Hit Your Weakness With a Hammer

The unexpected way to turn a twenty dollar garage sale purchase into explosive, real-world strength.

Let’s travel back to the first article I wrote for Breaking Muscle. In that article, I mentioned one implement that I want to examine more closely today.

It’s something that anyone can afford. With it we can build toughness, enduring strength, speed, power and mental tenacity. It involves sweat, pain, and labored breathing. It will build hand, grip, forearm, shoulder, and trunk strength and power. It will give new meaning to the expression, “put your back into it.” It’s every bit as good as pounding on a heavy bag to develop all-around toughness and coordination. It easily lends itself to developing an actual skill that transfers over to real-world applications. And it’s one of my favorites.

In case you haven’t guessed what we’ll revisit from that old article, here’s the scoop in three words: It’s hammer time! Today we will take a look at how to use this tool to develop resilience and what I like to call work-strength-capacity.

Sledgehammer work gives new meaning to the expression, “put your back into it.”

Your Basic Provisions

First off, you’re going to need a sledgehammer. You can purchase one for $20-$50, depending on where you buy it and what size you purchase. If your gym doesn’t have one, check out some garage sales and Craigslist ads. Just the other day I found a 20lb sledgehammer on Craigslist for $20.

Next up, you need something to pound on. Tires work well, and you can find them in any city or larger town for free. Some places will even deliver them to you for a small fee. If you can’t find a tire to pound on, you are not looking hard enough. Old logs and tree stumps also work. I used to beat on an old log in a dry riverbed. But after a week of pounding on it, I showed up one day and the log was gone. Someone removed it because it made a pretty loud smack every time I whacked it with the sledge. My bad.

I’ve also beat on the ground, but that doesn’t work as well since the head of the sledgehammer will bury itself with the power of your swing. You will find yourself holding back because you have to pull it back out of the ground every time, which messes with the rhythm of your swings.

Okay. Sledgehammer? Check. Something to beat on? Check. Time for action!

The Way of the Hammer

There are several different ways to swing a sledgehammer. Instead of writing lengthy descriptions of the different ways to use it, I thought I’d show you a few. We’ll call the basic swing a “wood-splitter” because it mimics splitting wood.

The second basic swing I call “wood-choppers” because it imitates the movement of chopping a tree down. I cover two variations in this video.

Pick a spot (or better, spray paint one) on your tire and focus on hitting it. This will help you control the sledge and keep from hitting a glancing blow on the tire, which can then hit your foot or lower leg. If this happens, you stand a good chance of shattering a bone. Don’t go there! Pay attention and control that hammer.

Be sure to take care of your hands. Blisters will be preceded by a red hot spot. Pay attention to that. If you keep pushing, you will get a blister, so stop before it develops. Let your hands adapt. Gloves or athletic tape in strategic spots can be a big help with preventing blisters.

How Much to Hammer

You have many options, and in the end it’s up to you to decide what set and rep scheme works for you, based on your goals. One idea is to swing ten times from the right side, switch hand positions, and swing ten from the left side. As a stand-alone exercise, do whatever number of sets are needed to make you tired. As an accessory exercise, I suggest experimenting with several of these ideas to see which works best for you:

  • The Appetizer: You can use the sledge-hits on the tire as a warm up for the rest of your training session. Using them this way, you don’t have to get into power-hitting with the sledge so much. Use it to loosen and warm up.
  • The Side Dish: Try knocking off a set of 10 reps right and 10 reps left between other exercises. This way you sprinkle the sledgehammer work throughout your session. This is tougher to do in a gym setting because someone may run off with your tire and sledge while you are performing a set of your other exercise. It also makes the rest of your training session tougher.
  • The Dessert: Get in a bunch of sledge hits on the tire to finish your training session for the day. Try doing 10 reps for 5-10 sets each side. That would total 100-200 hits on the tire. This doesn’t take long to knock out.
  • The Main Course: A fourth option is to just pound the tire with the sledgehammer on separate days from your strength training, two to three times per week.
  • Hammers for Breakfast: Pound out some sledgehammer hits first thing in the morning for 10-20 minutes. It will get your heart started as well as any cup of coffee.

How Heavy to Hammer

If you’re new at this, start off light. A 6-10lb sledgehammer will be adequate, depending on your current level of strength and conditioning and expertise with the sledge.

Even if you’re strong and experienced, there is no real need to go buy a 50lb sledge. Performing power hits with a 20lb sledge requires real work-strength-capacity. If, after some time with a 20-pounder, you’re dead set on a real heavy sledgehammer, feel free. But they are expensive. If I wanted one over 20lb, I’d hit the local scrap yard and find what I need and then have a buddy weld it up in exchange for a six-pack.

You can also alternate the weight. Use a heavier sledge for some sessions, alternating with a medium weight sledge. Other days use a lighter sledge and experiment with over-speed hits for more conditioning.

It’s About the Swing, Not the Hammer

It’s not about how heavy a sledge you can swing. It’s about the speed and power you can apply. That’s what wins on the field and in physical labor. You can be the strongest dude around, but if you can’t move fast and explosively for long, you’re toast in most sports. That’s work-strength-capacity in a nutshell.

The faster or harder you can swing that sledge, the greater the impact will be. And that means greater impact transferred to your body through the handle of the sledge. Swinging the hammer with strength and speed develops an explosive ability in the body, and the mental ability to absorb punishment. 

Once you get toughened up to pounding on a tire with a sledge, here’s how to put some serious power into your hits:

Get Used to Real Hard Work

For the next month, I want you to get used to training with a sledgehammer. I am building a strength and conditioning routine for you to try, and this will be one of several elements to master as a prerequisite. Next month we will work on some other things to get you ready.

If you haven’t handled a sledge before or it’s been awhile, proceed cautiously. Allow enough time for your body to adapt to the stress of swinging the sledge and dealing with the impact of hitting the tire. The muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, and skin must all adapt to this workload. You will probably be surprised at how sore your whole upper body may feel the next few days. You can build up to doing this every day, but 2-3 times a week is plenty.

Finally, be sure those around you are aware of what you are doing. Double check to make sure the sledgehammer head is securely attached to the handle, so it doesn’t fly off and hit someone. Never stand across from someone while swinging a sledge. Control that hammer, and don’t let it bounce wildly or twist out of your hands. 

For some inspiration, watch and listen to this old song, grab your sledge and tire, and get at it. And my hat’s off to every steel drivin’ man, past or present.

More Unexpected Strength From Coach Dorey:

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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