Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Stuff I like

I’ve been training a long time, over 20 years and at the risk of blowing my own trumpet I have experimented with just about every type of training ever invented! I’ve seen fads come and go, and often come back a second or even a third time. I’ve followed some trends and ignored others and now, after all this time, I have a bunch of training stuff I really really like. I’m not saying this is a definitive list of training ideas or equipment but its stuff I’ve used on my self, my personal training clients and my students with great success.

So, in no particular order, here is my list of stuff I like.

1) Weighted sled
I got my sled mail order from a company in the States and it cost me a fortune in shipping but it was worth every penny. Had I known it was such a simple device I’d have got one made by my local metal worker but that’s life. I have used my sled for GPP (General Physical Preparation) work, interval training, power training, aerobic training, upper body training, sprint training and even strength training. It’s a very versatile piece of kit which just about every fitness enthusiast would benefit from using. There's a sled article coming soon so stay tuned!

Sled, tow straps, belt and ankle cuffs

Finish position - sled bicep curls

2) Sandbags
Sandbag training is cheap, very versatile, and challenges the core and forearms like no other training method can. Light sandbags can be used for circuits, GPP and interval training etc whilst heavy sandbag lifting can develop prodigious strength in the arms, back and legs. Imagine trying to lift and press an object which is constantly shifting in your hands and forces you to adjust your grip and stance constantly. Exercises like squats, rows, cleans, presses and dead lifts have never been so challenging! Sandbag training is ideal for martial artists, football and rugby players and anyone else who wants to train on the cheap out of doors. A word of caution: make sure your sandbags are well made – there is nothing worse than dumping a load of sand in your face while trying to press a weight over head! Use rubble bags in side a navy style kit bag to minimize spillage or buy the custom made sandbags and kits that are now available.

Sand bag with mini sandbag weights

Dragging the bag – great exercise!

3) Ab wheel
If you want to develop serious core strength, nothing works better than an old fashioned ab wheel. These scourges of TV infomercials are actually genuine hard core training devices and therein lies the problem. An ab wheel will work your core like no other exercise can but the risks for untrained individuals is high. If you have good (make that great) core strength then the ab wheel is for you. If you are not able to perform full ab planks for 60 seconds plus, do roll outs using a Swiss ball or maintain good spinal alignment when performing squats and deadlifts, you should stay clear of the ab wheel until you have a bit more core strength. When first using an ab wheel, progress slowly from the kneeling position to standing and only increase your range of movement when you feel comfortable. If you experience any over extension of the spine or back pain STOP and go back a level.

My $10 ab wheel – a great piece of kit

4) Weighted vest
Just about every exercise you can imagine can be performed whilst wearing a weighted vest and the increase in difficulty (and results) is staggering. By wearing one whilst doing cardio, you will increase your energy expenditure dramatically. Performing standard callisthenic exercises like press ups, burpees, squats and lunges while wearing a weighted vest turns simple exercises into tests of strength and determination. Exercises like sprinting and jumping become real lower body power exercises when a weighted vest is used and wearing a weighted vest whilst doing your daily chores turns mundane house work into a calorie burning fest which will lead to being lean and mean in no time! I think it’s clear I like weighted vests – I expect you will too.

Weighted vest – versatile and effective

5) Rubber bands
No, not light weight fitness bands but seriously strong rubber bands used by power lifters and available from good fitness equipment suppliers like Iron Woody and Jump Stretch. These bands come in strengths from about 10lbs to a staggering 140lbs making them the ultimate in portable strength training equipment. Just about any exercise you can imagine can be replicated with a band which means that effective and cost effective home training is within most peoples grasp. Bands can also be used in conjunction with standard resistance training exercises such as squats, bench presses and deadlifts and even combine well with old favourite exercises like press ups and pull ups to add a whole new dimension to bodyweight training. A good set of bands may put you back $200 but they last a long time and offer supreme convenience for the fitness enthusiast.

Selection of rubber bands

6) Jump rope
If it’s good enough for Rocky Balboa, Mohammed Ali and Evander Holyfield then it’s good enough for me! Jumping rope is a great cardio workout which can also be used for anaerobic interval training, increasing foot speed, warming up, improving foot work for boxers and martial artists, increasing lower body muscular endurance and improving whole body co-ordination all for about $10 or less! Granted, jumping rope is a skill that not everyone grasps initially but with a little time, effort and perseverance it won’t be long until you are doing double unders, cross overs and sprints in place like a boxing pro. Take a little care with jump rope though – ensuring you wear well cushioned and supportive shoes, workout on a forgiving surface (not concrete) and avoid staying on the spot too much to avoid possible lower body injuries.

Jump ropes - cheap and effective

7) Medicine balls
Medicine balls are another very versatile training tool which won’t cost you much but from which you’ll gain many benefits. Medicine balls come in two main types…soft and hard. Hard ones can be hurled, bounced and dropped with impunity whereas soft ones tend to be better suited to throwing and catching drills and less to being bounced as they are prone to splitting. They come in a range of sizes, from 1-2 lbs to 50 lbs and above. Medicine balls are fantastic for developing core strength, upper body and lower body power, hand/eye co-ordination, aerobic fitness and anaerobic conditioning, depending on the weight of the ball used and the drills performed.

I own two medicine balls, a 10lb ball and a 22lb ball, both of the hard variety. My favourite exercises include medicine ball slams, where the ball is repeatedly hurled at the ground from over head which challenges the arms and core as well as the cardiorespiratory system, over head throws which works the posterior chain of hamstrings, glutes, lower and upper back, rotational throws for the core, medicine ball thrusters - a front squat/push press combo and chest pass throws which challenge the anterior chain of quadriceps, hip flexors and chest as well as the core. If your budget doesn't allow you to purchase a medicine ball, you can make your own from and old basketball, some sand or lead shot, some strong rubber glue and some duct tape. Want a fun training tool? Get some balls!

Medicine balls

Med. balls lend themselves to numerous exercises – chest pass throws

8) Sledgehammers
Athletes have been using sledgehammers for years to develop strength, power and conditioning and lately a few companies have even produced hammers specially designed for exercise. Whilst I think these special exercise hammers are a bit like re-inventing the wheel, the concept of training with hammers is sound. They can be used for high rep sets to develop amazing upper body and core endurance or low rep sets for muscular power. Striking patterns can be from over head straight down to strengthen the rectus abdominus, arms and latisimus dorsi muscles or across the body to target the obliques (sides of the trunk) – like a golf swing.

As far as striking surface goes, it’s best to either hit an old rubber tyre (bigger is better) or swing into sand – a beach being ideal. Hammer weight is dependent on the individual but I own a 8lb and an 10lb hammer and would suggest that for all but the biggest athletes, these weights are quite adequate.

There are a number of ways to go about organising your sledgehammer workout...you could see how many strikes you can perform in 10 minutes (a brutal workout!), or perform multiple sets of 10-20 strikes with 30 to 60 seconds rest or to improve power, 5 strikes as hard as you can followed by longer recoveries. You may get some odd looks from your neighbours next time you are out in your yard smashing the heck out of an old tyre with your sledgehammer but rest assured, your performance and physique will soon show the benefits of your unusual training tool! Remember when using a sledgehammer to be aware of anyone nearby walking into your swing range and take a few minutes to practice your technique before unleashing your full effort. Make sure you hit well away from your feet and that your striking surface is solid enough to take your mighty efforts.

Check out my last few blog posts to read all about sledgehammer training.

The beach if a great venue for hammer training

9) Things you can buy in your hardware centre
Next time you stroll around your local do-it-all hardware store, take a look at the goods for sale and I’ll bet you can come up with some very cheap but effective bits of kit which will provide you with a great workout. Here are a few of my favourites:-

“The slosh pipe”: Take an 8 - 10 foot length of 6 inch diameter pipe. Fix screw type end caps to both ends. Fill it ¾ full with water and then lift it, squat with it, walk with it or run with it to really challenge your whole body – especially your core. This piece of training gear cost $20 to make and kicks your butt like you wouldn’t believe!

One of many uses for the “slosh pipe”

Snow shovels and metal buckets: simply fill the metal buckets with dirt/sand and walk/run with them for time or distance. This is a killer cardio workout which also pumps up your grip in no time. It’s like doing a “farmers walk” only not in the gym with dumbbells but as it was intended to be done – outside.

Fill ‘em up and then run with ‘em – killer workout!

Wheelbarrows: Fill the wheelbarrow (an exercise in it’s self) and then take it for a walk/run. Could be done as an interval session (periods of work interspaced with periods of rest) or in a single effort. Wheelbarrow pushing is great for the legs, arms and back. Take your wheelbarrow “off road” and you have a real co-ordination challenge too!

Chains: Buy a 20 foot length of heavy link chain and you have another very versatile training implement. You can pull it hand over hand, wrap it around your self and walk/run with it, attach it to an old tyre and drag it, put it in a sand bag and lift if, put it into a bucket and carried – lots of variety to be had. One word of warning – it’s worth wearing some heavy gloves to avoid suffering pinched skin on your hands.

10) A programmable timing device.
No matter what type of exercise you do, an accurate, easy to use, hands free timer is a must. I have a number of such devices...one I can clip to my clothes, another I wear on my wrist and also one I can run on my computer. Using a timer for your workouts forces you to maintain a good pace throughout your session. If you aren’t using a timer to measure your rest intervals between sets then SHAME ON YOU!

Using a timer will help you maintain focus, stop you dilly dallying when you should be training and generally increase your productivity in the gym. Additionally, some training methods only really work if you have a timer to hand e.g. interval training. Interval training is THE way to blast body fat and requires you to alternate between periods of 1-2 minutes of high intensity cardio alternated with periods of 1-2 minutes recovery. Using a timer forces stops you sneaking a few extra seconds of recovery which might detract from the effectiveness of your workout. A particularly good interval session which is only really practical if using a timer is called Tabata training. Tabata training involves doing high intensity activity for 20 seconds (e.g. sprinting) with 10 second rests performed for 8 – 10 sets. I know what you are thinking – that adds up to only 4 – 5 minutes but trust me…Tabata training will kick your ass! Exercises which lend them selves well to this method of training include burpees, jump rope, medicine ball/barbell/dumbbell thrusters, sprinting and squat thrusts. Or how about a Tabata circuit of press ups, squats, sit ups, lunges, skipping and burpees – half an hour of fat burning mayhem guaranteed to leave you in a pool of melted body fat.

Two different timing devices

So, that’s my list of stuff I love. I can’t imagine training without access to the items listed above and I sincerely hope you’ll give some of them a try to enhance your workouts.

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