Just the mention of strongman training often instantly conjures up images of bulging biceps, truck pull competitions and Arnold Schwarzenegger style lifts.
If you’ve heard of the sport of strongman, you’ve probably heard of Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (most commonly known as “The Mountain” in Game of Thrones), or Stoke resident Eddie Hall. Or perhaps, unlike its pronoun, you’ve heard of the World’s Strongest Women like Donna Moore or Andrea Thompson.
However, it’s this type of imagery that often dissuades beginners from pursuing the sport, fearing they lack experience or the full body capability to undertake what is a fantastic form of strength training.
Sure, whilst strongman training isn’t for complete gym newbies, it is for everyone – provided you’ve done some weight training before and can at least competently lift a barbell.
What is Strongman Training?
Strongman Training’s official sports event name is Strength Athletics, and the sport defines itself as “a sport which tests competitors’ strength in a variety of non-traditional ways. Disciplines share similarities to those used in powerlifting, however, strongman events such as carrying refrigerators, flipping tyres, and lifting atlas stones also test physical endurance to a degree not present in powerlifting or other strength-based sports.”
Basically, strongman training helps you cultivate strength in your muscles by using body movements that are not utilised in other, more traditional lifting programs. This is because a big part of strongman training involves carrying and throwing irregular objects around, like tyres, sleds and atlas stones to name but a few! Developing those underused muscles, like your stabiliser muscles, helps not only in your other weight training, but also aids your day-to-day movement.
What are the benefits of Strongman Training?
Yes, whilst strongman training is great for bodybuilders looking to make their biceps tear out of their shirt sleeves, strongman training has surprising hidden benefits for any lifters wanting to try it, including weight loss. Here are a key few:
- Functional strength: Strongman movements greatly enhance a lifter’s functional strength. Due to the training using awkward, cumbersome, bordering on real life objects, many strongmen trainers find that this training is better transferable to ‘real life’. Away from the gym’s perfectly aligned and chalked barbell, there are oddly placed objects and awkward grip placements to be found everywhere – think navigating white goods up flights of stairs.
- Grip strength: Good for real life, and good for lifters. Increased grip strength transfers to better deadlift techniques, helping you hold onto the bar longer whether you’re doing cleans, kettlebell swings or pull ups.
- Increased Fitness: In recent years there has been a surge in HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training. HIIT training improves fitness through short, but extremely intense bursts of cardio exercise. Recent studies have shown that pairing HIIT with strongman training can also work just as effectively. In strongman training there is a greater demand on muscular endurance and cardio fitness as opposed to in powerlifting or weightlifting. Training with resistance equipment such as a sled, keg or tires in short bursts could further increase your calorie burn, and as strongman training also encourages hypertrophy, build functional muscle.
- Bodybuilding Training: Saving the most obvious one for last, training with strongman equipment will obviously enhance your bodybuilding techniques. In a recent study, strongman training has been found to elicit endocrine responses, similar to those recognised in hypertrophic protocols when equated for duration and exercise intensity. Long story short: Your muscles will gain mass.
How to start Strongman Training
Beginning strongman training unfortunately doesn’t mean grappling with the nearest tractor tyre you see, but there are ways that beginners can build themselves up to pulling trucks.
The simplest strongman events to start training for are the carrying, holding and moving events. Why? Because you can utilise a bunch of real life stuff to get practicing, including kegs!
The best way to prepare is to research the competitions and try to find which implement will be used. Then look for an object similar in size, shape and weight and practice carrying it.
Whilst the events do vary, most are measured by either time in a set distance, or the max distance covered in a set time. Add these to your training at the end of a session.
Carry variations include:
- Keg carries: In the UK, sandbags are easy to find from homeware stores, or old unused kegs could be obtained by enquiring at a pub. As a practice rule of thumb, fill it with either water or sand, then practice carrying it for 100ft runs.
- Farmers Walks: In the traditional carry, an equally weighted object is held by your side in each hand. Of course, in strongman style this is done with specific farmer’s walk handles that must be deadlifted into a standing position. However, kettlebells, dumbbells, or weight plates are just as good to be used to practice and prepare.
The deadlift is an essential technique that provides the building blocks for anyone wanting to enact some strongman lifting. All the deadlift requires is a bar and plates, so it’s versatile enough to be located in any gym.
For beginners, deadlift at least a day a week and gradually build up to heavy weights on working sets. For strongman training it’s also recommended to try and work on grip and forearm strength, instead of relying on straps, as it will benefit you further along in your training.
In a contest, if straps are allowed then you should make sure to practice with those first.
Common deadlift variations found in competitions include:
- The Standard Deadlift: A traditional deadlift that’s usually conventional stance only. To hit a max single, competitors have three chances.
- The Axle Deadlift: A bar with a difference. What makes the Axle Bar different from the standard barbell is that it’s 2 inches thick, as opposed to the standard barbell only being an inch. If you’re struggling to gain access to an axle bar, products such as fat gripz can be fitted onto standard barbells for the same effect.
Just like deadlifting, the press is a core component necessary for strongman training.
Important exercises to include that will vastly improve overhead strength are the push press, strict press and of course single arm presses.
Presses should be trained on a weekly basis, as well as additional shoulder work. That helps increase strongman competitor shoulder stability, especially when it comes to dragging around heavy loads.
The Log Clean and Press is an impressive variation found often in strongman competitions. Whilst you may have to go out of your way to find one to train with, it is worth it.
If Olympic weightlifting is familiar to you and/or you’ve practiced the clean and press, the log press movement itself should be recognisable to you. It’s just the technique that varies slightly, and of course, the fact there’s an unpredictable hunk of metal in your hands.
In the Log Clean and Press, the handles are inside the log so the technique requires grasping them with your palms facing one another. Then, just like any standard deadlift, you stand all the way up until the log sits at your hip.
This is where it will vary from your usual clean.
- As you squat down with the log nestled in your hip crease, you must stick your elbows out to the extent that they’re almost pointing forward.
- Next, you’ll need a huge hip drive to hoist the log to the front rack. Your elbows will go higher than you think they should.
- After you perform a small dip, your grand finale is another big drive to push press the log back overhead.
To start strongman training you must make sure your core priority is to be strong, otherwise, as expected – you’ll struggle with the increase in weight and challenge.
Beginners must focus their training around exercises that are performed pretty much day in day out in any lifters routine: The trusty deadlift, overhead presses and of course squat variations.
Using weighted holds and carries will aid and train core strength, and assistance work like cleans, curls, abs, rows and stronger grip work must be included too.
If your local gym doesn’t possess strongman equipment, like tyres, sleds or axle bars, the necessary implements can be purchased online. Things like sandbags and kegs are enough to get started, and you can train at home with detailed virtual guides.