"Indian clubs!!!???" exclaimed my old friend Garry James, "Nobody exercises with Indian clubs anymore!" Now, Garry, who may be familiar to many of you from his frequent appearances on the History and Outdoor channels, knows a great deal about old things. At least he was perfectly familiar with Indian clubs, but he hadn't realized that in the present century, after about 60 years of perceived obsolescence, they are enjoying a considerable revival among devotees of unconventional fitness. I'll have to confess that although I had been vaguely aware of Indian clubs for as long as I can remember, it was only quite recently that I learned the eponymous "Indians" were not Native Americans, the war club being a favorite weapon of the latter, but the people who live in India!
Let's briefly summarize how Indian clubs came to enjoy a century-long vogue in the western world. In the late 18th and early part of the 19th century, the East India Company (an English corporation) was establishing its dominance over much of the Indian subcontinent. (It is hard for us to imagine today that a privately held company could hold such power, complete with its own army.) Officers in "John Company's" service noticed how a great many of their sepoys (native troops) positively dwarfed their European counterparts, both by their taller stature and robust physiques, and this led them to take an interest in Indian methods of physical culture.
Wrestling had been an important part of Indian culture for thousands of years--it appears in the great Sanskrit epics the Mahabharta and the Ramayana, and the Indians owed their fine physiques to the methods of training used for wrestling. Earlier Indian wrestling seems to have been a very brutal affair, with punching, biting, finger and limb breaking all having been sanctioned. However, since the takeover of most of India by the Mughal (Mogul) dynasty in 1526, Persian cultural influences had become strong in India, there being close ties between the Mughals and the Safavid dynasty in Persia. Consequently, Indian wrestling, particularly in the north of the subcontinent, became heavily influenced by Persian methods of training for wrestling. Thus, the Farsi terms for wrestling koshti and pahlevani became kushti and pehlwani in India. Wrestling champions in India today are called Rastem from the Persian epic hero Rustum.
Photo by Dnyaneshwar Prakash Vaidya
The principal training gear of the Iranian zurkhaneh (wrestling gym - pictured below) consists of the sang (heavy wooden shields lifted in pairs), the kabbadeh (a bow-shaped device from which weights are suspended) and, most important to our discussion, heavy wooden clubs called meels. These weigh anywhere from 10 to 30 kilos. They are used in pairs and swung one-handed, and it takes a mighty man indeed to swing the heaviest. In India, there are two counterparts to the meels, the mugdar, which is very similar to the meel, and the jori, which is somewhat longer; pound-for-pound its leverage makes it more challenging to swing. All these clubs are used over a limited range of motion, starting behind the shoulder and swung to a frontal position. Other gear in a traditional Indian wrestling gym includes the gada, ancestral to the macebell, the nal, a stone cylinder with a handle, and the gar nal, a stone neck weight shaped like a giant doughnut and worn over the head. Bodyweight exercises--squats and a form of push-up--are also performed with extremely high repetitions.
The history of how the heavy Indo-Persian clubs became the much lighter and more dynamic handling "Indian clubs" that came into vogue in the mid-19th century seems murky. The first exponent of Indian club training in Britain was one "Professor" James Harrison, who began instruction around 1837. He was reputed to have been the strongest man in England although his recorded measurements would seem to call this into question: He is reported to have had a 37 1/2-inch chest, a 13 1/4-inch forearm and a 13 3/4-inch upper arm (perhaps unflexed). Drawings of the professor show a much more robust individual than his measurements would suggest. In any event, he favored heavy mugdars (as he liked to call them) and very traditional Indian modes of exercising, and his displays of strength sufficiently impressed Queen Victoria that she presented him with an elegant vase.
Despite the pioneering professor's use of heavy clubs, the tendency in the western world was toward lighter clubs and more sweeping, graceful moves. For example, British troops in India were using four-pound clubs and swinging them to the accompaniment of band music by the 1840s. This trend may have been accentuated by a desire to fuse club swinging with the relatively new practice of calisthenics or "Swedish drill" that had been introduced in the early 19th century. Even today, club swinging is sometimes aptly characterized as "enhanced" or "weighted" calisthenics.
From the mid-19th century through the first few decades of the 20th, Indian clubs were enormously popular exercise devices. Juggling clubs, by the way, derive from Indian clubs, being smaller, lighter versions of the latter. Women and girls took up club swinging avidly. The practice was adopted by athletic/nationalist movements like the Turners in Germany and the Sokols in Bohemia. It was widely practiced in schools. Every well-equipped gymnasium had a rack of clubs. Military units practiced with them. There are films of American "doughboys" swinging clubs en masse during training for the First World War, as well as similar films of groups of schoolchildren exhibiting dazzling dexterity with lightweight clubs. There were club swinging endurance competitions. An Australian club swinging champion named Tom Burrows set a record for having swung a pair of clubs non-stop for an amazing 107 hours and five minutes! As a matter of interest, Perrier bottles are shaped like Indian clubs to indicate what a healthful beverage the mineral water is.
The first American to popularize club training in the States was Simon (not "Sim") D. Kehoe. A maker of gymnastic equipment, he had traveled to England, witnessed Professor Harrison's feats with his mammoth mugdars and began manufacturing clubs himself on his return. In 1866 he published a booklet entitled Indian Club Exercises that included testimonials from John C. Heenan, a noted bare-knuckle prize-fighter nicknamed "the Benicia Boy," and no less a personage than Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Kehoe stated that the exercises in his book were intended for clubs ranging from four to 20 pounds. While smaller than the mugdars used by Prof. Harrison, they are decidedly heavier than what would be recommended for beginners by modern exponents of the clubs.
In the late 19th century and early 20th, there appeared a plethora of texts on club swinging. Some of these are currently available in reprint form. Almost without exception, they appear with diagrams of swinging combinations that are so elaborate as to be quite incomprehensible! Fortunately for the 21st Century "swinger," there are many excellent videos online that can guide you. Some videos show the swinger displaying a lot of razzle-dazzle with tricky spins and the like which may prove daunting to the novice. As with any form of exercise, it's always best to keep it simple at the start.
The clubs maintained their popularity into the 1920s and a little beyond. Photos exist showing President Calvin Coolidge exercising with the clubs in the White House, and club swinging was part of the gymnastic events at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Then, very suddenly, they seem to have slipped into oblivion. They were used to some extent by military units engaged in physical training during WWII, but by the postwar era they had become little more than memories--quaint artifacts of an earlier era. Why that should have occurred is mysterious. The explanation commonly given is that they were displaced by the increasing popularity of "sports and games." This makes no sense. Sports and games were very popular throughout the heyday of the clubs. Proponents of the clubs claimed that among their principal virtues was that they were excellent for training and conditioning athletes for participation in sports--"manly sports" (in the parlance of the day) in particular--and they are also very beneficial for rehabilitating sports injuries. Moreover, dumbbells, at one time arguably less popular than Indian clubs, survived just fine, so go figure!
In any event, like the clubs' contemporary the kettlebell, which had long languished in perceived obsolescence, exercise enthusiasts have been rediscovering the benefits of club swinging...
And what are these benefits?
In the first place, it is a relaxing, fun sort of exercise, not too strenuous, and sometimes compared to yoga, tai chi or dance moves. In fact, some advanced practitioners of club swinging will dance to music as they perform their swings. The clubs are also claimed to enhance balance and posture. Club swinging enhances joint mobility and bilateral coordination like few other forms of exercise. Most importantly, it improves shoulder, elbow and wrist strength with fluid, full-range motions and helps prevent injuries. The shoulder, in particular, is the most mobile joint in the body and consequently the most susceptible to injuries, and the clubs are an excellent tool for shoulder rehabilitation.
On the matter of shoulder rehabilitation, I have a very good friend, who is a professional dog trainer. She is a small woman, along in years, and she told me that she had ruined her shoulders controlling unruly dogs. I told her, "What you need is Indian clubs." She didn't get any clubs. About a year passed, and I was in another one of her classes. This time I bought her a pair of one-pound Indian clubs. A while later, I asked her how she had fared with the clubs. She said that once she had gotten the hang of swinging the clubs, she was pain-free within 30 days!
For me, the clubs are an ideal warm-up tool. After swinging clubs for over four years, I simply will not undertake any heavy weight training either with macebells, kettlebells or free weights without a 10 to 15-minute warm-up with Indian clubs.
Indian clubs are almost invariably sold in pairs. The most common weights are one, two or three pounds apiece. (A few firms offer half-pounders.) With any form resistance training, always be guided by this principle: Nobody ever got hurt by starting too light! I don't care how big, strong and tough you are, don't start with more than 2-pound clubs. When I began club training, I bought pairs of 1- and 2-pounders. At first, I rather rued the purchase of the 1-pounders, finding them not very challenging. However, I have had occasion to be glad I did have the 1-pounders, as when I've been having a little problem with forearm tendinopathy or when I have hurt one of my hands. However, if you are a fit and vigorous person, the 2-pounders are probably the best starting weight. Many club enthusiasts feel no need to progress beyond that weight. Three-pound clubs and heavier are for more advanced practitioners of the art. Personally, I typically perform most of the lighter, faster movements with my 2-pound clubs, switching to heavier clubs for some of the simpler movements that I simply don't find challenging with the 2-pounders.
The classic material for Indian clubs is one sort of hardwood or another or laminates of the same. I personally have used wooden clubs exclusively. I vastly prefer their look and feel to plastic clubs, the other major alternative. One drawback to wooden clubs is that weights can vary appreciably from their stated weights depending on the density of the wood. Thus a pair of nominally 3-pound clubs I bought actually weighed 3 pounds, 6 ounces apiece, and when I later decided to give some 5-pound clubs a try, they turned out to be 6.5 pounds apiece. I have never wanted to go heavier than that.
The other alternative is plastic. They are a good deal less expensive than wooden clubs. I presume they are more uniform in weight and probably less subject to nicks and scratches. If you simply want a utilitarian exercise tool, they are probably fine, but they are devoid of the aesthetic qualities and rich traditionalism of the wooden clubs. There are also available handles that you can affix to plastic beverage bottles filled with sand, shot or some other material to turn them into Indian clubs, rather makeshift Indian clubs, I think, but, hey, if they work...! [One tip: If you are using shot as a filler for any kind of exercise device, get steel shot. When you spill the shot (as you surely will at some point) you can use a magnet to get it up, and it's not poisonous, unlike lead shot.]
Give Indian clubs a try! Those old-timers knew what they were doing, and I'm betting you will be very pleased with the clubs as well.
Author: Jan Libourel
The author would like to acknowledge a great debt of gratitude to the mavens and virtuosi of the clubs such as Richard "Army" Maguire, Paul Taras Wolkowinski, Dr. Ed Thomas, Thierry Sanchez and others for having shared their knowledge and demonstrated their skills to the online community. I could not have learned the art of club swinging or written this article without their efforts.
Want more fitness history? Here's a brief history of "old-school" exercise equipment by Jan Libourel.
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