PT on the Net Research

The Science of Nontraditional Lifts

Co-authored by Troy Anderson

As a coach, you must always ask yourself one simple question when you decide to use a specific training method: why? “Why am I using this in the training program either for myself or my client? What is the goal? How is this helping my client's needs, and what type of results should we expect?”

Unfortunately, many coaches and trainers don’t use this scientific approach. Instead, they might use a specific method or exercise because it is fashionable, trendy, and/or just because everyone else is doing it! Recently a certain type of training that I favor has started to fall into this trap. Nontraditional Training Methods (NTM) has started to grow not only among coaches and trainers, but in more mainstream media as well. Seeing such a trend should be an exciting time, however, we as coaches need to make sure that such methods are being used appropriately and through this article I am hoping to shed some light on the topic.

What is NTM?

NTM is a transition to using classic strength training methods in a more modern era. It may consist of using nonconforming objects such as kettlebell’s, sandbags, heavy medicine balls, and sleds. This can also be carried out by the use of carrying, dragging, and throwing weights in various ways. Why such techniques are valuable to anyone from an elite athlete to someone looking for optimal health is discussed in this article.

Sport Specific

If there was ever an overused term in the industry, it may be sport specific training. Dr. Zatsiorsky defines sport specific exercises as “training drills relevant to demands of the event for which an athlete is being trained.” Once we think in these terms, we need to consider type of muscle actions, muscles used, bio-motor qualities, joint angles and when various forces are applied. This is obviously a lot more detailed than trying to replicate sporting action in the weight room.

Dr. Zatsiorsky actually recommends a three year period of training before such specific exercises are even applied. This prepatory period can help the athlete develop more general abilities such as various strength qualities (i.e., maximal strength, strength endurance, strength speed), muscular balance, dynamic flexibility and aerobic/anaerobic endurance. This is not at all like modern Western ideals that immediately look to performing very specific sport training in young athletes.

How does this relate to NTM? Using these methods gives a simple way of improving such strength qualities as working through extreme ranges of motion, building stabilizer muscle strength and improving overall physical conditioning. They can also help train the muscles in a similar manner as the way they would be used in sport. Some of these movements are seen as tire flipping, sledge hammer training, sled work and sandbag training. There is a very distinct difference between trying to stimulate the muscles and actions used in sport and trying to simulate these actions.

In his book, Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, John Jesse speaks about the athletic benefits of training with sandbags: “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.”

This is what we mean when we speak about stimulation versus simulation. We want to train the needs and demands of the sport without trying to replicate the actual sporting action. Such specific techniques should be left for elite level athletes and coaches who have the ability to break down the exact biomechanics of the athletes respective sporting actions.

Training Benefits of NTM

Explosive Hip Drive

Ask any good coach how to improve strength in the weight room that will transfer to sport, and they will often reference what is called “the posterior chain.” This group of muscles comprising primarily of the hamstrings, glutes and the low back are key in power development and have received a great deal of recent attention in articles and research. This is one of the primary reasons Olympic lifting has become such a favorite tool of the best conditioning coaches. Olympic lifting, however, does have some detractors. These detractors will point out that the complexity of the lifts, the flexibility issues in performing them correctly, the expertise of the coaches themselves and the cost of proper equipment take time and effort, and many will not be willing to become educated enough to overcome this. All of these points are valid to some degree. But NTM solves many of these problems as well as offering some unique benefits.

For example, anyone can learn a basic sandbag shoulder movement in minimal time (shouldering is basically a power clean done to one side of the body). People find success in these exercises very quickly, which allows us, as coaches, to provide faster results. Shouldering is a relatively natural movement since most of us at one point or another has brought something from the floor to a shoulder. Just think of the parent that picks up a child and carries it on one side of the body. With minimal coaching, you can teach someone how to move quickly and how to perform proper hip drive in almost no time. The simplicity of shouldering also gives the coach confidence, and this is an important factor in selecting the appropriate exercises. Once students learn how to perform the hip drive, they can start using appreciable loads in no time. Often, we forget that load is a factor in strength development, but it is hesitation in proper technique execution that keeps many coaches from using appropriate loads. We can avoid that problem with the many of the NTM drills.

The dilemma in using one medium (i.e., barbell) is that we tend to develop a specific groove for that movement. This is why the first time a person performs a sandbag, keg or heavy medicine ball lift, he or she feels very awkward and off balance. Lifting various mediums expands our body’s physical literacy. This concept was coined by Istvan Balyi and refers to our body’s familiarity with a wide range of movement patterns.

Understanding this theory allows us to gain greater appreciation for the role of general physical preparation for all clients. Implementing these techniques increases performance as well as decreases injury potential. Expert throwing coach Dan John has a great saying in regards to program design, “eat the biggest frog first.” In other words, many coaches are too paralyzed by complex terminology and specific drills rather than helping their clients gain proficiency on the foundational lifts.

Strong Grip

Strong hands may fall into the category of the most underdeveloped body part. In functional training circles, you will hear terms such as “core training,” “stabilization,” “balance,” etc. Yet, we never, ever hear anything about grip training. Stop for a moment and think about how many daily activities and sports require strong hands. It is almost comical that this issue is never addressed. Since I am on a role with clichés, let’s think about the classic, “the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” If we think in these terms, then how can we not prioritize grip training in everyone’s workouts?

Grip legend John Brookfield often talks about three main forms of grip strength, crushing, pinching and wrist strength. There are also issues of hand dexterity as well, but this time we will focus on these three main points. While squeezing a dumbbell or a barbell with all your might is a nice way to improve one’s crushing grip strength, it won’t be the panacea and still leaves out the other two forms of hand training. The same way that using different mediums for challenging the nervous system in explosive lifts, using different implements will have varying effects on hand strength. Sandbags challenge all three components because the design of the ever-changing distribution of weight makes it the only implement where the weight actually changes its configuration. Kegs can also train the three types of hand strength, but this occurs for different reasons. A water filled keg will have a moving weight inside, causing the grip dynamics to change its center of gravity as the implement is being lifted. For example, when lifting by the lip of the keg, the hand positions might need to change or the gripping strategies will have to be manipulated. One does not simply grab on as hard as possible, rather during different times there is relaxation and suddenly maximal tension is applied. Heavy medicine balls (those 30 pounds and up) are different yet again because there is not a good place to grip. The lifter must use a very firm static contraction of the hands, fingers and wrists to lift a heavy medicine ball. This is where most lifters will fail and where you can see who truly has strong hands.

Heavy Medicine Ball Lifting

Climbing ropes like we used to use in Physical Education class are another highly underutilized implement and can greatly contribute to the development of stronger hands. Of course, one can use ropes for climbing, but you can also substitute them for some of your favorite drills.

Using Climbing Ropes

Improved Dynamic Flexibility

Recently, we gave a lecture where I had 12 people perform a circuit of heavy medicine ball squats, keg shouldering and sandbag clean and presses. Besides the heart attacks that we almost caused people, it was amazing to see everyone had a perfect squat when using the heavy medicine ball. We had no lengthy warm up and  minimal instruction time, and yet everyone had a squat technique that most of us would dream for with our clients. As much as I would like to say this is magic, it isn’t.

Keg Bear Hug Lift

Front squatting has almost seen a rebirth in the industry. One main reason more and more people are implementing front squats is that it is often easier to have a client perform a proper squat with the weight in front rather than behind the back. There are many reasons this is true including the following:

However, front squatting isn’t easy for everyone either. If we use the classic “clean” style of weight lifting, then we have found there may be an issue of wrist flexibility. A crossed arm position may work better, but it can be difficult for young athletes and women who do not possess a lot of upper body mass. Holding an implement in the old time “Zercher style” works better than most of these classic techniques, especially for beginners. Zercher squats at one time were very popular as a phenomenal exercise for the trunk along with the legs. Trying to maintain an upright posture against a load pulling you forward is not an easy task. With Zercher squats, you do bypass many of the problems that a front squat could possess. You will most likely also be amazed by the depth of squatting one can achieve when using this method, even for those who might traditionally have tight hips leading to restrictions.

We could not discuss dynamic flexibility and NTM without mentioning sledge hammer work. Most coaches and trainers cringe just by mentioning a sledge hammer. Everyone will scream, "LIABILITY!" Let me pose this to all of you first, though. How many times do we have people jump, run and “balance,” yet very few ever scream about the liability associated with these forms of training? As I believe with all training methods, it isn’t the tool or the technique, but rather the coaching.

Sledgehammer Training

Besides being a fantastic way to build anaerobic endurance, grip and core strength, sledge hammer work can have a therapeutic benefit as well. Shoulders, backs and hips are often a problem in athlete and non-athlete alike. Lack of dynamic flexibility and muscle imbalances often lead to these areas being injury prone. How does sledge hammer work to improve these areas? The rotational drills that one can perform with sledge hammer work takes these problem areas through a full range of motion that is hard to replicate with any other piece of equipment including a medicine ball. While medicine balls are great tools, some because of the lever of the sledge hammer, it usually allows people to reach a further range in the movement. The best part is that one learns how to move these areas efficiently together, rather in isolation.

Core Work

Should we perform core work standing or lying down, should we work in the transverse or sagittal plane, should we use cables, medicine balls or free weights? All of these ideas are debated most of the time. In actuality, they become moot points when you are using a variety of techniques such as NTM. During lifts such as shouldering, the trunk does not only have to support the body during the lifting phase of the movement, but it is also forced to resist rotation. As Strength Coach Keats Snideman pointed out in his article, "Defending the Sagittal Plane," there are times where a lift may look as though it is sagittal, but in actuality, the body is being forced to resist movement in other planes of motion.

Once the NTM implement of your choice is on the shoulder, performing drills such as squats, lunges, etc. makes the body work in all three planes. Yes, again, these appear to be sagittal plane dominant exercises but the joint and muscles are resisting rotational and frontal plane forces. This is very functional as most times we are dealing with objects that are not perfect.

Many NTM drills such as Zercher, overhead, get ups and carries are phenomenal for overall trunk development. Trying to maintain good posture during very dynamic actions is one reason these techniques are so beneficial. As mentioned earlier, trying to stay upright during a Zercher squat is very demanding, try doing the same for lunges, bench step ups, goodmorning’s, etc. This helps teach the trunk how to stabilize during dynamic motions. Many coaches are still teaching trunk stability primarily during static activities. This is not very functional.

Zercher Lift

With all the buzz about “core training” many still give little attention to the area of the low back other than some token superman drills. Exercises such as deadlifts, goodmornings, and power cleans have been almost completely abdondoned by many professionals. These exercises are phenomenal in training the posterior chain through a greater range of motion therefore providing more overall strength to the back side of the body that will help stabilize the pelvis and spine. The only unfortunate aspect of these lifts is they do not take the low back through a greater range of motion. Most of the work is done by hip flexion and extension in these drills. However, obviously the spine can flex and extend, yet, very few ever train this quality. Using rounded back lifts can help build low back strength that will decrease injury as well as building tendon/ligament strength. This concept is often known as “imperfection training”, in other words, preparing the body for moments that are less than optimal. Movement may be compromised during certain times in both sport and life.

This is a very important method of preventing injuries. Now, before I receive a million emails about the “dangers” of round back lifting, let me say that common sense must rule.

In the End

Our goal is two fold. First, to show NTM is a valid and effective method of training, and second, to show it isn’t the "end all" to training. As with all training techniques, you need to identify the goal of the program and choose the appropriate methods from there. Far too often we lose sight of such a simple concept and start to blindly apply everything and anything to our clients. Always make sure you train yourself and your clients with a purpose!


  1. Jesse, John. Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia. Publisher: Athletic Pr. June 1974.
  2. Snideman, Keats. "Defending the Sagittal Plane."
  3. Zatsiorsky, Vladimir. Kinematics of Human Motion. Publisher: Human Kinetics Publishers. April 2002.