Now i’m no world’s strongest man (hah). I’ve done two novice competitions, came 12th place out of 17 in the first and 4th out of 5 in the second. I’m not an expert and i’m not trying to present myself as any kind of authority on strongman training.
What I am, though, is somebody who’s been training for a long time and wanted to take that extra step into competing in strength sports. A step that i’m sure a lot of other people want to take but might not know where to start, who to believe, or how to go about strongman or what it really involves. Often the only people posting up programs are elite competitors and like in bodybuilding or any other sport these elite programs sometimes don’t apply to the novice.
So here’s my take on starting out in the world of strongman. This is pretty much how I approached my training for the first competition with some hindsight thrown in for good measure. I was and still am hugely proud of my placings and I’ve set several all time personal records in the log clean + press (8 x 80kg / 176lbs) and deadlift (12 x 180kg / 396lbs) as well as improving certain events between comps. Always compete with your biggest competition – yourself.
Obviously, being a sport called “Strongman” your main goal will be to increase your absolute strength. The form this takes in strongman is a lot different to the concept of strength when applied to powerlifting, though. Some strongman events might sometimes make use of a 1RM deadlift, log, or very rarely a form of the squat, but more often than not you’ll be doing a heavy weight for reps ranging from 6-12 give or take a few reps in either direction. The “…for reps” events are pretty common.
With that in mind, while it’s important to do heavy work in the 1-5 rep range to increase your maximal strength output you’ll need to devote a lot of your time to higher volume with heavy (though not AS heavy) weights.
As well as strength, conditioning comes into play more often than you’d think in a lot of events such as medleys, farmer’s walks, tire flips, stone loading, and the dreaded log clean + press. We’re not talking condition as in bodybuilding where they train for a hard, lean look – we’re talking your body’s ability to do a lot of hard energetic work in a short space of time. This might draw comparisons to circuits like in crossfit, the difference there is that strongman conditioning requires you to use weights you’ll probably only be able to lift a handful of times. And there’s no five finger footwear or skins.
Probably the event that best illustrates this concept is the medley – lifting or carrying a series of objects in the shortest time possible. There may be anywhere between three to six “events” within the medley. An overhead medley may consist of getting five implements of different weights from the floor to an overhead lockout position such as a sandbag, an axle, a barrel, a rock, and a thick handled dumbell. Not only will the technique for each implement be different, each one is fairly taxing on its own, but done in series your cardiovascular conditioning and strength-endurance will also be tested.
Where to train?
This is a big issue with a lot of strongman newbies (including myself) since the equipment is often specialized and fairly expensive, and most commercial gyms have absolutely no interest in catering to you. The twats.
My advice would be to find a strongman or other “hardcore” independant gym. It’s also a good idea to ask around your local area and keep an eye out for competitions. Often groups of competitors will train together in a certain gym or even somebody’s garage once a week for just events. Even if you can’t train with them, they will usually be happy to give you advice or point you in the right direction. The other option is to make the equipment yourself if you can, but thats way out of the scope of this article.
For most of my contest preparation I did an events session for 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon, but near the end I scattered the events throughout my regular training schedule to free up an extra day’s rest leading up to the big day. Try a few things out and see what works for you. Event day is always a highlight of my training week because a group of us get together, lift heavy stuff, and have a great time training hard.
The elephant in the room – the events themselves! While the majority of your training will probably include most of the key exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, bent over rows, military press, and pullups, very few of the compound exercises you normally see in the gym are used as strongman events.
The actual events at strongman competitions can be almost anything, and no piece of equipment will be the same as anything at another competition or what you train with at the gym. This adds an element of unpredictability to competition.
Below is a quick run-down of the most common events and what they are. I’ve also included a range of common “novice weights” that you might find in entry level competitions:
Log Clean + Press – Also an incredibly common event. The log is a thick metal tube (it’s a log, you can visualise that, surely?) with two neutral grip handles set into it. It’s usually set on tires, and the aim is to lift the log from the tires to a locked out position above your head. At this point you wait for the “good lift” signal from the ref, then lower it. This is important, because the ref decides whether your rep counts or not, so wait for the signal!
The log is either done at a set weight for maximum reps in a time limit, or for max weight against the other competitors. Logs come in all shapes and sizes, and depending on your technique you might do better or worse with a thinner or thicker log. Best bet is to train with a few different ones so you avoid nasty surprises on the day.
Novice Weights: 70-90kg (155-200lbs) for reps in 60-90 seconds.
Bish 80kg Log – YouTube
Farmer’s Walks / Frame Carry – This is a strongman staple and most competitions include it. Farmer’s Walks involve picking up a loaded handle in each hand and walking with it either for a set distance in the shortest time, or for maximum distance in a set time. The frame carry is very similar, except you stand inside a frame and grab two handles, rather than having one implement in each hand.
Sometimes there may be a single long run, other times you’ll put the weight down and turn around and come back, and others there will be an actual course for you to navigate. The most important thing is to get the back end of the implement over the line completely. Sometimes there may be a “no drop” rule – when you drop it, you’re done! Grip is key in this one but leg, trap, and core strength are just as important.
Novice Weights: 80-100kg (175-220lbs) per arm over 20-60 metres.
Cheshire Strongest man 2011 Farmers Walk 130kg ea. – YouTube;
Bish Farmers – YouTube
Deadlift – The deadlift is a common exercise in the gym whether you’re competing in a sport or not. The deadlift requires you to lift a weight from the floor to the standing position with your hips fully locked out. In strongman you generally either deadlift a regular barbell or a thick axle. Occasionally the car deadlift comes up which is a neutral/suitcase style frame deadlift – with a car on it.
Like the log press, at the locked out position you’ll need to wait for the judge’s signal before lowering the weight, and must let the bar stop bouncing before starting your next rep! This event is either for reps with a set weight and time limit, or a last-man-standing battle for the heaviest single lift. Either way the deadlift is a killer. Its important to note that a lot of competitions allow conventional stance only, so no sumo!
Novice Weights: 180-210kg (400-460lbs) for reps in 60-90 seconds.
Zeus Novice 2011 – Event 3 Deadlifts 180kg / 396lbs 12 reps – YouTube
Body expo 2011 – 250kg deads for reps – YouTube
Tire Flips – Tire flips can be done a few ways. Most commonly they’re included as part of a medley for a few flips, but sometimes they’re done on they’re own in a similar manner to Farmer’s Walks over a set distance. In the latter case, the tire is usually placed up on blocks for the first flip to allow you to set your grip, then must be flipped the entire distance of the course and be entirely 100% over the line at the end. Even if there’s an inch of the tire behind the line it’s another flip to finish. This is another event where conditioning, more than strength, might be most important.
A good tip for the flipping is to take as wide a grip as possible and drive into the tire with your chest using the power from your legs to drive the tire over rather than using a deadlift/clean and press technique. You might be able to get away with deadlifting lighter tires, but when they get heavier this probably won’t be an option.
Novice Weights: Don’t really matter. Just flip the bastard over until the judge tells you to stop.
Derek Poundstone 950lb Tire Flip – YouTube
Tom Mutaffis 945 lbs tire x 7 flips – YouTube
Stones / Loading – No event is more associated with strongman than the atlas stones! The event itself sounds pretty simple, all you have to do is pick up some big balls of concrete from the floor to a platform, or over a crossbar. In actual fact it smashes your cardio, lower back, and unless you wear something it’ll tear your forearms to pieces. Fun!
With that in mind, most stone events are either in the medley style where you’ll have to lift a series of heavier and heavier stones (or barrels or sacks etc) onto platforms of varying heights in the shortest time; or you’ll have one or two stones (one heavier than the other) and the aim is to lift them over a yoke crossbar as many times as possible in a certain time. Usually in the case of the latter the heavier stone will be worth two points and the lighter stone will be worth one point.
If you don’t have access to stones then some kegs, barrels, or sacks are also a good bet. Another option is to buy a loading pin and some bulldog clips and “make” a stone using plates. This isn’t ideal but has the added bonus of allowing you to use whatever weight you like. Whatever you use, loading and shouldering these things is one hell of a workout. Also, don’t worry about lifting with a round back with these – you pretty much have to, so start light and get used to it.
Novice Weights: 60-120kg (135-265lbs).
Stones Wales strongest man 2011 – YouTube
Bish Loading – YouTube
Yoke – The yoke is a metal frame which you basically carry on your shoulders like you would hold a bar in a regular back squat. There’s not much more to it than that! Quarter squat the frame to clear it off the floor, set yourself, then run/walk/stagger to the end of the distance in the shortest time possible. It’s deceptively hard and feels like your head is going to explode as the weights are invariably heavy as hell.
A lot of competitions have rules regarding dropping the frame (sometimes a “one-drop” rule) but one thing that’s enforced quite strictly is pushing or dragging the yoke forward when you drop it, rather than carrying it. If you have to put it down try to drop it straight down instead of trying to get a few more feet by sliding it forwards. If you do this too much you might get disqualified from the event.
Novice Weights: 200-250kg (440-550lbs) for 20-60 metres.
Event Day Part 2: Yoke Walks – YouTube
Cheshire Strongest man 2011 Yoke 360kg – YouTube
Conan’s Wheel – This is a pretty tough event. The gist of it is that you’ll have a bar attached to a central pivot, and nestling this bar in the crook of your elbows you’ll be required to walk around in a circle for as many revolutions around the pivot as possible either within a time limit with unlimited drops or untill your first drop only! The length and construction of the wheel will totally change the feel of this event so be prepared. Keep your arms and hands securely locked together, your whole body tight, and set for a moment once you lift off the floor before starting to walk because this bitch will wobble.
Other than that the event is pretty simple – keep your eyes on the prize, keep walking, keep breathing, and try and block out the pain. Start off at a steady pace and gradually increase your speed to cover as much distance as you can before you inevitably give out and drop it.
Novice Weights: 100-220kg (220-485lbs). The added weight varies depending on how heavy the wheel itself is.
Bish 220kg Conans Wheel – YouTube
Dave’s Gym @ UK:SPS SW Meet – Conan’s Wheel – YouTube
Medley – Ugh. The medley. Like I explained earlier on, a medley is a horrible sadistic event and almost always crops up in competition for this very reason. Basically you have a certain number of implements to lift or move and you have to do them all in the fastest possible time. Popular medley types are the Overhead Medley, the Loading Medley, the Carrying Medley, and the Deadlift Medley. The names are self-explanatory. There’s a school of thought that says there isn’t any advantage to resting between items because all that’ll happen is you’ll psyche yourself out and won’t gain any meaningful recovery so just go with it. You can always throw up or pass out once the medley is over so at least get a good time. The best tip for attaining victory – finish the damn thing.
Novice Weights: Always seems too heavy.
overhead medley wales strongest man 2011 – YouTube
Cheshire Strongest man 2011 Medley – YouTube
Now this list is by no means exhaustive. Other things you might expect (especially as you get more experienced and start doing more competitions) are a Circus Dumbell Floor to Overhead, Truck Pull, Viking Press, Arm Over Arm, Crucifix Hold, Keg Toss, Sled Drag, Fingal’s Finger, Tug of War, and the Car Walk. There are probably more. You’ll also run into other things that are seemingly thought up by the event organisers but thats half the point – a good strongman should be ready and able to lift anything! Train the basics, but don’t be afraid to branch out. Strength will carryover to all your lifts the more varied you train.
Like I said earlier, you may or may not decide to include a dedicated events day in your program. Personally I recommend it especially if you can get a few like-minded individuals together and all train the events once a week. Strongman training is brutally hard and most of the exercises will be new to you so it doesn’t hurt to have that encouragement and motivation, or a few extra bodies to check technique/set up equipment/talk shit with.
There are as many ways to set up an events day as there are ways to set up the rest of your program, but a few basic ways are laid out below (in no particular order). The main thing to remember is that on this day you’re training for a sport so include popular events or events you know are coming up at your next competition. Wherever possible, use at least the weights/distances you’ll be doing on the day and get a feel for it. Comps are also generally 3-7 hours long, so don’t worry about taking your time and being in the gym for longer than the “generally recommended” 45-90 minutes.
1 – Deloaded: A good idea for rank beginners is to stick to very light weights for a few weeks and feel out the equipment and the events (even doing 10 light events in one session). Work on technique and figuring out how to lift the implements most efficiently. A huge part of strongman is developing the functional strength to lift literally anything no matter it’s size, shape, weight, or weight distribution and move it around. If you need to work up to heavy weights, a solid base in “odd” lifting technique will only benefit you later on. Theres no need to do this for too long, a few sessions should be fine.
2 – Max Out: Pick a few events (3-5) and work up to a max on each one. This can either be the max weight for a set distance, a max distance, a max weight at a 1/3/5 rep max, a rep record at a certain weight…you get the picture. Take as much rest as you need and get the most weight up that you can. Don’t repeat the same events next week, with this setup you could have two events sessions and just alternate them. Basically just play it by ear, so long as you’re working hard just do what you feel you need to work on.
3 – Heavy/Medium/Light: Pick three events for a three week cycle, we’ll call them A, B, and C. In the first week go for a max single in A, a rep record in B, and do light technique work in C. In the second week follow the same pattern but go B,C,A. In the third week (you guessed it) do C,A,B. This way you can structure your events days a little better and hit a lot of bases in terms of reps, weight, and learning/re-inforcing technique. After the first cycle you can either repeat again with the same events or pick three new ones.
4 – Giant Medley: This might be a good bet if you want to improve your conditioning or refrain from maxing out close to a competition. Use submaximal weights on several events (4-7), but instead of doing traditional sets put them all in one giant medley and wish you’d never been born. Take 15 minutes between each medley if you want, but get at least 5 runs in one session and time each one. Keep the weights the same and try to beat your times next week. After a few weeks either switch back to normal style sessions or increase the weights slightly. You could even totally change the medley. You sick freak.
There are probably as many ways of doing an events day as there are strongman competitors, so just find a style that gets the best results out of you and stick with it. Everybody’s different and there re no concrete rules in strongman beyond work as hard as you possibly can, and then work harder.
Figuring out the “Training Jigsaw”
There are literally millions of ways you can approach training so what I’ll do here is less programming but more pointing in the right direction with some examples. Like we saw earlier, it’s important for you to do both heavy max effort training as well as higher rep conditioning/strength endurance work too. Explosive power is very important and a major part in a lot of events, as is your ability to move around with weight which relies heavily on good core stability (real core stability, no bosu ball one arm bench press wobble board nonsense). With those elements in mind it’s quite tricky fitting it all together properly.
I’ll take a look at events day in the next section, but touching on it briefly you can either do all your specific event training in one day (a popular and effective idea) or scatter them throughout your regular training (sometimes more practical if you train alone or don’t have time for a full event day). Either way, making the time to actually train the events is absolutely critical so make sure you do it.
In terms of the rest of the plan, then, the main elements in a list:
- Maximum Effort/Limit Strength
- Dynamic Effort/Explosive Power
- Strength Endurance/Rep Strength
This already brings things like the Westside Method to mind as their training is broken down in a very similar way, and I highly recommend looking into the Westside/Conjugate/Max Effort method of training. Dave Tate’s “Periodization Bible”, Jim Wendler’s “Max Effort Method”, and of course Louie Simmons comprehensive “Westside Barbell Book of Methods” are all quality resources for this style of training.
As well as those three general elements, strongman events almost always focus on variations of these types of exercise:
- Overhead Pressing
- Carrying Weight
This brings to mind the great Herman Goerner’s three tests of what true strength really is. These three types of exercise will cover pretty much every part of the body and build up truly great fullbody strength and coordination. Whether you’re lifting a deadlift bar, an atlas stone, or a sack you need to get it from the floor to a hips-locked-out position before you can do anything. If it’s a loading event you need to be able to move the weight to the platform, and if it’s a floor to overhead you obviously need to press it. That said, some key areas to include as accessory work are:
- Legs (Squats!!!!!!)
- Upper Back (Various Rows, Chins, and Shrugs)
- Biceps (Curls)
- Core Strength (Overhead Supports, Front Squat Holds, Weighted Crunches, Anti-Rotations)
- Grip (Holding onto stupidly heavy stuff for gratuitous amounts of time)
Legs should be obvious. If you have weak legs you’re not gonna be able to transfer any meaningful power of strength to your torso and upper body. Big muscular legs will also give you better balance and a strong base for everything. Upper back is something that’s pretty important for posture, shoulder health, and keeping solid and upright.
Bicep tears are incredibly common in strongman due to lifting awkward, often unbalanced and oversized, bits of stone or metal or whatever. A little bicep work or “injury prevention training” never goes amiss, despite all the flak curls get.
Core strength is critical in overhead and carrying events so train those positions using overhead supports (holding a heavy bar overhead for time) and front squat holds (holding a bar on the front of your shoulders standing upright for time). Flexion (crunches) and the ability to resist unwanted torso twisting (cable anti-rotations or palof press) is also a good investment of time.
Finally, grip strength (i love it) is very important as the weights start to get heavier. What good is a strong body if your hands make you drop stuff? Train static holds, pinch grip, and CoC grippers until you look like popeye.
Phew. Thats a lot of stuff. This jigsaw of a training plan is getting out of hand so we’ll leave it there. However you choose to build your program make sure you include at least one “something” to tick each of these boxes. Whether you go with the Westside method, implement 5/3/1 in a strongman routine, do 5×5, the Texas Method, whatever. Hit these bases and you won’t go far wrong. So long as you get stronger, eliminate your weak points, and get technically proficient at the events you’re onto a winner.
Example Training Plan
Events – As above. Include some sort of deadlift, carry, competition events, and grip accessory.
Warmup – Conditioning with arm over arm sled pull/Battling Ropes
1. ME Lower – 1-5 RM in Back Squat/Good Morning/Front Squat/Box/Reverse Band etc.
2. DE Overhead – 8-10×1-3 with any bar/implement 40-50% 1RM.
3. Glute Ham Raise – 4×5-8
4a. Tricep Extensions – 3×12-15
4b. Core-Flexion (Crunches/Situps) – 3 Sets to failure
1. Power Cleans/Snatches – Either work to a 1-3RM or 5×5
2. DB Bench Press – 5×5
3. Pullups – 5×5
4. Shrugs – 4×10-15
5. Core-Stabilize (Overhead Supports/Front Squat Holds) 4 Sets to failure
Conditioning – Hill Sprints or similar
Warmup – Conditioning on Sled Drags/Prowler
1. ME Overhead – 1-5 RM in Push Press/Jerks/Military/Log/Axel etc.
2. DE Deadlifts – 10-15×1-2 Conventional Stance with or without bands/chains, 50-60% 1RM.
3. Lunges – 4×10-12
4a. Barbell Curls – 3×12-15
4b. Core-Antirotation – 3 Sets to failure
Picking a Comp
This section is short. Pick a competition with weights at or near what you know for a fact you can lift at least once or twice. Get your name on the list, pay the entry fee, and get ready to train harder than you ever have before.
I put it off for ages. Without that big day looming over the horizon you won’t train with any direction and will probably end up not competing in anything. As soon as there was a date in my head it was like a switch was flipped – it didn’t matter at that point that I couldn’t do a half dozen reps with those weights.
Thats how simple it is. Find a competition you can get to in a few hours travelling, make sure It’s a novice level (or whatever level you’re at), get your plan sorted, and put your name down.
Probably the hardest thing for you to do on competition day will be to eat. A lot of the time you’ll need to travel to the venue which means getting up early, you’ll be thinking more about the events than anything else, and combined with comp nerves you won’t feel like eating anyway. My advice is to get a good meal down you in the morning at least 3-4 hours before the first event is due to start just to make sure you don’t see it again.
It’s almost certain you’ll have a lunch break, so take a container of something you like to eat and won’t have any problems getting down you. Doesn’t matter what it is so long as it’s substantial. Pasta, sandwiches, pizza, rice, whatever you want.
Also, take a bag full of sweets/candy and energy or caffeine drinks with you to keep your sugars up throughout the day. Be careful with the caffeine drinks because the last thing you want is to get over-jittery or have a crash halfway through the day. Same goes for pre-workout supplements, its probably best to stay away from them or at least use carefully.
Speaking of the day, it’ll be long. Most comps have two or more weight classes competing on the same day (such as Novices and Open) so setting up/announcing/organising that many people is one hell of a task. On a good day when everything goes right still be prepared to be competing for a grand total of about 5 minutes in as many hours. This is a lot of downtime so keep warm and keep hydrated.
In terms of warming up, don’t expect much. For example, in the 180kg (400lbs) Deadlift for reps we all did 3 reps with 100kg (220lbs) as they were setting up the bar. That event had approximately 97% more warmup time than the other four. Learn how to get yourself warm and focused without the use of much or any equipment. Take a resistance band or a kettlebell or something if you really want, but even that isn’t going to be much good if you can’t get your head in it.
The things you will want to take with you are support equipment such as lifting belts, straps, and knee/elbow wraps. Depending on the competition rules you might not be able to use some of it but clarify what is and isn’t allowed with the judges and use everything you can. Chalk and tacky for atlas stones are invaluble, too.
This next point is a biggie. The judges word is final, and it’s up to you to find out what they want. There will be an overall briefing and event-specific briefings throughout the day but if theres anything you’re not clear on don’t wait for the judge to deny you a rep before you ask. Ask in the briefings, and clarify a few points before the whistle blows, because after that no amount of complaining will change a damn thing. In fact, it’ll probably get you disqualified. Whatever the judge says is final, don’t argue or bitch or moan. Get the rules straight and follow them!
Going back to our Deadlift event, the competitor going head-to-head with me managed a gigantic 18 reps to my 12, but because of letting the bar bounce off the floor only 9 of those reps were counted so I actually placed higher. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was stronger than me but it just goes to show how important this point is. As it goes, he went on to place far higher than me overall but theoretically a few mistakes like that could make the difference between 1st and 2nd.
Apart from that just go there, have fun, and give it 100%. After all, you’ll be competing for less than ten minutes total – how hard could it be?
Turns out very hard. Right now you’re probably wrecked, especially if it’s your first competition. After mine I couldn’t even plug my phone charger into my phone because my biceps and forearms were hurting so much. The fatigue, and later the DOMS, were indescribable. But hopefully, like me, you’ll be happy with how you got on. SO what now?
First things first – congratulate yourself. You’ve done something a lot of people will never do – you’ve put yourself out there. You’ve pushed yourself harder than you thought possible and actually competed at something! There’s always gonna be things you wish you could have done better on the day, silly mistakes, and tactical errors – but fuck it. There’s always a next time.
Second – recovery. No doubt you’ll be sore, have a few niggles, or even an injury. Get these sorted right away with stretching, foam rolling, hot and cold contrast baths, and sports massage. If it’s something more serious it might be worth going down the physio/osteopath route and getting their professional advice.
Injuries aside, taking at least a few days rest is a great idea especially after the first competition as it’ll probably be a bit of a shock to the system. I took a full week after mine (not half because I crushed my hand under a barrel, talk about silly mistakes!) and it was a useful opportunity to look at what I did well, what I did not so well, and what I plain sucked at. Nothing shows your weaknesses better than a competition.
It’s these things that’ll dictate your focus for the next few months of training and hopefully next time you’ll have a whole new set of weak points to annoy you! Maybe it was a specific event or type of event, perhaps it was something more general like a lack of conditioning, or a problem with your technique. Whatever it is attack it aggressively in your training and keep improving.
It’s entirely up to you how many competitions you do in a season and mostly comes down to your personality and recovery ability. Try and leave a month or two between them if you can, but if thats not possible just do what you can and go for it!
One thing is certain – the journey never ends!