Q: Strongman training looks cool, but complicated. And I'm no pro strongman, just someone who wants to be big and strong. What's a simple place to start?
I have had astounding success with clients who want to add size by integrating strongman training into their otherwise traditional strength-training program. I can also say that when I program strongman training for my athletes, they get excited! They know that these movements will stimulate and challenge their body in new ways, lead to great new gains, and produce improvements in their core lifts.
Strongman training helps you build strength in muscles and positions usually untouched in traditional lifting programs because it revolves around moving irregular objects. Developing those overlooked muscles, including stabilizer muscles, helps in your day-to-day movement—and in your other training.
Make no mistake, though, it hits big muscles, too. Just watch the contest and you will see the most massive upper backs and traps in the world! But no, your strongman training doesn't have to be anything that complicated.
Here are a few protocols anyone can use to get a taste of the immense benefits strongman training can provide.
Carry a Keg on Back Day
I still remember the sorest—in a good way—my upper back has ever been—it was from keg carries when I was doing strongman training. Nothing in the orthodox strength-training book ever made me feel like that! Ever since, I've been a believer.
Looking for the best way to wrap up your back training? Just hold something incredibly heavy out in front of you and start walking. The isometric contraction this produces is hard to replicate with free weights, and best of all, it's about as simple as it gets. A few sets of 30 seconds is all bodybuilder Tyrus Hughes does.
Destroy Your Grip with Fat-Bar Pulls
You're only as strong as your weakest link, right? All too often this weakest link is grip strength. You need a strong grip for every sport from golf to cage fighting, and there's no better way to get it than with strongman training.
Nearly all strongman events involve grip. Whether you're doing a farmer's walk, axle lift, static hold, or drags and carries, you've got to be able to hold on to a serious load. As a result, professional strongmen have some of the strongest grips in the world, but they don't get them through "direct" grip training. Instead of getting cute and fancy, they just follow the iron.
I worked with MLB Pitcher Noah Syndergaard's grip strength by having him do some partial deadlift cluster sets with a 2-inch axle bar. It's harder than it looks—and it looks hard.
Axle Bar Partial Deadlift Cluster Set
- Pin pull (from knee or higher) 3 reps, then rest 15 seconds. Repeat for 4 minutes, using double-overhand grip and fat bar or grip.
Pull the Sled for Legs—and Mental Toughness
Due to their unpredictability, super-heavy loads, and long duration, strongman events are one of the best ways to build mental toughness. But yes, they also annihilate certain muscles. In the video, TJ Clark and I load up the sled with plates and the keg. My instructions are seriously straightforward: Lean back, keep your arms straight, and walk backward. Never stop moving your feet, no matter how hard it gets.
- Sled drag 4 sets of 60 feet, or across a parking lot, rest 1 min.
As I discovered when I trained this event with strongman legend Odd Haugen years ago, this simple movement will make your quads ache for days like almost nothing else. But it'll take more than just leg strength to keep that sled moving. After a round or two, it's all mental.
How to Program Strongman Training
As my mentor, the late Dr. Fred Hatfield, used to say about training, "There is good, better, and best. And strongman training is the best."
It's simple, brutal, and can work with what you're already doing. Here are the two best ways to program it if you're not going to go full strongman:
- Have a periodic—or weekly—session devoted totally or largely to strongman-style work
- Add an event or two to your existing strength training, possibly as finishers
If you add it to your existing program, make sure you remove one or two of the exercises you'd normally do. That way you can keep your gym time under control—and keep your ass from getting totally kicked.
So pop that damn BOSU ball, grab something heavy and awkward, and discover what "functional training" really means.