Indian Club Turning has extraordinary and unique benefits. They are a meditative practice, providing a calm focus that stands in stark contrast to the noise and intensity in which we are too often immersed.
No other exercise that I’ve seen in my 14 years of coaching moves your shoulders in the same way. Grip strength, hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder joint health, are some of the immediate benefits. After some practice, students can rise to a level of Club Turning that trains your coordination, balance, core stability, stamina, strength, and endurance.
So What are Indian Clubs?
Basically, they are wooden clubs that come in symmetrical designs and varied weight. The clubs are turned in rotational patterns and pendulum style swinging.
A Brief History
The modern “Indian Club” is making a come-back after hitting its peak popularity in the Victorian Age, but the origins go much further back to Ancient India and across the Persian Empire. Tracing the history of clubs leads one back to prehistoric ages, but we see the use of clubs in fitness and practiced as a skill going back at least several thousands of years.
Clubs and maces are depicted in early Hindu artifacts stretching back as far as 1900 BCE. The introduction of Indian Clubs to Victorian Physical Culture came about from the British occupation of India in the early 1830’s.
When the military leaders saw the health benefits of consistent club turning practice, they developed a more standardized size and shape, and a set of exercises that were introduced to large segments of the military.
Indian Clubs were everywhere! In the gymnasiums, and in most classrooms of U.S. cities…
At the height of its popularity, Indian Clubs were actually an Olympic Sport.
Then came the machines.
In the 20’s, the physical culture craze had brought about a lot of innovation – and a lot of gimmicks and products to buy! By the 1950’s, machines were beginning to take over the gyms and by the 1970’s, most skill-based fitness had fallen out of favor. Weightlifting, Kettlebells, Gymnastics, and Indian Clubs had all but disappeared from the public gyms.
Indian Clubs Today
In many ways, it’s an exciting time for fitness training. The last decade has seen a massive return to functional training. Kettlebells, Weightlifting, and gymnastics are coming back into mainstream training routines. With these functional and skill-based methods once again gaining popularity, the benefits of Indian Clubs are once again being recognized. Mixed Martial Arts athletes have begun using them for shoulder rehab and injury prevention. Lightweight clubs are a tremendous recovery tool to balance more intense training while developing coordination, balance, flexibility and joint mobility.
Indian Club training is accessible to almost anyone. All you need is enough room to extend your arms overhead and out to your sides, and of course, a pair of clubs.
Choosing your first set of clubs
The most common mistake people make in choosing their first set of Indian Clubs is getting clubs that are too heavy. There is a tendency to think heavier is better, but to get the most benefits from Indian Club turning, one should start very light. This will allow you to progress more quickly from simple movements to more demanding and complex patterns.
Getting clubs that are too heavy will prevent you from developing good techniques and will make it nearly impossible to perform some of the more complex and beautiful patterns. I recommend most women starting with 1lb clubs and most men with 2lb clubs. If you are recovering from injury or poor shoulder/wrist mobility, you may need to start even lighter.
I realize these weights seem ridiculously light, but keep in mind that club turning is not like any other exercise you’ve likely tried before. The speed of the turns, the range of motion achieved, and the complexity of the patterns can all add degrees of difficulty that can challenge any athlete, even with very little weight.
I can’t emphasize this enough. I frequently see strength coaches and club manufacturers recommending more weight. This is a huge mistake and misunderstanding of how clubs should be used. Even if the recommendations are made with the best of intentions, starting with a heavier club will likely result in the beginner getting discouraged and/or injured. Even if you manage to handle a heavier club, you’re likely to get bored because of the limitations of patterns possible with more demanding weights. A lighter club will allow you to explore infinite patterns and methods. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll have a much better understanding of the uses and limitations of heavier clubs.
Just to drive this point home- keep in mind that I’ve been a strength coach for 14 years and practicing Indian Clubs for about 5 years. I weigh over 200lbs and I’m not currently managing any injuries. Yet I still use a set of 2lb clubs for most of my practice, integrating heavier clubs (up to 5lb) for short periods within my overall routine.
Make sure your Indian Clubs are made of hardwood, not plastic or metal. Here is a good pair on Amazon, and if you’re in the local Portland Oregon area, we have several sizes and shapes available at the InSync Center For Fitness, where you can hold them in your hands and get some council while purchasing.
Learning the clubs.
In the beginning, Indian Clubs are best practiced daily, in short, 10-minute sessions. For fitness enthusiasts, I recommend using them as a warm-up or cool-down skill session added to your existing routine. If you’re not currently training, you’ll still want to limit your Club Turning time to about 10 minutes per day and gradually increasing that as you learn various skills and develop more stamina in the shoulders and grip.
As with any skill, I recommend mastering the basics before jumping into the more interesting and complex patterns. Learn to turn the clubs with ease and flow. You should be able to identify the 3 basic turns and the 3 basic grips and demonstrate them effectively. Heart-shaped circles (sometimes called “The Eagle”) are the first multi-turn pattern that I teach and are one of the most common go-to exercises performed with the clubs.
When you can flow for 10 minutes straight with all of the above, smoothly, and with no breaks, you’ve likely developed the stamina and skill to safely integrate more complex patterns. I like to warm up with familiar patterns for a few minutes. Then practice one new skill or pattern. Then end with a timed session (often set to music) to practice a beautiful, smooth transitioning flow of movements. Depending on the day, I might also add in some heavy club swinging, Mils (pronounced “meels”), and/or Gada (Mace) work to finish the session.
Resources for learning the Indian Clubs
This dynamic art is exceptionally difficult to learn from a book, but if you have begun to practice, you can get some good direction by going back to the masters. This book was first published in 1866 and it’s author, Sim D. Kehoe has been credited with bringing Indian Club Culture to the U.S. (click on the book to see more)
A YouTube search for Indian Clubs will bring up lots of examples. It can be a deep rabbit hole to go down. Some are amazing. Some not so great. Paul Taras Wolkowinski is undisputedly this generations’ greatest authority on Indian Clubs. I encourage anyone wanting to get into the Clubs in any way to check out his channel.
I’m currently working on my own set of videos and even an online course. If you’re interested in staying up to date as that develops, just drop me a comment below.
If you are within driving distance of Portland Oregon, we offer on-site live workshops at the InSync Center For Fitness. To see our upcoming schedule and pricing for our 6-session Indian Club workshop, click here.
Indian Clubs Beginner Workshop
I’ll be revisiting the Indian Clubs, Mils, Gada, and other forms of clubs and maces in future blog posts. I will be teaching you individual grips, turn, and patterns. So be sure to subscribe for more!