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The 3 Best Pieces of Equipment for Building Strength

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Let’s get the “scandalous” part of this article out of the way now…this list will not include the barbell.  The barbell is undoubtedly among the most efficient and perhaps convenient ways to build strength (nautilus machines say hi), though when it comes to developing strength in the most pervasive sense, the barbell, in all its perfection, leaves a lot of “gains” on the table.

Without venturing any further into this discussion we must first define our terms.  And because this is my article, I get to define strength however I want.  Strength, refers to the ability to apply force in any direction upon one’s own body and the external word.  In a less esoteric sense, someone who is strong is capable of lifting heavy objects in any manner whilst also capable of impressive feats of body control.  This individual is strong in the most real-world sense possible rather than based upon the artificial demands of your favorite strength sport (see barbell deadlift from 9” off of the ground).  If you were to grow this athlete in the lab, he or she would be equal parts sprinter, gymnast, and “strong(wo)man.”

Now that we have established what it means to be strong we can appropriately discuss what characteristics to look for in our strength training tools.  Firstly, we want tools that have a high rate of return in strength development relative to their likelihood of causing injury.  Next we want for these tools to have “real-world” application; meaning that these tools should provide more carry-over to other activities than other activities facilitate improvement at using the strength tools themselves.  Lastly, we want for these pieces of equipment to leave no chinks in the armor.  This means that when used with “balanced” and varied movement selection, these tools should not facilitate relative over or under-development of the musculature, connective-tissue, or nervous system of the athlete.

With the details now out of the way we will now present the reason you elected to read this article…

The 3 Best Pieces of Equipment for Developing Strength Are…

SandBags

Sandbags are both an archaic and beautiful piece of strength equipment.  By their very nature they are inconvenient and imperfect which happens to be the characteristic that makes them most beneficial for strength development.  Sandbag exercises generally require the body to work harder to stabilize and support than other pieces of equipment and quickly expose any weak links in the kinetic chain.

Unique Benefits of Sandbags:

  • Highly “Functional”
  • Require total integration of the body
  • Overall loading can be relatively light (when compared to a barbell) yet highly challenging.  This can translate to lower injury rates for comparable muscle activation compared to a barbell.
  • Cheap
  • Appropriate for athletes who are heavier-set where bodyweight exercises are not as accessible.
  • “Proper” versus “poor” technique is easy to identify.
  • The individual is likely to drop the sandbag before form deteriorates too greatly.

Disadvantages:

  • Changing weights is difficult or takes up a lot of space
  • Identifying progress is not as straight-forward as is adding 10lbs to your back squat.
  • The exercises are very hard work!

Best Used For:

  • Development of Back, Hamstring and Glute Strength

Best Exercises:

  • SandBag Hug & Carry
  • SandBag Hug & Squat
  • SandBag Clean

Dumbbells

Dumbbells should be a staple piece of equipment for both novice and advanced strength enthusiasts alike.  You can use two at a time or just one in order to challenge the body to stabilize asymmetrically.  Dumbbells’ primary advantage over the barbell is that they challenge the body in three dimensions.  When wielding a barbell the inherent stability of lifting a straight bar with two hands allows the body to rely upon faulty positions or develop a surplus of strength relative to stability which is a recipe for imbalance and potentially injury down the line.   Dumbbells allow for no such thing and are highly effective for both upper-body, lower-body, and core strength development.

Unique Benefits of Dumbbells

  • Many exercises to choose from
  • Great utility for both upper-body and lower-body
  • Progress is easy to quantify
  • Most exercises require a great deal of stability
  • Weight can rest fairly close to center of gravity
  • Both Slow/controlled and dynamic/explosive exercises can be utilized
  • Excellent for athletes of all shapes and sizes

Disadvantages

  • Grip can be a limitation in higher rep exercises especially when training the legs with heavier weights.
  • A full dumbbell set can be expensive and take up a lot of space
  • Generally more appropriate for exercises performed for higher rep schemes (>3); maxing out can be a bit sketchy.

Best Used For

  • Foundational strength development of entire body.

Best Exercises

  • Upper-body press variations (Bench Press, Single Arm Push Press, etc.)
  • Single-Leg Lower Body exercise variations (Single Leg RDLs, Bulgarian Split Squats
  • Carry variations (Farmer’s, Overhead, and Front-Rack Carries)

Gymnastics Rings

The gymnastics rings are perhaps the greatest strength training tool available for the upper-body.  When used intelligently rings will create a high level of ability in all facets of upper-body strength development.  To create progress, one must develop an understanding of how to create progression through the subtle manipulation of one’s body-position.  Rings inherently produce or at least provide an advantage to the mindful athlete who invests into understanding the slow, detail oriented process that is ring strength development.

Unique Benefits of Rings

  • Require the shoulders to stabilize in every direction
  • Promote development of both muscular and tendon strength
  • Produces higher level of body-awareness
  • Integrates the core into all exercises
  • Allows exercises to transition from pulls into pushes seamlessly
  • Has a high level of carryover to other athletic endeavors
  • Prioritizes upper-body strength relative to one’s body-weight
  • Athletes possessing mindfullness see the greatest degree of success
  • Take up little space, highly durable, portable

Disadvantages

  • Progress is difficult to quantify
  • More “exotic” exercises are likely inaccessible for beginner athletes.
  • Heavier-set athletes tend to struggle with exercises beyond basic progressions

Best Used For

  • Intermediate to advanced strength development of the upper body and core

Best Exercises

  • Isometric holds (Dip Support Hold, Chin-Over-Ring Hold, Front-Lever Hold)
  • Straight-Arm Strength (Skin the cats, Front-Levers)
  • Pressing → Pulling exercises (Strict Muscle-Ups)

So there you have it…

Sandbags, dumbbells, and gymnastics rings are the three pieces of training equipment that provide the greatest opportunity for strength development.  

These tools are not the most convenient nor do they provide the greatest ease of use.  As is so often the case in life, the process of acquiring strength requires an investigation into how to most effectively use the available tools and is a far broader topic than Men’s Health or Shape magazine would lead you to believe.

Of course, by no means should sandbags, dumbbells or gymnastics rings be the only tools utilized in strength training, though you have to admit, it makes for an interesting conversation.  Barbells, kettlebells, pull-up bars, sleds, bands, open floors, and even machines all have their place.  It is the application of these tools that determines their effectiveness.

These tools, which provide the greatest potential benefit, also place a higher emphasis upon understanding how you can best use them to reach your goals.  One must either invest time, energy, and likely rate of progress into how to use them effectively or alternatively seek out experts or coaches who can accelerate the learning curve.  Like all things in life, success comes through struggle and this is never more true than in the pursuit of strength.

Best of luck in your training.

To download this article as a free PDF, click the link below.

3 Best Tools For Developing Strength (Free PDF)