The Physical Training Instructor (PTI) branch of the Royal Marines Commandos is the only military establishment left in the western world that includes Indian club training as compulsory syllabus. Being in the heavy weapons branch of the Corps, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn to use them until near the end of my six-year service. Up to that point, club swinging was perceived to be off-limits. They were only something that the “club swingers” of the PTI branch had the right to use.
After shoulder surgery in 2008 (following a riot-training accident), I was sent from Plymouth to London for a consultation with one of the country’s leading shoulder specialists. After a thorough assessment he informed me that I should forget my aspirations to join the Special Boat Squadron, and I would not be able to work with anything heavy above shoulder height again. This was a sucker punch to the kidneys and it was the first in a long string of events that formed my extreme prejudice against conventional medical doctors. Nowadays, I acknowledge this prejudice and hold most medical doctors in a positive light — although anything they say is taken with a pinch of salt and extensive research. I digress.
During my 12 months of being medically downgraded, a rehabilitation instructor from the PTI branch gave me a series of club swinging lessons. I took what I learned and practiced most days. I also learned the kettlebell get-up by watching Dragondoor DVDs of Pavel Tsatsouline. Two years later I was stronger than ever before and had full strength in all ranges of shoulder motion. I’ve been told by a number of body experts over the years that my glenohumeral rhythm is perfect (exceptional shoulder function, in layman’s terms). Despite the slight hunchback, my thoracic spine moves like a ninja and now, at 40 years old, I can hold a 48kg (106lbs) kettlebell overhead all day long. Well, for a few minutes at least. I attribute this miraculous recovery to club swinging and kettlebell lifting. Developing an expertise in shoulder mechanics and functional anatomy so I wouldn’t have to rely on conventional medicine was instrumental too.
Shortly after leaving the Corps in 2011, I met a great mentor, Rob Blair of the Commando Temple in London. Rob introduced me to the mace and I took to it like a fish to water. After using Indian clubs so extensively I viewed mace training as a clumsier and easier-to-learn version of circular strength. But mace training holds its own unique set of benefits (which I will address later).
Teaching Clubs, Commando Style
Clearly, club and mace swinging featured heavily in my own training regimen, so naturally I wanted to teach my clients. Especially the ones with stiff thoracic spines and vulnerable shoulders (erm, almost all of them). Herein lies the learning curve. Royal Marines Commandos PTIs are super-human physical specimens who hold an ability to acquire new physical skills faster than most. I won’t even go into some of the unworldly tests they have to pass to make it into their illustrious branch (but it’s worth a Google search). The method of teaching Indian clubs in the Corps simply consists of, “Watch this. Now do it with me. Now do it on your own. If you don’t pick it up, you’re a numpty”.
I learned that the Bootneck (Royal Marines Commando) style of teaching is ineffective for most everyday exercisers when it comes to coordination-based skills. The techniques that I use for teaching club and mace swinging in workshops today are those I developed as a result of years of trial and error. I learned from world-class teachers in other movement disciplines and mixed in my own understanding of human movement acquisition. I’ve taught hundreds of hours of private one-on-one club and mace sessions and have led more than 50 group workshops and semi-private sessions. Every workshop is better than the last because a new student always does something differently that I have to adapt to.
Benefits of Indian Club Training
Indian club training does little for losing belly fat — that happens in the kitchen. Although club swinging is great for therapeutic stress relief (which means less fat storage), there is a solid argument that it actually does help with fat loss. Anyway, here are the rest of the benefits if your training is regular and frequent:
Increased shoulder stability; higher resilience to injury
Increased shoulder range of motion. No more tweaked shoulders from “sleeping weirdly.” Your arms move freely everywhere that they’re supposed to
Improved glenohumeral rhythm. When your arm lifts up, your shoulder blade lifts to just the right position for optimal structural support
Better coordination, upregulated brain function and improved ability to pick-up physical skills. Club training is highly cerebellum dominant (the part of your brain that coordinates movement). Teaching your arms to do different things, simultaneously lights up parts of your brain that would otherwise remain dormant
Healthy wrists and hands. With all the laptop work we modern humans do Indian club training feeds the joints of the hands and wrists with essential movement and nutrients
Improved grip endurance
Increased range of motion in the thoracic spine. A stiff T-spine can be a major contributor to lower back and/or neck pain
Fun, meditative hobby that’s easily accessible and can be done anywhere
Indian Clubs Versus Mace
Indian clubs are light and are meant for high reps, working the shoulders through their full ranges of motion. People who are used to swinging heavy steel clubs or Persian clubs (bigger and heavier) often neglect these end ranges when they pick up a pair of light clubs. See the guidelines below for buying the right sized clubs. On the other end of the weight spectrum are maces, a.k.a. macebells, which are the modern western name for the ancient Indian weapon, training tool and ceremonial implement known as the “gada.”
Once you know your way around a pair of Indian clubs and have grasped the principles of circular strength (known in physics as angular momentum), swinging a mace tends to come a lot more naturally. If you want to gain the biggest bang for your buck, I advise spending time training only with light Indian clubs (for coordination, shoulder health, hand health and thoracic spine mobility) and a heavy mace (for strength and badass-ness). That way you have both ends of the spectrum covered.
Of course, if you love swinging things and want to make a hobby of it, I urge you to try all the tools in between including Jori, sledge hammers, steel clubs, Persian meels, battle axes and just about anything else you can get your hands on.
Golden Exercises of Mace Training
It doesn’t take much of a search to find someone performing a movement flow involving jousting, spinning and chopping a light mace while lunging and squatting. These pretty patterns are great, but it’s not the kind of mace training that I practice or teach. I prefer the more traditional Indian style of mace (or gada) training, which involves going as heavy as good form allows for a lot less reps.
All training tools have respective golden exercises associated with them. For instance, the golden exercises of kettlebell training are swings, snatches, bottoms-up lifts and bent press (to name but a few). You wouldn’t use a kettlebell for low rep deadlifting. The golden exercises associated with TRX or suspension training are pike variations, single arm rows, and pressing variations. You wouldn’t use a TRX to strengthen a hinge or squat pattern or to train for raw strength.
The golden exercises associated with mace training are variations of two exercises called 360s and 10-to-2s. My mace workshop begins with a few entry-level exercises to help beginners grasp a feel for it and to open up their thoracic spines and shoulders. Then we move onto high value chopping patterns which ignite even the sleepiest of glutes. But the vast majority of the half-day workshop involves progressions to help students learn the 360s and 10-to-2s.
Benefits of Mace Training
Strong lats — the powerhouse of upper body strength and the foundation of all functional pressing movements
Strong serratus anterior — a muscle that’s sleepy in most adults and plays a huge role in shoulder stability, therefore helps overall strength
Powerful grip. Indian clubs tick the box of hand health and grip endurance. The mace forges a grip to be reckoned with. In the same way a fire requires three elements to exist (heat, fuel and oxygen), the human body requires three areas to be strong in order to reach its strength potential: glutes, abdominals and grip.
Steel torso. That’s right, your torso will literally turn into a pillar of steel if you train yourself to swing a heavy-ass mace.
High carryover effect to many other upper body strength-based activities
It’s badass and gives you real-world strength. Not the kind of useless strength that training with machines, benches and the equipment that most gyms cover their floor space with, meow.
Buying Indian Clubs
I love Heroic Sport’s Pahlavandes. They’re plastic handles that screw into most plastic water bottles to form an excellent pair of Indian clubs. They’re cheap, super portable and sometimes I even include them within the ticket price of my workshops.
I advise staying away from Indian clubs made from plastic or metal. They just don’t feel or swing nicely. Pahlavandles are plastic, but they swing really well because of the large difference in weight between the two ends. This difference is key for a club to produce a good swing.
Wooden handled clubs are superior for their feel and swing. They’re also the only piece of fitness equipment that get away with living in the house because they look like pretty ornaments. Unfortunately, I don’t have any recommendations for club makers here in the US following one bad experience after another. Stablefords.co.uk is a great and trusted club maker. They’re U.K.-based but ship internationally. Otherwise an eBay or Amazon search will serve you well.
Recommended Indian Club Weights
Buying a Mace
In an ideal world you would have two maces: really heavy and moderate. Obviously, as you become stronger your heavy one will have to be replaced. If you’re coming to one of my mace workshops, I have a discount code for Onnit (U.S.A.) maces. Or if you’re in the U.K., Wolverson Fitness supplies the same one — I can provide a discount code for them too.
I recommend the following weights to people who’ve never touched a mace before:
If you’d like to learn some skills for life I’d love to teach you! Click HERE for information and tickets for my next workshop in Shrub Oak, New York on 22nd February. Tickets are currently discounted but they won't be for long!
If you’re interested in learning the art of club swinging remotely, please contact me. If you’d like me to come and teach in your gym, I’d love the opportunity.
Strength and honor!