There is something very different on the horizon for the future of training. A very old form of training can be revitalized to help athletes and non-athletes alike experience more success than ever before. Sound like a sales pitch? Not at all. I am suggesting we take a hard look at the benefits of implementing modified strongman training into our programs and thought processes.
I can completely understand why some of you right now are rolling your eyes at the idea of another industry fad. The obvious questions come up: “Why can’t I just use dumbbells/barbells, and how does this make me any stronger or bigger?” First, let me guarantee you this isn’t an either/or situation. Using odd objects such as sandbags, kegs, stones and logs can be easily integrated into any training program that also incorporates dumbbells, barbells and cables.
Are not all of these implements various forms of functional training? With all of the advances made in the past 20 years, I must argue we still haven’t met many of the needs that are placed on the general population and athlete. We talk so much about moving in multiple planes, core strength, balance and stability, have we really looked at what our clients need? For example, when a parent picks up their child, we could see this as a form of deadlifting. However, is the parent going to be able to maintain a perfect arch in their back? Is the child going to be a still, balanced object, or are they going to be moving with all their weight not perfectly balanced throughout their body? Where do we ever teach people how to handle such a situation?
How about an athlete? How about the running back that has been initially hit, is slightly off balanced and out of position and then is hit again at full force? Does he have an opportunity to be in perfect postural alignment with his core activated? His body has to be pre-programmed to handle such situations as effectively as possible.
What I am specifically referencing is the idea of imperfection training. This was a concept highly utilized by the former Eastern Bloc countries in the training of their athletes. The idea was to prepare the athlete for worst case situations. Many injuries do not occur when we are moving slowly, in perfect posture or lifting an equally distributed load. They often occur during large eccentric actions and end ranges of motion. It seems obvious that most orthopedic problems do happen when someone moves into a position where he has a weakness. This is of course why many promote multi-planar training.
While this is one viable option, trying to lift objects that are unbalanced and awkward provide another important aspect of injury prevention. Allan Hedrick, Head Strength Coach for the Air Force Academy, has been using odd object lifting with his teams for several years. He has written and lectured on using odd objects (often in the form of water-filled kegs) to increase performance and decrease the risk for athletic injuries. He states, "Applying the concept of specificity, it makes sense that training with a fluid resistance is a more sport-specific method of training as compared to lifting exclusively with a static resistance, because in most situations, athletes encounter a dynamic resistance (in the form of an opponent) as compared to the static resistance. Further, because the active fluid resistance enhances the need for stability and control, this type of training may reduce the opportunity for injury because of improved joint stability.”
This type of instability is perfect for training stabilizers in the hips, trunk and especially the shoulders. One way old strongmen were able to perform their amazing feats was by using such methods for stability training to compliment their barbell lifting. In the book, Dinosaur Training, Brooks Kubik states, “You feel sore as you do because the bags (sandbags) worked your body in ways you could not approach with a barbell alone. You got into the muscle areas you normally don’t work. You worked the heck out of the stabilizers.”
This leads us into the issue of grip strength. It is shockingly horrifying how many people have very poor hand strength. This was once a staple of classic strongmen; in fact, the famous George Jowett credits iron bending in helping him build real 19-inch arms! Now, you don’t all have to go to the local iron shop and start bending metal (although it wouldn’t be a bad idea), but grip strength needs to be addressed in a more serious way.
It is my contention that many elbow, shoulder, neck and back issues are due to poor hand strength. Why? The old saying “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” holds true to the body, and when we think of most movements involving lifting, the role of the hands is integral. Many try to avoid such a weakness with the use of straps and other contraptions, but this will only provide a situation with a high risk of injury. It amazes me that so many people have gotten away from using weight belts, yet many still do the same to hands by using different equipment. Chances are if you work with the general population, you have noticed the large amount of people who complain of finger, wrist and general hand aches and pains. Training with odd implements goes a long way in helping such cases.
Using odd implements helps to train the wrist, crushing and pinching grip. Most people know of wrist strength, and most will also associate hand strength with only crushing grip strength. However, pinching grip strength is equally as important and possibly more so as the fingers and thumb are rarely trained, yet we are constantly placing great demands on them. Sandbags and stones are amazing for improving all three but for different reasons. Sandbags constantly shift their weight and will alter their shape as you lift them. This causes the lifter to find new grip positions for the ever-changing aspects of the bag. Stone lifting with the hands is a classic way to tell who has strong hands and who does not. Being able to hold onto a round heavy object without the ability to wrap the fingers around it is a huge challenge for most. The fingers and thumb will be challenged in a way most have never experienced.
Where would a discussion of functional training be without speaking about the core? Odd lifting could be seen as the MOST functional way to train the core. How many times do you see people train the ability to carry weight, especially odd objects? Isn't this what many people do when they carry their laundry, their children or opponents (even if it is brief) in sports like wrestling and football? The core must work in conjunction with the upper back, low back, hips and arms to be really stable. If you don’t believe me, pick up a relatively heavy object and start carrying it for about one minute in a bear hug position in front of your body. What fatigues? What hurts?
Carrying weight is not only amazing for core development but for developing general work capacity as well. It is fun, and you can use an array of objects to help people learn how to lift and carry all types of uncooperative objects. This is going to get them prepared for life’s demands!
The core training with odd objects isn’t limited to just carrying, though. Many of the classic lifts such as shouldering is an amazingly challenging core activity as it allows for the body to be unilaterally loaded with some significant weight. Being able to maintain good posture during such lifts helps identify true weakness in trunk development. These unilaterally loaded exercises don’t only train the abdominal area but the low and upper back as well. This is an extremely effective and fun way to help muscle imbalances and correct postural problems.
Squatting, lunging and many other classic weight room activities take on a whole new dimension when you try to perform them with an odd object on your shoulder or held in front of your body or overhead! What appears to be sagittal plane exercises quickly turn into movements that are being challenged in all planes of movement.
Many people boast about having a strong core, but when it comes time to demonstrate their strength, they fail miserably. Sandbag and keg lifting are brutally effective as you can load the body in unique patterns while trying to maintain proper posture. One can use heavy and slow movements as well as very explosive lifts to train the various components of trunk strength. Sandbags have long been a favorite training tool of wrestlers and combative athletes. In John Jesse’s famous book, Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, he states, “The use of heavy sandbags and their large circumference forces the lifter to do his lifting with a round back instead of the traditional straight back lifting with a barbell. It is this type of lifting that truly develops a strong back. It develops the back and side muscles in movements that are identical to the lifting and pulling movements of wrestling.”
Can anyone think of better sport-specific types of training?
Odd objects are also a fantastic medium for training explosive work. Exercises such as Olympic lift variations and throws make odd objects such a valuable tool for training. What keeps coaches from using such great lifts such as the snatch, clean and jerk is knowing that their clients do not possess the flexibility to perform the lifts well. This is especially true in the case of the wrists for cleans. With using sandbags and kegs, this problem is eliminated as anyone can quickly learn how to perform a safe and effective clean or snatch in just minutes. Don’t be mistaken, though; Olympic lifts are not just for athletes. Everyone needs to learn how to move fast, have a stronger posterior chain and increase body coordination.
An even more fun method may be throwing odd objects. Such feats of strength are classically demonstrated in Highland Games all over the world. Throwing objects was a staple of athletic development and can still be seen in mainstream sports such as baseball, softball, discus, hammer, shot put, football, etc. Throwing is a full body activity that can be done in many different patterns and directions. It can be a wonderful conditioning tool just as it is strength building. You haven’t seen a great smile until you have seen a 60-year-old woman throw a sandbag over her head!
The benefits of odd object lifting are obviously numerous and should give rise to serious consideration in program design. One of the best things is that this type of training doesn’t require expensive equipment, lending itself perfectly to group and team training, aerobics classes, boot camps, etc. They are easy to learn so people can feel successful in no time at all. If training is fun and effective, it will greatly increase adherence from your clients as well as lead to constant referrals. There should be nothing stopping you from reaping the benefits of odd object lifting!
- Kubik, Brooks. Dinosaur Training: Lost Secrets of Strength and Development. Louisville, KY: Brooks D. Kubik, 1996.
- Jesse, John. Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia. Pasadena, CA: Athletic Press, 1974.
- Hedrick, Allan. "Using uncommon implements in the training programs of athletes." National Strength & Conditioning Journal. August 2003, Vol. 25 Number 4