By Dr. Ken E. Leistner
I had the privilege of coaching football at two high schools on Long Island in the late 1960's. One was a tony private school, while the other served a community where fully one-third of the adolescents were classified as New York State ADC students, those receiving State aid or welfare in some form. I only spent one season at the private school before installing my version of the Wishbone Offense at Malverne High School where our teams were very successful. We had one of the first organized and extensive weight training programs in the area and by anyone's definition, I was "old school" in an era when every high school football coach was old school. Almost all of the coaches I played under in high school and college had a military background that included combat service in World War II or the Korean War and the emphasis was always on high degrees of conditioning for two-way play, and team discipline.
I carried this credo into my own coaching style and procedures as did the other coaches I knew. As Malverne was one of the few in and out-of-season weight training squads, I also applied the same attitude and principles to our strength program. Hard and intense work on a few basic movements I believed, was the key to physical improvement, a belief I have continued to stress in my work preparing athletes for their seasons and as a consultant in the area of strength enhancement and injury prevention to NFL and collegiate programs. My old school orientation placed my focus upon a few barbell and dumbbell exercises that worked large muscular structures. For years, this was the basis of the programs I recommended with the inclusion of "adjunctive" work that mirrored the types of things I did in my own preparation for football. The additional work included pushing cars and trucks, carrying my father's shop anvil in various positions, flipping large tires, doing what the old-timers referred to as "farmers walk" with heavy implements in each hand, and both pushing and pulling weighted snow sleds that I had modified for use on grass. None of my training partners knew that we were utilizing what would in the 1990's become "strongman events" or "functional exercise movements." With the growing popularity of strongman competition, lifting stones has become a more frequently used means of preparing players for the season. There are advantages and disadvantages to this specific activity with the former out-distancing the latter in my opinion, making it viable for most programs. Lifting stones forces football players to most often achieve a significant amount of knee bend in order to position themselves properly to elevate the stone from the ground. This produces a relatively full range of motion in what otherwise would be a deadlift type of motion and the position by necessity is usually with a more rounded low back alignment than one would use with a barbell. This is not a negative for those players whose bodily leverages do not place them in a position for obvious potential injury. The work for the upper and low back musculature as well as the hips and thighs is different than that when deadlifting with a barbell or dumbbells. Finishing the movement when using a low back position that is more rounded than one would use makes it necessary to consciously focus upon extending the hips with more effort than one would with a barbell, unless the trainee was performing a near limit deadlift or pull. Doing squats with a stone held at the chest is another movement we have had our players do for years. Utilization of the stone places a very concentrated stress upon the low back and it is imperative that an upright posture be maintained. As a believer that the full barbell deep knee bend is one of the most important strength training movements a football player can perform in and out-of-season, doing a stone squat is a staple in our facility.
Dr. Ken Leistner coaching a 130-lb. Super Heavy Med Ball Clean & Press
(All photos courtesy of Kathy Leistner)
Older lifters and coaches understand that a "press" implies an overhead movement with a barbell and any other pressing movement uses a modifier such as bench press, incline press, or dumbbell press. Using a stone to press, while potentially dangerous if not properly controlled, and I will comment further upon that, is very difficult. The weight is much more concentrated relative to a barbell and the work is redistributed among the primary movers such as the deltoids, triceps, and trapezii muscles making this a movement that requires a great deal of concentration. "Cleans" where the stone is taken from the floor to the chest in one movement is much different than that done with a barbell or dumbbells. Curling a stone in the thirty to fifty pound range requires the trainee to "squeeze" the hands at the lateral aspects of the stone and then flex the forearms. The mental focus and physiological "focus" for lack of a better descriptive term, forces the biceps brachii and other flexors of the forearms, the brachialis and brachioradialis to work at a very intense level. Even the pectoralis muscles get work as the arms are adducted or "held in tightly" to secure the stone as it moves through the range of motion. The intrinsic muscles of the hands join the fray and the curl, what many coaches consider to be a "throwaway exercise" or as many gridiron coaches have stated, "a bodybuilding exercise" as in "Curls for the girls!" now becomes a multi-muscle movement that is very important for on-the-field injury prevention and performance.
The stones that are usually used for the aforementioned exercises and many others that creative coaches have developed, are usually of either granite or concrete. Both types of stones have advantages and disadvantages. The concrete stones are relatively inexpensive and there are numerous sources for them. With the proper molds, one can make their own concrete stones and they are durable and usually have enough texture to make them "liftable" although when extremely heavy weights are used, grip is at times problematic. For smaller athletes, the very heavy concrete stones are rather large in their diameter, making them difficult to grab, control, and elevate to the lap, abdominal, or chest areas and thus successfully lift or exercise with. The limiting factor for smaller or shorter football players who may in fact possess the strength in the hips, thighs, and upper and lower back to successfully lift for example a 180 pound concrete stone, is often the size of the stone. They will not be able to do so because they cannot place their arms and forearms on the implement correctly and/or won't have the body leverage to get the stone started off of the ground. The combination of relative lack of texture and stone size can make it difficult for a high school football player to handle a 130 pound stone despite the obvious benefits in doing so and having the overall body strength that would have predicted success with the implement.
The granite stones are denser and more compact than concrete with much better texture for securing one's grip. Their density allows them to have a smaller diameter per equivalent weight, making them easier to lift and control. They are durable to the point of being almost indestructible as dropping them on a concrete driveway or similar surface will result in the impact surface suffering while the granite ball or stone will not. I have remodeled my own driveway on three occasions as a direct result of dropping granite stones on a triple layer of 3/4" rubber matting! The drawbacks to the granite implements are the texture and price. The very rough surface that allows for a much more secure grip and starting movement is uncomfortable and distracting for many, and for all, will tear skin away. This can be combated by the use of long sleeves or leather gauntlets but even long sleeves may not be a deterrent to the resultant bleeding forearms. Wearing a thick sweatshirt may be protective but can also impede the actual lifting process. Relative to concrete, the granite balls are expensive.
At a recent strength clinic held at Wake Forest University, I was introduced to what I believe to be a truly innovative product. Marty Mitchell of the Rae Crowther Company demonstrated what is technically named The D-Ball or SUPER HEAVY MED BALL. That this product was first produced in 1989 by a gentleman by the name of Dennis Montoya made me believe that I had missed the boat as I pride myself on being aware of every and any tool that can assist the athletes my wife and I train and rehabilitate. Marty was quick to point out that Wake Forest Head Strength And Conditioning Coach Ethan Reeve, my host for the clinic, was the true "master" in using, and finding new ways with which to use these implements, what many coaches refer to as "the sand ball" for the benefit of his athletes. Marty had introduced the product to Coach Reeve with a selection of useful, applicable-to-the-field exercises, but Coach Reeve, a former national wrestling champion, took "the next step," many next steps! One of the favored movements that was immediately introduced at our facility was demonstrated by Coach Reeve, and I loved it for its application to a lineman's in-fighting ability, combative sports, an awful lot of work for the upper back, biceps, forearms, and hands, and the mental toughness that strength training workouts are supposed to enhance. The trainee holds the weighted sand ball at their waist with extended arms, and literally rolls it up to one shoulder, secures it, and rolls it down to the starting position. This is then done to the opposite shoulder with the entire sequence repeated for the required number of repetitions. It proved to be most challenging and needless to say, it looked much easier when Coach Reeve demonstrated this great exercise than when I performed it.
MOVIE: 100-lb. Super Heavy Med Ball "Roll-up"
I first believed that the SUPER HEAVY MED BALL was a viable alternative for either concrete or granite stones but for numerous reasons, it is much more than that, this is a weight room solution!! The rubber type of surface allows for a secure grip with both forearms and hands without the discomfort or danger of skin damage. The combination of sand (leading to the "sand ball" reference) and steel or coated lead pellets makes for a very compact and concentrated load. Thus, even a 100 pound ball is only twelve inches in diameter, much smaller than a stone of similar weight. This allows athletes of all sizes, especially a strong but smaller high school football player, to easily use these balls for any combination of deadlift, clean, or pressing movements. A proviso when pressing a stone, standing or in a seated or inclined position, is that the obvious damage to the face or head is always "right there" if control of the implement is lost. Using the SUPER HEAVY MED BALL is much safer. Slight loss of control will not result in abraded cheeks or a shredded nose and complete loss is not nearly as catastrophic, especially with a spotter nearby. In a sense, the "sand balls" have provided all of the benefits of using stones in one's training program with none of the disadvantages. The ease of use and very real benefits make these the intelligent choice for the functional type of training that can make any preparation program more palatable, interesting, and infused with variety. Combining exercises like a SUPER HEAVY MED BALL clean with barbell or dumbbell curls done in "super set" fashion, with no rest between the movements elevates the intensity of the workout. The torso rolling exercise touted by Coach Reeve and Marty Mitchell followed by a standing barbell press will provide efficient and easily coached and supervised muscle stimulating work to the entire upper body. Teaming up Trap Bar Deadlifts with "sand ball" deadlifts or cleans combines two similar exercises that give very different work to the involved musculature, one being done with a "flat" or arched back, using the hips and thighs as the primary movers, while the other stresses more low back involvement due to the rounder backed position, and of course the enhanced work for the hands, forearms, and arms.
Scott Alix, former U.S. Marine Corps wrestler and competitive powerlifter, roughing it with a 130-lb. Super Heavy Med Ball
(All photos courtesy of Kathy Leistner)
The creative coach who understands the needs of his players can I'm sure, come up with many combinations of movements or specific exercises that will benefit his or her athletes but the SUPER HEAVY MED BALLS are a definite "must have."
MOVIE: Ethan Reeve, Wake Forest University & Miscellaneous
Marty Mitchell, Rae Crowther Co. 800-841-5050
A WORD ON FUNCTIONAL EXERCISE
By Dr. Ken E. Leistner
When Jan Dellinger was the editor of MUSCULAR DEVELOPMENT MAGAZINE, a York Barbell Company monthly, I was asked to make a contribution to each issue for a number of years and gladly did so. In November of 1986, MD featured my article on using a farrier’s anvil for numerous exercises. Through mid-1987 I penned a series of articles that featured strength training using handled-beams, thick bars, and the pushing of trucks and automobiles. I was and remain less of an innovator than a copier and wrote those articles as a reflection of what I had done in preparation for my own high school and college football career and like others of my generation, never imagined that the organized sport of “Strongman” would come from these types of activities.
It was unusual for athletes, football players included to use weight training as a means to enhance muscular size and strength until the early 1970’s. Through the ‘50’s and 1960’s, most coaches and physicians were still convinced that a weight trained athlete would lose both running and limb movement speed, perhaps become clumsy and stiff, and somehow suffer in comparison to an opponent whose strength was built through what was considered “natural means” such as farm or construction work. The evidence of course differed and through the zealous participation of early strength coaches like Alvin Roy, Clyde Emrich, Stan Jones, and assistant football coaches like Arkansas’ Wilson Matthews who was charged with the responsibility of conditioning the teams of the late 1950’s, acceptance of barbell and dumbbell training grew. Having limited equipment and knowing that the work done in my father’s iron working shop had contributed to my strength, I carried the 130 pound shop anvil in various positions for additional work. I would hold a
This type of work was not a substitute for the progressive resistance exercise with barbells and dumbbells that I did on a consistent basis. However, there were two major benefits that I immediately became aware of. The first was the opportunity to use my muscles in planes of movement that were neither limited by the standard barbell or dumbbells. While any exercise machine travels in a single plane of movement that is strictly governed by the path of the machine’s movement arm, a barbell must be “held” in its path of movement by the involved musculature. The actual movement pattern may have limitations but it is certainly broader than the same movement done on a machine. In the barbell press for example, the vertical movement is similar in using a machine or a barbell but there is more “work” being done with the unguided bar, other factors regarding the level of resistance being equal. The barbell or dumbbells are also designed to provide a balanced resistance. Picking up “odd objects” or objects such as an anvil, provides resistance that may be heavier on one end relative to the other, or its shape may dictate a very unbalanced load. The “requirements” for pulling a 280 pound concrete stone off of the ground are a bit different than that needed to do the same with a 280 pound barbell, giving what I might term a different “distribution” of work to the involved musculature.
Mickey Marotti, the exceptional strength and conditioning coach for the National Champion University Of Florida Gators football team once told me that he liked to have his players perform the “odd object” or “strongman type” of activities because “most of them have never done truly hard work and don’t know how to work hard physically.” We agreed that players may have a history of strength training and running to prepare for their seasons but when they arrive at college, they often don’t understand the discomfort or demands that are going to be placed upon their bodies. Mickey made the assertion, one I agree with, that unlike generations before, where most of the players were sons of manual laborers or tradesmen, the change in the culture and economy has made many of the trades and the jobs that demand a great deal of physical labor, obsolete. Thus, while Mickey and I and others of our generations worked alongside our fathers carrying bricks, hauling rivets, or stacking hay by hand, working in shops, factories, mills, and fields, all of this is foreign to today’s high school and collegiate player. As Coach Marotti emphasized, it’s the job of the strength coach to teach the incoming players how to work hard and compete with themselves and their teammates at the necessary level of intensity. Using what has been termed “functional movements,” all of which will require hard effort, a degree of physical discomfort, and at angles and planes that the athlete usually doesn’t work in, is a great adjunct to standard weight room work.
FUNCTIONAL AND “SPECIFIC-FUNCTIONAL?”
By Dr. Ken E. Leistner
The popularity of utilizing the perhaps erroneously named “functional training” exercises among football coaches at all levels has increased enormously. Two issues to be addressed immediately are the fact that every exercise one does in the weight room or are on the football field during practice is “functional” in that it contributes to a better athlete. The other issue is the fact that every repetition of every exercise is important and if it weren’t, if it did not serve the purpose of making players improved at what they must do, it should not be a part of one’s training program. Doing a tire flip is now considered to be functional training. I would make a strong case that performing a perfectly executed set of five repetitions in the standing barbell overhead press is functional also. No matter how much I believe the language is erroneously and confusingly applied, it remains that the sub-set of exercises that utilize non-standard and non-traditional barbells and dumbbells and instead use “daily” or “manual work related” implements is referred to as “functional.”
These many movements, popularized in strongman type of competitions have a place in the preparation of a football player. The use of unbalanced implements that call upon the body to work in planes of motion that are usually not “covered” with barbells and dumbbells serve as an adjunct to the squats, pulls, and presses that give work to the major muscular structures of the physique. Doing functional training offers variety, excitement, and a chance for many athletes to compete well against themselves and their teammates when in some cases, their specific skeletal leverages may cause some limitation in the weight room. In many instances, strength coaches prefer to have the players complete their “usual” barbell based strength workout and utilize the functional movements as “finishers” to the entire session. Thus, the Farmers Walk, Dragon Slayer push, or Tire Flip might serve as the final movement in a specific day’s training routine. Using a functional movement within the body of the workout or at the end are both acceptable strategies but for lack of a better term, to “take it to the next level,” especially in the off-season or winter workout period, the functional work can be and perhaps should be more football specific.
A quick word regarding “sport specific” training is necessary. Motor learning studies over the course of decades has taught the professional that a movement is specific or not. A movement cannot be “almost specific” thus the hip extension an athlete achieves while doing any weight room exercise, be it a squat, clean, pull, or deadlift may be “similar to” that performed while initiating a blocking or tackling movement on the football field but it is not “specific” to that movement, it is not “exactly like” that movement, nor is it that movement and the legitimate science is very clear on this point. This is not to say that any of the above mentioned exercises and the actual body segment movements achieved are not valuable and will not contribute to on the field play, it is just a simple statement devoid of emotion or myth that reflects what the literature tells us. However, it as a football coach, I can have my players train in the weight room and then “finish” or incorporate a functional movement with barbell work, I personally would prefer to utilize an exercise that in some way is more closely akin to what they might do on the field. For example, I would prefer a rapid sprint with a weighted sled such as the Dragon Slayer or a tire flip as opposed to a plodding sled drag as is often performed by competitive powerlifters. However, for the strength coach or football coach, especially at the high school level, who wants to maximize strength training with a conditioning and “mental toughness” builder in the weight room that truly keeps the young players’ focus on “football” allow me to suggest the incorporation of the Shockwave into the routine and give a specific program recommendation.
A very effective combination is to have your players warm-up, and then squat. We refer to the barbell squat as a barbell deep knee bend, the old fashioned term from the 1950’s and early ‘60’s that accurately describes a “fullest possible pain free range of motion” in this important movement. While most players of course cannot and will not “put their hamstrings on their calves” it’s that concept that we teach and coach. Upon the completion of a set of squats we then “super set” or go immediately, without rest to the Shockwave for five “heavy” repetitions. Three sets of squats, usually for reps in the 10-15 range for high school football players in the early off-season workouts, combined with the Shockwave, going from one to the other without any “break time” gives great stimulation to the hips and thighs and keeps a “football based” mentality in the workout. It also gives the players what I believe is a more “football specific” type of functional movement. One can use the Shockwave as a “finisher” by having the players take “X” number of reps on it immediately following their final exercise.
As part of a sprint type of finisher to workouts, following for example, Press, Squat, Deadlift, Shrug, and Curl, all exercises typically done by most high school programs, if limited to the typical high school facility, the players can then sprint the stairs to the second flight of the building, come down carefully, walk into the weight room (assuming its appropriately located) and do five reps on the Shockwave, sprint the stairs again, return to the Shockwave for five reps, and repeat for five or six “sets” or “cycles.” Again, as one would use Farmers Walk implements or tire flips, the Shockwave provides a “functional” boost to the standard workout with the benefit of having it much more football related.
The Rise of Sandbag Training
By Josh Henkin
Sandbags have a very rich history, maybe more so than any other training implement. For hundreds of years (possibly thousands) sandbags have been an integral training tool for athletes, specifically wrestlers. Why? They are an inexpensive tool that are incredibly versatile and can offer the benefits of unstable training with a challenging load. This is a benefit that many of today’s unstable gadgets cannot provide. However, the benefits don’t stop there. Greater stabilizer, trunk, and grip strength can be developed with sandbags as well as sport-specific drills, mobility work, and they are a great conditioning tool.
Improved Stabilizer Strength
In the famous book, Dinosaur Training, Brooks Kubik states, “You feel sore as you do because the bags (sandbags) worked your body in ways you could not approach with a barbell alone. You got into the muscle areas you normally don’t work. You worked the “heck” out of the stabilizers.” (Kubik, p. 115)
Stabilizer training is not a new concept. Utilizing dumbbells, cables, kettlebells, and one-arm lifts have long been methods of improving the smaller stabilizers. Increasing the strength of the stabilizers can both decrease your risk of injury and improve performance.
Why are sandbags unique though? Sandbags can be thought of as the most “uncooperative” pieces of equipment. They are different because they will change their form as you lift them. Unlike many other training tools, it is almost impossible to develop a specific groove for any lift. This makes sandbags a constant challenge as every repetition will be vastly different.
Improved Trunk Strength
The non-cooperative nature of sandbags makes using every muscle possible to lift it crucial. More stable and predictable implements can cause the body to find a particular groove. Once this groove is established then one becomes more efficient at performing the lift and the body actually decreases the amount of muscles utilized. This becomes especially true of explosive sandbag lifts such as cleans, throws, snatches, and shouldering. The trunk muscles (including those of the low back and abdominal area) have to work harder to stabilize the body against the awkward load while moving very quickly. This is very unique to sandbag training.
Those who have enjoyed kettlebells have also learned of the incredible benefit on loading only one side of the body. One-arm lifts with kettlebells place a torque on the body in both rotation and side bending that the trunk learns to stabilize against. This is a core reason one-arm kettlebell lifting is so beneficial to building a solid trunk. Well, sandbag drills such as the many shouldering exercises and one-arm lifts can offer the same benefits. However, the difference with sandbags is that they actually rest on the body.
Having such a load actually rest on the body forces the deep and superficial trunk muscles to work to a greater degree to maintain proper postural alignment. End result? A rock hard torso that is very injury resistant.
With sandbags we can also create amazing rotational drills that place the body into ranges of motion that would normally occur during sport. Working through such ranges of motion with a load prepares the body more appropriately for the demands that sport produces. When we work in very predictable environments we don’t give our bodies the ability to work through extreme ranges of motions under duress. Exercises such as shoulder throws, half moon snatches, and full body twists just provide a small list of exercises that one can create.
Sport Specific Strength for Combative Athletes
Sandbags have long been a favorite training tool of wrestlers and combative athletes. In John Jesse’s famous book, Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, he states,
“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.”
The idea of round back lifting must scare every chiropractor, coach, and athletic trainer out there. However, if introduced properly, round back lifting is one of the best injury prevention techniques available. Most sports and daily living activities call upon us to perform some level of round back lifting. A wrestler may be on the floor in a compromised position, a football player trying to make a play, a parent lifting their child off of the floor are all great examples of round back lifting. Sandbags offer a safe way to start to learn how to use round back lifting, always start on the light side and with low volume (no more than 5 repetitions).
Sandbags may be the perfect tool for combative athletes as they are the only tool that can come close to representing an opponent. The constant shifting weight of a sandbag makes it an ideal training environment for combative athletes as it prepares the athlete for the unpredictability of a fight on the mats on the ring.
Greater grip strength
EVERYONE can benefit from greater grip strength. I have a strong belief that all the carpal tunnel and arthritis problems that our society experiences is closely related to the lack of hand training. Of course, there ends up being only so many hours in the day to train and if we economize our time then we are more apt to do the smaller detail work that will have a huge impact in our overall training.
If we look at grip strength a little further we can quickly see that grip strength is more than simply how hard you can squeeze your hand (known as crushing strength), rather it also includes pinching, support, and wrist strength. To train all these qualities can seem overwhelming, but again sandbags can be a core tool in developing this well-rounded strength. Because of the gripping action of the bag and the fact that no one repetition is the same, the hands are challenged in all these ways. The dynamic nature of the sandbag forces the body to use different grip strategies depending upon the lift and the level of fatigue one feels. Getting strong at sandbag lifts means you will find a great transfer of hand strength to other forms of training.
First and foremost, I am a coach. Being a coach I realize a big difference between ideal and reality. Many times I can have a program planned that I see as ideal for my client. However, if they don’t share my same enthusiasm for the program the likelihood of them adhering to the program becomes very low. In addition, we are all more apt to work harder through a program if we find it enjoyable and motivating.
Because sandbags are so different they are often a breath of fresh air for most people’s training programs. Even taking common exercises such as squats and presses and using a sandbag makes these exercises as though you were performing them for the first time.
Increasing levels of fun may sound like a politically correct thing for a coach to say, but we cannot deny the fact that we are all human. We are less likely to do the things we do not enjoy. Making training more enjoyable is what increases our chance of being more productive and consistent. This is why you see people using different training modalities and why many have found kettlebell training to be a favorite. So, don’t sell the fun factor short.
In The End
I always talk to people about the fact that training is dictated very little by the tool rather than the methodologies. Sandbags do open the door for some unique training techniques that will increase your results. Do not think that you have to use them solely as I will later discuss how to incorporate sandbags and kettlebells for different training goals. These are two tools that provide a lot of options and complement each other well for producing the desired training result. Until then, keep training hard and smart!
About The AuthorJosh Henkin is owner of Innovative Fitness Solutions in Scottsdale, Arizona. Coach Henkin has presented nationally in the field of fitness and sports enhancement. He is also the author of High Octane Sandbag Training manual and DVD.
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Sledge hammers are farm boy tools. The boys who grew up on farms and worked manual labor were always very fit, strong and mentally tough.
Movie: (Sledgehammer work begins at 2:18)
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