Your Cart


How Physically Tough Were Vikings?

Posted by Sons Of Vikings on

Vikings were a dominant disruptive force in the military, economic, and political world of the Early Middle Ages.  One reason for this was the technological advantage of their dragon ships, which made them more mobile than any of their enemies.  Other reasons included their highly developed warrior ethos, fearlessness, and a keen eye for opportunity.  But all these things could not have granted them such tremendous success had it not been for the physical prowess it took to win the battles, brave the waves, and carry their treasures home.  Informed people already realize the fantasy depiction of Vikings as hulking barbarians with massive axes (as seen in this image) is not always necessarily realistic, but is there a grain of truth in this collectively-held image?  How hard was it to be a Viking, and what do the archaeological, historical, and original literary sources tell us about the Viking as a martial athlete?



Archaeologists say a population’s physical height may be one of the best indicators of nutritional and economic well-being.  Numerous eyewitness accounts describe the Vikings as tall – but "tall" is a relative term.  Most people have heard that our ancestors were generally quite a bit shorter than us.  However, this fact pertains to the High Middle Ages on through the 19th century, when social, economic, and adverse climate conditions made it difficult for dense populations to attain proper nutrition.  The Vikings thrived at an earlier time from all this, and a lower population density and more freedom meant more available food.  This better nutrition meant larger people. 

A study of over 6000 Northern European skeletons from the Early Middle Ages reveals that the average male height was about 5’8” and the average female height was about 5’2”.  That is not much less (but certainly no more) than people today.  Scandinavian skeletons matched these average numbers.  So, while there were individuals that were taller or shorter, the average Viking Age Norse man or woman was about the same height as their contemporaries in Britain, France, Ireland, or Germany.

A different study found skeletons buried with weapons in Early Medieval graves tended to be an inch or two taller than skeletons in graves that did not contain weapons.  This is probably because the individuals buried with weapons were high-status (and thus better fed).  Or it could be because individuals with greater height and other athletic gifts self-selected the warrior professions.  In either case, it is possible that the Byzantine diplomats, Arab travelers, and monastic scribes who described Vikings as “tall and strongly-built” were noticing a lot of tall individuals.  Still, objectively there was little difference in the overall populations.

Modern psychological experiments have found that people tend to perceive those they find intimidating as being a few inches taller and up to 20 pounds heavier than they really are.  Since the Vikings were undoubtedly intimidating, these findings may help explain why our 5’8” warriors are called “tall as date palms.”

Height is just one of the dimensions that makes someone “big” however.  Evidence suggests that Vikings had more mass than many of their enemies.  Again, fantasy images of bodybuilder barbarians have overstated this – but there were reasons why Vikings were described as “well-formed” or “powerfully-built.” 



Modern fitness science concludes that muscle growth is the product of three components: training, recovery, and diet.  The Norse had the recovery component ingrained in their culture, with a seasonal approach to living and a “work hard, play hard” mentality.  But they also had the other two components in ample supply. 

Diet was one of the most significant advantages the Norse had.  This is ironic, perhaps, because the Norse were envious of the lush farms and open fields outside of Scandinavia.  There was not all that much arable land in the Vikings' homeland.  They had to diversify to survive, relying heavily on cattle, livestock, and fishing their endless coastlines.

The French or English farmers enjoyed huge harvests of grain that supported growing populations, but there was a downside to this.  With inland populations having less access to fish and the nobles of the land aggressively discouraging peasants from hunting, these people had less food diversity than their Scandinavian counterparts.  This meant more susceptibility to famine on occasion and a lower-protein diet overall.

According to the sagas and material evidence, the Vikings ate in the morning and at night.  Carbohydrates came in the form of dense, whole-grain breads and barley-based beer.  Dairy products from both cows and sheep, including butter, cheese, and skyr (a strained yogurt that is high in protein and low in sugar), were daily staples.  Not ones to waste food, the sagas mention Vikings drinking whey – the protein-rich byproduct of cheese making. Salted fish, tree nuts, and apples were the “fast food” of the day.  At night all but the poorest Norse would eat salmon, fowl, sheep, goat, game, and occasionally beef or pork, washed down with a few horns of mead or ale.  Archeological evidence has found that even in desolate outposts like Greenland, the Vikings lived well on seal, walrus, reindeer, sea birds, and wale.

Plugging these foods into a modern nutritional calculator, we can determine that Vikings had a diet that was roughly 35% protein, 35% energy-supplying fats, and 30% carbohydrates.  Of course, this breakdown would vary from day to day and with the seasons, but overall it is not far from what many athletes today consider optimal for growth and performance. 

The nobility of Christendom may have had a similar diet, but the rank-and-file opponent of the Vikings would have probably had a diet closer to 19% protein, 28% fat, and 53% carbohydrates.  So, even when calories were equal, the higher percentages of protein and healthy fats meant that a Viking would have better body composition than most of his enemies.


Baseline Conditioning

Most Vikings were free-born landholders living on family homesteads.  They farmed and raised livestock, hunted and fished, and increased their wealth through raiding or trading at seasonal times when the demands of home were less.  Some Vikings did spend years in standing armies, bodyguards, or traveling extensive trade networks.  Still, the agrarian life was their cultural norm and their end goal to return to.

This lifestyle demanded a tremendous amount of work.  The Norse would begin helping the family in early childhood.  They would spend their days plowing, sewing crops, harvesting, hunting, gathering, shepherding, chopping wood, mowing hay, clearing land, hauling, and doing all their own construction.  The gallons of daily water we take for granted had to be collected 40-pound bucket by 40-pound bucket.

This lifestyle imbued Vikings with a fundamental toughness, hardiness, and self-reliance that would transfer over to everything else they did. 



Without question, one of the most important ways Vikings became so well-conditioned is through rowing.  Most Vikings would have been rowing most of their lives, whether for raiding, trading, fishing or as the easiest means of ordinary travel in their nearly-roadless homelands.  Rowing is a full-body exercise and utilizes the legs, core, shoulders, back, and forearms.  It also thoroughly works the cardiovascular system.  Literary evidence suggests that Viking ships would divide into two teams that each traded off on two-hour shifts.  That means that a Viking may spend up to eight hours rowing a day if there wasn’t a good wind to help out.


Warrior Training

Archaeologists have found evidence of child-sized wooden swords and shields in Norse settlements.  These were not just toys.  In a land without police and with many warring clans, learning to fight was a matter of life and death.  Safety came from family and friends, and the Viking was obligated to protect those who protected him.  This is a recurrent theme in the sagas.  People learned to fight from their fathers, uncles, brothers, sworn men, or “foster parents” (a person a little like a “godfather” in modern culture).  The sagas mention some boys going on raids when they are only 12, though it was probably more common to wait for the mid-teens.    

A sword or hand ax weighs 2-5 pounds, and a shield weighs 8-10 pounds.  This may not sound like much, but it adds up.  If a Viking were lucky enough to have a good coat of mail, this would add another 20 pounds or so.  To get used to the added strain, Vikings would wear their armor as much as possible in the months leading up to raiding season.  The Saga of the Volsungs even mentions the hero Sigurd sleeping in his mail, though this may be an exaggeration.  Either way, the handling of weapons required constant practice and conditioning, and the Norse would avoid going anywhere unarmed.

Vikings also practiced grappling and other unarmed forms of combat.  One style of this involved lifting an opponent off his feet and casting him to the ground.  This art was sometimes used in duels to the death (with a stone in the middle of the ring to break the opponent's back or smash his skull).  More often, though, grappling was used for sport and would highlight feasts and festivals.


Viking Sports and Exercise

The Norse had many other forms of exercise and sport besides wrestling and combat training, though.  They loved swimming, foot races, ball games, and just about anything where they could compete against each other.  The rules of the ball games have not survived complete, but accounts in the sagas seem to be akin to rugby or Gaelic football.  These ball games were often pretty rough and could give way to life-and-death feuding. 

One of the Vikings' favorite games was a variation of tug-of-war in which two men held a rope and sat on the ground with their feet touching.  Whoever could pull his opponent over was the stronger man.  Some speculate that this game may have also been used to assign rowing positions for Viking voyages.  

Vikings did not do calisthenics or lift weights in the gymnasium like the ancient Greeks and Romans sometimes would. Still, they had plenty of "strongman events," such as lifting stones, logs, or carrying heavy objects.  Since Vikings sometimes had to work together to move their boats overland in between rivers, this functional training had direct application.


Well-Rounded Athletes

One of the favorite heroes of the Icelandic Sagas was Grettir the Strong.  Grettir could wrestle a bear, kill a troop of berserkers, swim four miles in an icy bay, and lift an implacable boulder all equally well.  Some of the stones he supposedly lifted are still landmarks in Iceland today.  While Grettir's Saga is quite larger than life, it does show the emphasis the Vikings placed on physical strength.  Of course, so does their favorite god, Thor, who was famous for his tremendous power and used his magic belt and gauntlets to become even stronger.  Today, many powerlifters and strongman competitors identify with Vikings because of these values.

Overall, though, being a Viking was not only about raw strength, and generating a lot of power was not really their most important attribute.  Extra mass could be beneficial at times but sometimes is a disadvantage because it requires much more energy to move and sustain.  Rowing and crossing distances overland required tremendous endurance, while fighting required speed and stamina.  A Viking had to be well rounded, physically, and excel in the skills that would ensure his or her survival.   


Viking Tough: A Few Examples from the Historical Records

There are hundreds of examples of Viking heroism and martial prowess in the Norse sagas and histories.  We do not need to just take their word for it, though.  The Vikings’ list of accomplishments speaks for itself, and we often find even their enemies in awe as they describe these battles. 

One such chronicler was Miskawayh, an eyewitness to the Viking-led Rus attack on the Caspian Sea around 943.  Miskawayh described the Vikings, “… the men are huge and courageous.  They do not recognize defeat; no one turns back until he kills or has been killed."  He describes them repeatedly defeating superior numbers.  Miskawayh relates one story in which just five Vikings, including a “beardless youth," held off a large force and killed "many times their own number” (Lunde & Stone, pp. 147-152).

One of the single most telling descriptions of Viking physical toughness comes from the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England in 1066 – the battle that many historians mark as the end of the Viking Age.  Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, was on his way to accept oaths of fealty from the nobility of York, whom he had already defeated.  Harald thought the army of England was far away waiting for William of Normandy’s invasion, so he left his ships with only half his army.  The army of England, though, had made one of the most impressive marches in military history to stop his invasion and caught Harald in a surprise attack 10 miles from his ships.  Rather than flee, Harald and his Vikings stood and fought, but he sent a runner to warn the rest of his men.

At Stamford Bridge, the Vikings fought an “incalculable number” of English hand to hand under the blazing sun.  At one point, a loan berserker single-handedly slew dozens of Saxons as he covered Harald’s regrouping on the other side of the narrow bridge. 

Meanwhile, the runner made it back to gather the rest of the army.  These Vikings jumped up and immediately ran to help their brethren.  Many cast their heavy mail aside so that they could run faster.

The reinforcements arrived, probably three or four hours after the battle first began.  They threw themselves into the fray, pushing with their shields and swinging with their swords and axes.  Some (perhaps the older ones) even died from exertion.  Thousands more, though, fought furiously until they were killed by the overwhelming numbers of English. 

The apocalyptic battle at Stamford Bridge is a red-letter event in military history and a fantastic example of the Viking warrior ethos.  It is also a tremendous example of what Vikings could physically be capable of.  For a real Viking, rowing across the sea for weeks and conquering York was just a warm-up for running ten miles in blistering heat before fighting for your life for hours.  That’s how tough Vikings were.    



  1. Rodgers, D. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings. KDP. 2018.
  2. Short, W. Games and Sports in the Viking Age. Hurstwic. 2020.
  3. Jette Arneborg, Niels Lynnerup, Jan Heinemeier, Jeppe Møhl, Niels Rud, and Árný E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir. Norse Greenland Dietary Economy ca. AD 980–ca. AD 1450. Journal of the North Atlantic. Special Volume 3: 1-39. 2012.
  4. Ohio State University. "Men From Early Middle Ages Were Nearly As Tall As Modern People." ScienceDaily, 2 September 2004.
  5. Heinrich Härke. 'Warrior graves'? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite. Past & Present 126, February 1990. 22-43.
  6. Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North. (Translated by Lunde, P. & Stone, C.). Penguin. London. 2012. 
  7. The Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson (Harald's saga ins hárfagra). Finley, A. & Faulkes, A. (translators). Viking Society for Northern Research. London. 2011. Accessed December 23, 2017.
  8. Volsunga Saga (the Saga of the Volsungs). Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2017.
  9. The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
  10. Egil’s Saga (Egils saga Skallagimssonar). Scudder, B. (translator). The Sagas of the Icelanders (editor, Thorson, O. & Scudder, B.) Penguin Books, New York, 2001.
  11. Gisli Sursson’s Saga. Regal, M. (translator). The Sagas of the Icelanders (editor, Thorson, O. & Scudder, B.) Penguin Books, New York, 2001.
  12. The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Scudder, B. (translator). Penguin. London. 2005.