The competitive season for the sport of strongman is really starting to ramp up! We’ve already seen the Arnold Strongman Classic and the Clash on the Coast. The World’s Strongest man is right around the corner. Professionals and amateurs alike are gearing up and getting ready for their next competition. Every competition will have their own unique events that will challenge the athletes in all kinds of ways. Preparing for a strongman competition can be daunting. There are a lot of things to include in a strongman program, and it may be difficult to know what to do. Maybe you’re someone who doesn't know what to look for in strongman preparation. Or maybe you're someone who really likes the program they’re on now, but just don’t quite know how to adapt it to strongman training. The events that a strongman might need to be prepared for are practically limitless. However, there are some basic movements that should be in every strongman training program.
The Overhead Press
This is going to be your primary pressing movement. Just about every strongman competition out there will have some kind of overhead event. Whether it be a log, an axle or a sandbag, you are almost guaranteed to be pressing something over your head. When training the overhead press, there are a few basic variations. There is the strict press, the push press and the split jerk. While preparing for the competition, you should probably not use the strict press. While great for development, the strict press will have a cap on how much load an athlete will push overhead. There are some athletes out there who have a freakishly strong strict press, but most strongman athletes will opt for the push press. Being able to build explosive power from the hips and drive your feet into the ground will almost certainly increase an athlete's ability to efficiently overhead press. Some athletes do like to use the split jerk. It allows them to simultaneously use their hips to drive the bar up and drop their body under the weight. It is an effective way to press. However, the split jerk does require a considerable amount of coordination and timing. If you are not someone who is used to split jerking, it might be best to stick with the push press. The learning curve that comes with the push press is considerably shorter. Now, every competition will have you overhead pressing something different. Like already mentioned, you could have to press a log, an axle, a sandbag, a stone or even a metal block. If your event use an axle, you can probably stick with using just the axle for your primary overhead lift and any accessories you may want to use. If you’re doing something like a log, the log can be your primary overhead lift, but it may be optimal to also program in overhead presses with a barbell or dumbbells to make sure you’re developing the muscle properly. Overhead pressing a log can be a little awkward and it can be difficult to make progress with the log alone. When training for something like a sandbag press, a stone press or a block press, it may be likely that those do not need to be your primary pressing movements. Those specific events are more likely to be used in an AMRAP format (as many reps as possible) instead of a one rep max. Your best bet would be to develop your overhead strength using a barbell and use the implements in a conditioning session. You can incorporate your own AMRAP sets in your program or use EMOM sets (every minute, on the minute) to help build your capacity to sustain those lifts for a period of time. The event you’re training for will dictate which overhead press you need to train for, but be assured, you will need to press overhead.
It’s not a strongman show unless something is being pulled from the ground. Like the overhead press, there are a variety of deadlift variations that could be in a strongman show, and the conventional barbell deadlift is not likely to be one. Strongman competitions could feature an 18” deadlift off of blocks, a deficit deadlift, a silver dollar deadlift, a deadlift with hummer tires, a car deadlift or an axle deadlift. This isn’t a powerlifting meet, I wouldn’t bet on seeing a conventional deadlift with a standard 7’ bar. Whatever the event is, deadlifting is necessary, and you should be decent at it. Having the ability to pull heavy weights from the floor is a basic ability in strongman. Whether it's a bar off of blocks, a stone or a log that will be cleaned and pressed, having the ability to pull a load from the hinge position is crucial to being competitive in strongman. So, if you're someone who has a weak deadlift, focus on getting stronger with the basic, conventional deadlift. Getting stronger with the deadlift will carry over to just about anything else that needs to be pulled off the floor. The specific variations and events can be programmed in as accessories or be a focus on another day, especially in the beginning stages of the preparation. As you progress into the program and get stronger, the specific events and its relevant implement can and should become the primary focus. Generally, I do not recommend deadlifting heavy more than once per week for recovery purposes, but there are enough variations and programming tricks to incorporate the hinge pattern throughout the week to help boost those deadlift numbers.
The ability to squat is the base of all athletic ability, not just for strength sports. I don’t really care if the next competition has a squat event or not. Everyone who can squat, should squat. There is no better exercise for building general strength and athletic ability than the squat. There are so many squat variations to choose from, it is sort of ridiculous. However, you should pick a squat that you think will have the best carryover to your next event, and get stronger with it. You can’t go wrong with the traditional barbell back squat. Someone with a strong back squat will have a solid base to work from. However, there are few other squats out there that might benefit a strongman more specifically. One is the front squat. The front squat is great for developing the quads, the hips, the core, the upper back and proficiency in the front rack position. Someone with a strong front squat will likely be someone who can progress well when doing cleans and presses which rely so much on a person’s ability to bear a load in front. The amount of weight put on the bar will be limited due to the positioning of the load, but that does also make it easier to recover from and can be trained more often. Another squat variation that would benefit a strongman is the SSB squat (safety squat bar). The safety squat bar is great for some of the same reasons as the front squat. Like the front squat, the load is distributed to the front, which will help stimulate the core and upper back more. Also, because of how the athlete holds ther bar on their back and the position of their hands, it is much easier on people who have limited shoulder mobility or experience shoulder pain during the front and back squats. Whichever squat variation you choose, take it seriously and train it hard. The ability to squat with good form under a heavy load does nothing but good for you as a strength athlete.
Carries and Loading
Just about every strongman event will have some kind of carrying event and some kind of loading event. It could be a sandbag carry for max distance, an atlas stone load series for time, a yoke walk, farmer carries, sandbag over bars or a husafell carry. Carrying and loading are about as basic strongman as it can get. More than likely, carries and loads will be for max distance, AMRAP or for speed in a given time frame, but there are events that may have you loading for maximum height or maximum weight. The key is just to do them. Yes, there is a skill and technique that is most efficient for each lift, but the best way to progress is to just do them. You can program them as conditioning in an AMRAP or EMOM format. I find that works well and will likely carry over to your event. If you have to do something like a max height, I have no real advice for you. I’m 5’8”. If I can’t press it, I won’t get it very high. For events that call for loading a single max weight, time will need to be dedicated to developing the skill and being more efficient in your ability to produce force within that movement. Getting stronger and practicing the skill is what you will need to do.
The Posterior Chain
The posterior chain includes the back of the body from the nape of the neck to the hamstrings. Just about every strongman event will have a demand on the posterior chain. The ability to maintain spinal integrity and display strength rely heavily on the development of the posterior chain. This is especially true as much of what strongmen do requires them to bear a load in front of them. Having a well developed posterior chain will tremendously help with that. Yes, the squat and deadlift do help build the posterior chain, but it would be best to include accessories that target things more specifically. Things like lateral pulldowns, rows, Romanian deadlifts and hamstring curls and good morning are great for specifically targeting portions of the posterior chain. Look at any serious strongman competitor and you will find that they have thick and strong backs. Just about every session of your program should incorporate something that targets the posterior chain. Rowing is one of the best ways to help build the back. The variations of rows are practically limitless, and the back can handle a ton of volume. Barbell rows, seal rows, Kroc rows, chest supported rows, head supported rows, etc. are all variations you can use to build the back. If you have access to a lateral pulldown machine with different styles and widths of attachments, do through them all. Hypers, reverse hypers and good mornings are also great ways to help build a stronger back. There is no reason why a good portion of your accessories aren’t some kind of back exercise. Train it often and train it hard, and you will find that having a big strong back is nothing but beneficial.
If you run a program that incorporates all of those aspects of strongman, you should find that you will have a solid base for what you need to do to prepare for your next strongman show. Every athlete has their own strengths and weaknesses and will need to fine tune their programs to their specific needs.
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“It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character and judgment.” -Cicero