What Can You Learn From Medieval Archers?

The Battle Of Crecy, fought in 1346 between England and France saw the rise of the English longbow as a formidable weapon on the medieval battlefield. Heavily outnumbered King Edward III deployed his archers to the front and sides of his formation causing significant casualties to the heavily armoured French knights and Genoese crossbowmen. Time and time again the French charges failed amid a cloud of arrows fired from the yew bows of the English archers.

The crushing victory at Crecy established the longbow as the dominant weapon during the Hundred Years War, yet the French (normally at the wrong end of an arrow storm) were unable to effectively incorporate the longbow into their own forces. Why? Archers capable of using the longbow took a long time to train.

It took years of dedicated practice for an archer to develop the required skill, accuracy and strength to use the weapon effectively. Modern tests have the draw of a longbow at over 140lbs, a number way beyond the capabilities of an untrained soldier.

King Edward III foresaw these problems and set about engraining the practice of archery into English culture. He even decreed archery should be practiced by law and banned other sports which may interfere with this ruling. The nationwide dedication to archery that ensued plus the careful stockpiling of arrows and bows meant that during times of war thousands of highly skilled and hugely strong archers could be quickly raised for the King’s army.

This story demonstrates how the human body adapts to the mechanical stresses placed upon it. Challenge the body to get stronger and it will. Practice the coordination required for a particular skill and it will improve. All great news for those of us who want to improve our physical fitness and capabilities

However, a lifetime of specific training can leave its mark. Skeletons of archers from this era can be identified today by the enlarged arms and bone spurs on the wrists, shoulders and fingers created through thousands upon thousands of gruelling repetitions. I would wager these physical adaptations went hand in hand with some pretty gnarly overuse injuries too!

Abuse a particular movement or mode of exercise and the physical adaptations can quickly swing from a positive to a negative. This is why for the average person (who just wants to get stronger, fitter and healthier) diversifying workouts and daily movement patterns is a smart idea. This spreads the mechanical loads on your musculoskeletal system, broadens the biological adaptations and prevents you from excelling in one movement pattern at the expense of another.

Here are some examples;

  • Vary your workout exercises every few weeks
  • Include a variety of different movements into your workouts
  • Avoid staying in one position for any length of time e.g sitting
  • Don’t just train the muscles you can see in the mirror
  • Stretch at regular intervals throughout the day
  • Get outside and move around on variable terrain
  • Play a variety of different sports which require differing skill sets

Exercise specialisation is a realm for athletes, professionals and medieval archers. Exercise diversification is for everyone else.