Is HEMA a Martial Art or a Combat Sport?

HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) is a combination of history and martial arts that takes historical documents and recreates the techniques and fighting capabilities from that time period. They take sets of weapon fighting techniques and form them into competition rulesets.

HEMA is a collection of different martial arts that can be trained in different ways depending on the club. It can be considered a martial art in the same way that MMA can be considered a martial art. HEMA as practiced in tournaments and competitions is definitely a combat sport.

If you want to know more about the distinctions between a martial art and a combat sport I wrote an article on the differences here.

Now let’s dive into how HEMA is practiced and learn some details on what it actually is and how it fits into modern martial arts.

How Is HEMA Scored?

HEMA is a niche martial art but has steadily grown in popularity. In fact, there are several tournaments available. These events are designed to be reminiscent of Middle Age and Renaissance Age combat contests.

Modern HEMA tournaments surfaced around 2007. They had no internationally accredited rules, which was beneficial to maintain the sport’s historical spirit.

That being said, HEMA encompasses a wide variety of categories such as longswords, rapiers, and daggers. This means that tournament scoring isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all kind of point system. Additionally, tournaments tend to have their own rulesets and codes of conduct.

When I read a few examples of what these rulesets look like I came away with a general takeaway that making contact with the head or upper body counts for more points. Additionally, solid contact gets more points. Generally speaking, “lethal” hits get more points and lead to wins.

Check out CombatCon 2023 Rules to get an idea of what this looks like in greater detail.

Is Grappling Allowed in HEMA?

When you hear of HEMA, you’re probably met with a lot of talk about swords and medieval weaponry. Nevertheless, the martial art technique does incorporate grappling. While many HEMA matches do not end up showcasing grappling, it is nevertheless something that is relevant to the sport.

In HEMA historical manuscripts, grappling was a common method used in both armed and unarmed combat. This makes sense when you think about combat as a whole since bringing your opponent to the ground or grappling to disarm your opponent would be deadly on the field of battle.

The video below shows some examples of how grappling would show up in HEMA.

A great example of unarmed combat in HEMA literature is looking at Fiore de’i Liberi’s teachings. The 14th-century knight and fencing master showcased his skill through his martial arts manuals. His most famous is “Flower of Battle,” which described grappling techniques such as throws and locks.

Despite the presence of grappling in HEMA, it’s not as widely applied in modern-age tournaments. This might be because of the difficulty associated with learning both how to grapple and sword fight.

Simply put, most HEMA players would rather put their focus on the sword, rather than implement other techniques, since this is likely what drew them to the activity in the first place.

Also, logistically speaking, many HEMA training centers also lack the facilities needed to train grappling such as proper mats that help to cushion falls, especially in heavy training gear.

Is HEMA Full Contact?

HEMA is a full-contact sport in competition settings. Players are allowed to use physical force in the course of the match. Also, since the main goal is to get points by attacking and defeating your opponent using armed and unarmed techniques, there will usually be forceful physical contact.

HEMA is a full-contact combat sport similar to any other combat sport like MMA, boxing, BJJ, judo, wrestling, etc. The only difference is the equipment and the combat ruleset.

What Weapons Can You Use in HEMA?

You can choose from a wide variety of medieval-era and renaissance-era weapons based on your interests. However, generally speaking, the stars of the show in HEMA are the swords, specifically the longsword which has clubs exclusively dedicated to it.

The major weapons that are used in HEMA are the longsword, rapier, flail, scythe, sickle, and the stick.

Is HEMA a Good Workout?

HEMA is practiced by enthusiasts for its historical relevance and aesthetic appeal. Nevertheless, HEMA has great applications for its athletes that want to do it for exercise and general health.

To excel at HEMA in a competitive setting you may need to train fitness for it. However, the average person can typically train HEMA for enjoyment and general strength and fitness.

If you’ve ever held a sword or realistically weighted weapon, you quickly realize that there is definitely a strength and fitness component to being able to manipulate a weapon. Between utilizing the weapon and practicing footwork in heavy gear, you are going to get a decent workout.

What Does It Cost to Train and Compete in HEMA?

If you’re just starting HEMA, you may want to figure out real the cost of entrance. Check out the table below to get an idea of how much it would cost to train and compete in HEMA.

ItemPrice Range
HEMA classes$40 to $200 per month
Face Mask$70 to $150
Chest Shield$50 to $60
Protective Cup$10 to $50
Gorget (Neck Protection)$25
Nylon Sword$70 to $120
Wooden Dagger$30 to $40
Padded Stick$20 to $50
Total Cost$315 to $695
This table just gives general ranges, your actual costs may vary based on your locale and the choice of weapons that you want to train.

Does It Hurt to Train HEMA?

As a beginner HEMA practitioner, you’re more likely to experience some muscle soreness through normal training, without even factoring in sparring elements.

HEMA open

However, since HEMA is a contact sport that involves actually exchanging blows with an opponent, you are probably most concerned about that aspect of it.

In normal daily training, you are likely to pick up minor bruises and issues since it is a contact sport revolving around using weapons. Having proper protective equipment will mitigate most of the serious injuries or pains, but training HEMA will hurt on occasion.

Another thing to keep in mind as a beginner is that there are skill-oriented things that you will do wrong in the beginner that can result in soreness or even minor injuries. For example, overextending your wrist when holding a sword can put a strain on your joints.

Can You Learn HEMA Alone?

HEMA isn’t as popular as many similar arts like fencing or even traditional martial arts like Iado or Kenjutsu. It can be difficult to find HEMA in or near your community.

You can learn some aspects of HEMA alone, especially through books or other resources, but if you are looking to participate in the competitive scene you will need to find in-person instruction.

In my opinion, if you want to learn skills that you can use in HEMA, you should probably be looking at participating in a similar sport that is more widely available like fencing. Fencing has a high degree of carryover and can easily give you real-world experience that will be applicable to HEMA whenever you get access to it.

Final Thoughts

HEMA is an interesting weapons-based martial art that is also a combat sport. If you are a history buff or have a fascination with swords and historical fighting methods it could be a great hobby to pick up. Finding good training can be challenging based on your locale but you can train other things like fencing, wrestling, and judo to build skills that can add to HEMA if you want to compete in it.

For more check out What To Expect in HEMA | A Martial Arts Overview


Hi, I'm Andre and I am the author of this website. I currently train primarily in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but supplement with other grappling martial arts as well as help to coach my kid's blended grappling program.

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