Indian Clubs: The Next Fitness Craze?

clublady.jpgI’ve seen them all, and even done a lot of them. Rebounding: jumping around on the mini-trampoline.  Jogging.  Step exercise. Skip roping, although that’s never become really mainstream popular.  Inline skating. Boxercise. Taebo kickboxing with Billy Blanks.  Power Walking.  Yoga.  Pilates.  Not to mention watching all the wondrous exercise contraptions that can be seen promoted on late night TV.

But I figure the next fad, or maybe the one after, is going to be Indian Clubs.

They look like bowling pins, or juggling clubs, and for adults in the light club category may weigh from five to 10 pounds.  They are whirled or swung around the body in a variety of patterns.  The idea is to build strength and resilience in the upper body.

I’m occasionally running across references to Indian Clubs on the Web on martial arts and exercise equipment sites.  The clubs may well be turning into one of those darn meme things.  What was old is new again.

I’m intrigued as much by the cultural history of Indian Clubs as I am by their potential for exercise.

At the end of the 18th Century, British military officers stationed in India were impressed by the strength and fitness of the Indian police and soldiers.  The British discovered that the Indians’ excellent physical condition was based on training with a variety of clubs.  The training was traditional, based on centuries of practice.  (In fact, the tradition remains alive in India today.  One anthropologist in the 1990s noted that a modern Indian wrestler practised his swings with a 176-pound club.)

The British army decided to adopt Indian Club training as part of their physical regimen in the early 19th Century.  However, they modified the training to concentrate on the light-weight clubs for flexibility and quickness.

A man named Donald Walker introduced Indian Club training to Europe and North America in 1834 through his book, British Manly Exercises.  (Now there’s a great book title.)

He followed up that bestseller with a book for the ladies which included Indian Club exercises: Exercises for Ladies Calculated to Preserve and Improve Beauty.

In 1864, Sim D. Kehoe, a New York equipment manufacturer, began making clubs.  He promoted them by sending them to prominent people in hope of a positive endorsement.  Ulysses S. Grant wrote from Washington to thank Kehoe for a set.

In 1866, Kehoe published The Indian Club Exercise, a well-illustrated system of exercise for both men and women.

This was the beginning of the era of the “Physical Culture” movement in Europe and North America.  Indian Clubs were the essential symbol of this movement which was intended to provide physical and spiritual uplift to the masses.

The movement became an important cultural force and endured until well into the 20th Century.  Indian Club exercises were included in the US Army’s training manual in 1914.  US President Calvin Coolidge, besides riding a mechanical horse and pitching hay for exercise, also liked to use Indian Clubs.  Club swinging was a part of the Olympic games in 1932.

For a charming peek into a bygone era, take a look at Thomas Edison’s 1904 film clip of junior Indian Club exercisers.

Okay, you’re charged up.  You would really like to try these exercises for yourself.  But where can you get a pair of clubs and try to follow Kehoe’s book above?  There are places on the Web to order wooden Indian Clubs and even instructional tapes on the subject, but that may be unnecessary.  Tom Black in his article The Secret World of Indian Clubs gives some historical background and describes how to make heavier clubs (around 10 lbs.) from hollow plastic baseball bats from a department store, sand and epoxy.  They sound a little heavy to start with… I plan to look for smaller toy bats and build them around five to seven pounds at first. I may look strange, standing out in a playing field somewhere, twirling and swinging, but I’ll be having fun.

(Note:  Jan Todd’s article on the history of barbells, dumbells and Indian Clubs is a fascinating look at this part of human culture. That’s my source for a lot of the historical background. )

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29 Comments on “Indian Clubs: The Next Fitness Craze?”

  1. qazse Says:

    fencer,

    seems this would give you strength training through a broader range of motion and therefore increase the involvement of more muscles. I lift weights and am limited in range of motion due to the nature of weight training, and due to golfer’s elbow (never golfed – it’s a wrestling injury) and a rotator cuff injury. I am going to look into this. Thanks.

    My mom was very strong because she raised dumbells.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Interesting! Let me know if you get a chance to give it a whirl…

    Was your mom athletic or that’s just part of how she exercised? (Pardon my curiousity.)

    Regards

  3. secretmojo Says:

    What a great post! Those clubs sound like a blast.

    Incidentally, I used to flip a pipe wrench in my hand as I walked down the street. Really beefs up the wrist and timing. As a result, I can flip almost any hand tool and catch it properly now. Great way to clear a path for yourself–though I never intended it this way.

  4. fencer Says:

    Thanks!

    I can see you now, flipping one of those really big wrenches, leisurely striding down the street. Smack clank! …smack clank! ….smack clank! Shades of Bo Diddley “… better step aside. A lot of men didn’t and a lot of men died.”

    How did you settle on a pipe wrench, by the way?

  5. qazse Says:

    entertaining exchange between you two.

    fencer, my remark about my mom was an attempt at an old joke. I think my delivery was lacking. But to answer your question anyway, my mom was a beautiful young woman who swam and skied in the Bershire Hills of Mass. She stayed reasonably fit during her adult life through activities such as cooking, laundry, cleaning, supervising, and enriching the lives of seven wild children on a blue collar budget. My mom did start walking and returned to swimming once the kids were grown. She unfortunately had a stroke six years ago and now uses a walker. She lives a mile away in a personal care home on a small college campus run by the Sisters of Mercy. She attends exercise class there and is a regular at trivia. She can still hold a note longer than any of her children.

    Thanks for asking.

  6. secretmojo Says:

    Fencer, lol. I had a crew cut head at the time, too, which I’m confident scared the poop out of those who didn’t know me.

    I learned to flip the pipe wrench because I was playing a character in John Guare’s “Landscape of the Body,” a thug who carried his trusty pipe wrench everywhere he went. I wanted to flip it on stage without dropping it. But I mostly did it because it was quirky fun, and slightly dangerous at the beginning (yeeouch! ).

  7. bloglily Says:

    As I read this, I kept thinking about how much damage a ten pound Indian Club might do if somebody let fly with one (same with the pipe wrench, actually). Still, it sounds like fun — there’s something about the swinging motion that must be nych more fun than just lifting and setting a weight down. I wonder who won the gold in club swinging in the 1932 Olympic Games. An american?

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Yikes, seven kids to manage… big family. That’s great she lives nearby and sounds still active despite the stroke.

    My mom wasn’t athletic at all. But she did like to swim and was good at it.
    __________________

    Hi secretmojo,

    Secret actor guy… gotta watch for those misthrown pipe wrenches.
    ___________________

    Hi bloglily,

    I think you have to hang on to the heavier clubs for dear life, and probably don’t want to swing them near a precipice. Whoops!

    Interesting question about who got the gold. That might be a good angle for some character… “Yes, my grandfather won Olympic gold in Indian Clubs… What’s that, you say? Well, I was never able to meet his expectations… Although I did try out once for synchronized swimming.” Sorry, just being silly…

    A fellow from California, Philip Erenberg, took the silver in Indian Club swinging. He said there wasn’t a lot of competition. Americans also won the other medals, from what I’ve been able to glean from the Web…

    Regards

  9. bloglily Says:

    I love knowing that Q is one of seven! And that Mr. MoJo can swing a pipe wrench. What a world it is. I must tell you Mike that my day is entirely complete knowing that a California fellow took the silver in Indian Club Swinging. And I like imagining the burden that must have placed on the generations that came after him. xxoo, BL

  10. Club Swinger Says:

    For the most complete history and benefits of Indian Club exercises, I suggest
    going to http://www.motionrx.com and http://www.ihpra.org under newsletters.

  11. fencer Says:

    Thanks for the interesting links…

    Regards

  12. Club Swinger Says:

    Fencer,

    Just came across a very interesting ARMY site with reference to Indian Clubs.
    http://www.usarc.army.mil/news/phytng.htm

  13. fencer Says:

    Yes, it looks like the US military is taking up the clubs again. That was interesting too about the inversion training… people hanging upside down off chin-up bars to learn how to maneuver their bodies in difficult situations.

    Thanks!

    Regards

  14. Maggie Says:

    My cousin was an exhibiter at the International Anti-Aging Medicine Convention in Chicago, and she got me a badge so I could attend. It was pretty cool. Thousands of medical experts were there learning how to keep people young. The booth near ours had the inversion machines and everybody was talking about how good it felt. I went over and a really neat guy showed me how to use it. Unbelievable. My back and neck felt like brand new. Then somebody asked him about Indian clubs. The company that makes that inversion table also has Indian clubs. The gentleman that was helping me was the expert, and he started teaching some doctors how they are used. I never saw anything like it before. He wasn’t wearing a nametag, but one of the other people in the booth called him Dr. Thomas and somebody else called him Ed. I searched around the web, and I think he works for the Iowa Department of Education. Does anybody know anything about him?

  15. fencer Says:

    Hi Maggie,

    I’m afraid I don’t know who the Dr. Thomas is you’re looking for… Although he may well be the fellow who wrote this article: http://indianclubs.com/cstkdtarticle.html.

    Regards


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  17. Matt Says:

    Intriguing post, thank you! This form of strengt training is definitely a new one on me. I’ve been using clubs in my martial arts training for a few years now, but they tend to be significantly lighter than the 10 pounds mentioned here! One thing I do wonder with this form of strength training program is…if the weight isn’t increasing, then is it likely to produce much of an INCREASE in strength over time? Admittedly, the range of motion achieved far exceeds that of someone performing shoulder presses with dumbbells etc… just wondering how it may all fit together.

    Thanks once again,
    Matt
    http://www.honestmusclegain.com

  18. fencer Says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for dropping by…

    I’m by no means any kind of expert on this. But I think the lighter weights, anyway, are not so much for strength training directly, although that happens, but as a kind of isotonic exercise where one controls the inertial masses of the clubs in a different kind of way than doing curls with a dumbbell. There’s coordination and alignment with the force of the moving clubs, especially in those patterns outlined in the old guidebooks. That’s my take, anyway.

    Regards

  19. Briana Says:

    “My mom was very strong because she raised dumbells.”

    qazse, Is that any way to talk about yourself? You seem rather intelligent to me! But seriously folks – interesting article!

  20. fencer Says:

    Hi Briana,

    Thanks for stopping by…

    Have you played with Indian clubs or tried the various fitness fads over the years?

    I’m always amazed at the innovative plastic exercise equipment the late night infomercials come up with.

    Regards


  21. I hail from the Philippines and apparently the Indian clubs are the basis of what is known as “Arnis” here. I myself is a practitioner in Arnis and I find it much like the training mentioned regarding the clubs from India. One major difference is the fact that Arnis training is focusing more on speed and agility than on strength and endurance.

  22. fencer Says:

    Hi Enrique,

    Thanks for dropping by…

    I didn’t realize that about Arnis… I thought alot of the training involved stickfighting, etc. Hadn’t heard about the club training.

    Regards

  23. Pat Dobbins Says:

    I’ve been doing Indian Club exercise for a month now. Clubs with the Dr. Thomas DVD (his moves are beautiful) are available from IndianClubs.com in one or two lb. weights. They are now available in black polyurethane as well as the traditional wood. Dr. Thomas learned in Burma and has swung clubs for 50 years! Because the one pounders are a bit heavy for some moves, I’ve won some lighter clubs on eBay for around $30 plus shipping. The moves are fun to learn, and really loosen up the upper body. There are so many moves, all of which can be done in many ways – parallel, follow, forward, reverse alternating, full arm circles, hand circles, forward, reverse, etc., that one will be able to work a lot of different ways. Club swinging is being promoted as “circular weight training” that will “wake up the shoulder girdle.” You have to try it to believe it. Along with kettlebells, which also have a dynamic swing, and striding poles, which get my upper body into my walk, I have what a need for a unique and effective self-directed fitness system that is enjoyable enough to stick with. I am 64 years young and in better condition that ever! Dr. Thomas is trying to promote use of the clubs in schools and in mainstream fitness programs, but the word of mouth is going slowly.

  24. fencer Says:

    Hi Pat,

    Thanks for your comments. Is there a site where we can see some of what Dr. Thomas does?

    Regards

  25. Pat Dobbins Says:

    Try indianclubs.com. Also google “indian clubs” for more info and Youtube videos. There’s quite a bit of info online, but nothing has gone mainstream yet. Dr. Thomas would like to change this, and is now offering polymer clubs that are less expensive than wood and available in larger quantities. He wants to have them used in school PE classes and sold in fitness/sporting goods stores. He is depending on “word of mouth” publicity, and this is a slow process. There is a learning curve – it will take a while to learn the moves, but it is fun to work on them.

  26. Noel Pugh Says:

    We used them at the Dortmund Tattoo in Germany,in 1947, we had little bulbs attached at the ends so that when the Stadium was plunged into Darkness the place was alive like fireflies as we continued swing the clubs.
    Ex 10 th anti tank regt.

  27. fencer Says:

    Hi Noel,

    Thanks for your comment… that’s a cool use of the clubs. I hope they will catch on again.

    Regards

  28. Coach Moore Says:

    Looking at these clubs I see great possiblities for my baseball pitchers, range of motion, increaseing the strength of rotator cuffs, shoulder strength, etc.
    I am excited about trying them. Coach Moore

  29. fencer Says:

    Hi Coach Moore,

    That does look promising… I’m still meaning to make a pair of home-made ones out of plastic baseball bats and sand…

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Regards


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