muscles that got a workout. The class balanced the patience of perfection with having to master movement that felt unusual and tough at the same time. More than anything, it was also an education into a culture and a hobby that was foreign to me. I now have so much respect for those who master this skill.

The part of my body that was most exhausted was my brain. I left the class and could barely think straight. For an entire hour, I had to carefully calculate every move, think through the motions, and treat the sword in my hand as if it were real, careful not to swing it without purpose, so that my mind would learn not to make any sudden mistakes that could harm me or anyone else if I ever did practice with a real sword.

The class required true focus, which wasn’t easy. I felt my heart racing and my stress levels rise because naturally I am a fast-moving person and spending 15 minutes learning one pose and strike had me tapping my toes eager to move on. Halfway through the class, I tried to abandon my race-to-the-finish-line attitude and go at the same pace as everyone else. I failed. I would constantly set the sword down once I thought I mastered a move, only to have the instructor come over and show me countless corrections. This happened again and again.

To take a class like this, you have to be in the right mindset. Walking in, I wasn’t. But toward the end of the class, I began to enjoy the pace and challenge it provided me and wished it was another hour longer.

On the way home, my abs and arms ached and my mind craved silence. I meditated the entire subway ride home just to give my overworked brain a rest.

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