What To Expect in HEMA | A Martial Arts Overview

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) have been increasingly gaining popularity in the last few decades. This is not surprising due to the prevalence of sword fighting and analogous combat in popular media. So if you wanted to get into training HEMA-styled fighting, what would it look like in practice?

Everyday training in HEMA will involve wearing padded armor and going through different weapon techniques, with specifics depending on your HEMA club. Over time you will gain knowledge of historical weaponry and combat tactics, but it is ultimately just another weaponry-based hobby martial art.

Let’s dive into some of the backgrounds of HEMA and what you can really expect out of training this type of martial art in your everyday routine and going into some of the factors that might determine whether or not training this martial art could be the right choice for you.

A Brief History of HEMA

The earliest attempts at reconstructing historical fighting styles can be traced back to the 1890s, when George Hutton, an English fencer, started publishing works on historical fencing.

Many others followed in the next century, and in the 1960s, the Society for Creative Anachronisms was founded. It was not a HEMA organization, but it helped lay the foundations for the sport.

The interest in this martial art grew over the following decades, and in the 1990s and 2000s, the art spread all around Europe and America. Many different people opened their clubs and schools and taught different aspects of historical fighting.

Now, thousands of people practice HEMA, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, as it’s constantly attracting a growing niche of people.

What Do You Wear for HEMA?

Even though you might expect that at first, you don’t wear steel plate armor or chainmail in HEMA unless you’re explicitly studying that type of combat. These sets of armor are usually purchased deeper into training because they are quite an expensive investment.

Norms for what HEMA athletes wear differ from club to club, but for the most part, HEMA practitioners wear modern armor that allows both protection and a greater range of movement. This armor commonly consists of the following:

  • Padded jacket
  • Fencing mask
  • Gloves
  • Shin and forearm guards. 

Do You Wear Shoes in HEMA?

You often wear shoes in HEMA. However, some people choose to train barefoot or in socks when they are practicing indoors. For the most part, simply choose comfortable shoes that offer good traction that is suitable for the surface you train on. 

If you train on wrestling mats, it’s best to use wrestling shoes or martial arts shoes. If you train outside you might end up wearing cleats. Normal athletic shoes are pretty common to use for most HEMA athletes though.

What Equipment Is Required for HEMA?

Specific equipment required for HEMA will differ from club to club and from weapon type to weapon type. For most people, wearing the relatively more easy to source fencing equipment will suffice for everyday training.

The equipment required for HEMA includes the following: 

  • A padded jacket: I recommend picking up this fencing jacket from Amazon in most cases, but if you train broadsword or something heavier it is a good idea to pick up something more heavy-duty like this HEMA Jacket also available on Amazon.
  • A fencing mask: I recommend picking up this fencing mask from Amazon for most HEMA athletes since blows to the head are discouraged in most clubs, and this will provide adequate production in most cases.
  • Sparring/fencing gloves: I recommend picking up basic fencing gloves available on Amazon for most HEMA athletes, and upgrading to these impact gloves also available on Amazon if you work with heavier weapons.

These things should be enough to get you started. As you progress, however, you may want to pick up some additional pieces of gear:

  • A throat protector
  • Fencing pants
  • Knee guards
  • A groin protector
  • Elbow protectors
  • A mask overlay

If you want to go full force, as an advanced student, you need heavier-duty gear, mostly in terms of impact-resistant gloves, forearms guards, shin guards, and better overall armor coverage. This is not necessarily common in the HEMA landscape for most HEMA athletes, but as you progress towards competitions and events you might head down this path.

Do I Need To Be Fit To Start HEMA?

It is a significant help to be somewhat fit when you start HEMA, but it isn’t necessary in order to get started. Some level of physical fitness will allow you to train for longer, but simply training and moving around in a HEMA training context will get you the fitness you need to train HEMA.

Building at least a small baseline of strength and cardiovascular fitness over a few weeks can help you transition into training HEMA if you want to have a smoother start or if you have issues with self-confidence when trying new physical hobbies. This is totally understandable but is not something that is required before you start training at most HEMA clubs.

Despite this, keep in mind that there are no official fitness requirements you have to meet. If you want to go for it right away, just start.

Do I Need To Be Strong for HEMA?

Depending on what weapons you want to train in HEMA, strength can be a significant factor. Broadswords and other heavy weapons require significantly more basic strength than training a foil or saber. Using these weapons in training will eventually give you the basic strength required though.

In all forms of HEMA, having a stronger core will help you manipulate your weapons more effectively. This type of strength alongside building enough strength to manipulate your weapon of course will come with practice, but doing specific training to build up this strength is a good idea to implement into your overall routine.

For information on how to choose a good supplementary strength-training program that makes sense for you check out my post Should You Choose Calisthenics or Lifting for Combat Sports?

Do I Need To Be Flexible for HEMA?

HEMA does not really require much basic flexibility. If you can move in reasonably normal ranges of motion, you will be able to train HEMA. Building better mobility and flexibility for HEMA really just helps keep you from sustaining injuries during training.

HEMA, with its limited emphasis on flexibility and mobility, does not need much specific work for flexibility. Training in your normal ranges of motion when doing HEMA will usually give you all the flexibility you will need. However, being more mobile and flexible is good for your overall health, so do that specific training if it is important to you.

Is HEMA Good for Getting in Shape?

HEMA is good for getting into shape since it is rather demanding to manipulate weapons in even controlled sparring or technique-building contexts. With some attention to keeping a reasonable diet, HEMA can provide enough strength and cardio training to get somebody into shape.

If you really get into HEMA training, it won’t feel like you are being forced to exercise, and if you train enough it will be very helpful for getting into shape as well as staying in shape with consistent training.

Is HEMA Good for Self-Defense?

There is some carryover for self-defense in HEMA, but it is not a primary goal of HEMA to give its students the ability to practice good self-defense. If you have access to a stick or other weapon, it can be quite helpful in the context, but carrying around these kinds of weapons is pretty uncommon for more people.

HEMA techniques may work in some modern contexts for self-defense, but they are not optimized for self-defense. If your goal is self-defense, you may want to choose another martial art like Muay Thai or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

For most people, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a good choice as a self-defense-oriented martial art. Check out my post What Should I Expect in My First BJJ Class? for more information on this more self-defense-capable martial art. 

What Style of Fighting Is HEMA?

HEMA’s style of fighting is weapons-based, predominantly in the style of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Therefore, most people opt for swords, especially sabers, rapiers, and long swords.

However, you can also learn the following weapons:

  • Broadsword
  • Foil
  • Dagger
  • Polearms

Does HEMA Include Live Sparring?

HEMA does include optional live sparring in many clubs. If you train in HEMA, you’ll train techniques in choreographed or limited-intensity sparring sessions. HEMA is based on historical documents which detail fighting techniques for real-life fighting and sparring ties together the techniques.

For dedicated HEMA practitioners, live sparring is an integral component of HEMA, especially for those who want to get into HEMA competitions and tournaments.

Are There HEMA Competitions or Tournaments?

There are HEMA competitions and tournaments in many European countries, as well as in the United States. There are many types of competitions and the rules will vary based on the specific organization or tournament.  

Different organizations apply different rules. Generally speaking, you get awarded points for each clean hit. Fights last until the time is up or until one fighter gets to a certain number of points. Hitting some body parts will not give you a point, but this also depends on the organization.  

Is HEMA Dangerous To Practice?

HEMA is somewhat dangerous to practice. Most clubs have rules and norms that keep everybody safe, but using even blunted training weapons in training can result in some bruises and nicks. Using good equipment and awareness is important for HEMA and goes a long way towards increasing safety.

There are two parts to practicing HEMA: training techniques and live or limited sparring.

Training is mostly safe, as it is slower-paced and focuses on technique.

Limited or conditional sparring is a bit riskier as it requires you to perform techniques or spar with the intention of hitting your opponent.

Live sparring with more intensity is the riskiest, and should be reserved for advanced students with more protective gear.

Keep in mind that HEMA is about skill and not about brutality. So, as long as everyone’s respectful and mindful, everyone stays safe.

Is HEMA Hard To Learn?

HEMA is hard to learn at first, much like many martial arts and combat sports. HEMA involves multiple skill sets like understanding footwork and distance management alongside knowledge of specific weapons and techniques both armed and unarmed.

Given the great variability between HEMA clubs and the variety of weapon styles that can be used within HEMA taken as a whole, it can quite often be hard to learn at the beginning of training. Given time, patience, and effort HEMA is approachable to most people.

How Long To Learn Fundamentals in HEMA?

It should take you around 6 months to learn the fundamental combat skills used in HEMA. Some skills will develop at different rates depending on the individual, however, you should be able to learn the basics of distance management, footwork, and weapon techniques in 6 months.

Depending on the individual, grasping the basics can take either a longer or shorter time period. This can be due to various factors such as natural aptitude, fitness level, or the number of training hours done consistently over time.

How Long to Reach Black Belt Level Mastery in HEMA 

There are no belts and no official ranks in HEMA. Some schools, but not all, use ranks such as Scholar, Free Scholar, Provost, and Free Provost. However, since this is not universal, there are no official guidelines on achieving those ranks.

Even if there is no official black belt level in HEMA, reaching the equivalent mastery in HEMA is quite difficult. There are a wide variety of weapons used as well as skills involved in reaching mastery of HEMA weapons fighting. Given the breadth of the knowledge required in HEMA alongside the physical difficulty level of doing armed combat, reaching mastery can take quite some time.

Even still, reaching mastery in multiple forms of armed combat adds even more time requirements for HEMA mastery overall. After all, being an expert in longswords will not carry over perfectly into using a rapier since longswords use slashing motions while rapiers are almost exclusively thrusting weapons. Spears and other polearms are also a completely different skill set and all technically can fall until HEMA combat overall.

Can You Learn HEMA at Home?

You can learn some basics of HEMA at home. However, joining a school or club will allow you to practice your skills with a partner. Using online resources like videos alongside reading books and practicing can be useful, but will not allow you to reach mastery of HEMA as a martial art.

Learning HEMA at home is not really reasonable because you will lack training partners and finding a club to practice is important. The most prominent organization in HEMA is the HEMA Alliance, and it is there where you can go to find a club near you. If you are looking for a club you can go to their site to do so.

What To Expect at Your First HEMA Class?

As far as what to expect at your first HEMA class or meetup, the class will be more introductory and less demanding.

  • You will meet your coach and learn the basic rules and guidelines.
  • You will learn some basic information about your weapon.
  • You will learn the basic footwork, guard, and cutting drills.

Simply show up wearing comfortable workout clothes and observe and try out the class. You likely will not be really sparring and will most likely just work on techniques and get a basic overview of how the classes work. This is normal, just do your best to observe the class while you work through techniques.

What Does HEMA Cost?

The fees for HEMA classes tend to be on a per-class basis and between 20 to 30 dollars per class. This depends on location and style. Besides class fees, you will need padded armor and a practice weapon.

Depending on the specific environment, equipment needs can vary. But most of the time expectations for equipment are pretty flexible and the only hard requirement is to bring an appropriate practice weapon so that you can go over techniques for the weapon being used in the specific class.

Is HEMA Good for Kids?

HEMA is not as common for kids as it is for adults, but is a great martial art for kids when it is available. Due to the involvement of weapons, most HEMA schools have age restrictions, most commonly around 12 years old, and HEMA classes are often altered for kids.

HEMA schools can benefit kids by helping to build healthy habits, keeping them fit, and potentially kindling an appreciation of history.

If you are looking to enroll your child in HEMA but are being stopped by age restrictions there are plenty of martial arts that can carry over into HEMA in the future. Some of the more useful ones include Judo and wrestling which can play a role in competitive HEMA events if that is a goal for them due to their emphasis on break falls and takedowns which can be used in many competitions.

Often, HEMA classes that are targeted to include children involve more drills in which you strike a pell instead of training with a partner for the techniques. This helps to avoid accidental strikes to training partners while fine motor control is still being developed. This is especially true for kids on the younger end of the spectrum.

Is HEMA for Physically Smaller People?

HEMA is quite suitable for physically smaller people, but generally, these individuals will choose lighter weapons. HEMA, when practiced by most people, focuses primarily on learning techniques, so anyone can train in this martial art. Competitors in HEMA competitions are usually grouped by weight class.

Furthermore, HEMA may even teach you how to leverage your smaller size and how to compensate for it with good technique. This may further boost your confidence.

Is HEMA Good for Women?

HEMA is a good fit for women. It is not uncommon to find women at HEMA classes, so you probably won’t have any problems finding a similar-sized training partner.

There is no reason why HEMA wouldn’t be a good fit for women. Since most classes are based upon simply learning techniques through drills, it isn’t difficult to make accommodations for women to train comfortably in the general class, even if there aren’t many women training alongside you.

Final Thoughts

HEMA is an interesting varied set of martial arts rolled up into one umbrella. There are many weapon types and skill sets that can be learned within HEMA so there is always room to grow. Individual HEMA clubs can be quite different from each other in focus but are almost universally fun environments for people to practice this unique set of weapons-based martial arts.

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

Andre

Hi, I'm Andre and I am the author of this website. I have always been fascinated with martial arts and train them as often as I can. I currently train primarily in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and train judo and wrestling as secondary martial arts. I help to coach a kid's grappling program that blends all three martial arts. I hope that you find the value that you are looking for in the articles on this website.

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