Monday, 10 August 2009

Sledgehammer Conditioning

One of the more unlikely tools in our fitness equipment armoury is the sledgehammer. Surprisingly, this manual-labour tool doubles as a superb total body muscular endurance exercise, a great power developer, a very effective weight management method and a way to increase both aerobic and anaerobic endurance. In terms of cost, effectiveness and versatility, sledgehammer training makes a great addition to almost any training programme and is hard to beat.

Let’s look at the reasons why sledgehammer training is so good…

1) Swinging a sledgehammer is a full body activity.
Swinging the sledge uses just about every muscle group...the muscles of the forearms are used in gripping, the latisimus dorsi muscles of the back is used strongly in the downward phase of a strike whereas the deltoid muscles around the shoulders are used in the return to the overhead position. The core including the rectus abdominus and obliques work very hard in the downward phase of sledgehammer swings along side the hip flexors - even the legs get involved as they have to keep you anchored to the floor. You’d be hard pressed to find a muscle group not involved in swinging the sledge!

2) Multiple fitness components can be trained with a sledgehammer.
By using a variety of rep and set schemes (discussed later) it is possible to target muscular power, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness and anaerobic conditioning. Regardless of your goal, sledgehammer training will probably make a fine addition to your current training routine.

3) Sledgehammer training is very cost effective.
Many of you will have a sledgehammer in your basement or garage but even if you have to go and buy one especially for exercise they are very reasonably priced and easy to get hold of. My hammer came from a regular DIY store and cost $35 or about £16.00 and it’s very unlikely it will ever wear out. As a striking surface I like to use and old SUV tire I picked up for free from a local tire dealer. Most tire dealers are only too happy for you to take away an old tire as they have to pay to have them collected.

4) Training with a sledgehammer is fun!
You get to hit something as hard as you can, as often as you like with no legal ramifications! It’s a great way to work off the frustrations of the day leaving you calm and relaxed after your workout. It’s very therapeutic!

5) The techniques are very easy to learn.
Swinging the sledgehammer is a natural movement which is quickly mastered. It’s a very instant workout which, although simple, can be as demanding as you make it.

6) Sledgehammer training is great for fat loss.
Any sledgehammer training will burn plenty of calories but probably the best way to get the most of your hammer workout is to utilise intervals. Interval training is the most efficient and effective method for fat loss available and out performs steady state cardio every time in calorie expenditure tests. Because of EPOC (what we used to call Oxygen Debt) your body will not only burn lots of energy during a sledgehammer workout but also continue burning energy at an elevated rate long after your workout has finished. It’s like getting two workouts for the price of one! Combined with a calorie controlled diet, sledgehammer intervals are a superb way to shed a few pounds while toning and strengthening the whole body.

Clearly, you’ll need a sledgehammer. You can pick one up from a regular DIY store for a very fair price. In terms of what weight to buy I suggest from 6lbs for lighter exercisers and those looking to swing at a higher cadence to 15lbs for bigger exercisers or for those looking for a slower cadence. I am an experienced and fairly advanced exerciser and I mainly use a 10lb hammer and have only recently started using a 14lb hammer and I have never found my lighter hammer to provide an easy workout.

For striking surfaces you have a couple of previously mentioned, an old tire is a great target. A tire will absorb some of the shock of the impact, thus reducing noise, impact on the hands/wrists as well as making the hammer bounce slightly to aid in setting a good rhythm. This is my preferred striking surface and the one you will see in the video accompanying this article. Alternatively you could choose to use your hammer outside where you may have access to a sand pit, an area of soil, an old log stump or something similar. There is nothing wrong with any of these surfaces so long as they have a “bit of give” which will reduce the shock you’ll feel when you use the hammer. I frequently use my hammer on a local beach which workes fine except I tend to end up with a light dusting of sand all over my sweaty head!

Which ever surface you choose for your sledgehammer training, always ensure you have plenty of space around you and clearance above your head and that the surface you are hitting has some “give” to it. Hard surfaces like concrete or cement are not recommended.

If you are using your hammer for high reps, I also suggest a pair of robust gloves. I use basic work gloves which I bought for about $10 to avoid any blisters however if I’m doing sets of 20 strikes or less I often don’t use my gloves and have had no ill effects.

Swinging Techniques
Swinging the hammer isn’t technically demanding but it does require some coordination. It’s important to have sound technique before going crazy with your hammer otherwise there is a possibility of serious self-inflicted injury. There are a few “schools of thought” when it comes to hammer swinging – all of which work well and it’s really a matter of personal preference as to which one you select. In the accompanying video you’ll see the following swinging techniques...left hand lead, right hand lead, alternating hands and “no choke” where both hands are kept near the end of the hammer handle. In addition you’ll also see me stood on the ground and also on top of the tire which provides a unique challenge for more advanced exercisers...

Here are a few suggested methods for getting the most out of your hammer training. Be prepared to scale the workouts listed to suit your individual needs and goals. Make sure you warm up thoroughly before your workout and also start slowly, building up volume and intensity gradually so as to avoid any unnecessary soreness or possible injuries.

Timed intervals
Decide on a work to rest ratio (e.g. 2 minutes of work, 1 minute of rest) and repeat for the desired number of sets. One of my favourite interval schemes is 3 minutes of striking (left hand leading) rest 1 minute, 3 minutes of striking (right hand leading) rest one minute, 3 minutes of alternating lead hand. This scheme provides a great finish to a regular workout or is a nice stand-alone mini session when time is short. No matter what set/rep scheme you select just make sure you work really hard during the “on” periods and you’ll find interval training a very effective, time efficient training method.

The duration of your work/rest intervals is very much goal dependent…

Shorter sets e.g. less than 20 seconds are excellent for developing maximum force and therefore increasing muscle power

Medium length sets are ideal e.g. 45 – 90 seconds are ideal for improving muscular endurance and anaerobic conditioning

Longer sets e.g. 2 minutes and above are best suited to the development of aerobic fitness and muscular endurance.

Tabata intervals
The Tabata Method is named after Dr. Izumi Tabata – a sports scientist from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan and is a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) protocol which has been successfully used by the Japanese Olympic speed skating team amongst others to improve aerobic and anaerobic conditioning using very brief workouts.

During his 1997 study Dr Tabata compared the effects of longer, lower intensity exercise with bouts of short very high intensity exercise. Using a unique interval training method the athletes participating in the study increased their aerobic fitness by 14% and anaerobic fitness by 28% in just 8 weeks! It’s worth noting that the subjects Dr Tabata used for testing were already accomplished sportsmen and not just beginners which make this study even more astounding. Even more incredible is the fact that the total actual training time per week was an unbelievable 30 minutes.

The Tabata method involves performing 8 – 10 sets of 20 seconds very high intensity exercise separated with 10 second recovery periods giving a total training time = 4 – 5 minutes. The caveat of the Tabata Method is that all the intervals have to be done at 100% intensity – an absolute flat out effort. You have to strive to perform as much work in each 20 second interval as possible and try to maintain that work rate for the 8 – 10 sets. The old adage that you can train long and easy, or short and hard has never been truer than when describing the Tabata Method! As with any type of exercise, Tabata Method should be preceded by an appropriate warm up of 5 – 10 minutes and followed by a cool down of similar duration. All in all the session could take as little as 15 minutes…perfect for anyone who is short on time but still wants great results from their training.

Repetition intervals
With this system, instead of using time as our measure of work, you’ll be using repetitions instead. For example you may do 20 strikes and then rest 30 seconds and repeat for as many sets as desired. Another one of my favourite sessions involves doing 20 strikes every minute for 10 – 15 minutes. Each set takes between 35 – 45 seconds leaving 15 - 25 seconds to rest before I start the next set. The beauty of sets starting on the minute is that you just need to be able to see the sweep hand of a clock so there is no need to push buttons or programme intervals into a stop watch.

Timed density blocks
Allocate a time block e.g. 5 or 10 minutes and aim to perform as many strikes as possible in the allotted time. Whenever this workout is repeated you should strive do more reps than the last time

Timed repetitions
Simply set your self a repetition goal and try to complete it as short a time as possible e.g. 300 swings, 500 swings or even 1000 swings. Whenever you repeat this workout you should strive to do it quicker than before.

Hammer & calisthenic combinations
Alternate hammer swings with free-standing body weight exercises such as squats or lunges as seen in the later part of the video. This ensures the lower body gets a good workout along with the upper body and is a great way of getting a lot done in a short time.

As I’m sure you can see, sledgehammer training is a very versatile training method that can suit a large number of training goals so why not give it a go – I’m sure you’ll find it both a fun and effective workout.


  1. Hi there, nice post and a good source of information. It really shows that you're an expert i this field. I'm looking for some tips on how effective a group fitness training in this site. Anyways, thanks for sharing and keep it up!

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  2. I would just like to thank you for this article. My brother and I were talking about buying a sledgehammer, I was sitting on the couch watching some tv, he looked at me, and said "wannna go buy a sledgehammer?" Instantly we got up and went to buy one. Picked up a 12lb hammer, 20 minutes out, instantly we started swinging away. I appreciate the ideas about how many routines you can do with this, and will definitely be challenging myself with the 500 to 1000 swings. Currently doing a hard training schedule, and adding 100 push-ups, sit-ups for personal goals. Can't wait to challenge myself!

  3. Thank you so much. Very helpful. Question: Is there an advantage to using a staggered stance vs a front stance like you're using? I was told to use a staggered stance to strengthen the side abdominal muscles, but I feel more comfortable with a front stance.