The Best Strength Tool You Aren’t Using
The beauty of unconventional training is that it is not limited by anything but your imagination. Case in point, learn how Matt Wichlinski turns a simple tow strap into a dynamic training tool for building mass.
There is no perfect training program. You can’t possibly train everything all the time. So it might behoove you to choose 3 to 4 major things that you want to improve at any given time, and more realistically, probably only two or three.
One of the main problems with mainstream fitness is that it’s not even fitness at all; it’s usually predicated only on looking better, which isn’t a bad thing, but frequently has little to do with improving ability in any aspect.
Enter Unconventional Training (UT)
UT is perfect for those people who like to get out of the square walls of regular gyms and the confines of machines and discover new ways to explore movement and fitness.
To some, not having any fitness machines means they have no options. To others, a lack of machines means endless opportunities to try different training tools and explore new things. If you have some creativity and an open mind, you can train any time, any place with anything, including your bodyweight, a tree branch, odd objects, kettlebells, sandbags and more.
It really just comes down to your goals, your desire to succeed and whatever keeps you entertained and motivated enough to sustain your training program.
With that being said, there are holes in the UT system as well. Like I previously stated, nothing is perfect or totally complete, but we can prioritize certain goals at different times depending on what you’re after. For me and most of my clients, we want to be strong and athletic while having an aesthetic physique as well.
Enter Body Building
Many UT practitioners may scoff at the idea of modern bodybuilding, but hold on to your nuggets, ‘ol chap. The problem with bodybuilding is when people go too far down that road and do silly things to enhance their size while also jeopardizing their health.
I am not talking about the dangerous part of bodybuilding, I’m talking about an average 165 pound male that wants to add some muscle or the high school football player; some aspects of classic bodybuilding are a wonderful idea to incorporate into their training regimen.
That does not mean that you have to stop any other form of training, including UT, but you just need to have a system and find that balance to optimize your athletic and aesthetic physique.
The Tow Strap
One simple tool I have found to work wonders in building some muscle is a simple sled strap or tow strap. That little strap that people use to pull weighted sleds across the parking lot or down the turf can be added to a barbell to increase the stability and guide you along to get more reps.
More quality reps equals more time under tension equals more muscle. I know its not that simple. It’s a simple way of helping you accumulate more volume and isolate the necessary muscles to stimulate more muscle growth.
While using free weights such as a kettlebell for pressing, once the stabilizers have fatigued, your set is coming to a halt very shortly. If you had a machine to guide you along the path, it takes the stabilizers out of th equation and you can keep pounding out more reps to target your primary movers, thus building more muscle.
The use of the strap creates a hybrid between a free weight and a machine exercise. Some people may think this is not productive and you shouldn’t train the primary movers without the stabilizers; I say look at all the functional trainers out there that lack muscle and definition. Why not do both? You are not limited to either/or.
While there’s tons of exercises you can use the strap for to build your body and strengthen your primary exercises, I am going to discuss four of my favorites.
The overhead press, bent row, squat, and back extensions. You will need a sturdy squat rack or something similar to fixate the strap. Do not attempt this in a flimsy, unsecured environment.
For the overhead press you’ll need to loop the back of the strap over the top of a squat rack and use pins to keep it in place so it wont slide. The ends of the strap will go over the sleeves of the barbell. Place the barbell in the rack just below the bottom of your press height.
You could also use a pair of ring straps and set it up individually on each side of the barbell. That may work even better because you’ll have more control over the length of the strap because the ring straps are adjustable and the sled strap is not (but both work just fine).
When you press the bar out of the rack, keep constant tension on the strap; it needs to be taut at all times. You’ll be pressing the bar slightly in front due to the radius of the strap, and that lateral tension combined with the vertical tension will smoke you pretty darn good.
This also works wonders not just for muscle building but for those athletes and clients that have shoulder issues preventing them from going overhead.
The stability of the strap alleviates a lot of their symptoms and they can usually perform this variation without pain.
The bent row is a lot of fun and will smoke your lats like no other. For all these exercises you want the strap attached to the rack at approximately the height of the top of the exercise. You can play with that a little bit to change the angle and feel of the exercise, but for the most part the row will have the strap attached at approximately mid-torso height. The higher you set it, the more lateral angle you will have with the barbell (that’s geometry, kids).
When the bar is at the bottom of the movement, your lats will be stretched way out, try to keep your back flat. Now you’re going to keep tension on the strap by pulling back and up. During a normal bent over row you simply pull the weight vertically, but with the strap you pull up and back towards your hip for added tension and double the pleasure.
The harder you pull back, the more the benefit. It’s like doing a row and a straight arm pull down, or a front lever, at the same time.
My favorite strap exercise is the squat. Again, it adds stability to the movement so it’s a great warm up before you do barbell squats or a wonderful accessory exercise to add volume to your leg sessions.
Most people have a particular squat stance when they load a barbell on their back, or even doing double kettlebell front squats for that matter, but with the strap supporting your body and letting you keep an upright torso, you can vary your foot position and target different muscles in the legs and hips without stressing the lower back so much.
It’s great for a recovery workout, for someone with a bad back who can’t do loaded squats, or simply added volume after a heavy squat session to smash you to pieces. It’s also perfect for assistance work for pistols. You will attach the strap to the rack around hip to shoulder height again, play with it to find your sweet spot.
My three favorite strap squat variations are using a safety bar, holding dumbbells in hands by your side, or simply one-legged squats. Because you’ll be leaning back slightly, I like to use a slant board to keep my ankles at 90 degrees, otherwise your ankles will be slightly extended. That’s not a terrible thing, but again, play with what works best and feels best for you.
Typically I use a slower tempo and longer pauses at the bottom while almost eliminating the top 1/4 of the movement. Keeping all the tension and movement to the bottom 3/4 of the movement will smoke your legs like crazy.
Always remember what you’re trying to accomplish with any given exercise and train accordingly.
If you’re using this as a warm up, go the full range of motion with a smooth tempo and do not fatigue yourself; just get some blood flowing and grease those joints up to improve your movement pattern. If its a bodybuilding finisher, then go ahead and lovingly trash your legs with high volume and keep that tension on.
The good thing about holding the dumbbells in your hands is that you can squat down, jettison the weights, and keep on pumping out a few more reps. Keep your feet in a close stance and squat deep to hit your quads hard. Place your feet wider and slightly further out in front to hit your hips and glutes harder.
A final exercise is back raises to build those thick slabs of meat running up the lower back. You’ll have to adjust the strap to put it in a position at approximately hip height. I place a pillow over the strap and place it across your waist, again finding the best spot possible.
You’ll need to use something to keep your feet in place. If your rack is near a wall, just pushing your heels into the wall will work great. Don’t just bang out tons of reps, move methodically and squeeze your glutes hard every rep at the top. Superset these with an ab movement like planks or leg raises for a nice core finisher.