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Power tools: choosing strength training equipment.

The evolution of strength training equipment is taking place at such a breakneck pace that if you blink, you might miss something. Conversely, a cadre of items from the past has been spruced-up, cosmetically enhanced, given a catchy moniker, and recycled.

In either case, the glaring fact is that the days of simply having to choose between free weights and machines are history. It is truly much more involved than that, as those once clear-cut lines are not as easily discernable in this new era. Take time to peruse an equipment catalogue and you will encounter a vast assortment of "cross-over" strength training pieces.


Whether it is new or reincarnated under a different label, there are a lot of excellent strength training pieces available in today's market.

In this installment, we will take a look at some of the different categories of training equipment, examine some of the proposed benefits of each, and offer some personal perspectives on their efficacy and functionality.


Job one in choosing equipment is deciding if the pieces in question fit your training beliefs. It is almost impossible to use a training modality properly and successfully if you're not on board with what it is designed to do.

For instance, some coaches are strong free weight advocates, and a contingent of them refuses to incorporate anything else. For them, the 'feel" of free weights--along with their multiple uses, and the proposed synergistic (i.e., the engagement of stabilizing and fixating muscles) benefits -make them the unanimous choice.

And we are not speaking only about barbells and dumbbells when using the free weight tag, as there are all sorts of implements such as sandbags, kettlebells, medicine balls (with and without handles), and "strongman competition" implements that fall into this category.

Some other coaches prefer machines for reasons ranging from safety concerns to the ability to focus on specific muscle groups. Certain machines offer the function of variable resistance (i.e., varying the resistance along the strength curve of the movement), an advantage that many coaches like and one that free weights, by their biomechanical nature, cannot provide.

Functional training aficionados have their own unique cache of training tools that they believe integrates a more holistic approach and outcome. These include a host of different balancing implements, straps and/or bands, stability/medicine balls, and some of the newer machines that allow for liberal mobility and are unencumbered by guide rods or a linkage system that dictate a strict movement path. An offspring of standard pulley systems, variations of these units are now manufactured by just about every major strength training equipment company.

A fourth grouping of practitioners will consolidate modalities and exercises from the free weight, machine, and functional training categories in order to extract the very best components each has to offer. Since no piece of equipment is perfect, and realizing that just about everything can provide some degree of benefit when properly used, this is the neighborhood where all of us here at Michigan State reside.


When you meet with your staff to discuss the specific outcomes the strength program is expected to achieve, two prominently discussed issues are sure to surface:


Here at Michigan State, we believe in using strength-training tools that can be used efficiently, effectively, and safely. They must provide the stimulus we are seeking for muscle growth, strength, power, and be durable over the long haul of use and abuse.

We've just added 7,500 sq. ft. to our existing 9,000 square sq. ft. weight room. The current structure houses around half a million dollars worth of all types of equipment including power racks, upper and lower body machines, high tech cardio equipment, and what might be considered simplistic implements such as sandbags, kettlebells, oddly shaped bars, and even PVC pipe.





Overall, our facility is formatted with about 70% free weight type equipment and their accessories, and 30% of the most updated machines on the market. An elaborate cardio arrangement and a core/multi-purpose area put an exclamation point on the complex.

The bottom line, though, is that it all works.

The new addition will receive another $400,000 worth of brand new, state-of-the-art equipment. Once everything is put together, we will show it to you in a future edition of Powerline Online.

Obviously, we need such a facility for the number of athletes we train on a year-round basis, and most certainly for recruiting purposes. As a high school coach, you are probably in a limited-fund situation and are simply trying to obtain the basics. Don't get discouraged. Even in this economy, there many ways to gradually raise the funds you need to develop a very functional, useful weight room that will benefit your athletes in more ways than you can imagine.

Along the lines of some relatively inexpensive pieces that serve a wealth of purposes, let us recommend just a few odds and ends that we really like:


As we've recommended here so many times before, avoid looking through a straw when making equipment choices. Sure, work within the confines of your budget, make sure the equipment fits your personal training philosophy, and most assuredly, get the biggest bang for your buck with regard to safety, durability, and warranties.

Most importantly, give your athletes the very best strength training set-up possible. It will pay great dividends in their long-term health and success.


Power Development--The scientific application of power is as a measure of the amount of work that can be performed in a specific period of time. Expressed in formula format, power has both quantitative and qualitative verification as either Force XDistance/ Time or Work/Time, and has also been expressed as Force X Velocity.

In your strength training readings--more so inthie popular press than in peer-reviewed scientific literature -you will occasionally see the term "explosiveness" used interchangeably with power. Since it has no quantitative or qualitative measurement (or definitive scientific formula), "explosiveness" is nothing more than a colloquial representation of power.

Power's bottom line is in producing more and higher levels of force over a given distance in less time. Regardless of the strength training modality you choose, power improvements will be noted by enhancing any one or more of the following indices: Increasing the muscle force, increasing the distance of force application, or decreasing the time of force application.

Any type of equipment that initiates muscle contractions, can sustain the engagement and tension for an appreciable amount of time, and allows for gradual, progressive overload, will certainly be a catalyst for power development. This precept holds true for all of the aforementioned equipment groupings.

For any one type of equipment to lay claim to sole possession or superiority in developing power in the neuromuscular system would require the following: An unequivocal presentation of the preponderance of scientific evidence that clearly defines all of the physiological mechanisms responsible for such an occurrence. This burden of proof is required by the scientific community before such an extraordinary claim can be accepted as fact.

Our advice: Don't shackle yourself to any one compartmentalized equipment mode in the name of power. The human muscular system responds favorably and adapts accordingly to properly applied, systematic, progressive overload -regardless of the source.

Skill Transfer--The fitness industry is one where new buzz terms are continually hatched and accepted as the gospel truth long before anyone with scientific acumen has had the chance to determine their reliability, validity, and credibility.

For many years, the terms skill-specific and/or sport-specific have been erroneously attached to myriad traditional strength training movements and functional training activities.

While a training movement may be very similar to a sport skill, if it is not exact--from the standpoints of bio-mechanical, kinesthetic, and neuromuscular mechanisms--it cannot be labeled specific.

Athletic skills, conversely, are much too divergent in all of their mechanical and neural encoding properties for lifting movements to be exact matches.

As a wise mentor, Dr. John Drowatsky, once told me during my days at The University of Toledo: "Specificity is one of the most overused and abused terms in the sports training literature and protocol applications. Being similar is not being exact, and exactness is the litmus test for specificity."

We train to get stronger, to become more powerful, to stress and manipulate positive changes in the energy system continuum, to enhance durability, and to give our athletes the very best chance for success on the field. To do this, they must take those newfound physical attributes from our training programs and work religiously on the specific requirements of their sport/position with all of the mechanical, visual, auditory, pressure, and reactive elements firmly in place.

Photo 1 depicts the starting position for kettlebell dead lifts. Kettlebells, which have made a resounding comeback in recent years, have multiple uses and you can purchase several pairs of varying sizes without breaking the budget.

For those of you who want incorporate more exercises from the functional training arena, the TRX straps can be used for a host of excellent body weight exercises, such as the push-up shown in Photo 2.

* Grip strength is essential in all sports, and a wrist roller that attach es right to your racks makes for an efficient way to transition to one of the best hand, wrist, and forearm movements going. Photo 3 depicts one version of such a roller, and PVC pipe slid over an Olympic bar can be just as effective.

Photo 4 shows one of our all-time favorite pieces, the Log Bar. Here, it is being used for the incline press, but its uses are literally infinite. We've highlighted this piece before in past segments of Powerline and Powerline Online, and we will show you more in the future.

We've talked about sandbags in the past, as well. Ours have handles on them which make them much more versatile. Photo 5 depicts the "farmer's walk' with sandbags, which is just one of numerous exercises we perform with them. Rarely a training session goes by without some sort of sandbag work.


Kids and smokeless tobacco--You may have noticed some of your athletes walking around with puffed-up lower lips lately. Chances are that those kissers did not get that way from an errant fly ball or opposing player's elbow. Those kids are probably using some form of chewing tobacco--be it the shredded leaf or one of the snuff, plug, pinch, or bag varieties.

In any case, it is important to get the clear message out to these athletes that smokeless isn't harmless. Some kids will argue, "Well, at least I'm not smoking," as if they have chosen the path of least ill effects.

Here are the facts about any type of chewing tobacco:

* It can cause an addiction to nicotine, just as cigarettes do. And, as in any addiction, more and more of the product is required by the body's system over time to get the desired effects of nicotine.

* The sugar and irritant in chewing tobacco cause your gums to pull away from your teeth, leading to gingivitis and possible tooth loss.

* Smokeless tobacco increases your heart rate and blood pressure, and studies have found that users have higher cholesterol levels than non-users.

* Pre-cancerous mouth lesions, or "leukoplakia," can develop. These are small white patches that can be the precursors to oral cancer.

* Oral cancers of the mouth, throat, cheek, lips, gums, and tongue are very common in long-term smokeless tobacco users. Death or permanent disfigurement of the jaw, chin, neck, and face from the imminent surgeries can be the horrible result.

The bottom line on smokeless tobacco: There may be no fire, but the deleterious health effects can be just as painful, agonizing, and deadly.

Ken Mannie

By KenMannie, Head Strength/Conditioning Coach Michigan State University
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Title Annotation:POWERLINE
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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