By Ross Enamait – Published in 2006
Also, check out Part II (from 2008)
The sledgehammer has been a conditioning tool amongst fighters since the inception of combat sports. It is certainly not a new tool in the arsenal of combat athletes. It is however an inexpensive and excellent conditioning device. Unfortunately, the reemergence of sledgehammer training in the modern era has caused some confusion regarding this simple, yet effective training tool. This article will clarify the confusion, while also offering some brief workouts that will spice up your conditioning routine.
For starters, swinging a sledgehammer offers numerous benefits. A condensed list includes:
- Improve work capacity
- Develop core strength
- Enhance grip and forearm strength
I highly recommend the sledgehammer for all combat athletes. As a young fighter, I regularly used both an ax and sledgehammer and can testify firsthand to the results. Sledgehammer training will undoubtedly improve your ability to maintain explosive power, round after round.
Purchasing A Sledgehammer
The Internet is often described as the Information Highway, as information is readily available and transferred throughout the world. Unfortunately, the Internet can also become a Misinformation Highway. This has happened with sledgehammer training. Many athletes now believe that an expensive, designer sledgehammer is required for optimal results. They have been told that regular sledgehammers are cheap and destined to break.
This is not true, particularly when your sledgehammer is used to beat a rubber tire. Rubber is a very forgiving surface. You can purchase a fine sledgehammer for approximately $2 a pound. Home Depot carries a brand (Ludell) that guarantees its handles for life. The hammer’s head is also literally impossible to remove, particularly when striking a tire.
Here is a close-up of the handle:
Sledgehammers are available in a variety of sizes. Most hardware stores will carry 8, 10, 12, and 16-pound sledgehammers. You will occasionally see a 20-pound sledgehammer, but this size is not as common.
Is Bigger Really Better?
Another common sledgehammer myth is in regards to the optimal size. There are those who believe a 16 or 20-pound sledgehammer is not heavy enough for a quality workout. They instead seek out extremely large (and expensive) models. This is not necessary.
A simple understanding of Newton’s second law of motion will clarify this confusion. Acceleration depends directly upon the net force acting upon the object, and inversely upon the mass of the object. As the mass of the object increases, its acceleration will decrease. Consequently, you can often generate more force with a lighter sledgehammer.
If you’ve ever split wood, you will understand that less can be more when it comes to maul size. You are better off swinging a 6-pound maul, as opposed to the 8 or 10-pounder. You can swing the lighter maul with much more speed. Velocity is more important than mass when it comes to splitting wood.
In my opinion, there is no need to progress past a 20-pound sledgehammer. In many cases, you will not need more than 10 or 12 pounds. The sledgehammer is a conditioning tool. For optimal results, you must maintain a fast and intense pace.
Consider a boxer who punches the bag with 16 ounce training gloves. Does the athlete outgrow his 16 ounce gloves? Is there a need to progress to 5 and then 10 pound boxing gloves?
Of course not…
Combat takes place at warp speed. To prepare for such speed and intensity, you must train specific to your needs. Furthermore, speed strength is defined as the ability to quickly execute an unloaded movement or a movement against a relatively small external resistance. The principal method of developing speed strength is with light loads. You do not use heavy loads to develop this strength quality.
If you have never used a sledgehammer, I recommend starting with an 8 or 10-pounder. Do not make the mistake of starting with the largest sledge that you can find. Make no mistake about it, you can achieve a tremendous workout with a 10-pound sledgehammer. Remember, we are using the sledgehammer as a conditioning tool. You must maintain speed and intensity throughout each drill. If your sledge is too heavy, you will have difficulty completing the drills. Your swings will become slower, and less frequent, minimizing the training effect.
Smashing A Large Tire
A rubber tire is an ideal choice to absorb the impact of each sledgehammer swing. You can even bring a tire indoors. In the video below, you will see how I have positioned a tire on top of an old chair cushion. This set-up is very convenient for indoor use. Sledgehammer training is not limited to the outdoors.
When you strike the tire, you can expect the sledge to rebound slightly upon impact. The rebounding nature of the tire will enhance wrist stability and strengthen the forearms and grip.
Finding A Tire
You can often find a used tire for free. Most tire dealers have old tires, which are no longer suitable for use. The dealer must pay to dispose of the tires. They will be more than eager for you to haul the tire away for free. Find a shop that supplies large tires for trucks and tractors. Tractors use huge tires that are perfect for sledgehammer training.
Swinging The Sledge
Once you obtain a tire and sledgehammer, you are ready for some intense conditioning workouts. Although several swinging variations exist, I suggest keeping it simple. We are not training for the Sledgehammer Olympics. In my opinion, vertical and diagonal swinging are the two most effective sledgehammer variations. As an athlete, you have several training objectives. Do not complicate the process by creating elaborate swinging techniques. Stick with the basic movements.
With a diagonal swing, you will stand approximately 1 to 2 feet from the tire. The hammer starts on one side, and comes across the body diagonally until striking the tire. To swing the hammer, one hand will remain stationary at the bottom of the handle.
When you position yourself behind the tire, you may assume a staggered stance, with one foot slightly in front of the other. In the beginning of the video, you can see my left foot is closest to the tire (while swinging from the right side). This stance allows me to generate more hip action on the downward portion of the swing. The sledge starts on my right side, and travels across my body. My right hand slides down the sledge, away from the stationary hand as it is loaded behind my right shoulder. The hand then slides back towards the stationary hand during the downward motion.
It will feel natural to start the sledgehammer from your dominant side. For example, I am right handed, so it is natural for me to swing from right to left. It may feel awkward to swing the sledgehammer from your weak side. One of the benefits of sledgehammer training is its ability to even out your left and right sides. You will become more coordinated with your non-dominant hand. Combat athletes require ambidextrous coordination. Consider a right-handed boxer who fights from the traditional stance (left foot in front). This boxer will jab with his left hand (non-dominant side). A good boxer will throw his jab more frequently than any other punch. The jab is the single most important punch in boxing. A good boxer can win rounds with the jab alone. To develop a crisp, whip-like jab, you will require coordination from your non-dominant side.
If you wish to include another swinging variation, you can work with the vertical swing. For this variation, both hands will remain stationary at the bottom of the handle. This variation is much more difficult with a heavy sledgehammer.
During the vertical swing, you will assume approximately a shoulder width stance, with parallel feet. Alternate your hand position (which hand is on top and bottom) periodically to ensure balanced development.
There are several options for sledgehammer training. A few of my favorites include:
- Tabata Intervals
- Timed Rounds
- Repetition Race
- Integrated Circuits
In the video below, I have demonstrated Tabata intervals with the sledgehammer. For those who are unfamiliar with Tabata intervals, refer to this article.
When performing Tabata’s with a sledge, I recommend alternating sides after each interval. For example, I start the drill by swinging from right to left for one 20-second interval. I then change sides for the second interval (left to right). I will continue to alternate to ensure balanced development.
Each Tabata interval will last 4 minutes (8 x 20 seconds of work, plus 10 seconds of rest after each interval). This brief session makes an ideal finisher to any strength or conditioning workout.
If one round is not enough, consider the following 12 minute drill:
- Tabata Sledgehammer Swings
- Tabata Squats
- Tabata Sledgehammer Swings
Another option for sledgehammer swinging involves swinging the hammer for full rounds. You can use multiple 2 or 3 minute rounds, or even one lengthy 10 minute round.
One sample workout could include:
- 4 x 3 minute rounds
- Rest 1 minute between rounds
If three minutes is too difficult, start with two minute rounds. Alternate hand position (right hand dominant and then left hand dominant) every 10 to 20 swings.
Another option is to simply set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and challenge yourself to swing the sledge as many times as possible. Strive to improve the total number of swings each time that you attempt the challenge.
A similar variation involves a repetition race. You will race yourself (or a training partner) to achieve a certain number of swings. For example, attempt to swing the sledgehammer 200 times as fast as possible. Constantly challenge yourself to reduce the time required to achieve this goal.
Furthermore, the sledgehammer can be used as part of an integrated conditioning drill. You will simply mix and match various conditioning drills into one routine. A sample is provided in this article.
As you can see, there are many options when it comes to sledgehammer training. The sledgehammer can be added to almost any workout. A fighter can close his gym work with a few minutes on the sledge. You do not need to isolate the sledgehammer from your main workout. As a competitive athlete, you must already juggle an often crammed schedule. Simply add a few minutes of sledgehammer training to your routine every other day, and you will certainly notice improvements in endurance, core strength, grip strength, and more.