A very small family of fitness gear can challenge your aerobic system, build strength, power, and explosiveness and — in the confines of whatever fitness center you use (CrossFit and similar gyms excluded) — this equipment is definitely considered unconventional.
Look beyond the standard lineup of fitness equipment, and more importantly, ask your fitness directors do the same. This is not an all-inclusive list, nor is it everything that you can do with the equipment. Ideas, comments, other items to consider? My contact info is at the end of this article.
This water-filled, active-resistance cylinder is made by Hedstrom Fitness, the same company that brought you BOSU. It can hold more than 50 pounds of water and is made in the U.S. The cylinder consists of a heavy molded poly-material; it has a fill hole on one end, markers that take the guesswork out of weight equivalency, and both vertical and horizontal handles.
What I like: Three levels of dynamics: 1) You work like hell during exercise reps to keep the water from sloshing. 2) You move the tube back and forth to intentionally slosh the water. 3) You purposefully get the entire force of the water moving in total from one end to the other. There’s a body reaction for you. In my opinion, Surge is the most dynamic of the active-resistance equipment, and it challenges the core further due to the water movement. My one fear is of a client slamming it on the ground a bit hard and creating damage that allows the water to slowly leak. So far, after six months, it has stood up. Add a BOSU to take it up to a totally different level.
Suples Bulgarian Bag
These yoke-style bags come in multiple weights with three types of covering. I have the leather. Mine are seven years old and going strong. The filling is wool and sand, so it is very stable. Bags are made in Bulgaria and are used in many wrestling programs. The bag design results in the weight mass being in the center, akin to a kettlebell.
What I like: Multiple styles of grips build hand strength. You can’t beat it for putting it over your shoulder since the inside does not shift. We use it daily in our version of the Turkish Get Up, which becomes core- and aerobic-intensive. In my opinion, the design makes it preferable to the sandbag when laid across both shoulders for squats, step ups, jumps, etc. Adjustable-weight bags are now offered.
These are the most conventional of the unconventional. The Navy is adding sandbags to the Navy Operational Fitness and Fueling System, its service-wide fitness and nutrition program. My suppliers of choice are Rogue Fitness, Brute Force Sandbags and GoRuck. All three make their bags in the U.S., and most importantly, they use 1,000-denier Cordura for the bag fabric — same as the military. I have seen so many clients try to save money by buying a lesser product. It always costs more in the end.
What I like: These are the most adjustable of the active-resistance equipment. They come with multiple filler bags, so you can change weights on the fly. An important note to consider is sand density. You’ll have a heavier bag if you fill it with construction-type sand, as opposed to playground sand. You can execute almost any exercise with sandbags, including throws (but not slams like in slam ball).
Homemade heavy lift bags
I’ve never made anything less than 60 pounds. They’re cheapest and also the most unwieldy. A military duffle bag from the local Army/Navy surplus store, a roll of Duck Tape, filler — sand or perhaps the pellets used in wood pellet grills and stoves — and a strong inner liner to put the filler in are all it takes. If you use a heavy-duty garbage bag for the liner, double or triple up because they’ll start to tear as the bag is dropped on the floor.
What I like: This is pure strongman/woman stuff — no handles, unless you have a parachute bag. You have to get up close and personal, grab and lift, push, or lift above your head or carry on your shoulder. My favorite exercise is to lift from the floor, put the bag on something that is at chest or head height, release, grab again and lift down to the floor, release, stand and repeat. I design an adventure race course every year in which teams have to take a 75-pound bag with them over each obstacle.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Thomas has been our Military Muscle columnist since 2007. He’s the director of the Navy Wellness Center in Pensacola, Fla. He’s his base’s lead trainer, a wounded warrior program facilitator and the Navy nutrition counselor there. His special emphasis is on fitness for the military retired population. Find his Military Muscle columns here.