Implements of rotational strength have been used across the world for centuries. India and Persia have a long history of swinging various clubs and staffs in various concentric patterns to develop shoulder, spine, leg, chest, and grip strength (4). There is currently no published, peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating the exact benefits of these types of movements, although their assets have been revered in numerous publications dealing with physical culture. Kehoe (1866), for example, noted: “By no means of exercise has such remarkable development of muscle and strength been attained in such a short space of time, as by the Indian Club practice” (3). Watson (1864) raved that Indian clubs “are deservedly held in the highest esteem by all gymnasts… nothing can be better calculated to invigorate the respiratory system, expand the chest, call into action the muscles of locomotion and the principal structures around the joints, and enlarge and strengthen the muscles of the forearm, the upper arm, and the shoulder, as well as the abdominal and spinal muscles” (12). A particularly influential figure in bringing about the popularity of Indian clubs was Professor James Harrison. The Illustrated London News wrote about him and his club use in 1852, stating:
… We learn that Mr. Harrison first began to use the clubs three years ago, at which time his muscular development was not regarded as being very great, his measurements being: round the chest 37-1/2 inches, round the upper arm 13-7-8ths inches, and round the forearm 13-1/4 inches. The clubs with which Mr. Harrison commenced weighed about seven pounds each; he has advanced progressively until he can now wield with perfect ease two clubs, each weighing 37 pounds, and his heaviest weighing 47 pounds. The effects of this exercise on the wielder's measurements are as follows: round the chest 42-1/2 inches, the upper arm 15 inches, and the forearm 14 inches. At the same time, his shoulders have increased immensely, and the muscles of his mid-section which were weak when he first used the clubs, are now well-developed and powerful. In short, all the muscles of the trunk have been improved by this exercise (11).
In this article, the potential benefits of exercises with implements of concentric strength will be examined based on the existing studies on shoulder mechanics, power production, and antirotation exercises. In addition, a few basic exercises using light and heavy clubs, gada, and Bulgarian bag will be explained.
CURRENT EVIDENCE OF CONCENTRIC SHOULDER MOVEMENT BENEFITS
The glenohumeral joint has the largest range of motion in the human body (9). Unfortunately, it is this great mobility that puts the shoulder at a higher risk of injury (9). For athletes who engage in sports requiring great torque on the glenohumeral joint, such as throwing athletes, this range of motion may be greatly increased over that of nonathletic subjects (7). The forces placed on the joint in racquet sports, ball sports, and other overhead athletes can place the shoulder at a significantly greater risk of injury (8).
Numerous training protocols have shown promise in improving the strength and function of the shoulder (3,6,10). The exercises chosen generally used lighter weights or elastic bands and included abduction, adduction, extension, flexion, rotation, scaption, pressing, pendulum-type, and concentric shoulder movements at various speeds. Therapeutic exercises included, for instance, assisted and nonassisted stretching exercises for the pectoralis major, sternocleidomastoid, trapezius, infraspinatus, and other muscles surrounding the glenohumeral joint, isometric and dynamic strengthening exercises such as rows and scaption movements, dumbbell pendulums, and targeted exercises specifically for weaker or unstable areas (3). Whether home based or performed under the care of a physical therapist, there is evidence of pain reduction and shoulder function improvement for many of the methods studied, although more research is needed to determine the best practices (3). All of these movements—pendulum, flexion, rotation, and so on—are within the Indian club “alphabet.” Furthermore, mills and swings with the clubs take the shoulder complex through a wide range of motion. It can therefore be argued that Indian club movements align well with the current accepted shoulder strengthening prescriptions and have great potential to improve the functionality and integrity of the glenohumeral joint.
Dehnavi, et al. (2) performed a study comparing the ratio of strength and range of motion of the internal and external rotation of the shoulder in athletes who have practiced Zurkhaneh, or Persian wrestling, competitively for over 3 years to that of nonathletes. Training for Zurkhaneh traditionally involves extensive swinging of heavy mil clubs. The article showed that the Zurkhaneh athletes have significantly greater strength in internal rotation than in nonathletes, but that this difference is much smaller in external rotation (2). Furthermore, the article showed that internal range of motion was significantly less than external range of motion for athletes in comparison to nonathletes (2). However, the article does not specify which or how much of each traditional exercise the athletes perform—Zurkhaneh training also includes wrestling, numerous push-up variations, and other exercises. Furthermore, heavy mil swings do not generally incorporate the variety of ranges of motion involved in swinging lighter clubs. Although this seems to be the sole peer-reviewed study involving club swinging, it may not be representative of all types of club swinging, nor does it necessarily represent the effects of using heavier club swinging.
EXERCISES FOR POWER PRODUCTION AND CONCENTRIC SHOULDER EXERCISES
There is evidence that plyometric upper-body training helps increase power in throwing athletes. Carter et al. (1) examined the effects of “The Ballistic Six” on maximal throwing force and strength and function of the rotator cuff in collegiate baseball players. The exercises included various angles of internal and external shoulder rotation against tubing resistance as well as throwing or decelerating a medicine ball at different angles. After 8 weeks of 3 sets up to 20 repetitions of the Ballistic Six per training session, the players experienced statistically significant improvements in throwing velocity and in the isokinetic strength of the shoulder musculature over a control group that had simply performed normal conditioning activities. The swinging patterns of clubs, maces, and other instruments of concentric strength align particularly well with plyometric medicine ball movements. Swinging these ancient implements requires deceleration, stabilization, and throwing-type motions, much like movements performed with a medicine ball.
In a review performed by McCrary et al. (5), it was found that there is evidence demonstrating that both high-load dynamic warm-ups (such as plyometric push-ups or medicine ball throws before bench pressing) and sport-specific warm-ups (such as swinging a standard bat before batting) seem to have a positive effect on strength and power in sport performance. Club and gada swinging can be easily performed as a dynamic warm-up in sport-specific fashion, particularly for racquet, throwing, and bat sports as well as grappling sports and martial arts. Therefore, it can be inferred that club and gada swinging may help to enhance strength and power, particularly in sports requiring swinging or concentric movements around the shoulder.
A main advantage of implements such as clubs and maces is their ability to mimic the use of the shoulder in many sports and everyday lifestyle movements. The implements are designed to move the shoulder through all 3 planes of motion. In addition, they provide a unique way to train antirotation, deceleration, and stabilization. The next portion of this article will highlight some basic movements that can be performed with light clubs, meel, gada, and Bulgarian bags.
BASIC LIGHT CLUB MOVEMENTS
BASIC SHOULDER CIRCLE
- Hold the clubs with the hands at the far ends, away from the heavier part of the clubs. Pinkies should be over the balls at the end of the club handles.
- Swing the clubs in a circle for the pain-free range of motion of the shoulder in either direction. These circles can be performed with 1 or 2 hands, simultaneously, or in opposite directions (Figure 1).
BASIC ARM SWINGS
- Swing the clubs within pain-free range of motion in front of the body to the overhead position and back to the hips or behind the hips if mobility allows. This may be performed with straight arms, or the arms may bend at the top of the motion so that the clubs are positioned behind the shoulders as in a tricep extension (Figure 2).
- This exercise may be performed with both arms simultaneously, with both arms moving separately, or with one arm at a time.
BASIC MILL (“HEART-SHAPED SWING”)
- Hold the clubs parallel to the floor below the chin. This is the rack position.
- Bring the elbows up and back so that they stick out to the side of the head, and the clubs are behind the head. Continue raising the shoulders through a pain-free range of motion so that the clubs hang behind the shoulder.
- Extend the arm(s) out to about a 45° angle from the shoulder.
- Keep the arms straight and continue to lower the club(s) out to the sides and toward the center of the body.
- As the clubs approach the center line, bend the elbows and cross the clubs in front of the torso, finishing at the rack position (Figure 3).
- The mill can also be performed with one hand (Figure 4).
- The mill can also be performed with both hands moving in the same direction (Figure 5).
- The mill can also be performed in the reverse direction.
BASIC MEEL MOVEMENTS
The meel swing is similar to the Indian club mill.
- The meels start by being held slightly away from the body below waist level and parallel to each other.
- Bring one elbow up toward the sky, bringing the club behind the shoulder.
- Swing the club toward the outside of the shoulder, turning the body with the movement, and then bring the club back over the shoulder to the initial position (Figure 6).
SIMPLE MEEL SWING
- Heavier clubs such as meels can also be swung in the same fashion as the Indian club “basic arm swings” (Figure 7).
BASIC GADA MOVEMENTS
- Hold the gada vertically and just below the navel, close to but not touching the body. Hands are close to each other but not touching. This is the rack position.
- Raise the elbows toward the sky so that the gada is cast over one shoulder as close as possible to the back of the body.
- Swing the gada behind the head and pull over the opposite shoulder, back to the rack position.
- Continue the motion in the same direction for the desired time or repetition count. The motion may be performed in either direction with either hand on top (Figure 8).
10 TO 2
The 10 to 2 motion is the motion generally performed in competition. The motion is similar to the 360° swing.
- When the mace is pulled over the opposite shoulder, pause it at a slight diagonal (“10 o'clock” or “2 o'clock”).
- Swing the mace back over the same shoulder, behind the back as close to the body as possible, and over the opposite shoulder, stopping at the “10 o'clock” or “2 o'clock” position on the opposite side.
- Swing the gada back and forth in this manner for the desired time or repetitions (Figure 9).
BASIC BULGARIAN BAG SWING
- Holding the bag by the tips, swing the right arm around the left side of the body until the bag is behind the head or shoulders (depending on pain-free range of motion).
- Continue the swing by bringing the left arm around the right side of the body until the bag is in front of the body and the arms are almost straight down (Figure 10).
- Continue the momentum of the swing for the desired number of repetitions or time.
- The torso may move with the direction of the bag. The movement can be performed in either direction.
As there is no research to determine best practices for implements of rotational strength, a specific protocol has yet to be determined. However, a basic rule of thumb is that light club swinging for shoulder mobility, grip strength, and coordination training can be performed often—even daily, if desired—provided that they are not causing unwanted effects. A light club swinging session can last 5 minutes as a warm-up or cooldown to 30 minutes or more as a prehab/rehab, mobility, or light strengthening routine. Heavier implements such as maces and Bulgarian bags would be used less frequently, depending on one's goals. A wrestler or martial artist may wish to use a frequent training schedule with heavier implements (3–4 times per week, 5–30 minutes, depending on goals)—Bulgarian bags, for instance, can be used to mimic many Brazilian jiu jitsu movements, and may be a valuable practice in improving performance on the mat. As an adjunct to a sagittal plane-dominant routine such as powerlifting, maces and Bulgarian bags can be added after a lifting session or once or twice per week on off days. As we do not currently have evidence of the effects of these implements, it is best to train based on how the body responds to the work.
Although research specifically on implements of rotational strength is currently lacking, current research demonstrates the value of performing exercises across multiple force vectors for shoulder performance. Furthermore, performing exercises that mimic those performed in a specific sport or activity has been shown to be beneficial. The use of Indian clubs and heavy clubs, gada, and Bulgarian bags can easily be used for these purposes and are arguably valuable tools for rehabilitation and the development of sport-specific strength and power.
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