I’m always looking for new exercises to throw into my workout routine. Recently, I’ve gotten into a training method used by ancient Persian wrestlers, Victorian gentlemen, and even members of the Band of Brothers. It’s called Indian club training. You’ve probably seen people exercising with Indian clubs in old photos. Or maybe in this episode of The Simpsons. It consists of swinging weighted clubs in different and sometimes elaborate movements in order to strengthen and increase mobility in your upper body.
I’ve had a blast since giving Indian clubs a whirl and have seen my mobility in my shoulders improve as well. Below I highlight the history and benefits of Indian club training and demonstrate a few exercises to help you get started with swinging clubs.
A Brief History of Indian Clubs
Indian Pehlwani wrestler using clubs to exercise.
The practice of using clubs as a fitness tool started with ancient Persian Pehlwani wrestlers or Pehlwans. To prepare for competition and battle and to strengthen their arms and torsos, Pehlwans would swing large, modified war clubs. Pehlwani-style grappling, along with the idea of training with clubs, spread throughout Iran, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
In the 19th century, British soldiers stationed in India picked up on the club swinging exercises performed by Pehlwani wrestlers and brought the practice back to England. They modified the clubs a bit to look more like modern-day bowling pins and called them “Indian Clubs.” Indian club training became wildly popular during the Victorian physical culture craze of the mid-19th century and spread throughout Europe. Soldiers and even women and children took up the exercise with gusto.
Illustration from The Indian Club Exercise, by Sam Kehoe, 1866
“Sometime during A-stage we were deep into a set of “Indian clubs” when my eyes got blurry. Indian clubs were a popular exercise device of the era. They were shaped like bowling pins and weighted at the ends. They loosened and strengthened your arms and shoulders and could be deceptively strenuous. We swung them around in various patterns until we nearly keeled over — we did them so long the clubs felt almost hypnotic after awhile.”
~ Buck Compton on basic training at Camp Toccoa, from Call of Duty: My Life Before, During and After the Band of Brothers
Indian club training came to the United States by way of German immigrants in the middle of the 19th century. Several popular physical culture enthusiasts evangelized for the myriad of benefits Indian club training offered and found a receptive audience in the American public. The U.S. Army included Indian club exercises as part of soldiers’ physical fitness routines during basic training in WWI. School children often took part in large, choreographed Indian club routines not so much for physical fitness, but rather for show. Turn of the century athletes were so nuts for swinging Indian clubs that it even became an official sport at the 1904 Olympics.
Indian clubs continued to be used in both gymnasiums and military boot camps into the 1930s, but waned in popularity mid-century as other pastimes like basketball, baseball, and football captured the public’s attention. But in the past decade, Indian club training has experienced a revival, especially among martial artists who find the shoulder-strengthening benefits of Indian club swinging to be particularly useful.