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Hybrid Training for Athletes

There are a variety of training tools and modalities. Most can be used successfully and have there place when training athletes. For years, my background and the majority of my training knowledge was centered around Olympic and powerlifting exercises. I still teach those lifts and every student taking my Strength and Conditioning class will learn to perform them with proper technique. While these movements used to comprise about 80% of our program, it is now about 40%. It’s amazing how my training philosophy has changed in the last decade. What you see as you walk into the weight room at Wichita High School North are multiracks lining two walls across from each other, with kettlebells and sandbags at one end and a few machines at the other. Hybrid training has revolutionized the way we train athletes.

Most people are somewhat familiar with barbell and dumbbell training. It’s common place in almost every high school and college weight room. The three areas that make North’s training program unique from many others are how we have implemented kettlebells, sandbags and body weight training progressions into our curriculum. Some plyometrics and speed development are also taught as a part of the program. We don’t put up the same numbers in the Olympic and power lifts that we used to as the training protocol has become more diverse, but I’m convinced that we produce a more well rounded athlete. We have created an environment conducive to training all athletes in the right energy system with a greater degree of specificity. By introducing athletes to different training tools and modalities, we have found that it also intrinsically motivates the athlete. Training becomes more purposeful, meaningful and fun.

In a small weight room with many athletes competing for space, alternative training tools have made it possible to train many athletes at once. Kettlebells and sandbags are portable. This allows teams or groups of athletes to transport them outside the weight room, reducing weight room congestion. Implementing alternative exercises in a superset or circuit format, allow more athletes to train at once. This keeps more kids busy and creates an environment in which twice as much work can be done in the same period of time. We now have 16 – 24 kids working at eight multiracks instead of eight.

Here are some reasons we use alternative training tools:


Kettlebells-   Kettlebells are without question, one of the most versatile tools in our training arsenal. They are perfect for athletes who participate in sports that are both aerobically and anaerobically demanding. Even though they look very intimidating, they are incredibly safe. While explosive barbell Olympic lifts like the clean are typically performed for low reps and quite technical from a teaching standpoint, kettlebell ballistics can be performed for high reps, allowing the athlete to train in a different energy system while training explosively. Kettlebells also allow an athlete to train unilaterally. We perform a barbell jerk on one day and a kettlebell jerk on another, for example. In performing both, athletes are exposed to both unilateral and bilateral training, high rep and low rep sets, respectively. We perform unilateral and bilateral variations for all movements.

We spend a lot of time talking about good athletic stance and movement. We believe that the swing is the perfect exercise to groove this hip dominant, athletic movement. Whether it’s a vertical jump, fielding a baseball, a defensive basketball stance, or a 2 point football stance, the kettlebell swing grooves a movement advantageous to all athletes. We almost always end our workouts with timed sets of kettlebell swings, snatches or long cycle. “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” and kettlebells are the perfect finishing tool to condition athletes to fight past fatigue at the end of a contest.

Sandbags-   Sandbags are the newest member to our training arsenal. We’re very pleased with their simplicity and effectiveness so far. The sandbag clean requires very little instruction and helps correct many technique flaws that athletes develop with the barbell Olympic clean. Sandbags make it almost impossible to cheat on the clean, forcing the athlete to explode into a high pull instead of a reverse curl. The athlete is also forced to shoot the elbows to catch the bag. With the sandbag in the Zercher position, we can also add a front squat for a killer conditioning combo. Shouldering is unique to only sandbags. This is like good, old fashioned farm work, and our wrestlers love it. 

Body weight training-   Take Steve Maxwell’s Body Weight Training course. Enough said. Even though body weight training goes back to the beginning of mankind, it is so easily bypassed for other training tools. Until proper technique is achieved with body weight training, students have no business adding additional weight. You have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. By understanding simple teaching progressions and training variations, the gym is always open. Learning these training principles can take your athletes training to a new level. Body weight exercises are also perfect for supersets and circuits or in situations where equipment is at a minimum. Try taking your athletes through a single leg squat / pistol progression and watch this simple, but difficult movement take your athletes unilateral leg strength and balance to a new level. When an athlete sprints, there is never a time that both legs are in contact with the ground at the same time, making it very important to train unilaterally. I’ve been involved in the research, implementation and overseeing of speed development programs for over a decade. The addition of a few kettlebell and body weight movements have improved mobility, unilateral strength and balance, and has been an integral part of improving overall athlete performance.


As strength coaches, we have a responsibility to help our athletes perform at a high level and to take them where they can not take themselves. For those athletes who rely on absolute strength and power to perform at a high level for their sport, a certain amount of training time must be spent pushing or pulling heavy weight. There is no question that they need to be trained in way that’s specific to their needs. We also have a responsibility to educate our students on healthier, effective long term training alternatives. There are better long term ways to train, than to overstress joints and compress the spine as is repeatedly done by performing heavy Olympic and power lifting exercises. So by exposing our athletes to alternative training methods and progressions, we are not only helping them achieve their immediate goals, we are giving them the knowledge they need achieve a healthy lifestyle long after they are done competing.

Below are some training methods we use and how we incorporate kettlebells, sandbags and body weight movements into each method.

Timed sets The best way to become good at performing a skill or to improve technique is to practice. I emphasize to my athletes that we are going to practice perfect technique for a period of time. We may start with periods of only 30 seconds per side and extend the time period as conditioning and technique improves. We use timed sets at the beginning to hone our kettlebell skills and the end of class for a finisher. Even power and strength athletes, such as football players, can benefit from 30second to1 minute sets of double cleans and double jerks. A 1:1 work/rest ratio is ideal for partner work. There is a fourth quarter in every football game and the most well conditioned team will many times prevail.

Circuit training    Two of my favorites are the Power Endurance Circuit and the Clean Circuit.With the P.E. circuit, the athlete performs a Clean and Jerk, Clean and Front Squat, Front Squat and Push Press, Clean + Jerk + Front Squat and a Maxwell Kettlebell Burpee, if so desired. Those athletes who tackle this one work at a 1:1 work/rest ratio, 30 seconds of work and rest on week 1, moving to 45 seconds on week 2 and 1 minute on week three. On week 4 we start reducing rest intervals to 45 seconds and 30 seconds on weeks 5 and 6, respectively. The C.C. circuit, simply involves performing cleans with three different training tools. First we perform Olympic hang cleans with the barbell, then sandbag cleans, and finally double kettlebell cleans. This is great for not only power athletes, but for all athletes.We use this at the beginning of  many of our workouts.

Complexes  We will sometimes combine a series of different exercises, completing an entire set of one movement before moving to another, creating a complex. It’s a great way to practice many kettlebell or sandbag exercises and condition our athletes in a very short period of time.Below are few unique kettlebell complexes. Both are advanced and somewhat grueling. Complexes are great for training wrestlers and any athlete who spends a lot of “time under tension.”

Warrior Walks-This is a “time under tension” complex that will make your body scream.  Start with two heavy kettlebells in the overhead position and walk a specified distance, 10-25 meters. Then perform 5 jerks with the kettlebells. When concluding the last rep, hold both bells in the rack position and rack walk back to where you started. Then proceed to complete 5 front squats. Now, making sure your feet are at proper distance apart, unrack both bells, swinging them down safely and now place the bells outside the hips for farmer’s walks. At the conclusion of your farmers walk, complete 5 double cleans and bear crawl the bells back to the starting line where you will finish with 5 renegade rows each arm. It’s no walk in the park.

Blaster- Start by performing 10 double clean and jerks, followed by 10 double front squats, and finally 10 double bent rows. If the athlete hasn’t advanced to double kettlebell work yet, try progressing from one arm clean and jerk to reverse lunges, to a one leg deadlift and finish with bent rows.

Combinations    We use combination lifts with just about every tool. Clean and push press or jerk, clean and front squat are a few of our favorites. This gives us “more bang for the buck,” More work is done in the same time frame and it is also a great conditioner. Also, in most athletic competitions, the athlete is not limited to performing one movement at a time. They are required to transition from one movement to the next and to change levels as smoothly as possible. The Power Endurance Circuit is and example of how we combine combination movements in a circuit format.

Tabata sets   20 seconds of intense work doesn’t seem like very long, but 10 seconds of rest is even shorter. We sometimes use a Tabata format for our finisher. Pairing up two to three exercises adds variety and it moves so fast, our athletes are smoked before they know what hit them. Using a variety of training tools make the possibilities endless. Our soccer athletes have utilized tabata sets after unilateral strength work. We also use tabata sets as a finisher with all athletes to add a little variety to the end of the workout.

Supersets  We can pair up barbell Olympic jerks with sandbag cleans, barbell back squats with kettlebell single leg deadlifts, and dumbbell bench press with pull ups or body weight rows. These are just a few pairings we may use and an example of how we can run 32 athletes through eight racks in an efficient manner. If the goal is hypertrophy, we’ll pair antagonistic movements, short rest intervals, with a slightly higher rep range. If the goal is strength, we keep the rep range low with longer recovery and pair up unrelated movements, such as a squat with a bent row. Pair up a couple combination exercises, such as sandbag clean and front squat and kettlebell clean and jerk for a killer conditioning combo.Pavel popularized using ladders in a superset format in his “Right of Passage” workout.  If you want to move to a heavier bell on your presses and push your pull up numbers through the roof, you should consider this one. The thing that I like most is that it’s extremely simple with a low to high volume progression, allowing the athlete to polish their technique as they get stronger. Our modified version of this workout will also get you ready for the beach.

Competitions   Year endcompetitions help the athletes to stay motivated and make training fun. All athletes are required to participate in a power lifting competition, our North Kettlebell Challenge or our Warrior Challenge. The last 8 weeks of the school year are spent preparing for their chosen competition.

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