Updated: Jan 11
You may have seen on your travels someone swinging a large pole with a ball on the end. These can be small or if it's a video with a lot of likes and views there could be a chance it's a big pole with a big ball. The odd instruments you're seeing are probably macebells, also known as Steel Mace or their historical name of a Gada. Well I laid eyes upon such workouts too. My first thought was "that looks pretty cool". Like me, you will probably have seen what's called flow. Fancy movements swinging and throwing a steel mace about. My second thought from seeing flow was that it looks like it needs a lot of skill and hard work. The mace workouts had my curiosity, after watching a few videos it had my attention.
I decided to give mace workouts some more thought, maybe that's why you are here too. Into research I went. There is a fair amount of information on the history of the mace or Gada. I won't delve too deep for you, but effectively the Gada was used by Hindu warriors as a form of training. A company called Set for Set, seems to be a big driver behind unconventional training, had this to say about a renowned wrestler:
"The Great Gama who went undefeated in his 50 year wrestling career used the mace religiously during his workouts. Even Bruce Lee idolized the training methods and physical abilities of The Great Gama."
Was it all down to his mace training or that he was a ruddy big unit? The theory seems to support that at least some of the Great Gama's success was down to his training.
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Into the modern age I found a lot of information from 2 companies as well as various other blogs and interested parties. Set for Set, I've just mentioned and another called 9T9 Fitness. Some of the Benefits of macebell training, that I can gather, are;
Core strength - Every moment requires a solid core base. Think of holding a plank for the entire workout. Needless to say you'll get a stable core. Not necessarily vacuum packed abs but strong and resistant.
Shoulder movement - The mace requires your shoulders to move in unconventional ways compared to standard resistance training. As such your shoulder mobility and strength should improve in more ways.
Variety - Mace training can be used as a cardio workout, 'conventional' resistance training and skill based flow work. You're limited by your imagination here. Think of it more like a dance than a workout, especially for flow work. If you get bored easily, a mace workout might be for you.
Grip - Much like core strength. Every moment requires good grip. You should very rarely put the mace down and other movements will burn your forearms. On occasions, when you get good, you may have to fight to hold the mace within your grasp.
Mechanical advantage - A mace may seem like a light weight. the standard seems to be around 10 lbs or 5 kg. However, the weight is mainly on the end of a long lever. This lever can be used to your advantage to get the most from a workout.
Progression - Following on from mechanical advantage to make a light weight become harder, you can use the lever to "choke" up the mace to make a move easier if you need to. The adjustability means you can progress to easier or harder moves as your body allows.
Multiple directions - A mace can have your body opposing itself and generally working in a variety of directions at once. This can also make the weight become harder as to balance the weight you sometimes need to push/pull against the direction of the intended exercise.
Skill - A mace workout is not just a mindless pick up, put down, regime. Your mind is challenged too. The choreography of flow workouts and complexity of others, forces you to think about the movement and in turn, you focus more on the mechanics for better mind to muscle connections.
If you'd like another opinion, Set for Set have a good blog post here. For the most part my research is summarised above. The information I found brought me to at least try a workout. I own a 7 lb sledge hammer which is only a bit shorter than an average mace. Men are advised to start with a 10 lb mace but it's advised to always start lighter. 7 lb would do.
At the time of looking into mace workouts I was getting frustrated with swimming. Not for lack of trying or improvement but because the pool I used was ran by volunteers. So the pool wasn't always open. I wanted to have something consistent, that was a full body workout, low impact and could challenge my cardiovascular system. There are many options to choose from to fit the bill. Mace training being one of them. I enjoy swimming and if it weren't for the irregular opening times, probably wouldn't have dropped it. Though after seeing some mace workout videos I would have been tempted. Plus mace training gave me more freedom. If I finished work late I'd miss the pool, but with my own mace (or sledgehammer) I could still get a workout in.
With my personal reasons for the new venture laid out, I'll talk about how my first workouts went at home. From what I could gather in my research there is a real emphasis on getting the basics and form correct. Makes sense with how dynamic the movements appear to be. There's also 2 major movements to get down to a tee. The 360 and 10-to-2. Don't worry, I had little idea what they were at first too. Basically they are both a variation of doing a 360 degree rotation of the mace in a vertical plane. With the emphasis on form and basics I found a series of exercises to develop into the the 360 movement. I also found some basic switch exercises i.e changing the mace from one hand to another in an exercise. I'd also found a beginners basic workout. The workout could be adjusted with timings to suit a person's goal. Thus my very first workout had me doing 50 reps each of 2 building block exercises (pendulum and metronome). Followed by 50 reps of switch curls and 50x 360's to start the basics. I took these all slow and concentrated on my form and posture. Why 50? It just seemed a high enough number to be getting the muscle memory learning started. Though I quickly found I had to break down into 2 sets of 25 as my shoulders and wrists were already getting hammered.
After my basics skills practice I put in an actual workout. Fortunately mace training can be adjusted through timing. I wanted this to be a cardio workout and see how well it compared to swimming. Oranges and apples right? Anyhow, using a Tabata format consisting of 2 rounds of 10 exercises, 5 for each side of my body. The central movements I did twice or swapped my hand position over. All-in-all this was a 21 minute workout with a 1 minute rest at the midway point. I can say I was challenged, though not as much as an interval style swim. However, I could certainly see the potential for the workout to get much harder as my skill and repertoire improved.
Workout number 1 was done. My forearms felt like lead blocks, my biceps were pumped and my shoulders ached considerably. The Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) felt the same way the next day. I was surprised that, even though I could feel my core under tension constantly, there wasn't really much ache or DOMS in my abs. But then again, I'm not exactly new to training at all. So the soreness and weakness could easily be put down to the mace being a whole new style but as I said, the potential was there. Enough potential for me to want to give it another go. All the benefits I'd read about were apparent or at least I could feel how they would become apparent.
I did feel one extra advantage that mace training implies. I could pretend. I could imagine I had an axe in my hand, not that a sledgehammer didn’t feel badass enough. The mace workout gave me something other workouts do not. I was doing warrior training. Some movements bear little resemblance to swinging an axe or mace on a battlefield while others do. As much as war and violence should not be glorified or desensitised, a fire was burning in me for the mace workout. An extra drive came to do the extra rep or hold on until the buzzer sounded. I had more focus and will to work hard in the right way. I felt that should the unmentionable hit the fan, this training might make the difference. That's not to say my other workouts wouldn't help if the situation arose. With my old line of work, I can safely say my training did help. It's hard to describe and I hope you get what I'm trying to put across. Mace work added a flare, a heat, a passion on top of a goal. There is motivation from another avenue even if it's just because mace work looks cool. Looking cool is part of the reason I put so much effort into calisthenics.
A couple of days later I decided to do some skill work. The goal was not to improve muscle mass, strength or cardio fitness. Merely to practice a new movement to add into my arsenal without eating into dedicated fitness improvement time. I found a video to break down a simple flow movement involving a cross body switch. This entailed switching the mace from once side of the body to other whilst switching hands. When sped up, it looks similar to doing a figure 8 pattern on its side or infinity. The breakdown started with standard switch curls, then cross body switch curls, which is just a bigger range of motion curl and switch. Again, I took my time and focused on form and posture. I kept building on the steps until I could do 50 cross body switches. The majority were good but my arms were getting tired and I was getting a sweat on not long before bedtime. So without intentionally doing a workout, I had done a workout, learned a basic flow movement and improved my mace skill. Again my core was challenged throughout and just holding the offset weight in a twist was more demanding than I expected.
After only 2 workouts I could easily say I had more muscle awareness. I could compare it to the awareness yoga brings. Battle yoga would not be an unfair description of mace training. My perceived grip strength was better too. 2 workouts would not improve strength enough to be noticeable but it can increase the mind muscle connection. The day after my second mace practice, my wife made a comment on my physique, she said "your belly is flatter already from your hammer workout". I was getting undressed for bed at the time. Following her out of the blue compliment, I looked into the mirror beside me and indeed could agree with her. My belly was flatter, which was odd as I was on a bulking phase. I wouldn't have lost considerable weight in 4 days being on a controlled mass gaining diet. What I think happened was that my stance awareness had improved quickly enough to keep me in the right posture for longer thus giving the illusion of losing weight or having a flatter stomach. The next week I also noticed how my shoulders were further back when I walked and I stood taller. That's the benefit of a workout that comprises standing in the right posture for an hour while a force acts to oppose my stability. It's unlikely I was actually significantly stronger by this point, could be newbie gains, though much more likely I had better mind muscle connections and awareness.
For all the good I have spoken I could see some possible disadvantages. Mace work is highly skilled based, especially for the flow movements. As such, fitness gains can be tempered by the speed of skill learning. Though I actually like the idea of learning a skill and the swimming I was comparing to required a lot of techniques. If sheer fitness is your goal, mace work might be a little slow to advance. Mace work seems fantastic for upper body stability but there seems to be a lack of leg training. Even though legs can be involved, the mace has no direct effect other than adding a relatively small amount of weight on top of your body weight. There are lower body balance effects but these are mostly controlled in the core. I’m not saying there aren’t hard as nail leg workouts in mace training. However, the mace adds little that a dumbbell or bodyweight couldn’t do when thinking about the legs. The mace requires lots of movements and control with the hands, so makes sense that the upper body would be worked more. (Edit: 2 years later, I can say the mace is pretty good at leg conditioning).
Another annoyance and even danger is that a mace is essentially a weapon used to bludgeon people to death or close to it. It makes sense that the mace hurts when you get a 'kiss' (hit by a mace). So mace work carries a risk of damage, though if kept under control and within your limits, should not be any more than a sore spot and bruising. I hit myself a few times but felt nothing more than a thump.
I wouldn't use mace training as a standalone option to training, depending on your goal. I feel the mace is best combined with other forms of workout including the conventional. Doing mace work might put too much strain on the shoulders if done for a prolonged time. I'm sure some macebell experts out there will differ to my opinion. However, with as much leverage as the mace provides it can't compete to a squat with twice your bodyweight, a bench press of your body weight or more, or even fast paced sprint work and boxing regimes. Not really sold it to you in this paragraph have I? Well my proof of commitment is that I stopped using my free sledge hammer and bought a brand new steel mace.
Overall what mace work can do is fill the gaps, give you great core stability work that can cross over to all forms of training and sports, unlock hidden motivation, challenge your mind and your body, while all the time improving muscular capacity and being a method of weight management. Best of all it's enjoyable, teaches new skills and easy to keep consistent through immense variety.
Mace training touts upper body and shoulder injury prevention. Now the regular followers among you will know I suffer from an ongoing upper back injury. The muscles involved in my injury also have a lot to do with shoulder stability. Therefore, consistent mace work should (if the retail companies are to be believed) cure my injury, if not help it. My initial feelings are good. After a mace workout I can feel a similar tension and achy pain that a physiotherapy workout does. Time will tell if mace work is the miracle cure to my ongoing battle with injury. I may do a X-months later blog if I keep up macebell training. Hint; keep an eye on my Instagram page to find out.