April 27, 2020 10 min read
What does it mean to be a warrior? Is it about strength and being rock solid? Or grit, and being able to work through any obstacle? Or maybe it has something to do with higher ideals of nobility—emphasizing justice and humanity? While the role of a warrior has remained constant in societies all over the world, the warrior as a viable profession has unquestionably waned. Nevertheless, when looking back into history, it’s important to take notice of these men and women who rose above the ranks in their societies and demanded respect due to their physical ability and mental resilience.
For the modern gym-rat, the archetype of the warrior is a useful tool. Setting a goal is one of the most important things we can do before getting serious about fitness. While simple enough for most, for us overthinkers out there, the need to pick something and commit to it is pretty scary. This is why the concept of archetypes is useful. Instead of looking through the thousands if not millions of workout regimes, find an aesthetic or a way of thinking that you vibe with. This ideal of an ancient warrior, and specifically the Viking warrior, happens to be a rich source of information and motivation to work with.
There really is nothing more metal than the image of a grizzled and bloodied Viking warrior, wearing heavy skins and wielding war-axes in the midst of a blizzard while a pillaged town burns in the background. This type of iconography has captured the modern fascination with these ancient Norsemen. Shows such as Vikings, with Alexander Ludwig and Clive Standen as Bjorn and Rollo, have catapulted Vikings even further into popular culture. While you might not have the blistery landscape of rocks and ice of the Nordic countries, you can still forge a Viking body in your own backyard.
“Wake early if you want another man’s life or land. No lamb for the lazy wolf. No battle’s won in bed,” goes a verse in The Havamal, a book of collected poetry from the Viking era. Attributed to Odin himself, this verse says a lot about the Viking mentality—at least at their height around the turn of the 1st millennium. As its namesake would entail, the Viking Age saw the great spread of Norse power and culture throughout Europe. With the use of their longboats, Vikings left their mark in the British Isles, Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and even North America (what is today Eastern Canada).
Doing all of this within the span of 300 years (when things took a lot longer), the Vikings are obviously a people who didn’t sleep in. Their influence changed the world forever, and in turn, they were changed by outside influences as their traders and conquerors stretched themselves over the globe. Due to various interpretations throughout the centuries, popular culture looks at Vikings through slightly rose-colored glasses. However, this society of warriors still holds an important and well-deserved place as one of history’s most hardened and gritty. So, what did it take to be a Viking?
It takes a certain kind of warrior to be able to row for hundreds of miles on the open seas and then go raiding for riches. Raw power is necessary, along with endurance and functional strength. The formidable nature of a Viking warrior wasn’t just due to their feats, however. The body and mind were chiseled out of an environment scarce in resources and comfort. Having a physical presence and mental fortitude was essential in surviving—so it’s no wonder that the Vikings have been lauded as such fearsome warriors over the centuries.
Known predominantly for their usage of the ax, the Vikings were some of the last people to use this weapon on a larger scale. You can imagine the physical toll of running into battle with a giant ax and a wooden shield, and then having to fight your way through. At the very least they wore little armor, believing that death was fated from birth, and so armor wouldn’t help in surviving when you were meant to die. Not only that, but the Vikings also had an elite warrior unit called the Berserkers. Depicted in Old Norse writing as warriors who fought in a trance-like fury and wore animal skins, the name gave rise to the English word “berserk”. These were the fastest and most skilled fighters—truly a worthy goal for anyone who takes their physical fitness seriously. So that’s great and all, but how do we become modern versions of these forces of nature?
The Viking physique isn’t massive—rather, it’s mostly focused on strength, speed, and functional fitness. This places much less emphasis on the bodybuilding aspect popular these days. Obviously, 1000 years ago they didn’t have anywhere close to the equipment and the gyms that we have today, so there were other ways of gaining the strength needed in battle. This means a lot of farming, shipbuilding, rowing, and other medieval activities that chiseled warriors out of men and women. There wasn’t an emphasis on mass, but rather on brute strength and grit. Through these activities, Vikings trained up their “combat chassis”—which includes the legs, hips, and core. This allowed warriors to row in the open seas and then charge into battle and pillage.
For us, a strong “combat chassis” means that we’ll be more functionally strong and have a less likelihood of lower-back problems. The importance of cardio is also emphasized in the Viking aesthetic, so get ready to hit up that treadmill in order to build endurance and lower-body strength. And just like in the very old school era (1000 years ago), these Viking workouts will predominantly focus on bodyweight exercises that are perfect for home workouts. But obviously there was a lot of rowing if you were going out on a Viking conquest, and so we’ll have to rely on machines and tools in order to hit those aspects of the Viking workout.
The hit-and-run raiding style of the Vikings can also be mirrored in modern workouts. Sometimes, there was no break in between rowing, fighting, and pillaging—so the warrior had to have incredible endurance in order to get through this all alive. These workouts should be quick, brutal, and energy-draining—and so it’s recommended you do these in supersets. With a superset, you’ll be moving directly from one exercise to the next with very minimal breaks to rest. Not only will this challenge your ability, but also your stamina as your body fights to keep form against loads, with minimal recovery time.
Whether you’re on the high seas or in your air-conditioned gym, rowing is a phenomenal aerobic workout that will give you the same benefits wherever you do it. With the Vikings traveling by boat to all corners of the world, it’s no surprise that rowing is a fundamental Viking exercise. The rowing machine will effectively raise your heart rate for an extended period of time, providing an overall aerobic workout and cardiovascular conditioning.
Rowing also gives you a total-body workout—not just your arms. Due to the sliding seat, rowing activates your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, obliques, abs, pecs, biceps, triceps, delts, lats, and the upper back. This list of muscles activated is essential in achieving well-rounded functional fitness and strength. Even your grip will benefit from holding onto the handles.
But perhaps even more important is that the exercise is low impact. While stealing and pillaging might take some grit and several impacts, there’s no use in injuring yourself while working out. This will put you behind in every sense of working out and feeling like a Viking.
Although simple, this workout is packed with benefits and essential in any training towards becoming a Viking. These warriors weren’t running into battle empty-handed—just like you shouldn’t be walking around empty-handed either. A classic loaded carry is the epitome of training efficiently and functionally.
Standing tall and holding the weights by your side, you’ll want to keep your shoulders tight and your back straight. Take short and quick steps as you carry the load for a set distance or time. If you want an added challenge, make sure to walk for a set time rather than a set distance. Most people tend to speed up if it comes down to distance, in order to finish the exercise faster—even if it’s something done subconsciously. If you train for a set amount of time however, you’ll be able to focus on the movements and put some intention behind them—maximizing the benefits of the farmers carry.
Do these enough and you’ll develop a stronger core since you’ll be needing to keep it braced for your spine to stay in a neutral position. You’ll also gain an increased sense of where your body parts are positioned at any one point. This is because you’ll be under tension for an extended period of time—while also in movement. This differs from a lot of isometric exercises that don’t have the body moving. Your willpower and grit will also be tested since the farmer carry can be difficult to do with enough weight and over several minutes.
Unlike in the age of Vikings, the modern ax-chop doesn’t necessitate an ax …or wood. Rather, it uses a cable rack and a single cable in order to simulate the twisting action. Useful in all kinds of functional fitness regimes from swinging a bat to swinging a sword, the ax-chop is a must-have exercise in anyone’s Viking workout plan.
To do it, you’ll want to position your body perpendicular to the cable machine. The cable can either be anchored at the top, middle, or bottom—each of these will put emphasis on different muscles. If your balance is off or you’re only able to move the weight very slowly, then the load is most likely too heavy. You want a consistent tension. Position the feet comfortably apart and grab the handle with both hands above the shoulder closest to the machine. The cable should move across your body when you perform the motion, with your hips and knees rotating slightly along with a pivot in your ankle. Reverse the movement in a controlled manner, and then switch the stance so your other side gets a workout as well.
This workout targets the abdominal muscles and obliques. These are the muscles that allow you to twist and are essential in functional strength. Your back, shoulders, and legs will also be activated during the movement. Twisting under a load—whether a sword and shield or throwing a ball—is essential in creating a well-functioning Viking warrior body.
Dips are also a bread-and-butter bodyweight exercise that are a boon for your core and upper body strength. This compound exercise trains your chest, shoulders, triceps, back, and abs. Your core is essential in stabilizing yourself during the movement, and therefore this is an excellent exercise in training your combat chassis. Dips are also efficient in that they hit your chest, shoulders, and triceps really hard—rather than having you isolate each with 5 exercises a pop.
In order to do a dip, grab a set of parallel bars and hoist yourself up. Looking straight ahead, you want to activate your abdominals, much like in squats and deadlifts. For stability purposes, it might be helpful to bend your knees so your feet are behind you. Keeping the elbows at your side, lower yourself until the triceps are parallel with the ground. Once you hit parallel, lift yourself back up until just before your elbows lock. This will keep tension in your muscles and avoid hurting your joints.
A twist on the classic clean and press, using a sandbag instead will challenge your forearm and grip strength while also making sure that your balance is on point. Using a sandbag allows for next-level functional fitness since this type of load is much more difficult to carry and balance than a regular barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. You’ll also gain all the classic benefits of a clean and press, building explosive power in the quads, hips, and glutes. Your core will also have to stay engaged in order to balance the load—especially in the more awkward phases of the lift.
To begin, you’ll want to stand over the sandbag with feet about shoulder-width apart, toes slightly pointing out. Grab and lift the bag off of the ground, and explosively pull it up when it reaches peak momentum. It’s important to drive through the hips and allow them to do most of the work. While it might sound as if you need to throw the bag up, it’s more of a controlled ascent. The bag should momentarily feel weightless as you get your arms underneath it. Then, the final movement consists of pressing the bag overhead, without leaning back or locking your elbows. Reverse the movements in order to get back into the starting position. The sandbag over the head will pose an added challenge, and it’s important to start with a lighter weight in order to get the movements down first.
Workouts such as push-ups, burpees, and pull-ups can also be included in the Viking workout. As long as you remember to actually work out like a Viking. This means including exercises in supersets rather than regular sets. What’s important above all is to really push your body to its limits, and then beyond. Movements can also be done with AMRAP (as many reps as possible), which will have you performing the exercise until failure. Training like a Viking to get Viking power isn’t easy, and you should be reminded of that during every set you do.
You can’t out-train a bad diet, as they say. And this isn’t any less true when it comes to the Viking workout. Obviously, good, nutritious food is paramount. However, we can go more specific since the Nordic diet is a real thing. This includes food high in protein, especially fish such as salmon. A lot of vegetables, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and sweetness from berries and honey. This wholesome diet will give you unparalleled strength gains, allowing your body to recover from the brutal workouts and allow you to push past your limits.
If you know anything about Nordic mythology, you’re already aware that being a Viking extends much further than the physical aspect. The spirituality and mindfulness of the Viking mythos goes hand in hand with brutal combat and training. Taking care of your body through training and diet is just as important as taking care of your mind—the Vikings understood this and there’s no reason that you shouldn’t either. Whether you’re planning to raid a coastal village or hit a new PR, the halls of Valhalla will be ready to welcome anyone who stays true to the Viking method.