- What Is Unconventional Training?
- Regular strength training (conventional) vs. unconventional training
- The Top 5 Benefits of Unconventional Training
- 10x Unconventional Training Equipment
- A List of Common Unconventional Exercises
- The Onnit Unconventional Training Certification
- Conclusion about Unconventional Training: When Should You?
- Frequently Asked Questions About Unconventional Training
Unconventional training can have multiple benefits that regular training simply does not have. More accurately, with unconventional training you are tapping into techniques and equipment that can add on to regular training methods. By adding these unconventional training workouts, methods and equipment you can gain an edge when it comes to your Calisthenics exercise. In this article, we’ll go over the definition of unconventional training (because there is quite a clear meaning behind the phrase unconventional training workout) and explain the ins and outs of these alternative Calisthenics approach. We’ll also give you the key examples of unconventional strength training and the equipment associated with unconventional training.
What Is Unconventional Training?
Unconventional training is defined as “involving untraditional fitness methods”. You have to really see it in the context of fitness as such, of which Calisthenics is a part. Fitness has been around for millennia and certainly in the past 100 years it has evolved a lot. It has branched into different forms, again Calisthenics being one of those forms, but also into bodybuilding and weightlifting. Because it is a sport performed by so many people and involving so many experts, like professional gymnasts, physiotherapists and academics, forms of fitness have developed their own “jargon”.
Certain techniques and philosophies come part and parcel with fitness or a form of fitness. For instance, Calisthenics is of the philosophy that you use your own bodyweight to generate resistance. This is opposed to weightlifting, where a free weight is used to create resistance. Unconventional training does make use of free weights, but is opposed to the use of machinery. In the philosophy of unconventional training, machines focus too much on a fixed range of motion (ROM) and are too often isolated exercises.
Unlike Calisthenics, the use of barbells and dumbbells is allowed in unconventional training because you can still do functional exercises like a squat with them. This also includes more oddly shaped weights like kettlebells, steel maces, Indian clubs, sledgehammers, sandbags, battle ropes and more. Usually, this is referred to as old schoolequipment. It emphasizes functional movements and strength.
Another important aspect of unconventional training is HITT (high intensity interval training) where traditional strength training is usually LITT (low intensity interval training). It is proven that HITT offers more benefits than LITT in burning calories and improving endurance. But a workout in the gym can turn into HITT too by performing supersets or drop sets of conventional training exercises.
Unconventional training has been a hype over the past decade and more people have decided to add it to their training. For instance, CrossFit has a lot of unconventional exercises in it and makes use of equipment associated with unconventional training.
Regular strength training (conventional) vs. unconventional training
Regular strength training is the classic gym workout with barbells, dumbbells and machines, where you perform a couple of compound and isolation exercises. Most commonly these are done in 3 sets of 10 to induce hypertrophy. Frequently added components are supersets, dropsets and cardio exercise. These are regarded a part of regular strength training.
If you train for maximum strength or hypertrophy only, regular strength training has an edge over unconventional training. Regular strength training has more exercise possibilities that directly target the muscles you want to train. Say you want to improve the strength of your chest, then you’ll find a lot of options in the gym that target those specific muscles. Getting big in certain areas is more effectively done through regular strength training exercise.
Unconventional training has a more general approach and makes use of compound exercises. These exercises target a range of muscles all at once, while not focusing on inducing as much hypertrophy in any single muscle. This tends to make unconventional training exercises being more dynamic, less repetitive and experienced by many as “more fun”. Doing this in a functional way, like lifting up a heavy block, or a big tractor wheel makes your body coordination better in everyday situations. A possible downside is that you need very good form. Lifting heavy objects with a free ROM incorrectly can cause injuries.
HIIT workouts also improve endurance more than regular cardio training, effectively reducing or even eliminating the need to include a separate cardio routine next to your weightlifting.
“Fun” is of course subjective, so we’ll name this difference last. If you derive your satisfaction purely and solely from results, doing regular strength training could be more fun to you. But gains are typically slow, compared to the work put in. For many, just grinding in the gym for a few seconds of gleeful realization that your arms grew by an nth of an inch just isn’t sustainable. The more diverse and mixed-up nature of unconventional training, that focusses on developing in a more wholesome way, can be good for keeping morale high.
The Advantages of Unconventional Training vs Regular Strength Training
We can sum up the advantage of unconventional training as such;
- Unconventional training has many compound exercises, targeting multiple parts of the body at once; this gives you a more even and gradual development of the joints and muscles.
- Unconventional training is less “puritan” in its attitude towards using weights and machines; neither a focus on free weights like weightlifting nor a philosophical stance against free weights like most of Calisthenics.
- More diverse and generally more engaging than regular strength training, might be good for morale for many practitioners.
The Top 5 Benefits of Unconventional Training
Aside from the more general advantages that unconventional training may have, there are a lot of benefits to adding these methods to your routine. We’ll go over the most important benefits of unconventional training.
#1 More Transverse Movement (Rotational Movement)
Unconventional training focusses a lot on rotational movement. Our bodies have a lot of joints which can move in circles, yet we tend to focus our strength training just on those muscles responsible for back-and-forth movement. As you’ll see later on in this article, many of the movements and equipment used in unconventional training are derived from ancient weaponry. Rotational movement creates torque, which is the efficiency by which a Force (F) created by a Motor (in this case your body) is turned into a Velocity (V). The higher the torque on a lever, let’s say a mace or a hammer, the better you can bash your opponent to smithereens.
By employing a lot of rotational movement, you’ll activate muscles in ways you might never have before. This strengthens the body in more useful ways than just back-and-forth, up-and-down movements that most regular strength exercises use.
#2 Balance, Coordination, Mobility
Unconventional training requires a lot of balancing and coordination of the whole body. This is often done in conjunction with lopsidedly weighted tools, like macebells or Indian clubs. You need to compensate for this weight by activating different kinds of muscles at different points during the exercise. Like with Mobility Training, this increases the overall coordination of your body and can exercise small, often easily overlooked muscles in your body but which do play a key role in creating an overall pleasing esthetic.
#3 Explosive Power
This is sudden, cat-like explosive movement which exerts a lot of force over a small period of time. By coordinating all the muscles in your body, you can produce immense amounts of kinetic energy all at once to tackle a problem; for instance, pulling a weighted sled behind you or flipping a massive tractor tire. This could also prepare you for emergency situations in real life.
#4 High Intensity Training & Weight shedding
HIIT is good for the whole body and is a proven method to shed weight fast. It creates muscle and endurance while also being a very effective cardiovascular exercise. Unconventional training is an effective way not just to get fit, but also to shed excess weight and replace that fat with muscle fiber.
#5 Raw Power
Most functional movements do not rely on one muscle to perform. Even picking up a pen involves muscles in your fingers, hands, fore arm, upper arm, shoulder, back and side. Unconventional training allows you to combine all the muscles you need for functional movement at their peak strength. That way, no muscle in the system being used will prove to be the weakest link. This raw power is useful to create a wholesome body, and of course to become functionally stronger yourself.
10x Unconventional Training Equipment
Normally, we reserve this section to a later part of our article. But we know why you’re here! You want to know about those macebells, basically medieval weapons. Yes, they are a part of unconventional training and with only the thinnest sliver of imagination needed, many of the exercises come directly from medieval warfare. It is part of the allure of unconventional training.
Macebells are weights shaped like maces, a type of medieval weapon consisting of a long shaft with a ball-shaped weight at the end. You hold the mace somewhere along its shaft and make various swinging motions during your exercise. Because the weight is now on an extended lever, the macebell can generate a lot of torque. Care must be taken to get a set of various weights and to start low. When employed properly, macebells can add a lot to your exercise, training your biceps, triceps, shoulders, back and joints all in a single exercise. Basically, all the muscles you need to bash your enemy to a pulp are trained with the macebell.
Kettlebells are used in much the same way as dumbbells, with the added benefit of allowing them to free swing from your hand more easily than a dumbbell. They are used for various swing exercises, squats, rows, lunges and thrusts. They can also be used like dumbbells effectively for bicep curls, for instance.
Indian Clubs / Clubbels
The Indian Club looks a little like a mix between a baseball bat and a traditional police baton, also called a Billy stick. Indian warriors have used similarly shaped clubs since at least the 4th century B.C. to train agility and strength to prepare them for battle, including those that fought Alexander the Great. Used in slow swings and statics, they can drastically improve your posture, strength and endurance.
Battle ropes are thick ropes with comfortable end-caps to hold on too. You use them by inducing waving/gulfing motions which you sustain primarily by using your triceps, biceps and shoulders. Using battle ropes not only builds strength in your shoulders and arms, the exercise is also all about stamina and endurance.
The Workout Hammer, is a top-heavy hammer used in various unconventional training techniques involving swings, holds and stops. It is much heavier than even the macebells or Indian clubs and works much more on raw strength than anything else. Workout Hammers are good for building large muscles, like the biceps, shoulders and back.
A staple of strongman exercises, sandbags are used as either free weights for doing squats or they are indeed lifted onto the shoulder and carried. Made to be very heavy, most carry exercises utilize the whole body to transport the sandbag between a distance. This is both a testament to your overall level of strength and endurance as well as a holistic compound exercise in and off itself.
The Bulgarian Bag is a relatively new invention, made by Ivan Ivanov (from Bulgaria of all places). It is inspired by Bulgarian sheep herders slinging sheep onto their shoulders and to quickly move sheep around a herd or into a pen. The Bulgarian Bag is therefor used in rotational motion exercises, combining one set of rotations with another seamlessly. The exercises build functional strength for your arms, shoulders and core with an emphasis of lifting things up and being able to transport them elsewhere.
Who knew that a common elementary schoolyard activity could be so core to your strength training? Jumping rope works absolute wonders on your cardio and is much more effective and efficient at building up stamina than simply jogging it. It also strengthens your calves, ankles, thighs and glutes and makes them more endurant.
A suspension trainer, or sling trainer, consists of two straps suspended from a high point and from which you (partially) suspend your bodyweight to do Calisthenics exercise. They are a core part of unconventional training and seen as the ideal alternative to traditional machines. The suspension trainer allows for a far greater range of motion than typical strength training machines do.
The Ab Wheel consists of a single wheel with two prongs sticking out from its axle. You grab the prongs on either side and by making back and forth rolling motions, while keeping your feet in place, you exercise your abdomen (a sort of inverted C-sit). Ab Wheel exercises tend to keep tension on your abs throughout the movement much more than regular ab exercises do. It also simplifies the mechanics of the exercise a lot.
A List of Common Unconventional Exercises
Here is a list of 10 unconventional training exercises, both bordering conventional training and some more exotic examples;
- Weighted Squats and lunges: with kettlebells or a shouldered sandbag.
- Kettlebell Floor Press: floor presses but with a kettlebell in each hand for added instability.
- Inverted Kettlebell Curls: bicep curls with kettlebells using a hammer grip on the kettlebell, e.g., you hold the kettlebell up like a mug.
- Clap Pushups: A regular push-up but with enough upward momentum so that you can lift from the floor and clap your hands before landing in the starting plank position.
- Plyometrics: many plyometric exercises are unconventional exercises, like the plyo-lunge and burpee.
- Barbarian Mace Workout: static holds with the macebell, either extended or retracted and with swinging motions, as well as curls and swings.
- Offset Pull-Up: Pull-Ups but with the bar tilted one way by a few degrees, meaning one shoulder is closer to the bar than the other.
- Single Arm Plank: the regular straight arm plank (push-up position) and then retracting one arms behind the back.
- Battle Rope Squats: keeping the battle ropes in a waving motion while doing squats.
- Plate-Loaded Bench Dip: Doing dips from a bench while resting a weight, typically a weight plate, on your lap.
The Onnit Unconventional Training Certification
Unconventional training doesn’t mean it’s a gimmick, or quackery. On the contrary, unconventional training is an official part of conventional fitness (weird as that may sound). You can get an Onnit certificate for being an official, certified coach/fitness trainer for unconventional training.
Getting your Onnit certification is great for gym coaches and fitness instructors who want to expand their range of offerings to people visiting their gyms. The recreational practitioner can also expand his or her knowledge of unconventional training and reach a very high degree of professionalism in their workout regimen. Onnit’s vast team of clinicians, educators and coaches can teach you the following:
- Perform the basic movements properly, like squats, hinges, pushes and pulls.
- Use of the body’s own weight in combination with unconventional training tools like the kettlebell, macebell and others to maximize gains.
- Incremental progress and regress of specific movements to customize a workout for particular, desired effects.
- Methodology and practices behind Onnit 6 workout protocols.
- Involves more than 20 hours of instruction videos
- Involves assignments and study guidance from professionals
- Involves practical application of the instructions where you turn theory into practice.
Upon completion of the course, you are an Onnit Certified Trainer.
Conclusion about Unconventional Training: When Should You?
Conventional training tends to target specific muscles and muscle groups very effectively. For most, including for us, we want to target some muscles more than others. At the same time, a more wholesome, holistic approach to training the body certainly has its merits. It leads to a more wholly sculpted body, better endurance and can be beneficial to the morale and mindset as well. We must come to the conclusion that, like Weighted Calisthenics, you should add unconventional training to your regular training. It is, to us as Calisthenics practitioners at least, not a complete alternative to Calisthenics or regular, weighted strength training.
The most important thing is to do what gives you most satisfaction and what fits best with your goals. LIIT (low intensity) workouts suits conventional training more while HIIT suits unconventional training more. By mixing it up, you can have the best of both worlds and see what works best for you. You can mix conventional training with unconventional methods by tracking your reps and also by using barbells and dumbbells.
When you train your entire body, you will notice differences in strength between body parts. The right is stronger than the left or vice versa. Unconventional training performs poorly to right these differences, or you will unconsciously prefer to hold a sandbag more with one shoulder over the other. In these cases, application of conventional strength training can even out those differences, lending to a more evenly shaped musculature and generally better performance during unconventional training as well.
And, if you just want to accentuate having bigger arms; you can still apply conventional strength training to those locations too.
Frequently Asked Questions About Unconventional Training
Here are a few other frequently asked questions about unconventional training which may not have found a place in our article.
Examples of unconventional exercises are; weighted squats and lunges with a shouldered sandbag, kettlebell swings, curls and floor presses, clap push-ups and other plyometric exercises combining Calisthenics with cardio, offset workouts introducing tilts to pull-up bars, macebell holds and swings and combining battle rope motions with Calisthenics exercises like squats and lunges.
Resistance training should not be conflated with HIIT, since they cannot be directly compared. Resistance training consists of a set of exercises involving resistance bands or suspension trainers. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is a protocol for doing exercises. HIIT workout regimens can contain many different kinds of exercises. Resistance training can be and often is part of a HIIT workout regimen.
CrossFit training has many unconventional training exercises embedded within it. If you are doing CrossFit, you are combining unconventional training with more traditional fitness exercises already.
Jari Dohmen has a B.A. in physiotherapy and has been involved with Calisthenics since 2013. Around the time Calisthenics began to proliferate in the Netherlands, he was already keenly interested in both the physiotherapeutic and general lifestyle benefits Calisthenics possesses. Jari started Calisthenics Worldwide (CWW) in 2016, after numerous internet searches for Calisthenics topics that sparked his interest yielded barely any information. Today, CWW is one of the largest and most widely recognized Calisthenics blogs in the world. Become part of the Calisthenics community by commenting on this article.