It has been asked “what would you recommend for a beginner to become conditioned for heavy?” A good question and one that is worth a bit of discussion.
Firstly SCA tournament combat is an activity that does not require a high level of fitness. It is an activity (like many sports and martial arts) technique is the main determinate of outcome. Yes big strong people are going to get a good head start as they can shortcut the basic techniques, but they often only go so far before the lack of good form prevents their further progress. The average duel really goes more than 10-30 seconds of actual physical effort and most people can do this.
Having said this I think that improving your strength and conditioning is a very good idea. I talked about some general conditioning and training ideas previously. Improving your fighting endurance is good for training. The longer you can stay in harness swinging a sword then the more you will get out of a practice session, the more experience you will build. An example of this is person A, who can only deal with 10 or so bouts at a session and person B who can fight 20 bouts in a given practice. It is obvious who will gain in experience at a faster rate. Having good ‘armour fitness’ also will make tournament combat a more enjoyable activity. It is a lot more fun doing this if you are not on the side lines gasping for breath every other bout.
In addition to general endurance some strength is also desirable. This is mainly because being general stronger just makes doing anything physical easier it also helps in the prevention of injuries. However strength cannot replace good technique.
So where does someone start? The answer is largely dependent on what your current state of fitness is and how much time and effort you want to devote to this part of tournament combat. I’ll assume you do not smoke. If you do, stop. Smoking is not good for you health, you will have difficulty breathing, it does not make you attractive, you will small like an ashtray and to will die early with a horrible disease…
Anyway – even reasonably fit people will have some difficulty when they put on armour. They are often not used to having to carry and move that sort of weight about. Remember when I wrote about the concept of Specificity? This is the idea that to get better at something you need to work at that specific thing.
So it follows that one of the best training methods for improving your combat endurance is to be in armour a lot. So when you are at your regular practice session keep going to were you would normally get tired and stop. Now do a few more passes with someone. Make sure that you maintain your form and do not get sloppy. The idea here is to push a bit more into your fatigue levels each time, not to break yourself.
You could also do some interval session while in armour. These are variations on attack and defence drill. Working with a partner one of you attacks continuously for 10 to 20 seconds (good luck, this is a long time) and then swap roles. You get a rest while you block your partner’s attacks. A good idea is to do this fast but no power.
From this point there is a lot you can do. Remember that specificity is important. Training for a marathon will not help that much (but would be cool anyway). No one ever lost out working on their general fitness, so try running, riding a bike, go for a hike or take the stairs. Go outside and get your heart rate up and you body moving.
Strength or resistance training is another aspect of combat training and conditioning. While there is a lot of information out there a lot of it over the top and aimed at those people who want to do body building and massive arms. Ignore most of this.
For people new to all of this basic body weight exercises are an excellent place to start. You cannot go wrong if you do some squats, push ups, dips and pull ups. Primal Fitness is a good book to down load and have a look at and it is fee. Another excellent website is Nerd Fitness. Follow the links, read and try some stuff out. Like I said previously, no one ever regrets getting stronger and fitter.
If you are already going to the gym on a regular basis then you are on the right track. Just step away from the machines and pick up some free weights. This goes double for woman combatants. I have my students focus on the main lifts; dead lifts, squat, bench-press, shoulder press and bent over rows. You could probably drop the arm and shoulder stuff and substitute pull ups if you want. The important thing here is that you need to left heavy things. For most people one session a week is more than enough as long as you work up to the edge of your capacity. Make sure you have good form and maybe get some instruction from a qualified person. Working with big weights does carry a risk of injury if done poorly.
So to go back to the original questions about what can a beginner do. Get in armour and stay there as long as you can. Push yourself that little harder every time. Do some resistance work, body weight stuff is fine and squats are king.