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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ancient Physical Culture Through Wrestling/Grappling

Here is an article I wrote not-so-recently for the Bodyweightculture site (
The recent resurrection of interest for all things “old-time” when it comes to the development of physical strength, endurance and health, has led to a veritable avalanche of articles, books and courses that cover old-time greats and their training methods. Some of these works are genuinely useful; others seem to be riding the wave of popularity, endeavouring to squeeze out the last dime out of the pockets of strength enthusiasts worldwide. This, however, is not an article about the inherent inhumanity of contemporary capitalism, or an attempt to expose modern marketing frauds. The purpose of the article is to provide a comprehensive overview of exercise protocols followed by wrestlers of the Far and Near East since ancient times. It is not the product of unbiased, direct and detailed research, rather a compilation of works already available through the Internet, and should be taken as such. Nothing more, nothing less.

Since the dawn of time, various forms of grappling have been employed by men in all parts of the world as a method of strengthening the body and mind and preparing for the one and only true pastime of humanity: war. Just as baseball is called The Great American Pastime, murder and war deserve the title of The Great Human Pastime. Slaughtering each other by the dozens over issues real and imagined is what has defined us as a species over the centuries. The history of humanity also notes brief interruptions in the wonderful game of slaughter; these annoying breaks, distastefully termed peace, were necessary so that the armies could re-stock on fresh “cannon fodder” (if such a term can be used in the era pre-dating the invention of the cannon), sow and reap the fields to provide rations for the armies, and investigate new murdering and marauding possibilities for the next round of happy hostilities. However, it soon became obvious that the ancient warrior was kind of out of his depth in times of peace – once the field work was done, there wasn’t a whole lot for him to entertain himself with. Boredom ruled and tempers flared easily, and more often than not comrades-in-arms turned onto each other over petty insults. The “corporations” in whose interest the wars were waged in the first place (in this instance – the ruler, major nobles or a religious organization) found that the worthy practice of hewing off one’s neighbour’s head was damaging quarterly profit reports (these go back further than one would think), so they hastily developed sets of activities that would replace pillaging and rape in times of peace, assuaging the tempers of the testosterone-driven sword and axe-wielders until their aggression could be used in a more productive manner.

Such was the origin of martial arts, and exercise in general. Under these new rules, man could maul and beat up his fellow man without running the risk of (serious and mortal) injury that would render one or both participants incapable of killing other people in times of war. This manner of physical exertion took on many forms in various parts of the globe, but the main idea remained the same: grappling, striking, running and marching with and without weapons, and various tests of martial skill including dueling with weapons. Different national and ethnic traditions determined countless “flavor” differences, so the Japanese developed jiu-jitsu, Indians developed Kushti, Europeans had pankration (much like UFC today) and the Medieval wrestling styles, and the Anglo-Saxon world spawned the honored art of catch wrestling. This article aims to take a closer look at the wrestling traditions of India and Central Asia, which seem to be closely related, not so much in terms of techniques and holds used as in terms of training methods. Emphasis will be placed on these shared strength and conditioning methods, while the actual techniques, holds, chokes, etc. are best studied under qualified supervision.

The training of Indian wrestlers has received a lot of media attention since the birth of the concept of “functional training”. Firstly, we shall disambiguate between the terms Indian wrestling (correct use) and Hindu wrestling (incorrect, yet more prevalent use, of which I have been guilty myself in the past). The reason for the use of Hindu in conjunction with this term has to do with general ignorance and the fact that the programs that sparked interest for these ancient training methods used this term. Many of the famed “Hindu” wrestlers in fact came from Kashmir and other parts of pre-Partition India dominated by proponents of the Islamic faith, and the most famous “Hindu” wrestler of all time, The Great Gama Baksh, was a devout Muslim who must be turning in his grave every time someone refers to him as the “famous Hindu wrestler”. It would be like calling the Japanese fighting arts Buddhist wrestling, or dubbing catch wrestling Christian wrestling. For this purpose, the native word Kushti will be used in the place of Indian wrestling.

However, the strength and conditioning traditions commonly related to Kushti have never been limited to the great expanses of the Indian sub-continent. The mountain ranges of Kashmir and today’s Pakistan flow into the highlands of Afghanistan, then northward and westward into the turbulent Middle East and the mythical countries of Central Asia. Commerce and conquest have forged close links between the rival nations since ancient times, and a lot of them share a common ethnic background, despite speaking different languages or praying in different temples. The interweaving of diverse cultures has lead to the spread of traditional wrestling practices among the nations of this part of the world, and behind this wave followed traditional strength and conditioning practices. Through Ottoman and Mongol conquest and settlement, these ancient traditions have made their way into Europe.

So where did this type of wrestling originate? Is it Indian, Kazakh, Uzbek or Turkish? Was wrestling brought on horseback, from the frozen steppes of Mongolia, where similar wrestling styles exist and competitions are held to this day? Or did Persia, that beacon of science and progress in ancient and medieval times, give birth to club swinging and wrestling-specific bodyweight exercise regimens? We will never know. A much more likely answer is that all of these cultures participated in the development of these exercises. Even today, the wrestling traditions of these countries retain many elements that make each national wrestling tradition unique and different from the others.

After this long-winded introduction, let us turn to the main part of the article – conditioning exercises:

Dands, Baithaks and Bodyweight Exercises

The staple conditioning exercises of the fabled Kushti practitioners, these two exercises have become know as the “Hindu Pushup” (dand) and the “Hindu Squat” (baithak or bethak). Descriptions of these two exercises abound on the internet; therefore I will omit them from this article. Both of these are performed for very high reps – Indian wrestlers regularly perform thousands of these every day in addition to their other training. Great Gama Baksh reputedly worked up to five thousand baithaks and three thousand dands per day at the peak of his career. He would enter a trance-like state and intone the name of God with every repetition; for this deeply religious man faith was the chief source of strength during these extreme tests of physical prowess. It was not uncommon for the dirt and mud floor of the akhara (wrestling pit) to bear a perfect outline of a wrestler’s body due to the effusion of sweat during these intense workouts. Hindu squat thrusts were also employed as a conditioning exercise.

Squats and pushups, albeit not always of the “Hindu” variety, are staple conditioners throughout the Central Asian wrestling world. The reason? These exercises are simple to master and require no equipment, yet they work. Done in hundreds of repetitions, they will increase your muscular endurance and give the heart and lungs a great workout – precisely what one needs for a wrestling match. Even performing them for 20-30 reps sporadically throughout the day will produce an invigorating effect.

An interesting addition to any pushup routine is the use of a pushup board. Originally used by Persian pahlavani (“heroes”, a term used to denote wrestlers and strongmen; evolved into pahlwani in India and pehlivan and its derivatives in the Turkish-speaking nations of Central Asia), this device is essentially a small wooden plank elevated on two blocks, or “legs”. The athlete holds the ends and performs dands, possibly some other joint mobility exercises as well. The Persian name for this device is Takhteh Shena, and it is thought that this type of exercise was introduced to India by Persian wrestlers fleeing Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century. Upon arrival, it was combined with yoga practices that already existed in the area, and thus evolved the staple bodyweight exercises of Kushti practitioners. If one breaks down the movement pattern, the dand is a combination of three yoga poses performed dynamically (“downward dog” to “plank/crocodile” to “upward dog” or “cobra”). Be as it may, Steve Maxwell, a well-known physical trainer, has resurrected this simple, yet effective training tool; he offers them through his site,, along with a DVD with exercise instructions. of course, if you don’t have ten thumbs when it comes to making things like I do, you could probably knock one together yourself.

Other bodyweight exercises used by grapplers from Indian akharas to Iranian zoorkhanes included:

Spinning, a practice which develops balance and spatial awareness and which is related to the religious practice of Sufi whirling among members of the ascetic Sufi Tariqah of Islam, more commonly known as dervishes or darvishes. This whirling dance, one of the most physically demanding forms of worship around, originated in Iran (Persia), but its most prominent practitioners are the Turkish Mevlevi Order in and around the Konya region. Did the physical aspect of this exercise predate the spiritual or vice versa? This is a tough one to answer, so I will leave that to someone else.

Stomping, which was a dance performed as kicking practice. Here it is interesting to note that the Sumo wrestlers of Japan employ the same training method, that of stomping on the ground for high repetitions to develop strength. They also use the teppo, which is a wooden log on which palm strikes are performed with the heel of the hand in the same pattern.

Squatting, which was not done for high reps as in the case of Kushti practitioners, but more as a dance for the general strengthening of the legs for kicking. It should be noted here that almost all mentioned traditions – Iranian/Persian, Turkish, Mongolian, Indian – use some form of dancing as preparation for the wrestling bouts, usually to the beating of drums and other ethnic instruments. It can be concluded that dancing is viewed as important for developing body control, balance and poise. Traditional dances are also one hell of a workout!

Bodyweight exercises have been around since the dawn of man, and their effectiveness and simplicity of use have earned them a permanent spot in the training regimens of wrestlers and other athletes, ancient and modern alike. I have separated pole and rope climbing in a separate section, as I feel that they require more detailed attention.


The relationship between Yoga and the dand and baithak has already been touched upon above. I must say that I am largely unfamiliar with Yoga and dislike rambling on about stuff I’m not familiar with, therefore this type of training should be covered in detail by someone else. It should suffice to say that wrestling exercises are most closely related to the “sun salutation” Yoga sequence, surya namaskar; some bridging and calisthenic-type elements from yoga asana are also utilized. Breathing control is also extremely important in all wrestling scenarios. Steve Maxwell writes that it is in fact assumed that asana originated from wrestling practices, as the original yoga texts only describe a couple of yogic exercises, most of which were seated positions).

I am uncertain about the extent of yogic exercises used in non-Indian training systems, but joint mobility work would be very similar, even if the Turks and Iranians don’t call their mobility work “yoga”. Some of the Iranian (Persian) training methods include exercises similar to the dand, done on the pushup board, so it is relatively easy to establish a connection here.

Perhaps the best illustration of yoga-type exercises for wrestlers comes not from India and Iran, but from the opposite side of the world. Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Rickson Gracie demonstrates some of these exercises in his documentary Choke. Clips are available for free viewing on YouTube.


This type of training refers to apparatus exercises performed with leverage implements – clubs, maces, but also sledgehammer-like devices. Club swinging was introduced into Western physical culture through the British conquests of India, and primarily included light club swinging.

What follows is a disambiguation between the three terms in the sub-title, and some very brief notes on their use:

Gada: this is the Hindu term used for the mace or “mace-bell”. This exercising implement was developed from the weapon of the same name and shape, and carries a connotation of aggression and strength in many ancient cultures. In fact, the mace is the first implement developed specifically for the purpose of killing other human beings. Prior to the invention of the mace, weapons of war were hunting implements, like the knife, spear and bow. In India, maces are a symbol of strength and the favoured weapon of the monkey-god Hanuman in Hindu religion (the patron of warriors, warfare and strength). Often confused with the club, the gada is generally longer (it has a longer handle) and almost all of the weight is centered on the top (the “head”), which produces a superb torque effect as the implement is swung around. The gada is principally used for swinging motions in which both arms are employed; the principal muscles worked are the shoulders, arms, hands, fingers and core. They would range from 20 to 60 lbs. in weight, but special heavy gadas were made in excess of 100 lbs. Now, lifting a nicely balanced barbell with two arms is not much of a strength feat, but swinging a 60-lb. gada around the head will provide more than a decent workout. This, in fact, was the most popular move – simply swinging the mace around one’s head in one direction, then reversing the circular motion. Simple, but by no means easy.

Older texts mention the use of two smaller gadas, which would be similar to using a pair of meels, which are described below.

Meel: this is the Persian version of the club; the most precise description I’ve been able to find is that it seems like a cross between the mace and the swinging club (jori). Unlike the mace, meels are used in pairs and utilized in a number of ways, from circular swinging, straight-arm swinging, levering exercises, etc. They would weigh anywhere between 5 and 40 kgs. (11 to 88 lbs.). The lighter ones are designed to improve the wrestler’s stamina, and used in sets of 100 reps or more. Heavier ones are used to develop strength. The heaviest pair weighed cca. 140 lbs. (per meel), so one can easily get the picture of the insane amount of strength required to control a pair of these implements.

Exercising with meels is a national sport in parts of Iran, and they even hold official competitions as part of the traditional wrestling tournaments. The official move with meels constitutes holding them by the handles with arms at 90 degrees (halfway position of a hammer curl), then lifting them over and behind the head, reversing the motion and repeating this one meel at a time. This is done to the beating of a drum – the faster the rhythm, the faster the swings.

Jori: this is the term generally used to describe light swinging clubs of the bowling-pin-shaped variety used in turn-of-the-century physical culture. The size and shape of these implements varies, much like the meel. They are also used in pairs. Club swinging was featured as an Olympic sport in 1948 under the term Rhythmic Gymnastics, but discontinued shortly after.

Heavy pillar-like joris were termed ekka, and had the appearance of a cylinder tapering toward the handle. Really extreme jori and ekka practitioners used implements studded with nails and blades – an added incentive not to touch them to any part of the body during performance. Again, the idea was to swing and lever the club all over the place.

Another type of heavy club is the karela, which looks like the archetypal wooden club (think of what cavemen use in cartoons and you’re pretty much on the money). This device was used two-handed like the gada, and the exercises were much more limited in comparison to the joris, meels and ekka, which were used in pairs.

Mallakhamb and Rope Climbing

The art of mallakhamb, or pole climbing, has already been described in an excellent article here on, and I really have nothing to add there. Rope climbing is probably the best upper-body exercise of all time, and it is brutally simple. A rope is climbed either by using the hands and feet, or the hands only. Extremely strong folk will benefit from climbing the rope one-handed, in leaps. Rope climbing will develop the arms, specially the biceps, far better than any pullup, chinup or bicep curl variation. For those who lack the strength for rope climbing, grabbing a rope like you’re going to climb it and performing pullups is an excellent exercise. Strength will come quickly, as there is very little technique to be mastered. The rope is merciless – you’re either strong enough to climb it or not.

Every grappler, fighter or tactical professional (fireman, policeman, soldier, etc.) should start climbing ropes immediately if he/she is not already doing it. Indian wrestlers would also perform “rope mallakhamb” routines, which are incredibly difficult, even more so than mallakhamb itself.

Nal/Gar Nal and Other Weighted Implements

The nal is a round stone weight with a carved-out centre into which a handle (usually wooden) is inserted. They are of progressive weight to suit the developing strength of the user, which shows that even the ancients fully understood that you need to lift heavier weights to get stronger, a concept that completely eludes 95% of the gym-going population of today. Their compact size makes them adaptable for dumb-bell type exercises, but heavy nals exist which require two hands to use and go up to 400 lbs. in weight. It is part of the Indian strength training tradition. The most common exercise with the smaller nals was the two-dumbbell clean and press.

The gar nal is also an Indian concept. It is a nal without the handle in the centre (in essence, a stone circle) and was commonly used to add weight to bodyweight movements like the dand and baithak by placing it around the athlete’s neck. Running with a gar nal was a popular exercise; the Great Gama was reputed to use a 100-lb. gar nal and run for about a mile. Doesn’t sound like very far, but one needs to try it to appreciate how difficult this really is.

Another popular exercise with the gar nal was a get-up type of exercise. The wrestler would kneel in front of a gar nal, lift it up on its side and place his head through the hole in the weight. Placing it around his neck, he would then proceed to stand upright from the kneeling position. After assuming an upright stance, he would press the gar nal from his shoulders to overhead.

Stone balls, much like ones used in today’s Strongman contests, were probably the most popular weighted exercise in India, but also other parts of the world. Villages would hold contests in stone ball lifting, and in some areas lifting a stone ball of at least 200 lbs. in weight was considered a rite of passage into manhood. The most popular exercise was lifting it off the ground and throwing it behind one’s back with a jerk. They were also used to add weight to the baithak, or just to pick up and run/walk with. All these exercises developed tremendous strength and power in the practitioners.

The “Indian barbell” or sumtola resembled a “log” device used in contemporary Strongman competition. It was essentially a log made out of a special type of wood, and weighed the same on both ends (hence the name in Hindu). It was used for clean-and-jerk, swing and tricep extension-type exercises, but also in various presses in front of the body, like the Neider press in body-building (only done at various angles). They also varied in weight to match the strength of the user. Extremely heavy sumtolas were attached to ropes and dragged across the dirt and mud floor of the akhara to level it out. A couple thousand years later, the West “discovered” sled dragging as a strength and conditioning method.

Moving on to the Persian wrestling tradition, we find the kabadeh, a bow-shaped iron rod with heavy chains attached on either side. They weighed between 10 and 50 kgs (22 to 110 lbs.) and were swung around the body of the user, much like a heavy double flail, a weapon used by medieval horsemen in Europe. This gave excellent workout to the core, grip and shoulders, but non-proficient users ran a high risk of nasty injury. I guess it wasn’t for beginners to physical culture.

Opponents of the bench press will be surprised by the practice of sang (“shield”). These shield-shaped implements were made of solid wood and weighed between 60 and 120 kgs. (132 to 264 lbs.). They were used in a rolling floor exercise where they were pressed alternatively (like a dumbbell floor press), but with a twist of the entire body toward the opposite side of the pressing arm, much like an arm-bar exercise with kettlebells described by Pavel Tsatsouline. So press with the left – twist to the right until you’re on one side, then alternate.

Sandbags also featured heavily in the training of wrestlers in India and elsewhere. Filled with grain as often as sand, sandbags were used in a plethora of exercises, many of them involving bearhug-and-carries, throws for distance, etc. Every muscle of the body can be trained with the use of a sandbag, either by using sandbag-specific exercises or by replicating barbell movements.

Grainy black-and-white images from turn-of-the-century India reveal that the Indians also used “regular” barbells, i.e. two stone weights connected by a wooden rod. It is conceivable that the exercises performed with those implements were pretty similar to modern-day lifting exercises. It is pretty obvious that Indian, Persian and other wrestling nations did not slack off on work with weighted implements, unlike what many would want the public to believe.

Wrestling and partner exercises

Wrestling an opponent is a strength and conditioning workout in itself, as anyone with a shred of grappling experience will attest. Great Gama would wrestle around 40 opponents per day in addition to regular training, and eventually worked up to 80 per day in his prime. Back then a bout lasted until one of the opponents was defeated, and matches could go on for hours. What is also interesting is that the wrestling practice was arranged in a “progressive resistance” manner: an experienced wrestler would first wrestle boys as a warm-up, then newbies, then work his way up the ranks of the wrestlers until finally going against his peers.

Partner exercises varied. Some of them simply involved partner lifting and carrying, like squats with a partner on the back, partner carries, or wheelbarrow walks. Wrestlers would also do dands with a training partner sitting on their back.

Another popular training method was for the partner to provide manual resistance to the athlete performing a particular exercise, a method that is still commonly used in military training today. For example, two wrestlers would face off and lock hands, alternatively pushing and pulling against the resistance provided by the other. With this type of training, your imagination is the limit.

As can be seen from the information presented above, wrestling-specific strength and conditioning training is a tradition going back hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Two intense training sessions a day, coupled with immense caloric intake, created the wrestling legends that took the world by storm as soon as progress made international wrestling matches possible. The Great Gama Baksh was undefeated throughout his wrestling career; he easily overpowered the behemoth Stanislaus Zbysko of Poland, the most feared wrestler of the Old Continent. Georg Hackenschmidt and Karl Gotch, considered the two greatest wrestlers of all time, feared this man so much that they never accepted to fight him. Other legends, like the terrible Turks Ahmed Madrali and “Kara Mustafa” (“Black Mustafa”) dominated European wrestling for years. They trained with total devotion, living a sound lifestyle of exercise, self-control, diet and celibacy. As Vincent Giordano, the author of the wonderful collection of Kushti information, The Physical Body, stated, their strength eventually transcended its mere physical aspects and became an expression of their spiritual strength as well.

Anyone interested in the training of ancient wrestlers should consider purchasing this DVD collection. Also make sure you check out Steve Maxwell’s site, if not for the information on ancient training methods, then for the excellent general training ideas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

gama used 95 kg circular hass . He also lifted 1200 kg stone . How much did he lift in his training?