"So You Wanna be a Strongman?" by Whit Baskin
I. Confessions of an Unlikely Strongman
So you wanna be a strongman? With the popularity of the sport at an all-time high, it's no wonder so many powerlifters, weightlifters, bodybuilders, etc., are leaving their chosen sport in pursuit of some prize money and an Andy Warhol"ish" fifteen minutes of fame on ESPN and ESPN 2.
I know because I was one of them. So if you are a beginning strongman, or someone who wishes to step foot in the arena of competitive strongman, then the following is for you.
The first thing you will notice when you embark on your strongman training program is that the total volume of work is far greater than that experienced by bodybuilders, powerlifters, or any of our other iron sport brethren (except perhaps world class olympic-style weightlifters, but then again, how many of us consider them "iron sport brethren" anyway?). All joking aside, strongman training is intense and very taxing to the body-brutal, to say the least. There will probably be times in your training where you will question not only what you are doing, but your sanity as well. Don't worry, as this is completely normal. IMHO, you should expect AT LEAST 10-12 hours per week in training (this includes gym and event training as well as any conditioning work) if you are planning on going anywhere in the sport. More experienced athletes may spend upwards of 20 hours/week in training. Always keep in mind though, the quality and intensity of work done is much more important than the quantity.
Always be careful not do overdo things. Succesful athletes are often the ones who master the art of riding the fine line of overtraining. The reason strongman training requires such a great volume of work is simple. The sport requires the brute strength of a powerlifter, the explosive, or speed strength, of a weightlifter or thrower, the speed and conditioning of a football player, and the muscular endurance of a freestyle wrestler. To be a good strongman, you must be a good athlete, and you must constantly work on eliminating any weaknesses.
Without getting into a deep discussion of the principles of periodization, I do feel there are simple guidelines one should use when preparing for a competition. The first priority of any pre-meet training cycle should be getting in shape. Improving your conditioning early on (i.e. 2-3 months before a meet) will not only help you perform better on meet day, but it will also give you the ability to better handle the workload to come later in the training cycle. At this time, the individual's "core strength" should be worked on (or to put it another way, working on the strength of "core lifts"), and special attention must be paid to improving any weak areas (i.e. grip strength, etc.). This is also the right time to get rid of any excess bodyfat. While extra "dead" weight may help your leverage in 2 out of the 3 powerlifts, it doesn't have a place in the sport of strongman. A couple of months or more before the meet, the total training volume (the amount of work done) will be extremely high, with only moderate intensity. It's simply impossible to train at such a high level of intensity year-round. As the meet nears, one's training must take on a more sports-specific approach. This is where event training comes in.
In the weeks before a meet, events are gradually incorporated into the training schedule and, at the same time, extra conditioning work is phased out (more on this in the "Conditioning" section). In addition, the volume of work drops and the level of intensity is raised. The last 2-3 weeks should probably be nothing but event training. Virtually all assistance work should be cut out so that you can concentrate solely on the events to be found in the competition (this is assuming you know the events ahead of time).
II. Event Training
If you ask me, the sport of strongman is roughly 50% strength, 50% skill. It's not always the strongest man that wins; more often, it's the best prepared. Perhaps it shouldn't be this way, but it is. This brings me to my point, that to be a succesful strongman, you MUST train the specific
events. "Practice" may actually be a better term, since many events are so technical that mastering them is akin to learning any motor skill for the first time. Don't believe me? Attend any competition where there is a yoke walk (BTW...It's "Y-O-K-E," NOT "Y-O-L-K!" I've never heard of an animal pulling a plow using one of those slimy yellow things found in eggs! ;)
Anyway, a 1000lb. squatter will be fed a piece of "humble pie" by a 400lb. squatter EVERY time provided that the latter has trained specifically for the event and the latter has not. Becoming proficient at strongman events requires that you build, or in some way acquire, the various implements for yourself. This is no easy task, but I can assure you it is well worth the
time, effort, and money. Take Jouko Aholo and Phil Pfister, two of the most succesful strongmen in the world today, for example. Both men have at their disposal nearly every implement that could possibly show up at a competition. In the very least, I would recommend that anyone serious about the sport try to obtain the following implements: O2 cylinders or other farmer's walk apparatus, yoke, 2" rope (at least 50', preferably 100' in length) and harness for the arm-over-arm and harness pull, 5-800+lb. tire, steel log, sled for the object drag, and if possible, a set of spherical stones. The implements listed should cover the vast majority of events to be found at any strongman competitions. It is not my intention to turn into an article on "implement construction." If you need advice on how to build any of the various implements just e-mail me and I will gladly point you in the right direction.
The question of how to fit event training into one's schedule inevitably arises. The answer is perhaps best left up to the individual, as no 2 people have the same body types, strengths, weaknesses, or perhaps most importantly, recuperative abilities. One popular method which works well for many is to spend 1 week in the gym, and the next week on events, alternating back and forth. Personally, I find it difficult to stay out of the gym for an entire week, so I mix my gym training with event training.
Most of the time I will train the events in the evening after coming home from the gym. Regardless of what schedule you choose, make event training a top priority. Finally, make it a point to train the evnts as heavy as possible. Try and use implements heavier than those found in the competition. This will build confidence and make the competition weights feel lighter than normal.
III. Gym Training
The first subject I want to touch on when talking gym training is the bench press. I hate to disappoint you, but when it comes to the sport of strongman, the bench press takes a backseat in importance to the overhead lifts. The last (and only) time I can recall the World's Strongest Man
competition having an event which duplicated the mechanics of the flat bench press was over 15 years ago in Sweden. The competitors were required to press a giant log while lying on their backs (an American won, of course).
On the other hand, nearly every competition has at least one event which tests overhead strength. I'm not suggesting you give up the bench press altogether, but switching emphasis to the overhead lifts may be a good idea (and your shoulders may thank you). I think it's best to do a wide variety of overhead exercices: barbell and dumbbells, seated and standing, in front and behind the neck (if flexibility permits), strict, push press, and push jerk. When it comes to conventional gym lifts, pressing is second only to the deadlift in order of importance to the strongman. Some events like the rock press test strict or pure pressing power, while the flinstone press and others test explosive strength to a greater degree. It is my experience that someone who is a good strict presses is not necessarily good on the dynamic overhead lifts, and vice-versa. Usually, I will do 1 strict and 1 explosive movement in each shoulder workout. For instance, if I begin with seated behind-the-neck press, then I may finish with some standing push jerks, done in front with a medium grip. I find that 2 primary movements are enough, and I will end by choosing 1 or 2 assistance exercises out of the following: dumbbell press-seated or standing, done in a loose, rhythmic fashion, usually for high (12-20) reps, plate raises, side laterals, and front dumbbell raises. On a related note, it may be a good idea to do some work on a steep incline, as the incline log press for reps shows up frequently at competitions. If you don't have a log, use dumbbells. Keep the palms facing each other, and use a fast rep tempo, exploding off of the bottom. High reps (12-25) work well. This exercise is different from a conventional barbell press, for it shifts emphasis from the front delts onto the lats and triceps. Just because you are not a world-class bench presses does not mean you can't win the incline log event at you next contest.
Whenever time permits, I end my overhead workout with rear delt and rotator cuff work. Strengthening these small muscles goes a long way towards injury prevention, and you may be suprised to find that it adds to your pressing strength.
Like the bench press, the squat also plays a fairly limited role in strongman competitions. For some reason, maximum leg strength is rarely tested. Squats still have their place, but they are best done for relatively high reps and in an olympic style-high bar, close stance, and rock bottom. Don't use any support equipment (not even a belt if you can help it), and explode out of the hole. Doing your squats for high reps (15-20+) will help build both the leg endurance and mental toughness required by so many events. Assistance movements like leg extensions and hamstring curls are largely a waste of time. For hamstrings, I would stick with stiff-leg deadlifts and glute-ham raises. If you don't have access to a glute-ham machine give the following a try: kneel on top of a bench with legs forming a 90 degree angle at the knee joint. Next, have someone sit on the back of your calves, securing you to the bench. Keeping an upright torso, slowly lean forward as far as you can. Straighten yourself by contracting the glute and hamstring muscles. If you are week at the movement (as I am) have another person sit in front of you. Keep your hands on their back and give yourself forced reps. This will also keep you from falling all the way forward. Another great lower-body exercise you can do is step-ups. I like to use dumbbells, but a barbell will work as well. Choose a sturdy bench or step, at least 12" high, and step one leg at a time. Many events (object drag, yoke, etc.) require a great deal of localized muscular endurance in the legs. Step-ups will help get your legs in the right kind of shape.
For my next competition (provided there is no squat event), I plan on eliminating squats altogether about 6-8 weeks out. I have recovery problems with my lower back, finding my erectors can't handle the combined stress placed on them by deadlifts, the yoke, farmers walk, stones, AND squats. You may experience the same problem when you begin training the events, so you must prioritize. Analyze your training schedule, and give adequate spacing between workouts which directly (or indirectly) target the lower back. While some may suffer from dropping squats, I find that I get more than enough leg work from the yoke, object drag, step-ups, etc..
For arms, you need to drop the bodybuilding/"foo-foo" movements and stick with the basics. In our sport, the biceps play a much more significant role than do the triceps. Arm-over-arm, the stones, log lift, loading, and harness pull with rope all require very strong biceps. Two of the most usefull movements are heavy barbell curls and hammer curls. 3-4 work sets each on these 2 exercises should be plenty. Don't be afraid of going heavy on your curls-as low as 3-5 reps. Remember you are attempting to build strength, not just going for the "pump."
For back, do a wide variety of movements. Chins, T-bar rows, bent rows, and an assortment of cable rows work well. I recommend doing 1 pulling movement on your back day. Doing pulling movements will help build explosive power, a vital element of your success as a strength athlete. I do 3-4 weeks of 1 exercise then switch when the lift begins to plateau. I do power cleans, hang cleans, high pulls, and what resembles a low/mid pull.
I don't do snatches because, well, I CAN'T do snatches-not very well at least. Multiple sets of low reps work better than high-rep sets on these movements. If you do any pulling movements, perform them at the beginning of your workout when your body and nervous system are fresh.
Other useful gym exercises to add to your strongman training arsenal include zercher squats, zercher deadlifts, and heavy squat supports. On the supports, unrack a weight well above your max squat and hold it for time.
If you don't have any circular stones with which to practice, you can roughly simulate the movement in the gym. Place a barbell on the floor, loading 1 45lb. plate on one side and 3-4 45lb. plates on the other side. Straddle the barbell, facing the heavy side. Next, bend over and bear hug the plates, and try to break them off the floor. Add weight each workout, and be sure to use a collar to secure the plates on the barbell. The static lifts are other examples of events which can be practiced in the gym. Both the crucifix and forward hold show up frequently at competitions, so it wouldn't hurt dedicating a little time to both. For the forward hold, use a 45lb. barbell, adding weight if you can. For the crucifix, a pair of dumbbells will suffice. Choose a weight you can hold between 30 and 75 seconds. Any longer and the weight is too light.a Any shorter and you are risking injury.
Heavy abdominal and oblique work is a must. A strong midsection is necessary in many events, especially those where movement is involved. The yoke walk, for example, requires that the abdominal and oblique muscles work together to stabilize the body. If your midsection is weak, you may notice these muscles becoming sore after practicing this event. Like any other muscle group, the abdominals are best strengthened by resistance exercise.
Weighted sit-ups, combined with heavy side bends, work exceptionally well. If your dummbells don't go much heavier than 100lbs., try side bends with a barbell placed in the power rack. Ultra high-rep sets will give little results for the effort. If you are overly concerned about developing a
thick or blocky waste then you may want to consider changing sports (though in my opinion such concerns are largely unwarranted).
Conditioning is perhaps the most overlooked and underrated facet of the sport. To be competitive, you MUST be in shape. I learned my lesson the hard way at the WSM in Malta. I was weighing only 225 when i received the invitation 5 weeks out. Because i was trying to put on weight so quickly, I intentionally neglected any conditioning work. There is no doubt in my mind that this cost me making the finals (that and being too short ;). Most contests are completed in a single day. This means the athlete may have 5 or 6 events to contend with in just as many hours. Adequate recovery between events is a must, and this is facilitated by a well conditioned body.
To take a page from Louie Simmon's book, I believe dragging weights to be one of the most useful exercises a competitive strongman (or strength athlete in general) can do. Dragging weights will boost your squat and deadlift poundages over time by strengthening you quads, hams, glutes, and hips. It will also raise your work capacity. By getting in shape, you effectively increase the total volume of work you can handle, as well as the amount of work you do in a given amount of time. When dragging weights, start slowly and work up. Currently, I drag 6-7 days a week (when weather permits), using 100-200lbs. for anywhere from 1000-2000+ feet. I only drag 3 different ways: walking forward, backward, and bent forward with the straps held between the legs (which works wonders for the hamstrings). This is as fancy as I get.
As most strongman events are anaerobic in nature, one should perform anaerobic/interval type training, rather than aerobic training, especially as the latter can be counterproductive to strength gains (NO, I won't make you suffer through another "sprinter vs. marathon runner" analogy).
Conventional wind sprints work well, as does alternating walking with sprinting. You can also try running stairs with a light pair of dumbbells. Heavier athletes may want to hit the bike or stairstepper to help save their joints.
As mentioned in a previous section, extra conditioning work should be eliminated as a meet approaches. Your body and nervous system will have a hard enough time recovering without the added burden of conditioning work.
In the final weeks, your event training will maintain (if not improve on) any level of conditoning you have already acheived. In other words, many of the events can/will serve as your conditioning work in themselves. Some events which cause the lungs to scream in agony include the yoke walk, tire flip, carry/push & drag, harness pull, loading, and of course the farmers walk.
V. Odds & Ends
I would strongly recommend you keep a workout log, or journal, when training. Excluding warmups, write down every set of every exercise you do. This will give you something to look back on, and something to guage your progress by. It doesn't matter how good your memory is, it simply can't compare to written evidence of workouts past. Keep a journal-you'll be glad you did.
Keeping a set of running records has always played an integral role in my training program. I find it helpful to keep records on every exercise, as well as every event. The list of records Ii keep is almost endless: log clean & press for max, 265lb. log clean and press in 90 seconds, deadlift for max and for reps, deadlift in various rack heights, dummbell shoulder press w/ 120's & 90's, strict curl, hammer curl for reps, 275lb. incline log press for reps, squat reps at 495 & 585, crucifix, weighted dips, 265lb. military press for reps, etc., etc. Believe me when i say the list goes on.
I have every single record in the back of my journal, and I try to break a record every single workout. Keeping records not only helps you keep track of improvements, it also serves as a great motivational tool. It's easy to look forward to going to the gym when I have a record I'm
attempting to break.
A final subject I want to discuss is grip training. The sport of strongman requires that you be strong through every part of your body, and we've all heard the old cliche "You're only as strong as your weakest link."
For many athletes (myself included), this "link" happens to be the grip. I don't pretend to be an expert on grip training, and there are many other resources (some on the web) with valuable information (for a wide variety of grip exercises, check out John Brookfield's "Mastery of Hand Strength). I do however, have some basic advice I feel may be of some benefit to you. First, you must realize that "crushing" grip strength does not necessarily have a positive carryover to "supporting" grip strength. Squeezing the grippers all day wil not turn you into Chad Coy when it comes to the farmer's walk. It's really quite simple, if you want to be good at the farmer's walk, then practice the farmers walk. I've also found that the grip can be overtrained just like any other bodypart, especially when trained heavily. For most, 2-3 grip workouts a week seems to do the trick.
Some of the grip exercises I keep records of include 1 arm hangs from a 1" bar (bodyweight & with a dummbell in the other hand), 2 arm barbell holds (held in a deadlift lockout position) with various weights for time, 1 arm barbell holds to the side with 135, 185, and 225lbs., 2" dummbell holds, and pinch grip for time. Experiment to see which exercises work best for you.
When trying any grip exercise for the first time you may find that your time and/or amount of weight used jumps considerably each workout for the first 2 weeks or so.
I want to take this opportunity to voice my opposition to those who suggest that one never use straps in order to develop their grip. While not relying on straps with pulling and rowing exercises will help develop your grip, you may be defeating the purpose. It's only logical-if your strength on any given exercise exceeds your ability to hold onto the bar, then you need to use straps. If I never used straps on heavy shrugs, pulls, and partial deadlifts, then my traps and spinal erectors would never be overloaded. When I do deadlifts, I want to think about my back, NOT my grip. My grip needs to be the last thing on my mind. I have "grip day" to worry about/work on my grip.
Well, there you have it-my comments/observations on training for the sport of strongman. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to e-mail me . Best of luck in your training and in any future competitions!!