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Shovelglove 101 - Getting Started
Urban Primalist
The Oldest Tool

Pick up a sledgehammer.  Feel its heft.  This is one of mankind’s oldest tools.  It should feel vaguely familiar: hominids have been swinging weighted sticks for at least twelve thousand generations.

Our earliest bipedal ancestors from 2 million years ago used tools with dexterity equivalent to modern man.  Swinging heavy branches and throwing rocks were among the ways that hominids transitioned from a plant- to a meat-based diet, setting in motion the evolutionary trend toward encephalization and the proliferation of anthropoids around the globe.  Heavy tool use became an essential, defining feature of the hominid phenotype.  Heavy tool use is bred into our very genes. 

The first spears were a bit more recent – 350,000 years ago or so.  With the ability to fix weights to the end of sticks, the hammer was born.  Over those many generations, the human muscular system became exquisitely adapted to swinging and thrusting spears, hammers and similar tools from our quirky bipedal stance.

Reinhard Engels' Shovelglove

Reinhard Engels observed that exercise was much more natural and enjoyable when performed standing up, befitting our hominid heritage.  Pondering a new type of motion, he hit on the idea of shoveling, having read in a French novel that coal-shovelers had ripped abs.  He wrapped a sledgehammer with a sweater and the first shovelglove was born.  The inspiring, original story is at www.shovelglove.com.

Reinhard further observed that the shovelglove can be used to mimic a wide variety of natural motions, analogous to the labors performed by humans for countless generations: chopping, plowing, churning, and many more. Reinhard established the shovelglove movement page to catalog the motions he and others discovered.

Reinhard established 14 minutes as the standard length of one shovelglove session, which by now is well established as the ideal duration for casual users.

Shovelglove vs. Sledgehammer

Shovelglove is not about hitting things with your hammer.  Shovelglove is a zero-impact exercise based on swinging and braking the hammer with muscles alone.  This type of motion will build a flexible, sinewy, lean, and explosive physique.

If you aspire more to bulk and raw strength, then you may want to explore traditional sledgehammer training, which consists of striking objects such as tires.  The heavy impact favors bone density and muscle size over flexibility and control.  Perhaps most effective for a mastodon-hunting physique are traditional high-weight, low-rep, full-body weightlifting exercises.  Even in that context, shovelglove remains useful as a recovery and stretching routine (more details in Shovelglove 201).

My Approach

For many years, I was put off by free weights and resistance machines in gyms.  I was searching for a more primal approach to weight training when I discovered shovelglove through a link on MarksDailyApple.com.  I jumped at the opportunity to connect with my ancestral heritage as a Paleolithic apex predator.

Rather than learn from Reinhard's videos, I decided to explore shovelglove on my own, just for the fun of the learning process.  After years of practice, I’m still learning new motions and perfecting old ones.  

Even as I was just beginning, I found such joy in “shugging”, and such amazing effects on body compensation, that I resolved to write this guide to motivate others to take the same journey.  Yes, you!  Whether you are young or old, male or female, I want you to have a ripped torso and strong back.  I want you to feel the raw, primal euphoria that comes from swinging a massive chunk of metal with total control.  I am hoping you will rush right out when you’re done reading this and buy a sledgehammer.  You can order through Reinhard's online sledgehammer store or you can really splurge on a custom model at strongergrip.com (the shot-loadable sledge is my weapon of choice).

Safety First

Throughout the ages, flying rocks and metal have maimed and claimed the lives of innumerable wisecracking hairless apes.  Don’t be that guy…!

Swinging a weight on a stick is not as dangerous as it might seem, but there's no reason to be careless.  There is really no point to any of this if you end up injured.  In case that wasn't clear enough --

DISCLAIMER: All information contained within this web site, urbanprimalist.com, is for informational purposes only.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem - nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician.  No action should be taken solely on the contents of this website.  Always consult your physician or qualified health professional on any matters regarding your health, or on any opinions expressed within this website, or before starting an exercise program.

Here are some tips to consider for maximum safety:

1) PRIMAL DIET.  Shovelglove is going to strain every single muscle on your body.  You are going to need all the balanced nutrition you can get to control the damage and exploit the opportunity for muscle gain.  Following the dietary guidelines of Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint is, in my opinion, the main prerequisite for shovelglove.  If you’ve never eaten primally before, I strongly suggest you give yourself a couple of weeks on a pure primal diet before attempting any of this.  It’s simply not worth it to risk injury and long recovery from an inappropriate diet.  In particular, I recommend lots and lots of bacon (uncured, organic, humanely raised).  Boar hunter body, remember?

2) LOW WEIGHT.  Start off with a very light sledgehammer.  Don’t think that because you’re comfortable with 20 lb. bicep curls that you should be swinging a 20 lb. hammer.  Far from it!  At 5’9.5” and 155 pounds in the pictures below, I was using a 12 lb. hammer.  It was almost too heavy for me at first, and my back was quite sore after my first few sessions.  Two years later, I am using a 21.6 lb. hammer at 170 pounds bodyweight.  My wife, who is 5’6” and 125 pounds, swings a 6 lb. hammer (in a very gentle and feminine manner).  Bear in mind that heavier weights are not always necessary, because the physics of levers enable you to increase resistance just by swinging harder and faster or adjusting your grip.

3) GENTLE AT FIRST.  The average urban dweller has puny upper body muscles.  I thought I was decently strong, but I tweaked my back when I started shovelglove (the discomfort went away in a couple of days).  One person to whom I recommended shovelglove pulled a muscle simply carrying the hammer from her car.  (Perhaps I should have emphasized point 2 a bit more!)  Hammers feel so natural in our arms that we are all tempted to overdo it at first.  Stick to low reps – about six – for any motion you’ve never done before.  And don’t feel like you have to fill up all 14 minutes on your first try.  Five minutes is plenty for a first-timer.  If you ever feel tingly in your back, call it a day.

4) COLD SHOWER AFTERWARDS.  Maybe it's just me, but it feels like there is nothing better for freshly shredded muscles.  Blasting cold water will strengthen your circulatory system and rush nutrients to your lean tissue, leaving you fully refreshed and ready for bacon.  (Your body will think you just killed a boar and washed it in the lake.)

5) FULL RECOVERY.  It is a good rule of thumb for most people never to perform intense exercise two days in a row.  This will allow plenty of time for full recovery.  If your back tingles, or your shoulders or arms are sore, give the hammer and your body a rest that day.  Wait until you are fully recovered and can perform with proper intensity.

Shovelglove Basics

This is my sledgehammer, Douze:

s101douze.jpg

Note the three taped areas: High Grip (near the head), Middle Grip, and Low Grip.  Low Grip should always be just above the end of the stem, and Middle Grip should be about halfway between head and end.  With the hammer pointing straight ahead, parallel to the ground and with the tip of the stem just in front of your abdomen, High Grip is perhaps 6-12 inches below the head, depending on what feels comfortable to you.

The tape is mostly as a reference point for hand positioning, but it can also help your grip.  Make sure you wrap the tape from the bottom of the handle towards the head.  This ensures that your hands travel with, rather than against, the grain of the tape as they slide away from the head.

Your default standing position is a low, strong stance with torso erect.  This will help you brake the hammer and retain your balance.  Each of your toes is essential to a strong stance, so be sure to perform barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes.

Control is of the utmost importance and is the main criterion for judging your own technique.  Before you swing the hammer, visualize the arcs and lines that represent the intended motion.  Keep the head of the hammer finely aligned in the direction of travel. Strive to deviate as little as possible from this optimum path.  Not only will this help you avoid accidents and kill boars more efficiently, but you will develop the stabilizing muscles in your core that see little use in civilized life.

Every motion should be done symmetrically, with an equal number of reps on both sides.  You should strive for a minimum of six reps with proper form.  If you find yourself doing more than 20 reps of a particular motion, try increasing the intensity.
Some people prefer shugging to the sounds of nature, but personally I get best results listening to up-tempo music.  Whatever gets you going.  Personally I prefer trance, jungle, hardcore, and opera.

Warm-Up Motions

Enough pretext!  Let’s get shugging.


Video is now available by clicking on the motion names.

This week’s article focuses on warm-up exercises designed to get your muscles stretched and joints lubricated.  The objective is not to swing hard, but simply to use the momentum of the hammer for assisted stretching.  Go for a high number of gentle reps.

I begin every workout with a set of Torso Twists.  With the hammer held pointing straight outward and parallel to the ground, swing first in one direction, then the other.  Let your spine twist to its full extension in both directions.

s101torsotwist1.jpg

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Having stretched along our X-axis, we next stretch along our Z-axis with a set of Boat Rows.  Cap the stem with one hand and place your other hand at High Grip.  Push the head in front of you, then let it swing down low as if through the water, and finally pull it up so that the hammer head just barely touches your elbow.  Continue this motion in large, flowing strokes, letting the hammer momentum pull your shoulder on the downstroke.  This is a pleasant and meditative motion that can be repeated indefinitely, switching sides as always for symmetry.

s101boatrow1.jpg

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Now it’s time to work the Y-axis one-handed with a set of Hail Reinhards.  (I get to name the exercises, so stop snickering.)  Start with the hammer head down, holding High Grip at full extension.  Then curl the head up using your bicep.  Then thrust the hammer directly overhead.  Back to curl position, and then back down to full extension.  These are tougher than the two other motions and should be performed in a lower rep range.

s101hailreinhard1.jpg

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s101hailreinhard3.jpg

For our final warm-up motion, we'll hit our triceps and frontal abs with some Backscratchers.  Using a nice, low stance and one hand at Middle Grip, dangle the hammer behind your back, parallel to your spine.  Lift it up and and down to full extension.  12 reps on each arm is probably plenty.

s101backscratcher1.jpg

s101backscratcher2.jpg

These are the most basic warm-up motions.  Once you’ve rotated through these a time or two, you’ll be ready to explore more complex motions.  In coming weeks we will look at these in more detail, but for now feel free to just monkey around for the rest of your session and get to know your hammer.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, here’s a bonus motion I call the Bullroarer.  Be careful with this one and go slow at first!  It will test your grip and reward your shoulders.

Hold the hammer at Middle Grip at your side, palm facing backwards. Following a circular motion, bring your grip up over your head, around your back and to your side again, rotating your wrist loosely.  You are swinging the hammer head in a big circle as if it were a sling or (yes) bullroarer.  This is an excellent shoulder stretch and forearm strengthener, with a diagonal looping path.  It's also hard to convey with pictures, so I recommend viewing the linked video.

s101bullroarer1.jpg

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Next Steps

That’s it for this week.  I hope you are pumped up and ready to get started! You really don't need my help to learn more about shovelglove, but in case you’re curious, there are (will be) three more parts to this beginner’s guide.  In week two, we add full-body dynamic exercises.  In week three, we introduce explosive movements.  In week four, we explore defensive maneuvers.  Then we’ll be ready for the intermediate guide.

If you're feeling impatient, you may wish to skip ahead to the comprehensive review in Shovelglove 201.

Timothy Williams
May 17, 2012 (rev 2.0)

All text copyright © 2010-2013 Timothy Williams