With the growing popularity of events such as CrossFit and obstacle course racing comes a new kind of training protocol that looks, well, odd. It’s odd object training, to be precise, and it can use any non-barbell or -dumbbell piece of equipment from a water-filled tube or sandbag to a bucket of rocks or giant tractor tire. Awkward? Yes, but that’s the point: Your body is forced to deal with that awkwardness, recruiting muscles in new ways and forcing your body to work synergistically.
“The brain thinks in terms of movement, not specific muscles, and odd object training can help us get strong in athletic ways that are more primal,” says Joe DiStefano, CSCS, director of training and fitness for the Spartan Race series. “Traditionally speaking, weight training is extremely controlled: The weights are premeditated, evenly loaded and perfectly balanced, and we move through a very thoughtful, strategic range of motion. However, the demands imposed during sports are totally unpredictable. By training with objects that are imbalanced, awkward or unstable, we can improve our ability to control the unpredictability stressors and demands we face in competition or in life.”
Odd object training works on several levels, building functional strength and improving neurological connections, ultimately making you stronger and more efficient. “Using a 50-pound slosh pipe full of water recruits a lot more muscles and develops a lot more neurological efficiency than does a 135-pound overhead barbell press,” says DiStefano. “This improved neurological efficiency increases the strength of the stabilizing muscles, bringing them up to match the strength of the prime movers. Suddenly the prime movers can push a lot more weight.”
And although it’s counterintuitive, training in an off-balance manner can actually bring you into balance: That same neurological conditioning that builds strength can help correct imbalances between your dominant and non-dominant sides, which ultimately helps prevent injury. “The athlete who spends a lot of time beating down his or her body with heavy loads is also a great candidate for odd object training,” adds DiStefano. “Working unilaterally, synergistically and athletically could be the very thing to help this athlete recover from overtraining and ultimately become more powerful.”
Blending odd object training into your traditional protocol is an easy way to jump in, adding four to six sets with a unique implement each workout. Try supersetting a conventional lift with an odd object exercise to train opposing movement patterns, DiStefano suggests. For example, pair a heavy, low-rep deadlift with a high-rep slosh tube overhead press, or a heavy bench press with a four- to six-minute bucket carry.
Sure, you could just use one dumbbell, kettlebell or weight plate in a unilateral manner to throw you off kilter, but why not get creative? Add a few of the fun toys below to your odd arsenal.
Cinder blocks They’re awkward, bulky and frigging heavy; in other words, perfect. Do overhead squats, walking lunges with the block in one hand or maybe a Turkish get-up.
Sandbags Go to your favorite home-improvement store, get a 25- or 50-pound bag of sand, sling it over one shoulder and do lunges, squats or step-ups.
Buckets While you’re there, pick up a big, empty paint bucket. Add a few rocks, maybe some water, then carry it from point A to point B as best you can.
Beer Keg Fill an empty keg with water to the desired weight and use it for bench pressing, carrying, squatting and rowing.
Slosh tube Purchase one online or create your own with an 8- to 10-foot PVC pipe and end caps. Fill it with water to the desired weight, then use it for overhead work or front squats.
Oversized Tire Go to a salvage yard and snag one for cheap (or free). Find a big empty space and flip that sucker for a total number of yards down and back.
Junk Yep, you read that right: Look in your basement, backyard, shed or closet. Use that stump you never threw in the chipper like an Atlas stone, or fill that one-handled wheelbarrow with gravel and water and push it up and down a hill. Use your imagination, get odd and get to work.