The Steel Club Workout

Go Clubbing, Get Fit

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Onnit Academy

I tend to think of myself as fairly well-versed on fitness equipment, but until a few days before my scheduled training session at DeFranco's Gym at the Onnit Academy in Austin, TX, I'd never heard of using a steel club as a strength training tool.

Now obviously, almost anything of significant mass can be used as a strength training tool, but in the modern world, the perspective of what qualifies as "real" fitness equipment is fairly limited.

Instead of viewing tree branches and rocks as legitimate weights, we look to dumbbells and medicine balls.

That's precisely what drew me to Onnit Academy in the first place. Onnit specializes in "primal" training equipment crafted to modern tastes. They've designed an entire movement-focused strength training system using their own products - steel maces, steel clubs, kettlebells, sandbags, steel bells, battle ropes, and more. They believe equipment should be versatile, affordable, and easily adaptable to every fitness level. 

And let me tell you, I was impressed.

Not only were the gym's facilities fantastic, but the staff was remarkable - friendly, inviting, and most importantly, knowledgeable.

Using a Steel Club for Exercise

I met with John Wolf, the Director of Fitness Education, to take me through a steel club workout. Because I'd never used a steel club before, the first half of our session was dedicated to warming up and mastering proper technique with the club before moving into the actual workout.

If you're familiar with kettlebells or steel maces, you can use their general properties as a reference point for the steel club. Essentially, clubs are a piece of equipment with an unbalanced distribution of weight - less weight at the narrower end, with progressively more weight along the club's shaft as it widens toward the end.

The difference is, that while kettlebells are short and compact, and maces are long and narrow, clubs fall somewhere in between - not excessively long, and not excessively narrow, but not exactly short and compact, either.

This makes the club an excellent tool for practically any type of training - strength, balance, rotational power, and even rehab. The uneven distribution of weight requires a greater muscle engagement during training, and the size and shape make the clubs appropriate for swinging, pulling and pressing exercises. 

The Workout

I can't say enough great things about John Wolf. Rather than immediately throwing me into a workout, he took time during the warmup to analyze my movement patterns, and point out a few bad habits I've developed over the years. For instance, I have a tendency to let my lumbar spine "slack off" in every day life - I don't engage my core as much as I should, which probably contributes to my low back pain. He kept having to remind me to suck in my core and tuck my tailbone under to maintain proper form.

This was such a great lesson for me. It's easy for fitness professionals to assume they know it all, but to have another professional take the time to coach me through some of my own movements? It kept me honest about where I might have blind spots. An excellent reason to advocate for personal training.

It was also incredibly important to break down these bad habits before picking up the clubs. Using a new piece of equipment incorrectly can lead to unnecessary injury, so I was grateful to have John there to set me up for success.

Simple Movements

What was so interesting was to see how simple exercises could be progressively added to and changed as individual movements were mastered. For instance, I started by learning the 2-hand front swing. Once John thought I had sufficiently mastered the correct form, he had me change it slightly to the 2-hand clean. And from there, he had me add a 2-hand shouldered squat to the top of the movement. By the end of the class, asked me to string them all together into a single, challenging exercise.

He also worked me through each phase of the flag press lunge before having me set the clubs aside to introduce me to a bodyweight exercise called the frog pushup.

Once every piece was technically correct, I was ready to work. John's 10-minute steel club AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) was much harder than I ever imagined possible.  It involved as many successive rounds as I could complete of just three exercises over the course of 10 minutes:

  • 10 Front-swings to squats
  • 10 Flag press lunges
  • 8 Frog pushups

I'm no stranger to high intensity workouts, but I could barely complete this one... and it was just 10 minutes long. That just goes to show you how effective steel club training can be.

Buying and Using a Steel Club

You can purchase your own club for use at home for prices ranging from $40 to $120, depending on the weight of the club you purchase. If you do buy your own, I'd highly suggest working with trained steel club trainer to master your form before diving into a full workout.

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