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How to Make and Use a Shovelglove

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Take a sledgehammer and wrap an old sweater around it. This is your "shovelglove." Every week day morning, set a timer for 14 minutes. Use the shovelglove to perform shoveling, butter churning, and wood chopping motions until the timer goes off. Stop. Rest on weekends and holidays.

I do 50 shoveling motions, 50 right then 50 left; 15 to 20 butter churns, right then left; 20 woods chops in both directions; and then 5-8 curl like movements for which I haven't thought of a good name yet. Then I repeat the cycle until the timer goes off.

The number and the order of the movements is flexible. Do them at the pace and in the order that feels right to you. Pay careful attention to your form, so as not to strain yourself. Imagine that you really are performing the activities being simulated. The critical thing is to do it every weekday, no more, no less; for 14 minutes, no more, no less; in a careful, non spastic manner.

The Story of Shovelglove

I don't know how to explain shovelglove without going into the story of it's genesis, so here goes. Pretty pictures and a spell-checker will eventually grace this site, but don't hold your breath.

It was a rainy Sunday. I hadn't gone to the gym in over three months, and I was feeling painfully out of shape and antsy to do some kind of exercise. But I didn't want to go out in the rain, and the prospect of subjecting myself to the boring torture of the gym seemed even drearier. I wanted an exercise I could do right there, in my bedroom, without any fancy equipment.

But I didn't want to do sit-ups or pushups. I didn't want to grovel on my stomach on the floor, like some degraded beast. "There must be some kind of movement I can do standing up, with the dignity of a human being," I thought, "some kind of movement that is natural and interesting, that my body would like to do."

I started making all kinds of spastic movements, hoping to come across something that resonated. I remembered reading something in some French novel about coal shovelers having the best abdominal muscles of anyone the author had ever seen. I started making shoveling motions.

Now there are a few problems with shoveling, from an exercise perspective. For one, if I actually went outside and started shoveling, I'd get all wet (remember, it's raining). The neighbors would think I was crazy, and if I did it at the wrong time I'd actually annoy them. I'd also have to have something to shovel, a waste of space, at least (our backyard is more of back alley). So outdoors is out. But I couldn't really shovel indoors, either. Even if I just did a pantomime with a shovel, I'd need some kind of weight to move, and I'd need some way of keeping it from scratching the floors or killing the cats.

That's when it occurred to me: what I needed was a shovel with a weight attached to it, and a fuzzy glove to keep it from scratching the floors or killing the cats. At first I thought I'd call it "fuzzy shovel," but "shovelglove" seemed catchier.

Now I had to make the darn thing. I went to the local hardware store, and after some experimenting, I wound up with something that worked: a sledgehammer with an old sweater wrapped around it. It had the right shape, just enough weight, and the requisite softness. And it was pleasingly simple.

Useful Movements

Other movements besides shoveling occurred to me. My chief criterion was they had to have a natural analog, some useful movement that human beings had historically performed during the course of their ordinary daily activities. My hypothesis was that these movements would be inherently interesting to perform, develop muscles that might actually come in handy (God forbid you should actually have to shovel something), and relatively safe. These are the movements we were made for, after all, the movements that enabled us to survive. They might not target specific muscles quite as efficiently as the contrived motions of the gym, but that seemed to me a vastly less important consideration; what you won't do -- because it is painfully boring -- won't help you.

The second criterion was that the movements had to be performed standing up. The first criterion pretty much makes this a given, historically people haven't done a whole lot of work lying down, but I feel that erect posture is important enough to deserve its own particular emphasis. Before we were Homo sapiens, we were Homo habilis, the tool user, and before we were Homo habilus, we were Homo erectus, men who stood up. A great deal of pompous smarmy nonsense has been written about what makes us human, but these two attributes go even deeper, they make us pre-human. They distinguished us from our bestial brethren before we had sufficient brains to make more impressive but less accurate distinctions. And I firmly believe that you will feel better about whatever it is you are doing (with a couple of obvious exceptions) if you do it standing up.

The third criterion was that the movements had to be convenient to perform in a modern living room. Plowing fields passes the above criteria with flying colors, but I haven't (yet) figured out a way to plow a field short of actually plowing a field.

I call these movements, "useful movements," because that's what they are, at least potentially. There are three that I perform using the shovelglove. There's a fourth movement for which I haven't found a natural analog yet, but I enjoy it, and consistency is a boring virtue.

The original movements were: shoveling, churning butter, and chopping wood. And the movement with no name, of course. I've added a bunch more over the years, and you can see the ones I've stuck with listed in this central movement registry.

The trick is to really imagine yourself doing them -- really shoveling, really chopping wood. It'll keep you interested, and it'll keep your form good. Proper form is important, or you'll mess up your back. I wish I could concoct some dream exercise that could dispense with the complexities of form, but I don't think there is any such thing. But view it as a perk, the byproduct of this attention is interest, and it comes easily if you buy into the analogy. It's play, after all.

All the movement description pages now contain youtube movies of me doing them, since it's possible that you are so alienated from the movements of your ancestors that the phrase "chopping wood" doesn't mean a whole lot to you.

I like to think the idea of useful movements has some precedent: the martial arts. I'm no martial arts expert, but remember all that "wax the fence" business from the Karate Kid.

Schedulistically Significant Time

So I had the tools, and I had the movements, the "what" and the "how." All I needed was a "when."

The "when" is perhaps the most satisfying component of this system: 14 minutes every weekday. Rest on weekends and holidays.

You guessed it, 14 is a significant number. Why? Because it's one minute less than the smallest unit of schedulistically significant time. No calendar has a finer granularity than 15 minutes. No one ever has a meeting that starts at 5 or 10 or 14 minutes before or after the hour. You have no excuse not to do this. Time-wise, it doesn't even register.

Yet it is just long enough to give some aerobic benefit. Yes, half an hour would be better. An hour would be even better. But guess what? You won't do it. You might do it for 3 weeks, or maybe even 3 months, but you'll start to resent it and you'll quit. Do it for 14 minutes and you'll do it for a lifetime.

Respect the timer. When it goes off, you stop. It doesn't matter if you have a few reps left in your set. The sets and reps are just guidelines, the timer is the only hard parameter. Don't feel like you are doing something good, something extra, by continuing. You're just establishing a dangerous precedent which will make you that much less likely to start shovelgloving again the next time. By dragging the routine into schedulistic significance, you are just setting yourself up with a good excuse to skip it.

You are doing this for the long run. The goal is to form a lifelong habit, not to burn a few extra calories today. 14 minutes is habit friendly, and excuse proof. And 14 minutes will burn enough calories, build enough muscle, for long term health.

Don't look at the timer, that will drive you crazy. Just wait for the beep to go off. Extending the labor metaphor, think of it as the overseer's whistle.

Not exercising on weekends and holidays has several benefits. Your body needs rest. You get to enjoy your time off. And you're much less likely to take trips that interfere with your exercise schedule. It'll still happen, but (unless you travel a lot for business) less frequently. And who is really going to exercise on Christmas or Thanksgivings (or your religio-cultural equivalents)? You might as well make it official and spare yourself needless guilt.

I've found, through much trial and error, that mornings, before work, are best for me. Once I take that first swing, I get completely into it, and go to work feeling like a superman. But convincing my groggy morning self to take that first swing can be tricky. I have had a very high success rate by putting on shovelglove mood music right before exercising. Once the music and the habit become initimately associated, it's almost impossible to resist. I don't know if it's important what you use for mood music, but I think it is important that it be the same, or drawn from a very small repetoire, every time. Pavlov's dog won't drool to just any bell, right? I use a musical rendition of a sadistic 19th century German children's book, which I acknowledge, is a little demented, but boy does it get me going.

The Progress Trap

Don't worry about progress. People tend to be so obsessed with progress that they quit exercise routines after a few months, when they're done making rapid gains. They exercise for 6 months, get bored and frustrated, quit for a year and sit on their duffs until disgust drives them back to another excessive and unmaintainable spurt of gym-going. They are yoyo exercisers. So forget progress. Maintenance is harder than progress. Maintenance is more necessary than progress. Progress is intrinsically temporary and you need to mentally budget for that fact. Very few people do. This isn't the stock market, you don't need double digit growth (and you certainly don't need crashes). 14 minutes a weekday for the rest of your life will keep you fit. There will be progress, slow and maybe even imperceptable. Then there will be a plateau. Stay on the plateau. You're fit. It's a nice comfortable place. Who do you want to be, anyway, Charles Atlas?

Sledgehammers do come in a number of different sizes (mine is 12 pounds, I've seen them from 8 to 20), so you can upgrade to a bigger one after a while, but I'd be very cautious about doing so. If you can't not upgrade, you're inevitably going to downgrade -- to nothing. I used my original 12 pounder for a solid year before permitting myself to move up to 16 pounder, and I still go back to it now and then. But whatever you do, keep the 14 minutes sacred.

If you're too lazy to urban ranger over to your local hardware store, or they don't have quite what you want, we'd be delighted if someone would actually buy something through the shovelglove sledgehammer store.


The story has a happy ending -- so far. Shovelglove actually seems to work, for me, at least. I've been doing it for over three years now and have gotten terrifically strong and lean, by ordinary non-professional-athlete standards. The only other exercise I do is walk (I say only, but I think walking is even more important for long term health than shovelglove). I should mention that I also have a sensible diet.

Is it Dangerous?

Swinging a sledgehammer around like a spastic maniac is dangerous. But I haven't found anything to suggest that these movements, when properly performed by sane, healthy people, are especially risky. In fact, I've found some reputable sources specifically extolling the health benefits of shoveling (footnote pending).

People do have heart attacks and throw out their backs while shoveling. But these are almost invariably fat lazy slobs who, unaccustomed to regular exercise, put down their remote and their beer and get off their couch once a year or so after a snowstorm, to engage in the intensive, and severely underestitmated, business of clearing their driveway. Shovelglove builds up the very muscles these people sorely lack. If their backs and hearts were as nearly as strong as they should be, there would be no danger. There is no reason that a healthy human being should not be able to shovel a driveway (real or imaginary), and benefit from doing so.

Be careful and listen to your body. Start slowly, and crank it up only as you feel comfortable. Shovelglove shouldn't hurt. If something does, stop immediately, and take the next day off. Pay attention to what it was that hurt. Chances are you were careless or overdoing it. Don't do it again. If it hurts again, maybe you misdiagnosed the problem. Stop, rest, think, and try again. If it keeps hurting then maybe shovelglove is not for you.

Low rep sets are also helpful in avoiding injury -- I'd recommend doing just 7 reps of each movement per set until you feel very comfortable with them, then gradually crank it up if you're so inclined (or not, I still do 7 rep sets at least a couple days a week).

Remember, you have legs; the shoveling and wood chopping movements are much more back-friendly if you use them.


Or as my laywer put it (warning, not funny):

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Fortunately no one has reported injuring themselves yet. But more than one newbie has gotten seriously, uncomfortably sore by overdoing it in the beginning. To quote from a recent post to the shovelglove group:

Your website does a good job of encouraging a
gradual and careful start, but maybe a big red note
would be helpful for clueless people 

This might be a funny site, but it's a seriously hard exercise. If you go all out for 14 minutes on day one, you are not going to have a fun day two. Go slow. There's no rush. Use a broom instead of a sledgehammer to get a feel for the movements. Don't feel compelled to do the full 14 minutes right away. Get your feet wet before jumping in. And if you do go the full 14, don't feel compelled to go all out the whole time. Even just standing around sort of halfheartedly jiggling the shovelglove (or broom) for 14 minutes fulfills the habit forming part of the exercise.

Shovelglove routines

Which movements should you do? How many times? And in what order? Honestly, I don't think it's that important. Keep swinging that slege for 14 minutes every weekday, and you'll get a great workout. The one thing I would caution against is diving into very high rep count sets right away -- it's safer and more interesting to do smaller rep count sets, going through a variety of different moves. Try starting with just 7 reps of each movement, repeating sets when you get through them all until the timer goes off. As I write on the movements page:

By doing just a few reps, you're less likely to overdo any movement. You'll also probably do them with better form and more attention. And instead of serially hitting one muscle group after another, you keep them all in a nice glow throughout the workout. It's more full body the whole time. Because you're pretty much guaranteed to hit every movement once before the timer goes off, you'll be better about actually stopping when it does, and feeling satisfied with what you've done. Lastly, as a beginner it gives you a lower risk way to sample all the movements. Different people find different movements hard... You might find you want to skip some movements altogether. Better to make this decision on rep 7 than on an agonized rep 50.

If you're interested in other people's routines or in sharing your own, I've recently set up a routines forum for this on the bulletin board.

Freestyle Shovelglove

Sometimes I get tired of my regular movements. Then I use part of my 14 minutes for experimentation. 14 minutes and the shovelglove are the only hard parameters, so this is completely kosher. I jab, I push, I pivot. I play sledgehammer-kendo. Occassionally, very occasionally, I come up with a new regular (most recently/notably, driving fence posts). And I hit plenty of oddball muscles that leave me pleasantly aching. Freestyling comes at a price. It's plenty fun, but exhausting. I can never keep it up for more than a few minutes, then it's back to the routine. And remember, free, not spastic.

Shovelglove evolution

The particulars (which movements, how many reps and sets) of my routine have changed a little over the months, as I've experimented and gotten stronger. Although I don't hold these particulars to be of great importance, compared to the principles of schedualistically insignificant time and useful movements, in the interest of full disclosure, I've recorded a rough chronology of how my routine has changed. (note that these are NOT the routines I recommend for beginners, just what I actually, historically did)

Shovelglove historians might be interested in the original design document. Like most such things, it was unnecessarily complicated. The idea was to make it portable.

Scenario Based Shovelglove

This brilliant idea was recently posted to the shovelglove group (which you should join now to keep apprised of further brilliant ideas like this): instead of cobbling together a routine of interesting but unrelated movements, imagine a common theme or story to tie them together. For example: preparing the defences or defending the walls (the more pacifistically inclined may wish to dream up less martial examples). Such scenarios engage your imagination not just at the level of the movement, but at the higher level of the routine. Your workout becomes not only "not boring," but positively interesting, a little adventure every morning. Alternating scenarios from day to day provides variety and preempts boredom. You'll have a focus to inspire new movements, and new ways to interpret old ones.

This is so new that I haven't had a chance to try it myself yet, but as you can tell from my gushing tone, I'm pretty optimistic.

Thank you Allan (and sons) for coming up with this!

Allan recently posted a farming scenario, which it occurs to me probably fits best with the traditional movements described on this site. So if you're doing vanilla shovelglove, think of this as your scenario.

The Future of Shovelglove

I was briefly tempted to "productize" the shovelglove into some kind of infomercial scam, but that would violate the whole spirit and charm of the thing. You don't need some prefabricated plastic piece of junk. Go to the hardware store around the corner and make your own shovelglove. Worst case scenario you wind up with a useful tool lying around the house. I live in a city and yes, I've found uses for it. Consult the film Panic Room for other possible uses (I don't think the intruder would have gotten up if Jodie Foster had been doing shovelglove).

If you feel sorry for me because I wasn't unscrupulous enough to get rich off this, buy anything from amazon.com through this link. I'll get a tiny cut, and you won't pay anything extra. Don't know what to buy? You can gawk at the ridiculous things other people have bought here. Since you're reading this page, you might have similarly ridiculous tastes.

Sorry for me or not, let me know if you are using the shovelglove system. It won't take many emails for me to feel that the few hours I spent tinkering around with this site were worth it.

The only big to-do, besides posting some more pictures, is to investigate shovelglove music. I think that shovelglove might be even more satisfying while listening to old labor songs, Conan the Barbarian music, etc. I used to listen to books or lectures or plays on tape that I checked out from the library, but more recently it's Struwwelpeter.

I'd also like to take infared pictures of myself while doing shovelglove to see which muscles are getting hit hardest, and which are being neglected, but I have a feeling that could get expensive.

What are other people saying about Shovelglove?

Well, a surprising number of people have posted to the shovelglove bulletin board. Some have even been happy enough with the results to submit testimonials.

Mistess Krista of the women's weight training site Stumptuous.com proves that shovelglove isn't just for Big Dudes, in funny, thoughtful, and well-photographed articles about creating a home gym with or without weights.

I am relieved to read that people with ACTUAL FITNESS CREDENTIALS like Sal Marinello and Jason White don't think I'm too far off base.

Personal trainer Arnel Ricafranca has a video of himself doing traditional and novel shovelglove moves to obvious good effect on his site iwantsixpackabs.com

Even surprisingly famous people like Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame have taken notice of shovelglove.

But I think what makes me happiest of all is the news I recently heard that, spearheaded by the efforts of a 75 year old shovelglove cover crotcheting grandmother, a whole village in Thailand has taken up shovelglove. UPDATE (2009-07-01): make that two villages.

Shovelglove mods

People frequently post questions to the bulletin board about adding extra weight to their shovelglove. Generally, my advice is to just buy a heavier hammer. Swinging a sledgehammer around is dangerous enough without having to worry about extra weights flying off or the handle snapping. Plus, as I mentioned in the "progress trap" section above, diddling with the weights all the time is bad psychology.

But if you can't get a heavier hammer for whatever reason, feel like you're really ready for an upgrade, and you are ridiculously handy, you might consider trying something like this impressive user submitted mod.

Modification is the sincerest form of flattery -- thank you fungus!

Make straight the way of the Shovelglove

As much as I'd like to lay claim to complete originality, after 9 months of googling, I'm finally convinced there is no such thing. Kettlebells sound somewhat similar and are (except they are more expensive and take themselves much more seriously), and the kettlebell-derivative clubbell sounds and is even more so. If you like to think of yourself as some grunting Russian special forces killer, you may want to check these out.

More intriguing (because more historical) are Indian exercise clubs.

I was recently pointed to an article on functional workouts, exercise that leaves you fit for something instead merely beefing you up. Sounds a lot like "useful movements," in shovelglovespeak (there is a subtle but important distinction, which I describe here).

Despite my sniping, I'm not disheartened by these discoveries. I'm encouraged. What these systems share with shovelglove is mere mechanics. Frankly, I'm a little relieved to hear I'm not way off base in that department. What they lack is the spiritual underpinnings, the charm, and the $25 price point at home depot. They giveth, but they taketh not away.

By Reinhard Engels

 © 2002- Reinhard Engels, All Rights Reserved.