Indian Clubs

I wish more people knew about the benefits of Indian clubs. But when I recommend them, the conversation typically goes something like this:

Sore, achy bro: I’m tired and my muscles are tight. How do you maintain such an intense training program?

Me: I pay just as much attention to my recovery as I do to my training, if not more. Have you heard of Indian clubs? They help a lot.

SAB: Those bowling-pin-shaped things? Do you juggle them or something?

Me: No, I use them as part of my active recovery practice. They’ve really helped keep my shoulders healthy.

SAB: Yeah, I don’t know…I already use kettlebells, barbells, ropes, rings, rowers, sleds, and all kinds of other things. Why do I need Indian clubs, too? (Exit stage left, moving stiffly.)

Here’s why I think Indian clubs should be your not-so-secret weapon: they differ from other exercise equipment in the intention of their practice. Not only are they a simple yet effective tool for building strength and joint integrity, they’re great for active recovery. If you need a lower-intensity workout after a period of heavy training, give the clubs a turn.

Historically referred to as Indian war clubs, this implement was originally used by Persian wrestlers and warriors to improve strength and mobility when preparing for competition or battle. British soldiers stationed in India adopted the exercises and brought the practice home, where it became part of the fitness craze of the 19th century.

From The Indian Club Exercise: With Explanatory Figures and Positions. Written by Simon D. Kehoe, 1866.

(Note: facial hair is not required for optimal results, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.)

Indian clubs made their way to the U.S., and were used in school physical education classes and military training programs. They even made an appearance as an Olympics gymnastic event in 1904 and 1932. Today, like kettlebells, Indian clubs are gaining popularity again as an older piece of equipment whose benefits are relevant for modern fitness practitioners.

In my training, I use Indian clubs as an exceptional active recovery tool. Active recovery is anything that increases your metabolic rate, but not so much as to cause tissue breakdown. A good guide: keep your heart rate below 60% of your max. Using all those other tools I mentioned earlier, I can break down my body in my attempts to make it stronger and faster. Along with foam rolling and contrast showers—and, frankly, picking the right strength moves in the first place—Indian clubs are one of the techniques I use to help my body recover from the abuse I willingly subject it to.

If you’re a kettlebell practitioner or CrossFitter, you do a lot of overhead work. And anytime you do a lot of work, you need to do a lot of proactive recovery. The shoulder is one of the most flexible–and therefore vulnerable–joints in the body. The circular motion of turning the clubs helps maintain strength and mobility at the shoulder as well as the elbow and wrist, and the weight of the clubs causes mild distraction (i.e., pulling the shoulder every so slightly out of joint). It sounds harmful, but when done carefully, this is actually beneficial: it moves synovial fluid into the joint space, supplying more O2 to the cells around the joint surface and flushing away any crap (technical term). My shoulder and overhead activity has benefited greatly from adding regular Indian club practice to my routine.

On a typical recovery day, I’ll start by jumping rope for 2 minutes at an easy pace, then alternate between 2 minutes of club drills and 2 minutes of rope for 16 rounds:

Double clubs drill #1 tall kneeling:

Double clubs drill #2 tall kneeling:

Repeat Drill #1, open half kneeling.

Drill #3 to the right tall kneeling:

Repeat drill #3 to the left tall kneeling.

Drill #4 standing:

Drill #5 standing:

Drill #6 standing:

That’s 32 minutes of continuous activity under 60% of my maximum heart rate (keep in mind that going over 60% of your max HR is more than an active recovery–now it’s work). My goal when using clubs is not to go heavier and heavier. In fact, I spend most of my time with one-pound clubs, only going up to two pounds occasionally. The goal is to be smooth, fluid, accurate, and even graceful. Once this is achieved, you add speed rather than weight. Using Indian clubs keeps me able to push, and push hard, without degrading my movement quality to the point that I hurt myself.

Jumping rope and turning Indian clubs both force me to maintain a healthy posture as part of the movement. In other words, it’s hard to cheat. Instead of this activity costing me, it actually repays me. Focusing on the quality of movement—paired with the rhythmic rotational movement and mild distraction at the shoulder—has had an impressive effect on keeping me injury-free and moving well. Additionally, the non-standing postures make this a whole-body practice, not just shoulder-focused. I walk away from this workout with better posture, and I’m better prepared to train hard the next day than I would be after taking a passive rest day.

However, unless you’re used to jumping rope or turning clubs, both movements will transition away from active recovery to conditioning and will give you sore calves, feet, and shoulders. Make sure you have some movement-specific work capacity before you give this entire routine a try.

To learn how to turn the Indian clubs correctly and take advantage of their benefits for your own recovery, hire an Indian clubs instructor (such as myself) or take the upcoming seminar and learn from Brett Jones and Dr. Ed Thomas (our very own link to the history of Indian club turning) July 11th and 12th in King of Prussia, PA.

Leave a Reply