Barbells and dumbbells are cool and all plus, they work great. After all, there’s a reason that pretty much every strength athlete out there uses them to some degree in their training.
If you’ve been reading here for a while, then you know I’ve spent my time with them as well, and I respect them for what all they do.
Yet, despite that, I’m actually a sucker for unconventional training methods. Why is that?
To get into that, we need to back up a bit.
A few years ago, I was flat broke but desperately wanting to get my fat butt back into shape. I’d been an athlete in high school and college and maintained a certain level of physical fitness into my years in the Navy. When I got out, though, I let everything slide.
Over time, I gained weight and I recognized that it was going to end up killing me.
So, despite being broke, I knew I needed to do something. Walking was the typical suggestion, but I’d been a runner. To me, walking never felt like I was doing a damn thing. I needed something more.
I’d been going to the gym, but the membership was expensive because it was for me and my family. I decided to do something a little different.
I figured that for what I paid each month for a gym membership, I could buy some equipment and train here at home.
The start was a 35 lbs kettlebell. I’d already used a KB for a little while, though it was a pretty small one, so I knew some of the techniques needed. More than that, though, I knew that I could get a tremendous workout with it. I knew I could get my butt in shape.
From there, I dedicated myself to one purchase per month. I picked up KBs for my wife and son and then started looking for other things I could do.
That’s when I first found unconventional training techniques.
Companies like Onnit seem to make bank catering to this, but even they have to recognize that one of the cool things about unconventional training is that it’s Poor Man’s Training.
What I mean is that you can put together a great deal of fitness equipment for relatively little cost.
For example, let’s look at what I paid for my traditional lifting setup:
- Rogue Ohio Power Bar (Black Zinc with Bright Zinc): $290
- Rogue Echo Bumper Plates (260 lbs set) plus 5s and 2.5s: $422.83
- Titan T-3 Yoke (Tall): $367.95
- Titan Flat Bench: $124
- Rogue J-Hooks: $65
That’s $1,269.78 I spent on just that setup. That lets me do a minimum combination of exercises possible with the only optional one being yoke carries.
Now, it’s possible to have gone cheaper. If I had it to do over again, I’d have gotten iron plates instead of bumpers since it turns out I’m not doing any of the Olympic lifts I expected to do. That would have brought the cost down a bit, and I could probably have gotten a cheap power rack and done OK for a while.
But the point stands. Barbell lifting isn’t a poor man’s game, and back when I was broke, it wasn’t even an option.
What is, though, is a kettlebell.
Let’s take a look at Rogue’s selection of the traditional kettlebell weights for users of both genders (let’s assume a family here):
- 8 kg: $33.76
- 12 kg: $41.29
- 16 kg: $48.82
- 24 kg: $63.75
- 32 kg: $86.19
Now, this is a minimal set for a husband and wife following the basics outlined by Pavel Tsatouline in his books. The total cost? $273.81
If you get two of each, you only pay a bit more than I did for just my weight plates.
And that’s just the kettlebells. Other things are cheaper.
For example, let’s talk about sandbags. Here’s what I did with some play sand from Home Depot, some gallon and quart Ziplock bags, and some duct tape.
That’s 140 something pounds of sand for less than $50 expenditure. Couple that with kettlebells and you’re onto something.
But I also picked up a big tire from a friend. He’d gotten it for free, but his son was the one who used it and he was gone to college, so the tire had to go. I was more than happy to take that off his hands.
Couple it with a sledgehammer (both shown in the featured image at the top of the post) and you’ve got a lot going on.
So yeah, the cost is a big consideration.
You see, unconventional training opens it up to the masses. Odd objects are just things you find sitting around outside. Sandbags are easy. Kettlebells are relatively inexpensive. They’ll give you big damn tires just so they don’t have to pay for disposal.
But that’s only the start of what I like about unconventional training methods.
Regular readers here will know that I’m a big fan of the idea that there is no One True Way to anything. There are almost always multiple paths to achieving a goal.
Unconventional training methods allow people to use what they may have easier access to than traditional weights. Further, there’s no reason to believe you can’t make impressive gains without barbells or dumbbells.
For example, let’s take Milo of Croton.
If you’re unfamiliar with old Milo, he was a wrestler in ancient Greece. Legend has it that one day, he started picking up a newborn calf. He’d pick it up each and every day.
He kept that up for a long time until one day, he wasn’t lifting a calf. He was lifting a freaking bull.
Milo is sometimes credited with creating the idea of progressive overload, but he should also be looked at as the spiritual father of unconventional training. He used what he had and lifted it up, adding weight until he was moving an impressive sum.
While that’s a legend and thus may not be the gospel truth, it has enough of a feeling of plausibility that we can’t rule it out completely.
In the same vein as Milo, progressive overload allows muscles to continue adapting to a stimulus. If you do five reps at a weight and that’s all you can do, your body will adapt to allow you to do six. If you can only do 100 lbs today, then next week your adaptations may allow you to do 105.
The body is used to adapting to stress however it comes. It doesn’t care if the stress comes from a barbell or a bag of sand. It just knows that it’s being stressed and it needs to adapt if it wants the stress to end.
But unconventional training often has one thing that many barbell exercises don’t have: Real world applications.
Picking up an unwieldy bag of sand is generally more like picking up a heavy anything you’ll find in nature than in picking up a barbell.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Barbells are excellent. They’re common as hell and considered conventional training for a damn good reason. They’re an incredibly effective way to build muscle and strength.
But as great as raw strength it, it’s not quite the same as picking up a big old rock that doesn’t want to be picked up.
This past weekend, the Arnold Classic Strongman competition took place in Columbus, Ohio. I kept my happy butt in Georgia and just watched it on YouTube where it was livestreamed.
It was funny, though.
During the competition, the guy who finished near the bottom in the deadlift set a record for the number of times he could lift a natural stone up to his shoulder. He did that five times.
Halfthor Bjornsson, the Mountain from Game of Thrones and the World’s Strongest Man for 2018, only managed it ones. Sure, Bjornsson won the competition and he only needed to lift it once, but he still only got one time.
He wasn’t alone.
These were all men who beat Mileus Kieliszkowski in the deadlift, yet he dominated them with a big rock. Why?
Well, he was just better at using his strength for that event than they were.
Unconventional training–and let’s be honest, strongman training tends to count in a lot of ways–allows people to be stronger in real-world ways because if you can pick up a big, uncooperative sandbag, you can pick up just about anything else.
Not only that, but you can take that equipment and do all kinds of crap. You can rig relay races where you do an exercise, run to a point and do something else, then to another point and do still a third thing. You can do a complex and get strength training and conditioning at the same time.
So why do I like unconventional training implements?
Because you can use them for anything and everything, while not needing to shun barbells. More than that, though, they’re fitness equipment for the common man or woman.
That’s got to count for something, doesn’t it?
Over the next little while, I’m going to delve into some deeper, more esoteric thoughts on the subject that tie into past stuff here at By Spear and Axe, so bear with me. I think it’ll be a hell of a ride, though.