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Between barbells, cables, dumbbells, and machines that simulate everything from rowing to skiing, there’s no shortage of options for getting in a great workout. But there’s an old-fashioned piece of equipment that’s gaining steam these days, popping up at gyms and probably on your Instagram feed: the steel club. It may be a newer modality for most of us, but the steel club’s inspiration dates back centuries.
Colloquially known as “Indian clubs,” these wooden bowling pin-like clubs trace their roots back to India. According to the American Journal of Public Health, they became a widely popular form of exercise in Europe and America following the Civil War, after British soldiers brought the practice to the west.
Indian clubs are still around—you can even buy them online. But these days you’re more likely to find steel clubs, an updated version of the classic that can vary in weight from five to 50 pounds.
“The clubs are just a very unique stimuli for the human body,” says Cristian Plascencia, a senior durability coach at Onnit Academy who uses clubs in his training. “In a western culture where dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells are king, the steel club really provides a unique experience that challenges the system as a whole to be able to stabilize the weight vector.”
Steel clubs are versatile, but Plascencia particularly likes to use them for shoulder work, noting that anyone who regularly performs overhead activities like throwing, shooting, and pressing would greatly benefit from picking up some clubs. “Because of their unique build, they allow for a wide variety of ranges of motion to be moved through,” he says. “It’s this full range of motion that allows joints to become more robust.”
Beyond shoulder work, you can use steel clubs for all your conventional movements, like squatting, lunging, hinging, pressing, and pulling. Basically, anything you’re currently doing with dumbbells can be done with clubs. But Plascencia is quick to point out that using clubs is more about finesse than brute strength. Grabbing the heaviest club in the gym and holding on for dear life will quickly burn out your grip muscles.
Just like any other weight training, you should always start slow with lighter weights before you progress to heavier ones. “The 2.5 and five-pound clubs are absolutely key in shoulder health and longevity, and I currently program them in at least twice a week for my NBA guys,” says Plascencia.
To get started with steel clubs, he recommends trying front pull-overs, a basic movement that will recruit multiple muscle groups and get you used to having the weighted clubs in your hands.
Hold one club in each hand, with your arms bent at 90 degrees and the weighted end of the clubs facing up to the sky. Begin by taking your hands and clubs back behind your shoulders so that your elbows flex up to the ceiling and the clubs are facing the ground behind you. Keep your ribs and pelvic bone tight. Slowly pull your arms back into the starting position.