Viking Quest is a fitness Mecca. I make the pilgrimage five days a week.
From almost the beginning of any workout, a little voice in my head begins to speak. I think of him as the “Gnome of Can’t.” Mr. Can’t loves to tell me that I can’t do another rep, run a bit further or manage that last round of a brutal workout.
Viking Quest (VQ) has helped me to silence Mr. Can’t. I found in that silence a genuine strength I never knew I had.
Last May, I met the Gunderson brothers at the local YMCA in suburban Lafayette, Indiana. I was answering an old poster advertising “Viking Quest.”
The three Gunderson brothers look like extras from the movie “300” or “Vikings.” The bearded brothers are testosterone incarnate with cobblestone abs and chiseled, bowling ball shoulders, and steely eyes during workouts.
You can see in their eyes every bead of sweat that ever dropped on their foreheads, every weight they pumped, and every Viking “trainee” they pushed to greater levels.
All three blond brothers look like a stunt stand-in for Thor. They greet me with smiles at the beginning of each workout.
The workout begins with Olaf putting his long blond hair into a pony tail. Sven puts his blond hair in a man bun. They grab shields and started yelling.
Five minutes, after the warm up, I am physically failing, and things have only just gotten started.
The brothers prowl like hungry lions up and down our shield wall yelling, encouraging and cajoling. We do sword-and-shield work until we feel exhausted. I’m barely making it but I feel alive.
A Bad Athlete Made Okay
I am not a natural athlete. I am more of an academic than an athlete. I am clumsy and cross-eyed. I am more comfortable in a library than in a gym. I feel better with a book in my hand than a dumbbell.
I got issues- I have muscle tears in my right shoulder from multiple dislocations, creaky knees, a bad back and a constant ringing in my ears. Too much weight on my back, too many miles on my feet and a few too many explosions has left me a physical hot mess.
I literally “fake it until I make it” every day at VQ. The truth is I hate it and I love it.
My proper education of being a Viking began the first day of class. Olaf, the oldest Gunderson brother, showed me the basics
“This is the warrior’s way. It is a school of thought we have enrolled in. It is a tough way of life, but it’s rewarding,” said Olaf in his Norwegian accent.
He told me to pick up my shield. The shield is wheeled shaped and two feet across. It’s crafted from hardwood and set with a metal rim.
The shield is emblazoned with the design of a Solar Cross- a large “O” divided into four parts of red and blue.
It is a classic medieval shield but fully functional in its design- to train me to become a Viking. The shield is large enough for defense, but small enough to make the warrior carrying maneuverable. It weighs nearly six pounds.
“For a Viking, a good shield was the difference between life and death. Being able to handle the shield was priceless,” said his Olaf’s younger brother, Sven.
The practice blades are single-handed Viking broadswords. The Norse blades are two-and-half foot blades made from ash.
They have a full-tang with thick edges, the points of the blades are rounded for safety.
The grips have leather straps for a secure hold. You totally feel like a badass holding these ancient weapons.
The swords and shields help us recreate the real feel of training for deadly hand-to-hand combat, in feel and performance, and in design and construction, without the risk of cutting off a hand.
The shields and swords help to unlock the spirit of the wielder. They are beautiful in both function and beauty and a heck of a lot of fun.
They made me admire times long ago and long gone. I am a grown middle-aged man playing with toys and having the time of my life.
“This is not about producing false courage. None of the shield-banging and yelling bravado you see in the movies. We only yell when we are having fun,” says Sven. We yell a lot.
“Habit will become your friend. When you train the mind to think offensively, it teaches the mind to think in only way. This makes you strong in battle,” said Sven.
“In Viking times, a warrior wore a helmet and breastplate for his own protection, but his shield was for the safety of the whole line,” said Olaf.
I stand for minutes at time holding a sword and shield stretched out in front of me until my arms ached. I learn the strokes of a blade. I am educated the hard way, when I make a mistake I get hit with a sword.
I learn how to use the shield, how to drop it to stop the lunge beneath the rim, and how to shove it forward at an attacking enemy like a blunt spear.
Olaf watches me rehearse the basic cuts. He fixes stuff, when needed.
“The hardship of the exercises will strengthen your back, but it also strengthens your mind. A Viking shield wall is won by the legs it has underneath it. The real test comes when all your strength is gone. Then you must seize victory from defeat,” said Sven.
One by one we take the test. We face each other in the shield wall. When I am done I wobble around on spasming legs until everyone is finished.
“There is nothing Olaf loves more than to throw trainees back into the fire,” said Sven smiling.
As brutal as the shield wall test seems, it isn’t an exercise in fitness sadism or a crazy attempt to build legs strength while yelling and grunting. It’s not designed to build muscle or burn fat.
It’s a baptism into Viking Quest’s primary belief: strength is in the mind is a warrior’s primary weapon.
VQ is almost like a cult. After my first week I was almost in a state of religious zeal. I drank the Kool Aid by the cup full. VQ members are called “Viking trainees.”
A lack of effort or not showing up results in instant excommunication. It’s a closed society, but like the Norse warriors it’s named after, it’s clannish and prickly.
When you join, you join a family. A family that is harsh and sometimes cruel, but always loyal and loving.
The Brothers Gunderson
The Gunderson brothers believe in training as if your life depends on it. Most of their workouts make me feel queasy when I hear what lies ahead.
Their unconventional medieval training methods, such as tire flipping, rock throwing, shield-and-shield work, and rope climbing to make their “trainees” fit.
Olaf is a character from an epic movie-heroic, muscular and tragic all at the same time.
Olaf tried acting in England. When that didn’t work out he followed his brother Sven to Indiana.
Sven was a smart kid. He came to Purdue University to study mechanical engineering. Ragnor followed a few months later.
The brothers were one of the lucky few to escape working-class Norwegian city of Bergan and make something of themselves. They can trace their family line back to the 9th and 10th century Vikings.
The brothers have turned old family legends into a fitness craze. Now, the brothers were getting paid to make people suffer and miserable “Do it again,” says Olaf in a deep, loud Norwegian accent.
My body is out of control. I am hating my life right now.
How It Works
VQ is a stripped-down combination of high intensity aerobic activity, some weightlifting, calisthenics and sword-and-shield work.
Mix in dumbbells, a box, a clock, swords and shields and you have a perfect recipe for pain.
The basic workouts are 40 to 50 intense minutes long. They start at 5:30am and are done by a quarter to seven.
Every workout is different. The Gunderson brothers focus on intensity..
You write down your score after each workout. This allows you to track your progress over 60 days. Watching your reps increase in a set time period is a great feeling.
It’s a grueling regimen. Some days I see trainees puke or have muscle failure. It’s hard to believe that good people pay hard-earned money to do this. We do it because it’s a lot of fun.
VQ is no-holds-barred training regimen that shocks your system and puts you in serious shape. It is a gut-check that tests your physical limits, builds mental grit and helps to forge total-body strength, stamina and power.
Most of the workouts, range from crushing, hour-long circuits with swords and shields to vicious intervals on the rower, to throwing rocks. All of it is almost biblically intense.
“Each workout is designed to be brutal gut check. I want it to be a mental crucible. I want to my students to get used to worshipping in the temple of pain,” says Olaf. Smiling he says, “Through pain and suffering you discover your true potential.”
The Gunderson brothers practice what they preach. They do each workout with us. Sometimes they encourage, sometimes they yell, but always there is a couple of stern looks to “trainees” not putting out.
One trainee is lagging behind. Sven comes up behind her. “Come on, Viking! You got more in you. I am relying on your shield to save me,” yells Sven.
The female trainee lifts her shield for one more hard push. As soon as the workout is over a smile explodes across her face. She worked hard and did something few people could do. Her reward: a pat on the back and nod from Olaf and the admiration of her peers.
Olaf says, “I found VQ to help get people unstuck in their heads.” Over time he has turned doughy engineering students from Purdue into a phalanx of hardened Viking warriors.
“I used to run VQ on the ‘Fight Club’ model- it was invitation only,” said Olaf. That has changed over the last couple of weeks.
I’ve immersed myself in the Paleo diet. It’s stripped away the weight but has left me fantasizing about loaves of bread and heaping bowls of spaghetti.
I question myself every step of the way. Each morning I confront questions about myself, my past and my athletic limitations. Again, I hate it and I love it.
Deep inside me there must by a masochistic who loves pain and torture. I show up to VQ four to five mornings a week to get my teeth kicked.
I can’t tell you why something so punishing and difficult is also funny and rewarding. But I’ve learned a lot about myself at VQ. I am a better man for it.