Gather Reference. After some searching online and looking at different sources for sword fighting.I found a video of some fellows showing iron age sword fighting techniques.
I picked out a single strike action (around 32:01). For demonstration purposes I made a gif of the action with the keys and the breakdowns from my reference video (below).
note: You don't need to make a gif for your work. Just trim the refence video down, mark your keys and breakdowns and do any needed drawovers for exaggeration
Keys: What the 'story' of the action is. If you show those single poses in sequence, would someone get a sense of what happens in the animation?
Breakdowns: How the 'story' unfolds. Less about narrative, these poses are to help clarify the mechanics of the action. Breakdowns will help define things like Anticipation, Extremes, Overlaps, Overshoots, Arcs
Once I've figured out the poses that serve as keys and which ones are breakdowns I do a 'draw over' to refine elements of strong posing: clear silhouette, dynamic line of action, exaggeration in the extremes, balance and weight shift.
It's important to remember that in reference, the swordsman is not trying to harm his adversary. This means I need to increase the force of the attack. as well.
In the revised gif. you'll notice I made a mark where I want the root of the character to be so that I can more quickly create these poses. With my initial planning done I can move into Maya
Start with keys (10 min per pose) and see if stepping through them effectively tells the 'story' of the action. Showing them to someone else is always a good way to see if you're reaching your objective. Remember to consider the emotional state you're trying to convey with your posing. (Valence and Arousal).
Once you're happy with your first pass key poses, create your first pass of breakdown poses. (10 min per pose)
FOR NEXT CLASS: Time the keys and breakdowns out and then submit for first pass feedback.
For alternative rigs check out the website
Animation Buffet (JD Haas)
Watch the videos on constraints here:
Constraints: the Basics and Constraints: Prop to Hand
Consider the following:
How to Animate your Character when he's Holding a Prop (Shawn Kelly)
Constraints: Hand to Prop