May 17, 2015DIY Project
When Valdosta State University’s strength coach started looking for outside-the-box ways to train his athletes, he found his answer inside a box–a toolbox.
The following article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
Sledgehammers, PVC pipe, ropes, sandbags, and tires. Sounds like a list of items in a hardware store aisle, doesn’t it? Not at Valdosta State University. Here, these implements are housed in our weightroom alongside racks, barbells, and free weights, and we incorporate them into the offseason training regimens for all sports.
So why do Valdosta State teams train with tools found on construction sites? Their use grew out of a need for cost-effective strength training equipment and has continued because of the unique benefits they bring to offseason workouts.
When I was hired in 1996 to be Valdosta State’s first strength and conditioning coach, the athletic department had a small, inefficient weightroom and couldn’t afford to purchase new equipment. I had to find outside-the-box ways to effectively train athletes without using standard strength training implements.
After plenty of research and brainstorming, I realized I could build inexpensive, simple training devices using materials from the hardware store. I asked stores to donate items or sell them to me at cost, and I collaborated with local high school shop teachers and plant operators to construct the implements. With a hammer, glue, and some elbow grease, my weightroom was soon stocked with an arsenal of tools that would help my athletes improve.
In the years since, Valdosta State’s strength and conditioning program has expanded. Gradually, we filled the old weightroom with new gear. And in 2009, we built a 7,500-square-foot weightroom stocked with state-of-the-art equipment. However, no matter how far we’ve come, the “hardware store workouts” have remained an important part of our training program. Besides saving money, they shake up the athletes’ regimens, build mental toughness, and add an element to training you can’t achieve with traditional equipment.
The roots of our hardware store workouts extend back more than 100 years to when the U.S. was an industrial and farming society. Jobs were physically demanding, and men and women worked long days with common construction and farming implements.
The labor was often intensive, requiring the use of heavy, awkward equipment across unstable ground. To get the job done, workers had to account for these factors in their movements, developing total body strength in the process.
With modern strength training equipment, everything is stable and designed for ease of use–weights are perfectly balanced, and machines have cables and pulleys to ensure smooth, efficient movements. But using hardware store workouts, I can tap into the centuries-old challenges of laboring with unsteady tools to develop balance, movement stability, and strength in Valdosta State athletes.
Beyond the physical benefits, working with uneven equipment also helps develop mental toughness in athletes. Many of the tools we work with are difficult to handle. Having to focus fully on the task at hand and account for the unsteady nature of the implement helps build mental discipline.
The athletes see the benefit of using hardware store products and enjoy the variety they bring to offseason training sessions. At the same time, players love to hate the workouts, which I’m told are the toughest routines I offer.
It helps that the sport coaches all trust the strength and conditioning staff, knowing their players will be monitored closely and kept safe. Their support has gone a long way in our continued use of these nontraditional training devices.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Since I started using hardware store workouts, I’ve accumulated a variety of products. I purchased some, and others were donated. For the most part, however, my wife, our boosters, the weightroom staff, and I have made them.
The first project I took on shortly after starting at Valdosta State was making hurdles out of PVC pipe. All I needed was some pipe, glue, 90-degree joints, a saw, and a free afternoon. In about three hours, I constructed 100 6-inch hurdles and 100 12-inch hurdles, which we still use today.
Around the same time, I came across some quality footwork drills that required the use of a tic-tac-toe-style grid drawn on the ground. However, instead of etching something permanent on the floor, I wanted a portable grid that I could use on different surfaces. Again, I turned to PVC pipe. I cut the pipes so each section in the grid would be 2-feet by 2-feet and attached the pieces using four-way PVC pipe connectors. In all, I made 10 grids.
The hurdles and grids were great for some agility work, but I wanted to expand my offerings. I decided to build hoops to incorporate figure-eight sprints. In this activity, two hoops are laid on the ground about 10 yards apart. Athletes run a tight curl around one hoop and then run around the second hoop in the opposite direction. This drill teaches them how to drive and push off their outside legs, which is required in a lot of sport-specific movements.
To construct the hoops, I turned to flexible sprinkler tubing. Our basic hoops are 3-feet wide and secured using sprinkler tube connectors. We often add more tubing to make bigger hoops when we want to vary our exercises.
In addition to conditioning and agility tools, I’ve utilized the hardware store to build several strength training implements. Slosh pipes have become one of our go-to creations. To make a slosh pipe, I start with PVC pipe and close one end. Then, I fill the pipe with water until it’s two inches from the top and cap off the other end. The goal is to make the pipe as heavy as possible while still leaving space for the water to move around. Because the water flows from end to end, the pipes are unbalanced when the athletes use them.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a collection of slosh pipes. We have 10 pipes in five different sizes: 3-inches wide by 5-feet long, 4-inches wide by 5-feet long, 6-inches wide by 5-feet long, 6-inches wide by 8-feet long, and 6-inches wide by 10-feet long.
The shorter, lighter pipes are typically used by individuals doing presses or carries. Athletes work with the longer, heavier pipes in pairs or small groups.
Sandbags are another versatile tool I put together to help build strength. Our athletes often complete carries with the sandbag out in front of them, on their backs, or on their shoulders. We also incorporate sandbag walks, throws, and presses into our program. The shape of the bags constantly shifts as the sand moves around, helping to build the athletes’ balance and movement stability.
To make sandbags, I use play sand, garbage bags, and duffle bags. When I set off on this project, the department could afford 210 pounds of sand. So I divided it into seven bricks by filling garbage bags with 30 pounds of sand and taping them shut. We combine bricks in duffel bags for heavier weight work.
Some strength tools we use regularly required no assembly on my part. These include eight- and 10-pound sledgehammers; 1-inch, 1.5-inch, and 2-inch mixed nylon rope; and tires ranging from 100 to 300 pounds each. We bought the sledgehammers and rope at cost from the hardware store, and the tires were donated by a local auto shop.
The tires are unbalanced and awkward, so it’s a full-body workout to flip them. Similarly, athletes have to generate a great deal of power to swing a sledgehammer or pull the ropes, so all three tools can bring a lot of value to a training session.
When it comes to scheduling our hardware store workouts, we use them to supplement our primary offseason strength and conditioning routine in a variety of formats. All of our athletes complete the same exercises, but I vary up the sets, reps, or time for each sport.
We often combine several hardware store exercises into a metabolic training circuit. I’ll have the athletes go 10 seconds on and 20 seconds off for three to five minutes at each station. Usually, we complete this circuit once or twice a week, depending on the time of year and what we are aiming to accomplish with our training. Here’s a sample circuit from our program:
Station 1: Sledgehammer swings onto a tire
Station 2: Slosh pipe carries
Station 3: Tire flips
Station 4: Hurdles
Station 5: Slosh pipe sit-ups
Station 6: Battle ropes
Station 7: Sandbag swings
Station 8: Tire drags
Station 9: Figure-eight sprints
On days we’re not completing the circuit, we might mix the hardware store equipment into a more traditional strength session as supplemental exercises to our standard weightroom lifts. For example, we might follow hang cleans with tire flips and complete sledgehammer swings or slosh pipe carries after a core workout. It’s a great way to shake up a standard weightroom workout, and there are tons of ways to use hardware store products to complement Olympic lifts and other strength training exercises. Here’s a more detailed look at how we might supplement specific areas with hardware store tools.
Forearm work: Sandbag grabs (athletes pick up and drop the sandbag to build grip), slosh pipe overhead holds, sledgehammer swings onto a tire
Shoulder work: Sledgehammer swings onto a tire, rope pulls
Upper-body press: Slosh pipe or sandbag presses
Upper-body pull: Rope pull-ups, rope pulls
Lower-body strength: Slosh pipe or sandbag squats, curls, and lunges
Core work: Slosh pipe or sandbag carries, slosh pipe or sandbag sit-ups, rope pulls, sledgehammer swings onto a tire.
The hardware store products are also a staple of our agility and conditioning routine. Step-overs, double- and single-leg hops, one leg in each hole, two legs in each hole, sideways runs, and sideways hops are just some of the drills we complete with the hurdles.
I like using the tic-tac-toe grid to show athletes how to move in different directions with proper footwork and stable body movement. In my opinion, teaching an athlete to step with the proper lead foot is a cornerstone of agility training or change of direction. We use the grid for a certain amount of time or number of reps, depending on what we are trying to accomplish with our conditioning.
The grid also develops the ability to move in several planes at one time, which simulates sport-specific actions. This is unlike other agility tools that require the athlete to jump or move in only one plane.
Finally, we like to incorporate competitions during the offseason to keep our athletes motivated. Our hardware store equipment fits in perfectly with these contests. Slosh pipes and sand bags are used during relay races. Athletes also compete to get the most slosh pipe sit-ups, slosh pipe or sandbag presses, sledgehammer strikes, rope slams, or tire flips in a certain amount of time.
At Valdosta State, what started as a cost-saving measure has turned into a valued part of our offseason program. The hardware store tools add variety to our workouts to keep our athletes engaged, while training the movements that will improve their performance. I will continue to learn from other strength coaches who utilize these tools, and if something new comes along that fits into our philosophy, we’ll add it.