Old Clubs, New Tricks - Part One
We have a little joke in our training community that comes out at certifications or workshops, and it goes a little something like this:
“Raise your hand if you have ever had a shoulder, elbow or wrist injury.”
[Instructor waits to see a show of hands from the group]
“Those of you who didn’t raise your hands probably can’t… because you have an injury.”
Unfortunately, the odds are that if you participate in athletic endeavors, you are likely to experience some kind of problem with your hard working shoulders, elbows or wrists at some point. Statistically speaking, more than 1 in 3 people who participate in resistance training sustain a shoulder / arm injury of some kind. Of course, with our digitally dependent lifestyle, the portable electronic device addiction that we all suffer from every day means that we can’t plausibly blame all our aches and pains on resistance training. Postural pathologies like Upper Crossed Syndrome and now the so-called “Cell Phone Elbow” are new sources of repetitive stress that are slowly eroding the health of our upper extremities, backs and necks (not to mention our brains). On top of all that, consider this: the average American only spends about two hours each week performing some form of exercise. Yes, that’s less than 1% of the hours we have in a week! As such, it is a bit surprising that we are so quick to accuse fitness activities for the all pain we feel, isn’t it? The old idiom of the straw and that poor camel are long forgotten, apparently.
Along with rotator cuff and glenohumeral issues, elbows, wrists and hands (grip) are all long suffering players on the modern lifestyle team. As such, we are always on the lookout for training methods that can help to “armor-up” or “bullet-proof” these joints. Even though there are new gadgets and training methods hitting the market each month that profess to help us with these issues, there already exists a long-standing method, in use for hundreds of years all over the world, but it somehow suddenly fell out of fashion in the second half of the 20th century. Call it “progress." This method was club swinging.
History and Tradition:
Across many generations and in many cultures, especially those in India, the Middle East and the Far East , the swinging of weighted clubs has been part of martial arts training tradition. The natural carryover in skill and strength for the wielding of hand weapons and empty-handed combat made it an obvious choice for our warrior ancestors. The Gada, famously carried by deities such as Hanuman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanuman#/media/File:Hanuman_fetches_the_herb-bearing_mountain,_in_a_print_from_the_Ravi_Varma_Press,_1910's.jpg) and Vishnu (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vishnu#/media/File:Bhagavan_Vishnu.jpg) was not only a symbol of power and strength, but an actual training tool; created to enable us mere mortals to become more like the gods. We’re talking about an activity that mashes up physical training, spirituality and mythology here, folks!
The more modern (light) club swinging exercises that exploded in popularity during the 1800’s can be traced back to the British colonial presence in India and their appreciation for the indigenous warrior culture's physical prowess and training. The Brits appropriated these methods and shrank the club design down to a size and shape that made them easy to pack up and transport in large numbers. They were then introduced back in Europe as a means for performing large group calisthenic training in a “follow-the-leader” format for military personnel. Soon after that, this style of training was added to physical education programs for school children.
No studies exist that might compare our current incidence of shoulder, elbow and wrists problems to those of our club swinging ancestors. I do know, however, that in spite of advances in modern medicine, issues with these joints continue to be on the rise today so…
Why did we stop swinging clubs?
Well, some of us didn’t, fortunately, otherwise we wouldn’t have anyone around to teach us today. The rise of the self-service, big box gym made club swinging a lot less safe or even practical for the general population, and the importance of quality physical education in our schools has sadly waned over time, shifting the onus to parents enrolling children in elective physical training programs outside of school. Imagine walking into a Planet Fitness or elementary school today and seeing a group of beginner trainees picking up a pair of weighted bludgeons and trying to teach themselves how to swing them around. It’s an insurance nightmare to say the least! With that said, lest I appear to have an axe to grind, our physical education priorities have changed for some good reasons too, not just negligence. The Indian Club methods were traditionally associated with preparing a population for war and our collective stomach for that type of training changed quite a bit after the 1940’s, especially in the western world. We might, however, have “thrown out the baby with the bathwater” as the expression goes.
So how does this type of exercise actually benefit me?
Simply put, the primary benefit of the traditional club swinging drills is:
The development of stronger and more resilient shoulders with greater muscular endurance.
In addition to that primary merit, and thanks to some new additions to the club swinging exercise library, the benefits now also include:
Improved postural alignment.
Relaxation and restorative breathing.
A stronger and more dexterous grip.
Increased range of motion in the shoulder, elbow and wrist.
Improvement in connective tissue health for the hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders.
Increased skills in proprioceptive coordination and neural activation.
Increased blood flow and decreased inflammation.
Improved cardiovascular efficiency (as these drills can be performed as long-sustainable, low intensity aerobic exercise.)
Like any other skill, club swinging takes coaching and practice to develop proficiency, but as you can see, the benefits clearly outweigh the investment in time spent learning a few simple movements. Their connection to our martial past might increase the appeal for some of us (like me!), but it certainly shouldn’t be a deterrent for others. Although these exercises can be used as a training session in and of themselves, they work especially well as resilience work to be performed between heavier training sessions or as warm up and active recovery. The "ballistic stretching” advantage of light club use means that in just a few exercises we can practice breathing, mobility, stability and strength all at once.
If the traditional club swinging patterns appear a bit daunting, fear not! Here are some simple new drills from Gray Cook and Functional Movement Systems to get you feeling the benefits of club swinging in no time.
Forward / Backward Swing
This move helps to reset breathing, activates neural coordination, decreases residual muscle tension and reveals any potential rotational asymmetries.
The idea is just to swing one club in front of you, while swinging the other one behind you, rotating the trunk to always face the front-swinging club. As the arms swing out to form a “T” shape, breathe out so that you reach full extension at the same moment that you finish your exhale. Breathe in as you rotate, timing the end of the inhalation with the end-range of your twist. Try flowing through this movement pattern for at least 15 seconds, but of course you can go for longer as you become more comfortable with it. For a greater challenge, try performing the exercise in a split stance with most of your weight on in the front leg.
For this drill, we coordinate upper and lower body movement while the core provides stability during the transition from symmetrical to split stance and back.
Stand in a narrow stance with the clubs hanging down at your sides. Swing the clubs up, pointing your elbows upward as you step back into a lunge. Try not to chase a deeper range of motion than feels prudent. Breathe in as you raise the clubs up and out as the clubs swing back down past your hips. Your calf muscles should drive your body out of the lunge to get back to the starting position. Try moving just one leg at a time first for about 20 seconds each, then try alternating legs for 20 seconds. If you want to take it up a notch, you can also try a cross-behind lunge too.
This one is even more dynamic and incorporates some throwing mechanics. It gives us a look at the differences in upper-body mobility and stability from left to right and works our hip flexion and extension with the split stance.
For this pattern, we swing both the clubs laterally across the front of the body to one side. Rotate the body with the momentum of the clubs and then step into a forward lunge in the direction the clubs are headed. We’re trying to end up in a position just like the Reverse Lunge with the clubs traveling up and over your shoulders to hang down behind you, with your elbows pointed upward. Breathe in as you move into the lunge and the clubs pass above the shoulders, and breathe out as your return to the start position. Allow the clubs to pendulum back and forth once before stepping into the lunge on the other side. Try alternating legs for 20 seconds and notice if one side feels different than the other.
These first three drills can be performed as a simple warm-up sequence or rotated through several times as a circuit. If you’re worried about having enough room to do them with a pair of clubs, you can even use a product favored by boxers called Egg Weights, which fit inside your fists so you don’t have to worry about smashing anything in your living room. Just keep your practice SLOW, at first, while learning the movements and stay focused on coordinating your breathing. I can’t emphasize this enough. Once you get comfortable with these exciting but simple new club swinging drills, you’ll be ready for part 2 where we use them a bit more specifically to develop better deadlifts, squats and explosive power.
Stay tuned! Caleb