Jake Shannon wields his Macebell (10kg).
Jake Shannon wields his Macebell (10kg).

Strength Training for the Eons

Jake Shannon
Printer-Friendly Format

I was first introduced to the traditional Indian gada (aka the mace) by my friend Karl Gotch a few years ago. As gracefully as Karl swung it, I was equally clumsy. I nearly knocked myself unconscious with it the first time I swung it. It was the toughest and most awkward exercise implement I had ever held. It was then and there that I challenged to master this bad boy.

Note the Gada in the lower left corner.
Note the Gada in the lower left corner.

This killer training implement was preferred by legendary wrestlers for centuries, from the Pehlwans of India to 'God of Wrestling' Karl Gotch. Historically, the mace has had both strong spiritual and combative connotations in folklore. Robert L. O'Connell, on page 119 of his book Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War points to the mace as the first weapon made specifically for use against other human beings (as opposed to a modified hunting weapon). In the Hindu religion, the mace of Vishnu is named "Kaumodaki" and represents the elemental force from which all other powers (both physical and mental) are derived.

Hanuman: The Indian God of Strength
Hanuman: The Indian God of Strength

Anyone that owns a genuine Macebell will find it fitting that mace-work is associated with the Indian god of strength, Hanuman. Hanuman is traditionally depicted in the form of monkey brandishing a mace, and this Mace is generally understood to symbolize bravery. Hanuman serves to remind the faithful that there is limitless power within each individual. In folklore, Hanuman focused all his energy into the worship of Lord Rama. This devotion freed him from all physical fatigue.

The mace is recognized as the main tool of the Pehlwans (the Hindu wrestlers of India). Competition trophies (symbolizing significant achievement) are made in the shape of gold and silver maces.

I have recently taken it upon myself to re-introduce mace-work to the West (with the wonderful help of Torque Athletic) with the development of the Macebell.

This brutal kettlebell/indian club hybrid actually originated in ancient Persia where they were known as "Meels". These "Meels" were utilized by the Pahlavan (ancient Persian grapplers and strongmen) to increase their strength, endurance, and health. The lighter version generally weighed in the range of ten to fifteen pounds and were used in high rep sets to build stamina while the heavier class weighed from anywhere between twenty-five to sixty pounds and were used to build great strength.

According to longtime Pahlavani researcher Farzad Nekoogar, Meels first made their way to India as late as the thirteenth century by Persian grapplers fleeing the Mongols. Indian mace swinging is derivative of ancient war club practice. Nearly every depiction of the gods and goddesses in Hindu religious art finds the deity brandishing a war mace of some kind.

Probably the most famous and feared embodiment of the Mace Swinging athlete was a man known as The Lion of the Punjab, "The Great Gama" Baksh. He was born into a famous family of grapplers from the northwestern part of India.

The Lion of the Punjab, the Great Gama Baksh.
The Lion of the Punjab, the Great Gama Baksh.

To give you the scope of his commanding physical presence, Gama had thirty inch thighs and a fifty-six inch chest. At only six years old, Gama's father died and this event, in many ways, drove him to excel in grappling. Gama's first feat of physicality came at a national physical culture competition held sometime around 1888. Despite the fact that Gama was a mere ten years old, permission was granted for him to compete when the powers that be learned that he was the son of the great wrestler Aziz Baksh.

As Joseph Alter, Ph.D. tells the story of Gama's abilities (see his article entitled GAMA THE WORLD CHAMPION: WRESTLING AND PHYSICAL CULTURE IN COLONIAL INDIA in the October 1995 edition of the journal Iron Game History for more);

"the main contest in the competition was to see who could do the highest number of repetitions of free squats called "bethaks". Indian wrestlers regularly do hundreds if not thousands every day, and even at ten years old Gama's daily routine included five hundred. Over four hundred wrestlers from around the country had gathered for the contest. after a number of hours had passed, only fifteen wrestlers were left exercising. At this point Jaswant Singh ended the contest saying that the ten year old boy was clearly the winner in such a field of stalwart national champions. Later, upon being asked how many (bethaks) he had done, Gama replied that he could not remember, but probably several thousand. In any event he was bed-ridden for a week.

1928: World Champion wrestler Stanislaus Zybysco with
Gama before their match. Despite being 50 years old and outweighed
by 50 lbs, Gama prevailed decidedly in an amazing 42 seconds.
1928: World Champion wrestler Stanislaus Zybysco with Gama before their match. Despite being 50 years old and outweighed by 50 lbs, Gama prevailed decidedly in an amazing 42 seconds.

Starting at the age of ten, Gama's daily exercise routine included not only five hundred bethaks, but five hundred dands (jack-knifing push-ups) as well. He is said to have regularly done three thousand bethaks and fifteen hundred dands and run one mile every day with a 120 pound stone ring around his neck.

In 1908, two years before he went to London to compete for the world championship belt, Gama's regimen was increased to five thousand bethaks and three thousand dands. Every morning he would also work out by wrestling with forty compatriot wrestlers in the royal court. Added to this, he began weight-lifting with a one hundred pound grind stone and a santola (wooden bar-bell made from a tree trunk).

His phenomenal diet and regimen of exercise was meant to develop a kind of pervasive subtle energy rather than just the kinetic power of particular muscle groups. Even at the age of fifty, Gama was still doing 6000 bethaks and 4000 dands every day, and wrestling with eighty compatriots in the royal court."

Clearly Gama's regimen encompassed much more than just the Mace but nonetheless they were a big part of every Indian wrestler's training.

During the nineteenth century, while stationed in India, the British army, utilized Indian-club exercises as part of its own military PT (physical training) regimen. In 1861, an American fitness enthusiast and businessman by the name of Sim D. Kehoe observed the art of Indian-club swinging while visiting England. Soon thereafter he began to produce and sell clubs on the American market in 1862.

Indian Clubs were used in the Olympic Games in 1904 in St. Louis under the auspices of "Rhythmic Gymnastics" and remained an Olympic sport until 1932. These days it seems like everything old is new again and certainly mace swinging should be no exception.

Note the variety of training tools used by the Pehlwani (Hindu wrestlers).
Note the variety of training tools used by the Pehlwani (Hindu wrestlers).

Today there is a resurgence of interest in Indian Clubs among modern physical culturists, especially combat athletes. The non-linear motions work the shoulder girdle and core like nothing else. The grip also benefits from mace-work. If you are interested in changing up your routine and challenging yourself with the Macebell, it is a brutal strength training implement that will earn your respect.

Please be sure to play this video to see Catch Wrestling legend Karl Gotch swing the mace with MMA pioneers Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki:

Please also enjoy this clip of heavyweight MMA champion Josh Barnett rocking his 10 kg Macebell: