Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Maxwell's Silver Hammer

Maxwell's Silver Hammer: the perfect balance to the kettlebell Swing.

Everything in life has its counterpart: Lancelot had Guinevere; Hiawatha had Minehaha; Tristan had Isolde; to has fro; back has forth; up has down and Tweedledee has Tweedledum! You get my point: there's a perfect balance for everything.

The kettlebell Swing is probably one of the finest posterior chain exercises: it works the hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae and core as good or better than any exercise out there and further provides a high-quality level of cardio fitness. It can be argued that,
considering all its health and performance benefits, the KB Swing could be the only KB exercise you'd need do at all; however, as in all things, the KB Swing must itself be balanced with an anterior chain movement and I've found the perfect counterpart--the proverbial Beavis to the kettlebell's Butthead--is the Sledgehammer Swing.

I've always loved sledgehammer work. As a kid, I loved the logo on the Arm & Hammer baking soda box. The logo depicts a sinewy, muscular arm--in a rolled up shirtsleeve--holding a large hammer, with the obvious connotations of masculine strength and functional work capacity, not just some all-show-and-no-go arm you might see on a pretty boy magazine, but an arm with genuine sinew and tendon strength.

How I lusted after a pair of arms like that! The hammer itself is a symbol for mighty Thor, the fierce Norse god who wielded the fearsome Mjolnir, a hammer forged by elves and imbued with magical properties, including throwing lightning bolts. When Thor hurled the hammer at his enemies, because of the hammer's mystical connection to him, it always returned.

Even in North American folklore, the sledgehammer is a symbol of a prodigious work capacity and heroism. Take the story of John Henry. As legend has it, John Henry was born into the world as a slave, emerging with a hammer in his hand. He lived at the end of an era where the human workforce was rapidly being replaced by technology. The story continues with John Henry's renown as the greatest steel driver ever, employed in the race to expand the railroads westward. When the railroad owner, in a move to replace his human workers and their jobs, buys a new-fangled steam-powered drill, John Henry attempts to save his comrades jobs and livelihoods by challenging the owner to a race twixt man and machine. Henry dug deep into the very fiber of his being, working like a man possessed, swinging two 20-lb. hammers, and defeated the machine, proving himself superior. But in doing so, he pushed his big heart one step too far and although the victor, he died from his efforts. There was no stopping the industrial age.

Technology has sprung up everywhere, replacing an honest day's labor with the comforts and anxieties of the machines. People of that generation knew how to work for a living. They needed neither restrictive diets nor shiny, mirrored-wall, chrome-and-fern gyms blaring noise and music. I guarantee you didn't see any fat on John Henry--or his work crew--and their sinewed, hammer drivin' bodies epitomize what we today call "functional strength".

I doubt whether the average gym bunny, pretty-boy, bicep-pumper-cum-bench press denizen can perform an honest day's labor. If you want a physique that's functional and strong, get thee down to Lowe's, Home Depot or Ace hardware and pick up a 16# sledge!

The sledgehammer swing is the perfect foil to the kettlebell swing. It works the abs and the entire core with a beautiful rotational movement. The impact of the hammer striking the ground, and the resulting reverberation up the shaft through the arms, builds tremendous tendon and ligament strength and increases bone density.

One of the first things you'll notice when you start swinging your hammer is how quickly the entire cardio-respiratory system is engaged. A
fter just a few swings, your breathing will become pronounced and your heart rate will elevate.

The mechanics of the sledge swing are the exact opposite of the KB Swing: the effort is bringing the sledge down with as much force as possible. If you want an extra good workout, hold at the bottom of the handle, fists touching, and use a large, windmill-like overhead stroke to engage as much musculature as possible. What size hammer? Beginners should opt for a 10-12 pounder, which can be procured at Lowe's or Home Depot for a nominal fee. I've only found
bigger hammers on the shelves of Ace Hardware. My GF swings a 16# (my Christmas gift to her last year and she was thrilled.) She loves swinging that sledge and I love watching her swing it! I use a 20# hammer and it's a formidable chunk of steel that will totally kick an ass. In fact, I'm so fired up from telling the story of John Henry that as soon as I finish writing this blog I'm pulling the van over and knocking out a hundred swings!

At the moment, I'm driving across the Great Salt Lake Flats from Utah (
where I presented a private Maxbells KB cert at Gym Jones, [slideshow on the right]) to San Francisco. Gym Jones is a fantastic facility catering to world-class athletes, owned by my friends Mark & Lisa Twight. They are amazing trainers with a wealth of knowledge and you can bet they have sledgehammers on site and ready-to-go!

Look what Gym Jones had to say about the MaxBells KB Instructor certification:

On Monday and Tuesday Steve Maxwell presented his Level 1 Kettlebell Instructor course to Lisa, Jamie M, Alberto, and Janette. He has been using KBs and training individuals ranging from amateur to pro athletes, from young to old, from beginner to advanced, from curious to recreational to serious for so long (he was the first to begin using KBs in the US) that he cannot be surprised by any question or condition. He has truly seen and done it. He was present at the first RKC certification in Minneapolis and introduced many of the movements and concepts now a part of the RKC curriculum. Steve was the first Senior instructor and, at the time, the only full-time professional teacher and trainer. Maxercise (his gym) was the first Kettlebell gym in modern times. Steve is a brilliant instructor, and not limited to Kettlebells or fitness: he was the first American to earn a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu [from Relson Gracie] and is an adept instructor. Every one of our guys and girls who had the opportunity to roll with him or take a private lesson were thrilled. Steve has visited us three times this year and the KB seminar was what we hope will be the first of many. Keep an eye on the Seminar page for future events taught by Steve Maxwell.

Old-time fighters liked to strike a tire with a sledge and this is very effective if you're forced to train indoors. I love training outdoors and I strike the hammer right into the ground. There's an added workload bonus to sucking the hammer head back out of the ground which adds up. The downside is this tears up the ground, so choose your location wisely (e.g., your neighbor's yard.) Another option is to find a tree stump; I love the sound of the hammer striking the stump.

While you're pounding that sledge, think of powerhouse Thor slaying the frost-giants. Or imagine indomitable John Henry, his body glistening as he bested that steam drill. Stick with the ol' Coach and you'll be a steel driving man as well.

Performance tips:
Let me be extremely clear: there is a hyooge difference between swinging a puny 8-10# sledgehammer and the massive 16-20# versions. A 16# is formidable...a 20# is horrendous! Keep the hands near the bottom end of the handle, preferably touching. Do not attempt to choke up. Choking up is the technique you'd use if working with the sledgehammer--we're using the hammer as an exercise modality, so the idea is to make it as difficult as possible!

As you strike the ground, exhale with a "huhh!"-like sound. This will help to fully engage the abdominals, including the elusive transverse abdominus. With a heavy hammer, do NOT go for speed. Although you don't want to tarry, go for for quality of repetition by STRIKING the hammer with as much power and vigor as you can muster.

I prefer working the weaker side first, then the stronger. Make sure you always do an equal number of strikes on both sides. If your form deteriorates, be smart enough to stop swinging, so as not to injure yourself!

Sledgehammer swings make a very nice pairing with KB Swings and also pair extremely well with Hindu Push-Ups:

Road Warrior's Sledgehammer Workout

A1) Sledgehammer Swing
x 20 (10 L/10 R)

rest: none
A2) Hindu Push-Ups x 10
rest: none

A3) Alternating Sprinter Lunge
x 20 (10 l/10 R)
rest: 60-sec

A1-A3 are a circuit. Repeat 10 times.

For an incendiary, fat-burning melt-off, the sledgehammer and KB Swing can be combined with stair climbs or sprints. Here's a workout the ol' Coach performed on a recent drive down the California coastline:

I encountered a very steep set of stairs cut into the side of a hill. I placed a KB at the bottom of the stairs and a sledgehammer at the top. Setting a timer, I performed 20 KB Swings at the bottom of the stairs, sprinted to the top, where perform 20 sledge swings (10 R then 10L). The idea is to do as many rounds as possible in 30 minutes--I promise you, this one's a smoker!

In Strength & Health!

Coach Steve


KBurnett said...

Nice post Steve. I only discovered your site this week and already I've learned a ton. I've got an old sledge head that needs a new shaft and this post has inspired me to head to Home Depot tomorrow. I've got the perfect spot in the back yard that I can beat the hell out of.
Thanks for all the great information.

Steve Maxwell said...

Thanks, Kyle! I aim to inspire! - Steve

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,
As always great would you compare the sledgehammer and the gada (macebell)?, in terms of muscles worked, variety of exercises, etc.

Mr. LowBodyFat said...

Coach Maxwell, you never stop amazing me! Not only do you know your stuff when it comes to training and nutrition, but you're well read too! Hey, I have my Masters in Comparative Black Literature, and the last thing I expected was to read about John Henry on a fitness blog!! When I grow up, I want to be like you Coach ... ;) Keep the great info coming!!!

Steve Maxwell said...

Good to hear from you Muata! -Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Hi Hela,
They are very comparable. The primary purpose of the hammer is striking, which also is its major benefit, because of the importune muscle loading, thus tendon and ligament strengthening. The commercial macebells are designed for striking as well. - Steve

Kit Laughlin said...

Hello Steve,

Great post, and some great workouts. If I can add to a great description, I want to send you a video of some of the exercises Dave (who you'll meet in Hawai'i if this trip comes off) and I taught on the weekend (a Strength & Flexibility 2-day workshop at the Australian National University).

In addition to the big swings and hits you describe, we add the Gada head loop-and-stop move you described two (from memory) posts ago, and some incredible forearm routines. All our sledges except the baby one we use for rotator cuff activation have full metre-long handles, too, making even simple-looking actions really hard.

I agree, using a sledge builds real-world practical strength---it's no wonder so many strongmen are ex-physical workers!

Best wishes to you


Phil said...

I start my day with your posts and as usual this did not disappoint. I really enjoy your Old School, Physical Culture approach to fitness and your age means that I, at 54, can hear you. Regarding the sledge hammer another trainer that I really admire suggests more the speed and form over weight approach. Could you clarify this further?

Steve Maxwell said...

Hi Phil, Both speed/form and weight/load have their place. Form, of course, is always important, no matter the weight or speed! Form relates to the technique and style involved with training. I prefer doing slower, more forceful reps with a heavier weight, though still moving at a good pace. I find T get more value from training like this than rapid swings with a lighter hammer. My advice is to try both and see which you like best, or even to mix it up. Thanks for writing in, I'm glad you enjoyed the post- Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Thanks, Kit, I appreciate it. I like how this thing is really growing, people getting into this training and away from the nonsense. - Steve

David Swanson said...

All I can say is that this stuff is incredible. I love your focus on pre-steroid physical culture. Something I can aspire to.
Thanks for keeping this blog going and for updating it with very well written and meaningful posts.
I hope to do a seminar with you sometime mid next year.
Keep up the great work!

Sandy Sommer, RKC said...

went out to HD and got a SH today. Nice workout. Great complement to my KB training!

Anonymous said...


Do you have any recommendations on suppliers of Sledgehammers? Is Home Depot good enough?