Master The Sledgehammer For Strength and Performance

Master The Sledgehammer for Strength, Power, and Performance

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

Using the sledgehammer or mace to perform tire slams is one of the best drills for developing full body power as well as conditioning.  You’re essentially coordinating your entire upper body, lower body and core to work in synchrony by performing a very dynamic and explosive functional movement.  With this in mind the sledgehammer requires precise technique and proper mechanics to nail this complex drill.

Unfortunately, most individuals perform sledgehammer work improperly as they typically muscle the sledgehammer through the exercise rather than relying on the kinetic chain to produce power and torque.  

To reap the benefits of this powerful training tool and look like the mighty Thor, here are 10 important cues you’ll want to implement when performing sledgehammer and mace work.

10 Critical Cues

1. Forget AMRAP, aim for quality and effort instead.  Performing proper sledgehammer work really begins with having the correct mental approach and mindset.  Don’t worry about getting as many reps as possible within a certain time constraint (AMRAP method).  Instead focus on producing quality movement and maximal effort each and every repetition.  Cramming in sloppy reps under a time constraint is the worst mistake you can make when performing tire slams with the sledgehammer (or any drill for that matter).

2. Coil with your hips and core.  Rather than trying to muscle the sledgehammer, which will give you minimal power not to mention put you at greater risk for injury, focus on using your hips and core to coil the sledgehammer in a circular motion.  Think about rotating from from low to high and back to front.

3. Use the ricochet for transitions.  Allow the ricochet from each slam to segue into the next rep in an alternating fashion (from side to side of your body).  In other words the end of each slam should transition into the next rep in a smooth and rhythmic yet violent fashion.

4. Employ the Olympic lifting approach.  For individuals who are not familiar with Olympic lifts this next cue won’t apply.  However, if you have had any experience working with cleans and snatches this will make perfect sense.  When performing Olympic lifts you need to be patient as you gradually build up acceleration then finally produce one powerful burst as the bar approaches your hips and into your catch position. Attempting to explode too soon (too close to the floor) or muscling the weight too early from the bottom position produces significantly less power than being patient and relying on your kinetic chain.   In other words focus on building up acceleration then explode at the last second with one powerful burst rather than rushing the movement.

5. Get tall.  One of the most effective cues you can give someone when performing sledgehammer work is to get their body, torso, and the sledgehammer as tall as possible at the top.  That’s because we essentially want to lengthen our spine and extend our hips before we flex them and slam the sledgehammer down into the tire.  Another way to think of this is we want to elongate the hip flexors, lats, triceps, and core at the top just before we shorten all of these muscles as we unload the sledgehammer.  Simply put, moving into the top position is the eccentric or lengthening phase and driving the sledge straight down into the tire represents the concentric or shortening phase.

6. Think rotational pullover. If the “get tall” cue still doesn’t make sense just visualize sledgehammer work as a dynamic rotational variation of a pullover.  In fact the movement pattern (minus the rotation) is essentially the same movement pattern in the upper body as you move from shoulder flexion to shoulder extension.  The only addition is we’re also moving the hips from extension to flexion.

7. Hold the Top.  Another key for emphasizing the “tall body” cue is to hold the top position momentarily (rather than rushing out of it) once you’ve fully coiled the body and lengthened your spine and hips.  This represents the spring-loaded position where your body has built up maximal potential energy and is like a slingshot waiting to unload and maximize power output for the drive phase. 

Besides maximizing mechanics and physics, the reason for holding the top position for a brief second is to allow ample elongation of the stretched musculature to occur.  Even if it looks maximally lengthened externally, the body requires a brief delay for the levels of intramuscular motor unit recruitment to catch up to the external lengthening we see on the outside.  This is even more important when relying on the kinetic chain particularly with objects and instruments that are longer and more cumbersome such as the sledgehammer.  In addition we have to allow ample time for the loaded object to come to its peak and settle before reversing its kinetic and kinematic path.

8. Maneuver your hands properly.  When performing each repetition, the bottom hand should stay as close to the bottom of the handle as possible to maximize leverage.  The top hand however needs to move throughout the motion.  As you transition from the beginning coil phase (bottom position) to the top/tall position, place the top hand as high on the handle as possible.  As you begin to drive into the tire, the top hand should slide towards the bottom hand so that you end with both hands relatively close to each other (1-6 inches apart).  As you transition to the next rep and begin to rotate your body, the hand that was previously on top should smoothly slide down to the bottom of the handle so that it now becomes the bottom hand for the next rep on the opposite side of the body.  The hand that was previously on the bottom quickly grabs the top portion of the handle, thus repeating the cycle for the desired number of repetitions.

9.  Imagine using a force platform.  When it comes to sledgehammer work the name of the game is power and torque resulting from proper use of the kinetic chain.  One of the most effective cues you can use when performing slams is to imagine that the tire has a power device or force platform embedded into the surface that displays how much power and torque you’re producing on each repetition.  Think of this as one of those carnival games at your local fair where the job is to hit the platform with the hammer so aggressively that the little measuring marker soars to the top of the scale.  Each repetition, aim to beat your previous best in terms of how powerful and explosive the movement felt.

10.  Be violent.  Once you begin to master your form on the sledgehammer you’ll want to approach the drill like a savage barbarian attempting to demolish the tire with animalistic-like aggression.  In fact, you should muster so much power on each repetition that your body natural leaves the ground for a split second.  This is similar to the best Olympic lifters who produce so much force and explosive power into the ground that they actually catch a bit of air.  With this in mind, don’t intentionally attempt to jump but instead focus on producing maximal power with the sledge by using your whole body.  If it’s done properly you’ll naturally leave the floor without thinking about it.  In contrast, intentionally trying to jump is one of the worst things you can do for your mechanics as it completely alters your technique and minimizes the natural flow of the kinetic chain. 

Variations for Fixing Common Problems

Single Arm Sledgehammer Slams

Although there are a number of technique mishaps that can occur at various portions of the movement, one drill I’ve found particularly useful for cleaning up a majority of mechanical issues is the single arm sledgehammer slam.

Here are 8 specific reasons why you should incorporate single arm sledgehammer work into your training routine.

1. The single arm sledgehammer variation forces the athlete to rely more on the larger muscles of the body throughout the movement (hips, core, and upper back) rather than overusing their arms and shoulders.  In fact, if you attempt to muscle it up with your arms it’s literally impossible to wield a sledgehammer in a unilateral fashion, unless of course you hail from the Asgardian realm.

2. Performing sledgehammers with a single arm improves asymmetrical imbalances between sides of the body.  Most individuals have one side they feel significantly stronger and more coordinated on when performing sledgehammer work.  The single arm variation helps remedy this as both sides are forced to work independently and equally, similar to single arm or single leg strength movements.

3. The initiation or start of each swing is typically where the most common errors occur on sledgehammer drills as most individuals don’t rely enough on their kinetic chain.  The single arm variation requires the athlete to use their kinetic chain properly by initiating the movement with the hips and core to create ample momentum to start each swing.

4. As previously discussed I like to emphasize coiling and getting as tall at the top of the movement as possible just before the slam or explosive phase.  This helps to facilitate the brief momentary pause in the top stretched position for building up potential energy.  This single arm variation requires the athlete to do just that or else the movement simply won’t feel right.

5. Proper sledgehammer and mace work not only requires full body power, strength and conditioning but it also requires a significant degree of motor control and coordination.  The single arm variation allows the athlete to improve their motor control and coordination as they gradually master this drill.  In fact one you go back to traditional sledgehammer drills after performing the single arm variation you’ll feel surprisingly locked in.

6. Performing single arm sledgehammer work requires very deliberate rotation.  Many athletes don’t use enough rotation when performing sledgehammer slams and primarily work through extension and flexion of the spine and isolated arm work.  However, the rotational component is critical not only for maximizing power but for integrating each of the involved muscles throughout the kinetic chain.  If you don’t achieve significant rotation with this single arm variation the sledge simply won’t move.

7. Grip strength is another critical component for sound sledgehammer work.  The single arm variation crushes the grip and forearms as you’re forced to control the sledge with one arm.  In fact I highly recommend chalking up with unilateral sledgehammer slams just to ensure the sledge doesn’t fly out of your hand.

8. The unilateral sledgehammer drill is quite intense and demands greater conditioning than the standard variation (once you learn the movement) as it becomes exponentially more challenging to wield a heavy sledgehammer with one arm compared to two.  For individuals who are looking for a way to increase the intensity of traditional sledgehammer work and improve their conditioning, this one’s a must.

Double Sledgehammer Slams

When I first began tinkering with the idea of using two sledgehammers at the same time I initially approached it as a visually heroic circus trick with no carryover to functional movement.  However, I soon realized that the double sledgehammer slam was one of the best drills I had ever used for reinforcing full extension in the top position and subsequent flexion on the drive phase.  In fact the only way to drive the two sledgehammers into the top overhead position is by essentially performing a bottoms-up clean and snapping the hips through to prop the sledges up.  This sets the hips and entire body in the proper coiled position for the drive phase. 

In addition, this is one of the most brutally demanding upper body power exercises you’ll ever attempt and absolutely crushes the grip and forearms.   Just be careful not to drop the sledgehammers on your head as this requires a significant level of motor control.   I also read somewhere that they’re looking to replace Chris Hemsworth as Thor in the next Avengers film and the pre-requisite is dual wielding sledgehammer capabilities.  For more information contact Stan Lee at Marvel Universe.

Kneeling Sledgehammer Slams

The kneeling sledgehammer drill is effective for 4 reasons.  First, it forces the lifter to rotate from the hips up rather than relying on excessive repositioning of their feet (a common compensation pattern for a lack of proper rotational mobility). 

Second, it promotes proper hip extension and hip flexion, which are critical for maximizing your performance on the sledgehammer.

Third, the kneeling variation isolates the core musculature to a greater degree than its standing counterpart making it an excellent explosive core and abdominal exercise. 

Fourth, eliminating the lower legs makes the drill a bit less technically complex.  This can be helpful for teaching newbies proper sledgehammer form.  It’s also conducive for more advanced athletes needing to periodically recalibrate their mechanics.

Med Ball Slams

Before you attempt tire slams you need to be proficient at medicine ball slam drills as they’re essentially the same movements yet less technically complex variations of sledgehammer slams.  Perfect the standard med ball slam (straight up and down) then progress to rotating variations.  Once you’ve mastered rotating medicine ball slams you can then progress to the sledgehammer drills previously described.  Medicine ball slams are also excellent drills to periodically revisit as a means of dialing in your sledgehammer mechanics and fine-tuning your technique.  Here's a unique variation that also addresses unilateral leg and hip drive as demonstrated by one of my collegiate high jumpers, Bailey Weiland.

Use Pullovers

As previously mentioned, sledgehammer and slams are nothing more than dynamic, rotating variations of pullovers as they essentially fall into the same movement pattern.  With this in mind, improving your strength on general pullover variations including dumbbell, kettlebell, and barbell variations will transfer exceptionally well to sledgehammer work.  Here are two of my awesome clients Mitch Ellis and Matt Jordan demonstrating two highly effective pullover variations. 

Use Single Arm Planks

Improving rotational core strength by progressing on single arm plank variations is also another incredibly effective method for enhancing sledgehammer and mace performance.  And yes that means we'll be addressing rotational power by incorporating anti-rotational movements which just so happens to be one of the most effective methods for increasing rotational power. Here are two of my awesome clients Leslie Petch and Ben Lai showing how it's done with some very advanced single arm plank variations.

To learn how to incorporate sledgehammer drills, pullovers, planks, explosive movements and many other unique movements into one training program click here