The Highland Games hold a special place in the strength athlete’s heart. They’re not the most widely covered or best-attended events on Earth but, like a Jurassic mosquito frozen in amber, they’re a beautifully preserved piece of the past, a strength sport from a time before barbells and protein powder and a reminder of mankind’s eternal pursuit of physical strength.
For our money, the sight of a gentleman winding up for the Scottish hammer throw – spikes on his boots, spinning his entire upper body around and around like a whirling dervish – is the most gripping to watch.
The Original Hammer Time
The Scottish hammer is notably different to the track and field hammer, in which a weight attached to a wire and held with a neutral grip. The hammer used in the Highland Games is typically a wooden handle four feet and two inches long with a spherical weight attached to one end.
One of the earliest references to the Scottish hammer throw is in a decree written in the 14th century, when King Edward I banned Scotsmen from possessing the hammers – as well as anything else that he thought capable of being used as a weapon. As the centuries passed (and after the Scottish won their independence), the event grew in popularity, and it sometimes included sledge hammers and shorter hammers of two and a half feet.
Up until the nineteenth century, the standard weight of the hammer was sixteen pounds, but today men can throw both sixteen and twenty-two pound weights, while women throw twelve and sixteen.
How to Do It
On paper, it sounds pretty simple: throw the hammer as far as you can.
It’s commonly thought of as a strength sport, and proficiency does require plenty of full-body strength, particularly in the core, hips and legs. But modern advances in exercise science have led to a significant focus on speed.
“Normally, when you do a full throw, you’re going to do three winds and a release,” says Matt Vincent, a two-time Highland Games World Champion who trains the Scottish hammer throw two or three times a week. “So when I train drills I try to work my way up: one wind and a release, then two winds and a release, trying to build more and more speed.” He describes his technique in detail below.
As chaotic as the whirling might look, there’s obviously a lot of technique involved.
“What makes the hammer throw so different and fascinating to me is the detail in the skill,” says Tom Sroka, a Team USA Weightlifting athlete who has had a lot of success in the track and field hammer. “It doesn’t matter how strong or powerful you are in this event, but who is more disciplined in their technique.”
He notes that in some ways, the movement for both kinds of hammer throw is very similar to performing a snatch.
“You have to be patient and let your positions develop throughout the movement,” he explains. “Force does not equal a bigger throw, and you have to wait for the finish and hit it as hard as you can. All the positions can be there, but if you aren’t aggressive in the finish, all that work was for nothing.”
The athlete’s feet need to be stationary, so he or she will often jam their boots in place with large metal spikes attached to the toes. According to Vincent, the most important aspect of the “wind” is to keep the hammer on the right side of the body.
“By that I mean, the low point of my orbit is gonna be off my right foot,” says Vincent. “That way, you’ve got time to push the hammer down and accelerate its speed as it approaches the bottom of the swing.”
It’s best to start the swings without too much exertion, letting the weight and gravity increase your speed. After one or two swings, to maximize the hammer’s velocity (and use gravity to you advantage), the key is to push the hammer down as it approaches the bottom of the swing.
It might seem a no-brainer, but that means don’t pull the hammer. When grasping a weight with two hands, it’s natural to want to pull with the back to keep the shoulders packed, the arms short, and the body stable, but that’s going to fight the hammer’s arc and keep it from swinging as fast as possible.
When it’s time to release, the athlete generates power from the hips while throwing with arms as it reaches the high point of the orbit.
“One of the most common mistakes is people not using their hips to throw and not using their right arm to push,” says Vincent, whose personal records are throwing a sixteen-pound hammer 141 feet and a twenty-two-pound hammer 117 feet. Nailing the technique takes lots of practice – there’s no gym exercise that will carry over to a good hammer throw – but once you understand the concepts of using gravity, velocity, and the body’s own explosive power to your advantage, you’ll be on your way to a throw that William Wallace would be proud of.
Look, we’ll be honest: the hammer throw isn’t exactly useful.
“I don’t think it’s real functional for anything other than throwing the hammer,” says Vincent. “There are a lot more efficient ways to get strong, fast, or powerful.”
“I agree with Matt’s view that the hammer throw is a skill in and of itself,” says Sroka. “I would not recommend anyone try throwing the hammer unless they were serious and took the time and energy required to learn to do it the right way. The same would go for weightlifting, powerlifting, or strongman. I wouldn’t go to a sport I was unfamiliar with and disrespect the masters of that craft by saying I’m doing it ‘recreationally.’”
Spinning and hurling hammers is some serious Old World cool, and if it’s something you’d like to become proficient at, try contacting a local Irish or Scottish society, and they may be able to point you toward a group that trains Highland Games events in your area.
Featured image via @ihviiimattvincent on Instagram.