An Ancient Restorative Art for the Modern Martial Artist


By Edward Thomas, Ed.D.


Combine today’s understanding of human motion with the wisdom of ancient martial artists,

and you get a powerful force that stimulates both mind and body.
Martial artists past and present have stressed the importance of complementing external power with internal harmony. This balance between restorative and martial arts remains an essential thread running through the fabric of both Eastern and Western martial arts philosophy.

Martial arts are often defined as techniques that allow for appropriate responses to external aggression. Restorative arts bring the body toward its optimal state of harmony and compensate for the stresses of daily life. These two concepts are integrally related, and both have roots in Western as well as Eastern physical culture. The search for and celebration of these common roots and relationships allows the martial artist to better understand the universal principles that unite all fighting systems.

The rediscovery and growing popularity of Indian clubs may well be the decade’s most interesting development concerning modern restorative and martial arts in American culture. The clubs originated in the East, but they came to America from Europe. The story of their evolution, disappearance, and rediscovery in American society is intriguing, and the amazing effect of their practical application is relevant to any martial arts system.

Indian clubs are usually made of wood and resemble either club-like weapons or bowling pins. At one time, they lined the walls of our gymnasia, and countless Americans swung them in marvelous and complicated circular patterns that stimulated the brain and invigorated the body.


The clubs originated centuries ago in India. They were developed by soldiers, police, and others whose caste required strength, agility, balance, physical prowess, and martial arts skill. British officers involved in the annexation of India were surprised to find the natives marvelously expert in swinging clubs in various graceful and fantastic motions, and they noted that besides the great recommendation of simplicity the Indian club practice possesses the essential property of expanding the chest and exercising every muscle of the body concurrently. (Spalding, p.77)

The British brought the Indian clubs to Europe where the Germans and Czechs eventually adopted club swinging into their physical training systems. German immigrants brought Indian clubs to the United States in the mid-i 1800, and the clubs were soon introduced into both American school physical education programs and military physical readiness training.

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 and coordination and rhythm. As they tend supple the muscles and articulation 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)

In 1982, Dio Lewis, a pioneer in American physical culture, included Indian clubs in his system of physical education. He wrote of the clubs: “They cultivate patience and endurance, and operate most happily upon the longitudinal muscles of the back and shoulders, thus tending to correct the habit of stooping (p.171).

In 1885, Baron Nils Posse, a Swedish soldier and physical educator, came to America and introduced the Swedish system of medical and military gymnastics. In 1984, his book was published explaining his system, and in it Posse details the difference between lifting dumbbells and swinging clubs. Lifting dumbbells, he explained, adds weight to the lever (this is the commonly practiced linear lifting). Indian clubs, he continued, increase the momentum of the pendulum (this is the circular nature of club swinging). In otherwords, Indian clubs can be described as circular weight training. Posse also called the Indian club the oldest known implement for military gymnastics and related it to the broadsword (p.24).

Indian clubs gradually disappeared from the American physical education landscape in the first two decades of the 20th century as sports and games replaced the European-based systems of restorative and military exercise. In 1916, Joseph Cermak joined the futile chorus of Indian club defenders in noting: “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 co-ordination.” (Preface)

In the hands of an expert, the powerful flowing motions of the clubs somewhat resemble the patterns of Filipino Kali. This resemblance is probably because the 5th century Indian Sri Vishaya warriors invaded the Philippines and eventually merged culturally with them. The Visayan people of the central Philippines can be traced to the Sri Vishaya culture. In terms of basic movement patterns, the relationship between Kali and Indian club training is best illustrated by comparing Danny Inosanto’s (1980) explanation of Kali attack angles (Inosanto) with Warman’s illustration of club swinging. Both systems stress flowing circular patterns and the figure-eight motion.


The shoulder girdle is probably the most movable area of the body, but it is also one of the most fragile. Strength of the shoulders should be complemented by flexibility, and the clubs can contribute to both. When the ball and socket joint of the shoulder works in harmony with the elbow and wrist joints, an almost infinite number of circular patterns is possible. The basic club patterns are the foundation of all shoulder girdle movements, including those applicable to martial arts. The key to effective use of the clubs is concentration, precision, and practice.

Many if not most Americans do not fully develop their natural shoulder girdle mobility and muscular balance. Ill fitting furniture, poor posture, and our tragically inadequate system of physical education in our nation’s schools are among the many cultural factors that keep us from realizing our highest potential. Basic club skills offer a safe and very effective means to regain essential shoulder girdle mobility. More advanced club movements include complicated arm and footwork that contribute to overall agility, timing, and dexterity.

The 14th Century French physician Tissot wrote, “movement as such may take the place of many remedies, but all the remedies together can never take the Place of the effect of movement.” Tissot was of course referring to rational and natural human motion. In this regard, a humble respect for the past will create a stronger and more productive present and carry us into a strong and secure future.

Club swinging was rediscovered several years ago at Northern Illinois University near Chicago. Last year it was introduced into the Cho Kwang Do martial arts system based in Atlanta and the U.S. Army off-duty education fitness leadership program at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Club swinging can undoubtedly improve shoulder girdle efficiency, and almost certainly help you become a better martial artist. But maybe more importantly, it is one of those links to the timeless history that binds us to long forgotten martial artists who mastered themselves in order to better fulfill our common challenge to wisely rule this earth. Perhaps the 17th Century philosopher Pascal said it best–“Those we call the ancients were new in everything.”




  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.
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 ìmuscle bound. 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. Fifty years later, in the early 1990s, students in the Northern Illinois University Department of Physical Education rediscovered this amazing and beautiful art. It has since spread into the American martial arts community and the United States Army at Fort Benning, Georgia.




One thought on “CLUB SWINGING”

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