Author Archives: Thom Van Vleck

The Gada: Part II

by Thom Van Vleck

Overall view of my loadable Gada

In Part I you learned what the Gada was and a little history behind it.  Next up will be my own design of the ultimate “Gada” training tool.  You may have seen this before as I have used it for weaver stick style training and sledge hammer training a la’ Slim “the Hammerman” Farman.   The typical Gada is a set weight and size.  I wanted it to be loadable so I could use it with progressive resistance without having a whole collection of them.  The first one I made was very heavy and ranged from 12 to 28lbs depending on the load.  This one ranges from 6lbs to 18lbs.

A close up of the 1lb insert weights. These are 3 inches and fit perfectly into the hammer case.

I had seen similar “maces”, “gada’s, and hammers where you simply loaded barbell plates on the end of a rod.  I wanted mine to  have the weights internal.  It looks slicker and also you don’t have to change your movement to compensate for the larger size.  It’s the same size no matter how much it weighs.  You will also note I have the handle marked with inches so that you can know where you are holding the handle.  Sometimes the tendency might be to choke up as you get tired and this helps keep you honest whether doing traditional Gada exercises, leverage exercises for the forearms, or whatever creative way you may come up to use this tool.

The Gada open and ready to be loaded.

My first effort has 1.5lb standard plates that can be loaded on a mini bar and inserted in a 4 inch “hammer” case which is really an iron pipe with threaded caps.  My second prototype has 1lb weights that a solid cores.  Even if they are loose they don’t bang around as much as you might think but it’s simple matter to put something in the hammer to buffer the plates from moving around.

Next: Gada Part III How to train with the Gada Dalton Jackson Style.

The Gada Part 1

by Thom Van Vleck

The Great Gama with his Gada (Mace).

When I was a kid my first influence in physical fitness was my grandfather Dalton Jackson  He started training in 1928 at the age of 13.  At that time training information was sparse and what was available was often poor and sometimes dangerous!  One area my grandfather was interested in was wrestling and this led him to one of the greatest of all time….the Great Gama.  Gama wrestled in India (although I have learned he was ethnically Pakistani) for 50 years and was undefeated in that span!  He lived from 1880 to 1963 and his exploits were legendary.  He beat everyone in India and then sailed to England and challenged the world.  He had a “Gar Nal” that weighed over 200lbs that was a stone ring that he would put around his neck to do squats.  There is a story that he lifted a 1200kg (2645lbs) stone.  It is claimed he lifted this stone to his chest and then carried it.  I think that’s impossible but I do think it’s possible he may have lifted the stone in some fashion (such as lifting the edge off the ground or flipping the stone or some other partial lift).  Both of these stones are in a museum in Pakistan now.   It is also interesting that Bruce Lee studied Gama’s training habits very closely and adapted them to his own philosophies.

Classic use of the Indian Clubs in both hands from an old English book on training.

One of Gama’s favorite training tools was his Gada (or Mace).  It was a very heavy version of an Indian club.  The legend behind it is that it was the main weapon of the Hindu god Hanuman.  Hanuman was the god of strength and was the god that Indian wrestlers worshiped.  So basically it is a war club what the Europeans called a “Mace”.  I often think of it as being the first weapon ever and picture a cave man carrying his club!  It became one of the traditional training pieces in Hindu physical culture and was eventually transferred to England in the from of the “Indian Club” that was a popular part of the early physical culture movement in Victorian England over 100 years ago.  One Gada could be used or two.  You will often see the Indian club trained with two at a time.

Dalton Jackson doing his modified "Gada" exercises.

When I was a kid I would watch my Uncle’s train with barbells and dumbbells. They were Olympic style lifters and trained as such.  Meanwhile my grandfather always seemed to be doing something different.  I hate to say it but there was a point where I was a teen that I was “all in” to weightlifting and when my grandfather tried to teach me on some of his training I didn’t listen well (politely…but not closely as I always respected him).  I have few photos of him training but one I do shows him with makeshift “Gada” style dumbbells.  I realize now that much of his training was based on “Indian” style training and since the Great Gama favored the Gada, so did my grandfather.

Part II:  Building the Ultimate Gada

Chad Ullom: All Around All Rounder!

by Thom Van Vleck

Chad turns another caber!

Chad Ullom has been a fixture in the USAWA and IAWA for some time.  He is a National and World Champ and has a slug of records to his credit.  You would think that would be enough to keep him busy but Chad is also a regular on the Highland Games circuit!  At one time Chad was a top rated Amateur in Highland Games and regularly won many “A” class Amateur competitions.

A couple years ago Chad turned 40 and as with most of us who threw A class and got older he found himself being beat out by the next generation and soon was competing (and winning) in the the masters category.  There was even and younger thrower named Chad Gustin from Lawrence that came along and he soon became “New Chad” and Ullom became….alas…”OLD CHAD”.  Anyone over 40 knows the feeling.

Well….”Old Chad” dusted off the age last weekend at the  2014 Kansas City Scottish Highland Games and threw with the A class again.  He was by far the oldest in the group but that wasn’t a factor at all.  I was the announcer at the games and had a front seat for all of it.  Chad began to win or place well in events and soon he was dominating the field.  Chad won handily.   Chad will tell you it was not the strongest field KC has ever seen but I think all you have to do is look at some of his throws and see that Chad was in top form.  For example, Chad had only cleared 14ft in the 56lb WOB  once in his 19 year Highland Games career….but he cleared it last Saturday!  And almost went higher!

I have to tell you, I found myself being the longest tenured athlete on the field that day going into my 20th season.  It was nice to see one of the “old” guys take it to the younger men.  Chad came back on Sunday and threw masters and easily won again.  It was quite a weekend.  Other USAWA members on the field included Dean Ross and myself.  We all plan on being at Nationals this coming weekend.

Great job to Chad and maybe there’s something to training like an “all-rounder”!

Big T’s Birthday Bash OTSM

by Thom Van Vleck

As many know by now I turned 50 years of age.  When this was coming up my wife asked me what I would like to do on my birthday.  I have two interests and from those interests come most of my friends.  They are the Scottish Highland Games and Weightlifting.  I thought about it long and hard and I knew that if I could have anything I wanted it would be to have my friends at my home and throwing and lifting being a part of that.  So, the first Saturday after my birthday (my actual birthday was May 28th and the meet was May 31st) I hosted a Highland Games and an Old Time Strong Man USAWA meet.

The Highland Games came first thing in the morning.  Like the USAWA there are age groups in the Highland Games with records for eight traditional events.  Moving up a class gave me an opportunity to do something that I had not done in nearly 10 years which was set a World Record.  I had a group of 4 masters that included myself, 8 time Master’s World Champ Jim Spalding, 8 time Master’s World Champ Bill Leffler (who broke his own 60-64 age group record in the 28lb Weight for Distance at the meet), and USAWA member Dean Ross who is a 2 time MWC Champ himself!

Now, bear with me as I do a little self promotion.  I spent the last two years trying to rebuild my strength base with an eye on setting the Weight Over Bar World record as well as going top ten in all the events.  So here’s a not-so-short story on that:

My best event is the Weight Over Bar.  I love this event and it plays right to my strength.  I have done what seems like a million power cleans in my life and I think all that work paid off as the WOB event involves pulling a 42lb weight over a cross bar for height.  Much like the pole vault or high jump the bar will go up and the greatest height wins.  I broke and rebroke the WR in this event in 2005 when I was in the 40-44 age group.  In the 45-49 age group I ended with the 2nd best all time throw…but no record.  I made it a goal to work this event and try and break this record.  This was a two year plan.  When it came time for that event I had the beginning of a nasty callous tear on my right throwing hand.  If it went I knew it would seriously screw up my goal as my grip would be compromised.  So I decided to not do as many warm ups and jump to a higher starting height which was 17ft.  I started with the standing style (they keep records for the standing style and the “open” or spinning style) and easily cleared 17ft.  I then jumped to 17ft 10in which was a half inch better than the current best by Mark McDonald of Scotland.  You get three attempts at each height and I missed my first two!  Disaster!  Not warming up on the event was causing me some problems!  I took a moment and got dialed back in and rolled it over!  So, one record down and one to go.  Had I missed that I would NOT have been able to attempt the second one so that was very critical.  I then moved the bar up to 18ft 6in which would at least give me the second best all time WOB with the spin style and it would give me a warm up before going up to the record attempt.  This was usually an easy height for me but my grip was giving me problems.  It was hot and muggy and my grip just felt “greasy” and that didn’t make me feel confident.  Usually this height would be a cinch but instead I missed it two times and again found myself behind the proverbial “8 ball” needing to get my third throw to even have a shot at the open WOB record.  I got some words of encouragement and was able to make that third throw but now I had to jump a foot to 19’6″ to set the break the record held by Jeff Loosle.  That’s a huge jump and I was not real confident after my struggles.  I went through my mental approach, visualizing my throws, going through my mental check list of what points to hit and lined up for the toss.  I hit it perfectly and knew it, but I also wondered if this would be enough!  I looked up and watched as the weight literally rolled over the bar!  I then felt a searing pain in my hand and looked down to see I had blown my callous wide open!  Glad it waited!  A two year journey had been fulfilled.  Thanks for bearing with me in that “totally unrelated to the USAWA” news.

Now on to the meet report!

We started with the new “unofficial” lift of OTSM which is “Thor’s Hammer”.  I was curious how this event would play out.  Would it be too dangerous?  Would it be too hard to judge?   When you have a new event you just don’t know until you test it out.  Art Montini was the brave soul that started us out.  I had a warm up bar set up as well and everyone was trying out different things.  You quickly realize that you can’t handle as much as you think and adjustments were being made.  Dean Ross jumped in next followed by Mike Murdock and Denny Habecker.  Art ended with 15lbs, Dean and Mike at 20lbs, and Denny at 25lbs before John O’Brien and Eric Todd jumped in at 30lbs.  I had done 40lbs in the one time I practice this event and figured I’d just start there.  John made 35lbs and Eric finished with a successful 40lb attempt.  I felt a little sheepish jumping in after those two were done and was wondering if I had made a tactical error in not taking an earlier attempt.  However, my nerves were calmed when I hit the 40 and I was able to finish with 45lbs.  Not often I lead over those two guys at any point in a meet and I knew they’d crush me later but I have to admit it was a nice birthday present to beat two guys I have so much respect for even if it were just one lift!

We next went to the Cyr lift.  Again Art led us off and got the party started.  Again Art, Mike, Dean, and Denny took their turns.  Art and Mike finished with 30lbs, Dean with 65lbs, and Denny at 85lbs.   I started with John’s starting lift which was 125lbs.  It was so tough I decided to end there.  John went on to tie his own USAWA best in this lift with 140lbs before missing 150lbs on a third.  Eric stole the show at this point and opened at 150lbs.  He then jumped to 170lbs and then made 180lbs.  This is special as he’s had an injured elbow that needed surgery.  So it was nice to see Eric pushing big weights again!

We ended with the Dumbbell to the shoulder.  I love this lift and had to fight Al Myers to even consider it.  I think it’s a really unique event and the small crown of spectators really seemed to enjoy watching this lift.  I think for spectators the slow, methodical style of this lift and the simplicity of the rules allows them to cheer and follow along as the lifter struggles to complete the lift.  However, for the lifter, this is one of the more painful lifts I have ever done and my sternum was sore for days after!  Art edged out Mike Murdock with a 60lb effort to Mike’s 50lbs.  Dean edged Denny with 130lbs to a 100lbs effort.  I opened with 200lbs then jumped to 235lbs which would be a personal best for me in competition.  After getting that I retired and set back to watch John and Eric battle it out!  They both made my best attempt of 235lbs look easy and jumped to 265lbs.  Both made it with some effort and then both jumped to 300lbs  This would tie the all time best in this event by Chris Anderson.  300lbs would also be a 35lb contest PR for Eric and 30lb contest PR for John.  So quite a jump.  Both athletes looked like they were wrestling a bear but both ended up successful!  Eric called for 305lbs which was all I could fit on my bar.  This was twice Eric has maxed out my equipment with the last time being on the Dinnie Stones.  John said he’d had enough so it was just Eric for the 4th and final attempt.  By now the Highland Games were completely over and my gym was filled to over flowing.  Eric  pulled the Dumbbell in and then tried to get a solid set on his belt to continental it up.  He seemed to slip on this a couple times and I was wondering if he were going to get it.  As soon as he got a solid set up on his belt I think we all knew that Eric was not going to fail but there was this little detail of finishing a very painful lift!  Eric bounced it up until Mike Murdock gave him the down signal.  I mention the fact Mike was judging as he is one of the toughest judges I’ve seen and if he says you got it….YOU GOT IT WITHOUT QUESTION!

It’s always nice to end a meet on a successful lift that breaks a record!  Several records were broken and I believe the Thor’s Hammer is an OTSM event that’s here to stay!  Everyone seemed to like it and after we were done the highland games throwers came to the platform to give it a go and this went on for another hour!

I had said I was going to crown two champions.  The overall weight lifted regardless of age or bodyweight and then the formula winner.  Eric Todd won the overall weight lifted with 525lbs.  John O’Brien was 2nd and I was third.  The age and weight adjust rankings go like this:  Eric 410.97 and still first, John 374.65 and still second, Thom 340.31 and still third.  Now we have a change.  Dean and Denny now flip at 4th and 5th with Denny at 251.33 and Dean at 220.92.  Art and Mike maintain their placings with Art’s adjusted total at 149.14 to Mike’s 128.23.


(age/weight/class)   Thor’s Hammer    Cyr Lift   Dumbbell to Shoulder   Total

Mike Murdock (74/180lb) 20lbs            30lbs (record)     50lbs (record)      100lbs

Art Montini (86/175lb)       15lbs             30lbs (record)    60lbs (record)      105lbs

Denny Habecker (71/195lb)25lbs            85lbs (record)     100lbs                   210lbs

Dean Ross (71/266lbs)         22.5lbs        65lbs (record)    130lbs (record)  217.5lbs

Thom Van Vleck (50/275lbs)45lbs        125lbs (record)    235lbs (record)  405lbs

John O’Brien (45/285lbs)   35lbs          140lbs                  300lbs (record)   475lbs

Eric Todd (39/257lbs)            40lbs          180lbs (record)  305lbs (record)    525lbs

Thanks to everyone that came and made my Birthday so much fun and a success.  I appreciate the guys being patient and waiting on the Highland Games to be over before we started the lifting.  A special award to Dean Ross who was the only guy that did both other than me!

Decline of Western (lifting) Civilization: Part II

by Thom Van Vleck

This almost takes a mechanical engineer to figure out!

Okay, so….I have to admit….I HATE Smith Machines.  I hate them so much that I was even offered a free one years ago and I turned it down.  I didn’t even want to sell or trade it because I felt like I would be taking advantage of some poor sap who would think he’d get strong on a Smith Machine!   To be honest, it needed some work and I just passed on it as I’m too cheap to pass up much free stuff….just ask Al Myers!  haha.

At any rate, I saw this thing.  It looks like somebody tried to take a Smith Machine and make it where you could not just go up and down but back and forth as well.  If you look closely at the bottom you’ll see the horizontal “rail” while the bar is attached to the usual “Smith Machine” rail.

Now I know what some of you are thinking…..”but Thom, that actually solves some of the problems with a Smith machine….this is better than a Smith Machine…”.  I actually would agree…but I would also agree that two kettlebells are better than one.  But what are you gonna do with a kettlebell!  Again, remember these are tongue in cheek….so don’t get bent out of shape.  Okay, maybe I really do mean part of it.

I saw this and got all excited.  I thought it was a power rack!  I bet it cost a fortune and I bet you that hardly anyone will use it!  That’s my issue with it.  Kind of like how you buy a kid a fancy toy and he plays with the box and the bubble wrap more than the toy.  That’s why this is more to add to the decline of western (lifting) civilization.  Complicated means most people won’t use it.  Simple is best.

Plus…..I don’t like the bar telling me where to push it!   I can’t have a weight tellin’ me what to do!

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