Fitness for HEMA Part II: Strength Training

In last week’s post, I gave my thoughts on cardiovascular fitness for HEMA. This week, I’ll be giving my thoughts on another aspect of fitness for HEMA, that of strength-training. Again, please remember that I am not a qualified fitness professional, these are only my personal thoughts, and that they are also geared heavily towards practice of medieval systems.

For the beginner trying to work out what they should be doing, strength-training is even more complicated than cardio. Should you use free weights, or machines, or just your own body-weight? How many repetitions should you do per set? What type of exercises should you do? Do you even need to do strength-training at all?

I’ll answer that last question first. Do we need to do strength-training for HEMA? I cannot think of any discipline in HEMA that would not benefit from strength-training in honesty. Being able to move explosively and dynamically should be useful for every discipline, therefore at the very least, powerful legs are a priority.

Beyond HEMA specific benefits, there are many general health benefits to strength-training, such as: increased bone health1 or improved joint stability2. Increased bone health and improved joint stability will both keep us healthy in old age, as well as helping to prevent injuries. I never took strength-training that seriously before. I did it on occasion, but not as often or with as much enthusiasm as I persued the practice of martial arts. Three knee dislocations later, I decided that I was tired of knee pain and joint instabilities, so I started working out seriously. Since then, I’ve had neither knee pain nor any problems with my knees. If you want to avoid injuries, do strength-training.

This becomes especially important given that many of the stances we find in HEMA are very deep, putting a lot of pressure on the knees. This is compounded if you consider that many disciplines will have forwards or backwards weighting in their stances, i.e. they will put most of their weight on one of their legs. This is shown in this image from Capoferro for example. When lunging, significant amounts of weight may then be put on the other foot. The joints must be able to cope with this strain.

Many HEMA practitioners are simply not able to take such low stances (either that, or they just don’t want to), because it is rare to see freeplay or tournament videos with low stances being taken. I notice this particularly in rapier, where I see many people fighting with only a slight bend in the knee, and more or less central weighting, even though this simply does not match what we are shown in many of the sources. I say many of the sources, because some sources do of course show high stances, but both Capoferro and Fabris show lower stances than are being used today, even though they seem to be among the most popular sources for rapier combat today.

So strength-training will allow you to have healthier bones, healthier joints and most likely will allow you to more accurately carry out the stances in your chosen manuals of study, and that’s without even getting into the benefits of strength-training for grappling.

In case you still don’t believe me however, look at the manuals. Look at the image from Capoferro above, or look at these images:

On a side note, I think it’s interesting to see the differences in physique in the different images. The image from Meyer shows very large arms and shoulders, but the size of the other muscles are much more modest. In comparison, the image from Fabris shows less developed arms, but huge quadriceps, glutes, and core muscles.

Or look at this image from Talhoffer, where he has his students prove their strength with feats like cutting through a leather belt with a single cut.

The masters took strengthening seriously, and seemed to view it as an important part of their training. So I hope that answers that question. Do we need to do strength-training for HEMA? Yes.

So what should our exact goals be, and how should we train for them? The answers to these two questions will vary from discipline to discipline, and I cannot possibly say how to train for every discipline, so I shall focus on my chosen area of study, KDF.

The prime weapon in KDF is the longsword, and as mentioned above, powerful legs are important in order to make explosive movements. The AHA’s interpretation of German longsword places great importance on controlled leaps and jumps, making leg power especially important. This is probably the most important discipline-specific benefit the KDF practitioner can get from strength-training in my opinion. If you want to be able to develop a more powerful strike, then you will need powerful core muscles, a powerful chest, and powerful arms, though that being said, having a powerful upper body is not as important as having a powerful lower body. You will struggle to leap far without powerful legs, but you will still be able to strike powerfully without specifically training your upper body. Physical training for boxing often doesn’t include much in the way of training muscular power, yet they are still able to hit very hard using correct technique, and proper application of whatever body weight they have.

One final thing that strength-training can provide us is hypertrophy (i.e. an increase in the size of muscles), and I believe this is very beneficial for us. I would rather take a hit to a muscle than to a bone. A hit to a muscle will hurt, but it’s less likely to cause serious injury, therefore I would rather have bigger muscles, because they can serve to protect my joints and bones from impact.

Now I now that many people are going to read that, and reject it out of hand, thinking that hypertrophy is just show muscle, or even that it negatively impacts performance. Many people claim that big muscles get in the way of movement, or inhibit flexibility. Ronnie Coleman (eight time Mr. Olympia) may be one of the most muscular people of all time, yet he can still do a full split. Further, look at this study for more evidence:

In this study, they conclude that “strength training can substantially increase flexibility in multiple joint motions, independent of flexibility exercises”.

So bigger muscles do not have the drawbacks that most people think they do, and they do help to absorb impact. The same use of muscle as a shock-absorber applies to grappling. Many rugby workouts will include hypertrophy as part of their goals, because larger muscles help absorb some of the shock of other big guys slamming into them in tackles or in rucks. For example, the Australian Institute of Sport claims that: “Muscle bulk and strength are important traits for rugby league players. Mean body mass of players have been reported to range from 86-90 kg, with the majority of studies showing forwards to be heavier and to have higher skinfold measurements than backs. These differences reflect the different roles within the team, with forwards being involved in a higher number of physical collisions and tackles, with backs spending more time running and carrying the ball.3

At the last Fight Camp, I was taking part in Andreas Engstrom’s class on ringem am schwert, or wrestling at the sword, a lesson which gave me a lot of food for thought. I was having problems with one of the throws, and I asked the assistant instructor (whose name I can’t remember, sorry) for help, and he told me that what I was doing was stepping into place, pausing, and then trying to apply the throw. Instead I should just bulldoze into my opponent, and attempt to apply the throw while literally running into him. It’s advice like this that gives a whole new perspective on the durchlauffen. Further, the Codex Wallerstein’s wrestling section advises when wrestling to run straight at the opponent with outstretched arms, and the type of double leg takedown seen in the manuals (with hips well bent, legs fairly straight, and the head going into the opponent’s chest) more closely resembles a rugby tackle than it does the double leg takedown of freestyle wrestling. In short, I believe that an important element of German wrestling is that of driving forcibly into the opponent in order to carry out takedowns, and that extra muscle mass would be useful to absorb the shock of these high speed collisions. It is also worth mentioning that muscle is very dense, so muscular individuals tend to weigh a lot. Having a higher weight means more you have more weight to drive into someone. This is of course not an excuse to eat donuts all day, and then claim the fat gained is useful because it provides more weight to drive into someone with. Fat is non-functional, in that it does not make you any stronger, and while it provides some padding, it’s mostly focused around the stomach, and so is not particularly useful.

The Codex Wallerstein tells us that in a friendly encounter, the stronger man has the advantage. Strength and power can help execute throws and takedowns. Some throws are easier with added strength, and others require a certain base level of strength to work at all.

So strength, power and hypertrophy are all crucial for wrestling. If you don’t do wrestling, then strength-training is in honesty a little less important than if you do, but it is still worthwhile to train for power, especially in the lower body, and some degree of hypertrophy would be useful.

At this point, it is probably worth clarifying the difference between strength and power. Strength simply refers to your ability to move an object using your muscles. Power (also sometimes called speed-strength) refers to doing that, in as short a period of time as possible.

Further, it is also worth clarifying the matter of hypertrophy. There are two forms of hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy. The first is an increase in the volume of the fluid sarcoplasm, which is inside muscle cells. The second is an increase in the size of muscle fibres.

So we have four different possible goals: power, strength, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and myofibrillar hypertrophy. I’ll look at how to train for each of these goals.


As I mentioned above, there are two forms of hypertrophy, and of the two of them, myofibrillar is by far the most useful. Generally, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. For proof of this, try lifting weight with both a bicep curl and a seated leg curl, and see which you can lift more weight with. The answer should be the seated leg curl, because the quadriceps are a bigger set of muscles than the biceps, and so there are more muscle fibres, and so they can produce more force. The exception to this rule is when sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is created. Sarcoplasm has no functional use, and so sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is of limited use. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is preferable, as beyond creating bigger muscles, it increases strength. This is not to say there will not be strength increases for a sarcoplasmic hypertrophy programme, because there will be, but this will be mostly due to neurological changes. As I mentioned last week, the more you perform an action, the easier it will become. This is why sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is acceptable, as it will be associated with some strength gains, even though it is non-functional.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is best trained in the 8 – 12 repetition range, with standard bodybuilder style split routines (i.e. they train certain muscles on certain days only, and isolate them when training. Full body workouts are not particularly used for training for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.) However, the thing to bear in mind is that bodybuilders have many years of experience, their bodies have adapted to lifting weight, and need different stimuli than a beginner will need. Further, many of them will use steroids. It is a mistake to carry out a bodybuilder style routine and expect the same results as them. Further, some bodybuilders actually stress the importance of having a solid base in strength before training for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy:

American magazines wrote about the split routine as if it were my secret: it became the big thing. Everybody thought that was how I’d grown as much as I had in such a short time ….. From the beginning, I was a believer in the basic movements, because that was Reg Park’s preference. I was doing heavy squats, heavy bench presses, and this provided some of the foundation work of my body, which has always made me appear strong. Certain bodybuilders lack that look. They have good bodies but they don’t appear powerful. The reason is inadequate foundation training. Reg Park had been a powerlifter; he had done squats with 600 pounds, bench presses with 500 pounds and dead lifts of over 700 pounds. I saw no reason why I shouldn’t continue in the same groove.

The Education of a Bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger

If you have been training for strength for a while, and have made sufficient advances in strength (for more information on this, see below in my strength section), but you are not happy with your level of muscle mass, then you might choose to train for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. In honesty though, I don’t see that as particularly likely. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is simply preferable to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy given that it is functional, and further myofibrillar hypertrophy is best trained roughly in the 3 to 7 rep range (i.e. the exact same rep range I recommend training for power and strength in), so there is no need to train for myofibrillar hypertrophy seperately, it will simply be a by-product of training for strength and power.


Power is quite unique in that it can really be trained for in any rep range, as long as the emphasis is on moving the weight as quickly as possible. At one end of the spectrum, power can be trained for in 3 reps or less, such as in Olympic lifting, or at the other end, pylometric exercises often go up to 15 reps, and some pylometric exercises can use up to 30 reps at a time. Power can be trained for in many ways, and Olympic lifting and pylometrics are just two of the ways of training power. I would not recommend using Olympic lifting techniques unless you have a qualified instructor to teach you, due to their complexity and potential risk factor if your technique is incorrect.

Pylometrics are a fairly easy way of increasing power, as you don’t need any equipment. Some plyometrics programmes will involve the use of a medicine ball, and if you can get one, this would add to the variety of exercises available and is recommended, however you don’t have to have one, and besides medicine balls are fairly cheap. For some examples of pylometric programmes, please see here:

Another alternative is to use weights. These can be either free weights or machines. Free weights are probably more beneficial, especially for martial artists, as they teach balance, and train supporting muscles better than machines do. Here is one example of a regime that trains for power:

Note that the author refers to building strength with this programme, however going by the definitions used in this article, it is really training power instead.

Either pylometrics or a routine such as the Waterbury Method can be used. The former will help with the controlled leaps we see in longsword and other weapons, as well as being able to provide anaerobic training, and the latter will help to further promote hypertrophy. I prefer working with low reps and heavy weight. My ultimate recommendation is try both and see which you prefer.

Training for power is however somewhat demanding, and a complete beginner is unlikely to be ready for this level of training. Further, Tudor Bompa (a former rower in the 1956 Olympics, and a coach who has worked with athletes in 11 Olympic games) claims that 95% of gains in power come from strength4. Meaning that if you want high levels of power, you should train for strength. As we saw above, strength is an important foundation for hypertrophy as well, making strength our most important attribute. With a good level of strength, all the other attributes we want will follow.


One of the most well regarded strength programmes is the 5 x5 programme. I have only recently started using 5 x 5 (I previously used bodybuilder style routines, before moving onto training for power, before realising my mistake), but generally the online reaction seems very good. Further, the programme is nice and easy to understand, comes with exhaustive explanations, and is free. For more information see here:×5-beginner-strength-training-program/

The only thing that I think the Stronglifts 5 x 5 programme is lacking in honesty is neck exercises, something which is especially important for martial artists, especially ones who participate in wrestling. Neck strength helps protect the neck and spine in the event that you are thrown and land on your head. This is unlikely, and doubtless your training partner would not do this on purpose, but many medieval wrestling techniques were designed to throw the opponent on his head. For an example of neck strength in action, watch the mixed martial arts fight between Fedor Emelianenko and Kevin Randleman. Randleman slams Emelianenko head first into the ground, but rather than suffering a broken neck, Emelianenko seems to be unfazed, and goes on to win the fight less than a minute later. There are a few different ways to develop neck strength, and one of my favourites is bridging, such as shown in this video for example:

Another method that I’ve used is to get a kettlebell (it could also be a barbell weight plate), loop a martial arts belt between the handle, and then bite onto the belt. From there, you raise and lower your head. The kettlebell/weight plate should ideally be heavy enough that you cannot lift it for more than 7 reps per set. This can then be done for 5 sets on alternating days. However be warned that these neck exercises are difficult, and will be dangerous for someone unprepared for them.

Even the main Stronglifts 5 x 5 programme is not totally beginner friendly. It’s one of the more basic routines online, but some people still may not be ready for it if they haven’t exercised much before. For example, the back squat is an important element of the Stronglifts 5 x 5 programme, yet according to Chad Winterbury:

Most people can’t perform a barbell back squat correctly. It’s actually one of the most difficult lifts to get right, even though it’s considered a basic strength exercise that everyone should start with. The problem with the barbell back squat is that it requires high levels of mobility in the ankle, hips, adductors, hamstrings, T-spine, and shoulders. Plus, you need to have plenty of stability strength in your core or else you’ll lean excessively forward “in the hole.” If you pass all those requirements, the back squat is a good exercise.5

If you are a complete beginner who has never done any exercise before, then before moving on to a 5 x 5 programme, you may want to take this isometric programme to prepare you for physical exercise (this isometric programme will also prepare you for the neck strengthening exercises I mention above):

Isometric programme for complete beginners

Isometrics refers to the practice of holding a completely static stance for a length of time. As there is no movement involved, there is no risk of joint damage, and it improves joint stability. It’s also great for developing will power, as it’s not exactly fun (you’ll see what I mean once you start). However, it is of limited use, as due to there being no range of motion in any of these exercises, you don’t develop all of the muscles. Plus, once you get good at this routine, you will be able to hold the positions for quite a length of time, and so quite frankly, this routine starts taking too long and becomes boring. The exercises are:

  • Plank
    Go down on the floor on your front, and then prop yourself up on both elbows and on the balls of your feet. Keep your hips down so that your legs and back form a straight line.
  • Side plank
    From the plank, push off onto your side so that only one elbow and one foot is in contact with the ground. Your torso should be at 90 degrees to the ground. Repeat this for both sides.
  • Front bridge
    Put your palms on the ground and the balls of both feet on the ground. Push your hips up as high as you can, and pull your feet towards your hands. Then place the top of your head on the ground. You can see the position at 17 seconds in, in this video:
    The differences are that he has taken his hands off the floor as he has advanced neck strength, as a beginner you should not do this, and he is moving in and out of the position. Again, as a beginner, just keep this a static position.
  • Reverse bridge
    Swivel round so that your palms and the soles of your feet are on the ground, and you back faces the ground. Again, pull your feet towards your hands, and push up with the hips. Place the head on the ground, and arch your back so that your head is touching the ground just above your hairline. See the above video at 56 seconds in.
    Again, as a beginner, keep your hands on the ground, and keep this as a static position, don’t move in and out of it as in the video.
  • Static squat
    Stand up with your feet a little bit more than shoulder width apart. Then bend them so that the knees are roughly in line with the front of your toes. Think of this as an eastern martial arts style horse stance.

You should hold all these positions for as long as you can (although you want to be careful with the front and reverse bridges, don’t keep holding them if there is any pain) before moving onto the next exercise. Once you’ve finished with the static squats, you’re done. Repeat this routine three or four times a week, for about 6 weeks. You should also work on your flexibility during this period too, to make sure you have suitable flexibility to start doing full squats, but flexibility is another complicated issue, and I cannot talk further about it here. Hopefully flexibility will be the subject of a future post.

Once you’ve done this isometric programme for 6 weeks, you can start using the Stronglifts 5 x 5 programme. Do that for 6 weeks, and then move on to a power programme. The power routine could be Olympic lifting if you find a qualified instructor to teach it to you, it could be pylometrics, it could be the Waterbury Method linked above, or any other power routine you can find. Do the power routine for 6 weeks, and after that, start alternating between a strength phase and a power phase every 6 weeks. You’ll quickly find gains in strength, power and hypertrophy, and hopefully, you should see these benefits manifest themselves within HEMA practice. If you do wrestling, you may suddenly be able to effectively do throws and takedowns you couldn’t do before, and be better able to resist throws and takedowns being done on to you. Even if you don’t practice wrestling, you’ll still find that you’ve developed powerful legs allowing you to leap at will, taking yourself well out of danger when struck at, and allowing yourself to strike from further out of distance by leaping further forward with your attacks.

Finally, I have a few notes. If there are any women reading this who are worried about the mentions of hypertrophy everywhere, and are worried they’re going to turn into Schwarzenegger the moment they start working out, don’t be. Women are very capable of developing strength and power, however they are simply not able to produce lots of muscle mass without the aid of steroids. You need testosterone to build muscle, and women simply have much less testosterone than men. Women, please look at this post:

Then please tell which of those strong and powerful women are hideously muscle-bound. Yes, there are female bodybuilders who look extremely muscular, but in honesty, they’re probably on steroids. So women, don’t worry about getting bulky. Simply avoid steroids, and it won’t happen.

This is a note for everyone, but is really aimed at guys: don’t lift more than you can manage. Yes, it may feel embarrassing to lift light weights while other guys in the gym are lifting more, but there are a few things worth remembering. Firstly, other lifters probably aren’t judging you. Second, if there were, who cares? Do you want to risk injuring yourself with a weight you’re not ready for in order to impress some guys you’ve never met before? Third, if the other gym users actually know anything about lifting, they’ll be able to spot bad form. Do you not think that lifting with bad form is embarrassing? Lastly, if you start with a lighter set of weights, you’ll ingrain correct lifting technique in your muscle memory, and that will allow you to lift more weight in the long term.

On a final note, it is worth repeating again so that you are absolutely sure. I am not a qualified fitness professional. I have researched, and backed up my opinions with that research, but the basis of this article is still my own opinions. Please seek the advice of a doctor before beginning any new fitness regime. If possible, seek the instruction of a qualified trainer on how to lift weights, to ensure your form is correct. Don’t let your form degrade in order to lift more weight. Train safe.


2 “This brings us to the first ability your knee must have: strength. A knee with good muscular strength can adequately perform what it is being called upon to do…while keeping the joint in a safe and stable position.”

Treat Your Own Knees, by Jim Johnson, P.T., page 12