Sure, gym standbys like barbells and dumbbells are among the top tools of the fitness trade—they’re standbys for a reason, after all. But even the most dedicated iron-pumper should mix it up on occasion. “The body is really good at adapting to repetitive stimulus,” says Jair Lee, CSCS, a performance specialist at EXOS training center in Phoenix, who trains international soccer teams and Olympic and collegiate athletes. “When you complement your training with alternative equipment, you stimulate different activation and recruitment patterns that will make the body adapt and get stronger.” These are five of Lee’s favorite alternative tools of the trade.
Most often associated with football linemen, pushing and pulling a sled can get you an awesome resistance workout. “They can be used to train speed, power, strength, work capacity, or help improve recovery,” Lee says. “With sled exercises, you’re always working in the concentric phase, which reduces the likelihood of muscle soreness and increases the hormonal response for building muscle.” If you don’t have an actual sled, a box loaded with weights or a stack of weight atop a towel (so they’ll slide on the floor) will work in a pinch. Two exercises to try:
Attach a strap or TRX to the sled. Facing it, hold the strap with arms outstretched, sit back in a half squat, and pull in to row the sled toward you, then quickly step backwards a few steps, allowing your arms to outstretch so you can row again. Continue for the length of your room.
As a recovery or cooldown move, keep this one light but keep going. Push the sled across the room, back and forth, without rest for 5 minutes. Dig into the ground with the balls of your feet and really push it away from you as you go.
These thick cords might remind you of high school gym class climbing ropes, but without the knots. They also have one other thing in common: “Most of the battle rope exercises involve the entire body,” says Lee. The one major drawback is that battling ropes are pricy, so you’ll have to convince your gym to invest in them. Two exercises to try:
Pretty much what they sound like. Rope slams are “a very dynamic and powerful move that works the entire body, and can get even the strongest athletes gasping for air,” says Lee. With the rope looped around a pole or other non-movable object, fully extend the lengths on the floor and hold the ends in your hands. Starting in a deadlift hinge, snap your hips forward as you lift the ropes up, then slam them into the ground, rehinging your hips. Repeat for 30 seconds before resting.
Consider this like a twisting rope slam. Start with the same setup, feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart and with softly bent knees. Holding the rope ends close together, pivot your feet to one side while bringing the ropes toward that hip, and slamming the rope length into the ground. Then swing the ropes to the other hip while pivoting the feet in that direction. Keep switching sides for 30 seconds.
“The awkward shape of the sandbag and its capacity to deform and shift its weight during exercise makes them a fun way to challenge the entire body,” Lee says. Use one to add more training volume, take the training outdoors, add movement variability, or perform metabolic circuits. Don’t have the actual implement? An old duffel bag filled up at the local park will do the trick (just don’t bring it indoors unless you like gritty floors). Two exercises to try:
Alternating Lunges with Rotation
A great exercise for both your core and stability. Hold the sandbag with the handles on the top, horizontally, arms down right in front of you. Lunge backwards with one foot, while twisting your torso to bring the sandbag lengthwise alongside the front leg. Press into the front foot to come back to stand, returning the bag in front of you, then lunge to the other side, repeating the twisting motion in the other direction. Do it for time in a metabolic circuit—the faster you go, the harder the challenge.
Clean to Press
This total-body move can be done for time or reps in an endurance circuit. “It’s technical and challenging due to the shape of the sandbag and the weight shift that occurs when this implement is moved fast,” says Lee. Holding the bag from those same top handles, start with it down in front of you on the floor. Hinge with your hips back, and back flat, then clean it up to your shoulders, by pulling it up and flipping it, so it’s resting on the top of your chest, just under your chin. Then push-press it up overhead, using a bounce in your knees for momentum, if needed. Slowly lower it to your clavicles, then release to the ground and repeat.
Aptly named, these ginormous elastics can be used for all types of workouts, from adding resistance to squats and bench presses to improving flexibility and mobility. There’s no good “real world” substitute, but they start at just $10. Two exercises to try:
Looking to make pushups harder? Here you go. Take the superband with both sides together and wrap it around your back, such that you have two strips of rubber across your scapulas. Pin the loops under each hand on the floor and place yourself chest down at the bottom of a pushup; the band should be slightly tense there, and more tense as you straighten your arms.
Split Squat with Hip Stretch
To gain better mobility in the lunged position, add a band. By looping it through itself, attach the superband at just above knee height to a secure, stationary object. Step one leg into the band, facing the anchor point, and back up so the band is tense. Lunge forward with the non-banded leg, bending both knees, back knee toward the floor. Adjust so the band is aligned where your hamstrings meet your butt; it should still be tense. Press to slowly straighten both knees to stand, keeping the torso upright and neutral. Slowly re-bend both knees to return to the lunging position. Do 10 reps before switching sides.
These simple discs typically go under the feet or hands to allow the limbs to slide on the floor, make exercises harder or easier, depending on the move. Don’t have the plastic discs? Paper plates, wash cloths, or even a soft pair of socks can stand in. Two (harder) exercises to try:
Leg Curls with Eccentric Emphasis
“This exercise is excellent for anyone whose sport or activity involves running for developing hip stability and hamstring strength,” says Lee. Lie on your back and bend your knees, placing the discs beneath your feet. Press your hips up high into a bridge position. Clenching your glutes, slide your feet out straight until your body is almost totally straight but your butt isn’t quite touching the ground. Then pull your feet back in by rebending your legs, sending your hips back to the bridge position. Do 10 reps per set.
A combo plank and single-arm pushup, this’ll have you rethinking the idea that bodyweight exercises are easy. Start in straight-arm plank position with your hands on the discs. Bend one elbow back as if you were doing a single-arm pushup, while simultaneously sliding the other hand forward on the floor above your head. Press up with the bent arm while sliding the straight arm back to the top position; repeat with the arms doing the opposite movement. Try for 10 reps to start.
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