History has portrayed them as barbarians. But the legendary warriors and explorers were ahead of their time in terms of fitness, courage, friendship, and leadership–and they can teach modern men some lessons.
THE ATTACKER LUNGES AT ME, SWORD FLASHING.
He swings hard at my knees and I block him with my blade. He slashes at my torso; I parry again. He raises his sword and comes straight down on my head, but I stop him centimetres before he would split my skull. He’s terrifying, with a dark beard and angry, bottomless eyes, but he’s the one who should be scared.
The secret to fighting like a Viking is to use your opponent’s strength against him. So rather than block his overhead swing, powerful as it is, I deflect it to my right as I step nimbly to the left. His momentum makes him stumble and I slash him across the belly, opening him up like a sacrificial pig. As he crumples to the ground, bleeding to death, I whirl around to face the next warrior.
I am conqueror.
But not for long. “Let me show you, mate,” says Travis Fimmel, who plays Ragnar Lothbrok, the central character in the History series Vikings. We’re standing under an enormous antler chandelier in the Vikings’ Great Hall, on a sound stage outside Dublin.
In person and on the screen, Travis is a convincing Viking: He’s 1.82m tall and built like a rugby fullback. (He played Australian football in his youth.) His face, once so pretty that it was plastered on Calvin Klein billboards around the world, now looks fierce, framed by a shaved skull and wispy goatee.
I hand Travis my sword and he turns to face the enemy, who seems to have made a miraculous recovery. The soldier is actually the show’s trainer, a compact, bearded Scotsman named Lee McDermott.
“What are we doing here?” Travis asks.
“One, three, five, then step through and kill,” Lee replies, using jargon for the positions of stage combat they’re rehearsing. During shooting, Lee frequently steps in as a stunt double for the numerous battle scenes in the series. “Travis has killed me hundreds of times.”
Which he proceeds to do again, only much more gracefully than I had. Moving like a dancer, Travis parries, whirls and then lunges in for the kill. As the obliging Lee dies, Travis says: “It’s funny – I’ll kill him, and when the camera moves off him, he’ll pop right up [as a different character] and I’ll kill him again. And then I’ll buy him a couple of drinks.”
Vikings is not fancy; it’s soaked in mud, blood and guts. Nearly every episode features hand-to-hand combat. Travis takes to the fight scenes naturally, offering a perfectly clear explanation: “I had brothers. I was the youngest. It was bad.”
It’s also physically demanding, even for a man whose abs once loomed over New York City’s Times Square. It’s tiring, being a Viking warrior. And a tired Viking is usually a dead Viking.
That’s why, prior to our swordplay, Lee had put me through a series of brutal drills: one push-up, then a sprint across the 30m Great Hall, then two push-ups, then another sprint, then three, and so on – all the way up to 10. And then back down. After that I had to do it again, but with squat jumps instead of push-ups.
I made it halfway through the squat jumps before I had to stop, chest heaving as I endeavoured not to puke. Lee looked disappointed. “This is kind of like my litmus test,” he said. “All my actors are supposed to be able to do this, at least.”
So I’d have made a lousy Viking. And so would you, most likely. Modern men could learn plenty from the Norse warriors. Vikings were men of action, men of purpose. They valued important things – friendship and feasting, adventure and exploring, family and legacy. They were even trailblazers in gender equality: Viking women could own property, get divorced and go on raids. What’s more, an eating plan called the New Nordic Diet is currently destroying belly fat and conquering heart disease.
After immersing myself in all things Norse, I emerged with newfound respect for the Vikings, and with a set of rules that’ll have you eyeing England greedily – or at least a larger office and a tall, beautiful blonde woman.
The Viking Code
Speed Wins Battles
“The Vikings were the last people to fight with axes, which must have been horrible,” says Travis. They wore little to no armour, preferring to attack their enemies with fast-and-light raids, clad in little more than hardened leather and perhaps a bit of chain mail, and carrying wooden shields. They had an elite warrior corps called Berserkers, who were the fastest, most skilled fighters. They sometimes fought shirtless; they believed death was fated from birth, so armour wouldn’t help you. But more on that later.
Today, we see a similar fast-and-light strategy in the US Army Special Forces, says Rob Shaul, founder of the Mountain Tactical Institute. It trains military and law enforcement personnel, first responders and others. “For these guys, their body is their primary weapon, and combat performance and survivability depend on fitness.” These tactical athletes need speed and stamina, mental resiliency, physical durability and a high strength-to-weight ratio. In other words, total fitness.
Just as Vikings sprinted into battle carrying axes and Green Berets carry M4 rifles on raids, Rob has his clients do intervals and run as far as 20km while carrying a 5kg sledgehammer or dumbbell. “You see immediate gains in grip strength and athleticism because you’re also fine-tuning your ability to run with a load in your hands,” he says. That’s useful even if you’re just sprinting for a train or carrying groceries in the rain.
Be Viking Strong: Try Rob Shaul’s four-week Berserker Workout (page 94) to boost your athleticism and strength, and get into fighting shape fast.
Strength Decides Wars
The Berserker Workout puts emphasis on what Rob calls the “tactical or combat chassis” – legs, hips and core. “The thigh-to-shoulder area is where warriors need strength.” The Vikings trained their combat chassis daily: farming (lifting heavy stuff), shipbuilding (chopping trees) and rowing (strengthening legs, arms and lungs). In your world, a stronger tactical chassis means you’ll become more functionally fit and less prone to lower-back problems.
In the workout, Rob includes rotational exercises done on your knees. This results in greater core strength because your legs can’t assist your core. It also includes loaded carries at different speeds. Clive Standen, who plays the Berserker Rollo, uses farmer’s walks in his training. “It’s simple – you carry two heavy dumbbells or kettlebells by your sides and walk. But it’s a total-body burner,” he says.
Be Viking Vigorous: Do farmer’s walks for time, not distance, says Rob. “Guys move faster if it’s distance, and that defeats the objective of keeping your grip and core under tension for longer, and it encourages poor form.” Add them to the end of your workout – otherwise you’ll fry your forearms. Do four 60-second sessions and work up to using two 30kg dumbbells. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
Know Your Weaknesses
The Vikings were feared for many reasons: They were strong, skilled and brave to the point of crazed. (One theory is that the Berserkers’ performance enhancers of choice were psychedelic mushrooms.) They were in astounding shape, but they weren’t overconfident: When the odds were against them, they’d run away, says historian Justin Pollard, associate producer on the show. “They were brave, but they weren’t stupidly brave,” he says. “When the enemy put up a big army, they’d just refuse to fight, retreat and find someone – their enemy’s enemy – to team up with.”
Be Viking Smart: Fight only the battles you can win. At your job, become aware of your strengths and weaknesses by asking for honest feedback, says Peter Bregman, a corporate leadership coach. This requires emotional courage because it won’t be comfortable for you or the person giving the critique. Your script: (1) Stress that you want an honest – even harsh – assessment. Propose talking about your strengths either first or last because discussing both at the same time (weaknesses sandwiched between strengths) is not as effective. (2) Listen without judgement and don’t be defensive. Convey that you find the feedback helpful. (3) Write stuff down. This shows you’re serious and creates momentary silences. That’s when a person often will volunteer a second – and insightful – thought.
Explore New Worlds
Most people don’t know the Vikings were farmers despite the severe terrain and climate. But when population growth in Scandinavia made living off the land less favourable, they set sail to conquer new territory. The pillaging was just a bonus; what they really needed was elbow room. “The western expansion was basically an agrarian homesteading kind of thing,” says William Fitzhugh, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center. This exploration was good for the tribe and for the soul, says Dr John Ratey, a psychiatrist and the author of Go Wild. “We’re adapted to be searching for the new, evolutionarily speaking,” he says. “We were hunter-gatherers for 4 to 6 million years, so we’re wired to move, to look for new things – a new berry patch or a new source of game.” This keeps your brain sharp. “The Vikings were truly bold,” says Travis. “They got in boats and didn’t know if they would go off the edge of the earth or hit land.”
Be Viking Bold: Think about the last time you truly went into the unknown. Make looking for novelty and variety a habit, says Dr Ratey. Challenge yourself to learn something new on a range of scales: daily (meditating or reading a chapter of a classic), weekly (learning to cook or brew or draw) and yearly (training to earn a black belt or mastering a foreign language).
Find Your Shieldmaiden
The Norse warriors spread their DNA rather liberally across Europe, yet they had a relatively enlightened view of gender equality. “Vikings respected their women,” says Alexander Ludwig, who plays Ragnar’s oldest son, Bjorn Ironside, on the show. “Bjorn likes women who stand up for themselves and don’t back down.” Unlike in the rest of Europe circa AD800, Viking women were considered equal to men. They had rights to own property and have money. Plus if you got of line, they could ditch you – or worse. Some Viking women trained as warriors called shieldmaidens. “In Viking society, if a woman’s husband treated her badly, she might stick a knife in his ribs. Or she could divorce him, in which case he had to give back all the property that came with the marriage,” says historian Justin Pollard. “If any men in the 9th century were in touch with their feminine side, it was the Vikings.”
Research also reveals that the explorers took grooming seriously – they wore jewellery and colourful silk, says Michele Hayeur Smith of Brown University in the US. These savage warriors likely carried combs, razors, tweezers and even ear spoons (early Q-tips). Anglo-Saxons at the time thought of the Viking invaders as clean freaks because they washed weekly, says Dr Fitzhugh. The Vikings were also style trendsetters, with tattoos, braids and bleached-blond hair. (Darker-haired Vikings used lye to get the look.)
Be Viking Enlightened: To satisfy a modern-day shieldmaiden – a leaning-in alpha female – be open-minded and patient. (Smelling good also helps.) “Praise her independence and be supportive of her work,” says psychologist Vinita Mehta. “Consider taking charge in other spheres. She’ll likely value commitment and creativity towards the relationship. Surprise her with new music, new restaurants and new shows.”
Own Your Story
Blame the Vikings’ fearsome rep on bad PR. They had no written language, so it was Christian monks who wrote about the conquering pagans as devil-like. The monks had a vested interest in portraying them and their religion in the worst possible light, says show creator Michael Hirst. So it matters who tells your story. The Vikings’ rich oral tradition of storytelling led to the writing of the Icelandic Sagas, which helped correct the record. “Poetry was considered a high art, and the ability to give really amazing speeches and toasts for people was held in high esteem,” says Dr Fitzhugh.
Be a Viking Storyteller: Upgrade your narrating skills by speaking publicly more. Steal the formula that radio host Ira Glass uses on This American Life: Action (describe something dramatic and give your story motion) + stakes (create tension around an important question) + reflection (find personal meaning in your story).
Have More Courage
Scandinavia circa AD850 was a harsh, dog-eat-dog world, with everyone trying to impress the gods. The ultimate way to do that was by dying courageously in battle, which Vikings believed might gain them admittance to Valhalla, where men battled all day and feasted all night. You went down swinging. In our mostly axe-free age, living with courage or purpose is still important. “I look at it as taking a risk for a good reason,” says Cynthia Pury, a US pro-fessor of psychology. “But at least within current American culture, people need to be successful to be seen as courageous.”
Be Viking Brave: Take risks that make sense to you, not necessarily to society. Prof Pury worked with Vietnam vets whose self-images were tainted by negative feelings about that war. “They would sort of discount how brave they had been,” she says. “One of the things we would do was to help people change their narrative for the traumatic events they experienced.”
Keep Your Tribe Together
In the Viking era, all politics was local: You fought, farmed, traded and raided with the people who lived in your village. Cooperation and loyalty were paramount. Matters of justice and common welfare were settled at a collective meeting known as “the thing,” where all men had a vote. Group consensus ruled. “Part of what made the Vikings so strong was that they were a cohesive society that believed in one thing,” says George Everly, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. “Tribes where members are willing to sacrifice something for the good of the group are superior to tribes where the individual ego is superior to the group.”
Be Viking Cooperative: Forge a work culture where people in your tribe feel safe, and that they belong and matter. “If employees feel insecure, they’ll gossip more and create silos,” says Christine Comaford, author of Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together. Answer these questions (taken from Christine’s “tribe test”) with “rarely,” “consistently” or “always”: (1) When I make a mistake, I am corrected with respect and the desire to help me improve; (2) I trust my team and colleagues to support my and the company’s success; (3) I receive acknowledgment and appreciation at work. “If you’re in a strong tribe, there’ll be more ‘consistently’ and ‘always’ answers,” says Christine.
Share with Your Comrades
The Vikings’ spirituality and mindfulness make them seem almost new-agey. Their belief system called for a close study of nature and awareness of their surroundings, says Clive, but with a twist. Examples: Morning dew signified sweat from godly horses wrestling; a change of wind meant a godly eagle was flapping its wings; and when a raven stared you in the eye, Odin, the Norse god of war, was looking into your soul. This spirituality may have enabled Viking men to discuss their feelings openly. Bonds of friendship were forged fighting and farming – and cemented with ale and mead (honey wine), drinks the Vikings considered sacred. (If your cup is a horn, you can’t set it down, so you have to keep drinking.)
Close friendships are powerful health indicators. “Our ancestors were used to feeling close, touching each other, looking at each others’ faces to gauge a reaction, and our nervous system evolved in that kind of environment,” says Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University. “Modern men are generally not as close, and research shows that feelings of isolation can be deadly.” In an analysis of the effects of loneliness on mortality, strong social relationships were two to three times as powerful an indicator of survival as diet, exercise or smoking cessation. Facebook won’t suffice – you need actual face time, says Prof Joiner.
Be Viking Friendly: Actively maintain your connections to friends and family. Your daily to-do list should include (near the top) something about improving a relationship, says Prof Joiner. Call your university buddy, compliment your wife, send your dad a link to a funny video. In terms of connectedness, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re doing it regularly. Poker nights, tickets to football games, book clubs – all are life-lengthening activities.
And, of course, you should go Viking: Shoving off on a seasonal adventure with your closest pals is a fantastic way to maintain friendships.
It Takes a Pillage
The History series Vikings is based on the real-life adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok, who ruled in the ninth century. Meet the cast.
Travis Fimmel (Ragnar Lothbrok)
“I like working outside; there’s something that happens mentally. I help out on my parents’ dairy farm in Australia for three months every year, lifting hay, milking cows, helping with calving and driving the tractor.”
“Ragnar is a sensitive, curious Viking. He possesses this great passion and drive to always do what’s best for his people. He figures things out and thinks for himself rather than following other people. He is not a sheep.”
Clive Standen (Rollo Lothbrok)
“Resistance bands: They’re lightweight, so they can go anywhere. I have them on set, and between takes, I do curls, squats and triceps extensions. Often I do five or six mini-sessions – 10 to 15 minutes each – throughout the day.”
“Rollo makes good and bad decisions, but he’s a man of action. He stands up for what he believes. He won’t let anything slide. It sounds trite, but it’s a whole approach to life: Kicking butt is a lot more gratifying than kissing butt.”
Alexander Ludwig (Bjorn Ironside)
“I like running to explore a new place. But I mix it up. For example, I’ll jog for five minutes, then do four 45-second sprints with 15 seconds of jogging. Then I’ll run fast for 20 or 30 minutes and finish with four more sprints.”
Lust for Adventure
“I’ve always loved going on adventures. I’ve further appreciated how lucky we are to travel the way we can. You can hop on a plane and be across the world in 12 hours instead of pooping off the side of a boat for two weeks.”
Eat Like a Warrior
The New Nordic Diet is giving the Mediterranean Diet a good fight. It also promotes heart health and weight loss. People in one study shed 5kg in six months with no calorie restrictions. Plus, it’s good for the planet.
Go Berserk with Protein
Eat coldwater fish and poultry at least three times a week. When you eat red meat, make it lean and grass-fed or game, like venison, elk and bison.
Hail Healthy Carbs!
Choose fibre-filled wholegrains, especially oats, rye and barley (try Wasa crackers). Limit empty carbs like refined flour, pasta and rice.
Raid the Produce Aisle
Make it your daily mission to eat more fruits, vegeta- bles and herbs, especially berries, leafy greens, root vegetables and legumes.
Change Your Oil
Add canola oil to your arse- nal. It’s loaded with beneficial monounsaturated fats and alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid.
Find Allies at the Dairy
Aim for two daily servings of cheese and plain yogurt (no added sugar). The mix of protein and fat nourishes your muscles and slays hunger cravings.
Drink Beer, Not Juice
Cut out sugar-sweetened drinks and fruit juices (eat whole fruit instead). Tea, coffee and alcohol (in moderation) are encouraged. Skoal!
Go beyond mouth-burning Ikea meatballs. This plan celebrates cooking more at home with family. Make it more exciting by inviting lots of friends.
Men’s Health serves up three meals that’ll help fuel your adventure
Rinse 1/2 cup of whole spelt, wheat and/or rye grains, and throw them into a bowl. Cover them with water and leave the bowl on the counter overnight. In the morning, drain the grains and then simmer them in milk till soft, as you would oatmeal. Add a little honey and salt.
Roast Lamb Rump
Try lamb rump (the tender meat between the leg and loin), seared in a hot pan and roasted at 218 deg C until slightly pink inside. Serve with boiled potatoes or barley.
These long, tubular mollusks have a meaty texture and briny flavor, yet are sweeter than your average littleneck. Try them steamed in a pot till plumped, like you would mussels, with plenty of white wine and fresh thyme. Then lift out the flesh with a fork, bite and grunt.