The Right Tool, For The Right Job, At The Right Time
When it comes to your workouts, do you incorporate a lot of different fitness tools? I try to utilize a wide variety of exercises in a program, which include cornucopia of different equipment (however, sometimes it’s just body weight). I used to think it would be best if I became a specialist in one specific piece of equipment, but I now believe that line of thinking may be false. In fact, a friend of mine mentioned that having this familiarity with the many different tools of fitness, may be a reason I have been successful in building my fitness business. Each kind of equipment (or body weight) has it’s own special benefits, and it would be a shame to never train with them. I’ll never be pigeon holed as the “barbell guy”, or the “kettlebell guy”, and that’s fine with me, because I don’t believe there is just one tool for every job. If I were to focus solely on one implement, then as the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” I believe there is also a right time to employ each specific tool. It’s common for me to introduce a client to a plethora of fitness equipment in their training program. The average program will include exercises with body weight, a kettlebell, dumbells, cable column, barbell, and TRX (or equivalent) straps. It’s not just for the sake of variety, although I think variety has mental and physical benefits, it’s also because I believe each tool is unique and works well for specific exercises. I even use more tools beyond the ones I mentioned, such as medicine balls, stability balls, sandbag, and weighted sled exercises. I just finished reading the Encyclopedia of Underground Strength and Conditioning by Zach Even-Esh, which covers more of the unconventional exercises for getting super strong. It made me realize just how many exercises and tools we have to choose from. Here are the tools I use, and my favorite exercises to perform with them. I also discuss my reasoning for why and when I use them.
- Body Weight
Sometimes the right tool is your own body weight. I introduce body weight exercises in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) at the initial session. Those movements give me an idea of a person’s body awareness and quality of movement, and you can read more about that here. I insert body weight exercises into the warm-up for movement preparation. The majority of a workout will be body weight exercises if someone is a beginner, youth, or elderly client. People often need to work on these fundamental movement patterns before they move on to more complex ones. However, it is all the rage these days to throw someone straight into the fire of advanced movement, before mastering the basics. It may not be as exciting, but it sure will be a heck of a lot more productive for strength and health in the future, if you master the basics. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the basic movements and I have been incorporating more unconventional body weight exercises such as active hangs/swings, handstand holds, crawling, and rolling. Zach Even Esh’s book has a lot of great exercise ideas in this category. The author has some of his athletes do cartwheels. I haven’t done those since I was a kid, but I look forward to mastering them once again. Of course, I will have to ease into them since it’s been a long time. Also worth mentioning, there is nothing quite like getting out there into nature and utilizing all the fundamental human movements; running, crawling, balancing, and jumping. My MovNat training introduced me to the pure joy that can be “working out” when you get back to the basics of movement, and especially in nature. For more advanced clients, these can be great challenges to build coordination, body awareness, and raw strength. Old fashioned calisthenic exercises like jumping jacks and burpees are still great exercises to this day, and will send your heart rate through the roof if done with high intensity. It’s also a good idea to revisit the basics from time to time, and they work well in a deload week.
Moving beyond body weight exercises, kettlebells are one of my “go to” tools that I incorporate into my clients’ programs. They work great for warm-ups and teaching people proper form in the functional lifts. They are excellent for teaching the deadlift because it has a high handle and it takes up a relatively small amount of space. This allows people to set up properly over the weight. Goblet Squats are a form of reactive neuromuscular training (RNT). To simplify the meaning, the resistance is pulling a person into a bad position which forces a person to consciously engage and coordinate the right muscles to achieve proper form. Kettlebells are also great tools for overhead lifts, because the weight sits just behind the forearm, it helps promote proper mechanics in the lift, guiding the arm into external rotation. People often push the weight slightly in front of their bodies when going overhead, and it’s a common mistake. Swings are an excellent explosive lift for increasing power in the hip extension. Powerful hip extension is an important element in sports which comes into play for explosive jumping and running. Get-ups are fantastic for building core and general body strength. Loaded carries such as suitcase carries will also build enormous full body strength. It would be wise to add this powerful tool to your workout arsenal.
I often introduce dumbells early in a program, similar to kettlebells. They are relatively easy to use and can provide a lower resistance than a barbell for beginning weightlifters. Dumbell training can add an element of instability which forces people to stabilize their shoulders and core. I use them in most of the single leg lifts, because it sometimes can be awkward getting the resistance up on the back of the shoulders with a barbell. On presses and rows, the dumbells allow for a more natural range of motion than the more fixed position of a barbell. Even if you have just one dumbell, it can be used to create an effective workout.
The cable column is an excellent choice for functional exercise. Cable core presses and holds are great for building core stability and fatiguing the obliques, and can be a better choice than side planks for clients who suffer from shoulder problems. Chops and lifts are another way to perform a core stability exercise while improving shoulder health and range of motion. There are a few select exercises that I have people perform on the cable machine, and I couldn’t imagine not having this vital piece of equipment.
I reserve the barbell for the big, compound lifts. A client must have acceptable body control and movement patterns before they progress to the barbell exercises. You get a lot of reward for your effort with barbell exercises, but form is of the utmost importance. By the time we reach this point, all the body weight, kettlebell, and dumbell exercises have been used to dial in good technique. Olympic lifting is the final piece of the puzzle, and I don’t always take people there, unless they are an athlete or really want to learn the lifts (Clean & Jerk, Snatch). After following the Mass Made Simple program, I have been using more complexes in my training. A complex is a series of lifts done in a row, without any rest. An example is a bent-over row, hang clean, front squat, miltary press, back squat, and good morning exercise.
- TRX or Other Straps:
Straps are my favorite tool for inverted rows and strengthening the upper back. Just like dumbells, the client has to learn to deal with instability. They help strengthen the shoulders and the core.
- Stability Ball
A lot of great core exercises can be done on the stability ball. Probably the one that comes to most people’s minds is the crunch on the ball. Due to the specific literature I have read on the spine, I prefer to train core stability exercises and avoid repetitively flexing and extending the spine. The instability of the ball takes exercises like a plank, and ramps them up to another level. Leg Curls on the ball with an eccentric (slow lengthening) emphasis are a great way to strengthen the hamstrings and possibly reduce the risk of a hamstring strain.
The sandbags are an awesome tool because not only are they an odd shaped object (which a lot of things in every day life can be), the weight shifts around making everything significantly harder. They are great for shouldering because the weight is soft and conforms to whatever it rests upon, which easy on the shoulders. Also, because it is soft, it can be a safer way to learn a clean, and if the weight is dropped, the consequences are a lot less severe than dropping iron. Sandbags will also help strengthen your grip strength.
- Weighted Sleds
Sled Drags are an effective and easy (in terms of technique) exercise to do. They can build full body strength. Instead of sitting on those silly hip abductor/adductor machines, try doing lateral sled drags, and I will guarantee you will build the appropriate strength in those muscles. You can also attach straps to it, such as TRX, and do explosive chest presses and rows. They are called weighted sleds for a reason. Just make sure you load the appropriate weight on the sled to achieve the full strength benefits.
- Medicine Balls
Medicine balls come into play for upper body power exercises and advanced core work. They are an excellent choice for rotational movements with power. Coordination and the ability to absorb force is required when the client has to catch the ball on the rebound. I definitely reserve it for more advanced clients with quick reflexes.
These are the tools I know and use the most. You can take a look at a beginner workout, and one of my more advanced workouts. I may not be a master of one specific piece of exercise equipment, but I am sufficiently knowledgeable about many. What interests me most is movement, and what I can do to get a client moving better while building strength. Using a variety of exercises and tools helps keep exercise interesting and challenging. I find that specific exercise tools work best for specific exercises, especially when dealing with beginners. Then it all comes down to timing on when to utilize each tool, and that’s up to me. The right tool, for the right job, at just the right time.