First things first: the classics never get old. Just like Led Zepplin and AC/DC, barbells and bumper plates NEVER go out of style. When you have both, there’s really not much else you need in terms of training tools—but if you’re jonesing to add something new to your training room, it’s easy to get bogged down by whatever latest Thing is new/fancy/trendy. When it comes to what’s best for your athletes, it’s hard to determine which tools will ensure you’re getting the most out of your time AND the most out of your money. Below are a few items I've found to be really worth the price and can be used on any given training day. These items are also incredibly accommodating to ALL skill levels and can fit the needs of your most advanced to your most rookie of athletes.
Although somewhat trendy in the fitness world, kettlebells provide a lot of bang for your buck. The usability of a good kettlebell is effective for both advanced and novice athletes alike. The most basic movement, the kettlebell swing, is a foundational tool for developing hip-hinge mechanics, helping athletes learn to use their posterior chain to move resistance. A strong hip hinge is necessary for good jumping mechanics, and training this movement with kettlebells helps athletes learn how to target their glutes and hamstrings as a source of power during the jump.
Kettlebells also make for a strong substitute for dumbbells in a variety of movements due to their shape and center of mass. Using the front squat as an example, dumbbells work well until they get heavy enough that wrist strength limits an athlete’s ability to keep the dumbbell in a good position. In contrast, the kettlebell’s shape allows it to sit comfortably in the front rack position, with the center of mass resting in front of the body, supported by the forearms.
Finally, kettlebells provide a wide range of functionality when it comes to developing conditioning levels when using high repetitions of power-based movements. Swings, snatches, and cleans all done with heavy kettlebells do a phenomenal job of spiking your heart rate while maintaining efficient power output. And depending on your budget, choosing kettlebells made of cast-iron (smaller, more expensive) or plastic and cement (bigger, less expensive) helps you accommodate your athletes' training needs without breaking the bank.
Different than medicine balls, slam balls are loaded with sand and will conform on impact. They won't bounce back, which allows the athlete to perform more aggressive ballistic movements. While maintaining all the functionality of a normal med ball, slam balls provide the added benefit of being able to sustain being THROWN AS HARD AS POSSIBLE (yay). This is great for athletes who are looking to develop the transferable link between weight room and game time.
When it comes to choosing a slam ball, my opinion is: the heavier the better. Working heavy slams or over-the-shoulder movements are unique slam ball movements for the power athlete to train. Some vendors sell slam balls up to 120+ lbs—which means you can do carried runs, try over-the-shoulder chops, and even simulate some strongman-esque movements. As a bonus, slam balls are durable and able to withstand some heavy beatings, which allows you the added option of taking them outside for some fun outdoor training.
For many athletes, grip strength is common limiting factor in their performance in other movements. Adding axle bars to your training tools is a good way to incorporate some added grip strength work without having to adjust your standard programming too much (of course, you can always hit up Volt's Grip Strength Finisher). Using the axle, most typical training movements can be augmented provide a brand-new challenge. The thicker diameter of the axle challenges the athlete's grip strength, and can alleviate some concerns in pressing movements when it comes to wrist impingement by keeping the muscles of the forearm and hand in a less constricted position. Playing around with the axle for bent rows, light cleans (seriously, don't go heavy unless you know what you're doing), and deadlifts will awaken a whole new level of Beast hidden inside your athletes. Check the write-up on axle training 101 from LiftBigEatBig.com to get your knowledge right.
While deadlifitng is a foundational movement for all athletes, novices can have a hard time finding a proper set-up position, struggling to keep the spine neutral on the pull. The trap bar is a good substitute for standard olympic bars on deadlifts, for it allows the lifter to shift the line of force closer to their center of gravity. Olympic bars force athletes to overcome resistance out in front of the body, placing a bigger burden on the posterior chain and making maintaining a neutral spine more difficult than with a trap bar.
While a trap bar shouldn't take the place of deadlifts, it can be a great stepping stone for a novice to get real strong, real fast. The trap bar will allow athletes to practice maintain good tension, exerting a TON of force, and set a foundation for getting strong on other lifts once they've developed. A heavy trap bar lift teaches good upper body alignment as well, and can help increase the strength of the upper back to maintain stability during extension exercises. The trap bar can also be used with farmer’s walks for added development of upper-spine stability, grip strength, and anaerobic conditioning.
Weight sleds are phenomenal tools for developing anaerobic capacity, but also can be utilized as a speed tool to increase acceleration. The resistance of the sled, either in front of the athlete or towed behind with a hip harness, forces the athlete to exert stronger ground reaction forces from the initial start. Pushing the sled between 15-20 meters is a good way to train explosive drive and reduce the time it takes them to get to top speed. With a distance farther than about 20 meters, technique issues are sure to arise, but that doesn't stop sled work from being great training for interval sprint sessions to increase anaerobic power.
You can induce some serious lactic build-up using sled sprints for upwards of 30 seconds, so be sure to use them when your athletes will get enough time to recover before the next training session. Fair note, sleds need a proper surface to slide on, otherwise you'll cause some damage. Just try and keep your sled work to the yard and not your mom's new carpets.
BANDS ON BANDS ON BANDS
Bands are probably my favorite tools on the list. Their benefits are endless, they're relatively cheap, they take up almost zero space, and every athlete benefits from having them in the gym. From a performance standpoint, using bands to add resistance on deadlifts is an awesome way to load up heavy pulling movements. Using bands on kettlebell swings amps up posterior chain activation and focuses on more fast-twitch muscle fiber development. Add a band to your glute-ham raises and you've entered a whole new dimension of hamstring development.
Bands are important tools for specific muscle activation as well. Band pull-a-parts help train proper scapular retraction and stabilization, which is critical for athletes whothrow, spike, or spend a lot of time with their arms overhead. Banded good mornings are a great way to teach proper hip hinge mechanics, and can be done at high repetitions for a hamstring finisher.
Bands have come a long way as a tool for joint specific mobility work and are invaluable when it come to helping athletes prioritze getting more ROM out of specific positions.
Any good weight room will always consist of barbells, dumbbells, a good set of bumper plates, plenty of iron, and maybe a few med balls or a lat-pull machine. When you have more space (and a bigger budget) you can start adding in extra training equipment that offer unique and fun advantages over your standard training. Spending money on good gear for your facility means you need it to be functional across multiple teams, sports, and athletes. Spending thousands of dollars just to use a piece of equipment a few months out of the year has always felt like a needless expense in my eyes. Make sure whatever you are looking to provide your athletes is foundational to their needs, variable for multiple skill levels and abilities, and has a positive impact on everyone in your training facility.
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