War Clubs

Hanuman with a gada

Club swinging is an ancient warrior art associated with India and once widely taught by American physical educators at the turn-of-the-century. Its rediscovery and growing popularity represent the timeless wisdom yet to be mined from historical traditions. Clubs are usually made of wood and sometimes resemble bowling pins. We occasionally see them in old movies or photos, hanging in neat rows on the walls of gymnasia, or in the hands of men, women, and children from the distant past. Club swinging was introduced into American physical culture in the early 1860s. It enjoyed immense popularity until America began losing interest in physical training in the 1920s. By the end of the 1930s, the art of club swinging was almost lost. 

Club History

Club swinging has roots in ancient India and Persia. Hoffman (1996, p.6) notes that:

The Indian club can be traced to one of the most ancient weapons in India, the war club, or gada, a symbol of invincible physical prowess and worldly power. Almost every god and goddess of Hindu belief is depicted holding a gada, including Lord Vishnu, one of the principal Deities. Throughout the Islamic period, Rajput rulers and Muslim sultans favored the gada as the preferred weapon of combat. It was considered a great honor for the warrior to be trained in the use of the battle club. Through the ages, the war club changed in both name and form. Eventually, its use evolved in India as a means of physical exercise. (personal correspondence from N.L. Nigam, Director of Salarjung Museum, Hyderabad, India, to A.J. Hoffman, November 18, 1990)

Posse (1894) called clubs "the oldest known implement for military gymnastics" (p. 24). The difference between lifting dumbbells and swinging clubs, he explained, is that lifting dumbbells adds weight to the lever (this is the commonly practiced linear lifting). Indian clubs increase the momentum of the pendulum (this is the circular nature of club swinging). In other words, Indian clubs can be described as circular weight training (Thomas, 1995). Lemaire (1889) connected clubs to the Ancient West and to physical training when he wrote:

That the club is the most ancient weapon nobody can deny. It is the most natural and handy that can be found; and consequently the first used by man, for we find that Cain slew Abel with a club. The ordinary weapon of the athletic god Hercules was a club; and though he also used a bow and arrow, he is always represented with his club. In ancient times, both in Greece and Rome, the strongest athletes, on public occasions, were fond of brandishing clubs, believing themselves to be representatives of Hercules. We hear of Milo of Crotona leading his compatriots to war armed with a club. A Roman emperor, Commodus, proud of his immense strength, paraded the streets with a club as Hercules. . . . Thus, clubs, in one form or another, have had a conspicuous place in nature, mythology, and history. But what interests us more here is the adaptation of clubs to the development of health and strength. (p. 7)

The restorative nature of club swinging caught the attention of foreign missionaries, travelers, merchants, and British military officers in India during the early 19th Century. Kehoe (1866) reported that one British Army officer wrote:

The wonderful club exercise is one of the most effectual kinds of athletic training, known anywhere in common use throughout India. The clubs are of wood, varying in weight according to the strength of the person using them, and in length about two feet and a half, and some six or seven inches in diameter at the base, which is level, so as to admit of their standing firmly when placed on the ground, and thus affording great convenience for using them in the swinging positions. The exercise is in great repute among the native soldiery, police and others whose caste renders them liable to emergencies where great strength of muscle is desirable. The evolutions which the clubs are made to perform, in the hands of one accustomed to their use, are exceedingly graceful, and they vary almost without limit. Beside the great recommendation of simplicity, Indian club practice possesses the essential property of expanding the chest and exercising every muscle in the body concurrently. (p. 8)

The British Army eventually integrated club swinging into its physical training, and it subsequently gained great popularity among English civilians as well. Bishop (1979) notes that interest in clubs increased substantially after Queen Victoria witnessed a demonstration of their use and endorsed them. In 1862, Sim D. Kehoe produced the first clubs in the United States (Hoffman, 1996), and they were eventually adopted by the German Turners and the United States Army. In response to a gift of clubs to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant by Kehoe, Grant wrote:

I have the pleasure of acknowledging the receipt of a full set of rosewood Dumb-Bells and Indian Clubs, of your manufacture. They are of the nicest workmanship. Please accept my thanks for your thus remembering me, and particularly my boys, who I know will take great delight as well as receive benefit from using them. (Kehoe, 1866, p. 9)

The United States Army Manual of Physical Training (1914) notes:

The effect of these exercises, when performed with light clubs, is chiefly a neural one, hence they are primary factors in the development of grace, coordination and rhythm. As they tend to supple the muscles and articulations of the shoulders and to the upper and fore arms and wrist, they are indicated in cases where there is a tendency toward what is ordinarily known as "muscle bound." (p. 113)

West Point club swinging

Club swinging in late-19th Century America was associated in the civilian sector with the then popular "Muscular Christianity" movement that linked physical training to moral and spiritual development. Physical education pioneer Dio Lewis (1882) advocated club swinging and believed it would "cultivate patience and endurance, and operate happily upon the longitudinal muscles of the back and shoulders, thus tending to correct the habit of stooping" (p. 171). Bornstein (1889) associated club swinging with strength and health, stating:

Indian club exercises have of late years become one of the most universal methods of developing the muscular anatomy of the human body. Schools, colleges and even theological seminaries have adopted their use in their respective institutions with the most beneficial results. For keeping the body in a healthy and vigorous condition there has as yet been nothing invented, which for its simplicity and gracefulness can be favorably compared with the Indian club exercise. (p. 7)

Attacks on club swinging and physical training in general began to increase early in the 20th Century as America turned away from physical training. Cermak (1916) spoke for the defenders of club swinging when he wrote:

I have heard, and still hear among the professional men and women unfavorable comments about club exercises, but knowing that there is no other kind of hand apparatus that would admit such a great, almost inexhaustible variety of pleasing exercises as the clubs, believing that the clubs should have a prominent place in educational gymnastics, that by collaboration of mind and muscle in these exercises we can develop the highest degree of coordination. (Preface)

Dio lewis

Hoffman (1996) notes that by the 1920s, Americans traded interest in a moral attachment to physical fitness for speakeasies and dance halls. Club swingers were ridiculed, and social pressure eventually put the art to bed.

Benefits of Club Swinging

The shoulder girdle is by far one of the most moveable areas of the body, but it is also one of the most fragile. Ill-fitting furniture, poor posture, and numerous other factors often impair shoulder girdle mobility. This impacts negatively on other joints, including the elbow and wrist. When the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder is made strong, aligned, and mobile, other joints also benefit. The circular patterns of club swinging represent the foundations upon which all other more complex shoulder girdle movements are derived. There are hundreds of club movements that can be combined in an almost inexhaustible variety of flowing patterns.