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Hammer and Weight Handle Considerations

Tony Dziepak, 2002, revised 22Apr03

Update: the proposed handle rule changes were rescinded before the effective date.

There has been a lot of talk about hammer handles lately, especially in reaction to the IAAF's attempts to change their rules on handle specifications. I thought this would be a good time to get a "handle" on the subject. First, to get a perspective, here is a brief history of the events.

History: Prior to the 19th century, all hammers had a solid wood handle, and the hammer was held by the shaft with a golf grip. In the late 19th century, the introduction of drop forging made it feasible to make hammers with lightweight iron shafts. The end of the iron shaft was wrapped in leather straps like a golf club, and a golf grip was used to hold the hammer.

In the early 1900s, the wire hammer came on the scene. The first handles for the wire hammer were double loops of wire. Each hand would hold its own loop; there wasn't a hand-over-hand grip. The grip section was wrapped in leather strapping to make it thicker and more comfortable. Palms face each other, and the grip surfaces are about 3-4cm from each other. I have seen a double-loop grip as late as the 1960s. For example, I have seen Harold Connolly in Track & Field News holding a double-loop grip.

For some reason, there was an aversion to the hand-over-hand grip on a single loop, for many, if not all, throwers. Perhaps it was an issue of gloves.

Throwers figured out that the hand-over-hand grip on a single loop required less forearm grip strength because the two hands on either side of the handle countered each other's tendency to pull out of the hand. It is this same principle which makes the mixed overhand-underhand grip optimal for competitive deadlifting. But even more so in the hammer, the friction between the fingers on opposite hands lock in the grip. This friction increases with hammer speed so that the thrower does not have to worry about grip strength as in the double loop.

The weight and hammer throw techniques have converged throughout the 20th century, but they were originally much different in technique and origin. In the 19th century, many throwers of the #56 weight used a one-handed discus-style technique. Athletes threw off a dirt or grass surface with cleats or spikes, and had more room to throw; sometimes as much as 9 feet or even an unlimited approach with only a foul line or board.

The restriction of the throwing area to a 7-foot diameter circle in 1900 penalized the one-handed discus technique in favor of the two-handed hammer technique. In the early 20th century, the surface of the circle was dirt, and athletes still wore spikes or cleats for both hammer and weight for traction. The technique did not involve the heel-toe turns of today, but rather, some hopping in order to release and reset the spikes.

The #35 weight was introduced in the early 20th century as an indoor event by both the AAU and the ICAAAA, and the outdoor #56 weight throw was dropped by the olympics, but retained as an AAU championship event. The college organizations (NCAA and ICAAAA) never adopted the #56 weight as an event.

Anyway, why is the weight throw handle different than the hammer handle? The original handles of the 19th century were smaller triangular-, circular-, or D-shaped handles. They preceeded hammer loop grips, and they were made with thick iron bar (at least 1/2") to facilitate a one-handed grip.

However, when the throwers went to a two-handed technique after the restriction to the 7-foot diameter circle, a larger, triangular handle came into favor because it acommodated two hands directly gripping the handle. In the early 20th century, the predominant grip was two hands on the handle side-by-side, both in an overhand grip, palms facing down, with the triangular handle being held horizontal.

Then in the mid 20th century, hammer and weight grip converted to the hand-over-hand mixed grip, so a triangle with a 7" side is no longer necessary. It is a relic of the time when throwers put both hands on the handle side-by-side. In the 1980s, indoor weight manufacturers began to make shorter-sided handles for the NCAA and even offered weights with hammer handles, but this was not allowed under TAC/USATF rules. USATF still allows a weight handle with inside measurement from corner to corner as long as 184mm.

Modern throwers take advantage of the large triangle by choosing a handle with well-rounded corners and holding it near the corner with three fingers.

Recently, the USATF has sought to distinguish itself from revival traditional Scottish highland games (from which the hammer and weight throws were developed in the 19th century) by officially requiring the weight to be thrown with two hands. Aparrently, the "wrong" (one-handed) technique was being employed by athletes trained in highland games and outperforming their masters track counterparts even though the two-handed technique is biomechanically superior.

I have seen one highland athlete (Carl Braun) compete in both the indoor weight and outdoor hammer using this one-handed technique with some success. Curiously, one-handed technique is still allowed in the hammer throw.

Current and proposed rules: Here is the old IAAF rule, along with the proposed rule to take effect on January 1, 2003 (Rule 191.7) 2002: "Grip. The grip may be either single or double loop construction, but shall be rigid and without hinging joints of any kind. It shall not stretch apprecialbly while being thrown. It shall be attached to the wire in such a manner that it cannot be turned within the loop of the wire to increase the overall length of the hammer."

2003: "Handle. The handle shall be solid and rigid [and] made of one piece without hinging joints of any kind. It shall be equilateral triangle shaped. It shall not stretch apprecialbly while being thrown. It shall be attached to the wire in such a manner that it cannot be turned within the loop of the wire to increase the overall length of the hammer. The grip shall be straight and 115mm long."

Comments: Obviously, the IAAF has formally buried the old double-loop grip, which noone uses anymore anyway. What else it does is less clear.

We know that there was discussion of a perceived problem that some D-shaped handles with thin wire nongrip sides might stretch under tension. However, while the new rule explicitly says that the grip [side] must be straight, it does not explicitly say that the nongrip sides must be straight. Presumably, the nongrip sides can still be bowed out to make a handle more acommodating to first and last fingers.

The "no stretch appreciably while being thrown" clause is still in to eliminate hammers with weak sides. This restriction would only be necessary if the nongrip sides were curved. A handle with abslolutely straight nongrip sides, even if it was made of thin hammer wire, could not deform and increase its length.

Furthermore, the clause "cannot be turned within the loop of the wire to increase length" is still included. However, if the handle had to be equilateral and also have all three sides straight, then the overall length would be equal regardless of the corner that is at the wire loop. The hammer length would only be increased if one of the sides were curved.

For those two reasons, it seems to me that curved nongrip sides are OK if they are strong. It remains to be seen how strict the rule will be interpreted. Surely there will be overzealous officials that will prohibit curved nongrip sides.

Another aspect of handles not addressed in the new rule is how rounded the corners can be. Even if nongrip sides must be straight, I believe a comfortable, strong, lightweight, inexpensive handle can be cast from aluminum or titanium alloy. It will be an equilateral triangle with three straight sides, but the corners will be highly curved. It will look like a small weight handle. The curved corners will allow the hammer to be released without damaging the first or last finger.

Finally, the poorly-written IAAF rule specifies a length of each handle side to be 115mm (presumably inside length as indiated in the illustration), but it doesn't specify if this is a minimum or maximum length. Every equipment specification has a minimum and maximum. For example, the discus has a minimum and maximum diameter of 219-221mm. I presume this is a maximum measurement designed to minimize corner-holding.

I am not sure why the IAAF wants to ban curved grip-side handles. Not only is the curved grip preferred by many throwers, it mitigates corner-holding, and it is easier to balance on a length measurement device. Depending upon the curve radius, the curved-grip hammer can eliminate any advantage by holding the handle at a corner.

The weight is not an official IAAF event, but here is the text of the USATF weight handle rule (200.3) "The handle shall be made of a round metal rod, not to exceed 12.7mm in diameter, bent in triangular form, so that no side exceeds 184mm, inside measurement. It must be rigid and must not stretch appreciably while the implement is being thrown."

Comments: the USATF weight rule allows any type of triangle: equilateral, isoceles, or otherwise. It also does not explicitly prohibit curved sides or rounded corners. Most handles do have straight sides and nice rounded corners. Most handles are equilateral and at or close to 184mm sides. Some indoor implements are made with an isoceles triangle handle and/or a fixed corner.


The History of the Golf Club

IAAF Rulebook

Morley, Mike, "The Implications of the Change in the Design of the Hammer Handle," The Hammer Circle 2001.

USATF rulebook

USATF statistics

USATF Weights and Measures Manual

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