A Barbell is Just a Tool – Get Creative With Your Workouts

A lot of people in the fitness industry love to make the declaration that “a kettlebell is just a tool.”

Well, no shit. This is largely a straw-man argument. It’s an attempt to appear insightful by countering a position that nobody, with the possible exception of a few fringe eccentrics, has ever made. Kettlebells are versatile and great for conditioning but, like anything else, they have their drawbacks.

As a member of Naval Special Warfare, I often found myself in locations devoid of conventional gym equipment. Despite this, physical strength and conditioning was a crucial part of my job, and everyone around me prided themselves on being physically ready for anything regardless of external conditions. This led us to get creative and improvise a lot of different equipment. Sometimes we would have nothing more than a few heavy rocks, some sandbags or even just our bodyweight but we always found a way to get the job done.

This gives me a different perspective on strength training than most people. I don’t see my options as merely the basic items found in Globo Gyms and the usual array of 80’s era bodybuilder movements. There is an entire world of options available, and many of them are probably more effective than what you’re doing right now.

Yes, a kettlebell is just a tool, but so is everything else in your gym. Your protein powder is “just a tool.” It’s not the one and only option. For example, you could always spear a squirrel in your front yard and barbecue it. The powder option is just good deal more convenient and doesn’t require scaring the neighborhood children with your new crossbow.

Ultimately, every piece of equipment, exercise, food and supplement you use is just a tool. If you were to take one away, you could improvise another to fit its place and perform the same function. It’s a matter of certain things being more well-suited for attaining specific outcomes than others.

With anything, it is important to first consider what your goal is, and then select the appropriate means of accomplishing it. This is a far better approach than picking a method because it sounds cool or you’re simply familiar with it and then trying to adapt it to a goal.

Methods must evolve and be cycled from time to time. Particularly with training methods, and also with some nutritional supplements, there is a diminishing-return effect. Bench press and standard back squats will probably work well for a while, but if you do them over and over ad infinitum, you will begin to realize increasingly smaller returns on your investment of time and energy. Repetitive use injuries and muscular imbalances are also a danger.

This means that novelty is often your ally. What worked well a month ago may not be as effective of a tool today.

Mental fatigue and boredom also play a role in your training success. Few people like to do the same thing day after day. Intensity trumps almost anything else when it comes to training success, so when it declines due to boredom or burnout, so does your result.

At a recent seminar, Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell said in regard to their training on maximal effort days, “We never do the same thing twice.” Louie spoke about a training program tested on a group of Eastern European powerlifters. It included around 45 different exercises in a three month period. At the conclusion of the program the lifters, some of the strongest men in the world, had one main complaint. They wanted more exercise variations.

Even for powerlifters concerned with improving performance on a single lift like the squat, there are dozens of different methods and pieces of equipment employed. Cambered bars, safety bars, boxes, foam pads, boards, bands, chains… Monotony is the enemy.

Every once in a while, whether for the sake of using a novel stimulus to potentiate new adaptations, a different training method to keep boredom at bay, or out of necessity because you’re away from your usual gym or an entire fraternity is monopolizing the bench press again, you should include some new equipment and training methods into your program.

Here is a list of a few examples that you can add to your workout:

Car Push/Prowler Push

The Prowler is great training tool, but not everyone has access to one. Just about everybody, however, drives a car to the gym or at least knows someone who does.

Both exercises develop great strength in the posterior chain, particularly the glutes, by emphasizing powerful hip extension.

When using your car, have a buddy in the driver’s seat and keep it in neutral. You may need to click the key one notch for the steering to work, but leave the engine off until you need to turn around. This is not a good time to be breathing exhaust fumes. Eventually you’ll work out the right positioning for your hands. Pushing off the bumper will probably feel too low, but the higher you get the less efficient the angle of your body becomes.

Prowler Push – it’s as hard as it looks!

Car Pushing – You may want to stay with something smaller than a Hummer on your first go though!

Band-Resisted Push Ups

Resisted Push Ups are a great means of adding accommodating resistance to a closed-chain pushing movement. Pushups differ from the bench press in their ability to develop scapular function and torso stability and the bands require a fast, explosive push.

Don’t loop the bands over the base of your fingers. Rather, keep it just at the base of your wrist, held down mainly by the bones at the base of your wrist opposite your thumb.

Band-Resisted Push Ups

Band-Resisted Push Ups – close up of hands

Overhand Tire Drag with Rope

If you’re looking to develop grip strength, massive forearms and a powerful back, this movement is for you.

Attach a thick (at least 2″ dia.) rope to a heavy tire, weighted sled or the back of your buddies’ car. Bend at the hips without rounding your back and pull the object towards you hand-over-hand.

Overhand Tire Drag with Rope

Slosh Pipe

This is a favorite. A slosh pipe is a PVC pipe, usually three or four inches in diameter and six to ten feet long. It’s filled halfway with water, which makes it incredibly difficult to stabilize and move with. It can be used for a variety of exercises and always thrashes your abs as they fire to keep your torso stable. These are highly effective for developing the upper traps and delts.

Try using it for military presses, zercher and overhead squats and lunges, or carries for distance. The increased demand on stabilizer muscles will provide a valuable and novel stimulus.

Zercher Lunge with Slosh Pipe

Plyometric Pushups

These are good for improving explosiveness and rate-of-force-development in a horizontal pushing movement. They’re popular with MMA athletes for this reason.

A good way of measuring them and ensuring adequate force production is to drive yourself up and over a medicine ball or even a partner facing you in the pushup position.

Plyometric Pushups – Start

Plyometric Pushups – Middle

Plyometric Pushups – Full Movement

Olympic Ring Shoulder Press

Start with your legs locked out in front of you and flip to an inverted position, then brace your body and drive forcefully upwards with your arms and shoulders. This will develop a high level of upper body strength and stability, not to mention freak out pretty much everybody in your gym.

If overhead space is limited you can set the handles closer to the ground and start from an inverted position. You can also do these with Blast Straps or a TRX system.

Olympic Ring Shoulder Press


Unless you’ve got an ample supply of lumber for destroying, you’re going to need a tire to do these. Convenient as it may sound, take it off your car first. There are a variety of ways to use a sledge and they’ll all develop your body in a slightly different way.

Overhead strikes will develop the anterior chain; rectus abdominis, pecs, hip flexors, etc. The lats and serratus anterior will get a good deal of stimulation as well. Placing the tire upright against a wall and striking it in a rotary motion will help target the oblique abdominals to a greater degree.

With any variation, the sledge will develop a strong, vise-like grip and provide a nice healthy outlet for the day’s accumulated stress. Hey, it’s fun to smash stuff.

Sledgehammer Strikes

Jumps from Knees to Feet

I learned these from Louie Simmons. They’re popular with Eastern European athletes and are excellent for developing explosive hip extension, which is important in just about any athletic movement.

They can be done with bodyweight or with added external weight. I recommend starting with a weight vest such as an XVest once you progress to weight.

Although it’s outside of the scope of this article, they can be done to mimic Olympic and power lifts. I’ve seen them done with as a snatch and a power clean variation and Louie said that doing them with 225 pounds on the bar, racked on the shoulders like a squat, was considered a starting point for many of the athletes he spoke with.

Jumps from Knees to Feet

IronMind Gripping Implements

Your body functions in kinetic chains and the weakest link in that chain will be the limiting factor in athletic performance. With any kind of pull, whether a deadlift, pullup or locking onto an opponents arm in an MMA fight, when your grip fails you fail too.

Improving grip strength not only increases strength and stability around the wrist and elbow joint to prevent injuries, but will enable you to smash through strength barriers on your lifts as well.

Most of the best gripping devices I’ve found have come from IronMind. They make a variety of implements to serve different purposes.

Eagle Loops strengthen open-hand grip strength and can be used to develop individual fingers. Climbers in particular find this useful. I use them a lot for pullups and farmer’s walks.

Along with being good for hand strength, they allow the wrist to rotate in a more natural fashion, which is more comfortable and biomechanically efficient and can be helpful for those with wrist injuries.

Eagle Loops

Outer Limits Loops work in the opposite direction and strengthen the hand’s ability to open. This is important for joint balance and can often be a missing link in forearm development. Strengthening the antagonistic gripping muscles is particularly helpful for MMA athletes as it will increase joint stability during isometric contractions and keep the hands and wrists more stable during punches. I use them mainly for farmer’s walks by clipping them to a kettlebell. If you’re particularly frisky you can try doing pullups with them, although you’re probably going to need some band assistance to start out with.

Outer Limits Loops

Plate Pinches

An easily available way to develop pinching strength is to pick up two plates, anywhere from 10 to 45 pounds, placed together with the smooth sides outward and hold them off the ground for time by pinching them with your hand. Be sure to hold them over a rubberized surface (a bench works for smaller plates) and away from your toes in case you drop them.

Plate Pinches

Towel Pullups

This is a budget-friendly way to develop supporting grip. Take a thick towel, twist it up into a rope and loop it over a pull up bar. Do your pullups by gripping both ends of the towel. Another option is to hang for time. Ideally, do this at the conclusion of your pulling workouts.

Stronger forearms enable stronger biceps and triceps, which carry over to more weight on compound pulling movements and a stronger back and bigger muscles throughout the chain. Grip strength is not something you want to overlook.

Towel Pullups

Bottom-Up Turkish Get Up

I came across this one courtesy of North Dakota strongman “Unbreakable” Adam T. Glass. Most people have at least heard of the Turkish get up, which is a great strength-based full-body conditioning movement. Performing it with the kettlebell gripped upside down provides a new level of difficulty and will lead to tremendous strength developments in the arms and shoulders. If your grip fails, and it probably will, don’t drop the bell. Just allow it to rotate in your hand and catch it in the normal racked position on the back of your forearm.

Bottom-Up Turkish Get Up

Time for a Change?

This is only a partial list of movements and implements you can use to increase strength, pack on some muscle and improve your conditioning while breaking out of the conventional gym rat mold. Get creative and look around. Right now you’ve probably got what you need for a great workout laying around nearby.

Make a list of every conventional exercise that you did last month. Keep in mind what the goals were behind each of those exercises, and for a few weeks try using only exercises that are not on that list to achieve each of the same goals. You’ll almost certainly find a few things that work better and are more fun than what you’re doing now.

Don’t build your workout around pieces of equipment. Select your equipment based on what your goal for the workout is. The means matter far less than the results.

Written by Craig Weller

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen and is founder of Barefoot Fitness

You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.

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