HEMA And Health: Any Benefit In Old-Time Swordfighting?

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Recently, a friend suggested I start talking a little bit about HEMA. It’s really to be expected, what with the whole Barbarian thing going on here.

My initial reaction was to reject it. After all, while I use the imagery of a barbarian here, I want to focus on real-world applicable activities. But I decided to delve a little deeper and see if there were any applications we could use in our modern world.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term “HEMA,” it stands for Historical European Martial Arts. Generally, it’s thought of as a whole set of historical sword fighting methods, though it also incorporates unarmed techniques like pugilism and wrestling.

Other than those last two, can the modern Barbarian derive any real benefits from learning how to swing a sword?

In this, I only discuss sword fighting and its benefits. Learning how to box and how to wrestle have direct applications to our world, but sword fighting doesn’t. It’s not like you’re going to be attacked by a band of orcs or anything.

As such, it’s a martial art by the technical definition. It’s not a self-defense martial art. That means all of the benefits have to exist outside of that potential for self-defense.

Luckily, there are plenty.

New strength benefits

Swinging a sword of any type isn’t really going to make you big and strong. Don’t believe me? Look at some of the people who talk about HEMA on YouTube.

However, a video on the YouTube channel Scholagladiatora notes that even bodybuilders who take up HEMA have to adjust to swinging a sword. That’s because the activity uses new muscles.

If you’re someone who wants to maximize your strength and be able to use it in many ways, a bit of HEMA on top of your other training might just be what the doctor ordered.

HEMA and Health

Let’s not pretend HEMA is about to displace CrossFit or boot camps as a key fixture on the fitness scene.

However, it does involve a fair bit of movement. A fair bit more than just going up a few flights of stairs, and there have apparently been studies that argue that’s all we need for health.

HEMA involved a good bit of movement of the feet as well as moving the arms and hands. That total body work creates a cardiovascular benefit.

Granted this is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a fantastic way to get someone off the couch and into some training of any sort.

Further, it may spur people into doing additional training.  For that alone, HEMA should be celebrated.

Joint Mobility

When it comes to HEMA and health, even the HEMA practitioners often miss that HEMA is good for joint mobility. In particular, shoulder and wrist mobility.

While I do work with a sledgehammer to improve my shoulder mobility, it doesn’t do a lot for my wrists. Since wrist mobility is a major weakness of mine–and a limitation for certain exercises–this is a problem.

However, HEMA requires you moving your shoulders and wrists in a variety of ways. This will help increase your mobility.

In this day and age, we could all use a little more mobility work. Unfortunately, mobility work can be boring. Boring work often leads us to skip that work, for better or worse.

Yet HEMA isn’t exclusively about mobility. It’s also an activity that a lot of people just find to be plain fun.

Mobility work is good and all, but if you can have fun while doing it, isn’t that the big win?

Stress Reduction and General Mental Health

HEMA is one of those activities that requires mindfulness while you’re participating in it.  It’s the epitome of an anti-ruminative activity, something I mentioned quite a while ago.

Basically, it’s something you do that requires you to be in the “here and now.”

Don’t just take my word for it, either. Take a HEMA practitioner’s.

The act of moving, putting my body through its paces, exulting in the joy of motion – this keeps me happy and reduces stress. Matching my wits and physicality against a similarly skilled practitioner? Wonderful! It sharpens my mind, clears the debris, and leaves no space for stress. The excitement of learning a new skill or having a new idea, or making something difficult work successfully in sparring, these fill me with excitement and make me look forward to my next fencing session. HEMA can give me all the energy and positive thinking I need to tackle the rest of life.

Further, it’s an activity that lends itself well to training outside, which also puts you getting more sunlight. The sun has been shown to have amazing benefits for one’s mental health.

When training outside, you couple the anti-remunerative benefits of HEMA with increased sun exposure, giving you a double whammy.

The Barbarian Mindset

OK, I may be spitballing here, but part of the reason it was suggested I delve into HEMA a bit once again–I got into it a few years back for a brief time–was that it seemed a natural fit for people who think of themselves as Barbarians.

After all, don’t we think of Conan as the ultimate barbarian? If so, what was his weapon of choice? That’s right. A sword

Wielding a longsword or a sword-and-buckler may help connect someone mentally to the image of a barbarian. This, in turn, may help them focus their mind on the concept of a barbarian.

Now, I’m not deluded. I get that we live in a civilization and I’m not about to want to exist in true barbarism. It’s not nearly as much fun as Conan makes it seem.

But the warrior mindset it represents, however, is something to be cultivated. It needs cultivation.

My thinking is that studying the sword may well help you get into the right mindset in the first place. It’ll help you feel the role of a barbarian, even if it has no application to the real world.

Additionally, it may become such a driving force that it inspires the rest of your training. Instead of training for the sake of training, you start training so you can be a better fighter. You do your conditioning so you can last longer on the battlefield. You get stronger so you can block blows easier. Things like that.


Honestly, I hadn’t really put a lot of thought into HEMA until my friend brought it up. Now that he did, though, I’m forced to sit back and ponder all the ways it can be used.

In fact, I may start using some HEMA drills as part of my warmup for the above-mentioned reasons. Plus, it is kind of cool.

At worst, I’ll waste a bit of time. At best, though, I’ll add a new dimension to my training, learn a new skill that’s kind of cool, and warm up in a new and interesting way.

Hardly the worst downside one can have.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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