So, You Want to Be a Strongman?

The following article was written by Matt Griffiths

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Make sure to check out Matt’s YouTube channel for more information on strongman training.

You’ve no doubt watched at some point in your life some behemoths battling it out around Christmas on television in an effort to be crowned Worlds Strongest Man.

Buses, Trucks and even planes pulled. Stones lifted, logs pressed and motorbikes carried.

It’s quite exciting to see and many people express an interest in having a go.

You may have been training for a few years, done a few deadlifts and maybe even competed in and won power lifting competitions and now you think it is time to give strongman a bash.

Prepare to be surprised!

While both are strength sports, along with weightlifting the similarities often end there. If you were to compare these three sports with track sports I believe it would be fair to say Powerlifting represents the 100m sprint, strength based…all at the top end, technique required but lets face it we have all seen lifters monster weights up with brute force.

Weightlifting would be closer to the 110m hurdles, timing and technical precision is required to deliver the strength and speed.

So where does strongman fit? 200m? Relay? Well, the reality is that it is closer to the Decathlon where being a jack of all trades and master of none can actually be of huge benefit.

Powerlifters be warned, you may think you are conditioned, fit and recover well but in my experience when it gets to competitive weights, so many powerlifters fall at the wayside when they are outside of their one rep max comfort zone or asked to move with a weight or deliver force for 90 seconds at a time.

You may be conditioned and fit for powerlifting, but strongman requires greater muscle endurance.

If you are in any doubt about the validity of this claim then there is a very simple test. Go and load a barbell with your bodyweight, now perform a clean and press – any way you like. Pausing at the top of every press with your feet in line and your head between your arms and complete as many reps as you can within a minute and a half.

Chances are you will likely be fatiguing and breathing heavy by rep three, by rep five you’ll be wobbling about struggling to lockout, by rep eight…if you reach rep eight you’ll be pausing at the bottom trying to gasp air in that doesn’t seem to be there.

Now take a second to consider what you have done. One exercise, with a nice balanced, close to the body bit of kit that is easy to grip.

Exchange this for an axle and you may not be able to double overhand clean it, exchange it for a log and realise the weight sits 6.5 inches further off your chest and pushes you back.

Well done, you’ve just completed to a below average standard (obviously weights are relative as athletes get larger)a single event, probably another five to go.

The challenge presented by strongman is very large. How can you be good at everything? You may have a huge one rep max deadlift, but can you also rep well?

Apply this logic of being both top end strong and muscle endurance capable to well over 50 disciplines and you see the challenge being presented.

So, how do you train for it?

If you look at the breakdown of events common across strongman then you will notice quickly that overhead events dominant. There is always one, and often two in a single competition.

Obviously this needs to be a priority, next we look at the equipment, overhead events are usually a log, axle or Dumbbell, so these all need cycling within training as well as exercises to build the basic overhead strength.

The next lift that is most common is the deadlift. Great for a powerlifter in many ways…as long as you don’t sumo! You’re training towards a one rep max here is a great carryover, but what about variations of that, 18inch deadlifts, Axle pulls, Silver Dollar deadlifts etc. These are not as bad to train as the overhead events, strength tends to carry over well from one to another style, you just need to see what your competition has and try to get some time in training it.

After the deadlift we come to moving events, two classics often present themselves, sometimes together in a medley, sometimes both in the same competition. I am talking about the Super Yoke and the Farmers Walk.

Both require fast feet, farmers walk requires extensive grip strength and pulls down on the traps and lats and encumbers your legs while the yoke has caught many a victim out with the level of core stability required.

Atlas stones are usually present in every competition and to many they really are the embodiment of strongman. It is difficult to explain the stones, I have seen some seriously strong powerlifters struggle to budge them and likewise some not so experienced powerlifters throw them about like marbles. The best bet is to have a go and enjoy.

Once you have covered overhead lifting, deadlifts, moving with heavy loads and stones you are in a pretty decent place to attempt a competition. There may be the odd thing that is totally different such as a Conans wheel, Hercules hold etc, keep you eye out for an events list and just have a go.

Now, while all of this sounds very dramatic and scary the real differences between Powerlifting and strongman is aside the obvious replacing the bench for overhead and a few moving and loading events, muscle endurance.

You need to be trained to be able to complete events, perhaps even the squat and deadlift in different ways. You may have a squat for reps and a deadlift max. Naturally this will have a different effect for you than a one rep max squat and this is the thing that catches most powerlifters out.

Pretty much every strongman even uses the legs, you clean the log/axle using your legs, often followed by a push press, they may not seem like much weight but then you are being much quicker and more explosive draining your energy.

I recall a competition where the first event we had was a car deadlift. This is more akin to a trap bar deadlift in terms of gym equipment, and it was for reps. I completed 17 reps with 350kgs with the implement and my thighs were burning. Following this we had a fire engine pull, more leg fatigue. Then we shifted onto my personal bugbear of an event, the log. I use a lot of leg drive on this event, and as you can imagine it was sapped beyond belief, I was lethargic and worn out. I completed only three reps with a weight that I had done for ten in the gym (nice and fresh).

The event order can drastically change your performance on an event, it isn’t always Squat, bench, deadlift  and as easy to train. Have you ever tried to squat heavy weights after deadlifting for reps and pulling a truck for example. You had better lower the expectation of what you are going to achieve.

Strongman is a fun and rewarding sport, the variables make it exciting and make training interesting. You need to be good at reps and have a good one rep max, on everything. You need to be fleet of foot under heavy load and have endurance in your grip.

You have to effectively be adaptable to any and every strength scenario possible within a 90 second timeframe and be able to recover from up to six of these events in a single competition.

It is not harder than powerlifting or weighlifting, but it is certainly less predictable and more chaotic and as such more difficult to programme effective training.

One clear thing to keep in mind with such things though is that the man who can squat 300kgs once is likely able to squat 260kgs five times, but the man who can squat 260kgs five times may not be able to squat 300kgs at all.

If you ever speak to the top strongmen there does appear to be a pattern in their training methods for things such as Yoke and farmers. Speed. It is usually a race, and it is usually with a heavy load, Yokes are usually 400kgs + and Farmers in excess of 150kg per hand however training this week in week out will destroy your recovery rate and diminish your other gym work.

Focus on moving moderate weights such as 300kgs very fast and gradually up the load, perhaps attempt a comp weight around four weeks out from the competition but don’t keep flogging the horse as it were, focus on foot speed.

Work on the technical aspects of overhead work, balance, timing and explosive pressing. Some have the shoulder power to press without the legs, and some do not. Find what suits you and work with it in a similar structure to an Olympic weightlifter, sometimes from the rack, sometimes cleaned and pressed, sometimes a clean and two presses or visa versa – whichever is the weakest aspect work it twice as often.

If it is the press then in addition to pressing on events day, press the implement from a rack and overload the press section. If it is the clean then perhaps add in after something like deadlifts for some explosive work (cleans really focus on the hamstrings and glutes so there is a nice tie in with deadlifts).

If one was a powerlifter aiming to compete in strongman/woman as well, I would suggest a breakdown like this

  • Day 1 – Squats, assistance and a moving event such as Yoke
  • Day 2 – Bench press, assistance and speed overhead pressing
  • Day 3 – Deadlifts, Front squats Farmers & Stones
  • Day 4 – Speed Bench and Overhead events

You could of course if you recover fast enough train 5 days and have a specific events day as many do, usually on a weekend as not all gyms are equipped for strongman training and often they will travel to certain gyms with specific kit to suit their competition.

In terms of training volume and intensity many opt for training to a reasonably heavy weight for their working sets such as 3’s, 2’s and even 1’s and opting for back of moderate rep sets of 8 plus to build the endurance in the muscle to rep while fatigued.

Due to the variety of events and ranges within the events there really is no set formula. One thing to remember however is, every strongman event is very much full body, so it will be fatiguing. If you perform high volume assistance normally you will have to cap this with the inclusion of event training or you will likely burn out before the end of two weeks.

Much like powerlifting and weightlifting the community is not gigantic (although many competitors are) so you quickly get to know people and it is an extended family which is great sportsmanship.

As with other strength disciplines, seek out the experienced and get guidance from them in how to progress, best techniques for certain lifts and the all important competitive encouragement.

Most of all, as with all of the strength pursuits, ENJOY!

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