Clubbell exercises are “the most useful and beautiful exercises introduced into physical education”, and have “vast advantages over dumbbells” for women.
—from Exercises for Ladies Calculated to Preserve and Improve Beauty, Donald Walker, 1835, cited in Clubbell Training for Circular Strength by Scott Sonnon
Ever notice how sometimes it really does seem like destiny is at work? Not long ago, I was experiencing the pleasures of sledgehammering down several walls (to be clear, dear reader, I was renovating, not attacking random walls). While in the throes of gleefully pulverizing drywall, I began to think about what a great workout this type of implement would provide for people requiring rotational strength, such as in golf, tennis, and martial arts. Weighted at one end, the sledgehammer provided an unequal load, and swung in a circular, cross-body motion, it provided plenty of work for arms, back, shoulders, and midsection. I began thinking about how I could incorporate this type of unevenly weighted implement into my own and clients’ workouts. I read up on sledgehammer training in Mike Hartle’s excellent series (links to this below). But much as I loved my trusty little sledge, at the time I didn’t have any room for whacking it into truck tires in my postage-stamp-sized backyard (and I don’t care what Mike says, I’m not going outside when it’s -20C).
As it happened, shortly afterwards, I found out about clubbells.
Turns out that I had inadvertently stumbled on one of the classic training tools. Strong men and women had trained for hundreds of years using some kind of implement with a handle and a weighted end. The most notable examples come from Asia and the Middle East, but Western athletes and wrestlers also used them in their training. There are many applications of this type of tool: martial arts, tennis, golf, baseball, any sport with a rotational and/or upper body component.
That was good enough for me. I had to have them. Clubbells can be ordered from the website at http://www.rmax.tv. Coach Scott Sonnon has produced a variety of clubbells, along with information resources. One thing I immediately liked was the range of weights available, from five to forty-five pounds. With clubbells, you want to err on the side of much less weight than you think you can manage. Ten pounds doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re swinging it in one hand, it suddenly feels like two hundred. After some discussion about correct sizing, Sonnon suggested I try both the five and ten pound versions. This proved to be a good idea. The five pounder was ideal for the lighter swinging motions, while I could manage the ten pounder for easier exercises like cleans. The difficulty of the clubbell can also be adjusted by the hand placement on the handle: the closer to the weighted end you grip, the easier it is, and vice versa.
The clubbells arrived before the instructional materials, so for a couple of days the clubbells sat around our house not doing much of anything. We took to referring to them as “snake whacking sticks”, after the Simpsons episode about Snake Whacking Day. When the video and book appeared, a friend and I sat down while waiting for delivery pizza to watch Sonnon in action. We were immediately enthralled. The pizza was forgotten (hetero grrls, it’s worth mentioning that Sonnon does the entire video shirtless). When food arrived, we nearly ignored it as we were excitedly trying to master the clubbell clean.
The video is basic. No fancy production values here. Just Sonnon and a clubbell. I appreciated the fact that Sonnon is a bit of a SafetyFascistTM. Throughout the video he indicates how to apply proper lifting techniques with the clubbells, and which exercises are considered advanced or contraindicated for people with various limitations. The video is more useful than the book in this regard, since it’s always so much easier to understand an exercise when one sees it demonstrated. The book provides more of a history of clubbell use, as well as details of how to integrate clubbell work into a training program, both in general and for particular sports. It’s clear from the book that Sonnon has read many of the significant authors in the field of strength training: Zatsiorsky, Bompa, Siff, et al.
Folks with some background in Olympic weightlifting will pick up many exercises rapidly, though likely martial artists will also grasp the concepts quickly. The key to clubbell lifting is using strong parts to provide the drive for the lift, and weak parts to do the supporting work. This is not unlike Olympic lifting or martial arts, where the momentum for a clean comes from the legs, and a punch is driven from the hips, not the arms. At first it appears that the exercises are putting a fair bit of strain on delicate joints. But when you understand this principle of using the stronger parts to drive the movement, you begin to see that the exercises are quite biomechanically appropriate.
For example, the cast-type exercises, such as the head cast, at first look like a recipe for rotator cuff damage. This is because the temptation is to try to extend the arm and bring the club forward by pushing the forearm up while relaxing the shoulder and allowing it to drift into hyperextension. However, it becomes apparent that in fact, the shoulder girdle and upper arm, with stabilization from the lats, serratus, and pecs, are what provide the drive. Everything around the shoulder is held tight and stable. The forearm is almost an afterthought, finally extended at the end of the “whiplash” chain which was initiated by much stronger body parts. Sonnon is also pretty explicit, though, that if shoulder pain is experienced, certain exercises should not be performed.
Many strength training implements have a butch “anti-aesthetic” aesthetic: they’re gray metal, not much attention is given to their design, and they’re meant to be stored in the garage. The clubbell, in contrast, is visually pleasing: clean lines, the right diameter to the handle, a basic streamlined shape. It’s even, perhaps, deceptively friendly looking. Just looking at it makes one want to pick it up. And so we did. The presence of the clubbells generated immediate interest in our household, and everyone who I showed them to wanted to pick them up and play with them.
Aside from my friends, I “road tested” them with a couple of clients, a couple in their 50s who both love golf and tennis. They were also intrigued. The husband suffers from a degenerative neurological disorder known as Multiple Systems Atrophy. He is losing his balance over time, and I have tried to incorporate exercises into his program which help him focus on retaining as much of this ability as possible. Clubbells seemed like a perfect little tool for this: non-intimidating, fun, and deceptively easy. I tried him out with the basics, a simple clean to order (the order position involves holding the clubbell perpendicular to the floor, with weighted end up, like holding a baseball bat in one hand). He did this one-handed, to increase the demand for balance. It proved to be an enjoyable alternative to our regular balancing exercises, so I plan to incorporate light clubbell balance training into future work. We’ll have to wait till summer comes for overhead work, though, since he’s 6’4″ and we train in his low-ceilinged basement.
Overall, I would definitely recommend clubbells for any trainee who has advanced beyond a beginner level. For a real beginner, clubbells might be a bit much if they’re just figuring out how to get their arms and legs working together. However, for folks already participating in a sport, or familiar with the basics of weight training, clubbells are a fun, interesting challenge. Currently the clubbells are parked in a corner of my study. Every morning I pick one up and do a quick series of clean to overhead press with it. In future I will definitely integrate them into my training program to both improve upper body strength and contribute to my boxing training.
More clubbell links:
- Clubbell grip strength training FAQ
- For the do-it-yourselfers, a fun link about making your own weighted training clubs. Perfect for those folks with no cash but who want lots of variety!
- Reader Evan writes: “I noticed the page about Clubbell training on your site, and thought you might be interested to know that Mr. Kim Taylor in Guelph is making traditional wooden Indian Clubs. Here is the link.”