Posted on 10 February 2012 by ultra-FIT
One of the more unusual training tools I use with my clients is a common-or-garden sledgehammer. Hammer swinging virgins and passersby often look shocked when they get their first glimpse of this kind of training but, contrary to initial reactions, sledgehammer training is fun, effective and very challenging.
Hitting things and getting away with it is one of life’s guilty pleasures. How else can the popularity of training systems such as Boxercise, Thump Boxing and other martial arts or fighting based workouts be explained? Ever since we dragged ourselves out of the primeval ooze and picked up a heavy rock or tree branch, we have been bashing our enemies and our food for survival. While it is generally frowned upon to use the same techniques in supermarkets that served us so well during the hunter-gather days of old, there is no denying that the sensation of swinging a heavy implement or hitting a target with bone-shattering force still appeals to the lizard part of your brain! Sledgehammer training allows you, in fact encourages you, to use that once dominant but now repressed instinct for hitting while delivering a high intensity workout.
Sledgehammer training is an effective whole body exercise. Each swing starts at your feet, travels up through your legs and hips, is transmitted via your core muscles up into your chest, back, and shoulders and finally delivered through your upper and lower arms. All of these muscles working in concert demand a large amount of oxygen which makes sledgehammer swinging very metabolically demanding. Short sets using maximal power will develop strength and anaerobic fitness whereas longer sets using lighter strikes will develop aerobic fitness and muscular endurance. Because swinging a sledgehammer uses a large percentage of your muscle mass, it is also a very effective calorie burner and is easily comparable with rowing and swimming as well as punch bag training. If my knees or hips are aching, I find high rep sledgehammer training or intervals are an excellent alternative to high impact cardio training and I have successfully used sledgehammer swings with overweight clients who were otherwise unable to pound the pavement. Despite the velocity of the strikes, sledgehammer training provides a low impact workout that does not stress the lower body in any adverse way.
Gearing up for Sledgehammer Training
Clearly then you’ll need a sledgehammer. There is no need to get a fancy made-for-exercise training hammer. These are unnecessarily expensive and a regular hammer from your local DIY superstore will be more than adequate as well as costing a fraction of the price. In terms of weight, a three kilogramme (6.6 pounds) hammer will be ideal for smaller men and most women new to this type of training. If you are particularly strong, a six kilogramme (13.3 pounds) hammer will provide a challenging workout. When it comes to hammer weight, heavier is not always better. If your hammer is too heavy you will not be able to swing your hammer very quickly and will be unable generate maximum force. It’s all down to something called the force-velocity curve. If an object is too heavy, you will not be able to generate maximal power and this can adversely affect your workout. If in doubt, buy a lighter hammer rather than a heavier one as you can always perform higher rep sets if necessary.
Next, you need some gloves. Unlike weight training where most of the friction occurs on your palms and lower finger joints, swinging a sledge hammer causes friction on your whole hand surface area. To avoid getting blistered and calloused hands, you will need a pair gloves with fingers. I use regular leather work gloves. I have used everything from motorcycle gloves to skiing gloves to water-skiing gloves but have found my £5.00 basic work gloves to be the most comfortable and hardwearing. If you are only performing a short set of swings as part of a circuit then you can probably do without gloves but for longer periods of swinging, gloves are essential.
Finally, you need something to hit. The best striking target I have used to date is an old tire placed on its side. This provides you with a large striking surface which absorbs 100 percent of the impact, minimizes noise and provides a slight “bounce” to help you reload ready for your next swing. You should be able to pick up a tire from your local tire dealer for free – they normally throw old tires away or even have to pay to have them collected so you’ll be doing them a favour. SUV or similarly big tires are best.
I have also used my hammer on the beach – sand provides an excellent striking surface although you do tend to get covered in sand every time after every up-swing. I imagine a patch of soft dirt would also work and have been told that old tree stumps are effective striking targets. Whatever you choose, use a forgiving target and make sure that you have sufficient overhead clearance. Sledgehammer training is best performed out of doors.
Swinging a sledgehammer is a natural movement that needs very little instruction. To get the most out of your workouts consider the following points, both for safety and exercise effectiveness.
Stand around 18 inches (45 centimetres) from your striking target and make sure you have a clear space around you
Aim for the middle of your target to minimize your chances of missing altogether!
Alternate sides to avoid developing an imbalance – you can change sides each swing or each set but make sure you perform an equal number of swings over your left and right shoulder. You will probably have a natural and an off side – make sure you work equally hard on both. With practice, both sides will feel similarly comfortable.
Tighten your grip just before the point of impact – this stops the hammer twisting in your hands.
Flex forward from your hips and bend your knees slightly – do not round your upper back. Make sure you brace your core to help stabilize your spine.
Get A Grip!
There are two recognised grips in sledgehammer training: The choke and the no-choke grip. In the choke grip, your lowermost hand stays still while your upper hand slides up and down the handle as you swing. This shortens your levers and allows for a more rapid swing speed. The choke grip is ideal for virgin swingers and if you are performing high repetition sets of swings.
In the no-choke grip, both hands remain at the end of the hammer handle and the hammer is swung in a long, wide arc. This is the most challenging way to use your hammer as levers are at their longest. Swings are slower using this grip but require more effort. The no-choke grip is similar to the grip used when swinging a baseball or cricket bat.
Sledgehammer Training Workouts
You can use sledgehammer training as a station in an outdoor circuit but there are a whole lot of other ways to make use of this excellent training tool. Remember to warm up before any of the following workouts by performing some light cardio, dynamic stretches and light/slow hammer swings.
Interval training is an effective way to get a lot of high intensity training done in a short period of time. Intervals can be aerobic or anaerobic depending on your work to rest periods. Try the following interval workouts…
3 minutes of swings/1 minute recovery repeated five times
30 seconds of swings/30 seconds of recovery repeated ten times
20 seconds of swings/10 seconds recovery repeated eight times – better known as Tabata protocol
I love timed challenges – they bring out my competitive side and also force me to focus on the job in hand. Simply decide on a number of hammer swings and try to complete them as fast as possible. Make a note of how long it took you to complete the challenge and do your best to beat that time when you next repeat the workout. Make sure you alternate sides and grips from time to time to keep your body balanced. The swing count is entirely personal but these are some of my favourite challenges to date…
100 swings – taking around three minutes, this is a “middle distance” challenge that will push you from aerobic to anaerobic exercise intensity.
250 swings – a muscular endurance challenge that is comparable to 2000 meters rowing.
500 swings – aerobically demanding and a test of mental fortitude.
1000 swings – one that will earn you bragging rights! A real test of fitness, endurance and mental toughness. My best time to date is 29 minutes and 45 seconds. Can you beat it?!
Similar to timed challenges except this time you perform as many strikes as possible in a predetermined time. The beauty of density block training is that you know exactly how long your workout is going to last and how long you’ll have to push yourself for.
5 minutes – pushing the envelope of aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.
10 minutes – tests aerobic fitness and muscular endurance.
20 minutes – a serious test for even the fittest exerciser.
30 minutes – a veritable sledgehammer marathon that will test determination as well as physical conditioning.
Pyramids can be ascending or descending. Simply add or remove a swing on a set-by-set basis. Rests are intuitive but, as these workouts are against the clock, don’t stop for any longer than necessary. In many cases, swapping grips or changing sides will provide sufficient rest to allow you continue.
1 to 10 – perform one swing, rest a second, perform two swings, rests again and continue adding one rep until you perform a final set of 10. This totals 55 strikes.
10 to 1 – reverse the above workout.
1 to 10 to 1 – an ascending pyramid immediately followed by a descending pyramid.
20 to 1 – a very tough workout which, thankfully, gets easier as you progress. Alternate sides on a set-by-set basis until all 210 repetitions are completed.
I’m sure that, once you try sledgehammer training, you’ll grow to love it as much as my clients and I do. I’ve had everyone from potential Commonwealth games athletes to bodybuilders to exercise neophytes performing sledgehammer training and the consensus of opinion is that it really is fun to hit something and get away with it!