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The Science of Odd Lifts

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 program for myself or my client?” “What is the goal, how is the helping their needs, and what type of results do I expect?”

Unfortunately, many coaches and trainers don’t use this approach. They use a specific
method or exercise because it is fashionable, trendy, and/or 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.

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 kettlebells, sandbags, heavy medicine balls, and sleds. There is also 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” (Zatsiorsky, 1995). 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 (maximal strength, strength-endurance, strength-speed), muscular balance, dynamic flexibility, and, aerobic/anaerobic endurance. This is very unlike modern Western ideals that look to performing very specific sporting work in young athletes.

How does this relate to NTM? Using these methods gives a simple way of improving
such strength qualities, working through extreme ranges of motion, building stabilizer
strength, and improving overall conditioning. They can also help train the muscles in a
similar manner as they would be used in sport as in 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 famous book, Encyclopedia of Wrestling Conditioning, John Jesse speaks about the athletic benefits of 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 for the needs and demands of the sport without trying to replicate the actual sporting action. Such techniques should be left for elite level athletes and coaches that have the ability to break down the exact biomechanics of sporting actions.

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 the posterior chain. This group of muscles comprising
of the hamstrings, glutes, and the low back are key in power development and have
received a great deal of attention in articles and research. This is one of many reasons
Olympic lifting is such a favorite tool of coaches. However, Olympic lifting has some detractors that will point out the complexity of the lifts, flexibility issues in performing them correctly, the expertise of the coaches themselves, and the cost of proper equipment. All of these points are valid to some degree. However, 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 clean done to one side of the body). People find success in
these exercises very quickly which allows us as the coach 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
their child and carries them on one side of their body. With minimal coaching you can
teach someone how to move quickly and 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 appropriate exercises. Not only does one 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 they feel 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 cliches 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 really hard is a nice way to improve one’s crushing grip strength, it won’t be the
pancea and still leaves out the other two forms of hand training. Just as with 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 as it is the only implement where the weight actually changes its
configuration. Kegs can also train the three types of hand strength, but for different
reasons. A water filled keg will have a moving weight inside causing the grip dynamics
to change as the implement is being lifted. 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 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.

Climbing ropes are a highly underutilized implement and can greatly contribute to
stronger hands. Of course one can use ropes for climbing, but you can also substitute
them for some of your favorite drills as shown below.

Improved Dynamic Flexibility

Recently we gave a lecture where I had twelve 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 warm-up, minimal instruction time, and yet everyone had a squat most of us would dream for with our clients. As much as I would like to say this is magic, it isn’t.

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.

  • Many people feel a high level of discomfort with a weight on their back. If
    someone is already cringing when the bar is placed upon the back you are going
    to invoke the startle-reflex which will almost guarantee you a great level of
    forward lean and a less desireable lifting posture.
  • Holding the weight in front of the body forces the lifter to stay more upright and
    helps teach them how to sit down rather than bend over. The subtle key of
    learning how to sit the hips back without an excessive forward lean is very
    important and easy to teach once you shift the weight in front.
  • Great core work. Anyone who has tried front squatting can vouch for the great
    amount of trunk work that is done when using this lift.

However, front squatting isn’t easy for everyone either. If we use the classic clean style
there may be an issue of wrist flexibility. A crossed arm position may work better, but
can be difficult for young athletes and women that do not possess a lot of upper body
mass. Holding an implement in the old time Zercher style works better than most of these
techniques, especially for beginners. Zercher squats at one time were very popular as a
phenomenal trunk exercise 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 be amazed by the depth
of squatting one can achieve when using this method. Even for those that might
traditionally have tight hips.

We could not discuss dynamic flexibility and NTM without mentioning sledge
hammer work. Most coaches and trainers cringe just by mentioning a sledge hammer.
LIABILITY, LIABILITY, everyone will scream! 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, rather the coaching.

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 plane, or sagittal, should we use cables, medicine balls, or free weights? All of these ideas get debated all of the time. In actuality, they become mute points when you use 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 resistrotation. 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 implement 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, stepups,
goodmornings, etc. This helps teach the trunk how to stabilize during dynamic
motions. Many coaches are still teaching trunk stability primemarley during static
activities, not very functional.

With all the buzz with “core training” many still give little attention to the low back other
than some token superman drills. Exercises such as deadlifts, goodmornings, and 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. Before I receive a million emails
about the “dangers” of round back lifting let me say that common sense must rule.

  • Don’t use maximal weight your first attempt
  • Don’t go to failure
  • Perfect pressurizing the trunk and recruiting the hips
  • Don’t do this everyday!
  • Don’t use when you have contraindications
  • Yes, this has been used by athletes for hundreds of years as a valid training
  • medium, don’t tell me it is dangerous!

In the End

Our goal is two fold. First, that NTM is a valid and effective method of
training and secondly, 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!

Josh Henkin is one of the most sought after Strength Coaches in the industry. He has worked with professional, collegiate, and high school athletes. His athletes include wrestlers, MMA athletes, basketball, football, lacrosse, and baseball. Coach Henkin is the creator of the Ultimate Sandbag and Sandbag Fitness Systems

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