When I was working on the first issue of My Mad Methods Magazine (now called Onnit Academy Magazine), I needed a lot of pictures. Naturally, I thought the best way to get them was to run an ad on craigslist, select some strong-looking models, and get some cool pictures. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. It turns out that even if you look strong, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are strong.
I found some guys that looked really strong; they had excellent muscle definition and size throughout their entire bodies, but then came the test. I asked one to place a 100-pound sandbag on his shoulder. Not only did he fail to get the sandbag onto his shoulder using the Sandbag Shouldering movement, he couldn’t even hold it when I placed it on his shoulder for him! I’m ashamed to say that we did get the shot eventually; it involved him kneeling on the ground with a plyo-box behind him supporting the back half of the sandbag (the shame!).
One of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to fitness is a confusion between hypertrophy (essentially training for muscle size) and training for strength. Yes, the two can overlap quite a bit, but when you have one group train exclusively for size (like an amateur bodybuilder) and another train exclusively for strength and performance (like a rock climber), you start seeing a big difference. For most people, having a balance of the two leads to the best results; when you go hardcore on one (like the models did), you risk confusing the crap out of your employer (me).
If the strong-looking guy isn’t necessarily strong, does that mean that the skinny guy might be? Yes!
One of the reasons that Unconventional Training (and functional training in general) is so effective is because it does more than make you look and feel strong, it really makes you stronger. When you train exclusively for the “look” of strength, that is all you get in a lot of cases (please note that I’m not talking about world-class bodybuilders here).
Some of the strongest guys and girls I’ve ever met were the Big Bear Hot Shots. Were these people bulging with muscles? Were they tanned specimens feeding on grass-fed beef and raw spinach? No!
These hardy people trained for performance, and in their line of work (hiking miles and miles straight through the wild with 45-pounds of gear while breathing fire and ash THEN fighting a fire when they finally get to it), it pays to be as efficient as possible, meaning maximum strength and conditioning with the least amount of weight possible.
In their work, having loads of muscle without a corresponding load of strength and conditioning means that you’re just carrying extra weight. They told me that some of the biggest, baddest looking guys would be the first to fall out, even on basic hikes!
I’m proud to say that my wife was a a Hot Shot. She used to train at my 5:30AM kettlebell class when I had a gym in Orange County, California. She would come do a hardcore kettlebell session, then go straight to Big Bear to train with her crew (what a badass). I digress, but I love my wife, so I’ll do what I want.
Most people think in simple terms of looking “bigger,” at least at first. Really, there is no problem with that! You’ll still be improving your body unless you choose to do something dangerous or stupid in order to achieve those results. If you go from sitting on the couch 24-7 to using hypertrophy to enhance your looks, good job! You are better than you used to be.
The problem comes when people start expecting your pumped-up bod to deliver some results. Have you have asked a big-looking guy to help you move something like a refrigerator, only to have him whining and quitting before you even got it out of the house? It’s like seeing a killer movie preview that suckered you into seeing a crappy movie.
Inevitably, you’ll want more than just the looks, you’ll want the performance. Performance means real strength development, and the most efficient way to get that is through Unconventional Training.
The Kettlebell Swing is a fantastic, core strengthening ballistic movement that utilizes an explosive hip action to engage your posterior chain. This exercise requires timing and full body coordination, strengthening your body with every repetition.
The Sandbag Shouldering Squat exercise is a complex movement that involves yanking a heavy sandbag directly from the ground onto your shoulder while simultaneously dropping your hips towards the ground into a squat. Again, a full body movement that requires lots of coordination, multiple muscle groups, and intense effort.
While not a maximal strength exercise, the Steel Mace 360 is a staple of ancient warriors in India. If you want maximal shoulder mobility (something you’ll need to build up your upper body strength), combined with core strength, timing, and coordination, performing this exercise on a regular basis will get you there.