[01:45] About John Wolf
[04:14] On Kettlebells
[12:31] On Battle Ropes & Waves
[19:57] On Maces
[27:56] On Steel Bells
[31:12] Quick Commercial Break
[34:37] On Clubs
[37:33] Using Tools in Other Sports
[40:00] Traditional Training Vs. New Training
[49:32] Full Body Workout Using All Instruments
[56:28] End of the Podcast
Ben: Today's show is brought to you by JackThreads. Get an additional 15% off when you go to jackthreads.com/bgf, and use promo code “BGF”.
In this episode of The Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast:
“People are starting to look at new ways to get jobs done that they're looking for. If you're looking for aesthetics, if you're for performance, if you're looking to accelerated venture racing, they're all different goals, and I think that ultimately if we just say hey, no matter what your goal is, you should be in there lifting barbells exclusively. I think we're doing a big service with a lot of people.” “And then the risk to reward ratio for whatever we're selecting, like you said, should everybody swing a mace around their head? Probably not, but there's a lot of different ways to use the mace that don't involve swinging.” “I think in person, coaching is the most ideal way to do it 'cause there's instant feedback besides pain. I mean essentially when you're exploring a lot of these stuff, you do things wrong, there's a piece of metal hidden in your body. You don't really know what you're doing is incorrect except for the fact that something hurt.”
Ben: Hey folks, it’s Ben Greenfield, and these days, one of the places that you'll often find me is either in my basement or in my driveway playing with some of the unconventional fitness equipment that you've heard me talk about in the past few months on the show. Things like battle ropes, maces, steel bells, clubs, kettlebells with monkey faces on them, and a variety of other fitness gear that seems kind of weird, kind of mysterious, but is actually kind of fun to use if you know what you're doing. Now I know that in the past, I've talked about this stuff for a few seconds and moved on, but today, I want to delve into why I can use these things, how you can use them, how they came about in the first place 'cause of some really interesting history behind some of this stuff, and so we're basically going to geek out on weird, unconventional fitness gear today and what you can do with it.
Now as you listen in, if you want to check out the show notes for anything that we talk about, you can go over to bengreenfieldfitness.com/weirdfitness. That's bengreenfieldfitness.com/weirdfitness if you want to delve into any of the resources that my guest and I talk about today. So my guest is John Wolf. John Wolf is the owner and the founder of something called Wolf Fitness Systems. It's a great last name for being in fitness, and this is basically an unconventional gym that focuses on the integration of a bunch of different movement theories with unconventional tools. Well now what John does is he's the Director of Fitness Education for a company called Onnit, and at Onnit, he helps to train people with things like kettlebells and clubs and maces and sandbags and suspension training tools and even body weight exercises, and he's kind of a ninja when it comes to these weird fitness tools. So John, thanks for coming on the call, man.
John: Hey, thanks for having me on, Ben. It's great to be here.
Ben: And for those of you who want to see a pretty bad ass photo of John, I've got one of him on the podcast show notes swinging around a club. He knows how to wield these things, and he looks like he walks the walk as well, not just talks the talk. So I love people like that on the show who are out there in the trenches. So John, let's start here, man, because this is something I've always wondered about, and so I'm just going to ask you straight up. You guys have kettlebells and they have weird faces on them. Some have monkey faces, some, I believe, have zombie faces. What's the story there? Why not just a straight up, good old competition kettlebell?
John: You know to be honest, Ben, it took me a while to really get the real meaning behind that, and it took me being out here in Onnit and seeing the response people have to these pieces 'cause they're functional. You can use them, but the thing about it is there are pieces of art, and a friend of mine had written an article not too long ago. It says when training transcends just proficiency; it's an artful expression of yourself. When you become an artist in movement or artist with any particular tool, then you start thinking about how you can use more of refined tools. You start swinging a golf club, you start swinging these expensive clubs, or if you're thinking about a samurai sword, you might have a training sword. And then as you ascend, you have a masterfully crafted piece of art that you use in your craft. Whether it was a samurai war, these are pieces of art, and there's great sense of pride in owning and mastering your movement and your technique, but also having this piece of art that you're using. You're creating something beautiful with it.
Ben: Is Aubrey or somebody there on it, just infatuated with gorillas and zombies, or why not have the Mona Lisa or something like that?
John: Well I think the primal bill, all of the primates, that has to do a lot with Joe Rogen's influence. He talks a lot about how human evolution, and we're just a bunch of apes on a suspended planet, so there's a huge, huge background regarding that. Zombies, man, I don't know. I think zombies are just hot. They've been hot for us couple of years lately. Not personally hot in the sense that I'm looking to hook up with the zombie, but they're everywhere, and so we haven't have zombie bills available for purchase for a while, but there might be having to return because there's just so many people requesting. Lately we came out with this line called the Legend Bells. So you have the werewolf, cyclops and a couple of others that are coming out in the near future. Just taking these references from popular culture or having some fun with it. I don’t know if a Mona Lisa bell would be really the way to go.
Ben: Yeah, have you ever noticed when training with one of these kettlebells that has the face on it that the face almost seems to protrude a little bit farther than a normal competition kettlebell would? Occasionally, I know I'm asking you to potentially say something about your own brand, but have you ever noticed that face rubs against the wrist at all? Is that an issue at all?
John: Well it's not a consistent profile, so you definitely want to take that into account. The backsides of the bells are generally more rounded. They do a lot of work to try to make sure that they're evenly weighted, so that even though there's a face on one side that the bell is not going to wing untrue as a result. But yeah, you probably want, depending on your dimensions as well is going to impact you differently, right? Someone with a thinner arm or longer arm might feel they contact you at a different point. The best way to do it is just to know that exercise you're going to do, and if you plan on using one of these pieces, you may be cautious about which direction the face is in when it's going to make impact. Generally, I recommend having the face not being the part hitting your form.
Ben: For people who don't really know how to use kettlebells, what would you say? Let's say you didn't know anything about kettlebells, John, and you wanted to learn the ropes as quickly as possible. Would you recommend a course, a DVD, a specific set of articles, or where would you go if you wanted to learn how to use kettlebells as quickly and efficiently as possible?
John: You know, that's a really good question, Ben, because my philosophy with coaching especially when people are becoming familiarized with new tools and new methodologies is the way I would describe 0 to 60. My coaching is about getting you from a lack of familiarity, a lack of experience, that's zero, right? You're at a dead stance regarding that methodology at the very least which is far from the range. You're going to pinch two miles an hour, right? But this right when you gain enough momentum to start coasting, so I think in person coaching is the most ideal way to do it 'cause there's instant feedback besides pain. I mean essentially when you're exploring a lot of these stuff, you do things wrong, there's a piece of metal hidden in your body. Without anybody overseeing what's happening. You don't really know what you're doing is incorrect except for the fact that something hurt, and so a coach is such a valuable tool because if I can get you from 0 to 60 with minimal amount of discomfort and framing success incrementally so that it's progressive, and what you couldn't do with the beginning of the hour, at the end of the hour, you're doing things you weren't really even aware within the realm of possibility.
That's my goal, so that after I leave, you know how to use the tool safely. You have a basic skill set that you can get a great workout with when we demonstrate that within the session, and then you have enough knowledge to coast from there. You can start looking at DVDs and online resources. There's a lot of resources out there that are just focused on giving you a workout, but there's no technical coaching involved. So tools like these I think more than anything, the best way to assure that you're going to have a good experience is to hound with somebody you trust, and who's going to get you that same type of experience, and then delving deeper. If that's not available to you, then just make sure that you find resources that are geared towards introducing the tool, understanding safety, understanding basic mechanics and then going from there. Not jumping into YouTube and trying to emulate the thing that you think is the coolest looking move out there.
Ben: Yeah, most of my experience in learning how to use any of these tools properly has been either being at conferences and dropping into, for example, Paleo f(x) had a club course. So I dropped in the club course and did that for two hours. That was all it took for me to at least learn how to do a few moves proficiently, or when I went to SEALFIT Academy, we spent an entire morning on kettlebells, and I learned how to do about ten different moves at a decent level of proficiency there, but I agree. Using YouTube and using articles for a lot of this stuff, it's cool to have these things on hand and play around with them, but if you don't know what you're doing and haven't had an expert teach you how to use them properly, I think there can be a little bit risk of injury. But I feel the same way about barbells, right? I think everybody before they hop in to doing squats, deads, presses, etc. that they either need to hire a U.S.A weightlifting coach or they need to get in touch with a good strength coach. Not just a personal trainer in spandex, but a good strength coach to teach them how to lift properly, so I don't want to give anybody the impression that I'm all about learning everything you need, know about fitness from a podcast.
I do want to jump into some of the other weird pieces of fitness gear that you guys have there in Onnit and also that you use in your coaching, John. So kettlebells are probably the most talked about, but there are some other things too like a battle rope. Can you tell me about where a battle rope first came from? Where did you first start seeing battle ropes pop up? What's the history of it?
John: Oh I think that more than anything else, the history would probably be about dock workers and manual labor in terms of understanding the impact of moving around a rope and how much weight you're moving around over the course of the length of the rope. But as far as the training methodology and a training tool joined by the end of John Brookfield really systematized and the French proliferated that information saying hey, there's this concept of undulation and basically you're moving mass over the course of this long rope. There's an unanticipated type of experience that you'll have depending upon what your goal is, maximum power outlet, a continuous short and vast wave approach. There's just so many different ways you can use the ropes. We use them as a corrective tool, conditioning tool. To be honest, if you're doing the waves, if you're creating waves in a short, sharp competitive fashion, it's amazing how fast you can fatigue your upper body. It's literally like sprinting for your upper body.
Ben: So to describe this to people who haven't seen it before, the battle rope, it's basically just a heavy rope with a handle on both ends, and you generally have the rope anchored against the wall, right. Like in my gym, for example, in my basement, I literally just went to the hardware store and bought an anchor, used a stud finder and screwed that stud in the wall, passed the battle rope through the end of that. So it's basically just like a giant, heavy rope for people who haven't seen it before, but you're talking about waves, John. What do you mean by waves when you're talking about that in reference to the battle rope?
John: Well in terms of waves, you're creating waves of energy. First issue, initiating that wave with your body. So it's kind of an interesting thing is I've been talking about it and teaching it. A lot of people, they see somebody spastically flexing and extending their arms in a stable stance and trying to move the rope, and what I've seen is time and time again, not only do people create a lot of fatigue when they just try to do that, just pure effort and lack of understanding of what's going on, but it's just not getting the outcomes and what. So like you said, the rope is anchored to a certain point. You have a certain length of rope. The length of the rope contributes to the total amount of mass of the rope as well as the diameter of the rope.
So if you had a thirty-foot rope, one and a half in rope, two inch rope, there's going to be a big difference between that thirty-foot rope and a two and a half inch diameter, or if you extend that length, forty foot or fifty foot rope, is going to be a lot more mass that you have to move. Now the wave, wave generally would be like think about a full-body lift and then pulling the elbows back to create and initial a wave down from the end of your hand all the way to the anchor point.
Ben: So the rope is actually a wave, you're actually… If you look at the rope, it's producing an ocean wave along the length of rope as you slam the rope down or you lift it up?
John: Exactly, exactly. So you're measuring the intensity of the wave by amplitude as well as how far the wave would travel.
Ben: Have there been any studies on whether people actually get stronger using something like a battle rope, or is it just basically a tool to jack the heart rate up?
John: You know, say there's just so many different applications of rope. So can you get stronger? I mean, you could use a rope as an isometric tool, wrap it around something that won't move then start pulling against it. It'd just be an isometric pool. You'll get pretty darn strong depending upon how you'll apply that methodology because it's a time tested methodology. As far as the waves in that approach, it's less in efficiency, in conditioning, without a doubt. As far as strength is concerned, it's such a vague term. It would be hard to say how would we measure that strength? It definitely does put some added stress on various different tissues, connective tissues at the joints, elbows, wrists. You're working on positioning, so you're avoiding getting pulled forward with that undulation. That pull of the rope as you send the wave down, there's an unanticipated. You apply to that experience before, Ben. That first wave pulls you forward, and so you have to learn how to stand your ground. There's a lot of little adaptations that are happening. But again as we talk about strength, we have to put in into a better context. The same I would say is depends upon how you find strength.
Ben: Yeah. I mean I found with a battle rope for example, I can do slams and waves with it, and that's great for interval training for tabata sets, for getting the heart rate up, but I will also walk to the middle of the rope, so that you're almost holding the weight of the rope at your shoulders. And I can do a set of thrusters or squats to overhead press and get a pretty significant strength effect from something like that. I personally haven't seen research that compares battle rope for strength versus traditional barbells or dumbbells for strength, but I certainly can lift a rope almost in the same fashion that I do a weight, and I found it to work for stuff like that personally.
John: You know, one of the drills we do on our Onnit Academy Level One Certification Course is at the end of the rope. And just like you would say, it's emulating the exact same thing, but maybe at the center, the middle of the rope, the nice thing about the rope is use the visual contacts of the line of force. So as you press the rope you think about if you're in the middle of the rope, and you press the rope if the rope is hanging on both sides. It almost makes a Christmas tree. The rook will hang to each side of your body, and you could see how that line would represent a line of force. So if you were to take the ropes all the way back to the end, walk them in just enough so there's just enough splat, so that you can press it overhead. You'd see the line of force would only go down and forward, or most people they have a lack of activation of strength in range of motion in the shoulders while keeping it tall stacked, mutual posture. And so you'd see men, this would be a killer shoulder exercise. It develops strength through a range of motion most people have a hard time with. It's a lot kettlebells, and their offset load will help open up someone's shoulders.
Ben: Yeah, cool. Alright so we've got the battle rope, and I was a little bit nervous getting one 'cause I wasn't quite sure where I was going to put it, but I've got in my gym that actually extends out into the hallway that goes out from my gym. And what I plan on doing this summer, because I've only been using the battle rope for about two or three months now is I'm going to put it out on my patio, so I know a lot of people use some battle rope outside just 'cause obviously, it takes up ten, fifteen feet of space on either side, but it is a cool fitness tool to have in your arsenal.
Another thing that you guys have, and this is probably the very first piece of fitness gear I ever got from Onnit, and it's a mace. I've actually been using the mace for about a year and a half now, and I want to ask you about the history of the mace because I believe it was some kind of an ancient warrior population or something like that, that mace training originated from. Is that correct?
John: Yeah, maces are medieval weaponry. As far as a conditioning tool, Persians and Indian wrestlers utilized it as a conditioning tool. You'll see a traditional use of a mace. It has a lot to do with these 360s or these ten to twos. Those are the exercises that I traditionally see, and even now it's practiced in the Middle East in these they call the House of Strength or House of Power where these guys are swinging around these extremely heavy maces that are usually concrete ends and then bamboo handles. So the amount of weight displaced versus the flexibility of the handle, it's a really unique approach to that overhead rotational training which will sure yes. Some would probably be explored with the maces. Swinging it in your back in a big arching motion.
Ben: Yeah, you got a huge amount of shoulder mobility in order to use this. Now, so the mace was obviously a weapon, a medieval weapon, but you said that it was used by wrestlers?
John: Yeah, a lot of Middle Eastern, Persian wrestlers actually use maces and clubs as a training methodology. It really originated in ancient Persia and proliferated through the Middle East. So you see a lot of these swinging motions that kettlebells started popularizing, swinging weight. Then clubs came on the scene early 2000. In terms of a modern club design, it's a little more dense. Steel manufactured clubs, and then maces have been popularized recently through Onnit. Like you said, a lot of people are getting exposed to mace training through Onnit, and what's funny is a lot of this stuff, whether its kettlebells, maces, clubs, if you look at the context historically on how it is used, and then you're looking at how we're trying to modernize the approach of utilizing these tools. We're making huge waves in terms of how we're systematizing the methodology.
So with maces, I think a lot of people use those traditional exercises swinging the mace behind their head, and doing a lot of these things. You'll see a lot of varying technique or lack thereof, and people post these things on YouTube. But at the same time, I think they're missing the boat. There's a lot of ways to use this tool that would be somewhat familiar, and get a varying effect because of the offset load. It's a subtle thing where you're on a ten, fifteen, twenty-pound mace doesn't sound like very much, but with all the weight on one side. If anybody ever has done any offset barbell lifting, you realize it doesn't take a lot of weight.
Ben: Offset barbell lifting meaning when you have a little bit of a weight on one side of a barbell than the other side, right?
John: Yeah, that or I used to do a lot of experimentation where I put a forty-five-pound plate on one side and block myself all the way over to the opposite side of the handle, and then try to lift the bar, keeping it level. So a lot of what you're going to see is it's not just about lifting the bar but the relationship of those angles. Can I control the horizontal relationship of the bar? The same thing with the mace, its subtle little changes in position will show whether you're weak or strong or a varied pattern on one side versus the other. So it's a great corrective tool. I think a lot of people don't really see.
Ben: And for those of you who haven't seen a mace before, literally long handle with the big chunky ball on the end of it, doesn't have the spikes on it unfortunately which I think would be pretty bad ass, but I'm sure there are some safety implications for that. But yeah, you can swing it, you can circle it overhead. I even have an old tire that I got for free from the tire store. That's out in my driveway, and I'll do tire slams with the mace against that. Very similar to sledgehammer slams, and you can do all sorts of weird moves. Even just snow shoveling for example, literally holding the mace as you would like a shovel and pretending that you're shoveling snow. So it's great for cross training if you're ready for clearing the driveway if you live in any of the northern regions of the U.S. or in a snowy area, so all sorts of things that you can do with the mace.
John, you have anybody getting injured with this thing though? ‘Cause honestly, it's a huge load on the shoulders, you could easily drop it on your foot. Have you heard about people hurting themselves with the mace before?
John: I'm sure there are plenty of people. Like you said with the barbell, with the mace, you have people with severed spinal columns because of working Olympic lifts under fatigue and dropping fully loaded barbells on themselves. Anytime you're dealing with heavy metal of any type, steel, and iron. Shoot, I remember being a teenager and dropping a ten-pound plate on my toe. That hurt just about as bad as any training injury I ever had, so I'm sure people misuse or are irresponsible in their uses of all of these tools and all tools in general, but I think that's another reason why getting in-person coaching at some point in time is really important because as far as coaching is concerned or as far as training is concerned, safety is number one priority and understanding the space requirements, understanding the dynamics of the tool with the fact that mace is such an offset load.
One of the things I just tease right off the bat is just how to pick the darn thing up, and then if you change your grip, if you leave, take one hand off the handle, understand if you took the hand of the handle nearest the weighted in, the opposite going to come around and swing because you're not going to be able to lever the weighted into a stable position. So if you smack yourself upside the face of the unweighted end, it's probably because you just didn't take that into account.
Ben: Yeah, and interestingly, the thing that I like most about the mace, even though that's not as much of a priority for me now that I live out in the woods and I got to chop my own wood in the winter especially is the fact that there's been all these studies that show that when you're working with a weapon or with an extremely functional type of apparatus, you get an increase in testosterone. So you just feel a little bit more macho when you use this thing, but I think it's certainly up there in terms of one of the ones that has higher injury risk potential unless you really know what you're doing on this one. So it's a cool tool though, and towards the end of this podcast, I'm going to ask you about a really good workout that you can come up with using some of the things we're talking about, but I want to get a chance to ask you about some of the other unconventional tools that you have there too. You have the steel bell. Can you explain what the steel bell is and where that came from?
John: Yeah, I didn't know the historical origin of a training tool like the steel bell until I was talking to a friend of mine, Mark Chang. He was playing around with them. Referenced to that, I can't give you too many specifics, but a Chinese martial arts training tool that would be used for grip and for strengthening. That steel bell essentially emulates it. Of course, again like all these other tools, they're made with more modern material, so it's like a wet suit material in a circle pad but is full of steel shock, so the manufacturer of those Hyperware partnered with Onnit to brand one of their tools with our primal champ, and then we collaborated on that particular steel bell project, but it's a great training tool. It's so accessible to everybody, and that's one of the things that Mark was taught.
Ben: And what is it? Can you describe it?
John: Yeah, it's essentially round. It looks like a little round made with the same material you would make a wet suit out of, and this was a stretchy, flexing material, and it's filled with steel shock. So they come in various different weights, from ten to fifty pounds.
Ben: It's basically like a sandbag that's a little bit stretchy.
John: It is, exactly.
Ben: So what I've noticed compared to a sandbag is you can grip it. You can hold onto it a little bit more easily. For example, one of the things I do with it is to get up, or I'll simply lay down on the ground with this steel bell on my chest and try and get up and press it overhead, all in one motion, and it's really hard for a sandbag not to fall out of your hand when you're doing something like that, but it seems like the steel bell, it's a wet suit material? Is that what you said?
John: Yeah, so same type of material that a wet suit would be made out of.
Ben: Yeah, seems like it's just easier to grip.
John: Yeah, and if you do dynamic drills with it, you're really going to work your grip quite bit. Have you found that, Ben, by doing any slams with it? It really is a great substitute for medicine balls and sandbags. It's a funny mix between both of them in terms of functionality.
Ben: Do you know if those are waterproof?
John: I haven't figured that out yet.
Ben: The reason I ask is I've been experimenting some of these workouts that are similar to the type of deep pool workouts that Laird Hamilton does, where you're literally holding a weight to your chest and swimming across the pool underwater trying not to touch bottom and trying not to come up for air and then going back or gripping a weight between the legs and literally treading water back and forth across the pool while keeping your feet above the surface and your body underneath the surface. Now that you mentioned these steel bells are made out of a wet suit material, I think they might be something I could probably bring in the water and try for a workout like that too.
John: You know I can definitely find out if anybody else has done and see what type of feedback there is.
Ben: I'll let you know, it's going on the schedule for this week. It's going to happen. It's going down.
Ben: You probably heard me mention JackThreads earlier in the show, and frankly every guy knows shopping for clothes can be an absolute nightmare, but here's my secret, JackThreads. It's the only place you need to shop to find good clothing that won't break the bank. Shopping is stupid simple at JackThreads. They've got this curated selection of brands you've never heard of, brands that you'll want to hear about and exclusive collaborations that you can't find anywhere else. Its great value because we all know that looking great shouldn't actually cost a million bucks, and they've got stylists on call to make shopping a no brainer. You can literally just chat with whoever's on there. Say Jill, and she'll help you reach new heights f handsomeness. So I recently went shopping at JackThreads, and what I was looking for was a laptop bag. I actually found a leather laptop bag that normally retails for almost seven hundred dollars. I picked it up for a hundred and fifty bucks, and it's beautiful. It was seamless, it was an excellent shopping experience.
So here's how you can check them out, and get a discount. You get an additional 15% off. There are already slamming deals when you go to jackthhreads.com/bgf, and you enter coupon code “BGF” at check out. So that's on top of the already great prices that you get, jackthreads.com/bgf, and use promo code “BGF”. Don't buy what everyone else has. Skip the mall and go shop at JackThreads instead. And now back to the show.
Ben: Okay, so these steel bells. Basically it's more or less a fancy sandbag. It's a rubber thing filled with steel shock. You can throw it around, you can swing it, and you can do get-ups with it, et cetera. Did you say this is a traditional training tool, or this was made by this company Hyperware, like they made this thing up recently?
John: You know they have something called sand bells, not steel bells. We partnered with them to co-brand the steel bells, but from what I understand from a conversation I had with my buddy, Mark Chang, there were training tools. All these things mimic training tools that have been made in the past to some extent. I don't know if that was how Hyperware came up with the concept, but sensually they were little mini sandbags like this that were made for conditioning purposes for martial arts in the past. And like you said, you can use this as a substitute for a sand bag or like what I said a medicine ball. You can learn your lifts that you learn with a kettlebell or a sandbag with these bells, and it's really not nearly as technical because of their compact, their dynamic, which means you don't need to use as much weight to get similar training effect, right? A twenty five, thirty-pound steel bell, might work just as well as a forty-pound fixed weight, fifty-pound fixed weight, and then because like you said, the griminess of it, the compact nature of it, you actually are able to hold on to this thing in the ways that you wouldn't necessarily be able to do a piece of steel. Or if you hit yourself with it, it's not necessarily going to harm you either.
Ben: Yeah, cool. Then you've got the club, and these are literally what they sound like. They look like almost bowling ball pin-esque, and they come in a variety of sizes, but they're clubs. What's the deal with clubs, what's the history behind those?
John: So clubs and maces, they both originated in the same ancient Persian training methodologies. Clubs, in the traditional sense, they used to be large wooden clubs, and they would be huge. I don't know if you were a WWE fan back in the day when they had this guy The Iron Sheik, and he would come in with this huge wooden board.
Ben: That must've been either before my time or after I wasn't interested in it anymore.
John: Ben, it would have been before your time because I'm taking myself right now, but they'd be up to forty pounds. But they'd be huge, I mean four feet long pieces of wood. There would be huge inconsistencies, and because of the dimensions of these more traditional clubs like the mesa we're talking about, they're really just used for this behind the back swinging motions, and you couldn't swing them at your sides because they’re so long. That would be prohibitive. With these modern materials, we're manufacturing our clubs out of steel, high-grade steel. You have the same amount of weight in a much more compact frame. And if you think about kettlebells, they're very popular [35:59] ______ kettle bell swings, cleans, snatches.
The clubs are awesome 'cause you can do all those drills. You have a different grip configuration, so the things are literally trying to pull themselves out of your hands as you swing them around because the type of force that you're generating. And as you swing a club or a mace, what you're really also doing is adding tractional forces. You have to hold yourself together essentially. And I think that's what you're saying about shoulder mobility, but you also get to work these drills in multiple planes. So someone like yourself does a lot of different training methodologies and puts a lot of different demands on your body. You can fill the void between a traditional strength training protocol and start throwing variables at you that would be hard to emulate with other tools.
Ben: Yeah, one of the things that the clubs can do though is just make your head spin as you try and figure out where they're going and where they're at in space, and I know that for me it was almost taking a line dancing class when I was learning how to use the clubs because it's much more complex. In my opinion, even a kettlebell or really one of the maces. It's almost like having two little maces when you're using these things. So I like the fact that you got to think while you're using them, but I'm wondering how well these are getting adopted in sportswear. There's a swing component or a shoulder mobility component. Do you see swimmers using these type of things or tennis players? Have you seen that these type of athletes are successfully adopting something like clubs or just more like a martial arts type of thing?
John: You know, it's really interesting because clubs have been around. These modern incarnations of clubs have been around since around 2000, and they haven't seemed to take off in terms of the same way that kettlebells have.
Ben: ‘Cause there's a learning curve probably?
John: There's a very steep learning curve, so it's also there haven't been a lot of systems out there to try to bring a sound approach to introducing people to them. Through working here at Onnit, I had some gentlemen from a professional baseball team come in, and they were interested in the clubs. Of course they wanted to pick up the club and swing it like a baseball bat which doesn't work when it's twenty five pounds. It's probably not a good idea to just swing it around like a baseball bat. So much force generated in the club inevitably wants to fly out of your hands like we were talking about before. So what happened was we ended up breaking down the mechanics, and one of the gentlemen that was there, he talked about how he had creases in shoulder issues which is obviously, probably pretty common in that sport, and a lot of people think clubs are just going to increase shoulder mobility. What you're trying to do is you're accelerating and decelerating that club through the range of motion, so you're not just trying to increase the range of motion. You're trying to increase your ability to stay grounded in dissipate force through that range of motion.
So it's so awesome for throwing sports, for people who are doing martial arts, like you said, punchers. Any type of deal where you need to develop strength of not just muscle, but connective tissue. Though great range of motion, it has great potential as a therapeutically modality if done light. You can develop some serious strength and conditioning, and what most people don't realize is if you use the clubs appropriately and you understand what contacts you're trying to do, they can be killer leg conditioning tools.
Ben: Yeah, now do you get much resistance from the traditional strength training community? I mean you've got people who are really die-in-the-hole traditional strength coaches. We've had Dan John on the podcast before, and all of his Mass Made Simple stuff is basically just barbell complexes. Or you've got Mark Rippetoe was starting strength whereas a very big focus on just that one piece of fitness on the barbell, and a lot of these Russian or German strength training programs almost seem to scoff at the idea of using all these extraneous tools or these things that are just basically maybe a sign that you have a weak mind and that you get bored with the traditional strength training stuff, and so you got to go throw all this extra stuff in the mix. Kind of on the same way with a lot of times like biohackers get poked fun at because why not just go to sleep rather than using a sleep mask and the sleep supplements and lighting and electrical stimulating and all that jazz. What's your take on this? What do you say when somebody says hey, all you need is a barbell?
John: I think that ultimately, it depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to move heavy weight, then move heavy weight. You move progressively larger loads, and there's not a better tool to do that than a progressively loaded barbell. That's the strength of that tool. If you want to move weight dynamically in a consistent fashion that you would use barbell in a lot of ways in that plane, then kettlebells really have a name for themselves for that. Then at this point in time, people like Dan John, of course if we refer back to him, he’s big in the kettlebell scene as well.
Ben: Yeah, that's true. I should have mentioned that. He's definitely on a lot of kettlebell stuff out there as well.
John: Definitely, and it's about the context at which we're all operating. Say if someone like Dan John who's working with collegiate athletes. It's about resource management and time management and doing what you know as well. We've gotten a lot more interest from a variety of different professional sports teams, strength coaches that are having to weigh out constantly the fact that they have limited resources and time and energy, and they have to mitigate risk. So doing what you know and just working within this quantifiable measuring, easy to quantify ways of measuring progress, it works. It works well for a lot of these guys, and for a lot of them, they're judging progress based on one variable, right?
Ben: Yup, and did you see the study that came out last year that compared traditional strength training, like deadlifts, squat, clean and jerk with strongman style training? They were using log lifts and farmer walks and sled poles and an axle press and a lot of this stuff that you'll see folks doing on the World's Strongest Man competition on TV, and they were comparing that with basic barbell lifts, and I think they had the single arm row in there as well as a dumbbell lift. But they were basically comparing the effect on strength and power, and they found that this weird, unconventional strongman style training in many cases gave the equivalent effect or even beat out the traditional exercises.
John: Yeah, there's those variables that most of us are not trying to measure, and that's what most people have a hard time wrapping their head around is as far as fitness is concerned, our biggest influence in our culture is still at this point in time, we're still moving out of that whole body building influence into this new functional training thing which crossfit has been a big part of, and then that opens the doors to a lot of new opportunities. People are starting to look at new ways to get jobs done that they're looking for. If you're looking for aesthetics, if you're for performance, if you're looking to accelerated venture racing, they're all different goals, and I think that ultimately if we just say hey, no matter what your goal is, you should be in there lifting barbells exclusively. I think we're doing a big service with a lot of people.
I love barbell training. I do conventional lifts. Like any given day, cold without a warm up, I can go pull two and a half times my body weight. I can probably work up to three times body weight lift if I actually put myself on the program to do that in terms of a raw deadlift.
Ben: Yeah, did you know that's actually a program, that cold lift program where literally twice a day, you're just walking in cold and lifting an extremely heavy weight and walking away. Have you seen this program before?
John: I haven't, but it sounds something.
Ben: Yeah, I do a little bit of a variation on that. I'm only using about sixty to seventy of one RM, but I just keep a loaded barbell in the home gym that's next to my office, and just going there a few times a day and lift it one or two times, just to keep the posterior chain and the glutes activated, and to get that supposed surgeon testosterone and growth hormone that can occur when you're occasionally lifting heavy things. I don't go anywhere anymore, I don't bring anything. You just bend down, take a deep breath, make sure your form is good, lift it off the ground, set it down, maybe do it one more time, and then walk away and go on with your day's activities. So this cold lift has something to it when it comes to grease in the groove, right?
John: Grease in the groove is a huge concept. I mean Pavel Tsatsouline was one of the people who got me onto the unconventional fitness scene. Back in the early 2000s, that's how I got into kettlebell lifting. That's how I inadvertently found club training, and it's been a big part of my journey, so the Power to the People program that he wrote up is all about grease in the groove, and I never went from never deadlifting to deadlifting 450 pounds in the course of a couple months slapped on slabs of meat. And so I do love barbell lifting, I do a lot of unconventional barbell lifting, single-arm pressing, windmills, two hands, anyhow, offset loaded barbell training. I love it all, I think that ultimately as coaches, if we're using all these different tools, we just have to understand the benefit and then the risk to reward ratio for whatever we're selecting, like you said, should everybody swing a mace around their head? Probably not, but there's a lot of different ways to use the mace that don't involve swinging. It's essentially a fat barbell handle with the weight on one side. If you look at it that way, it can be accessible to anybody, and our maces start at seven pounds. Our barbells starts at twenty five pounds for a lot of people.
Ben: That was one of the first books I ever ready when I was getting out of bodybuilding about nine years ago was Pavel's book. I believe it was “Power to the People”. It was whichever one that really focuses on grease in the groove, body weight exercises, pistol, and stuff like that, and I remember challenging myself to not go into the gym for a month, right? ‘Cause I've been living in the gym for the past two years as a bodybuilder, and I simply walked over to the park across the street from my house, and it was just me and my body. And that was my first introduction to Pavel's style of training, and I get things incredibly simplistic and got into amazing shape, better shape than I was in when I was bodybuilding. I lost some muscle mass, but my functional ability to move exploded through the rook, and that was my first introduction to what we're talking about today, right? Unconventional training.
John: Yeah, Ben, I mean I think that we can get great results down all these different paths, and essentially you talk about going very simplistic. It was pistols and single-arm pushups. I believe that was the training protocol for that book. The one before that was deadlifts and single-arm overhead pressing. For Pavel, that simplistic approach I think is so great because it shows people that they don't have to do a million things all at once to get great results, but I think that’s what we're doing at the academy is demonstrating that there's more than just the body weight or the barbell or the kettlebell. There's a lot of different ways that we can go down a very similar path, where we can focus on developing some skill, strength and new attributes, and I think ideally you can invest a good chunk of time into any one of these implements, tools or methodologies, and get a great return on investment, and then you can choose another path as well.
Ben: Now let's just finish with something fun here. As far as everything we've talked about, right? Kettlebells, battle ropes, maces, steel bells, clubs, let's say you're like me, and you've got a little bit of each of these things in your home gym, or somebody is going to go to the show notes for this episode at bengreenfieldfitness.com/weirdgear. I've got links to all of the things we've talked about. Let's just say you want to go spend a few hundred dollars, and create your new home gym. So somebody's sitting around, they've got all this stuff in their basement or in their backyard or in their training studio, whatever. What's an example of a good, full body workout that someone can do that you like that implements each of these components?
John: So all the different tools?
Ben: Yeah, let's do it. Let's give folks a workout that uses each of these different tools.
John: Well, that's definitely going to be a killer workout. So a lot of times, what we do in our programming is we'll always include a full body joint mobility warm up. So we'll just go through the way that we teach it at the very least and honor that as much as possible. Then we'll have some movement press stuff, the close chain mobility stuff that'll help people get into better position 'cause your strength is dependent upon your position or your ability to get into a strong position.
We can do a strength component they're after. We'll just call it our primary set, whatever we're focusing on for that particular program or that particular day. In this case, maybe we work on offset barbell deadlifts just because it's unconventional, but at the same time, it's using something familiar. Then thereafter, we can do a conditioning set. This is where you might add in some variability. In this case, let's just look at the mace. There's an awesome program that's really easy to follow along. It's an every minute on a minute protocol that we'd like to play. So every minute, there's a circuit of work that has to be completed. If you guys are interested in finding out more of this Viking warrior mace flow, one of our head coaches here at Onnit is vicious and simple, so I think that's a great way to look at that. It'll pretty much destroy your legs altogether.
Ben: What'd you call it?
John: The Viking warrior mace flow?
Ben: Viking warrior mace flow? So do you guys have a video of that at the academy?
John: We do.
Ben: Okay, I'll find a link and put it in the show notes for people.
John: Yeah, and if you have a hard time finding it, I'll make sure I'll have them film it for you and for your listeners. I'd think they'd have a lot of fun with it. The nice thing about it is it's a full conditioning program using nothing but a relatively light mace, and I think it'll open a lot of people's eyes about how powerful that a simple looking tool can be 'cause it's all about accelerating, decelerating and controlling rotations. So it's really surprisingly brutal and effective, and then given that, we had the offset deadlifts. We had the mace kind of work, and then we'd probably want to finish off with an upper body finisher, so being able to do some time sets of jerks. Because even though the mace is generally thought of as an upper body conditioning tool, that particular program's designed to destroy the lower body. So adding some pushing into the mix to finish off, to round up the program.
Ben: Like doing some presses with the steel bell, for example?
John: Steel bell or kettlebell in particular. Yeah, definitely. I was doing more kettlebell push presses or jerks on timed intervals to finish off the mix, and then we generally also include in every workout program specific, we call them decompression exercises, so just thinking about the exercises you've done and make sure that the body can unload itself so that say if you went for the run the next day, you weren't out of whack or less optimized to go ahead and do everything else you might want to do the next day because two tempts in one area of the body or the other. So we can use all the tools through a couple of different things in the mix there.
Ben: Yeah, so for example another thing I was thinking, and I've been experimenting with this a little bit is you could use the clubs as a way to almost warm up the shoulders. Get some shoulder mobility, get the brain turned on, and then I also like the battle rope as a finisher as well as a cardiovascular finisher. That's something I've been using for my workouts as I'll get through the whole workout and then just do a tabata set of battle rope slams to finish off some of the kettlebell and the mace and the steel bell work, so I kind of like that, for dessert if you will at the end.
Yeah, there's a lot of ways you can mix these things up. Obviously, it's fun and the sky's the limit, but like we mentioned earlier in the show, make sure that you educate yourself on proper form. Probably the easiest one in terms of form, I'd say, is the battle rope 'cause you pretty much just start swinging it, and it flows right away, but the rest of this stuff, you guys have your academy down there in Austin obviously, John, and I know folks can visit there for classes and things of that nature, but there are a lot of instructors spread out across the U.S. and across the world really. They're offering things like kettlebell inserts and who are versed in some of these unconventional training tools, so make sure that if you really want to do these things properly, invest in your body, and invest in your brain. Take the time to hook up with a good instructor, and learn these things. But ultimately, I'm a fan. I'm a big fan and I know these things have made my workouts a lot more fun, so I'm happy to get you on, John, to talk about them, so thanks for sharing some of this stuff with us.
John: Hey, thanks for having me on, Ben, and I look forward to having you out for a visit in Austin. Are you going to be out here for Paleo this year?
Ben: Yeah, I'll be. Both myself and my wife are speaking at Paleo f(x), and we're going to be sticking around Austin for a couple of days, so we are going to be over at the Onnit Academy. And we'll probably, for The Ben Greenfield Fitness listeners and fans will shoot some videos for you guys, and maybe do a podcast down there at Onnit, so you can look forward to some more stuff and maybe see me and John. I don't know, throwing the mace around or swinging some clubs, and I'll try not to beat you up too much when I come down there, John, alright?
John: I appreciate it.
Ben: Alright. Well folks, this is Ben Greenfield and John Wolf, the Director of Fitness Education for the Onnit Academy, signing out. You can check out the show notes at www.bengreenfieldfitness.com/weirdgear. Thanks for listening in.
Let's face it: while all you need to get hella strong is a heavy barbell, it can sometimes be nice to beat the boredom, to challenge your brain and body in new ways and to be able to branch out and diversify your training with unconventional and slightly weird fitness gear.
So in today's show, I interview John Wolf, the Director of Fitness Education for the Onnit Academy, and a guy who trains people with kettlebells, clubs, maces, sandbags, suspension training tools or with no equipment at all. In this podcast, we fill you in on everything you need to know about how to use unconventional fitness gear:
-Why the Onnit kettlebells have monkey and zombie faces on them…
-How to use a battlerope for both cardio and strength building exercises…
-The origin of the mace as a conditioning tool, and how you can use a mace…
-Why something called a steelbell may work better for you than a sandbag…
-How you can use clubs to increase shoulder mobility, strength and cognitive performance…
-The craziest full body workout you can do with unconventional equipment, including the Viking Warrior Mace Flow…
If you want to get any of this weird fitness gear for yourself, then click here to visit Onnit and use code ‘bengreenfield10' for a 10% discount on any order of gear, food or supplements – and leave any comments, thoughts and questions below!
This show was brought to you by JackThreads. You get a 15% off by visiting jackthreads.com/ben and using Promo code “bgf”. JackThreads was started because the founders were sick and tired of wading through an endless ocean of crap to find the stuff that they'd actually be proud to own. They believe that looking great and feeling better shouldn't be a chore, and that a standout suit for your 9-5 shouldn't force you to get a second job from 5-9. So everyday they feature a broad range of products that they can really stand behind. Daily drops of new curated collections from the brands you love, a seemingly never-ending feed of limited-run collaborations from mega brands and up-and-coming designers alike, and a growing stable of private label product Jackthreads is building from the ground up that you can't find anywhere else.