“Hey Weirdo! Yeah you in the Kaftan. Why are you so bloody odd?”
“Why can’t you just be normal and act like the other kids?”
“No, Glenn. A cape is not an appropriate addition to the school uniform. No, not even if it is only waist length.”
“Why on earth have you turned up to a boxing class wearing glitter?”
And so went the soundtrack of my youth.
Oddball. Freak. Fruit-loop. Nut Job. Eccentric. Obscure. Just not quite right.
All titles that I wore with pride. You see, what no-one actually realised was that I was quietly cultivating a mindset that would set me up for some radical gains.
For example, I was shit at sport as a kid. In fact anything even slightly athletic. I had zero interest in any of it outside of sumo, wrestling, and kabadi (thank you Channel 4). But here I am, a personal trainer and health coach.
Where as everyone else came to becoming a PT due to the love of sport and exercise, I came to it from sleeping out in the woods, eating grubs and throwing spears.
I didn’t need to think outside the box. I was never in the box to start with.
This I believe allowed me to look outside of conventional wisdom to see the plethora of other ways of doing things.
Obviously, conventional wisdom has it’s place and is hugely valuable. The problem is when it becomes a fixed mindset.
We are at an incredible point in history when our understanding of things has the potential to be ever expanding and changing. Unfortunately, the bastions of conventional wisdom often fear change and poo poo any new ideas, or disregard old ideas as outdated.
And this constant changing information can really confuse us all. You only have to look at the dietary advice from the last 70 years to see it constantly flip flopping about.
Whilst I love the barbell and consider it to be an absolute must for developing maximal strength, it doesn’t do everything. But then nothing does. And though you can get plenty big and strong only using a barbell, sometimes it’s good to take a lateral step into the unconventional in order to shore up the chinks in your physical armour.
This is where unconventional training tools can come into play.
As the title ‘unconventional’ suggests, these tools are not common place in your average gym or training programme.
But approach unconventuality with caution. Just because something is unconventional doesn’t mean it’s effective. Choose the wrong tool and you might find yourself fapping away in the corner of gym with a Shake Weight.
Now look, every tool has a benefit, but if you are looking for unconventional tools that help to build a solid, functional body that can handle anything life throws at it, then below are my favourites.
Benefits of unconventional training tools
Each of the tools below have a long history of use. I agree that there are some fantastic new, innovative training tools out there, but I’m an old skool kind of guy. I like tools that have stood the test of time, and that certainly is the case for all of my chosen unconventional training gear.
You know that if something has had long, uninterrupted usage, then it must count for something. Add to this the sense that I am taking part in a time honoured tradition, it really leaves me feeling like I am part of something bigger than myself.
We generally talk about the 3 planes of movement: sagittal, frontal, and transverse.
Sagittal refers to the forward/backwards movements, including flexion and extension, and is by far the most common plane of movement we see with conventional training. Think squat, deadlift, running, burpees etc.
Frontal plane movements consist of those from side to to side such as a lateral lunge or skater jumps.
Transverse plane movements relate to rotational and anti-rotational movements such as a Palloff press, a rapid change of direction when running, throwing objects, and the Russian twist.
We do all three throughout our day, and indeed in most movements but to varying degrees. Different movements will typically have a bias towards one of these three planes.
Out of the three, the transverse plane is probably the least trained. When we are lacking in one of these planes we are more likely to get injured when forced to perform a movement requiring said plane.
That’s why at Wild Life we like natural movement practices that require us to constantly change and shift through all three planes.
The unconventional tools below also do this, and in particular, really allow us to build up movement in the transverse plane.
Huge bang for your buck
For the time poor amongst you these tools offer a great amount of advantage and gain in a short amount of time.
High intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown in many studies to offer the same effectiveness on the cardio-vascular system as low intensity steady state cardio (LISS), but with a fraction of the time needed. See this post here. These tools excel in HIIT.
Does it replace low intensity steady state cardio? I’d say no. But it is another string to the movement bow and another option for those that currently cannot find the time for longer movement sessions.
Strength, mobility, cardio, power, and endurance.
These tools can aid all these things depending on how we utilise them.
Although these tools may not be super heavy weight, their shape means the body has to work harder to move them, helping build muscle.
The eccentric nature of the tools often means that our bodies have to be aligned correctly to hold them. This will often mean a greater range of motion is needed to perform the movements well, and if taken slowly with the appropriate weights, we can improve our ROM by using them.
These tools all require a degree of explosiveness and are perfect for working the power systems.
They really lend themselves to high volume work and are great for developing endurance, in particular power-endurance.
Handshake of heroes.
Grip strength. It’s one of the first things you notice when meeting someone for the first time. And while crippling someone with a handshake is far from useful, having good grip strength has been directly correlated to living a long and healthy life.
The tools below will work your grip like nothing else, and in unusual ways. Rather than just working against the finger joints, as in when we lift a barbell, many of the implements require gripping to avoid them pulling through the hand, as in a rope being pulled through your grip.
This is a much more different way to train your grip and also highly practicable.
Even with a kettlebell that is gripped in a similar way to a barbell, you are fighting against the centrifugal force of the swing, making the gripping muscled work harder.
Much of the movements, as mentioned before are multiplanar and allow our joints to be moved in a complete range of motion. Add to this the above mentioned centrifugal force exhibited by the inertia of many of the tools, and we end up with a tractional force on our joints. Essentially, the connective tissues of the tendons and ligaments are being lengthened during the movement, and the joint capsules are being opened up.
Compare this to a movement like a squat which exhibits a compressive force on the joints, shortening the connective tissue. By including these implements we can balance up how our joints are being used.
Due to the offset weight of the tool, or the general awkwardness of it, the body has to work much harder at balancing, stabilising and coordinating itself. This leads to an increase in kinaesthetic awareness.
It’s fun, interesting and makes you feel like a savage
Unconventional training tools add a degree of novelty and interest to a movement session. This helps to keep things fresh as well as offering the body new stimuli.
And regardless of the tool you pick they always make you feel like a savage. Whether it’s the grunt and the grind, the warrior like movements, or some primal memory being triggered, I’m always left feeling like a beast.
Real world strength
Whether it’s creating good throwing mechanics, building life saving grip strength, or picking up heavy, awkward shit and then moving it, the following unconventional training tools relate very well to the times in real life when you need strength.
Without further ado, here are my favourite unconventional training tools.
Yes, it’s that cannonball with the handle.
Probably the least unconventional tool in the list as they are now increasingly common in commercial gyms. That said they are rarely utilised for their correct purpose in those locations. They are not only for attaching to a dip belt!
The kettlebell is my favourite training tool of all time, discussed in detail here.
I love me some odd objects. What they are is up to you, but generally they are heavy and awkward as hell. Think of pretty much anything you see being lifted in the Worlds Strongest Man competition.
Lifting, carrying, throwing, dragging, you name it, you can do it with effort and grind.
Not much gets closer to functional, real world training than odd object work.
From medieval warriors, to Hindu gods, to modern savages, the macebell (or gada) has a very long heritage. It’s an amazing tool that puts you through all three planes of motion, with excellent emphasis on the transverse, rotational plane.
If programmed correctly (and with good form, obvs) it’s terrific at developing dynamic power, explosive endurance, and bombproof shoulders.
Check out the work of Exit Comfort Zone for some excellent form, workouts and general savagery.
Or the hugely talented Josh Wincey.
Both of these talented guys are also the perfect pitstop for all things steel club too.
The Gada/Macebell has had amazing carry-over on many of my other movement practices, and leaves me feeling both shattered yet heroic.
If you can’t find a macebell then a sledgehammer can make a fair substitute. Or join us next week when we’ll show you how to make an adjustable macebell for yourself.
Heavy Steel Club
Like a rounders bat on steroids, the steel club is the monster truck version of the lighter Indian clubs.
For me its like the macebell and the kettlebell had a love child. It can be utilised in much the same way as the macebell for all it’s rotation goodness, but can also be swung in a similar way to the kettlebell. The key difference with the steel club swing is in the grip work required.
Kettlebell handles are parallel with the floor, as such the structure of the hand naturally assists the hold. The steel club on the other hand runs perpendicular to the floor, offering no real assistance to the hold. It’s basically the difference between gripping a ladder rung and climbing a rope or a fireman’s pole.
The upshot: forearms like Popeye.
Like the kettlebell, the steel club can be used for both grinding movements and ballistic ones, and can utilise the full body or just isolated body parts.
The steel club, macebell and kettlebell, are relatively cheap pieces of kit, that take up very little room, and can be transported to all manner of exotic locations for that perfect Instagram workout shot.
And finally, an old favourite of mine is rope work. Think Tarzan. Think burly sailor. Think strongman.
The rope is a really versatile piece of equipment, once common place in every school gym.
Climbing is an excellent full body movement that builds ape-like grip and arm strength. It’s also a pretty handy skill to have. The ability to climb is one that all humans had and used but has sadly disappeared from most modern humans’ repertoire.
Scared of heights? Then use the rope to pull stuff. Attach it to a sled or other heavy thing and haul away.
Then we have Battle Ropes. The single or double ropes that are swung in undulating waves against an anchor point. It’s the closest thing to an upper body version of a sprint as you can get, but it is still engages the whole body. As far as cardio goes your heart will feel like it’s trying to escape from your chest.
And yet again it is tremendous at building the grip strength.
So there you have my favourite unconventional training tools for shoring up my weaknesses, building overall resilience, creating vice-like grips, and general bad-assery.