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Shovelglove 103 - Explosive Motions
Urban Primalist
Duration, Intensity and Frequency

Shovelglove students frequently ask:  How long should I engage in shovelglove, and at what level of intensity?  How often should I shug?  The answers depend on your goals and your level of fitness.

If your goal is to burn fat, your exercises should be low in intensity -- performed at perhaps 60% of max heart rate or less -- and long in duration.  You will perform many dynamic moves gently.  In fact, one of the best ways to burn fat may be simply to sling your hammer over your shoulder and go for a long walk.  This favors the development of slow-twitch muscles over fast-twitch muscles.

If your goal is to build strength and gain lean mass, your exercises should be high in intensity -- as high as you can manage without risking overtraining or injury -- and short in duration.  You will perform explosive moves intensely.  This favors the development of fast-twitch muscles over slow-twitch muscles.

Note that there is some contradiction between building strength and building endurance.  The world's greatest sprinters are not the world's greatest ultra-marathoners.  You must decide where along this continuum you wish to reside and train accordingly.  Recall our heroes from Shovelglove 102: Alexey Stakhanov was an endurance shugger.  Grutte Pier was an intensity shugger.  John Henry was somewhere in between.

How frequently should one practice shovelglove?  As frequently as your body and mind permit.  Your body is ready for more when you feel fully recovered, or nearly fully recovered.  Your mind is ready for more when you find yourself eagerly looking forward to picking up your hammer.  If you're not feeling enthusiastic in body and mind, get some extra nutrition and sleep and come back later.

Your level of fitness will determine your limits of intensity or duration and the necessary frequency to improve or maintain condition.  If you are a beginning duration shugger, you will have to keep your sessions shorter, and make up for them in frequency.  An expert duration shugger could shovel at a leisurely pace for several hours, take the rest of the week off, and maintain condition.  If you are a beginning intensity shugger, you will similarly need to cap your intensity and make up for it in frequency.  An expert intensity shugger might need only 10 minutes of exercise per week to maintain condition.  Yet in that 10 minutes, he or she would release enough energy to raze a village to the ground.


It is tempting for many, particular beginners, to ignore the above trade-offs.  In their enthusiasm, they go for high intensity and long duration at the same time, and they do so with excessive frequency.  This is the path to overtraining: when your body accumulates damage faster than it can be repaired.

Any kind of exercise causes microscopic tears in muscle fibers, stretches in ligaments, and faults in bone.  At a low level, this is a good thing; we feel no real pain, and our bodies repair the damaged tissue to be stronger than before.  Your personal healing factor will depend on your adherence to all ten laws of the Primal Blueprint, particularly regarding diet.  This is why intense exercise is only helpful to improve a healthy body, and never to repair an unhealthy body.  Performing intense exercise before your lifestyle factors are in place is a dangerous reversal of priorities.

As you overtrain, your body struggles to repair mechanical damage to tissue, producing muscle soreness and vulnerability to injury.  It struggles to counter oxidative damage as tissue becomes inflamed.  Ultimately, microscopic traumas become macroscopic: muscles tear; ligaments snap; bones fracture.  Mild overtraining may take days or weeks to repair.  Moderate overtraining can cause permanent weakness -- the repaired tissue is scarred and grows back weaker than it was before.

Sometimes, however, mild overtraining can be positive.  It may set us back for a few days with aching muscles and joints, but the body is ultimately able to repair all the damage, and it may well be beneficial to shock the system once in a while to really exercise your healing factor.

Motivation: Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic 

Lately I have had occasion to reflect on motivation, which is our psychological fuel, and its parallels with carbon compounds, our biological fuel.

Extrinsic motivation is derived from sources outside oneself.  Examples include:

  • Achieving supremacy in one area and maintaining it against all challengers
  • Winning the respect, love, or admiration of others
  • Obtaining material rewards

This source of motivation is powerful, alluring, and immediate.  It produces an intense rush and can drive us single-mindedly to truly amazing achievements.  But the rush is temporary, and as we rest on our laurels, our motivation slumps, perhaps even lower than it was before as we ponder our fading accomplishments.  Over time, we need more and more extrinsic motivation to generate the same effect -- it cannot be stored, and it is toxic in excess.  Even though it can be a potent fuel, it is easily overdone and potentially addictive.  In short, extrinsic motivation is to the mind as carbohydrates are to the body.

Intrinsic motivation derives solely from within oneself and is immune to external forces.  Examples include:

  • Striving to embody your own moral code
  • Being the best possible child, sibling, parent or spouse
  • Creating something that will serve and inspire others long after your own life has ended
  • Exploring your potential and discovering your untapped capabilities

This source of motivation is humble and misunderstood.  It does not produce a sudden rush, but what it lacks in intensity, it compensates for with depth and duration.  When we are intrinsically motivated, we take the long view.  We let go of our failures and embarassments and even appreciate them as teachers.  As we feed our intrinsic motivations, they never diminish in strength.  Indeed, they grow stronger, an almost limitless reservoir of psychic energy.  In short, intrinsic motivation is to the mind as fats are to the body.

To explore the metaphor further, the body can be trained to rely on either source of psychic fuel to the detriment of the other.  We are all familiar with those who are hopelessly addicted to extrinsic motivation.  They constantly desire approval from others.  Just as a carb junkie becomes insulin-resistant, these unfortunate people become resistant to intrinsic motivation.  They become obsessed with themselves and their appearance in the minds of others.  They become so desperate for approval that they may denigrate others to make themselves feel better by comparison.  Eventually, full-blown narcissism ensues -- a kind of psychic diabetes and obesity of the soul.  Like diabetes and obesity, the condition is reversible, this is rarely accomplished.

We know many fewer people who are primarily driven by intrinsic motivation.  They don't measure their worth by what other people think of them.  They are happy to labor in obscurity, prehaps preferring it.  When they do seek and receive extrinsic motivation, it affects them far more deeply and profoundly than it would a narcissist.  Even if it temporarily distracts them from their inner purpose, they always return to the unbreachable fortress of their own values.  Extrinsic motivation is simply not necessary to them, and in fact they can manufacture it from their own intrinsic motivation, just as a lean human makes glucose out of fat.  They know that although they may have no living witnesses, their true mentors would be proud of them: their childhood teacher; their beloved relative; their favorite philosopher; their god.  Even if the world misunderstands them, in their minds they hear the only voices that matter whispering "well done".  That imaginary extrinsic motivation is more than enough to push them to new heights of achievement.

Extrinsically motivated people burn bright, but they burn out.  Intrinsically motivated people burn low and slow, perhaps forever.  When their last pages are written, intrinsics die in happy confidence.  Extrinsics die in doubt and despair.

This dichotomy applies to all of human action, not just fitness.

Shovelglove is designed to develop your intrinsic motivation.  There are no rivals against whom to compete; no peers or potential mates to impress.  Indeed, you are likely to draw uncomfortable stares from observers.  Your sanity and good intentions may be suspect.  The only reasons to do shovelglove are because it is fun and because it is healthy.

Explosive Motions

Was that enough navel-gazing for you?  I hope so.  We've got some serious iron to move today.

Video is now available by clicking on the motion names.

I've saved the explosive motions until now because I wanted you to have a very strong foundation and understanding of your hammer.  You need only a few sets of explosive motions in your workout to reap serious benefits, and it is easy to get carried away with them to the point of overtraining.  Do these motions slowly at first and learn them well before adding force.

As you remember from Shovelglove 102, any motion can be made more dynamic or more explosive, but all motions have a tendency towards one or the other.  Today's motions are designed to explode like bombs.  They should accelerate with maximum force, but brake gently -- do not yank your joints.  Executed properly, you will feel massive torque in your body and an invigorating hormonal rush.

Once you've done your warm-up motions and perhaps a few dynamic moves, I want you burst forth raving like a berzerker with the Spear Thrust.

Pick a target: in this case, I've selected a utility pole.  Of course, you are not going to strike it; you are simply going to come within a millimeter of doing so.

Grasp your hammer at Low Grip and High Grip in a forward-facing stance.  As you cross your rear leg over your front, draw your hammer back as far as it will go.  As you uncross your legs and lunge forward, thrust the hammer in a straight and vicious line directly at your target.  Your aim is to impale your prey in a single thrust.  High Grip provides the force, while Low Grip provides precise aim and stability.  When you perform a Spear Lunge in the wild, you get only one chance.  Heaven help you if you thrust weakly or miss.  Use your whole body, explode at your target, and make it count!




Our next move is going to feel a little funky because for the first time, we're swinging not with the head of the hammer, but with the side of the hammer.  As it resembles striking a target with a large and unwieldy weapon, this motion is called the Sledge Maul.

Grasp your hammer at High Grip with the other hand capping the stem as shown below.  That capping hand is the axle around which the hammer will rotate.  Bring the hammer head up in a circle with full force and slam it side-first onto an imaginary platform in front of you.  Brake the hammer -- it will be particularly difficult -- and then wheel it back the way it came.




Most of our moves aim to the front or side, but the Skyhook aims for the trees.

Grasp your hammer vertically in front of you at Low and High Grip.  You are targetting a juicy bundle of fruit, or perhaps a promising bird's nest.  Simply thrust the hammer upwards, letting go of High Grip as you do so and aiming at a point directly overhead.   Let your hammer fly like a rocket straight up as you maintain balance with Low Grip.  Then let it hang in the air for a moment -- tap! the bird's nest topples gently -- and then let the hammer drop straight back down the way it came.



The Iron Roundhouse is another inverted hammer move with an even funkier grip.  Grasp Low Grip as you would normally, and grasp High Grip with your palm facing downward rather than upward.  Bring High Grip up to the side and then swing it horizontally across your body.  You are throwing a boxer's hook punch with a hammer in your hand, circling around your foe's defenses with an unstoppable sideways blow.  While it is an exhausting explosive move, it is perhaps not a practical move in itself.  But when you put the hammer down and swing with your bare fist, you should feel a very practical increase in your speed and strength.



These are all very primal and explosive motions.  But my favorite one of all is a modification to the original canonical move.  You've felt the burn from the Stakhanov Shovel.  Now feel the detonation of the Flying Shovel.

NOTE: This move is potentially hard on your elbows.  As usual, try this move slowly at first and skip it if you are the least bit uncomfortable.  I recommend a light hammer if you do attempt this.

The first three steps are identical to the Stakhanov Shovel.  You're lunging in deep to pick up a shovelful of coal -- only this time, the coals are red-hot.  Hoist them off the ground, and instead of tipping them away from your body into the cart, fling them full-force across the front of your body to the side.  For maximum effect, twist first with your foot, then your leg, hip, torso, shoulder, and finally extend your arm, all in one fluid motion.  Properly sequenced, you will launch your hammer like a cannonball.  And that is why I've saved this move for last -- you have only your arm to brake the force that your entire body generated.  It is very easy to yank your forearm, and I know this because I fired off a Flying Shovel two weeks ago with full force and did just that.  For several days, my forearm was quite sore at the connection to the elbow.  I had to reduce most of my reps with that sidedue to weakened grip, and only recovered completely a couple of days ago.  So please, start slowly with this one and find your limit.  When you do, you will have mastered perhaps the most effective explosive motion of all.





Congratulations!  You now possess a full range of warm-up, dynamic, and explosive motions.  Your shovelglove repertoire is fully balanced.  If you manage to work in every motion to date in a single session, I will be very impressed.  Not that you care about that, of course -- you're intrinsically motivated!
We're going to have some fun with this week's bonus motion, which challenges both your dynamic and explosive techniques, tests your balance, and wows the crowds.  Et voila, le Cirque du Shovelglove.
This one works best with a lighter hammer.  Position the hammer upright on your palm, with the stem balanced on your first knuckles.  Stretch your other hand behind you for balance.  Hold this position.  When the head sways, move your feet to get under it again, and swing your back hand to keep your balance, but keep your torso and front arm perfectly stable.  How long can you balance the hammer this way?  Can you waltz around deliberately, leading with your hammer?  When you're done with the balance game, pop the hammer vertically into the air.  Then pluck it from the air with the same hand and return to a strong stance.  It's not too hard to grab it at the head or at High Grip.  If you really want a challenge, grab it closer to Middle Grip.  If you can grab it any lower than that, you're better at this than I am.  This is the only motion where we let go of the hammer, so it is potentially dangerous, and that is why it is a Week Three bonus motion.  Have fun, but be careful!




Next Steps

That’s all I've got for you this week.  If you've been a diligent student, you are already an accomplished shugger.  You have enough raw material to improvise, to discover new twists on old moves and even invent some new and original moves of your own.  You also have enough experience to customize your goals.  Will you be a slow and steady shugger with limitless endurance?  Will you be a heavy hitter with unstoppable force?  Or will you try to split the difference?  Your body is unique and only you can discover where its greatest talents lie.

Next week, we'll look at some very practical motions that you might even use in an extreme situation -- when the hunter becomes the hunted.  Defensive shovelglove is an experimental and highly speculative art.  Instead of me teaching you, we'll be learning together.  I hope you'll join me as we try to reinvent the martial disciplines of our ancestors.

Timothy Williams
May 17, 2012 (rev 2.0)

All text copyright © 2010-2013 Timothy Williams