Strongman Training for Athletes

This guest post comes courtesy of my good friend Rhys Ingram at Rhys Ingram Strength & Performance.

A feature of Christmas’s in the 90’s (at least in my house), once the turkey and chocolates were running low on Boxing Day, was the World’s Strongest Man competition.  Huge men like Magnus Ver Magnusson, Magnus Samuelsson, Svend Karlsen and Jouko Ahola all appeared on our TV’s in exotic locations performing unbelievable feats of strength.  Whether it was dragging planes, pressing huge axles overhead, lifting Atlas Stones or performing a series of events within a medley, these competitions made for excellent television.  Recently these Strongman events have begun springing up in the training of elite sports teams and even in more commercial gyms across the country.  So why has Strongman Training become so popular with S&C coaches and personal trainers, and do they deserve their place in all of these peoples training programs?

Functional Training

Many coaches describe Strongman Training as a form of ‘functional training’, replicating the sort of movements that occur in dynamic sporting environments.  For example; flipping a heavy tyre appears to closely resemble the actions that take place during rucking in Rugby matches, or whilst wrestling in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Farmers Carries train aspects of grip that can be useful in sports like Judo, Sled or Card Drags are similar to rugby players driving in the scrum and as in Strongman competitions multiple events can be combined into a medley or circuit in order to improve conditioning levels.  The benefit Strongman training has over more traditional barbell training is the uneven and unpredictable nature of many of the implements used.  When performing a Back Squat in the gym, the athlete has their feet on a stable surface; the weight is evenly distributed along the barbell and across both shoulders and the athlete is able to execute the lift without any distraction.  However in a rugby match whilst making a tackle the athlete has to translate the strength developed in the gym onto the rugby pitch, which is an irregular surface, with a load (the opposition player) being put through only one shoulder in an unbalanced manner, which creates a much more demanding task for the athlete to execute.

On the surface of it then Strongman Training seems like a great fit for sports training and this has been supported by world renowned spinal expert Stuart McGill who studied the effects of various events on trunk musculature activation and lumbar spine motion.  He found that many of the events (especially the loaded carries) produced huge muscular activation in the trunk or core as many people call it.  He concluded that loaded carries could enhance traditional lifting-based programs (McGill et al. 2009).  I think the key point to take from McGill’s research is however, that it could enhance a traditional program, not replace it and its this that I think a lot of coaches have forgotten.  McGill performed this study using Strongman competitors, who tend to be, surprisingly, strong men! When you spend any length of time working with Strongman competitors you realise that most of their training is taken up with getting extremely strong with the big lifts in the gym (squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, rows and presses).  They do train the events, so as to establish the skills and technique they need to translate this strength into their performance, however they still spend the majority of their time in the gym performing so say ‘non-functional exercises’.  Why then, should other sportsmen be any different.  Whether you’re a rugby player, MMA fighter, Judo player, or any other sort of athlete then the majority of your training time should be devoted to getting as strong as possible with the basic lifts, then using your sports training, like tackling practice as a rugby player or sparring as a fighter to translate that into your performance.

Conditioning Circuits?

As previously mentioned many coaches (including myself) use the exercises as part of a conditioning circuit during a session or as part of a ‘finisher’ at the end of their sessions.  It is here that I think Strongman exercises can really benefit the athlete, with some conditions!  First of all let me say why I think they are great for conditioning purposes and then I’ll say where I think we need to be careful with them.

The first and most important factor in using Strongman training for conditioning is its fun.  Steady state cardio is mind numbingly boring and only clinically insane people think hill sprints or fartlek sessions are fun, however there is something about throwing around heavy objects, flipping tyres, dragging sleds and carrying anything you can find for distance that is just good old fashioned fun!  It is also effective; you can easily manipulate reps/time/loads to suit any and all of your athletes and to replicate as close as possible the work-to-rest ratios of their sport.  It also trains the body as a whole, integrating the benefits described in McGill’s research earlier, whereas sprints tend to work the legs harder than the rest of the body.  Finally many Strongman events train the body with less joint impact than contact drills for rugby players or heavy sparring sessions for fighters which can be beneficial from an injury reduction point of view.

Now for those conditions I mentioned earlier! You should not get carried away with Strongman training.  No matter how closely you think you are replicating the demands athletes sport, you are still not actually replicating them.  Metabolic pathways are very task specific, meaning that even slight differences in the actions the athletes are performing during training will result in low carry over to those performed during competitions.  As a result, from a conditioning point of view, nothing compares to actually playing the sport, via conditioned games or sparring.

Another issue I have with the use of Strongman training is the form I see being used by many people when doing it.  Bent backs whilst flipping tyres in particular are a common site.  As mentioned earlier, Strongmen athletes practice the events for a long time so that they can develop sufficient technique, it is not as simple as ‘just having a go’!  Strongmen do have slight bends in the spine during competition that from a pure biomechanical point of view isn’t ideal, however these athletes have trained themselves to a high enough level to manage this risk, the average athlete, has not and so must be extremely careful especially under fatigue.  Using the tyre flip as an example, this is not dissimilar to a deadlifting action.  If your athletes are performing timed tyre flips as a ‘finisher’ at the end of their session, it is very similar to if you were asking them to perform multiple bent back deadlifts with a heavy load under increasing levels of fatigue.  Obviously you would never actually allow this with the traditional barbell deadlift in the gym, so there should be no reason to allow this with tyre flips or any other Strongman exercise (Incidentally there is a proper technique to flipping tyres safely, however getting into that is beyond the scope of this article).  When programming any of these exercises you must be very careful about exercise order, intensity and volume as well as ensuring you are cueing the athlete’s technique throughout.

Final Thought

There is no doubt that the sport of Strongman makes for excellent viewing and I thoroughly enjoy including some of the exercises into my own training occasionally so as to keep things interesting and have some fun, especially as it gives me the opportunity to get outside when the weather improves.  I also include it in the training of some of my athlete’s occasionally, for conditioning purposes in and around more traditional training games, however with an understanding of the conditions I have mentioned above.  If you decide to use Strongman events in your own programming then in order to see the full benefits from it in relation to your athletes performance you must be honest realistic about just how ‘functional’ the exercises you have selected are and that your athlete will finish the session better prepared for their sport, rather than being broken down and injured from overzealous inclusion of training methodologies they are not quite ready for!  As coaches improving our athletes ability to perform is the number one goal, not to simply entertain them with novel exercises and equipment!


Thanks for reading, stay strong!
Rhys Ingram MSc, ASCC, CSCS

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