Strength training enthusiasts have long been attracted to heavy hammers, axes, and clubs. There is simply something primal about swinging a weapon overhead, a martial art of ages past that has being always seems to come back to the basics. Recently, the resurgence of hammer training can be traced largely to the popularity of a mid-twentieth-century wrestler who went by the ring name of Karl Gotch. Well into his later years, Gotch could swing a heavy mace overhead for what seemed like forever. Maces and hammers continue to be a popular way for modern martial artists to gain the type of whole body strength that conventional gym training seems to miss.
After fooling around with light hammers for a while, I began working with a relatively heavy hammer. The challenge of hammer training, however, depends not only on the weight but also the length of the handle (or lever arm), hand placement, weight distribution, and overall exercise technique.
My first heavy hammer was made out of the gears of an old printing press and has the look of a medieval weapon. It is 44 inches long and weighs 35 pounds, though I have seen hammers as heavy 60 pounds. Regardless how heavy you begin it is a good idea to read up on basic mace and hammer swinging technique.
When most people think of training with hammers, they picture themselves hitting a tractor tire sledge-hammer style. While this certainly can be a valuable exercise, you have many more options with this great training implement and you are only limited by your imagination. I frequently perform overhead, mace-style swings either as part of a warm up or as part of a mini core/abdominal workout. Other great hammer movements include standing twists, diagonal swings, one-handed overhead swings with lighter hammers, various levering exercises… the list goes on.
Since you may not have access to a set of heavy hammers that increase in small weight increments, it is necessary to be creative to build progression into your training program. There are several straight-forward ways of making hammer lifting more challenging. You can alter the position of your hands relative to each other or relative to the length of the lever, you can change the distance between the handle and your body, and you can simply change the exercise.
I have found professional trainer and unconventional strength guru Rik Brown to be a wealth of knowledge. Rik has made a name for himself in strength and conditioning by developing expertise in mace and hammer training in addition to kettlebells. Sadly for me, he makes the hammers I swing look like swizzle sticks in an umbrella drink. A big man at six feet, seven inches, and 260 pounds, Rik has developed tremendous torque and power and a brutally strong grip by swinging maces of various sizes.
Rik encourages mace practitioners to swing for time instead of repetitions. A timer can be a great way to manipulate work/rest ratios rather than just adding weight or repetitions. Rik also suggests stopping your set when your technique begins to break down. This is especially important for older strength enthusiasts. (For more information on Rik Brown, see libertystregnthtraining.com.)