The Prisoner

I recently watched a documentary about the most-feared inmates in the prison system. One of these inmates was truly a freak of nature.

He was locked up in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. The camera peaked through the small hole in the steel door and you saw this man churning out squats with a makeshift sandbag on his upper back. His abs were heavily muscled and shredded. His upper body looked like it was carved from stone. Veins ran all over him and each muscle was chiseled.

As the camera filmed, he dropped down with his squats at high speed and exploded back up, rep after rep. Then he'd do straight leg sit-ups with his ankles secured on top of a bench in his cell. This man did sit-ups old school: hands clasped behind the head, legs straight, up and down quickly. His body went below parallel until his head almost touched the ground.

The guards feared this man because he'd break out of his handcuffs every single time they'd put a pair on him. In addition, he ripped through his straightjacket, which was supposed to be made of indestructible material!

I'm sure the rest of his workout included more sandbag training such as military presses, cheat curls, rows, and shouldering. With his upper body so developed, it was a given he was doing handstand push-ups throughout the day. Do you think he ever thought about overtraining or overstressing his CNS? I doubt it!

After watching the documentary, I was reminded of the training I did in Israel as a teen. I arrived two weeks prior to the Mr. Israel bodybuilding show and luckily there were two crazy SOB's just waiting for some insane training. One of these crazy bastards was Joe, a Miami native who had plenty of screws loose and was busting his ass in an effort to become part of Israel's elite Navy Seal team, the Shayetet.

After every workout, no matter how nauseating and brutal, Joe did his five sets of barbell curls with 135 pounds. Before every workout, Joe arrived early and did 100 sit-ups with his feet locked under a pair of dumbbells. Three times a week Joe got to the gym early to do five sets of heavy benching.

When I told him that he'd overtrain he replied, "Shit dude, you think the boys in the pen think about overtraining? They do their curls and benching every day." (I was used to reading about Mike Mentzer and Dorian training for low sets, low reps, and low frequency. I never thought about breaking the rules!)

Joe spent his "off days" swimming for thirty minutes and running ten kilometers. He never worried about what the body could or couldn't handle. His mind dictated what the body could handle and he didn't back down from any challenge.

Training with Joe was nauseating. I knew that each workout meant we were going to war. As much as Joe supported and encouraged me during our workouts, he was still out to beat me on every set of every exercise.

young athlete
A young athlete trains old school with a heavy log.

Joe had the attitude of a warrior and he was tough as hell. It takes a special type of person to have this "old school" mentality. If you don't have it, then training old school is going to toughen your ass up physically and mentally! Either that or you'll quit and go back to your "regular" training program.

It's time to bring out the gladiator within. You've been training modern-style too long. Just like when Apollo took Rocky back to "Tough Gym" in Rocky III and the way he trained in Rocky IV, you're gonna do the same! The eye of the tiger - it's time to get it back!

Rocky runs with the log through knee deep snow.
police officer
A police officer goes through some early winter training using a log.

Here are some tools you'll need for old school training.

  • Sandbag
  • Sled or tire
  • Sledgehammer
  • Truck
  • Keg filled with water
  • Logs
  • Tractor tire
  • Stones

The sandbags will give you the most versatility, allowing you to do endless different exercises. Sleds or moderate-sized tires will offer great versatility as well, so they should also be a priority. I use sandbags for almost every exercise imaginable, including basic moves such as carries, rows, squats, rotations, lunges, and military presses.

We also do combos and complexes using other movements such as Turkish get-ups, shouldering into squatting, burpees into snatches, clean, squat and press, and thrusters.

We also combine walking with movements. This way we work on conditioning, static strength, strength, and power, simultaneously. Try walking with a sandbag and every ten steps perform three to five reps of an exercise. Walk and squat, walk and bent-over row, walk and shouldering, walk and then clean and press. The possibilities are endless!

Two variations when using two sandbags at the same time.

Wanna work on power? You can throw your sandbag: squat and push throw, scoop toss, or rotational throw. You can throw the bag by starting from the ground to work on starting strength and power, or you can pre-swing the bag before throwing it to gain some momentum.

For the combat athletes I train, we often focus on time-under-tension and keep cranking out sandbag exercises for up to six minutes straight without putting it down. This trains the body and mind in a variety of ways and allows us to mimic much of what the body endures during an actual grappling or wrestling match. The carryover this has on the athletes' conditioning is phenomenal.

Sleds have become a staple in our athletic programs as well. We go beyond the basic forward, backward, and lateral drags. We sprint with the sled for starting power and power endurance. We also perform rows using two hands or one hand, one-handed rows with rotation, high pulls (two-handed and one-handed), chest presses, sumo walks and bear crawls.

Yes, I know. The experts say not to sprint with a sled because it'll screw up your running mechanics. Forget the experts; you're taking a trip back in time and you're going old school. Jim Wendler said it best when he said, "When you're running with the ball and a 250 pound lineman is on your back, your running mechanics aren't exactly perfect." Enough said!


If you don't have a sled, use a heavy tire for dragging. Plug it with an eye hook, attach two tow straps, and you're all set to go. Plus, these tires are free! Just ask for one at any tire yard. This is great for coaches who don't have a budget to purchase a lot of sleds for a team. This training doesn't look pretty, but the results sure are!

The point here is to eliminate any limits and make due with what you have. My dad was in the military in Israel, and he was stationed in the mountains where the snow would come down hard. He and his buddies dragged all types of heavy equipment through the snow, so when he brought us to the States he used his kids for weight on the snow sleigh! We didn't own those fancy sleds, but Dad found a way to stay fit while giving his crazy kids a hell of a good time!

A sled awaits abuse at Joe DeFranco's facility.
Chest press
Chest pressing a tire.
Working on some pulling with the tire.


Need to let loose some frustrations? Incorporate wood chopping or sledgehammer swings into your training! If you're going to use a sledgehammer, I prefer using a tire to swing on. If you like chopping wood, more power to you; save yourself some dinero and give the tree service guys a break.

We primarily use two-handed swings but some coaches have had great success with one-handed swings. We perform sledgehammer swings in a variety of directions:

  • Overhead (left hand on top and then right hand on top)
  • Across right shoulder and across left shoulder
  • Side swings from left and right (like swinging a baseball bat)

Get ready to bust your ass here, my friend. Using the hammer or axe is best left for the end of the workout. Use reps or time, or create your own pattern for sets, reps, or time under tension. Old school training means less rules and more creativity.

Put your entire body into each swing, not just the arms. Get your legs, hips, core, and back into it here, and be ready for a kickass hands and grip workout. Start with a ten pound sledgehammer and progress to a twenty. You can always go heavier, but make sure technique doesn't suffer.

Pushing trucks or cars goes beyond training the lower body. You develop trunk stability, and the shoulders, triceps, and upper back get a lot of work during the pushing. This will kick your ass any which way you decide to incorporate it into your workout.

We sometimes push trucks with two athletes at the same time, or they might alternate every ten to fifteen seconds for a few sets. Another option is to push for a specified distance while working to beat your best time in that distance.

The start of some truck pushing!

Lock your arms, hands on the bumper, and drive with the legs. If you've invested in a heavy duty shoulder harness, you can do forward or backward walking as well. But the hands-on-the-truck version allows you to attack the upper body, so I favor this method over using a harness.

Jeep pull
Steve Bodanis and Larry Jusdanis of SST get some Jeep pulling done using a shoulder harness. These guys have all their athletes training with old school and strongman exercises!

Find an empty parking lot with plenty of free room for your truck work. I go to an empty school lot on weekends or weeknights. Get ready to work when pushing the truck! Your entire body will get taxed here. I often do these at the end of a training session, but who's to say they can't be done first or in the middle of a workout?

A great way to introduce some old school training into your overall program is to supplement your current program with a different exercise each workout. When you train old school, the "rules" of program design aren't the same. Get creative. Try sleds one day, sandbags the next, sledgehammer training another day, and trucks the next time.

Some strength coaches devote a full day to strongman events at the end of the week, after they've done their traditional training program. This training can kick the shit out of your nervous system at first, so start slowly and progress at your own pace.

Here's a sample full day of old school training:

  1. Warm up with calisthenics and joint mobility: 5-10 minutes
  2. Sled training for 10-12 minutes, nonstop:
    Forward drag for 100 ft.
    Chest press x 8 reps
    Row to chest x 8 reps
    Backward drag x 50 ft.
    High pulls x 5 reps
    Repeat the above sled cycle until 10-12 minutes has ended.
  3. Sandbag clean and press: 3 x 6-8 reps
  4. Sandbag shoulder and squat: 3 x 5 each shoulder (10 reps per set)
  5. Truck push: 6 x 20 seconds each or 1 all-out set of 150 ft. nonstop
  6. Sledgehammer circuit: (start with one set and then progress to 3 sets total):
    Overhead swing x 8
    Across left shoulder x 8
    Across right shoulder x 8
    Left side swing x 8
    Right side swing x 8
    Overhead swing x 8

Enjoy the challenge!